My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my entries in the Members’ register of interests. I am delighted that a number of noble Lords have put their names down to speak this evening and I shall try not to be too long-winded so as to give plenty of time to others.
This debate comes closely behind a debate in the other place on the UK’s amphibious capability, which took place on
The common thread continually made by Peers and Members of the other place was the necessity for this country, if it wishes to retain any credibility in defence and to comply with its treaty obligations, to fund defence to meet the threats and our nation’s needs—and to retain our amphibious capability. There was overwhelming support and gratitude expressed during the debates in both Houses to the Royal Marines.
Amphibious warfare is not an occupation for amateurs. It requires deep knowledge, great experience, expertise and skill. I remind Members of the House that we possess those skills in the naval service and have refined them over decades. The business of getting troops from ship to shore with supplies, ammunition and resupplies—including heavy and armoured vehicles, artillery, engineers and their equipment, medical facilities, water and so forth—is extremely complex. The logistics, timing and flexibility required dictate that you need a knowledgeable and experienced team, whatever operations are being conducted. From all-out combat to humanitarian operations, teamwork and experience are essential.
Only HMS “Bulwark” and HMS “Albion” have the necessary command and control capabilities, and only these ships have the necessary landing craft to deal with heavy loads. The landing craft and the skills of their Royal Marine coxswains and crews are an essential arm in any amphibious operation. These skills in amphibious operations are not a relic of the past. In the past 15 years, we have used our amphibious capabilities in all-out combat in Iraq, peacekeeping in Sierra Leone and, this year, in the Caribbean on humanitarian relief operations, where 40 Commando Royal Marines were deployed in the shortest time and distinguished themselves in that operation. It is a skill that, if lost, would be extremely difficult to recover.
We in the naval service have this experience, knowledge and flexibility. Of our allies, only the United States has this amphibious capability—albeit that it is far greater. The House has been told at least once that Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges of the United States army gave his views in robust terms as to the advisability of us retaining our amphibious contribution to the allied effort. The ability of a UK Government to operate effectively on their own territory from the sea gives the maximum political choice to any Prime Minister.
I could embellish the point, but I want to lead on to remind the House of some of the main operational capabilities that the Royal Marines, which are only 4.5% of Britain’s defence forces, bring to this country’s joint defence effort. The Royal Marines comprise three commando units. They are all part of 3 Commando Brigade. One commando unit is always lead commando group and is vital for joint theatre entry. The lead commando group offers the political choice to which I have referred and has 28 days’ self-contained supply when deployed on land. The Royal Marines and 3 Commando Brigade sit at core of European amphibious initiatives. We have unique, long-lasting relations and friendships, particularly with the United States Marine Corps, with which in recent decades we have served on numerous operations. We have very close relations with the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps and the French marines. We are an essential partner in the United States Marine Corps/NATO amphibious force initiative.
In addition, some of the additional and essential capabilities the corps provides include the provision of what I have in the past described as the uniquely high proportion of the UK’s badged regular Special Forces operators. I have said in the past that if you shrink the pool of talent, you necessarily shrink the number of Special Forces operators. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who I am delighted to say will be speaking this evening, has unrivalled knowledge and expertise on this matter, and he has made the point time and time again. Our Special Forces have the highest reputation. Their tasking is growing continually. They are an increasingly vital and crucial part of this country’s defence effort.
Uniquely to Britain, the Royal Marines provide expertise in mountain and Arctic warfare. This is especially relevant at present given the growing threat from Russia to our northern flank. Our allies, particularly the Norwegians and other Scandinavian countries, put great value on this. We provide courses open to other members of Britain’s Armed Forces and allies. One such course, the mountain and Arctic warfare course, is extremely rigorous and demanding and provides a vital core of expertise and capability. We provide most of the ships’ force protection teams and security for the nuclear deterrent. The Minister will be well aware of the foregoing and will also be aware of how fortunate we in the Royal Marines are in our ability to recruit and retain officers and enlisted men of the highest calibre.
As a measure of that quality, approximately 17% of enlisted men passed for training have degrees, and 40% are educationally qualified to be officers. Those are fantastic statistics. The Royal Marines’ selection and training ensure that we have troops not only with stamina, strength, fortitude and courage, but also with high intelligence, flexibility and the ability to improvise. Officers, non-commissioned officers and marines have initiative and the highest standards. This is one of the reasons why we provide such a high proportion of the United Kingdom’s badged, regular Special Forces. Our Royal Marines can think for themselves and have a strong team spirit, comradeship, self-discipline and their own unique sense of humour.
At this point, I must pay tribute to the commanding officer and staff of the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines at Lympstone. They manage not only officers’ and recruits’ training but also the training of many of the specialist qualification courses conducted by the Royal Marines. These cover not only mountain and Arctic warfare, to which I have referred, but heavy weapons, platoon weapons, snipers, assault engineers, physical training and other specialisations essential to ensure that a Royal Marine who manages to be selected for training, which is an achievement in itself, and who passes the arduous nine-month course is properly equipped immediately for deployment in a commando unit. If a marine is recommended for promotion to corporal, he must be selected and pass the junior command course, which lasts some months and is rigorous and demanding. The same process occurs again if a corporal is recommended for promotion to sergeant and selected for the senior command course.
A quick résumé of last year’s activity of 3 Commando Brigade illustrates the importance of a brigade that is consistently 50% to 70% deployed at less than five days’ notice to move. Recently, the lead commando group and attached ranks were deployed at very short notice on Operation Ruman for disaster and humanitarian operations in the Caribbean. Immediately 40 Commando were deployed, 45 Commando were brought into readiness and have taken on that commando’s role. Royal Marine units were activated in response to various UK terrorist threats and operations. Members of the 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines have operated in 35 countries this year.
Routinely, we have three boarding teams and up to four maritime sniper pairs embarked in Royal Naval ships. We have multiple ships force protection teams and two United Kingdom Border Force protection teams deployed around the world. We have conducted 20 training team tasks so far this year and deployed in places such as Ukraine, Kenya, Somaliland, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Oman, India, Indonesia, Lebanon and Senegal. We have, in addition, contributed to the migrant task force in the Mediterranean. We have expertise in jungle and desert warfare, as well as warfare in other climates and terrains. In addition, 43 Commando is tasked to protect the strategic deterrent every day, and that unit remains the defence lead practitioners, outside the UK Special Forces, in close-quarter battle in the land environment.
There would be plenty more to say if I had the time. The point is that as a country we are incredibly fortunate to have, in the Royal Marines, a small force of just under 7,000 men—as I have said, 4.5% of Britain’s Armed Forces—that does so much at the sharp end. We are an integral part of the naval service, and unique in defence in that our officers and enlisted men, and all our commando courses, train at the same place—the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines at Lympstone. This provides a life-changing bond and shared ethos. During the training process, which is long and arduous, you will see the gradual erosion of selfishness and the growth of teamwork and self-discipline. We are an egalitarian force that is motivated by the highest standards. We are commandos within the naval service: we are not a small army in the Navy but a fully integrated part of the naval service. The qualities of Royal Marines—intelligence, strength, stamina, courage, independence and adaptability—make us ideal to lead defence in the new way of warfare. We continue to welcome and master new technologies and changes.
As with personnel of other branches of our Armed Forces, we have recently, and over centuries, lost many brave men in operations, and many others are having to cope with life-changing injuries. I believe the Secretary of State and the Minister recognise the crucial importance to British defence of the Royal Marines and the importance to the UK of our amphibious capability. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Reports of possible cuts and uncertainty are damaging. The Royal Marines—as I said, 4.5% of our Armed Forces—were awarded over 30% of the gallantry awards in Afghanistan. These outstanding men, to whom we owe so much, have the support and admiration of this House, the other place and the entire country. They are often called on to put their lives in mortal danger on our behalf. They give their wholehearted loyalties to this country, and it is time that this was reciprocated.
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest—or, some may think, a dark secret—in that I spent three years in the Royal Marines as a university cadet. I left, or resigned, as I came down from university. I subsequently joined the Army but I retain a great respect for the Royal Marines, about which we have heard a great deal from the local Lord, Lord Burnett. It may be of interest to the House to know that I left the Royal Marines quite a long time after the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown—at least, I think it is of interest.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, on calling the debate and on expounding the position of the maritime forces, specifically the Royal Marines. Perforce I will not take up too much of the House’s time, but I ask these questions of the House and indeed the Government: what are our ambitions in defence? Do we wish to be able to defend our trading interests? Do we wish to be able to defend our overseas territories or indeed to help them in humanitarian operations, as we have just heard, or do we want to retreat behind the Channel? Do we wish to remain a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council? Do we wish to be regarded as a serious player in NATO? Do we wish to punch above our weight? This is the nation of Drake, Raleigh, Nelson, Jellicoe and Fisher. Do we want to be a serious player in maritime and world affairs?
If, as is rumoured, we were to scrap our maritime landing capability, what signal would that send to an expansionist and aggressive Russia, which daily is testing our maritime defences with submarines? I was listening this morning, as were one or two other Members of the House, to Rear Admiral Bob Tarrant, who stood down last month as Chief of Naval Operations. He expanded on the increase in the bellicosity of Russia and explained that the number of incidents involving Russian submarines has shot up.
What signal would such a move send to Iran, which can currently dominate the Straits of Hormuz coming out of the Persian Gulf and is supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, probably for the reason that it wishes to able to dominate the sea passages into the Red Sea and up to Suez. What signal would it send to our allies, our friends in NATO and especially to the USA? What sort of nation do we want to be?
The last Secretary of State designated this the Year of the Navy but we read that the national security capability review is likely to cut the Navy, particularly maritime landing craft, yet further. It is not just the naval service, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, but defence and the Armed Forces as a whole. We have to spend more or abandon our ambitions—it is quite straightforward.
I know Mark Sedwill, the National Security Adviser. Noble Lords may not know that, like me, he was a Royal Marine, also, I think, as a university cadet, and then he went on to—dare I say “better” things?—certainly greater things at the Foreign Office. He has been traduced by the press because he is concentrating on cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is hugely important, and I suggest that he is not to blame for having to make this a priority.
My point is that well-equipped people will always remain crucial in terms of defence; they are the big stick that we need to carry.
We must increase our defence spending. Enough, if I may say so, of this trotted out comment of 2% of GDP. Two per cent of GDP would not have included the deterrent cost until six years ago. Two per cent of GDP spent on defence includes my pension but, fit, able and aggressive as I may be, I think it unlikely that I shall be called back to the colours.
We need to spend up to our ambitions, and to a Conservative Government who I support, I say that we need to get our spending priorities right, or retreat as a nation into mediocrity in world affairs. The nation will rightly hold us culpable if we fail to defend it. I have often parroted and now hear Ministers parrot the old adage that the first duty of government is the defence of the realm. I say to my Government: please live up to that pious ambition, aspiration and adage; let us all see it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, on securing this timely debate. Rumours abound about possible cuts to the Armed Forces. We were told this autumn that there needed to be minor adjustments to the defence programme, but it is clear that defence is in such a mess that, far from minor adjustments, the Government are considering significant cuts. We are witnessing a defence review by stealth. The impact on service morale is huge. Those of us who know the services talk to people who know that to be true, yet we have been told again and again that, far from being in difficulty, the defence budget is growing and all in the garden is rosy. Clearly, it is not.
Why should this be? Despite claims by their detractors, the new carriers are certainly not to blame for the problems in defence funding. First, the spend of 2% of GDP on defence has been achieved by smoke and mirrors. Secondly, the funding of the future equipment programme depends on the services finding substantial efficiencies, which are becoming increasingly unfeasible. Lastly, the falling value of the pound against the dollar presents a new slew of difficulties with many US equipment buys in the pipeline. In short, there is a growing black hole in the MoD budget.
Particularly under fire, it seems from the rumours, is our invaluable amphibious capability. Others will talk in detail about the Royal Marines—indeed, we have heard already what amazing fighting men they are and how important they are for Special Forces—but I will focus on amphibious shipping and why that impacts on Royal Marine numbers.
Britain’s security and prosperity requires unimpeded maritime access and transit. As an island nation, the country needs a broadly maritime strategy: one that has sea control at its core but which enables power and influence to be projected inland. Indeed, being an island—although, amazingly, the national security strategy failed to mention the fact—all operations beyond our shores are expeditionary and demand theatre entry. Strike carriers and amphibious forces are the enablers of this theatre entry capability. The true fighting power of a navy is its ability to ensure entry around the world using carrier air and amphibious forces and to cause sea denial using carrier air and nuclear submarines.
Since 1945, this entry capability has been used more than 10 times but, despite its significance, there was pressure to remove our amphibious capability after our withdrawal from east of Suez in the 1970s. It was retained primarily for the important reason that Soviet Union war plans included the invasion of north Norway, and it was vital to show our capability of defending that region. With the resurgent Russia, that is still important today.
In 1981, the removal of our amphibious capability was mooted again. At the last moment, an element of it was reprieved and, by very good fortune, nothing had been removed before the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Every scrap of amphibious shipping and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade in its entirety were crucial to recapturing the islands, as were 76 British manned merchant ships. Post the Falklands conflict, it was decided that the UK needed to maintain amphibious capability of a full commando brigade, two helicopter landing ships capable of ensuring a simultaneous two-company lift—a lesson from the Falklands, although only one, HMS “Ocean”, was built—two landing ship docks capable of complex communications and command and control, very heavy lift and carrying large landing craft, four logistic landing ships, or the equivalent, a number of smaller landing craft and the ability to take up merchant ships from trade. However, it has been nibbled away at. Post SDSR 2010, the decision was made to reduce the commando brigade to a commando group. Of the four new landing ship dock auxiliaries to replace the landing ship logistics, one was sold to Australia for a knockdown price, after we had paid full price in this country.
In addition, one of the landing ship docks was put into reserve status—only one would actually run. More recently, the Royal Marines have lost another 400 men and the newly refitted HMS “Ocean” , having just had a £57 million refit, is up for sale—an almost incomprehensible decision in strategic capability terms. The latest rumours talk of cutting the marines by a further 1,000 and selling the two LPDs. This would effectively mean the end of the UK amphibious capability and with it, the end of the Royal Marines. Without large amphibious shipping—we are already eating into it—the demand for sea soldiers would switch and drop down below the level of one commando: one battalion in other words. The decision to get rid of the shipping would effectively get rid of the Royal Marines in the form that they are at the moment as a key part of the naval service and as sea soldiers.
Has there been any change to the strategic environment that has provoked this decision? Of course not. This is nothing more than a possible savings measure. We urgently need more spending on defence. The Government should be as robust about this as they are about foreign aid, which now equals 38% of the defence budget. The decline in capability is a choice and not one which our nation should make in today’s chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous world. Our nation would live to regret the loss of our hard-won amphibious capability and the Royal Marines that go with it. Once gone, it will be extremely hard to recover.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to come into the debate so thoroughly and ably introduced by my friend and former noble friend on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
It might be timely to repeat, if I may, the remarks of the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord St Vincent, when the Royal Marines were formed. He said:
“I never knew an appeal made to them for honour, courage or loyalty that they did not more than realise my highest expectations. If ever the hour of real danger should come to England, they will be found the Country’s sheet anchor”.
Those words summed up that period. He was of course a great supporter of Lord Nelson’s tactical skills, and supported him throughout his career.
Now we have the problem, of which the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has given some indication, of how these decisions come about. I shudder when I hear the word “cyber”, as indeed I shudder when I hear about driverless cars. I do not think we should overrate those aspects of our modern life. What matters, as Lord St Vincent said, is that the rigorous training and enormous character of a body such as the Royal Marines is not just part of our defence mechanisms but an inspiration to all.
I am rather disappointed that the kind of values, development and loyalties of the Royal Marines are not more used in schools. It seems that the ethos in schools nowadays is to provide cannon fodder for industrial development and the growth of our GDP—all very important, but the kind of words used by Lord St Vincent will probably be of great use to those at school of a young age. I do not think schoolchildren should now be tested at a young age or be asked to pass exams; I think they should learn what it is to live a life of honour, bravery and all the things that have been mentioned. That is lacking. Those who advise government have not actually said that the Royal Marines are superfluous but they downgrade their importance for the future.
I am sure we all agree that we are very fortunate to have the noble Lord, Lord West, here, because he has explained so well the ongoing usefulness of the amphibious duties of the attached naval forces, which include, principally, the Royal Marines. Even in the 18th century—I happen to have an ancestor who was involved in an amphibious raid during the American War of Independence—they were considered the world’s leaders in amphibious landings. I think they still are, and that need will be enduring.
I will not go on. I spent too much time quoting Lord St Vincent and I do not want to get a ticket in my pocket or whatever. I just end by saying that it has been a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to have been able to voice an opinion about the value of training, hard work, a team spirit and all the things alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett. I hear that the reduction in the number of bands will not now happen. Apart from the band of the Scots Guards, in which my son served, certainly the greatest band that I have ever heard—I heard it beating retreat at Greenwich one year—is the band of the Royal Marines. It is probably one of the greatest orchestral experiences that one could have.
My Lords, I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said. As a young army officer many years ago, I served alongside the Royal Marines in Hong Kong and Northern Ireland, and ever since I have had the greatest respect for them and their ethos.
I believe that a serious cut to the Royal Marines would put our international credibility at risk. The noble Lord mentioned General Ben Hodges. I hope that the Government will take on board what he said: that some of the best officers whom he has served with have been Royal Marines, and that he would hate to see the institution that produces men like them degraded. He went on to say that, if Britain cannot maintain its amphibious capability commitments, it risks,
“going into a different sort of category”, of ally, which would,
“make the job simpler for a potential adversary”.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, drew attention to the importance to the United Kingdom, as a maritime nation relying so heavily on trade moving by sea, of a strong Navy and a strong Royal Marines. Without maritime expeditionary strike options, there is a reliance on access to friendly ports or airports, and historical evidence indicates that such access can often be denied or be conditional or unsuitable. A lack of access will narrow options, increase operational risk and potentially make current crisis response plans unviable. Global reach and flexibility are inherent characteristics of a full spectrum Royal Navy able to protect the nation’s vital interests. The ability to act across a spectrum, from disaster relief to expeditionary strike, preserves political choice.
The United Kingdom’s comparative advantage in maritime theatre entry—something that few can emulate—is of critical importance to our key partners. The Royal Marines have a leading allied capability, interwoven with NATO and European initiatives, and are the United States’ partner of choice in the littoral and the Arctic. Their cold-weather-capable commando force is hugely appreciated in north Norway.
Chaos is a dominating feature of our world today. Islamic fundamentalism is a threat that grows more vigorous and malign by the day and it has reached our own shores. Russia mobilises in all dimensions to press her advantages from the Balkans to the Baltic and from Libya to Damascus, to erode the West’s sphere of influence, both conventionally and in the hearts and minds of many of its citizens. The United Kingdom remains a key player in global politics, but it competes in a world where many regional powers, nation states, criminals and extremists are expanding their influence. If we want to have an effect where the vast majority of the world’s population lives, the ability to operate between the sea and the land is vital. Battles may be won at sea, but wars are won on land, among the people. Despite the huge technological leaps that have characterised the last century, this remains true; to have a decisive effect on an opponent, you must at some point land and close with him.
The US recognises the importance of an expeditionary strike capability. With the recently approved littoral operations in a contested environment concept, it seeks to better integrate existing naval and Marine Corps capabilities to overcome the emerging threats within littoral areas, which it sees as rapidly expanding in operational depth, complexity and lethality. This concept will provide the United States with an enhanced geographic flexibility and a range of options with which to respond to the threats within the littoral. To give some indication of the scale of US investment in this concept, it relies on the delivery of a multi-purpose, 38-unit, amphibious fleet. I very much hope that we do not become a “different sort of category” of ally.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for asking his Question for Short Debate. In 2010, the Conservative-led Government made a decision to retain the carrier programme. To be fair, I could easily argue that decision both ways. However, there is no doubt that the carriers will, in due course, give us a fabulous strategic capability. Even the US has only 11 full-size aircraft carriers in service. We should be able to deploy a UK carrier battle group matched with an amphibious task group. Contrary to what some newspapers seem to think, we have not been able to launch an opposed beach landing for a very long time. However, what we should be able to do is deploy 3 Commando Brigade almost anywhere we would want to in the littoral world, given only a suitable beach—and we can do this with full and effective air cover from the carrier. Furthermore, we could do it with a limited call on US assets in theatre. In other words, we can look after ourselves, which is extremely important to the Americans. As I understand it, the only other European ally which could possibly do this is France—but I do not know to what extent.
This capability is of strategic importance to our relationship with the United States and its President. Of course we co-operate very closely in the submarine world, but that is covert; no one sees it or even detects it. Sometimes it might be desirable for a carrier amphibious group not to be detected, but at other times a show of force may be all that is necessary to avoid or deter open conflict. What on earth is the point of having a carrier battle group capability if we do not have a fully bombed-up 3 Commando Brigade and the amphibious task group to go with it?
I understand that 42 Commando Royal Marines has already been, or will be, made non-deployable as a formed unit. This generates considerable savings as there is no need to train as a formed unit to achieve the required collective performance level and other specialist training is not required—so this increases the Royal Marines’ capacity for other desirable tasks, of which there are many. The unacceptable downside is that it reduces the ability of 3 Commando Brigade to be deployed with two match-fit commandos at any time, because if the choice is only between 40 and 45, one of them might easily be recovering from a battle group level operation or deployment.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and others referred to our two landing platform docks, HMS “Albion” and HMS “Bulwark”—and the noble Lord, Lord West, gave us some detail. SDSR 15 determined that both were essential. If not, they would have been taken out of service at that point, so they must have been essential. My noble friend the Minister will tell us that no decision has been made and that everything is speculation. It seems to me that the only solution we have is to allocate some of the international aid budget—something that I would have opposed even six months ago.
Nevertheless, I have to say that I am extremely depressed about our current defence position. In my opinion we are heading towards having our posterior kicked hard at some point, and we will deserve it. Just because we are doing much more than our larger European partners—with the exception of the French—that does not mean that we are doing enough. Our Armed Forces may be engaged in numerous small but commendable military operations, but that does not equip us to deal with an existential or strategic threat. I believe that Ministers at the highest levels of government are living in a fool’s paradise so far as military capacity is concerned. As far as I am concerned, my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues are on their own and I cannot support this direction of travel.
Like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for so powerfully introducing this debate. He is a long-standing champion of the Royal Marines.
It is a very long time ago, but back in 1974 I was a naval Minister. As such, I chaired the Admiralty Board and we found ourselves in the midst of a very challenging situation because there was a defence review. In the midst of that challenge we decided to say that the one thing we wanted to concentrate on was having a Navy which met the challenges of post-imperial Britain in the kind of world in which we were living, that faced up to the nature of likely future threats and that was designed to meet them. I very quickly came to the conclusion that the Royal Marines were absolutely indispensable in that context. I have never met before or since a body of people with more esprit de corps and personal motivation. I have never met a Royal Marine who was not full of personal motivation. Whatever they did, they did with professional skill of the highest standing on the basis of the most exacting training—and always with a cheerful disposition, it seemed to me. There was a lot of humour in the Royal Marines. They liked twisting the tail of the Minister and challenging him to unarmed combat.
They operated in so many different places and always adapted very quickly. One of my proudest moments was when I was up in the Arctic Circle in Norway on an exercise. The Commandant-General of the Royal Marines, General Gourlay, who became a great personal friend, took me into the sergeants’ mess and told them that I had been working very hard to secure the future of the Royal Marines and that as a token of this he wanted to present me with a Royal Marines tie—and do I treasure that Royal Marine tie.
He was followed by Peter Whiteley, who also became a friend. He was a general of great distinction who was also a distinguished musician. I thought that was appropriate, because one of the unsung heroic stories of the Royal Marines is how they take youngsters from quite modest backgrounds in relatively deprived parts of Britain and turn them into first-class musicians. However, they are not only first-class musicians but first-class soldiers as well. They combine the two, which is something very special.
When I look at the future, I cannot conceive that it will not require flexibility, the ability to move fast, to deploy wherever it is needed and, preferably, to contain situations before they get out of control. When we have a motivated, distinguished, effective organisation such as the Royal Marines, can one think of anything more central to that kind of operation? I have an unrivalled regard for the Army and for much of what we demand of it these days. But it is a fact—I put it this way—that the Royal Marines can move, be there and be doing it while the Army, with its more cumbersome bureaucracy and considerations, is still working out exactly how it should be done.
It would be wanton irresponsibility in any way whatever to reduce the capability of the Royal Marines. On this I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Astor. The challenge is to build up the capability of the Royal Marines, not to undermine it. From that standpoint, I am glad that we are having this debate today and I hope it strengthens our Minister in what I am sure is his own personal involvement in this matter—I would be shocked if it was not. I hope that he will go away from this debate feeling that he has a strong body of support across the Floor in this House to say, “Don’t cut the Royal Marines!”.
My Lords, it gives me the greatest pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who gives so much to your Lordships’ House and always speaks so well.
It is always a pleasure for me to talk about the Royal Marines. My parent regiment is the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and after World War II we came even closer together. During that gloomy moment, when “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse” were sunk, those Royal Marines that got ashore, escaped and were saved were sent as reinforcements to my battalion, which was fighting on the Malayan Peninsula. The liaison and friendship has lasted. We swap an officer between us every year and we get on rather well
I make no bones about it: I hold the British politician responsible for allowing this continuing dismantling of the armed services, and one day I may hold them culpable. We are not prepared, we are not in the best of shape, and we have, I am sad to say, a Government who are always tinkering downwards. They talk about what will arrive, but even the keels of the ships are not down, certainly the submarines are not being made at the moment, and there is a lot more—armoured vehicles and goodness knows what.
I am worried about a reinforcing calamity. If we get medium to large casualties we will have a big problem reinforcing units. Let me give an example of what used to happen. In an hour-and-a-half in Korea, my regiment lost about 30 killed and 70 wounded. The system was geared at that time to get battle-trained reinforcements to units as quickly as possible. In 36 hours we were reinforced by six officers and 100 battle-trained men and once more we became a battalion worth watching. Today if you were to take 200, 300, 500 or 1,000 men from the Royal Marines, if they took heavy or medium casualties there would be no chance of reinforcements.
You do not build a Royal Marine or a soldier overnight, or in a week, or in a month. He is almost built at one year and might be really useful in 18 months. It is no good saying we will find some soldiers or marines to reinforce. It would be bad news if the marines had to take medium or heavy casualties.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, has already mentioned that the military relies on the Royal Marines to perform well with the Special Boat Service. The difficulty is that if you start cutting you dilute the product. The lake of selection becomes a rather muddy pond. If anything goes wrong or there is any diminution of the Royal Marines, I see great trouble in keeping up the strength of the SBS, which is a component and a large chunk of the special forces of our country. There is great danger.
I am not having a go at the Minister. The noble Earl is regarded as something rather special in your Lordships’ House. We like him and have affection for him. Perhaps I may explain it in an old soldier’s way: I would happily share a slit trench with him. He may never have been in one before and may never have had his hair parted by a bullet, but I know that he would fight like a good officer and be a marvellous companion. However, I blame his Government at the moment. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, are quite right: we have thrown British taxpayers’ money like confetti to various Governments and it is time we looked after ourselves first.
My Lords, it is wonderful for me to be the only girl so far to say something which, I hope, will make a contribution to the debate. There is another girl on the other side of the House who will be closing for the Liberal Democrats and I have no doubt that she will contribute too.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett. I have read his CV: it is quite extraordinary. He seems to have been fighting for most of his life. We are very honoured to have him here and hear what he said, and I am honoured to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. I have heard him speak many times before; he is always passionate and always moves me.
I declare my interest and the reason why I am standing. I was born and bred in Plymouth. Before I say anything else, I hope that that Doorkeeper will smile at me, because he has been moaning at me all week to make sure I stood up. Where is he? There he is. We have a Marine here with us today.
I grew up in a family that either fished or fought. Indeed, fishing and fighting were wonderful things to do. I remember my grandmother’s parlour as a very peculiar place where the curtains were always drawn. I only went in there in strange times, usually when one of her men had died. In her parlour, she only had photos of people who had died in action on the walls. If you did not die in action, my grandmother never put you in that room. Poor Uncle Ernest came back with all sorts of dreadful things having happened to him during the war, but he never got his photograph in there because he did not die in action. Those are the sort of families that grow up in Plymouth. Those are the sort of families that gave me my confidence; they taught me how to cheer when the “sea soldiers” came along and marched in and marched out, when we went to see the ships come back and see whether any of our men did not make it. Therefore, if I may, I want to speak for my town and for the people whom we lost during that time.
There are rumours that reductions in the Royal Navy’s amphibious fleet are being considered under the cross-government review of national security responsibilities, as part of the continued implementation of the 2015 strategic defence and security review. That includes the potential to downgrade the UK’s amphibious capability, with plans to decommission HMS “Albion” and HMS “Bulwark”, and possible subsequent reductions in the Royal Marines garrison in Plymouth. HMS “Albion” and HMS “Bulwark” are central to the UK’s overall amphibious capability; many of the 350 personnel assigned to each of these Devonport-based ships, and their families, live in Plymouth. Maintenance and refit programmes for these vessels also contribute significantly to the city’s economy, directly supporting high-quality jobs at Devonport dockyard and across the wider supply chain.
While I agree that there is a need to ensure that the United Kingdom has the right capabilities to deliver on the SDSR’s objectives, we should want to reiterate the serious security and economic impact of the decision to significantly downgrade our amphibious capability. We have heard that said many times this evening. To maintain UK defence forces at a sufficient level to contribute to global peace, stability and security, I believe that the ability to deploy amphibious craft for both military and humanitarian exercises is a vital factor. The loss of HMS “Bulwark” and HMS “Albion” at Devonport would put that capability at serious risk. Furthermore, Plymouth is currently home to over 700 Royal Marines; speculation over reduction in their numbers at their base location would be felt acutely in the city—the city that bore me.
I urge the Minister to encourage his colleagues in No. 10 to tread carefully as we sail away from the European Union to fresh waters. I am vice-president of the Girl Guides. We are always committing our girls to be prepared. Tonight, I seriously urge that motto on our Government.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for securing this timely debate on this critical Question. I declare my honorary captaincy in the Royal Naval Reserve and my membership of the Chief of the Defence Staff’s strategic advisory panel, though I speak as an individual this evening. I also declare a long-standing respect and affection for the Royal Marines since accompanying them to the Norwegian Arctic in January 1978 as a young journalist on the Times to report on their annual reinforcement exercise to protect NATO’s northern flank during the Cold War. A man learns something about himself if he spends a night in a snow hole up a mountain somewhere north of Narvik that is full of Royal Marines. I shall not elaborate.
“strategic effect comes from capabilities that are truly employable and really matter”.
It is my contention that our country’s amphibious capability, to which the Royal Marines and the sustenance of HMS “Bulwark” and HMS “Albion” are crucial, passes the Petraeus test. Given our deep maritime past, many of us in the UK think amphibiously quite naturally, but in continuing to do so and reacting to the scattering of newspaper reports about the possible decommissioning of “Bulwark” and “Albion” and cuts to the Royal Marines, I do not think we are succumbing to an emotional spasm or nostalgia or an impulse for our country to retain what Stryker McGuire, Newsweek’s man in London for many years, used to call our appetite for being “a pocket superpower”, by which he meant possessing a wide spectrum of top-of-the-range military capabilities in too small quantities.
In terms of the Petraeus test, what does our current amphibious strength bring us and our allies in a perilous and, some would say, darkening world? Greater authorities than I will ever be have already outlined how they see this. I agree with every word they said. Above all, it gives us an ability to react rapidly, flexibly and with agility in a crisis, and a high degree of what a naval friend of mine calls “poise”—the capacity to maintain a position either on the flank of a crisis for deterrence purposes or to apply close-in coercive power in critical places if deterrence fails.
The quality of amphibiosity that the Royal Navy and Royal Marines currently provide is potentially a great disrupter of an adversary’s calculations because it offers the kind of intense hard power that no alternative does, however ingenious—if “Albion” and “Bulwark” go—the alternative of placing marines and helicopters on an adapted Royal Fleet Auxiliary or on carriers way out might be. This UK capacity is highly valued, as many noble Lords have said already, by our allies in the United States and Europe. Indeed, it is the best of its kind among the European powers. To shed it would be noticed and treated as a talisman of decline, a shrivelling of nerve and a shrinking of aspiration—a self-inflicted loss of highly skilled people and specialist equipment that almost certainly could not be made good if the international climate worsened.
I have concentrated on the hard power aspects of amphibiosity, but as we all know and appreciate, and as other noble Lords have highlighted, capacity for humanitarian rescue and protection is needed by a country that not just thinks globally, but has its people living and working in myriad locations in a world 90% of whose population live within a few hundred miles’ reach of the sea. So-called littoral power is a perpetual factor in any serious security calculation.
Possible cuts in Royal Marines manpower reflect the still-wider danger lurking within those early drafts of the 13th defence review since the Second World War, which the Cabinet Office is co-ordinating as we debate this week, with a view to completing I think early in the new year. For example, is it the right moment to cut a corps that provides, as other noble Lords have emphasised, more than 40% of the country’s Special Forces? This is another possibility that our allies are contemplating with real anxiety.
I accept that the country’s economic outlook is far from buoyant and spattered with anxiety-inducing uncertainty, but through all of it we must remain a hard-nosed, hard-power people whose calculations are grounded in the world as it is rather than the world as we might wish it to be. With all its sapping, Brexit-related preoccupations I profoundly hope the Government will not deprive us of our very special bespoke amphibious capability, almost in a fit of absence of mind, despite all the talk about being a more globally minded country post Brexit. If they do, this will be the decision above all others for which the 2017-18 defence review will be remembered. One day, I fear, it will be deeply, deeply regretted.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. It is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and so many others who have served. I am president of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations and so want to focus on the Royal Marines Reserve.
Members of the RMR complete the commando course, earn the green beret and serve on front-line amphibious operations worldwide alongside their regular counterparts. They embody all the qualities the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, spoke of and provide an essential link to our civilian population. The RMR is a compact organisation, recruiting from four main unit locations in Bristol, London, Merseyside and Scotland, each of which has four or five detachments around the country designed to give them a good geographic coverage. The RMR punched above its weight in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of the new millennium, when integration into the Regular Forces at the junior level was seamless and the professionalism and ability of the reserves was clearly recognised. As an example of this, in 2008 RMR Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher received the George Cross for his actions while deployed with 40 Commando in Afghanistan.
The RMR currently has men deployed on global counterterrorism and counterpiracy, maritime security operations and defence engagement. I understand that the RMR is on course to achieving its target manning level for 2020—the Minister might care to indicate the figures. There are, however, a number of issues affecting it and an important one is the slow responsiveness of the contracted service medical process. Candidates are frequently initially identified as potentially medically unfit and by the time they are reviewed and found to be fit, recruit training has started and the next chance to join is 12 months later. This is a recurring problem across the reserves and I urge my noble friend to address it.
The RMR routinely contributes to 3 Commando Brigade, the Lead Commando Group, 1 Assault Group RM and elsewhere; for example, through ship force protection teams. It provides an important contribution to British defence from a small establishment and at a small cost. It is a real blow that all overseas training in the current year has now been cancelled to help make the savings required, with likely effects on recruiting and retention. I am concerned that, perhaps because of its small size, the RMR’s contribution needs to be better recognised.
My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken this evening I thank my noble friend Lord Burnett for securing this incredibly important debate. Unlike other noble Lords who have spoken, I will also apologise to him for passing a note from the Whips saying, “Time’s up”. If my noble friend had sat on the Back Benches and hidden away, he might have avoided the Whips’ note. I have never been asked to be a Whip and I believe that is because my party has understood that my timekeeping is always a bit off, so I was a little embarrassed to be the person passing the note. I also note that the Whips have come in force to make sure that I do not do more than my five minutes.
The Royal Marine Commando mindset is: be the first to understand, the first to adapt and respond and the first to overcome. These are all incredibly important, but the Royal Marines can do those things only if there are Royal Marines in sufficient numbers. It is absolutely clear that across your Lordships’ House and in the other place there is considerable concern about the rumours of further cuts to the Royal Marines. Back in April, the First Sea Lord suggested that the Royal Marines had decided to restructure to better balance skills across the force. Can the Minister tell us whether the Royal Marines indeed decided to restructure, or were they forced to restructure because of financial matters? Are the Royal Marines being adequately resourced? Does the MoD view the Royal Marines as the jewel in the crown of our Armed Forces?
Many Members have mentioned extreme weather training and going to the high north. I had the opportunity to go to northern Norway in February to visit the Royal Marines doing their training. It was illuminating to discover just how important the Royal Marines’ training is, not just for our forces but to our Norwegian and American allies. The idea that training is being reduced is a considerable worry. If we are not able to provide the training that we have been doing, what are the Royal Marines going to provide instead? It is particularly concerning to hear that the Royal Marines Reserve is no longer going to be allowed to go overseas to train. Can the Minister tell us precisely what the Government are expecting to do with the Royal Marines? Can he reassure us that there will not be cuts either to numbers or to the training, which is so important? The Arctic, jungle and desert training are all vital. We have troops who are second to none but every cut weakens our reputation.
As so many Members have said, this is a time of considerable threats. If we take away the training in northern Norway, what message does that send to our NATO allies and to Russia? Presumably not the message Her Majesty’s Government intend to send. The security threats that we face in 2017 are not reducing; if anything, they are getting greater. Leaving the European Union will not reduce any threats. If anything, the need to co-operate with our NATO allies will make it even more important that we work closely together. Our second-to-none Royal Marines should be a fundamental part of that.
On almost everything, these Benches can agree with the mood of the Chamber. But there is one area where it is important to suggest that the Liberal Democrats cannot quite agree with every view. We are committed to defence and we would like to hear that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to defence expenditure, but we are also committed to international development. Development and defence go together, as we saw recently in the way that we reacted to the hurricanes. Does the Minister agree, and will he reassure the House that aid and defence will go together and that there will be no cuts to the Royal Marines?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for introducing the debate. The essential question seems to be: what is the future of the Royal Marines? I believe that with this Government the future is very uncertain—and the reason is the 2015 SDSR.
Defence is in a mess. The gap between the SDSR promise and the money required seems to be, by consensus, some £2 billion per annum. Hence the Royal Marines are under threat, together with HMS “Albion” and HMS “Bulwark”. Labour believes that our amphibious capability is hugely important to the UK’s humanitarian work around the world, as demonstrated recently in Operation Ruman. Cutting this would signal that we are stepping back from our global responsibilities.
The effect of the 2015 SDSR is already showing in the morale of the Royal Marines. I quote from the UK Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey 2017, which states:
“In 2017 the Royal Marines have seen large decreases in morale and satisfaction with Service life in general … The proportion of Royal Marine Officers who rate Service morale as high has decreased 20 percentage points from 2016 to 41%. The proportion of Royal Marine Other Ranks who rate Service morale as high decreased 13 percentage points from 2016 to 16% … Self morale and Unit morale have also fallen for this Service compared to last year. Around a third (32%) of Royal Marine Other Ranks rate self morale as low (up from 24%) and almost half (47%) rate Unit morale as low (up from 32%) … Royal Marine Other Ranks have decreased satisfaction with many aspects of work compared to 2016 whilst other Services remain unchanged”.
“Satisfaction with my job in general” has fallen seven percentage points. “Sense of achievement” has fallen by five percentage points. “Challenge in my job” has fallen by three percentage points, while “the amount and variety of work” has fallen by five percentage points. What is the cause of this collapse in the morale of our elite force? It is not about their immediate superiors. The same review showed three-quarters of all personnel saying that their immediate superiors supported them in their job. More than two-thirds said that their immediate superiors set a positive example. Most organisations would give their right arm for results like that.
So perhaps it is the cuts in training or in overseas deployment that we see in press reports. Can the Minister assure the House that the level of training of the Royal Marines is sufficient to achieve the standards we expect of this elite force? Have there been cuts in equipment? Rumours about “Albion” and “Bulwark” must leave uncertainty the minds of Royal Marines. Is uncertainty the essence of this collapse in morale? Defence is in a mess. When are this Government going to sort it out?
Finally, I have no doubt that, in his response, the Minister will want to refer to the Strategic Defence and Security Review implementation. Last week he said that this was a cross-government review and that Ministers expected to consider its outcome towards the end of the year. I remind the Minister that the end of this year is less than five weeks away. I hope that he will achieve his aspiration. When will we in this House see the review and hear of the cuts to our Armed Forces that we all so fear?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, on securing this debate on a subject that I know is of great importance to him. I pay tribute to him for his staunch support for the Armed Forces, including in his role as president of the Tavistock branch of the Royal Marines Association. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this extremely important subject.
It is widely recognised that the Royal Marines have a proud and rich history. They were formed in the reign of King Charles II on
I would like to pay tribute to the contribution that the Royal Marines have made to the defence of this country and, indeed, to the defence of others. Today, the Royal Marines are the United Kingdom’s commando force and the Royal Navy’s amphibious troops. An elite force held at very high readiness, they are trained for worldwide rapid response and to be able to deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security challenges, operating in often dangerous and extremely difficult circumstances.
The main deployable force is 3 Commando Brigade, with a Lead Commando Group held at high readiness to deploy globally in support of the UK’s national interests. I say to my noble friend Lord Attlee that 42 Commando has transformed into a dedicated maritime operations commando unit, to work alongside our sailors in a variety of roles, deployed on naval warships and on auxiliary shipping overseas in highly specialised boarding and counterpiracy teams.
Looking back through 2017, the Royal Marines’ activity has been significant, having deployed to over 30 countries around the world. The tempo was particularly high recently, as has been mentioned, when the lead commando group was deployed at very short notice on Operation Ruman to provide essential and very swift disaster relief in the Caribbean. As a measure of their quality and as the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, emphasised, approximately 17% of Marines have degrees and 40% are educationally qualified to be officers. Royal Marine units in the United Kingdom were also activated for tasking on Operation Temperer, in response to the failed bombing on the London underground. In addition, Royal Marines have contributed to the EU’s naval operation to disrupt the business model of human smugglers and traffickers in the Mediterranean, where many thousands of migrants have been rescued. That illustrates the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd: the Royal Marines are very versatile.
Looking to the future, over the next two years we will see women joining the Royal Marines in the ground close combat role. This is an exciting opportunity and the naval service is already managing expressions of interest from young women who are keen to rise to the challenge.
Being a Royal Marine is about maintaining the standards of the most feared and most respected fighting force in the world. One of the key requirements that is drilled into recruits during the gruelling commando course which all potential Marines must pass is self-reliance in any environment, whether in the middle of the desert or the heart of a tropical jungle. The Marines’ ability to deploy at short notice by air, sea or land means that they comprise a vital component in the Armed Forces’ rapid reaction force, including Special Forces. They deploy around the world in support of UK operations ranging across international engagement, maritime security and warfighting.
Global reach and flexibility are the inherent characteristics of a full spectrum Royal Navy, able to protect the nation’s vital interests and support the Government’s priorities of security, influence and prosperity. In an unstable and uncertain world, there remains a premium on versatility and agile crisis response, which maritime manoeuvres and assured access uniquely provide. Capital ships with a combination of aviation facilities, command and control and surface offload capabilities, along with an embarked Royal Marines commando force, represent a vital component of the nation’s power projection capabilities, which will be enhanced by carrier strike. Furthermore, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will be utilised by all three services of the UK Armed Forces. The strategic defence and security review of 2015 made provision to augment the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and maximise their ability to support expeditionary strike operations. I agree with my noble friend Lord Astor, who said that the ability to act across that spectrum preserves political choice.
Having made that point, perhaps I might address a couple of issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. She asked about the Royal Marine rebalancing. The changes planned to the size and structure of the Royal Marines, which we have already announced, will allow approximately 200 positions to be reallocated within the naval service. These changes are expected to be broadly cost-neutral within the overall headcount of the naval services. She and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, also asked about cold-weather training. I can confirm 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.
However, I endorse the point made by the noble Baroness about the international aid budget. The UK plays a vital role in helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable through our aid budget. That is not only our moral duty but in our enlightened self-interest: our humanitarian efforts pay a security dividend and, as we have heard, the Royal Marines can play a part in that.
In recent weeks there has been significant media speculation on possible cuts to our amphibious capabilities and to Her Majesty’s ships “Albion” and “Bulwark” and of a manpower reduction of 1,000 Royal Marines. I have to repeat to the House that these reports are pure and simple speculation and, as I said last week, extremely unhelpful at a time when the Ministry of Defence is contributing to a cross-government review of national security capabilities. This review is being conducted to ensure that the United Kingdom’s investment in capabilities is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible. Defence aims to use the national security capability review to understand how to spend our growing budget in a more intelligent way, further modernising our Armed Forces against the harder threats across the spectrum of potential conflicts now and into the future. Absolutely no decisions have been taken, and therefore any discussion of specific platforms or capabilities is pure speculation. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, Ministers will consider the conclusions of the national security capability review in due course. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is taking the opportunity to look at all the work that has been done, study the evidence and reach conclusions in a considered way.
What I can say now—I address this particularly to my noble friend Lord Robathan—is that we have every intention as a country of remaining a leading global power in matters of defence and security, as long we have been. The ability of defence to move troops from ship to shore is an important capability that is expected to endure into the future, the nature and continued delivery of which must be developed in line with current and predicted threats. Similarly, the requirement for defence to possess the ability to operate in the high north remains an important skillset. The Royal Marines are the UK’s specialist Arctic warfare force, as was identified in SDSR 15, and are rightly recognised among our close allies, as noble Lords have mentioned.
I end by reassuring my noble friend Lady Wilcox that the south-west, Plymouth and Devonport in particular, is set to remain as the centre of the Royal Marines. The Royal Marines are an integral part of the Royal Navy and of the United Kingdom’s defence. Their distinction combines excellence, versatility and unique amphibious skills. They have provided 353 years’ unbroken service, protecting the nation’s security with timeless distinction. Through dedication, impressive training and incredible resilience, they have played a crucial role in keeping our country safe, and they will continue to do so.
House adjourned at 7.22 pm.