Devonport, England. 8 June. This is home to me. Plymouth and Devonport is where my family have spent generations as part of a Royal Navy that stretches back to Drake and the Armada and far beyond, a Navy which has ebbed and flowed with the many tides of British history. This visit has been particularly gratifying because I had the very distinct honour of addressing officers of the Naval Service at HMS Drake on what I call strategic amphibiosity – the vital and continuing importance of Britain’s ability to exert influence at sea and on land from the sea.
Equally, there are times when I must admit the strategic illiteracy of the British political class and the terrible damage done to Britain’s strategic brand by massive and frankly ill-considered cuts to the British armed forces infuriate and depress me. And I am not alone. Last week US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said of Britain, “I think it’s a great loss to the world when a country of that much history and standing takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement”. This week I learn that a further £0.5bn of cuts are to be made to Britain’s armed forces. The fact that the announcement came BEFORE the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) has been completed demonstrates all too clearly the refusal of government to properly consider ends, ways and means. Clearly, no real strategic assessment will be made BEFORE government decides how much it is gonig to spend, or rather not spend on defence. Thus SDSR 2015 will be yet another Treasury-led strategic pretence and impecunity review.
Worse, my visit took place against the backdrop of a new report from the House of Commons Library showing the extent of Cameron’s penchant for gesture politics and the absurdity of it. According to the report British taxpayer’s aid money is being used to subsidise the armed forces of foreign powers even whilst Britain’s armed forces are being cut. For example, between 2013 and 2014 Tanzania’s defence spending increased from $300m to $400m following receipt of £224m ($342m) of British taxpayer's money; DRC boosted defence spending from $430m to $460m following receipt of £206m ($314m); Bangladesh increased defence spending from $180m to $196m after receiving £260m ($396m). Ludicrously, India which spent $45 billion on defence in 2014, received some £292m ($445m) of British taxpayer’s money in 2012.
In spite of all that my visit to Colonel Graeme Armour and his team at 1 Assault Group Royal Marines (1 AGRM) was all the more gratifying. Rather than accept the decline implicit in government cuts the Royal Marines have instead championed innovation as a way to maintain their world-renowned reputation for military excellence. Indeed, 1 AGRM’s new base struck me as the very epitome of the radical, elite future British force that London must fashion. First, 1 AGRM is determined to maintain its warfighting edge. Second, 1 AGRM is committed to acting as a core or hub force at the heart of coalitions. Third, 1 AGRM is predicated on deep jointness with the Army, the Royal Air Force and, indeed, across government and the wider civilian sector. Fourth, 1 AGRM is agile enough to look to cheaper civilian solutions when the military bespoke solution is either too expensive or simply unavailable.
Future conflict will either involve large, clunky state forces with immense destructive power or small, fanatical, non-state forces with possible access to immense destructive power. Therefore, the ability of agile, state forces to interdict and disrupt danger will be at a premium. That is precisely the purpose of 1 AGRM and the wider Royal Marines. Indeed, the Royal Marines are living proof that as London abandons mass in favour of elite manoeuvre by investing in Special Forces and specialised forces Britain can continue to ‘punch above its military weight’.
Such a vision implies an intelligent defence strategy that enshrines at its heart the concept of a British force able to act as an intelligent, command hub. Such a role will be vital not just for Britain but also for the NATO alliance and indeed coalitions of allies and partners the world over. However, if such a vision is to be realised London must abandon its short-termist tendency to use a small force as if it is still a big one. London continually hives off officers for this mission or that in support of Cameron’s gesture politics in place of sound strategy. Consequently, all-important training and exercising are constantly being undermined.
On Thursday I witnessed a real effort to create a new thinking British force that is both agile and smart – a kind of military Turing Machine that whilst small is able to operate within and across the seven domains of future conflict – air, sea, land, space, cyber, information and knowledge. The Royal Marines are 351 years old this year. Far from being a legacy force the Royal Marines are very much a force for the future. My sincere hope is that those responsible in London can peer beyond the intellectual trenches of their strategic illiteracy and recognise just what a vital role the Royal Marines and indeed all of Britain’s future force must and can play in what is fast becoming a very dangerous world. A big, dangerous world that needs a big-thinking Britain, not Little Britain.
The motto of the Royal Marines is Per Mare, Per Terram – by sea, by land. Let me paraphrase that – by sea, by land…and everywhere in between and beyond. Her Majesty’s Royal Marines – making Britain disengagement proof!