New ships for the Royal Marines is great news. But some serious problems must be solved first

A Royal Marine maritime sniper armed with the AW50F anti-materiel rifle. Such snipers are one of the varied capabilities offered by Littoral Strike
A Royal Marine maritime sniper armed with the AW50F anti-materiel rifle. Such snipers are one of the varied capabilities offered by Littoral Strike - Anthony Upton

The government’s announcement that the Royal Marines are to receive six new multi-role support ships (MRSS) is a welcome one. Nonetheless there are some points to note about the plan which have not yet been made plain, and there are some serious problems which will need to be solved before the ships arrive.

The MRSSs will be replacing two Royal Navy warships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, and three civilian-manned Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships – RFAs Lyme Bay, Mounts Bay and Cardigan Bay. All of them are intended for amphibious warfare: the landing of troops, military equipment and supplies without the use of a normal harbour.

The first point to note is that Albion and Bulwark are now both in “extended readiness” – that is, mothballed without any sailors. Given the Royal Navy’s current manpower crisis and the way ships deteriorate when left in mothballs, there has been a lot of uncertainty as to whether Albion or Bulwark will ever put to sea again.

The second point is that the Bay class RFAs were originally intended for a comparatively safe, follow-on role. An initial amphibious assault would be made by Albion and/or Bulwark. Once a beach had been taken and enemy forces pushed back, it would be safe for the almost unarmed Bay class to move in and land follow-on troops and supplies.

Lately the Bays and helicopter ship RFA Argus have been involved in the new concept of “littoral strike”, in which small forces of Royal Marines with some helicopter and landing craft support have been held poised offshore in areas of interest such as the eastern Mediterranean.

Though “littoral strike” sounds cool and exciting, it has not involved the appearance of any significant new hardware or budget apart from some different hand weaponry for the Marines and minor modifications to some RFA ships. It has been taken in some quarters to be simply the name for the hard fact that Britain’s 3 Commando Brigade, our amphibious landing force built around the Marine Commandos, is no longer realistically deployable in its core role. The Royal Navy and RFA nowadays lack the capacity to make a serious amphibious assault.

It would seem strange to have some of the new MRSSs as Royal Navy warships and some as RFAs. They will probably all be civilian crewed RFAs, as this is much cheaper than warship manning – though the ships will often have Royal Navy personnel and Royal Marines aboard temporarily.

This brings up the third point: the RFA is currently having even worse recruiting problems than the Navy. Part of the cause is pay, which has been stagnant for many years. Both RFA officers and sailors voted last month in favour of industrial action. RFA strike action can be prevented by management without negotiation – it’s been done in the past – but obviously this leads to even lower morale and more people leaving. In January it was reported that the RFA was trying to fill gaps by hiring ordinary merchant seafarers through Serco, rather than recruiting them itself.

There’s been an ongoing trend to transfer Royal Naval missions to the RFA: the RN is currently getting rid of its entire minehunter fleet in favour of unmanned systems which are to operate from RFA hulls. The new RFA Proteus, an inexpensively purchased and converted oil-rig support ship, will take on seabed warfare. The RFA has long had a partial support role in amphibious assault, but now it seems likely to take on the entire mission. There’s no point trying to deny the reality that this trend is driven in large part by the desire to reduce costs.

The sailors and officers of the RFA have served Britain well over the years. There’s nothing wrong with their guts or professionalism. But they are not happy and there are not enough of them even to do their current jobs: we’re going to need a lot more of them. More and more, as they take on more naval missions, they will need skills and training which are not found in the normal merchant fleet. There’s no point asking Serco to find someone to operate a Phalanx automatic gun system, or the “Dragonfire” laser rayguns that may be fitted to the new MRSSs.

Ministers and officials of this government and the next are going to need to face up to the fact that RFA people and ships may be cheaper than warships, but neither RFAs nor warships can or should be run on the cheap. It’s great to have new ships and make the Royal Marines back into a real amphibious assault force again – but a lot of personnel problems will have to be sorted out by the time they arrive.

Lewis Page is a former Royal Navy officer. He has worked with the RFA on many occasions, and completed Commando training with the Royal Marines