What’s the point of marines?
For around a year, the Royal Navy has been drip-feeding news about the reorganisation of the Royal Marine Corp into what it calls a ‘Future Commando Force’. The programme has been widely reported in the national papers as the creation of a ‘lethal new unit’. At the end of June, the navy announced that the marines were getting new uniforms, which the Times described as ‘hi-tech’ because the material includes a small amount of spandex. In one promotional video a marine walks through smoke wearing night vision goggles and looking like one of the sand people from Star Wars.
In Britain, the term ‘commando’ has become functionally synonymous with the amphibious light infantry of the marines (in America and Germany it applies to special forces). Like too many military units, the marines are often referred to as ‘elite’. But many of the famed episodes in marine history are spectacular failures: the Dieppe Raid, St Nazaire, Suez. The marines’ insignia refers to the 1704 capture of Gibraltar, another botched operation in which most of the landing party was blown up before meeting any Spanish forces. The marines sent to Paktia province in 2002 to hunt down al-Qaida were supposed to demonstrate the ability of British forces; they never found any of bin Laden’s men and the operation degenerated into an expensive mountain hike.
The current overhaul has two points of consequence. The first is that it represents an attempt to transform the Royal Marines from an obsolete auxiliary infantry into a kind of special forces-lite. This is exemplified in the decision to abandon the standard issue SA80 for the C8 carbine used by the SAS, SBS and 1 PARA. The second is the declared intention of the navy to have the new commandos forward-deployed in two ‘littoral response groups’, probably in Scandinavia and Bahrain. The question of whether or not to station quasi-special forces across the world is a strategic decision of some importance: accordingly it has been barely discussed.
Whatever aim is imagined for these expeditionary commandos, it is clear that it is not defensive. The descriptions of the Future Commando Force stress global ambitions at odds with British foreign policy, and reality. The UK is currently a second-tier economic power in the class of Japan and India, but that is vestigial. In the long-term the UK will slip into the third global tier alongside Australia and Indonesia, and will have to give up pretensions to global influence.
Why then maintain 6500 marines (in addition to around 2000 paratroopers)? In practice an expeditionary commando force would end up serving as auxiliaries for the only global military power, the United States. That is a matter of choice, implying an intention to go looking for wars thousands of miles away. In most conceivable scenarios this would be unwise. But imperial nostalgia is undimmed, evident in the explicit references to the Second World War in Royal Marines propaganda.
Though they complain of troop cuts, the British armed forces are in fact comically oversized. A small Atlantic principality without any credible adversaries, Britain is in the fortunate position of not needing a large army to defend itself. The main problem is the still inflated infantry. There is no reason for Britain to maintain a far larger army than Canada, as it currently does. A better example would be Norway, which shares a land border with Russia – a supposed threat – and yet makes do with an army one-third of the size of Britain’s.
As an island, Britain could even follow the example of Iceland (another member of Nato), which has a martial coast guard in place of a professional army. Taiwan, under constant threat of a Chinese invasion, has no standing infantry. In the event of an attack it will rely on defensive missiles and well-trained reserves. In the very unlikely event that Britain were ever invaded, the primary defences would be anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. If the marines must be retained for emotional reasons they could be reimagined as a defensive force and the main infantry stood down.
It is often instructive to look at the ratio between a nation’s military spending and its spending on foreign affairs. At present the Ministry of Defence budget is twenty times the size of that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, an even greater disparity than between their US equivalents. The MoD has money to spend on flashy toys and duplicate sets of soldiers while the Foreign Office has to make do with a minuscule research and planning staff. It would be better to use some of those funds to hire professional analysts who could explain to the ruling class the reality of Britain’s place in the world.