1 - Introduction and Air Manoeuver
2 - Amphibious Force and the Royal Marines cut
This second chapter of the "building on strengths" series has been urged on and changed in shape by the emergence on national news of a problem that has been brewing in the background for a while. Amid enduring tightness of budgets, the Navy Command is very seriously considering cutting back on the Royal Marines in the desperate attempt of saving money.
The idea of permanently removing 42 Commando from frontline work has been lurking in the background for months. The fact that it has now appeared on the press means that it is very close to turning to reality. This leak to The Times might well be the last ditch effort to prevent it from going ahead, but it could very well not suffice.
Delegation of budget responsibilities to the frontline Commands is generally a very good thing, but when it comes to funding crises of this kind, it can turn into a monstrosity. Fallon has already clearly shrugged off the blame and appointed it like a medal on the chest of the 1st Sea Lord, and this might serve to make the cut all but unavoidable, simply because, from a Royal Navy-only point of view, the alternatives are probably even worse as they probably involve the loss of ships.
It is a fact, however, that removing 42 Commando from frontline duty will dramatically weaken the amphibious force, even in its routine battlegroup strength. The three Commandos alternate yearly into high readiness to serve as the core of the up to 1800-strong amphibious battlegroup, which includes an engineer squadron from 24 Regiment, an artillery battery from 29 Royal Artillery, logistic group from the Commando Logistic Regiment and reconnaissance, command support, police and air defence from 30 Commando IX.
It is a fact that 16 Air Assault brigade delivers the Air Assault battlegroup at readiness mostly from just 2 units (2 and 3 PARA). But it is equally a fact that they have been reinforced with the Royal Gurkha Rifles when it became clear that two battalions on their own struggled. It is also a fact that the Royal Marines have an additional task to take care of, which is provision of “Green” boarding teams to the fleet, for the more dangerous operations. This task used to be the remit of a squadron within 43 Commando, but that squadron was disbanded and the responsibility given to the Commando group in its “Other Tasks” year.
The idea for 42 Commando, I guess, might be to turn it into the permanent provider of Green teams and other supporting capabilities at lower-than-full-Commando scale. Recently, 3 Commando Brigade developed a Personnel Recovery capability for saving downed pilots in enemy territory and negate sensitive material to the enemy. A C-SAR capability that has long been needed and that the return of Carrier Strike, as well as the sensitive nature of F-35 technology and the value of its pilots, have made more urgent than ever.
The Royal Marines are also following the USMC lead on Special Purpose Task Groups, smaller forces (roughly company-group sized, in what has been seen so far on Mounts Bay in her solo deployment in the Mediterranean) adequate for raids, quasi-SF operations and rapid reaction. It might be that 42 Commando would be permanently tasked with delivery of a number of these groups.
At a minimum, a SPTG with 4 Merlin HC4 is expected to always feature on board of the active aircraft carrier in the future, as well.
At a minimum, a SPTG with 4 Merlin HC4 is expected to always feature on board of the active aircraft carrier in the future, as well.
However, even this "soft cut" would still deprive 3 Commando Brigade of mass, something it cannot afford to lose. In his end of year letter to the Royal Marines association, Major General Rob Magowan, commander general Royal Marines, wrote that the Corps was not in the condition of losing mass. At the time, the rumors about the push towards cuts to the RM were already alive and had already reached my ears and, no doubt, those of many others. The letter does not mention it directly, but the hints are clear: the fight was already on.
Unfortunately, the Royal Marines appear to be losing it, and going public now is probably the last bullet left to fire. If it misses, it is probably over. 3 Commando Brigade has been under constant assault since 2010: the Army, faced with its own great share of cuts, wanted to take manpower and pieces out of green Commando units. Initially, it looked like 24 Commando Engineer regiment would vanish, as well as 148 Battery Meiktila. In the end, both those cuts were successfully fought back and cancelled. 24 Commando Engineer has since had some actual success, growing 54 Squadron into a deployable engineer unit supporting the historic 59 Sqn. 131 (Reserve) Squadron has also been formally absorbed, with the regiment effectively mirroring the efforts and general organization of 23 Parachute Engineer regiment, with two deployable squadrons alternating into readiness.
7 Battery, 29 Commando Royal Artillery has had more of a struggle, between starts and stops: move south from Arbroath; stay in Arbroath; lose the guns and become Tac Gp only; keep the guns; wait for more announcements; repeat. Since 2010, the Arbroath-based battery, in theory support for 45 Commando in RM Condor, has faced a very uncertain future made of orders and counter-orders.
Tthe last info I had suggested that its future was more than ever hanging by a thread as the loss of the Citadel and the need to relocate most of the brigade’s units as part of the “Better Defence Estate” project added to the shortage of guns, tight manpower margins and insufficient REME support. "Wait for further communications" seemed to be the thing. The artillery regiment is down to 12 guns in 3 tiny fires batteries, and could well end up having only two batteries, like 7 Royal Horse Artillery in the Air Assault role. In other words: the bare minimum needed to support a single battlegroup at readiness. The loss of 42 Commando as frontline unit is pretty much assured to come together with the loss of 7 Bty as well: no Commando to support, no artillery battery required.
3 Commando brigade is one of just 6 brigades in the whole of the British Forces which will have any Combat Support and Combat Service Support units. In simpler terms, it is one of only 6 brigades that are actually deployable (in full or in part), in connection with the effects of Army 2020 Refine. To further damage this already pitifully small force is a crime, and is not a decision that should fall on the shoulders of the 1st Sea Lord alone. The whole british armed forces would come out weaker from the ordeal, even before considering the precious specialized nature of Marines units (from amphibiosity to Cold Weather and Mountain specialization) and the fact that they traditionally are a privileged recruiting ground for the Special Forces.
|42 Commando is in line for the shrinking and change of role|
Dismantling this area of excellence makes zero sense when observed from a whole force point of view. The Navy budget might well be the one in most immediate trouble, but this “fix” is worse than the illness. There are other areas that could be hit with cuts without the damage being anywhere near as serious, and the primary one is the “Adaptable Force” of six “infantry brigades” in Army 2020 Refine. This container of Light Role infantry battalions will have zero CS and CSS elements at its disposal as the few it had as part of Army 2020 get either dismantled or moved to 3rd Division as part of Refine, meaning that its brigades are not deployable at all. The government needs to drop its absurd and horrendously damaging diktat that “no more than 5 infantry battalions should be lost, in order to preserve all capbadges”. This requirement, dropped on the Army’s top brass in 2010, has warped the army out of shape in an horrendous way, and now will be partially responsible of the cuts to 3 Commando Brigade as well.
The Royal Marines capability needs to be nurtured, not dismantled. They deliver unique capabilities within defence and, together with Royal Navy amphibious shipping and RFA strategic sealift (themselves already very unwisely run down dramatically beginning in 2010), they represent a huge share of the amphibious capability within NATO. The UK does itself no favor at all by depriving itself of this capability, and NATO as a whole. It is not the right way to approach Brexit negotiations either: threatening to retreat from Europe’s defence is not a very serious proposition if the forces get dismantled either way, and one of the unique or semi-unique contributions get lost before the debate even starts.
Army and Royal Marines must be looked at from the same table. 3 Commando Brigade is both a precious deployable brigade (one of far too few) and the custodian of the ability to maneuver on the sea flank and in the littoral. I cannot emphasize enough how urgent it is to fix the ridiculous imbalance of “Light Role infantry” to “everything else”. The manpower and money that go into those six undeployable, unfinished, paper-tiger infantry brigades is a treasure that the Forces cannot possibly do without in this climate. Manpower and money that should go into rebuilding lost supports, and with them lost deployable brigades. Some capbadges will be lost, but this is far, far better than the current path of self-destruction that is dismantling CS, CSS and now even the amphibious force in order to preserve more infantry regiments than the army can possibly support. That Army 2020 Refine dismantles yet another set of brigade-level supports (artillery, engineer, logistic, medical) is a act of self-harm absolutely unjustifiable, and this Royal Marines cut will add to that disaster.
Going back to my original plan for a moment, I intended to write that the UK should invest on its amphibious force. The news of the incoming cut only add urgency to the statement. The UK possesses a very large share of all of Europe’s amphibious shipping, as well as a very capable permanent strategic sealift component (the Point class RoRo vessels). It has a capable, proven, respected amphibious brigade that only needs a small investment in supports to rebuild muscle.
Moreover, the UK will have a capable carrier strike force to support and protect amphibious maneuver with. To sacrifice one to fund the other is an act of strategic blindness hard to even describe with words. The two things go hand in hand, and the 1st Sea Lord repeatedly tried to make the point clear and understood; in several speeches he explained that the Royal Navy must be defined by three macro areas being: Nuclear Deterrent (and we should also add, the all-important SSNs), Carrier Air (not strike. Air, in general, because a key contribution of the air wing is protection of the task force in a heavily contested environment) and Amphibious capability.
The big pieces are in place, and the United Kingdom, in a rare moment of sanity and awareness of its potentiality, had actually taken leadership of a NATO “Smart Defence” initiative to develop a strategic Port Opening capability to enable theatre entry. Unfortunately, nothing has been heard since, even though this is a capability that would be simply invaluable both in war (Think Defence wrote an excellent report about the efforts, back in 2003, to reopen the port of Umm Qasr in Iraq) and peace (think about disaster relief, such as after the Haiti earthquake, when establishing a point of easy access from the sea is vital).
One bit of good news…
… related to the previous chapter of this series.
Interestingly, images coming in from Joint Warrior 17_1 suggest that someone in the army either reads me (just kidding) or has ideas similar to mine for investment on Air Assault and Air Manoeuver. The 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles seems to be playing with Foxhounds air-landed at Keevil with C-17.
Other deliveries have included artillery and Pinzgauers towing the guns and even Apache, with rotors folded and all bits in place for rapid entry into action.
The brigadier commanding 16 Air Assault brigade has added a photo in tweet, showing a Tactical HQ element mounted in Foxhounds for mobility, part of an “airmobile armour” experiment.
I was not aware of it coming when I wrote my recent article, I can assure you all of it. But obviously it is pretty pleasing to see some positive development, and one that goes in the very same direction I argued for.
|The Tac HQ in the Airmobile Armour experiment|
Elements of Joint Helicopter Command deployed on Salisbury Plain with Joint Helicopter Force - 1 (HQ element coming from the Attack Helicopter Force. JHF-2 is amphibious-focused and comes from the Commando Helicopter Force) along with 4 Chinook, 3 Puma and 5 Apache from 664 Sqn in its new permanent attachment to the Air Assault task force. The exercise has included refuelings from fuel bladders carried inside Chinooks adding as relocatable Forward Refueling Points.
Meanwhile, in Exercise Una Triangle, the RAF A4 force and Royal Engineer's 529 Specialist Team RE (STRE) from Wittering deployed to Cottersmore to turn the ex-airfied (now the Army's Kendrew Barracks) back into an active air hub. Tents, catering, logistics, bulk fuel installation were all exercised to create a small deployed air base. Hopefully this will be further exercised and developed in the future, to include austere basing for the F-35B in good time. According to Scott Williams, RAF pilot within the F-35 programme, Royal Engineers will renew their stock of matting panels for runway repair and construction in order to support F-35 austere operations.
Coming to a future Joint Warrior in a non too distant future, hopefully.
Meanwhile, you can see photos and video reports from Una Triangle on RAF Wittering's facebook page. It is nice to see that some things are still moving.