12 April 2017
‘I never knew an appeal made to them for honour, courage or loyalty that they did not more than realise… If ever the hour of real danger should come to England, they will be found the country’s sheet anchor.” So said Admiral Lord Vincent, a contemporary of Nelson’s, speaking more than 200 years ago about the Royal Marines.
It was the Royal Marines who captured Gibraltar in 1704, almost a hundred year before Lord St Vincent spoke those words. And since then, for three long, dangerous centuries, they have carried more of the burdens of battle in our nations defence, fought in more conflicts and played a part in more victories than any other British regiment, from Gibraltar, to the Falklands, right through to Afghanistan.
In this most uncertain and unpredictable age, what we need are forces that are fast, flexible, mobile and able to fight in any environment. This is what the Royal Marines do – and they do it better than any other force on earth.
So why on earth are we cutting the Royal Marines?
The answer is as simple as it is depressing.
Because the Navy has not got enough sailors to man the ships it has, let alone the two huge aircraft carriers shortly to enter naval service (five years after the initial target date). Many defence experts fear these are future floating white elephants which are soaking up the money to pay for the defences we need now to keep the country safe.
How did this happen?
It is precisely the outcome many predicted during the disastrous 2010 Government Defence Review. Liam Fox, then Defence Minster, was repeatedly warned that without leadership and strategic direction, that Review would descend into an undignified squabble between the Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to hang onto their most prestigious projects, irrespective of whether they met the nation’s needs or not. And that’s exactly what happened. The RAF hung onto fighters that couldn’t fly off aircraft carriers. And the Navy went ahead with two huge £6.2 billion carriers, even though they had no fighters to put on them.
And so we must now cut to pay for these.
When Defence Secretaries had to cut in the past, they always began with the MoD’s back-room “tail” of administrators. Our present one, Sir Michael Fallon, is different. He starts with the élite and those on front line.
The price we have to pay for this folly does not end with the Royal Marines.
Finding the sailors to man those carriers has meant that other navy warships have been left idle at quaysides, or prematurely shunted off to the Reserve Fleet.
The Army is feeling it too. Their combat training has been slashed by a billion over the next decade. The first casualty in this cut back will be the tank training in Canada – just at the moment when that training becomes more vital as we deploy British armoured units to Europe’s eastern border to face the new threat from Russia. One MoD source said “the only way (we) can (make these cuts) is to stop training” altogether. This is playing fast and loose, not just with the nations defence, but with soldiers lives as well. Anyone who has seen action knows that less training, means more dead soldiers on the battlefield.
It’s not that there is no “tail” to cut. We all love to be thrilled at our summer fetes by RAF display teams like the Red Arrows. But if front line troops are being slashed, do we really need to be funding six of these teams? Is it really sensible to spend money for our defence, on heritage aircraft for museums? If we cannot find the cash for fighter jets, should we really be spending it on air cadet gliders scattered on disused airports up and down the country?
It seems to me someone somewhere has their priorities wrong.
This is not a time to be cutting those upon whom we depend for our defence now, like the Royal Marines, for projects of doubtful purpose in the future and schemes which, however nice, are not part of our ability to protect ourselves in an increasingly hostile and unpredictable world.