Amphibiosity, the Royal Marines and the Defence Debate in the UK


The House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) has recently released a report emotively entitled ‘Sunset for the Royal Marines?’ The report followed on from the HCDC’s rapid inquiry into the future of the UK’s amphibious capability in the wake of a series of press reports suggesting major cuts to the Royal Marines (RM) and the loss of the Royal Navy’s (RN) two Landing Pad Docks (LPDs) as part of a series of measures aimed at balancing the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) books.

Preceding the release of the report, many of the HCDC members had participated in a backbench debate on defence in January 2018 and in questions to the Secretary of State for Defence’s statement on the ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ which effectively detached defence from the government’s ongoing National Security Capability Review.

The HCDC report is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the review was undertaken quickly with just one oral evidence session with witnesses, an unusually high number of written submissions were received, and social media was employed to try to widen the debate beyond the usual group of defence experts and commentators. Both the speed of the review and its attempt at wider engagement are to be commended, and it will be interesting to see whether this format is repeated in subsequent inquiries.

Secondly, the inquiry highlighted a number of issues with the parliamentary scrutiny process. The witness session included two retired senior RM officers and two representatives of think-tanks. Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry has held a number of senior RM and joint positions and retired in 2007. Major General Julian Thompson was the commander of 3 Commando Brigade and retired in 1986. Nick Childs, the former BBC journalist, is the IISS’ Senior Fellow responsible for Naval Forces and Maritime Security, and Peter Roberts is a former RN warfare officer and RUSI’s current Director of Military Sciences.

All four witnesses rigorously made the case for the retention both of the Royal Marines and of the UK’s amphibious capability. They generally lamented the retirement of HMS Ocean, the RN’s only Landing Pad Helicopter, without replacement. Their views were largely in accordance with most of the written evidence received, although there were some notable exceptions such as retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry who questioned the need for the LPDs. The choice of those providing oral evidence was predictable and also concerning. No senior retired RN officer gave oral evidence, despite the submissions of Rear Admirals David Snelson and Chris Parry, so this area was left to Peter Roberts, a comparatively junior retired warfare officer to cover. It was also interesting that Major General Julian Thompson gave evidence rather than Lieutenant General Sir James Dutton who has far more recent experience of commanding and conducting amphibious operations.

What was notable about the oral and written evidence sessions was the near total lack of inputs from academia. None of the university centres focussing on naval, maritime and strategic thinking supplied written evidence or contributed to the oral evidence gathering. Nor were there any contributions from the wider UK defence community or international military partners, thus leaving the question of the future of the RM and amphibiosity devoid of wider context. This would suggest either that there is a paucity of contemporary naval and maritime thinking in UK universities, or a disconnection between scholarship and the Parliamentary scrutiny processes in this area.

Thirdly, the HCDC inquiry also revealed that the Royal Marines were able to mobilise a significant number of individuals to submit written evidence and engage with the social media experiment. While this level of engagement may be commendable in the first instance, it also resulted in a somewhat one-sided debate; not surprising this community focused on the benefits provided to national defence by the amphibious capability and the Royal Marines more widely.

As a consequence of these factors, the evidence supplied to the HCDC was of variable quality and few of those offering written submissions provided evidence for their assertions. Moreover, a number of the written submissions continued to perpetuate the myth that an earlier generation of LPDs were only saved from scrapping as part of John Nott’s infamous 1982 defence review because of the Falklands War. Here, staff supporting the recent HCDC inquiry played an important role in ensuring that the final report countered this myth.[1] The issue this raises for the HCDC is, therefore, one of how to draw on a wider and more diverse range of contributions in future inquiries. Options here might include avoiding all male panels and looking to look beyond the traditional London-based think-tanks.

Finally, the HCDC report was also revealing for its tone. The notion of a potential ‘sunset’ for the Royal Marines was clearly an issue of concern for the Committee, evidenced by the forthright presentation of its findings. A perennial challenge for the Committee is to steer a careful line between holding the MoD to account on behalf of Parliament and seeking to provide direction for the MoD as a department of state. It will be interesting to see whether the Committee’s subsequent reports adopts a similar tone as the outcomes of the ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ emerge.

Putting these issues aside, there are larger strategic-political questions that remain, which the HCDC report makes strides in addressing. What is the purpose of the Royal Marines if they do not possess amphibious assault capabilities? And, is relinquishing this asset and means for external power projection in the current external security environment indeed the optimal strategic choice for the UK? Coupled with this, there is also the question of the message that cutting the UK’s amphibious capabilities would send to UK’s allies and potential adversaries. In essence, then, the HCDC report and the surrounding debate boils down to the crux of the matter: is the UK willing to spend enough to match its foreign policy and military ambitions with the necessary military capabilities – and does this require amphibious capabilities?

Image: Trainee Royal Marine Commandos position for an assault after a beach landing during an exercise at Bull Point in Plymouth, via flickr.

[1] See Andrew M Dorman, ‘The Nott Review: Dispelling the myths?’, Defence Studies Journal, Vol.1, No.3, Autumn 2001, pp.113-121.


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