What’s the point of marines?

Tom Stevenson

For around a year, the Royal Navy has been drip-feeding news about the reorganisation of the Royal Marine Corps 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.


  • 13 August 2020 at 9:21pm
    Doug M says:
    An interesting read, however somewhat mired in what comes across as left wing, defeatism. The purpose of a credible, independent military force is to delay the use of more drastic options. The marines have served in many conflicts successfully and in my opinion are core to the idea of a credible military force. The idea that we should scrap them because mistakes happen is ridiculous. However it does fit in very well with the defeatist attitude I mentioned at the start of this comment.

    • 14 August 2020 at 4:28pm
      Reader says: @ Doug M
      The word 'defeatism' is interesting here. It implies that we are fighting somebody, and that Tom Stevenson, the author of this piece, thinks we are going to be defeated. I don't say you are wrong, Doug M, but I do have a question: who exactly is the enemy that you have in mind?

    • 17 August 2020 at 11:11am
      Rodney says: @ Doug M
      Mr Stevenson discusses how the UK could be defended in an attack, and looks at the ways that Iceland, Taiwan and Norway plan their national defence. I'd say that's the opposite of defeatism, and not left-wing at all.

  • 14 August 2020 at 9:20am
    Joseph Biesterfield says:
    Mr Stevenson displays what is, essentially, a 1990s/early 2000s mental world: the idea that Britain needs no armed forces (or just a border protection force) due to US hegemony and ‘having no threats’ is an intellectual relic of the era of ‘End of History’ and an assumption that geo-strategic competition ended forever with US hegemony post Cold War. It didn’t.

    That isn’t to suggest that we’re about to get invaded and, personally, I do think the weight of defence spending should re-balanced away from the army and toward the navy. It is a different thing, however, to suggest disarmament. It strikes me as wilfully ignorant to think that Britain’s interests extend No further than it’s landmass and wilfully negligent (& dangerous, in a number of ways) to just expect any others interests it does have to be handled by the US.

    Pointing that out does not equate to endorsing Iraq (or Libya), but does recognise that it is an increasingly fractious world - see the Eastern Med. A world where the collective failure to respond to Climate Change is likely to increase many of underlying causes of instability/conflict over the next decades.

    Putting our geo-strategic head in the sand might feel good for a short period, but is exceptionally dangerous and short-sighted.

    Retaining an effective military is both well within Britain’s capability and vital to its national interest. Both in terms of defending (hopefully with circumspection) it’s interests and retaining its own freedom of action. That doesn’t mean arming ourselves to the teeth, but nobody is suggesting that.

    NB - one of the reasons why Norway has a limited standing army is because it knows, or at least believes (through v regular combined exercises/training), that Britain and other NATO members would be able to seek reinforce it with exactly the sort of rapid reaction infantry units Stevenson is lambasting.

    • 14 August 2020 at 4:34pm
      Reader says: @ Joseph Biesterfield
      Good point about climate change. The world in 20-30 years' time will very likely be one in which mass migrations from failed states will either be happening, or will shortly start. But we need to have a public discussion about the measures necessary to defend the UK (if defend is the right word) from the hordes (?) of refugees.

      This brings with it some very hard humanitarian choices. We are already anxious about small boatloads crossing the channel. How would you deter an armada of small boats carrying thousands every day? Flame-throwers?

      Horrible to even contemplate, I know, but it will happen and we had better have a rational debate while we still can. Otherwise the choices may end up being decisively influenced by Nigel Farage.

    • 14 August 2020 at 11:13pm
      Joseph Biesterfield says: @ Reader
      I agree, a better public discussion would be useful. Doesn’t look likely, though.

      For the record, the ‘invasion’ type language used in relation the recent Channel crossing is ridiculous, dangerous and manipulative (NB - not accusing you, think it’s clear how you’re using those words). And getting the Navy to intercede with those refugees is (a) mainly something to score some favourable Daily Mail coverage; and (b) silly.

      All that said, as to what I would do? Difficult, and this isn’t the place (or, for me, the time) for a full policy summary. However, retaining an effective military is actually part of the answer. Not, in any sense, meaning deploying them against refugees in the Channel, but in the sense of being able to retain influence/deterrence in respect of the wider world. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a world where the real choices are made, for example by an Erdogan, and all we’ll have here is a Farage type figure screaming at desperate people from the cliffs of Dover.

      More prosaically, an active policy to try and mitigate climate change impacts in the global South and encourage stability would be a start. Yet, we seem determined to undervalue the importance of international aid in helping tackle some of these long term issues. Plus that approach requires buy-in from other countries.

      No easy answers, really, but unilateral disarmament (which is where Stevenson is heading) will leave future policy makers at the mercy of the likes of Erdogan, Putin et al and whatever hard-choices are to made, I’d personally prefer they weren’t totally in the hands of those of that ilk.

  • 14 August 2020 at 9:25am
    Michael Farquharson-Roberts says:
    Oh dear. A very tendentious review. The marines did not participate in the Dieppe raid, St Nazaire was not a failure, it achievd its objective and at Suez not only did the Marines conduct the first heliborne assault in history, they acheived their objectives. It was a political not military failure.

    • 14 August 2020 at 3:09pm
      Delaide says: @ Michael Farquharson-Roberts
      Wikipedia makes mention of the marines participating in the Dieppe raid, for what that may be worth.

    • 14 August 2020 at 3:25pm says: @ Michael Farquharson-Roberts
      Yes, I believe 40 Commando was a RM unit, although I agree with your remarks generally.

    • 14 August 2020 at 4:37pm
      Reader says: @ Michael Farquharson-Roberts
      The Dieppe raid was a failure, but one from which the Allies learned some hard lessons that they applied at D-Day. And the Germans became convinced that we couldn't invade France. In the ruthless balance sheet of history, could it after all have been a success?

  • 15 August 2020 at 3:12pm
    Benjamin Williams says:
    The deliberate tendentiousness of this article is shown by the reference to Suez. In military terms it was proving very successful - a triumph of airborne and marine assault.

    • 17 August 2020 at 11:13am
      Rodney says: @ Benjamin Williams
      Battle won, war lost.
      Perhaps Suez is a good argument for diverting defence resources to foreign affairs.

  • 15 August 2020 at 3:37pm
    Sharmini Mahendran says:
    Excellent incisive piece

  • 15 August 2020 at 3:52pm
    Constantine says:
    It is a sad state of affairs when the author gets his facts wrong and understands neither military affais nor international politics.
    Let's get out facts right:

    Suez was a military success and nobody in his right mind would suggect otherwise. Both the Paras and the Marines achieved most of their objectives and if they had not been reined in by the Cabinet their victory would have been total.
    Britain and Japan are not in t he sameclass.UK GDP is just over whilst Japan tops 4.9 bn.
    The Norwegian Army is small because Norway has a conscript system. If there is an emergency Norway will not hesitate to call every trained man between the ages of 18 and 55 to arms.
    It would be impertinent to determine a country's place and rank in the world based on merely economic criteria. Both the UK and France exert a far more sunstantial gobal influence than their economic output would indicate, precisely because of their military might and their ability to project power in several theatres of war.
    This article is certainly well meant, but it cannot escape the pervasive influence of simplistic pacifism, which is potentially dangerous.

  • 15 August 2020 at 4:21pm
    HankUS says:
    From a US perspective: because we have such a large military, it has been easy for Presidents from Johnson to Bush II to send off large well-equipped and trained forces to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., where the results were failures. (A few die-hard right nut cakes insist that we "could have won" if we had only "stayed the course."). Of course, UK leaders have been happy to "support" our troops with UK troops. Question: In the US, the Marine Corps is part of the Naval Service. Its historic mission was to "seize and hold advanced naval bases." It has not seized and advanced naval base that was in enemy hands since WWII, unless you want to count undefended harbors in Vietnam. Are the Royal Marines part of the Royal Navy? What has been their historic mission?

    • 15 August 2020 at 5:39pm
      Christopher Rayner says: @ HankUS
      The Royal Marines were originally soldiers shipped aboard Royal Navy warships as a fighting force to augment the ships’ crews. They were also expected to enforce discipline where those crews might become mutinous. They are part of the Royal Navy, and come under the command of the Fleet Commander.

      They date their origin to 1664. Originally simply as soldiers shipping aboard to act as expeditionary forces, they have become an integral part of naval tactical actions since.

    • 15 August 2020 at 8:16pm
      HankUS says: @ Christopher Rayner
      Thanks. That's how the US Marine Corps got started. And because of their role as enforcers of shipboard discipline, there is often bad feeling between sailors (swabbies) and marines (jarheads).

  • 15 August 2020 at 4:24pm
    Anne Emerson hall says:
    These comments echo the thoughts of Nikolai II as depicted in Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, the first in his Red Wheel trilogy about the Russian Revolution. Unprepared as he was to rule, shy and retiring by nature, frustrated by the differing opinions of his advisors, and completely unable to deal with his foreign relations (quite literally), he seized upon the idea of mutual disarmament to save money. The other players agree to meet at The Hague, but do not agree on anything else.

    What's brilliant about the book is that we have already read about the outcome of those maneuvers, the disaster that occurs when Russia's poorly equipped and led Army rushes to the aid of its ally France and invades another ally, Germany.

    As DeGaulle trenchantly observed in his analysis of the Franco-Prussian war, "Firepower kills."

    • 17 August 2020 at 11:20am
      Rodney says: @ Anne Emerson hall
      Was Russia's army really poorly equipped in 1914? Russia began a large-scale military expansion a few years before the war began, scheduled to end in 1917. German fears of a mighty Russian juggernaut helped convince it to go to war in 1914, before it was too late.

  • 15 August 2020 at 4:40pm
    Henning S says:
    Let's not even get started on the idiocy of mammoth aircraft carriers and the utterly pointless Trident programme, which Jeremy Corbyn seemed to support because it provided a great many well-paid skilled jobs. I never saw any government effort to support it on strategic grounds that made any sense.

  • 15 August 2020 at 6:37pm
    Worldy Wiseman says:
    You can't reasonably unpick one part of the armed forces without deciding what they are for. So long as the UK is part of NATO and wants to have a voice in NATO then it will require effective armed forces and the means to project them in order to live up to its commitments under the relevant treaty. So some of the options mentioned are incompatible with NATO membership. The size of Norway's armed forces rather fails to notice the massive disproportion of population- about a twelth that of the UK. So the premises are dishonest. If you want to question NATO membership, fine, but that's a different argument and it's intellectually dishonest to pick away at the edges without going for the core issue. Just as citing Dieppe (why not Zeebrugge in 1918) or indeed Gibraltar over 300 years ago is both selective and irrelevant.
    Having specialist seaborne troops is pretty much a given for all major armed forces.
    A more interesting question is whether we should look at the US Marine Corps, larger on its own than the entire British armed forces, and use that as a model for an integrated single command.

  • 15 August 2020 at 8:53pm
    jim pettman says:
    It seems to me that the main use for a large army would be to provide a fig leaf of coalition for US aggression as in Iraq. The major future threats to be defended against are foreign interference in democracy, pandemics, terrorism and the fall-out from climate change (including uncontrolled migration). One should not forget the stupidity of our politicians, although diverting funds from the military to expensive schools education appears to be counterproductive.

  • 15 August 2020 at 9:22pm
    jamie says:
    the logic of the piece seems well-grounded in realpolitik. NATO forces are an adjunct of the US empire, and will always act as the US directs. little britain can contribute treasure and lives to the US imperial project if it wishes, but such supine enervation ought at least be questioned. reconceiving the royal marines as a forward strike force in, hypothetically, bahrain, puts the US-israeli axis supreme to any proper notion of british defense interests. opposing this is neither defeatism nor disarmament. it is a hard-headed appraisal grounded in an understanding of economic and military realities, however unpleasant to the blimpish mind they may be.

  • 15 August 2020 at 11:46pm
    Richard Adams says:
    Tom Stevenson supposes war is always aggressive. He plays on this foolish hypothesis to imply an intention to deploy the Royal Marines on some sort of imperialist-colonial adventure to conquer weak powers.
    In fact, we fight to secure the liberal democracy against the totalitarian powers.
    On the occasion of his inauguration, President Kennedy spoke memorably of a preparedness to “pay any price, to bear any burden, and to meet any hardship” in order to retain the benefit of liberty and equal justice before the law.
    The strategist, Colin Gray, offers a clear contrast between the liberal democracy and the totalitarian state when he says that totalitarian governments sees the use of force as a right that begins with the punishment of citizens who defy the interests of the state. For the totalitarian, nothing can or should restrain the state’s right to act violently except the threat of superior violence and the risk of losing.
    Beyond the protection of our own democracy, we fight in order to secure the freedoms of people everywhere.
    We fight since we are responsible global citizens. We recognise a broad commitment to principles set down in the great charters and declarations which came about after the Second World war; for example, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
    These great instruments were formalised after the Second War. They define the modern rules-based order. But their foundation pre-dates the conclusion of the Second War. The foundation of the modern order is traced to 12 August 1941. On this day, aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta in Placentia Bay Newfoundland, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt agreed what has come to be known as the Atlantic Charter.
    Speaking against the dangers to world civilization arising from the policies of military domination, the Atlantic Charter is a promise made to the peoples or nations of the world. States are not mentioned. The Charter recognises “certain common principles” otherwise expressed as inalienable human rights and dignities. Our obligation to stand for these common principles finds reiteration in the Nuremberg Charter.
    Mr. Stevenson makes fun of the moment we stood as victors in the second war. He wants us to laugh at pretensions of greatness. He forgets that millions fought and died to secure the basic right of people to live freely, free from want and free from fear.
    Today, we maintain the Royal Marines, and our allies maintain military forces, not because we have ambitions to conquer the globe, but because we stand ready to safeguard the rights of the vulnerable.
    Politicians, of course, manipulate ethe truth. They confect reasons based upon high ideals. When they do these things, when they lie and deceive and send us to fight unjust wars, they cost us our lives and they cost innocent people elsewhere their lives, but they cannot diminish the gravity of the reasons and the ideals they cite.
    And it is in the defence of these ideals that the Royal Marines serve.

    • 22 August 2020 at 9:28pm
      steve kay says: @ Richard Adams
      Here I am listening to Haitink conducting Don Carlo on the Third Programme, with the sadly missed Dima Hvrovsky as Posa, and reading back posts on the LRB. And whoops, here I seem to have strayed into the Daily Telegraph. At least Mr Adams is firmly in favour of the victors of 1945 keeping their large armed forces, Comrade Djugashvili would be pleased about that. And all those jolly Vietnamese that we freed from Chairman Mao and the grateful Iraqis catapulted out of dictatorship into freedom and democracy must be equally grateful. Now, let's get those wonderful aircraft carriers into the Channel to deter any invasion. Anson, Beattie, Collingwood, Drake and Effingham kept us proud and free and so we must carry on.

  • 16 August 2020 at 12:33pm
    Mark Brady says:
    A small Atlantic principality without any credible adversaries, Britain is .... still a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, and as such should maintain a world-wide capability for 'intervention' - if all else fails by top-class professional armed forces. One may debate endlessly what that sentence actually means 75 years after VJ-Day - as I once said 'If there's a Srebrenica-type massacre impending, who would the intended victims rather have come to their assistance - the Christian Pacifists or the British armed forces?

  • 20 August 2020 at 4:14pm
    Waleed Ghani says:
    Royal Marine Corps, please (not "Corp"). If you're proposing to fundamentally degrade the UK armed forces, it might help your case to check some basic details. It would also help your case to use better examples of "spectacular failures" of amphibious warfare. Dieppe certainly was, but St Nazaire tends to be viewed as a modest (albeit bloody) victory.

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