Gary Streeter: Any cuts to our Royal Marines will be fiercely resisted
The loss of the UK’s amphibious fleet would strip the Royal Navy of crucial capabilities – and jeopardise the future of the Royal Marines, warns South West Devon MP Gary Streeter
First the good news. In my time at Westminster this is one of the first defence reviews taking place in the context of an increasing defence budget. The commitment by the Conservative government to increase defence spending by at least £1bn per annum is very welcome. I cannot remember the world ever being more dangerous in my lifetime. I would like us to exceed 2% of GDP as we tool up for increasingly challenging threats.
I accept that the concept of warfare is changing, with drones, cyber-warfare and other prospects once confined to sci-fi meaning that almost constant review is necessary to make sure we are not fighting the last war.
However, the possible threat to the amphibious fleet fills me with alarm. One of our most successful and trusted combat units in recent years has been our world-class Royal Marines. Any attempt to downgrade their significance or rapid deployment ability seems to me to be short-sighted and potentially dangerous.
I recognise we have to fully crew the two aircraft carriers around which our military muscle will now revolve. The first sea lord has a tough task to do this without grabbing resources from elsewhere in his budget. I imagine that the permanently at-sea deterrent offers little scope for savings, and so he will inevitably look at other naval sections, including the amphibious fleet, to help solve his problem. No doubt the new carriers can transport marines to within striking distance of most likely theatres of war, but they cannot unleash landing craft and that seems a significant failing.
It is a quirk of history that the marines should find themselves as part of the navy rather than other branches of our armed forces. Perhaps it is time for our famous Green Berets to be redefined as a strategic defence asset rather than being part of the oldest service. After all, the majority of recruits for the SAS and SBS (Special Boat Service) come from the marines. Whatever else happens to the shape of future warfare, elite special forces are likely to be at the core.
For us in Plymouth this potential cutback is a big deal. I know we are only talking about three ships: HMS Ocean, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion. HMS Ocean is being decommissioned next year anyway and Bulwark is currently tied up alongside, inactive. HMS Albion, though, is just coming out of refit and expected back in harness shortly.
Although Portsmouth, with its deeper docks, is to be the base port of the two new aircraft carriers, Plymouth is the home of the amphibious fleet. We wear this badge with pride. It also has strategic significance because it follows that many commando units will be based in the West Country, close to their embarkation point, a vital part of our proud traditions and economy. If the amphibious fleet disappears, the centre of gravity for our much-loved marines could gradually wither on the vine.
That is why there has been a fierce campaign from Plymouth MPs since the leaked news that this was being considered by the first sea lord percolated through a few weeks back.
For us, this is a massive political issue. We know that ministers have not yet been briefed or consulted, but we have to make it clear that the axing of the amphibious fleet and downsizing of our marines will be fiercely resisted.
Hopefully when final decisions are made just before Christmas, we can all retreat to safer ground. Until then, the battle will rage.
Gary Streeter is Conservative MP for South West Devon