Hopefully from the pages above, it should be clear that the UK’s joint amphibious forces are capable and have all the pieces of jigsaw in place, right down to specialist engineering plant, pontoons and floating fuel tanks.
It has a hard won and enviable reputation for excellence.
With CEPP and the carriers, various unmanned developments and new naval gunfire systems on type 26, the future looks good.
But equally, and perhaps more specifically to the amphibious force, there is an obvious problem with funding priorities, slowly reducing mass and a number of fundamental questions about operability in a contemporary operating environment without significant funding increases.
Which brings me to a few thoughts on the future of the Royal Marines and the UK’s wider amphibious/littoral capabilities.
The Contemporary Operating Environment and Tasks
As can be seen from the above, the Royal Marines have many roles beyond the traditional image of amphibious assault.
Deterrent protection and maritime security remain critical roles, Non Combatant Evacuation, SF and SF support, boarding, arctic training and even the RM Band take up personnel resources and yet are difficult to see changed.
As CEPP evolves, it is also easy to envisage an increased demand for personnel and equipment recovery, especially given the likelihood of downed pilots appearing in an orange boilersuited YouTube video.
Which leaves that traditional amphibious landing roles; raids, securing a Sea Port of Disembarkation (SPOD) or similar.
This is the role the UK has just diminished with the changes to 42 Commando, and this is the role that will need significant investment in the next decade or so.
Anyone see a problem?
We also have to realistic about threats and stop ourselves falling into the trap of thinking that the world has not changed since 1982 in the South Atlantic.
Skip forward to 2003 and a planned beach landing was cancelled because of the threat of mines, not actual mines, but the threat of mines. We had no effective and fast means of surf zone mine clearance then, and we still don’t know.
Since 2003, the IED and ATGW treat has grown significantly, as witnessed by Iraq and Syria
How has 3CDO Brigades’ defence against mines, IED’s and ATGW’s evolved since then?
The physical environment is changing rapidly as well.
No more are pristine beaches with the optimal soil conditions, gradients and slopes commonplace. Increasingly, shorelines are being developed, urban sprawl is encroaching on shore environments at an increasingly rapid pace.
Actually getting on to a shore will be increasingly difficult, off it more so.
Climate change will also change shorelines.
The requirement is getting difficult to fulfil without lots more funding.
Can we play the USN/USMC Way?
Seabasing and manoeuvre from the joint seabase to the objective, in force, with sustainment from a seabase in the multi domain battle seems financially unachievable for the UK.
Sorry everyone, it just does.
No, we are not going to buy V-22’s, and no, we are not going to invest in seabasing.
This interesting paper published in 2005 from Major Jack van Baarsel (Royal Netherlands Marine Corps) asked exactly the same, but from a European wide perspective. It is interesting see the difference between the forces described then with what is actually in service now.
Playing the American way seems even further away now than it did then.
What about the European Way?
The European way (including Australia!) is to move away from different classes of amphibious ships where landing craft and helicopters are operated from different platforms (i.e. Ocean and Albion), and the doctrinal approach that drives this, to a one size fits all vessel that is certainly more flexible, but arguably nowhere near as operationally capable.
A little bit of everything in an LHD, as per Mistral and Juan Carlos I, but at a very small scale, and they still have to be in close inshore to be effective.
It will be interesting to see how the Spanish-Italian amphibious battlegroup evolves.
Like many of these articles, the author has to choose whether to propose increasing funding for capability A or B, usually depending on their own biases.
It would be quite easy to argue the UK should go on a shopping spree to match the USMC with all sorts of over the horizon multi domain battle high speed connector amphibiosity.
But would that in any way be remotely rooted in reality?
Arguing for the status quo would also be easy.
Between 2031 and 2034, all the Royal Navy and RFA’s amphibious shipping will be out of service.
The status quo is to carry as now with Albion/Bulwark/Bays and accept the Ocean gap until CEPP is fully in service, and then hope all five of those vessels will be replaced with some equivalent [Insert favourite options here]
This is probably more likely than going on a shopping spree but as we have seen, the status quo does not address any of the issues of operating environment
We also have to suspend thinking about costs of Successor, Carrier Strike and the Surface Fleet.
Both of the above options are equally valid I suppose, but in the interests of promoting some discussion I thought it would be more interesting to propose something a little more radical.
Radical, does not necessarily mean unachievable, it is not unachievable because I am willing to recognise the need to trade away numbers in return, creating space in the budget, the budget that is likely to be smaller in any case.
A Proposal for ‘Something Else’
This is not a costed proposal, but simply a few ideas, hopefully pragmatic, that puts the UK’s littoral and amphibious force on a more sustainable basis, more aligned with the contemporary political, economic and operating environment.
Proposal 1 – All Environment Rapid Response Brigade
First, this is not a proposal to merge the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment.
It is however, a proposal that recognises holding 2 and 3 PARA and 40 and 45 CDO at a sustainable readiness cycle is going to be challenging going forward. And, the same for the sub units of 24 Commando RE and 29 Commando RA.
Out of those 4 units (plus CS) I propose to create a single All Environment Rapid Response Brigade from the constituent parts of 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade.
Primarily helicopter borne, some elements would be parachute capable.
Now I can already see people recoiling from the very notion, but to labour the point, am trying to be pragmatic about both 3CDO and 16AAB. Indeed, both 3CDO and 16AAB have many of the same risks, challenges in the contemporary operating environment, and capability gaps.
The new brigade would have three manoeuvre units to enable a more sustainable force readiness cycle to be maintained.
This means that 3CDO would lose at least a CDO and the Combat Support regiments, a subunit and HQ between them.
HQ’s would also be consolidated, as would logistics functions.
The Royal Marines and Army Commando units would therefore take a fairly significant reduction in personnel numbers but out of that, a strong All Environment Rapid Response Brigade, including CS/CSS, on a sustainable readiness cycle would be created.
This would then link with the British Army’s new Strike Brigade concept and new sea/air port development capabilities with posts redistributed in other areas.
Proposal 2 – Personnel Recovery
This is a must, and it is an area that whilst not unique in Europe, is not common. It therefore binds us into operating only with support of the USA.
The UK’s carrier strike has potential to be a cornerstone capability, one that might not look identical to the US Navy, but equally, one that looks similar.
CEPP will have considerable political power.
In short, it needs to be resourced properly, and this means personnel recovery.
The proposal is to form a joint RM/RAF/AAC capability that establishes a Chinook/Merlin helicopter force able to be refuelled in flight by UK aircraft, potentially A400M but more likely C-130.
A defining feature must be its ability to operate from land or sea, with supporting assets from land bases.
Proposal 3 – Littoral Security Group
As populations urbanise and move to coastal cities, the urban and complex littoral is likely to become an area of increasing instability. Threats in the Arctic are also likely to require securing the littoral and defending it against amphibious assault, principally from Russian forces.
This proposal is to expand on the 42 CDO maritime security force, building up raiding, patrolling and security capabilities.
Recognising the huge capability delivered by HMS Albion/Bulwark, the LSG would be based on these vessels, with one of the carriers (of course)
Proposal 4 – Arctic Training and Capability Development
Cold weather operations are likely an increasing likelihood but we cannot afford for this not to be a whole force activity. The existing Royal Marine Arctic training function would be retained and expanded to include capability development for a wider range of capabilities.
Proposal 5 – Transfer Posts to the Royal Navy and RFA
That the Royal Navy is struggling with sustaining the force is no secret, same with the RFA.
By releasing posts as part of Proposal 1, I propose to transfer some to the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary to enable CEPP and surface fleet manning to be established on a sustainable footing.
Proposal 6 – CROWSNEST and HM
The submarine threat is not diminishing, in fact, it is increasing.
Some of the HC.4/4a’s would be converted to enable carriage of the CROWSNEST airborne early warning and control systems. This would relieve pressure on the Merlin HM.2 fleet and allow them to concentrate on their ASW role, especially in high threat scenarios.
With the RM Band, the fleet security and maritime security/raiding tasks remaining, the essential ethos and integrity of the Royal Marines is retained.
Establishing a joint personnel recovery function, creating a more capable littoral security force from 42 CDO and expanding the Arctic training and development group allows roles that I think are more needed and relevant to the contemporary environment to be generated.
This is at the expense of the joint capability to land and sustain a force over the beach.
Personnel slots would be shifted to both sustain the Royal Navy and RFA, whilst the creation of a joint rapid response brigade, centred on 16AAB, would also be on a sustainable basis.
Many of these proposals will be detailed in future documents/posts.
Much of this group of proposals is people centric, it is about creating capabilities that do not rely on service personnel’s good will and the tolerance of their families.
If this means recognising a few uncomfortable truths, then so be it.
To labour the point, this is not a series of proposals that is the ideal solution, the ideal solution would not involve robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is what this is, but we do not live in an ideal world.