Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap

Feb 1, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   blog  //  2 Comments

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Royal Marines – the Royal Navy’s soldiers, an elite fighting force with a proud history of successful operations almost continuously around the globe. Their amphibious capability and commando skills means they have been the cutting edge of almost every British operation involving troops since WWII. Their reputation is hard-won, to be awarded the Royal Marine green beret requires completion of the longest and most intense commando course in the world. They are trained to fight anywhere and have expertise in arctic, desert and jungle warfare. Like most aspects of the naval service, the RMs are an increasingly ‘hollowed out’ force. Although personnel numbers remain largely unchanged, at around 7,730 regulars and 700 reservists, it is their equipment and supporting arms that have been quietly ‘salami sliced’ and ‘gapped’ to a point that seriously hinders their capability.

The Navy’s soldiers – Royal Marines practice beach assault from HMS Bulwark’s landing craft
Photo: Defence Images via Flickr

The lack of  amphibious ships

Of the two LPDs (dock landing ships), HMS Albion is a long-term reserve in Devonport until 2016 when she will change places with HMS Bulwark. Reflecting the amazing lack of capital ships, HMS Bulwark is now the Royal Navy’s flagship and is being run very hard. Bulwark is the centrepiece of the RN’s Response Force Task Group (RFTG) and for the past 3 years has participated in the summer ‘Cougar’ exercises in the Med and beyond which are helping the RM’s sharpen their amphibious expertise after a heavy focus on Afghan operations. The 4 excellent Bay class LDH(A) (auxiliary dock landing ships) which provide additional amphibious capability have been reduced to 3 by flogging RFA Largs Bay to Australia for a pittance. RFA Cardigan Bay is permanently based in the Gulf proving her versatility, mainly as a mothership to mine warfare vessels, but not really regularly available to the RMs.

HMS Illustrious’ primary role is now as an amphibious helicopter carrier (LPH) but she will be decommissioned this year leaving only HMS Ocean (due to emerge from refit shortly). Ocean is a very useful platform (while cheaper to operate than Illustrious) and can carry small landing craft (LCVP) and has better loading access ramps. There are no plans to properly replace Ocean when she decommissions, maybe as early as 2018. When HMS Queen Elizabeth commissions she is supposed to assume the LPH role, with accommodation for 250 marines, in addition to her primary role as a strike carrier. The carriers will have plenty of space for the Marines and their helicopters and could probably pack in a lot more under austere conditions for short periods if required, but the concept is a big compromise. Normal naval doctrine would have the carrier providing air cover for an amphibious operation with complete freedom of movement to operate her fixed wing aircraft. This could be at some distance from the beachhead and not restricted by the needs of the helicopters shuttling back and forward with troops and equipment.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

Welcome aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth – the world’s largest LPH?

It is very likely that the 2010 decision to mothball the 2nd carrier HMS Prince of Wales will be reversed in the 2015 SSDR and she will be retained in RN service. Contrary to the official line, the RN plans to step up recruitment in 2015 as there is acceptance across the services that the RN is under-manned. Retaining the second carrier will add to manpower requirements as there would be some overlap between 1 fully manned and the other at least part-manned. However barring a serious crisis, the RN is unlikely to ever manage to have both carriers operational and fully manned simultaneously. One will probably be operational or at 2 weeks readiness, while the other is in refit or reserve. This is far better than the 60% availability and ’hope for the best’ option of having a single carrier but does not allow one to serve as an LPH while the other is a strike carrier. Another case of too many eggs in one basket, operationally challenging and tactically unsound.

On a positive note, 539 Assault Squadron recently moved to a new purpose-built base in Devonport. With around 100 personnel, they operate the small craft that provide amphibious movement for the marines. Including Hovercraft (LCAC), Rigid Raiding craft (RRC), Inflatable raiding craft (IRC) and Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel (LCVP). The main landing craft (LCU) that operate from HMS Bulwark’s internal dock are old and slow, Plans to upgrade them to something faster and better protected have stalled due to lack of funds and the LCUs will have to soldier on for another 6 years at least.

Griffon Hovercraft

One of just 4 hovercraft operated by the marines. Photo: Defence Images via Flickr

It is a fine British invention built by a British company and exported round the world. Highly versatile and ideally suited to amphibious operations yet government has funded just 4 Griffon 2400TD (LCAC) hovercraft for the Royal Marines. Historically hovercraft, both for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, have been treated like a kind of hobby by the MoD. Regrettably they have never been properly funded or developed to reach their full military potential for the UK.

The ‘Junglies’ slow regeneration

If combat experience from the Falklands to Afghanistan has taught a clear lesson about logistics, it is that there are never enough helicopters. The failure to provide sufficient helicopters for UK forces is a weakness that goes back many years. Out of desperation 6 Merlins were purchased from Denmark in 2007 to provide extra cabs for use in Afghanistan. In spite of this obvious need, the RN’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), affectionately known as the ‘Junglies’ specialists who provide the Royal Marines airborne transport has seen its aircraft and crew numbers reduced. The CHF will lose its elderly, if much-loved Sea King helicopters entirely by in 2016 and has just 11 left operational in 2014. After much prevarication from the RAF, the sensible decision has been made to transfer their HC3 Merlins to the CHF after being ‘navalised’ to CH4 standard. The RAF Merlins have served successfully around the world including recently in Afghanistan but finally a £330 Million contact was announced on 29 January to convert the aircraft to include folding head and tail rotors, strengthened undercarriage, new avionics and protection from salt damage. Unfortunately this conversion process will dismally slow, stretched out presumably to spread costs. The first batch of 7 aircraft are expected to be operational by 2018 with the delivery of all 25 aircraft not be complete until the early 2020s.

RAF Merlin HC3

One of 25 RAF Merlin HC3s which will be upgraded to HC4 standard and transfer to the CHF
Photo: Defence Images via Flickr

When the HC4 does arrive in service it will be a vast improvement on the Sea King. It is faster, quieter and has better defensive aids and avionics. Historically the Junglie pilots have shown great skill and bravery, delivering troops in tight spots, often with very basic helicopters and the HC4-equipped CHF will be formidable. As a stop-gap to partially cover the retirement of the Sea Kings until the arrival of the HC4, a few HC3s will be given a folding rotor head to allow them to operate at sea – these aircraft will called the HC3i (interim). The CHF had operated 30 helicopters with 43 crews but even when finally up to strength will only have 25 Merlins HC4s and 37 crews. 847 Squadron, part of the CHF mainly responsible for the aerial reconnaissance will receive just 4 of the new Wildcat Lynx helicopters.

Marines more useful than ever

As operations in Afghanistan come to a close the British Army is casting around to find a role for itself and a platform to argue against ongoing reductions in troop numbers. There is now little public appetite for major overseas interventions and it is very hard to imagine British troops fighting in a major state-on-state conflict in the near future. That said, we must keep our forces ready for the unexpected and it is unwise to hastily dispense with capabilities just because there is no immediate threat. The Marines are in a unique position with their inherent mobility and flexibility that makes them especially relevant to the small operations that are the most likely scenario for UK forces in the foreseeable future. The RMs fulfil a variety of other important roles integrated with the RN, providing force protection and boarding teams and the RFTG is a very useful concept, having a mobile force at sea or ready to deploy quickly makes sense. The marines are the spearhead of a small but effective deterrent force while also offering the ‘soft power’ capability for humanitarian relief or evacuation operations. It is just a shame that the RFTG is so paper-thin with little in reserve and crucially lacking its own air cover.

With so many gaps in equipment, some of which will be filled, others which may not, maybe government assumes in the meantime the marines can grow wings or walk on water to get where they are needed.

Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015

Dec 24, 2013   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  17 Comments

Type 45 Destroyer and T class submarine

2013 was another busy year for the Royal Navy diligently serving UK interests around the world with its usual can-do attitude, despite its over-stretched resources. Notable maritime security successes include a dramatic reduction in Piracy around Somalia and significant drug-busts involving HMS Lancaster in the Caribbean. The annual deployment of the “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) on the exercise “Cougar 13” again proved its worth, not only as a great training exercise but by having RN assets deployed and able to respond to events. The RFTG was on standby for action in Syria, had David Cameron got his way and pursued a military option for intervention in this vile civil war. Fortunately sense prevailed and the UK has not become embroiled. In the end the RN’s main contribution was HMS Dragon returning early from her Gulf deployment to bolster the air defences of Cyprus in case of Syrian attacks. An RN warship will be escorting cargo ships carrying decomissioned Syrian chemical weapons that will be destroyed at UK facilities next year. The Cougar group continued as planned into the Persian Gulf making the largest RN presence there for sometime. The Gulf look set to become increasingly a ‘centre of gravity’ for UK forces in future.

The tensions with Spain over Gibraltar have been further ratcheted up this year with more frequent and serious incursions into Gibraltar’s waters. The two boats of the RN Gibraltar squadron have been at full stretch, walking a dangerous diplomatic tightrope at times. This lingering issue looks likely to fester and there are increasing calls for a more heavyweight and long-term RN presence around Gib.

The design of the Type 26 frigate is reaching maturity and orders for some long-lead items were placed this year. The Trident submarine replacement programme is well on track with further contacts placed. Every contract will make it harder to cancel this vital project, should the political winds change. The last Type 42 destroyer, HMS Edinburgh decommissioned this year, marking the end of an era. A heavy burden now falls on the 6 Type 45s that replaced them and the final ship, HMS Duncan, commissioned this year. Lets hope the Type 45s prove to be mechanically reliable and able to maintain the high operational tempo that will be required.

As predicted, the Government casually allowed BAE Systems to shut their Portsmouth ship building yard. This is both a political fudge and strategic folly which the Royal Navy will suffer from and the nation may well regret. There does seem hope the yard may survive in another form and we will be observing and commenting on this next year. Part of the closure is tied up with the looming spectre of Scottish Independence referendum (in Sept 2014). Should Scotland decide to break away from the UK, the Royal Navy will probably be the single British institution to suffer the most. Independence is a grave threat to the RN and security for the whole UK and we hope it is avoided at all costs.

‘Operation Patwin’ saw the Royal Navy respond rapidly to the crisis in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. HMS Daring happened to be in the Far East on a rare RN deployment to the area and was quickly on the scene to help. HMS Illustrious made a 10-day dash from the Horn of Africa and her helicopters proved very useful in the aid effort. Both ships will be amongst the 20 naval vessels away from the UK over the holiday season, 6 of which will be at sea on Christmas Day. Our best wishes go to the approximately 3,400 sailors and marines on duty somewhere in the world this Christmas.

2014 and hopes for SSDR 2015

The decommissioning of HMS Illustrious in 2014 will mark the beginning of a particularly dark period for the RN in terms of frontline strength, with no new warships due to join the fleet until HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. There also follow several years of trails and work up before she is fully operational. The RFA fleet will also shrink even further before the first of the new ‘MARS’ tankers arrive in 2016. While it is lean times for now, the defence review (SSDR) due in 2015 may offer some hope that things may get a little better. With a small improvement in the economic situation, the MoD budget “under control” and the costs of the Afghanistan operations fading, there will be no excuses for further cuts and a strong case for addressing some of the many serious gaps in UK defence. A realistic and affordable wish list for the Royal Navy could look something like this

  • The retention of both aircraft carriers – Reversing the ludicrous decision to sell or mothball HMS Prince of Wales must be top of the list. This will only cost around £70M per year and would make the carrier project far more credible and flexible. As the French have discovered, having a single carrier leaves you gambling it will be available when needed.
  • RN manpower will need to be increased, at least by a small amount, if both Carriers are retained. Furthermore the carriers planned complement is an extremely lean 679. It is likely that experience will show the ships company will need to be increased to operate effectively and safely for extended periods. Of course having made 5,000 RN people redundant in 2010, it is slightly embarrassing for this government to have to now address the problems that has caused.
  • The leasing or purchase of a long-range maritime patrol aircraft preferably the Boeing P8 Poseidon. History, if not logic, will probably dictate they will be operated by the RAF but the important thing is the UK restores this capability as a matter of urgency.
  • The ‘Crowsnet’ project  to provide Airborne Earing Warning radar coverage for the needs to be brought forward so the carriers go to sea with this key capability from day one. We will probably have to accept that this will be based on the Merlin helicopter (ideally adapted Mk1 airframes currently in storage) as the affordable option. A solution based on the V-22 Osprey would be more capable but far more expensive and Hawkeye is of course not possible.
  • Fitting of Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) to the Type 45s and increasing both submarine and ship-launched stocks of this missile. Tomahawk should have been fitted to the Type 45s from the start but retrofitting it is a matter of urgency for this most critical of all UK weapons. Only RN submarines can fire TLAM at present and the commitment to keep one East of Suez puts huge pressure on the tiny submarine force. In time we expect to see the Type 45 and the Type 26 carrying TLAM and providing great flexibility and a very useful deterrent capability.
  • Fitting of Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) to the Type 45s, Type 26s and the carriers. This electronic sharing of data between ships would help mitigate for the RN’s lack of hulls, increase effectiveness of naval task groups and make operations with our key ally, the US Navy much easier.
  • Start work on MHPC project to replace minehunters and survey ships and commit to funding and in service dates. This project, if imaginative and properly managed (famous last words) could be very affordable by using modular systems and reliant on long range UUVs for mine hunting and disposal.
  • Aviation training ship with an excellent medical facility, RFA Argus needs replacing – this could be done cheaply, possibly with another merchant ship conversion. We would also like a dedicated hospital ship paid for from the Overseas Development budget mainly for humanitarian missions but available to support military operations.
  • The order for 3 new OPVs to be built in Glasgow seems mainly to be a political decision to keep the Scottish yards in work between the carriers and the Type 26. Obviously any new ships are good news but they will have little impact on RN strength if they are just replacements for the existing 3 River class OPVs used for UK territorial waters patrols. The relatively new River class should be retained and the 3 new OPVs could then provide a valuable addition to the RN surface fleet and could be deployed overseas.
  • A ‘big ticket’ item which we assume is already at least in the MoD’s long-term plan is the Type 26 frigate. We demand a cast-iron commitment to build at least 13 Frigates. Ordering them in just 1 or 2 batches would help keep costs down, allow the RN and industry to plan and give the project credibility which may encourage export orders.
  • Finally on the list would be development of a long-term coherent foreign policy and defence strategy, ideally with cross-party support and stating what our forces will be expected to do and most importantly, what they will not be expected to do. From that could be developed a coherent industrial strategy … but maybe to desire such common sense from our politicians is to depart from what is realistic to the realms of fantasy…