Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap

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 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.