Royal Navy Cuts Impact on Delivery of UK Amphibious Force Capability – Logical Re-Balance or Lamentable Removal of UK’s Critical Amphibious Power Capability?

DefenceSynergia (DS) is deeply concerned about the apparently stovepiped RN savings options being offered during the current mini-SDSR. If true, in particular, the reported agreed and proposed Royal Navy (RN) cuts to the Royal Marines (RM) and supporting naval and aviation Capabilities appears to be in danger of neutering the globally respected 3 Commando Brigade to little more than a coastal policing Unit.

The Royal Marines (RM) provide the amphibious troops (22.5%) of the Royal Navy, acknowledged as one of the world’s elite commando forces. Held at a very high readiness they can respond quickly to events anywhere around the globe1. Being a light infantry, rapid incursion amphibious capability, the RM are primarily lightly armed with personal weapons, troop machine gun weapons, support weapons including anti-tank weapons and mortars, L118 Light artillery. Viking Armoured Vehicles provide protected battlefield mobility, designed for amphibious operations they can ‘swim’ to shore, or cross obstacles like rivers and lakes. The RMs also use helicopters, hovercraft, landing craft, mexeflote pontoons, and small rigid raiders for littoral operations.

Recent press reporting and speculation about Royal Navy agreed and offered savings options to release manpower to crew RN ships currently include the following that directly and indirectly impact on the Royal Marines (RM)2:

Decided Cuts:

  • 200 Royal Marines {3% of the RM}
  • Two mine hunter ships {13% of the Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMV) fleet}
  • Marine training in US and Norway {sends totally wrong messages internationally}
  • Battlefield training for thousands of troops in Canada and Kenya {sends totally wrong messages internationally}
  • Army Air Corps to be cut by almost a quarter {provides an element of RM Rotary Wing (RW) Amphibious Force Close Air Support (CAS)}

And further proposed Cut Options:

  • Royal Marines may shrink by 1,000 {15% of the RM}
  • Two amphibious assault ships {100% of the Landing Platform Docks – LPDs}
  • Fleet of Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters {100% RM battlefield helicopter CAS support}

Whilst these reported cut options generate high emotion because the logic of the cuts on the context of UK military priorities and capability projection is not explained, one has to ask some ‘so what’ questions to try to understand their rationality or irrationality, including:

  1. What is the UK stated Amphibious Force requirement?
  2. Are the savings proposals consistent with MOD and RN stated strategy, tasks and maritime power responsibilities?
  3. If so, what reduced output impact would these cuts have on delivering the stated amphibious Force combat output effect if taken?
  4. If not, what incoherence in output is likely to occur, and could the RN deliver its required amphibious Force responsibilities with the remnants of the RM?
  5. What other options does the RN have to balance manpower?

What is the Stated UK amphibious Force Requirements?

As described by the Joint Doctrine Publication 0-10: UK maritime power (fifth edition) issued less than a week ago on 4th October 2017, para 4.7d states the Corps of the Royal Marines are a light infantry force who are highly specialised in amphibious warfare. Held at very high readiness and optimised for worldwide rapid response they are fully integrated with the Royal Navy’s amphibious ships. They can be deployed globally without host nation support and can be projected from the sea to conduct operations on land. These operations range from raids to full assaults as the spearhead of littoral manoeuvre operations. In addition, the Royal Marines conduct the specialist role of security for the nuclear deterrent.

Para 4.16 states the UK’s specialist amphibious forces represent a comprehensive range of capabilities, fully able to operate independently or alongside allies and partners. They comprise three essential components:

  • the landing force {proposals to cut by up to 15%};
  • specialist amphibious shipping {proposals to cut 100% LPH and LPDs}; and
  • the tailored air group {proposals to 100% Wildcat Maritime Attack helo fleet}.

Para 4.17 states the landing force is provided by 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in the form of the lead commando group. The lead commando group comprises personnel from the Royal Marines and British Army, who can be landed and sustained from the sea. The lead commando group aims to be established ashore within six hours, using both landing craft and helicopters.

Para 4.18 states the Royal Navy’s specialist amphibious shipping can tactically offload, sustain and recover the landing force without recourse to harbours or airfields, in hostile, or potentially hostile environments. They provide the launch platforms for assaults and raids by landing craft and helicopters. The amphibious shipping has the necessary command and control facilities for up to a brigade size operation, and are capable of landing a company group surface assault, heavy equipment (such as armour) and landing force vehicles and equipment.

Currently 3 Commando Brigade RM comprises 6640 officers and marines personnel3 organised into the following units4: three fighting battalions; a Fleet Protection group protecting UK nuclear deterrent; an Information Exploitation, recce, Electronic Warfare and communications Group; a Commando Logistics Regt; a Commando Engineer Regt; a Commando Regt Royal Artillery; and the RM Band Service. The RM provides the majority of troops to the Special Boat Service (SBS).

How are Royal Marines Delivered into Theatre?

To deploy, deliver sustain and recover the UK’s Amphibious Forces, the RN provides the RM with two Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, to deliver RMs ashore by air and by sea, with landing craft and smaller boats from the landing dock in the belly of the ship and by assault helicopter from the two-spot flight deck. RN LPDs can carry 256 troops, with their vehicles and combat supplies, and this can be increased up to 405 troops. Each LPD has a range of 8000 nm and a top speed of 18 knots, providing the shallow littoral approach capability; command and control centre, and launch, sustainment and recovery base for UK amphibious operations. The LPDs have internal dock areas for rapid load and unload of RM vehicles, heavy equipment and personnel within the protected belly of the ship on to beach capable landing craft and mexeflote seaborne transfer platforms.

Non-military Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) manned Landing Ship Docks (LSDs) (RFAs Cardigan Bay, Lyme Bay and Mounts Bay) have the ability to embark nearly 400 troops, and carry up to 150 trucks or 24 Challenger tanks. With a floodable dock at the stern LSDs can offload embarked troops through landing craft or from large flight deck. The ship can also carry mexeflotes, 120ft-long powered pontoons that can be used to ferry equipment ashore. LSDs also have a large medical department to provide an enhanced medical team, allowing them to act as a Primary Care Reception Ship if needed – a role usually carried out by RFA Argus.

The RM get ashore using a number of methods including: Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) MK5 capable of carrying a close combat company of 35 fully equipped Commandos (or vehicles such as the Viking); the Landing Craft Utility (LCU) Mk10 vessel can carry 120 Royal Marines Commandos or four Viking Armoured Personnel Vehicles: the Offshore Raiding Craft is a fast and versatile craft that can carry twelve Royal Marines Commandos; Rigid Raider Craft (RRC) are small raiding boats capable of carrying a section of Royal Marines Commandos with full kit; Inflatable Raiding Craft (IRC) are small ‘zodiac’ type craft that can carry five fully equipped Royal Marines Commandos. Hovercrafts are used for rapid access to and onto the littoral5 and can move across open sea and ice areas, and operate melting tundra and other wet and boggy conditions.

The Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) uses Merlin medium lift helicopters to provide advanced air assault, air insertion and equipment and logistics movement. CHF Merlin helicopter capacity can be augmented with RAF Support Helicopter Force Puma and Chinook helos. Casevac, Medevac and Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) are currently ad hoc RN helicopter informal tasks, with casualties primarily returned to supporting medical care ‘hospital ships’ by landing craft.

The Wildcat Maritime Attack Helicopter, flown by the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and Army Air Corp (AAC), supports the RM. Weapons options include 12.7mm door-mounted heavy machine guns, 20mm cannon pods, unguided or guided rockets, air-to-surface missiles, torpedoes and depth charges. FAA Wildcats also provide anti-ship and anti-submarine protection for RN ships.

An Amphibious Group is also supported by a number of Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels, including: RFA Argus, the Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS) its 100 bed medical complex manned by military medical staff; RFA Support ships to provide fuel, water, food and ordnance replenishment; RN counter mine vessels to secure the sea and littoral approaches to the amphibious landing area; RN destroyers and frigates to provide air defence, anti-ship and anti-submarine protection of the Amphibious Group ships.

Are the savings proposals consistent with MOD and RN stated strategy, tasks and maritime power responsibilities?

Without contextual explanation from the MOD and First Sea Lord as to the logic of the agreed and proposed cuts DS can only offer the following analysis.

If the reported agreed cuts are accurate, the loss of 200 RM posts, depending on which posts and specialities are lost, are unlikely to have a major impact on UK’s amphibious capability. However, it is unclear how saved RM posts/trades cuts would benefit different skill-gapped manning shortfalls on RN ships and submarines. Depending on which MCMVs are cut and how many are available at the time the loss of two MCMVs may raise safe sea route access risks for a littoral operation. A Capability reduction risk will come from cutting RM training with close allies, especially in the Arctic resulting in; loss of essential UK Arctic warfare combat skills and experience; loss of inter-operating training, tactics development, and confidence building with Allies; sending a message of disengagement, lack of MOD resource commitment and lack of UK political commitment to defend NATO and UK overseas territories to potential enemies. In particular, the close relationship within the UK-Dutch Amphibious Battle Group6, the US Marine Corps and support to Norwegian Arctic Forces on NATO’s Northern Flank and High North Arctic defence will rapidly deteriorate and is at risk of becoming an ineffectual paper Siberian Tiger.

The loss of AAC and FAA battlefield and Maritime Wildcat fleets would be a critical lost Force Protection and Littoral Manoeuvre7 Capability that limits contested littoral attack scenarios. As demonstrated in the Falklands Conflict and Iraq Al Faw peninsula assault, it is essential that Amphibious Forces have Close Air Support (CAS) cover from attack helicopters and fighter aircraft, and need organic medium-range Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) Force Protection weapons. Loss of RN Wildcats would also remove critical ASW and ASuW capability from RN ships, difficult to be replaced by any remaining helicopter resources.

If the reported further options were to be taken, then these would severely impact on UK’s Amphibious Force capabilities. The loss of 1000 RMs would likely remove one (1/3) of the Commando teeth light infantry battalions and associated ‘tail’ support troops, in effect reducing 3 Commando Brigade to an Amphibious Battle Group sized organisation. UK’s amphibious maritime power projection and nuclear deterrence protection ambitions and deliverables would have to be realistically reduced to match this reduced Amphibious Force capability. The ability to undertake many UK, MOD and RN military tasks and functions would have to be curtailed, reducing UK’s international conventional and littoral deterrence credibility and ability to respond to rising Russia, Asian and potential post BREXIT UK overseas territory protection requirements.

With the RN having no aircraft carriers, de-commissioning HMS Ocean (LPH), and the loss of both LPDs would severely limit any UK Amphibious coastal landing capabilities and severely limit the combat environment in which the RM could operate based on reliance on the slower unloading RFA manned Bay Class LSD Amphibious ships. Replacing the lost Wildcat capability with already over-stretched Apache (perhaps also to be cut in the 25% AAC cut option) and Merlin helicopters is inconceivable and a dangerous amphibious CAS cover provision assumption. If permanently cut there would be limited resale opportunity for the LPH and LPDs as few countries have amphibious Forces – there is likely to be little return on the £100M+ spent on them in recent years.

Do the proposed RM cuts achieve the aim of providing RN manpower to crew ships, and what other options does the RN have to balance manpower?

The early retirement of the two MCMVs (Sandown class 34 crew, Hunt class 45 crew) and 2 x LPDs (a 325 crew), along with the loss of HMS Ocean (a 285 crew) in Mar 2018 would offer up desperately needed ‘sailor billets’ to the rest of the 1050 post undermanned RN surface and subsurface fleets. It is unclear how, and highly unlikely that, 1000+ Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marine post savings help with RN ship and submarine manning shortfalls or help man QE carriers.

Furthermore, what will the remaining 3 Commando Battle Group’s capabilities, role and tasks be reduced to in line with recently published JDP 0-10 UK Maritime Power strategy? There will have to be enough RM capability to meet nuclear deterrence protection, UK water constabulary tasks, and minimal ship Force Protection and boarding tasks. However, could the RM deliver a credible and effective littoral amphibious landing and air assault maritime power projection Capability?

Perhaps another option should be for the RN to look further side itself to justify and re-balance other less required support trades such as the: the number of senior officer billets; whether 3070 air engineer posts are needed to support a smaller helo fleet and future small RN F35 fleet; 700 chefs and caterers and 340 stewards; 1370 medical and dental staff (excluding RM Bandsmen); 100 Chaplains, barristers and chartered management accountants; etc. Bringing personnel and tasks back into the RN HQ from other organisations such as DE&S and DIO, streamlining training of aircrew and aircraft ground crew with the RAF and Defence Helicopter Flying School, and harmonising the 5 FAA HQ and 15 Naval Air Squadron overheads would also make more efficient use of, and release, scarce uniformed personnel and resources to crew operational vessels.

Having spent £1bn+ buying and upgrading HMS Ocean8, HMS Albion9 HMS Bulwark10 and Wildcat maritime attack helicopters11 it is difficult to understand the rationale why these essential Amphibious Force enablers are being cut reducing UK’s essential Amphibious Force Capability?

Given the reduced RN fleet size and fewer personnel, what will the recently announced £1bn RN support package be spent on12? The RN needs to provide the detail to justify the need for this scarce taxpayers money and explain why these costs were not identified and planned for as part of normal resource planning and Main Gate through-life costs procurement approval decisions?

1 Royal Marines – Royal Navy Website 8 Oct 2017 – https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/our-organisation/the-fighting-arms/royal-marines

2 The Times – Threat to marine landing ships and navy helicopters in defence review

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/threat-to-marine-landing-ships-and-navy-helicopters-in-defence-review-5kmpwgtd8

5 Royal Marines unveil deadly new weapon… a £1million armoured super-hovercraft dubbed the ‘floating fortress’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1251687/Royal-Marines-unveil-deadly-new-weapon–armoured-super-hovercraft.html http://www.eliteukforces.info/uksf-gear/lcac/

7 HMS Queen Elizabeth to get first F-35 jets next yearhttps://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/hms-queen-elizabeth-get-first-f-35-jets-next-year/

8 Navy Flagship HMS Ocean Quietly Scrapped By Government Despite £65 Million Refit Last Year http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/11/24/hms-ocean-scrapped-defence-review_n_8636364.html

11 AW159 Future Lynx / Lynx Wildcat Maritime Surveillance and Attack Helicopter, United Kingdomhttp://www.naval-technology.com/projects/navy-future-lynx/

12 Britain should ‘do better’ in defence funding – Sir Michael Fallon – http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/national/15572973.Sir_Michael_Fallon_calls_for_increase_in_defence_funding/