This briefing has been prepared ahead of the following question for short debate in the House of Lords:

Lord Burnett to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the policy paper Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published on 16 March, on the (1) future, and (2) funding, of the Royal Marines, including of the Future Commando Force.

This briefing examines recent developments and prominent issue areas ahead of a date being set for the debate.

Proposals in the Integrated Review

The Government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy: Global Britain in a Competitive Age, on 16 March 2021.

In it, ministers set out their vision for ‘global Britain’ within the next decade. A concept which envisaged that the UK would play “a more active part” in sustaining an open international order, and that as part of that commitment:

The UK will continue to take a leading role in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction. The UK aims to be a model for an integrated approach to tackling global challenges.

Further, the review stated that:

The UK’s diplomatic service, armed forces and security and intelligence services will be the most effective and innovative, relative to their size. They will be characterised by agility, responsiveness and digital integration. There will be a greater emphasis on engaging, training and assisting others.

The review was followed by a defence command paper, Defence in a Competitive Age, published on 22 March 2021.

Focusing on the defence aspects of the integrated review, the command paper outlined plans to modernise the armed forces. Noting how the battlefield has changed, and deficiencies in the UK’s adaptations to those changes, the paper discusses the Integrated Operating Concept, first laid out in autumn 2020, and how the Government will rebalance the UK armed forces to provide a more “pro-active, forward deployed, persistent presence around the world”.

Specifically on the Royal Marines, the command paper stated:

The Royal Navy will be a constant global presence, with more ships, submarines, sailors and marines deployed on an enduring basis, including to protect shipping lanes and uphold freedom of navigation. With support from partners in the Indo-Pacific, offshore patrol vessels will be persistently deployed and a littoral response group (LRG) in 2023 will complement the episodic deployment of our carrier strike group; contributing to regional security and assurance.

It added with reference to the Future Commando Force (FCF) and ‘special operations’ capable forces:

We will […] draw on special operations capable forces from an Army Special Operations Brigade, the Future Commando Force and elsewhere in Defence to conduct special operations to train, advise and accompany partners in high-threat environments. Special operations will integrate capability across all five operational domains. They will improve our interoperability with international partners like NATO, gain access to the most innovative equipment and intelligence capabilities and adopt a more assertive posture. They will project UK global influence and pre‑empt and deter threats below the threshold of war as well as state aggression.

What is the Future Commando Force?

The FCF is an attempt to modernise the way the Royal Marines operate and has been described by the Royal Navy as “the most significant transformation and rebranding programme launched since World War 2”.

The Ministry of Defence intends that the FCF will offer the UK a force ready to deploy around the world immediately, on tasks such as warfighting, combat missions, and humanitarian duties. This reportedly could also involve persistent forward deployments and special operations, including supporting UK carrier strike groups and “refined” NATO contributions. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence has also said the FCF will take on many of the traditional tasks of the Special Forces, the SAS [Special Air Service] and SBS [Special Boat Service], alongside a new Army Ranger Regiment announced this year.

As part of the development of the FCF, in July 2020 the Royal Navy announced the creation of a Vanguard Strike Company “to shape how the Royal Marines Commandos of the future will operate around the globe”. The company has been formed of 150 Royal Marines and Army Commandos, and the release stated that the company would head on its maiden deployment in mid-2021 after further trials later in 2020 and ongoing equipment, structural and tactical experimentation associated with the Future Commando Force.

The 2021 defence command paper included a further commitment of £40 million to develop FCF capabilities:

The Royal Navy will invest £40m more over the next four years to develop our Future Commando Force as part of the transformation of our amphibious forces, as well as more than £50m in converting a Bay class support ship to deliver a more agile and lethal littoral strike capability. Forward deployed to respond rapidly to crises, this special operations-capable force will operate alongside our allies and partners in areas of UK interest, ready to strike from the sea, pre‑empt and deter sub-threshold activity, and counter state threats. This will be enabled by the deployment of two littoral response groups; the first in 2021 will be deployed to the Euro-Atlantic under a NATO and JEF [Joint Expeditionary Force] construct, while a second will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. They will also be able to deliver training to our partners in regions of the world where maritime security is most challenging.

What implications will these changes have for the number of Royal Marines?

According to the defence command paper, the Government believes that “capability in the future will be less defined by numbers of people and platforms than by information-centric technologies, automation and a culture of innovation and experimentation”. As such, the command paper outlined a reduction in recruitment targets for the armed services, particularly the army, in recognition of this change in focus and that recruitment levels remain below targets set in 2015, as the table below reveals:

UK Armed Force Strength Full-time trained/trade trained UK Armed Forces against the 2015 SDSR 2020 target, 1 January 2021
Army Royal Navy/Royal Marines RAF Total
2015 SDSR Target 82,000 30,450 31,750 144,200
Trained Strength 76,348 29,136 29,960 135,444
Surplus/Deficit -5,652 -1,314 -1,790 -8,756
% of target -7% -4% -6% -6%

Source: Ministry of Defence, UK Armed Forces Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics, 1 January 2021; House of Commons Library, ‘UK Army to be reduced to 72,500’, 23 March 2021.

A written question from March 2021 revealed the corresponding size of the Royal Marines:

Lord West of Spithead (Labour): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the trained personnel strength of the Royal Marines on (1) 1 April 2010, (2) 1 April 2016, and (3) what do they estimate will be the trained personnel strength on 1 April 2025.

Baroness Goldie (Conservative): As at 1 January 2021, the current full-time trained strength of the Royal Marines is 5,968. On 1 April 2010 and 1 April 2016, the full-time trained strength of the Royal Marines was 7,082 and 6,921 respectively.

The recent defence command paper announced that the Royal Marines will transition into the Future Commando Force and adopt new and autonomous capabilities. As a result, force structures will change but decisions are yet to be made on the future size of the Royal Marines.

Though it was not explicitly mentioned in the command paper, the Times newspaper reported on 24 March 2021 that the number of posts available in the Royal Marines would be cut from 6,500 to 6,100. This matter was put to the Government in another written parliamentary question, answered in April 2021, which asked about the future implications of the move:

Lord Chidgey (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reducing the strength of the Royal Marines Corps from 6,500 to 6,100 personnel; and whether this will affect the Royal Marine Corp’s capacity to operate across different operational domains.

Baroness Goldie (Conservative): As the Royal Marines transition into the Future Commando Force and turn to new upgraded and autonomous capabilities, there is the potential for the workforce structure to change in the future. Any reduction in personnel will not affect the capability of the Royal Marines to operate across different operational arenas.

Most recently, in July 2021, ministers said that the development of the Future Commando Force remained in progress though did not set a specific timetable:

Lord Burnett (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the cost, and over what period, for the introduction of the Royal Marines Future Commando Force.

Baroness Goldie (Conservative): A generous settlement of over £24 billion has allowed Defence to invest in amongst other things the delivery of the Future Commando Force and we will be spending in excess of an additional £200 million over ten years to support this. Other elements of the Royal Navy’s programme, such as the future landing craft project, are funded to over £50 million. The wider ship building pipeline will also support the UK’s Commando Forces.

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Image by Fabrizio Morviducci from Pixabay.