Sunset for the Royal Marines? The Royal Marines and UK amphibious capability Contents

4The Royal Marines

Development of amphibious commando infantry role

25.The tradition of the Royal Marines goes back to the establishment of naval infantry in the English Army in 1664. Becoming ‘Royal’ Marines in 1802, they were generally dispersed in small detachments throughout the fleet and, amongst a range of other tasks, were found at the forefront of boarding actions and landing parties. The formation of Royal Marines Commando units with special training and responsibility for amphibious raiding began in the Second World War. With the disbandment of the majority of Army Commando units after the war, 3 Commando Brigade, containing the remaining Royal Marines Commandos and their supporting units, became the UK’s principal commando formation.45

26.The skills that accompanied the commando role led to the Royal Marines becoming the parent arm of the UK’s amphibious specialism in the 1950s. The British Army’s amphibious role and training steadily diminished and the Royal Marines became the institutional hub of experience and expertise in amphibious infantry operations.46 The importance of the role was demonstrated in a number of post-war engagements in Korea, Aden, Borneo, Suez and the Falklands. Alongside their growing list of specialist functions, the Royal Marines have continued to fulfil infantry and counter-insurgency roles in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.47 3 Commando Brigade remains the UK’s dedicated amphibious commando formation and is also a crucial part of the UK’s rapid reaction capability. The deployable high readiness force within the Brigade is the Lead Commando Group (LCG), a battlegroup of some 1,800 personnel built around a full-strength Commando (a battalion-sized unit of around 700 Royal Marines) with supporting naval, land and air assets. Until very recently the Royal Marines were able to deploy at brigade strength, but the ability to do this was ended by the SDSR 2010, with one of the two Albion class LPDs being put into extended readiness, and one of the four Bay class landing ship dock (auxiliary) vessels being sold to the Royal Australian Navy.48 That vessel, the Largs Bay, had spent slightly less time with the Fleet—just over four years—than she had taken to build and enter service.


27.As noted in paragraph 5, two months after the announcement of the NSCR reports began to emerge that options under consideration included a cut of 1,000 Royal Marines from current strength.49 More recent reports suggested that one option would involve a cut of up to 2,000 personnel (30% of current strength) and a potential merger of 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade (which contains the battalions of the Parachute Regiment and its supporting units).50

28.The overall strength of the Royal Marines has been steadily reducing over the last few years. Standing at 7,390 in August 2011, the last report before statistics on Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel strengths ceased being published on a monthly basis in October 2017 shows the Royal Marines at a strength of only 6,580.51

29.In April 2017 it was announced that 42 Commando would be re-roled to undertake maritime operations duties, resulting in a reduction of 200 personnel.52 As well as representing a further cut in strength that puts more strain on the remaining personnel, it now requires Lead Commando Group to be generated from the two remaining full strength Commando units (40 and 45 Commando).53

Royal Marines Strength

January 2010


January 2011


January 2012


January 2013


January 2014


January 2015


January 2016


January 2017


July 2017


October 2017


As one former Royal Marine explained in written evidence

lessening the numbers of personnel will only strain the rest. The workload seldom lessens with numbers; it tends to stay the same or seemingly rises. The effect this would have with guys on the ground would be foreboding and create unhappiness within, allowing this would create mistakes in the long run54

30.As well as the full strength amphibious assault Commandos, 3 Commando Brigade is supported by a number of other units which are essential to a sustained deployment. The Commando Logistics Regiment is the UK’s only amphibious logistics formation, providing equipment, medical and other logistical support to the Brigade.55 One piece of written evidence observed: “I know of no other equivalent unit in the Armed Forces that is so versatile as the CLR.”56 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group fulfils the Brigade’s reconnaissance, intelligence and communications requirements. Dr Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, described how the unit was at the cutting edge of UK Armed Forces’ work on cyber and information warfare.57

31.43 Commando Fleet Protection Group performs a range of maritime security functions, including the vital task of providing security to the country’s nuclear deterrent at Faslane. Army Commando units within 3 Commando Brigade include 24 Commando Royal Engineers and 29 Commando Royal Artillery, which respectively provide the Brigade’s combat engineering and artillery support. The MoD stated in its written evidence that 24 Commando has recently been “re-structured in order to create a more balanced and enduring operating model” and that 29 Commando has “changed in size … proportionately to 3 Commando Brigade”.58 This is a rather indirect way of saying that these units have suffered cuts. 24 Commando RE was indeed due to be disbanded entirely under the original Army 2020 proposals, but was reprieved,59 no doubt because of the serious effect this would have had on the ability of the Brigade to deploy. All of these supporting units are unique formations manned by personnel who are required to go through the same rigorous commando training as the Royal Marines. Amphibious assault capability and sustained deployments are impossible without them. The Brigade is also supported by several hundred personnel of the Royal Marines Reserve, based in detachments around the country, who make a vital contribution to the Brigade’s work.

32.We are concerned by the reduction in the strength of the Royal Marines inflicted since 2010, and the further reductions that will follow from the restructuring of 42 Commando. 3 Commando Brigade is required to generate high readiness forces, often entailing units being at short notice to move for extended periods. With the operational tempo remaining high, sustaining Lead Commando Group at high readiness on a reduced strength will put further strain on personnel and equipment. We believe that reductions on the scale contemplated would bring 3 Commando Brigade below the critical mass needed for it to maintain readiness and conduct its standing tasks, let alone be deployed at a tactically significant strength on operations. This is without the further dramatic cuts in personnel that are reportedly being considered. The Department should tell us how the readiness of 3 Commando Brigade and Lead Commando Group is to be sustained following the restructuring announced in April 2017.

33.3 Brigade’s position as a formation that is dependent on elements from all three Services to be deployable makes it particularly vulnerable at a time when all Services are facing considerable manpower pressures. It is the unique nature of the Brigade that gives it its strength, and reductions in supporting elements from other Services and branches would also compromise its capacity as a deployable fighting force.

Training, exercises and defence co-operation

34.During a debate on the Royal Marines in the House of Lords on 28 November 2017, the Minister of State for Defence confirmed that:

as a short-term measure, a number of collective training exercises will not take place this financial year—I emphasise the phrase “short-term measure”. It is anticipated that specialist Royal Marine collective training overseas will resume in the next financial year.60

A written parliamentary question following up this statement revealed that a total of seven exercises planned for the 2017–18 financial year had been cancelled.61 These include environmental training exercises which sustain skills in jungle and desert warfare, and large-scale exercises with allies such as Exercise BLACK HORSE in the United States which would have seen the Royal Marines training with their American and Dutch counterparts.

35.The written answer also addressed the cold weather training exercises that the Royal Marines conduct in Northern Norway, which have taken place regularly since the 1960s. Although training will be taking place in Norway in 2018,62 the continuation of these exercises has been in doubt for some time.63 These deployments serve to maintain the skills needed to fulfil the UK’s standing commitments to reinforce Norway, a NATO ally, in the event of an armed attack. The resurgence of Russia as a strategic competitor brings a new significance to this commitment. The deployments also serve as environmental training to sustain the mountain and cold weather warfare capability of the Royal Marines Mountain Leader cadre. This group of highly trained experts is the owner of the cold weather warfare specialism across all of the Armed Forces. At a time when the UK personnel are on rotational deployment in areas such as Estonia and Poland over the winter months, this specialism is vital to UK Defence. The Committee’s Sub-Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into Defence in the Arctic and has taken evidence on some of the specific challenges that face the Royal Marines when deploying to Norway.64

36.The Royal Marines are at the centre of defence co-operation with international partners. A very close relationship exists between the Royal Marines and the United States Marine Corps (USMC).65 The USMC began participating in the Norwegian deployments in 2015 in order to regenerate their own cold weather warfare capability which had been allowed to lapse since the end of the Cold War.66 The Royal Marines are an important part of the series of agreements between the Royal Navy and the US Navy and USMC over the past few years.67 Since 1973 the Royal Marines have had arrangements in place with their Dutch counterparts in the Korps Mariniers to form the UK/NL Amphibious Force. As well as being significant bi-laterally, these relationships are central to sustaining NATO commitments.68 General Thompson told us that “apart from the Americans, we are the only truly amphibious capability nation in NATO”.69 Dr Roberts added that “much of NATO’s amphibious capability is based on the British capability.”70 The UK will be assuming leadership of NATO’s Initial Follow-On Forces Group in 2019. The Royal Marines may also be asked to contribute to the Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) and the maritime component of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF).71

37.The Royal Marines and attached commando units famously have one of the most rigorous and demanding military training regimes in the world, enabling them to be ready to survive, manoeuvre and fight in a variety of roles and in extreme environmental conditions. Amphibious operations place a premium on specialist training in all parts of the chain of command to plan and execute these complex military tasks. Exercises are vital for putting this training into practice, for maintaining readiness, and for maintaining a credible, high visibility deterrent. Cuts to training and exercises because of lack of resources are another sign of the neglect of this capability. We require the Department to set out in detail, for each training serial or exercise due to involve elements of 3 Commando Brigade that has been run at reduced capacity or cancelled in FY 2017–18: a) the individual units that did or were due to participate in that serial or exercise; b) the extent of reduction in capacity; c) the cost of running the serial or exercise at full capacity; d) the reason for reduction in capacity or cancellation, and e) whether the serial or exercise will be reinstated at full capacity in FY 2018–19 and, if not, why not?

38.It is a matter of particular embarrassment that resource constraints have affected training and exercising with our allies. These opportunities for joint training are invaluable for defence co-operation and for sustaining interoperability. These relationships, which have been forged by the Royal Marines with their American and Dutch counterparts, are models of defence co-operation. Running down the ability of 3 Commando Brigade to participate in a meaningful way in these exercises has the potential to do serious damage to this country’s defence relationships with our closest allies. It also puts at risk our standing commitments to NATO, at a time when the organisation that is the cornerstone of our defence policy needs our full support.

Contribution to Special Forces

39.The contribution that the Royal Marines make to UK Special Forces (UKSF) has been a common theme in the evidence we have received.72 In the past the Special Boat Service recruited exclusively from the Corps, and the link with the SBS remains strong. The Special Reconnaissance Squadron and Special Forces Support group also receive substantial support from Royal Marines personnel. The evidence indicates that somewhere between 40 and 50% of UKSF personnel have a Royal Marines background—yet another indication of the disproportionality high contribution that the Royal Marines make to Defence given their size in relation to the rest of the Armed Forces.

40.Special Forces are of great utility in amphibious operations. The Falklands Campaign demonstrated the value of covertly inserting small SF teams ahead of the main landing force to gather intelligence, guide the landing force to the landing zone, disable nearby enemy installations, provide fire control for air strikes and naval gunfire, and, if necessary, to engage enemy units that might be in a position to interfere with the landing.73

41.The contribution made to UK Special Forces by the Royal Marines is disproportionate to the size of the Corps and is indicative of the quality of the people who pass through its ranks. The growth in the use and tasking of Special Forces in recent years makes a continuing ‘pipeline’ of trained and resilient personnel vital. Reducing the strength of the Royal Marines will substantially reduce the recruitment pool available, and reduce Special Forces’ amphibious warfare expertise.


42.Several bases of units within 3 Commando Brigade are due to be partially or wholly disposed of in the Government’s latest Defence Estates programme announced in November 2016, including the disposal of RM Stonehouse, the current Brigade HQ.74 The Estates strategy indicates that, following these disposals, HQs will be consolidated in the Plymouth/Torpoint area, and that there will be an Amphibious Centre of Specialisation based in the Devonport area. This consolidation will nonetheless lead to the closure of Royal Marines bases elsewhere in the South West of England, including Taunton in Somerset and Chivenor in North Devon, which will have an adverse impact on the small communities where these units are based.75

43.We welcome the decision to consolidate HQs of a number of units in 3 Commando Brigade to a new location in the Plymouth/Torpoint area. This is in keeping with the Department’s overall objectives to make better use of the Defence Estate and reduce its cost, and will have the benefits of consolidating units within the Brigade. But the Department should communicate clearly and often with the personnel affected and their families as the reforms to the Defence Estate proceed, and we would urge that the work in relation to Plymouth/Torpoint site is completed and its outcome communicated as soon as is possible.

Morale and satisfaction with Service life

44.The Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey (AFCAS) 2017 revealed dramatic drops in morale and satisfaction with Service life amongst the Royal Marines. Compared to the rest of the Navy, the Army and the RAF, the Royal Marines saw the largest decreases in morale and satisfaction from the 2016 figures. For example, 35% of Royal Marines surveyed said they were dissatisfied with Service life in general, an increase of 9% from 2016. The proportion of Royal Marines Officers who rated Service morale as ‘high’ fell from 62% to 41% and the numbers of Royal Marines overall who considered unit morale to be low rose to 47%, an increase of 15% from 2016. A number of specific markers including sense of achievement, level of challenge and variety also fell and there were reductions in the numbers of Royal Marines who felt a particularly strong attachment to their unit. General Fry told us:

So when [the Royal Marines] have gone through a period like that, when they think that they have led Defence, they then find that the heart is about to be ripped out of the capability which defines them and one in six or seven of them is going to be made redundant, it is hardly surprising that their morale plummets.76

These sentiments are echoed throughout the written evidence, with an emphasis on the negative effect low morale has on recruitment and retention.77

45.Given the number of challenges the Corps is facing, it is unsurprising that the combination of these factors is beginning to have a serious effect on morale and Service satisfaction. The Royal Marines have historically exhibited a higher than average level of morale, Service and unit satisfaction than across the other parts of the Armed Forces. AFCAS 2017 shows that the Royal Marines have seen large decreases in these categories. While falling morale and satisfaction across all Services deserve urgent attention from the Department, these notably dramatic reductions, within units that are known for their distinctive ethos and level of ‘espirit de corps’ are a matter of particular concern. The reports that have emerged about the NSCR will have done nothing to improve morale amongst the Royal Marines and attached units, and may well do further damage. The Department has indicated in its written evidence that work has been initiated to gather data on outflow and morale to inform future action plans. We wish to receive detailed information on the work that is being done, the nature of the data being gathered, the level of resource and staffing being dedicated to this exercise, and other steps that are being taken to arrest these alarming reductions in morale.

45 Christopher Ferguson (RMA0003); Commander (Rtd) N D MacCartan-Ward (RMA0055); Lt Col (Rtd) Charles Wilson (RMA0056); Thompson, The Royal Marines; Ladd, J D, By Sea By Land: The Authorised History of the Royal Marines Commandos, HarperCollins, London 1999

46 Spellar, I, The Role of Amphibious Warfare in British Defence Policy 1945–56, Palgrave, London 2001, pp 94–100

47 Q4; Commander (Rtd) N D MacCartan-Ward (RMA0055); Adrian Raisbeck (RMA0062); Brigadier (Rtd) Tom Lang (RMA0069); Charles Pilton (RMA0075); Ronald Lockley (RMA0080); Murdo Mackenzie (RMA0083); Ernest Blaber (RMA0084); Simon Orr (RMA0090)

48 Lt Col (Rtd) Charles Wilson (RMA0056); Human Security Centre (RMA0099); Professor Gwythian Prins (RMA0102)

50 Merger threat to Royal Marines and paratroopers’, The Times, 12 January 2018

51 Ministry of Defence, Royal Navy and Royal Marines Monthly Personnel Statistics, updated 16 October 2017. RN/RM Personnel statistics will be published on a quarterly basis in the future.

52Royal Marines to be restructured in line with growing Royal Navy’, Ministry of Defence, 11 April 2017

53 Gabriele Molinelli (RMA0030); Lt Col (Rtd) Charles Wilson (RMA0056)

54 Lee Coates (RMA0001)

55 Christopher Ferguson (RMA0003)

56 Peter Backlog (RMA0031)

57 Q46. See also Professor Gwythian Prins (RMA0102)

58 Ministry of Defence (RMA0098)

59 HC Deb, 10 April 2014, c 25WS

60 HL Deb, 28 November 2017, c 663

61 PQ 1186 4

62 See also Ministry of Defence (RMA0098)

63 Ronald Lockley (RMA0080); David Harris (RMA0088); Susan Robinson (RMA0097); ‘”No money” to send Marines on cold-weather training’, The Times, 14 July 2017

64 Defence Sub-Committee, Oral evidence, Defence in the Arctic, 15 March 2017, HC 879. The evidence from Lt Col (Rtd) Matt Skuse, a retired Royal Marine Mountain Leader and former Defence Attaché to Norway and Iceland at Q104 – Q115, is particularly helpful. See also Peter Calliafas (RMA0034); Jason Hunt (RMA0042); William Taylor (RMA0074); Col (Rtd) Ian Moore (RMA0094); Robert Watt (RMA0101)

65 Q2-Q3; Q34; Peter Pennington (RMA0072)

66 Defence Sub-Committee, Oral evidence, Defence in the Arctic, 15 March 2017, HC 879, Q111-Q112

68 Stuart Broome (RMA0045); Rear Admiral (Rtd) David Snelson and Lt Gen (Rtd) Sir James Dutton (RMA0066); William Taylor (RMA0074)

69 Q2-Q3

70 Q33

71 The Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) is a pool of high readiness, adaptable forces with expeditionary capacity. It is led with the UK in partnership with eight other nations. It is due to become operational in 2018. The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) is a UK-France deployable force with land, maritime and air components, due to be fully operational by 2020.

72 Q35-Q36; Q41; Christopher Ferguson (RMA0003); Steven Kendrick (RMA0012); Peter Booker (RMA0027); Peter Backlog (RMA0031); Peter Calliafas (RMA0034); Gary McKenzie (RMA0036); Captain Colin Hamilton (RMA0041); Stuart Broome (RMA0045); Andrew McNeillie (RMA0046); Brian Williams (RMA0047); Commander (Rtd) N D MacCartan-Ward (RMA0055); Lt Col (Rtd) Charles Wilson (RMA0056); DefenceSynergia (RMA0065); Tim Forer (RMA0068); Brigadier (Rtd) Tom Lang (RMA0069); Geoffrey Roach (RMA0071); Charles Pilton (RMA0075); Andrew Jackson (RMA0089); Simon Orr (RMA0090); Col (Rtd) Ian Moore (RMA0094); Susan Robinson (RMA0097); Human Security Centre (RMA0099)

73 Freedman, L, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Volume II (Revised and Updated Edition), Routledge 2007, chapters 31 and 32, particularly pp 454, 467–470

74 Ministry of Defence, A Better Defence Estate, November 2016, p 15

75 Christopher Ferguson (RMA0003); Captain Ian P Somervaille (RMA0054); Andrew Jackson (RMA0089)

76 Q35

77 Lee Coates (RMA0001); Gareth Staples-Jones (RMA0002); Christopher Ferguson (RMA0003); Dr Mike Denning (RMA0005); Grant Eustice (RMA0007); Reverend David Osborne (RMA0010); Stephen Kendrick (RMA0012); Barry Collacott (RMA0013); Ross Wilson (RMA0014); Stephen Chan (RMA0019); Dr Martin Ridge (RMA0023); Dominic Collins (RMA0026); Peter Backlog (RMA0031); Mark Gibbs (RMA0032); Robert Jones (RMA0033); Peter Calliafas (RMA0034); Tim Reid (RMA0037); Yvonne Walsham (RMA0039); Captain Colin Hamilton (RMA0041); Jason Hunt (RMA0042); Mark Bullard (RMA0043); Richard Deacon (RMA0044); Andrew McNeillie (RMA0046); Alan Wombell (RMA0049); Lt Col (Rtd) Ewen Southby-Tailyour (RMA0051); Captain Ian P Somervaille (RMA0054); Lord Parmoor (RMA0057); Commander (Rtd) Richard Blott (RMA0058); Stephen Beckett (RMA0060); David Turner (RMA0063); Sue Crouch (RMA0064); DefenceSynergia (RMA0065); Brigadier (Rtd) Tom Lang (RMA0069); Luke Pollard MP (RMA0073); William Taylor (RMA0074); Charles Pilton (RMA0075); Ernest Blaber (RMA0084); Commodore (Rtd) Michael Clapp CB RN and Rear Admiral (Rtd) Jeremy Larken DSO RN (RMA0085); Andrew Jackson (RMA0089); Simon Orr (RMA0090); Chris Smith (RMA0092); Col (Rtd) Ian Moore (RMA0094); Susan Robinson (RMA0097); Martin Bowles (RMA0100); Robert Watt (RMA0101)

1 February 2018