27 May 19
The Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) is still a place that sends shivers down the spine of any man that has been through Recruit or Young Officer training. It is an establishment that prides itself on the excellence of training that it seeks to deliver and the quality of the man it hopes to produce at the end of the respective training cycles. Its goal is to provide the newly forged Commando with all the tools he needs to begin life as a trained rank at his first Commando unit. It is this standard of excellence that is supposed to be ingrained in every ‘Nod’ and ‘YO’ from the moment they step foot onto the Lympstone Commando train station platform. The standards set out at CTCRM are recognised the world over as a benchmark in elite force training, but are they really being met? There is a strong argument to be made that these standards are being threatened by the number of men currently haemorrhaging out of the Corps at a hitherto unprecedented rate.
There are multiple reasons for which a Marine may tender his resignation but the one that is most prevalent at the moment can probably be summed up by the words “I’m threaders”. The general lack of operational activity in the Corps, cancelled high profile tactical exercises, budget cuts affecting equipment and perceived twiddling of thumbs, coupled with persistent strategic deployments, has led to a significant reduction in manpower. This is evidenced through the Continuous Attitude Survey – is anyone listening? The knock-on effect of this has had far reaching consequences. At a time when the effectiveness of the Royal Marines should be fiercely maintained it is instead being risked for the sake of getting numbers out of the door of CTCRM to man the Commando units. On the one hand it is fully understandable why these numbers are being forced through; the Corps must survive. Strategic Defence and Security Reviews need to be reassured that the Royal Marines are still capable of fulfilling their role of amphibious shock troops as well as the myriad other tasks they are expected to perform. On the other hand, however, it is a subject of great consternation, not just to serving members but also prospective Commandos that Lympstone appears to be adopting a softer approach to training. Whilst many may dismiss this as the “it was harder in my day” maxim, this is the consensus of a broad cohort.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest that one of the primary causes for concern about standards in training is the number of chances given to recruits to pass criteria tests. Criteria tests are just that and the standards expected are very high for a very good reason. The Royal Marines are not, as the old adage goes, “Girl Guides” but “double hard Commando b******s” and “steely eyed dealers of death and destruction”. Consequently, those recruits that are afforded multiple attempts at passing basic evolutions such as bottom field pass-out, or Phase 1 exercises, contribute to a diminished feeling of achievement amongst those recruits that require only one or two attempts and are ready to be challenged further. It must be recognised that this is restricting the development of talent and the pursuit of excellence, as struggling recruits hold others back. The feeling of diminished achievement is tangible amongst the other recruits and has led to resentment as those who are not making the required standards have been allowed to continue in training when they simply should not have been. We must be alive to the potential for this to sow disharmony within the ranks and stir division – which threatens commando ethos. Recruits do begin to wonder whether the organisation they have signed up to really lives up to the reputation that convinced them to sign their name on the dotted line.
A similar problem exists for training teams who, rightly, want to proceed with only those they feel will complete Commando training to the exacting standards set. It is a frequent grievance of theirs that those who simply do not merit a continued presence in a recruit troop are still there even when they have proven themselves unworthy. Every Royal Marine will have a memory of someone in their troop who thought the coveted Green Beret was theirs the moment they walked through the gates. These are the recruits that love the idea of being able to say “I am a Royal Marines Commando” without actually wanting to truly be one. It would seem they are there just for the kudos and none of the responsibility, which is so easily identifiable. The presence of such recruits is to the detriment of those who actually want to push themselves and achieve excellence. The training team are often powerless to remove recruits because the powers that be keep them in place. The onerous necessity of evidential reporting to support removing a recruit is too bureaucratic and difficult to sustain. What this does is to promote an even more challenging environment for genuine recruits to work in, and an increasingly frustrating one for those Corporals, Sergeants and Troop Commanders who wish to maintain the standards. Whilst the obvious response will highlight unchanged standards, we need to recognise that quality does not require infinite attempts. We should trust the professional standard and experience of our trainers to make judgement – they care about the Corps. Similarly, coaching less capable recruits is a demanding resource, which should be focussed on achieving complete excellence, not just a pass. As such, the stronger performers feel disillusioned and short-changed. This may raise further questions to the measurements for aptitude of recruits starting training.
If it was established that a recruit only has one or possibly two attempts at passing criteria tests or qualification exercises before they are either back-trooped or released from training altogether it would go a long way to ensure that 100% was given at all times. If a recruit cannot handle the extra pressure then it may be an indication that he/she is not suitable to wear the Coveted Green Beret and Commando flashes. It may seem a harsh way of approaching the training of young men and now women but, as has been made painfully clear in recent times, the military is not there as a vehicle for political correctness nor the soft touch. Standards exist for a reason and to see them undermined is deeply disheartening.
The issue of retaining manpower is currently an enormous threat to the Corps’ operational effectiveness. Contributing to this at unit level is the Direct Specialisation Scheme (DSS). In ‘The Dark Knight’ Heath Ledger’s Joker says that “chaos is fair”. The chaos that has been caused to numerous young Marines’ careers however is far from fair. The indiscriminate nature of the DSS system does not fully take into account an individuals’ performance in training nor at his first unit. Exceptional Marines that have shone in training have gone on to their first units and performed well above the standard expected. Despite this they have still been “pinged” and seen their careers put on hold for over two years whilst they are made to attend courses well below their capabilities. This includes ‘Diamonds’ (recruits specially selected for their leadership qualities) as well as, inexplicably, Kings Badgemen (the best recruit in a troop is awarded this if deemed worthy, of whom this author knows three that suffered the consequences of DSS).
The knock-on effect is that they are forgotten and less capable individuals are able to pursue the specialisation of their choice and begin working their way up the ranks. All too often “pinging” has provoked the departure of high calibre Marines whilst these less suitable individuals end up staying in the Corps long term – eroding the broader capability. This in turn is steadily creating a small but significant leadership void. The ranks are too often being climbed by those who just want the increased pay cheque. This is creating a synthetic leadership environment, which is detrimental to their subordinates and the wider Corps. Royal Marines NCOs are made to undertake highly demanding command courses for a very good reason; they are there to lead. Those fulfilling these roles need to be of the absolute highest quality if the Corps is to fulfil its considerable potential. The DSS and failed meritocracy are having a profound demotivational effect and is a strong contributing factor in the ever-dwindling numbers. Focussing on short-term gains is likely to impact long-term retention. Talented Marines who have shouldered considerable extra responsibilities and pressure are having their potential extinguished to the point where the incentive to do well is significantly diminished. Elite Commandos respond best to strong leadership. Having inadequate personnel in positions of authority is provoking a feeling that the reality does not match the hype. The Royal Marines, therefore, have a very real and alarming man-management problem on their hands. If the Royal Marines are to rectify it, they must recognise that attractive civilian prospects of lifestyle, pay and job satisfaction compound internal issues. Therefore, the Corps must offer an appeal in at least one: Pay, role/job satisfaction or lifestyle. The experiences of the older generation are unlikely to be applicable today, due to different push/pull factors.
An approach to remedying this problem would be to reward the top members (not necessarily King’s Badgemen) of each troop at a fighting unit with immunity from the DSS system. This would be subject to the hierarchy’s close scrutiny and certainly not a haphazard, “favourites” based system. If this were known from the day a recruit walked through the gates of Lympstone there would be far more recruits wanting to stand out. The effect at a unit will be similarly positive as effort levels will increase and young marines will be far eager to get actively involved in company life and excel. This may result in a double-edged sword effect of producing “DS watchers” but this kind of ingratiating behaviour is easily identifiable. Ultimately the desire to stand out will make it harder for said hierarchies to identify those Marines to be ring-fenced, but that is a positive. International sports teams continuously seek greater competition for places, the Royal Marines should be no different.
The Royal Marines has staggering potential for young men and women; and it needs to fulfil it. If steps were taken to ensure the cream rose to the top, the outlook of the Corps would be far better and the inactivity brought about by lack of political will would be much easier to manage. The Royal Marines is a beacon to those who wish to live a life less ordinary but the current setup is threatening its elite Commando identity. The days of Achnacarry may be confined to the annals but the spirit in which it was founded and which the modern Corps has strived to maintain, must not be forgotten.
Whilst there are undoubtedly competing pressures within the Corps hierarchy, it is obvious the contemporary environment offers would-be and serving Royal Marine Commandos other options away from the military. Just because we have always done it a certain way, it doesn’t mean it is now suitable. Talent will rise to the top somewhere. The Corps must facilitate it within their organisation, or risk losing it.
by Marine H