DefenceSynergia Input to the House of Commons Defence Committee Inquiry into the Royal Marines and Supporting Landing Ships

After the publication of the House of Commons Defence Comittee report on the Royal Marines and UK Amphibious Capability, DS Publishes its input to  this important inquiry.

The Full report can be read HERE and the DS submission below.

01. DefenceSynergia (DS) was formed by former directors and policy board members of the United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA) prior to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to examine and expose weaknesses in UK strategy and defence policy on a self funding, apolitical, tri-service basis – in the parlance of the day we are ‘Purple’. This DS input is in response to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HoCDC) call for evidence into the Royal Marines (RM) and their supporting ‘Albion Class’ Landing Platform Dock (LPD) Amphibious Warfare (AW) ships – HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion. The evidence provided by DS is broken down into paragraphs corresponding to the specific questions (in Italics) asked by the HoCDC.

Executive Summary

02. In summary, DS believes a reduction in UK Amphibious Warfare Capability is:

• Counter to the future importance of AW and littoral insertion needed to counter growing aggression in littoral areas;

• Counter to future disaster and aid support UK will be required to provide in a planet where the rapidly growing population lives near the coast;

• Incoherent and takes no account of likely direct and indirect impacts within the Royal Navy, and on the Army, the Royal Air Force and Joint Force Command;

• Unlikely to release manpower, resources, cost savings and provide the right skilled sailors, especially marine engineers, to address current and future RN ship and submarine skilled personnel and running cost shortfalls in the near or medium term;

• Not fully taking into account the true limited AW capability of alternative options, thus, having a dual detrimental impact of loss of UK AW capability and loss of primary RN capability.

03. Before answering the HoCDC specific questions DS thought it worth reflecting upon current Joint Doctrine as published in Joint Doctrine Publication 0-10: UK Maritime Power (fifth edition) issued 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 {DS Comment: options reportedly to cut by up to 15% via loss of up to 1000 RM};

• specialist amphibious shipping {DS Comment: options reportedly to cut 100% LPH and LPDs}; and

• the tailored air group {DS Comment: options reportedly to cut up 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. This may be supporting a larger land campaign, exploiting the maritime flank, or conducting discreet operations (such as a raid), a non-combatant evacuation operation or limited theatre entry. The lead commando group aims to be established ashore within six hours, using both landing craft and helicopters. Aviation assets and landing craft can be regrouped to the landing force during on-going operations enabling the amphibious shipping to be tasked elsewhere.

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.

How important are the Royal Marines and Albion class ships to the UK?

04. The First Sea Lord (1SL), in his Gallipoli Lecture to The Royal United Services Institute on 23 November 2017, said that he does not believe that Royal Marines (RM) will ever again be asked to storm defended beaches in landing craft; a professional view shared by serving and former senior members of the RM. So this view, coming as it does from the current head of the Royal Navy (RN) must be analysed for its actual context and impact upon current defence funding plans. For, if interpreted in the wrong way it might seem to answer the above question in the negative, implying the RM and LPDs have little importance to the UK in the future.

05. As previous Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSRs) and other Defence Reviews have shown, it is notoriously difficult to predict future threats and required capabilities with any high degree of certainty. Loss of airborne Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft and submarine attack capability was deemed an acceptable decade or longer Capability Gap risk due to reduced hostile submarine activity near and in UK waters in 2010. However, this ‘acceptable Capability gap’ has been exploited by Russia with near Cold War levels of Russian submarine activity in our waters today. This has required the UK having to embarrassingly call upon North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies to sweep and detect submersed intruders in our Home waters and potentially put our Continuous at Sea Deterrent (CASD) at risk. Therefore, any prediction or analysis that indicates that the UK will never have to operate in a traditional military combat amphibious warfare environment to enable rapid seaborne landing of an effective AW Force on a beach, coast, arctic tundra and similar littoral sea/land boundary in a forced entry scenario, albeit planned to avoid direct enemy opposition, to defend UK or NATO interests is a very high risk approach. This seems counter-intuitive given the Russian threat in the Baltic, Arctic, Northern Flank, and Black Sea, and other potential hot spots around the world where littoral insertion of UK Maritime Forces would be critical. Without a credible landing craft capability to insert troops, artillery and vehicles, British Forces in these circumstances would be limited to the best endeavours of UK Rotary Wing air-component, or support from the beach landing capability of allies. Furthermore, landing craft have other utility and have been most successfully used in Service Assisted and Service Protected Evacuations and in disaster relief on many occasions and over many decades.

06. RN LPD AW mother ships carry and simultaneously operate four, relatively quiet and covert insertion, medium lift Landing Craft Utility (LCU) Mk 10, four light Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) Mk 5 landing craft to rapidly send ashore protecting forces, heavy equipment and weapons, deliver aid, receive refugees. LPDs have two landing spots for Chinook sized helicopters and provide an essential Command and Communications hub and independent offshore operation sustainment service so vital in AW operations: a critical Capability for both the UK and NATO.

07. The alternative would be to use smaller and less AW capable ships currently in the fleet. The three civilian manned Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Bay Class Landing Ship Dock (LSD) can only operate a single LCU Mk10 to deliver one main battle tank, or 4 large vehicles, or 120 troops at a time, or two smaller LCVP Mk5 craft delivering 35 fully equipped RMs, from their well decks. LSDs have a single Chinook-capable helipad capacity, but no hangers, and can operate two mexeflote platforms alongside the landing craft, but these are sea-state vulnerable and need appropriate beachside facilities to land. Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, whilst being able to operate multiple medium and heavy lift helicopters, at the price of reduced VSTOL aircraft operations, are not landing craft capable at all. The substitution of an Aircraft Carrier, its air-group and flight deck reorganised for helicopter operations, would expose a more valuable target to littoral attack, whilst severely removing essential RM equipment lift.

How do you think that having fewer Royal Marines since 2010 and more recent changes in numbers have affected the Corps?

08. DS cannot say with authority without RM professional input.

Do you think that further changes will affect supporting units within 3 Commando Brigade?

09. Since SDSR 2010 the active readiness of the RM has been downgraded from a full Brigade to that of a Battle Group size and the supporting elements will have reduced accordingly. Therefore, it is a given that if the RM Brigade loses its AW role and teeth Arm infantry commando troops, then the Medical, Logistical, Army enhancement – Artillery and Infantry battalions – will be reduced or reassigned; possibly lost to the Order of Battle (ORBAT) entirely.

What do you think the impact has been of having one of the two Albion class ships at extended readiness, so that only one is available for deployment?

10. As mentioned above, since SDSR 2010, the RM Brigade has been at reduced Readiness, only required to ensure a Battle Group size formation is available at short notice. In such circumstances having a single Albion Class Landing Platform Dock (LPD) makes sense. However, there is a Responsiveness and Resilience price to be paid for such a policy. Should the RN be required to step up its AW Readiness, its Response Time would be dictated by the speed with which the second LPD could be brought back into operational service. Alas, the Royal Navy has not had more than one complement available to man the 2 ships since their entry into service. This constraint has been keenly felt in ‘pinch point’ trades. However, if the 1SL’s recent comments are taken to imply that RM AW capability in its present form is no longer required – i.e. that neither LPD should be retained – this would deny some of the key features of AW capability to UK Operational Planning in other areas, for example, Command, Control and Communications, heavy lift, discreet approach and logistic resilience of forward deployed British forces. Some may also argue that reducing RM numbers and enablers is ‘situating the appreciation’ to win a circular argument.

What could UK Armed Forces do to match the capabilities that might be lost? Are the alternatives good enough?

11. To answer this question we must first agree what AW capability will be lost. Arguably, the RM provides the British Forces with a large resource pool for the Special Forces (SF), both as SF candidates and recruits and as a recognised special capabilities Force in their own right – AW, Arctic, Jungle, Nuclear Security, Oil Rig Security, Ship Board duties, Special Boat Service, etc. Can we really assume that AW is no longer required when the UK is a nation reliant on maritime trade protection with more focus being required on Arctic operations, and a growing global population living in coastal areas?

12. If the RM AW capability is reduced or lost then many of these other tasks must be commensurately ceased, reduced, allocated to a significantly reduced RM cadre or passed on to the Army and RAF Regiment. It is for the Army and RAF to argue that they are good enough, and have the resources and enablers, to fill any roles given up by the RM and transferred to them. This extra Army and RAF tasking would be in the context of no AW shipping, the likely loss of other AW enablers, and little extra resource or budget.

13. Similarly, reliance on cooperation with NATO or other allies to fill the AW Force and LPD enabler gap would require extra budget and resources to work up training and inter-operability skills and confidence, 100% guarantee of no Host Nation ‘Red Cards’ being played to stop UK-interest operations, etc, etc.

14. As outlined in paragraph 6 above, using civilian manned and limited landing craft capable RFA ships and perhaps a non-landing craft capable QEC carrier’s Command and Control and helo capabilities severely limits littoral operations. It also limits the primary use of the RFAs and aircraft carrier and puts them in harms way having to operate in the confides near a coast.

15. Thus, any loss or reduction of the RN LPDs and RM numbers would have a direct and immediate impact on the UK’s expeditionary warfare capabilities, which could not be replaced by alternative options, and has a double-whammy impact of limiting the effectiveness of the alternative options used to provide the missing, but consequently very limited, LPD functionality. The UK’s ability to conduct AW littoral insertion and operations, as well as Service Assisted/Protected Evacuations is immensely valued by allies, particularly the US Marine Corps and Netherlands Marine Corps. [Note: Expat UK populations are substantial as in the Middle East/Mediterranean where over 1 million people could qualify for evacuation.]

Are there enough exercises and training to keep amphibious capability at high readiness?

16. DS cannot answer this credibly without professional input from the RM. However, our multi-Service experience tells us that there is a direct correlation between high value and contextual Force training, backed up with national and international exercises, and Force Readiness, Force Sustainment and Force combat effectiveness.

What do you think will happen to unit morale and satisfaction with Service life if the reported changes and reductions happen?

17. This is a no brainer! The RM were formed 350 years ago and have been in continuous service ever since. They are renowned throughout the British and Allied forces for their professional “can do” and succeed ethos. Whilst there should be no sacred cows when efficiency is at stake one does have to wonder why the 1SL and the other Service Chiefs are possibly prepared to sacrifice up to 1000 of their finest troops? If the RM is vulnerable then all are vulnerable – morale is about the actuality and perception of worth. Something that ‘bean counters’ and ‘public relations’ gurus simply do not understand. One only has to look at the Army’s personnel departure and poor recruiting ability to see the negative effects of dissatisfaction with Service life on reductions and unsustainable and sometimes illogical changes. The RM has a high proportion of personnel across the rank structure with degrees, these are intelligent people who will vote with their feet once the lack of coherence, loyalty and logic is evident from the higher echelons of the MOD and RN.

What do you think will happen to the communities where these capabilities are based if the reported changes and reductions happen?

18. This question will require specific local context input around bases impacted by any RM reductions. However, closure and reduction of military bases has historically always had a negative impact on communities around them as both direct and indirect supporting employment reduce, the spending power of the remaining military base and personnel in local communities diminishes, and the Defence supply chain input to these reduced bases also has a negative impact. On 7 November 2016, as part of the announcement concerning a further 56 MOD site closures over the next decade, Sir Michael Fallon announced the formation of a specialist Amphibious Centre based at Devonport. Reductions in the RM AW capability would thus obviously have an impact in the communities around the bases impacted.

19. There is much actual experience and knowledge in the UK and abroad (especially the towns impacted in Germany by UK unit withdrawals) and other US studies. As the UK Armed Forces have been reducing year on year for decades, the evidence of negative local community impact of reducing military bases will be easily obtained, obvious and overwhelming. As was evident following the SDSR 2010 cuts, any AW reductions, scrapping of LPDs, and reduction of associated resources will have a similar drastic negative ripple down effect through the Defence sector supply chain as contracts are reduced and ceased, work dries up, procurement of spares and support reduces, etc.


20. Despite the negative reporting of the type, focus and severity of ‘proposed’ RM AW resource reduction options to keep CASD and aircraft carrier Capabilities afloat, there is a glimmer of a more positive optimism. This emanates from the fact that there appears to be active parliamentary and public support for the Royal Marines AW Capability retention, the manner of their training, their ethos, their mastery of the littoral, and the critical military Capability they provide to the UK, NATO and wider allies. Some may believe that this is a “Royal Yacht offering” but, it is more likely to be one of the few RN components that doesn’t have a direct impact on the ability to deliver a carrier strike capability, a close second priority after providing the nuclear deterrent. It may be that loss of the LPDs and up to 1000 marines as the only, if very unpleasant, Naval Service option, thus, inclining the Secretary of State to take Army or RAF savings measures instead. If so, this is a very high risk strategy and DS believes that the HoCDC should take very carefully into account the wider implications of removing a key AW component of NATO’s Order Of Battle at a time when threat levels are increasing in the very areas where the flexible and autonomous AW attributes, so well regarded by our allies, can be brought to bear. In this context, it is said that the United States values the UK’s amphibious capability more highly than the potential inherent in our much-vaunted Carrier Strike contribution.

21. One also has to question how the loss of 1000 Maritime Infantry posts helps with the near term with manning of RN sailor posts. The skill sets of the lost posts and the required posts are completely different and recruiting and training, in an already very difficult technical skills attraction environment, will take many years, especially for the marine engineering shortages. Any manning skills transition from RM to RN needs to be properly explained, understood, and managed proactively. Otherwise RM post losses will just be taken as a straight savings option resulting in a lose lose scenario for the RN – fewer RMs and less AW capability and costs, but no extra sailors to man RN ships – a ‘bean counters’ and ‘spreadsheet warrior’s’ dream!