Dom Morris was adviser to the commander of the recent UK Military Task Force charged with responding to Hurricane Irma. He contested the Exeter constituency for the Conservative Party in the 2015 General Election.
Hurricane Irma’s 160 miles per hour winds bounced storage containers down runways and stripped every single leaf from the British Virgin Islands. The destruction left in Irma’s wake unexpectedly unleashed the UK’s expeditionary amphibious capabilities at extreme short notice.
Running water stopped, supermarkets looted, airports closed, roads blocked, prisoners escaped and power stations flooded. Amongst the people, shock turned to despair and despair quickly turned to unrest, as looting and organised crime threatened law and order on British sovereign territory.
Anger led to criticism, but assertions of a slow response failed to understand one crucial factor: geography. The UK Task Force had to prepare and amass some 2,000 troops, move them 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, embark them on a fleet of ships, support helicopters and transport aircraft and insert them straight into littoral operations (military operations lying along a shore). All this had to be done across a diverse group of islands spanning the distance from the North of Scotland to the South of Spain.
This was not a fight against the Taliban, but against Mother Nature. As a commander put it to me on the ground, “the only enemy here is time.” Within hours of the Government pushing the button, the lead elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines and the Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) were out the door, exceeding all readiness expectations. Many didn’t even get to say goodbye to their families. They had gone to work as normal that morning and didn’t come back for five weeks.
On such a time frame, the scale of our achievements was vast. Within days the majority of the Task Force was on the three British Territories, restoring security, re-opening critical national infrastructure, rescuing vulnerable citizens and enabling other government departments to get the aid flowing and begin longer term reconstruction.
It’s not clear whether the armed forces would be able to do this again if cuts to the military are as hard as some expect in next week’s budget. The key challenge to this operation was geography. Whether we like it or not, the only solution for this task was maritime and amphibious forces – put simply, the ability to get people across the world and do stuff (hard and soft power). Only the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy’s amphibious shipping could conduct an operation like this at pace, delivering relief to those who needed it in the most challenging of conditions.
Speculation about the defence budget is rife. What feels different this time is that our very ability to conduct expeditionary amphibious operations appears under threat. Key ingredients from the success of the Caribbean operation are at risk. The helicopter-carrying ship HMS Ocean goes out of service next year, the Royal Marines could be cut, and it is rumoured that the only remaining amphibious platforms HMS Albion and Bulwark may also go.
Whilst the public may believe that the new aircraft carriers will replace this expeditionary amphibious capability, they will not. The new carriers will be able to deliver fixed-wing aircraft, but they cannot deliver large scale amphibious operations using marines, helicopters and landing craft across the globe.
If Global Britain is to have any semblance of reality post-Brexit then it will be dependent, at least in part, on the reach of our armed forces. The capability to defend and support British sovereign territory or project power (hard of soft) thousands of miles away is wholly reliant on the likes of the Royal Navy and her Marines. If you buy into Global Britain – that is, the vision of an outward-facing, maritime nation, trading and engaging unencumbered across the world – then it must start with our armed forces.
We simply cannot trade and engage across the seven seas without the military ability to get across them quickly to deliver power and influence. With the cuts being discussed to the Navy and Royal Marines we simply cannot do this. Whether it be disaster relief for British territories or pre-emptive strikes to counter terrorism, we risk being unable to deliver.
What I and the British public most admire about my military colleagues is that they put their money where their mouths are and get the job done. If the Government is serious about Global Britain it must save our maritime and amphibious capabilities.
Who knows, it just might be popular with the public.