Tough times for the Commandos in the last decade. The SDR98 ambition built up 3Cdo into a force that could launch a brigade across a beach and then conduct combined-arms maneuvre warfare ashore. Afghanistan and Iraq fattened-up a lean ‘marine’ force into just another roulement brigade to be cycled through the War on Terror, and SDSR10/15 cut the ‘legs’ away from 3Cdo in shedding the RN and RFA ships that made them ‘amphibious’. The final nail is the proliferation of near-peer aversaries fielding anti-access area denial (A2AD) weapons that push traditional amphibious capabilies so far off-shore they no longer have any strategic effect on-shore. So things weren’t looking good…
But perhaps the tide has turned.
To be clear, the tide had already turned on the wider question of the Navy, that choice was made back in 2010 when austerity forced the Gov’t to confront the question: land or maritime power projection? This was recognition that our future as an geopolitical actor with an activist foriegn policy faces China**, not Russia. It took five years for everyone to catch on, but the choice was carriers and shrinking the army from 100k to 80k, and here we are again today with calls to drop that further to 65k.
n.b. “facing China” does not mean we’re anticipating World War 3 against China, it means contesting Chinese interests and challenging the ambitions it advances with its proxies:
Projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative mean that the military and civilian assets of two or more great powers may be in close proximity to one another in a third state. An illustration of this is the accusation made by US forces that their communications were being disrupted by China’s People’s Liberation Army forces based in Djibouti.33 A good deal of both existing strategic and future-oriented literature views the overseas assets of a great power on the territory of a third state as being a particularly critical vulnerability that rival powers will seek to exploit. Critically, however, given the limited and peripheral nature of such conflicts, actors will likely seek means to ensure they do not cascade beyond their immediate region. Recent scholarship illustrates that states engaged in hostilities under the condition of escalatory risks, particularly nuclear ones, tend to either tacitly collaborate in downplaying the existence of the conflict or work to limit the conflict’s scope and duration.
Whether you frame this as “Eurasion-Integration” or the “Indo-Pacific” depends on whether your seeing this change from the perspective of a cultural Landpower (China – with its Belt and Road Land-Power strategy), or, the perspective of a cultural Seapower (Japan – with its Asia Pacific Growth Corridor Sea-Power strategy). See the difference, between split and joined terms? It is quite possible to be a cultural Landpower that uses Sea-Power strategy (as in the case of the US and India today), or vice-versa a cultural Seapower forced by cirumstance to adopt a Land-Power strategy (as in the case of Cold-War Britain).
But that still leaves the question of [how] the UK would choose to deploy force on the ground in support of Great Power power-projection ambitions…? Future Force 2020 sees saw the Army with two Armoured Infantry brigades composed of 70t tanks and 45t IFV’s and Artillary, and the Navy with a ‘legless’ Light Infantry brigade (that would be too dangerous to put across a beach these days). The Army chose Strike; a new medium-weight Brigade structure designed for long-range deployment with a minimal logistic and engineering support burden, using dispersion to avoid attrition and aggregation to achieve effect. However it lacks the budget to birth the news brigades as it stares down the barrel of block-obselescense of its heavy and light formations. I respectifully suggest that the future is more medium and less heavy and light, leaving perhaps one square Armoured brigade able to provide two independently usable battlegroup (and a strong Reserves component). The Navy faces its own pressures, with some seeing a vulnerable Commando function being the sacrifice we have already made to get two carriers over the line. Effectively reducing it to a naval infantry function embarked in small units across the fleet.
Now we come to the Navy, and Rusi’s suggestion on how to make 3Cdo relevant in this hostile littoral environment. It would cease to be an method of independent strategic power-projection from the Navy, but an integrated component of Joint Forces power projection from the Armed Forces as a whole. Specifically, it’s role would be to flip the hostile A2AD equation back on the adversary in a way that permits entry into theatre of Amry forces – principally a Strike brigde, but also a division scale intervention which would include heavy and light formations as part of the Joint Forces package. In doing this it also reverses cost of action back on the adversary, for it is they who must act through what is now a UK A2AD bubble. I like it. I like it a lot, and you are being encouraged to read all 70 pages of the document.
But I do have some comment on the detail the author’s provide on the force composition:
The three key trends that inform the future structure so:
1. That the raiding component is there to suppress the A2AD bubble that enables the insertion of larger more-structured amphibious forces. i.e. there appears to be a healthy future for larger scale activity within the commando function itself (albeit it a smaller component of 3Cdo overall – and at smaller scale).
2. That the commando function is explicitly a bridge between native forces / persistent UK engagement [and] the follow on divisional ‘Joint’ force. i.e. it is the [constrain] force than enables the entry into theater of the force that will [fight] (imo it also makes the Strike threat credible at medium scale).
3. This isn’t just about the Marines as an independent fighting force anymore. No, it is explicitly about allowing the Army to get onto the ground, and permitting the Carrier Strike function to get into range to support that ground operation. All terribly Purple.
Quote in support of #1 above:
“If the force is to leverage access it must therefore exploit the disruption enabled by strikes. This demands a continued ability to move mass from ship to shore quickly. The maintenance of a clear amphibious capability is the core of the concept, and if anything there is a need to move combat troops ashore faster, with tempo and firepower compensating for what must realistically be a reduction from current levels of mass.”
Quote in support of #2 above:
“A second requirement is for the amphibious force to enable theatre entry by the Joint Force, which can deliver sufficient mass to seize politically relevant objectives. Thus, there is the need for engineering capabilities to enable access for military roll-on/roll-off (RORO), port management expertise to allow disembarkation as a tactical manoeuvre, and the capacity to create a window of opportunity to protect the approach and offloading area for disembarkation and marshalling of the Joint Force”
Quote in support of #3 above:
“Within this strategic context, an expeditionary strike force would need to be flexible enough to interface with multiple partners, both traditional and non-traditional. It would also need to operate across a spectrum of conflicts, and to both reinforce and leverage the cross-government synergies envisioned by the Fusion Doctrine.107 The UK’s Integrated Operating Concept describes British operations in four phases: Protect; Engage; Constrain; and Fight. In Engage, British forces deploy to work by, with and through regular and irregular partnered forces to support them in tackling adversaries. In Constrain, UK forces deploy to either deter hostile escalation, or to deny critical ground. If deterrence fails, then UK forces will be deployed to Fight.
Graphic in support of #1#2#3 above:
The biggest curio in this paper I see is that there is great weight and focus placed on indirect fires in enabling 3x independent three mortar batteries (to shoot-n-scoot as part of rolling fire suppression) + a similar sized deep strike capability based on a battery of Himars (to flip the a2ad equation):
“The CONOPS outlined above would allow three independent troops to each deliver up to 36 rounds within a minute to achieve a high-intensity strike, or a rolling fire of up to 12 rounds per minute from three separate firing locations, moving every two minutes. The total battery would adjust from having 16 vehicles and six towed guns, to 18 vehicles, with three additional barrels and the elimination of two chassis types from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’ burden. ”
” It would need to hold six HIMARS trucks on a deck from which they could be moved by crane into landing craft or lifted by CH-47. Most importantly, the deck would be modified to support the firing of the HIMARS while afloat, needing channels to vent the back blast. The HIMARS battery would require several kinds of ammunition. First, it would need a guided multiple launch rocket system (GMLRS) munition to deliver precision strikes in support of amphibious forces from afloat. Second, it would require sensor-fused or equivalent anti-armour area-effect munitions for breaking up concentrations of adversary armour moving towards the beach.131 This would be a critical requirement to protect the Commando ashore.” Jbt – presumably at least another 18 heavy vehicles, no?
And yet the discussion around the infantry capability has this strange fixation on describing “three companies” rather than “one commando” – a sleight of hand that allows the authors to deploy them as lightweight ‘Company’ based raiding force without needing to detail the requirements for persistence or support or mobility:
“The Future Commando would comprise 500 personnel. These would be divided into three assault companies, a recon company and headquarters. Each assault company would comprise two assault troops and a fire-support troop. The assault troop would be organised into three 12-man sections. The section would be armed with two general purpose machine guns (GPMGs), two designated marksmen rifles and eight rifles. The section would also carry two loitering munitions such as the Switchblade or HERO70.136 Each troop would have a four-man command team made up of a lieutenant, signaller, sergeant and medic. The fire support troops would comprise a 12-man anti-tank section, with three four-man anti-tank guided weapon teams, a 12-man machine-gun section, with three four-man GPMG teams, and a 12-man pioneer section. Thus, the three assault companies, based on HMS Albion or HMS Bulwark, could deploy on six of the fast assault craft outlined above.”
So we have this curious scenario where 36 vulnerable heavy vehicles are tearing around a hundred square kilometres of unsanitised space on a non-stop merry-go-around of deploy-n-fire…
… and somehow these “three companies” of commandos are expected to gamely shoulder their Bergen’s every fifteen minutes to do another thirty minutes forced-march after the departing artillery batteries. Maybe they have Landrovers – so the poor Commandos tender feet are spared – but is it still okay for this 800** strong force to exist in the field without: Armoured mobility, Engineers, Logistics, etc?
** 500 commandos + 300 (?) artillery package, or, 500 commandos + 300 (?) artillery package + ~400 supporting elements (that provide the persistence support and mobility)
Why stress “three companys” when it sounds like a Commando combined-arms maneuver battlegroup? That [is] what it is, if it’s going to involve a commando and the best part of a regiment in artillery. It might be a bit smaller than what we think off as the 1800 strong ATFG (and more disaggregated as the recce company and Himars battery technically sit as part of the Litoral Strike Group force), but this [is] a battlegroup of ~1200 people ashore if fully utilised.
As Page 33 shows, the disaggregation of the Recce Company and the Himars battery into the Littoral Strike Group might explain the authors determination to describe the amphibious element as “three companys”, but it does not answer why they discuss the force package built around the Amphibious Strike Group absent the Combat support and Combat service support.
In defence of the authors, they do challenge the reader not to get fixated on the detail of the force package – which I have just done – but I do hope to see these questions answered in future.
A bright future awaits the Commandos – all over the world.