Trading marines for sailors – the Royal Marines, reduced or just restructured?

to On 11th April the MoD spin masters announced that the “Royal Marines are to be restructured in line with a growing Royal Navy”. Only around 200 regular Marines will go and there will be no redundancies. There had been grave concern and recent media speculation that up to 2,000 marines were going to be cut so this announcement is something of a relief.

Since the scale of the RN manpower crisis began to become apparent around 2013, the RN has been working on a variety of measures to improve recruitment and retention. In developing the Manpower Recovery Plan, it has also examined what roles can be filled by FTRS (Full Time Reserve Service) or civilian personnel in an effort to make the use of its manpower allocation as efficient as possible. This project has been extended to the Royal Marines with the aim to generate as many people for the fleet as possible, within its liability (agreed and funded strength). Trading 300 officers for 600 ratings was planned before the 2015 SDSR. In addition, a very modest 400 additional personnel were agreed in 2015.

The plan

Around 100 regular Royal Marine posts will be replaced by 30 civilians and 70 marine reservists. At present, there are three Commando Units 40, 42 and 45 which rotate annually to be the ‘Lead Commando’. This entails 1,800 men ready for deployment at short notice anywhere in the world, supported by embedded engineers, artillery, reconnaissance and logistics units. The three units also have to generate detachments for a variety of maritime operations. These including ship force protection teams, small boat teams, counter-piracy operations etc. When the carriers deploy they will embark a newly formed Royal Marine Special Purpose Task Group (SPTG) who can recover downed pilots and sensitive equipment from enemy territory. Under the new structure, 42 Cdo will become a specialised maritime operations unit only and provide the personnel for these tasks.

Lead Commando duty will then be shared between 40 and 45 Cdo. Completing the 200 post reduction, 42 Cdo will lose around 100 personnel, no longer relevant to its new maritime operations role, such as heavy weapons units. These reductions will be achieved through natural wastage, and thankfully no marines will be made redundant. This restructuring plan has been already sent out to RN and RM personnel and has apparently not been met with great resistance.

Around 100 marines may also be moved from 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group to join 42 Cdo while the other independent elements, including 1 Assualt Group will be unchanged. This means 42 Cdo will not be reduced in numbers and overall the Marines will only lose around 100 men (less than 1.5% of its manpower strength). However, by making 42 Cdo the provider of specialised units, 3 Commando Brigade loses some of its potential fighting mass, if called upon to deploy in strength. Across UK defence we continue to trade mass and depth for quality and reduced numbers.

Essentially the liability for 200 personnel is being transferred from the Royal Marines to general service. In the short term, this will help provide resources to recruit additional sailors to man the aircraft carriers. Of course, the challenges of recruitment and retention remain, even where the RN has the funding in place.

These pressures can create an unfortunate division within the service between Marines, and the rest of the navy. There are those who think “Why should the Marines, who have fought with distinction in almost every conflict since WWII, be cut so the Navy can man its shiny new aircraft carriers?” This very limited view obviously fails to value the ships that protect and get the Marines into action. Despite constant rumours in the last 30 years that the Navy was about to ‘sacrifice’ the Marines, they have survived endless rounds of cuts pretty well. The Marines have maintained most of their strength, around 7,000 mark since the late-1980s, while the general service as seen its sailor numbers plunge, from around 65,000 down to just 22,300 by December 2016. There has however, been a significant drop in RM numbers since the 2010 SDSR, down from 7,281 to 6,783 in 2016.

The Royal Marines are admired and respected by any decent senior naval officer, who will have experienced their professionalism at first hand when working with them during their careers. Much to the chagrin of the Army, many, including politicians, regard the Marine Commandos as the UK’s finest fighting formation. If cuts really have to be made, logic would suggest they should fall on generic Army infantry regiments, not the best of the best.

The future of the Royal Marines

The marines are extremely versatile with niche capabilities such as mountain, arctic and desert warfare, as well as providing 47% of all UK Special Forces. The UK retains a small but highly competent specialist amphibious capability that very few nations possess (and we would be foolish to weaken further). There are however, some bigger existential questions about the main amphibious role of the Marines in the wider defence picture. How well would the marines fare in an opposed landing? In the age of precision weapons how vulnerable are small landing craft? Only when our single aircraft carrier is available for the assault role will the Marines have enough transport and aircraft for landings of scale. Even then, does the RN and RFA have sufficient ships to sustain them, once ashore? Is the main employment for the Marines in the future likely to be operating in small detachments on specialist maritime security or COIN tasks? Or should 3 Commando brigade be strengthened and focus on the ability to mount large amphibious assaults or engagements in large scale ground conflicts?

Maximising the assets

The restructuring plan is sensible in the circumstances and demonstrates the service doing all in its power to make the best use of its slim resources. By delegating the budget to each command, the government has conveniently absolved itself of responsibility as it can present cuts and restructuring as “the choices of the Navy Board”. There may be little alternative to operating at ‘bare bones’ efficiency but ultimately credible defence is about contingencies. When a crisis arises, regular personnel doing apparently less important desk jobs may act as a valuable immediately-available reserve. These disappearing backroom roles may also provide respite for personnel who have been on operations and need a period serving with regular hours for the benefit of their family life.

The fact the RN needs to go to such efforts to generate just 200 people indicates just how tight manpower issues remain. There is relief that a large cut to Royal Marine numbers has been avoided but the overall fighting capability of 3 Commando Brigade is being reduced. This is another price the RN has to pay for the disastrous decision to make 5,000 redundant in 2010. If nothing else, arguing for further increases in RN personnel numbers in the 2020 SDSR must be a priority.