Cuts to Marines could threaten UK’s defence

Royal Marines conduct an operations demonstration at Royal Southern Yacht Club [Image: Royal Navy Media Archive]

On the 2 February the Commons Defence Committee published a report titled ‘Sunset for the Royal Marines? The Royal Marines and UK amphibious capability’, criticising the government over proposed plans to decommission crucial vessels, reduce manpower and cut spending for the Royal Marines. The Royal Marines are an amphibious light infantry force, who are part of the Royal Navy. They were founded in 1755 as the Royal Navy’s infantry troops and are described as ‘the most elite amphibious troops in the world’.

The report from the Defence Committee, which includes evidence from the retired commander of the Royal Marines and the director of the Military Sciences department at the Royal United Services Institute, argues that the government has dis-graced itself by backtracking on its previous promise in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government promised to maintain two Albion class warships crucial to launching landing craft needed for an amphibious invasion, leading to a huge loss of offensive capability.

Others pointed to the fact that the Royal Marines also act as a stepping-off point towards the UK’s world renowned special forces, with 40-50 per cent of all special forces personnel (including the Special Boat Service and the SAS) having a background in the Royal Marines. This has led to fears that the proposed cuts could harm the effectiveness of the UK’s special forces in the future, depriving their troops of this grounding step.

Other naval experts have defended the move as a modernisation step. They have emphasised that the Royal Navy intends to adopt a more carrier-orientated doctrine for the changing demands of modern warfare, heralded by the completion of the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2014 and the commencement of construction of the HMS Prince of Wales, its sister ship, last December.

They argue that amphibious landings of the kind stressed in the report ought to have been left on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, declaring this practice a relic of 20th century warfare and becoming increasingly irrelevant to combat modern 21st century challenges. In-stead, naval experts assert that the new carriers, the largest vessels ever put to sea by the Royal Navy, will be able to provide the same roles as the ships facing the axe.

It seems the question facing both the Conservative government and the Royal Navy is not merely one of whether two Albion class vessels are to be decommissioned a few years early, but a larger issue of this country’s reaction to present-domestic and international demands. Such cuts are in line with the Tory policy of austerity, which began as a reaction to the 2008 financial crisis and has not been aided by the (hopefully temporary) economic hardships brought about by Brexit.

Britain’s relationship with and usefulness to NATO will also be heavily impacted behind the scenes of such seemingly minute cuts, having knock-on effects on our ‘special relationship’ with the “stable genius” US President across the Atlantic Ocean. The Royal Navy, therefore, is clearly attempting to modernise despite its constricted budget, effectively forcing them to gamble that an emphasis on behemoth carriers over highly trained special forces will pay off in the crucible of international politics.

Whether this wager will be successful or not, only time will tell but one thing is for certain: this move will profoundly affect the men and women of the Royal Marines. Furthermore, the defence sector at large will undoubtedly interpret this as a new direction for the Royal Navy and the country as a whole.

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