Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The enduring role of the Amphibious Force



The MOD defines Littoral Manoeuvre as the “exploitation of the sea as an operational manoeuvre space by which a sea-based, or amphibious force, can influence situations, decisions and events in the littoral regions of the world. This will be achieved through an integrated and scalable joint expeditionary capability optimized to conduct deterrent and coercive activities against hostile shores posing light opposition.

In simpler terms, the ability to insert a significant land force from the sea is one of the primary outputs of a Navy and one of the key attributes of Sea Power. Keeping things equally simple, this is because the overarching truth of war is that the final effects of any military operation are felt on land. Theorists of Land Power like to remind everyone that wars are ultimately won on land, and that is certainly true. As long as humans will live on land, that will always be the case. The whole utility of Sea Power is not conquering salt water, but influencing events ashore through the denial of the sea to the enemy; the protection of own forces and economy freedom of movement at sea and sea-based strikes through Fires (missiles, naval gunfire), airpower (the carrier air wing) and land power (the landing force).
The golden age of Britain coincided with the historic period that saw economies worldwide at their highest ever dependency upon the sea. The Royal Navy dominated those times through a form of sea denial (working to keep the main competitors “trapped” in European waters) while projecting british power abroad with its ability to put enormous pressure ashore. The “gunboat” diplomacy was literally built upon the Navy’s ability to bombard ports and littoral towns into submission, land naval brigades to storm targets ashore and sail up the major river networks to reach deep inland.

Amphibious warfare became more complex and demanding over time, and it soon became impossible to land a “naval brigade” from a single warship and have sufficient strength in it to achieve decisive results; yet there are signals of a partial return to the age of “every ship an amphibious ship”. The embarkation of a relevant number of Marines in frigates and destroyers is becoming increasingly important once more in an age of hybrid threats. Marines are excellent to counter piracy; Marines can go ashore for small raids, rescue operations, first response to terrorism or disasters and for many other tasks, from defence engagement and local capacity building to more kinetic operations.
In modern times, a fleet on fleet clash has become a very rare occurrence, while the need for rapid response to events ashore has increased steadily: gunfire support, deep strike inland, blockades, counter piracy and disaster relief are frequently required.

The MOD’s Future Character of Conflict document notes that human populations and their economies remain dependent on the sea, and they are once more gravitating towards the shore.

‘In the future, we will be unable to avoid being drawn into operations in the urban and littoral regions where the majority of the World’s population live and where political and economic activity is concentrated’. (Future Character Of Conflict)

70% of the world’s urban areas are found within 60 km from the shoreline, and a further 10% growth in urbanization is expected in the coming years. 8 of the world’s 12 megacities are in the littoral zone.
 ‘We will not want to fight in urban areas, but the urban environment represents in my view a highly credible worst case – and we would be foolish indeed to plan to fight only convenient battles against stupid adversaries. Urban areas are where politics, people, resources, infrastructure and thinking enemies converge’
 (Designing the Future Army: Ex URBAN WARRIOR 3 First Impressions Report – 14 Nov 11)


The Army has concluded in its “Agile Warrior” studies that it is highly likely that over the next ten years it will be called to operate in a densely urbanized battlefield; and human geography dictates that this is highly likely to happen close to the sea.


The urbanized littoral

There is a current of thought that sees the increasingly urbanized littoral as an issue for amphibious operations. The proliferation of man-made infrastructure on the coast might negate or complicate beach landings, and the number of ports is constantly increasing.

In reality, urbanization of the littoral is at least as much an opportunity as it is a problem. Landing a military force in absence of port infrastructures is a very complex and dangerous undertaking. Amphibious forces land on beaches not because we want to capture a sandy strip of shore, but because the enemy will be closely guarding its ports. The whole point of any amphibious operation is to remedy to the impossibility to land directly in a port, and in any major operation the amphibious force’s first objective would be to secure some port infrastructure to exploit.
Beaches are more numerous than ports, more dispersed, and thus far harder to guard and defend. Littoral manoeuvre seeks first of all to land where the enemy is not. When talking of amphibious assaults most people appear to think of the scenes of Saving Private Ryan, but that is completely misleading. There is no country in the world today that can build up an Atlantic Wall, and the amphibious force commander will always seek a weak spot to violate. Think San Carlos waters: that is an opposed landing, with a very dangerous air threat, but with little immediate presence of enemy troops close to the beach. The Royal Marines were able to land in Egypt as well, during the Suez crisis, without any "Omaha beach" scene. They also stormed Al Faw peninsula in Iraq in 2003, although mostly by helicopter insertion from the sea side, as their supporting vehicles took an indirect route, avoiding the beach initially selected for the assault because it was mined. In that occasion it was not thought necessary to clear the beach, and the risk was simply bypassed. 
There is a perception in some quarters that amphibious operations are too risky and are not realistic anymore, but insertion from the sea has actually been one of the most frequent actions the British forces have been asked to carry out beween 1945 and today. 






The ever growing number of harbors and ports on the world’s shores is seen as a negation of action spaces for the amphibious force, but in truth it represents a new opportunity: any port, even a small one, is better than a beach as it immensely simplifies and speeds up the flow of stores, vehicles and troops ashore. In light of this single truth, more ports means that the enemy has even more entry points it needs to guard and protect. This will force an even greater expenditure of troops and resources in the attempt to defend the coast. In turn, this will leave beaches even more exposed.
The amphibious force in the urbanized littoral will need to be able to clear more and greater man-made obstacles and will need to be prepared to fight in an urbanized space, but on the other hand will have greater chances to secure port facilities early on. This makes entry from the sea more viable, not less. 

Urbanization of the littoral also means that more and more economic interests will be concentrated in “easy” reach of the sea-based force. A highly mobile force inserted by the sea could rapidly inflict crippling damage to an enemy nation's infrastructure.


A2AD and STRIKE

Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2AD) is today’s main concern in military planning. Whether we should consider this a new thing is at the very least debatable, since warfare has always comprised a whole series of efforts to prevent the enemy’s movement into a given area. Some area-denial systems have been around for decades (the ever present mine, but also, to stay in the littoral, the shore-based missile or gun battery) and others are more recent and descend from the normal evolution of technology (UAS, the ubiquitous shoulder launched missiles, both anti-air and anti-tank, all the way up to ballistic missiles, including the nascent anti-ship ones). Is A2AD truly new? Arguably, no. The means have evolved, the aims and the application, not so much.
Is A2AD a reason to abandon amphibious operations? No. What concerns military planners is not the enemy’s wish to deny an area, as this has been a fact of life in warfare since the night of times, but the perception that, in the endless fight between “sword and shield”, the sword currently has the upper hand.
Whenever amphibious operations or aircraft carriers are called into question the real problem that emerges is an evident lack of faith in the current escort ships and their weapon systems, for example. In the land domain, there is finally an awakening to the fact that there are rivals out there which could actually strike western forces by the air, something for decades has been more or less unthinkable. Different other areas of warfare that the west has neglected for many years are now, inexorably, advantages that opponents are well equipped to exploit.
Few of the problems that compose the A2AD conundrum are genuinely “new”.

The US and British Army, which both came out of Afghanistan and Iraq in a bad position and in countries now very much averse to new ground operations abroad, have immediately picked up on the A2AD discourse to find new arguments for Land Power. In the US this has generated the Multi Domain Warfare doctrine; in the UK it has brought about “Joint Land Strike” and the Strike brigade.
The underlining argument is that in presence of A2AD threats which could deny access to air force and navy elements, the land forces will manoeuvre in deep against the adversary to take out key nodes of its multi-layered defences.
There are many questions connected with this concept, particularly in the British case which puts way too much emphasis on Ajax and a wheeled 8x8 APC, formulating highly questionable hypothesis about what they will achieve once teamed. There are also some merits, however, and the expectation of having to deal with a wider battlefield involving great distances to cover seems justified by recent experiences, from Iraq to the Ukraine conflict.

The Strike Brigade is based on the ambitious concept of deploying a medium armour force ahead of the heavy armour brigades. From the Air / Sea Port of Debarkation, the brigade would then be asked to move up to 2000 kilometers to secure objectives and hit enemy weak points through mobility and a greater freedom in the choice of routes. Dispersion is the key to Strike, with the experimentation seeing independent groups from Battlegroup down to Troop level operating independently in up to 60 points of presence. Among the many doubts that this concept raises is the very issue of theatre entry. An Air Port of Debarkation is mentioned but it is pretty much impossible for the UK to ever be able to deploy a Strike Brigade by air. The US Army once hoped to deploy a Stryker brigade by air thanks to the USAF’s C-130 fleet, but it soon became evident that only C-17 had an hope and the whole concept more or less vanished away. It takes 15 C-17 sorties to deploy a single Stryker company group, which the US Army keeps at high readiness in support of its air assault component, and that is with an APC that weights a good 10 tons less than any British Army MIV candidate. To do the same, the British Army would require the maximum lift capacity the RAF is equipped to express. 
The Strike Brigade, just like the armoured brigade, is firmly tied to a Sea Port of Debarkation. The crews might well come by air, but their vehicles almost certainly will not. One of the hypothesis of employment that have circulated include the “replacement” of an amphibious landing by a debarkation in a friendly port in a nearby country followed by a road move to the objective, in order to avoid the enemy coastal defences. While this might have some merit in some circumstances, unanswered questions include how the Strike Brigade would deal with the Land and Air firepower available to an enemy well equipped enough to put up such an A2AD bubble. An enemy with the kind of capability required to shut the Royal Navy out of the picture will be more than able to batter back Ajax and wheeled APCs and moreover will have the capability to strike back against the nearby country which allows the Strike Brigade to disembark. This, in turn, might well mean that said nearby country will not want to open its ports to the british contingent to avoid being drawn into the conflict. A2AD includes not only the kinetic means of area denial, but also the political ones: lack of access to an area can be due to multiple different factors.

The need for a sea port is unchanged, and will remain unchanged until air transport becomes able to deal with the weight and volume associated with military operations. Today it simply is not an alternative.
As long as the vast majority of goods in trade and supplies in war will need to travel on ships, ports will be the key to a country’s future and to the feasibility of any military option.
The amphibious force is the only instrument the UK has to gain access to a shoreline when ports, for whatever reason, are not immediately available.

For the rest, the Strike concept borrows quite a few pages from amphibious forces’ concepts and doctrine. After an amphibious landing it is important to move rapidly inland and secure objectives before the enemy can respond in force. The mobility and dispersion of Strike have much in common with the attributes and needs of littoral manoeuvre.
Increasingly, amphibious forces around the world are seeking speed and agility to evade the threats lined up against their operations. Fast landing craft make it possible to keep the amphibious ships far from the shore, out of range of most weapon systems. From there, fast landing craft can take multiple directions, further complicating the task of a defender.
Long range insertion of troops by helicopter is used to create a defensive screen around the landing zone and to beat back the enemy presence. The USMC has brought this concept to its present day pinnacle thanks to the MV-22 Osprey, that has the range and speed to push one thousand miles inland when necessary.
Once ashore, the landing forces are relaying on increasingly mechanized elements that give the protected mobility and firepower needed to push deep inland. “Strike” as a concept is familiar to any amphibious force. The USMC is looking for an 8x8 armored vehicle to increase its ability to push rapidly and decisively inland. 
The Royal Marines have sadly fallen behind these developments. They were the first to employ helicopters for vertical encirclement during the assault on Suez, but in more recent times their attempt to stay up to date has been frustrated by lack of funding. Their Fast Landing Craft programme is on hold, leaving them to operate the terribly slow LCU MK10, which requires the amphibious ships to sit just a few miles away from the shore. Their Force Protection Craft requirement remains unanswered, meaning that they lack the fast, agile combat boat they need to escort the landing craft in and out of the littoral area; to suppress enemy defensive positions on the coast; to insert small reconnaissance and raiding teams and to push deep inland exploiting rivers. Their mechanization has not progressed beyond the Viking, while elsewhere 6x6 and 8x8 are becoming increasingly common.


ARES trials: beach landing from an LCU MK10 

There is an unjustified disconnect between the Army and the Marines, despite the fact that their operations are always closely connected. Any “Strike” concept worth of the name should be very much part of the amphibious capability discussion and vice-versa.
The Royal Marines, conversely, have attempted to carry on bypassing the constant cancellation of their equipment programmes by promoting themselves as a lighter, “quasi Special Forces” element with their “Special Purpose Task Group” approach. This is single Company groups, inserted chiefly by air and carried by a single ship, useful for very small scale, very short term raids.
While this approach has its own uses, it is not amphibious warfare and it will not represent a strategic option for the UK nor a role substantial enough for the Royal Marines to survive. There is no specific need for Royal Marines for boarding an helicopter and going ashore light for a short, quick task. Plenty of other infantry units, beginning with the PARAs, can do that, and the entire Corps would end up crushed to death between a Navy short of money for ships and an Army eager to protect its own capbadges.

A USMC MEU is always resourced with a troop of Abrams tanks. MBTs remain invaluable for clearing out enemy resistance and provide protected firepower. The british amphibious force should see heavy armour with much greater frequence as well. 

The amphibious force’s true value is in the fact that it gives a capable, medium to heavy entry option that air assaults simply cannot match. Ships and landing craft carry everything that helicopters and cargo aircraft cannot carry or anyway cannot insert in enemy territory. Landing craft can bring ashore a mechanized battlegroup mounted in Viking and reinforce it with anything up to Challenger 2 MBTs. This is the true value of the amphibious force: it deploys with the protected mobility and firepower needed to carry on complex, demanding tasks which are beyond the possibilities of an air assault force.

It is time for the Marines and the Army to forge a much closer alliance and work together on ensuring that the UK retains an adequate forcible entry capability.


Be a hero where you need to be and where you can be one

The UK does not have the budget to do everything it wishes or even needs to do in order to be a global power. For example it is not in a position to be a major continental power matching the mass of armoured and mechanized forces fielded by its allies.
What it needs to do is decide where it wants “to be a hero” and resource those areas appropriately.
Amphibious warfare is one such area. The UK needs to retain its amphibious capability because:

-          Any operation it decides to mount abroad will pass through one or more ports. Without adequate amphibious and port opening capabilities in support, any future operation will only be possible if someone else secures a port of entry. It would signal a dramatic loss of operational independence, much more definitive than the current limitations imposed by lack of mass.
-          As “Global Britain” attempts to secure new allies and new markets in the Middle and Far East, its naval group will become more important than ever. The Navy’s Expeditionary Force will be the face the UK shows to potential allies and opponents in Asia, in an area where the sea, islands and shores are key. Lacking the ability to go ashore in force would severely curtail the value and capability of the task group.
-          There is every reason to believe that the urbanized littoral is where interests, risks and opportunities will concentrate. Human populations continue to concentrate near the shore or along rivers, canals, estuaries and lakes for their economic value and for their impact on a nation’s road network.

The UK is in a good position to be a world leader in the amphibious arena as it has arguably the greatest treasure of know-how of anyone in the West, thanks to a history of operations that include Suez, the Falklands, Kuwait and Al Faw. It already has most of the pieces in service and paid for. It already has one of the most significant amphibious components in NATO.

With the carriers coming online the big pieces are all in place, and the United Kingdom, in a rare moment of wisdom and awareness of its potential, had actually also taken leadership of a NATO Smart Defence initiative to develop a strategic Port Opening capability to enable theatre entry. Unfortunately, nothing has ever been heard about it since then, even though this is a capability that would be simply invaluable both in war and in peace (for example for disaster relief, such as after the Haiti earthquake, when establishing a point of easy access from the sea is vital). The UK can be a world leader in this area, with relatively tiny investment.

The blueprint for the UK to be a leader and framework nation in littoral manoeuvre is also the blueprint for the survival of the Royal Marines in the future. Going lighter and lighter will soon make the Corps redundant. The future of amphibious capability is “Strike”. While the current Army “Joint Land Strike” concept is very questionable and the structure proposed for the Strike brigade completely out of tune with the stated ambition, the value of an expeditionary, mechanized force is not in question.
Such a force hinges on a Sea Port of Debarkation, and the Marines are a key capability to ensure there is an entry point. Unsurprisingly, one of the very first scenarios to be war-gamed in the simulators at Warminster for the Strike Experimentation saw the Strike Brigade, supported by the amphibious task group, enter a notional African state where they faced a “multi-faceted” threat dispersed in a complex environment.

The key to the future is going ashore heavy, not light. A mechanized force is required to face complex threats and deal with vast battlespaces. The Marines must focus on how to be part of that force, and on how to get a larger army force where it needs to be. In the short term this means retaining the LPDs because they are key enablers for such a “heavy” entry.
Longer term, resurrecting the Fast Landing Craft is a key requirement to increase the survivability of the whole force by enabling the amphibious vessels to launch the assault waves from over the horizon.
The Force Protection Craft should become a primary responsibility of 42 Commando now that it has been forced into becoming the “Maritime Ops” specialist. The FPC is needed to accompany the Fast Landing Craft in its long transit from amphibious ship to shore, protecting it from threats including fast attack boats, suicide boats and other hybrid threats that could be lurking in the littoral. The firepower of the FPC would also provide intimate support in the early phases of the landing. It will be particularly important for suppressing enemy anti-tank missile teams, which represent a grave danger to the landing crafts.
The FPC should also be used to regenerate a true, powerful riverine capability to perpetuate Strike along the waterways.


A US Navy Riverine Command Boat (a development of the swedish CB90) operating from a RFA Bay class LSD in the Gulf. These assets provide force protection and reach, including up rivers. They can operate hundreds of miles away from a mothership, turning a single vessel into a "task group" perfect for Littoral operations and counter piracy 

The Marines and the RLC’s Port regiment should work together around that “Sea Port Opening” capability that the UK took the lead of within NATO but never did anything about. Opening a port is fundamental for progressing an operation after the initial landing: the UK is only equipped to land a single battlegroup, and can only augment that assault force by reactivating the mothballed LPD and by taking ships up from trade.
Large transports, beginning with the Strategic Sealift RoRo vessels (the Point class, unfortunately cut from 6 to 4 ships in the 2011 round of cuts) need to insert a larger army force if the operation is to achieve its aims.  


What would be lost along with the Albion class

In light of the above considerations, few cuts proposals ever made less sense than the rumored withdrawal of the Albion-class LPDs.

An Albion can operate 2 Merlin or even 2 Chinooks at the same time, but does not have a hangar. That is an unfortunate weakness, but when the two LPDs were designed the expectation was that there would be two LPHs to accompany them. Surface assault and air assault were deliberately split on two separate platforms, but problems began very early on when the two LPHs became one, today’s HMS Ocean.
With hindsight, a class of two large LHDs, combining the surface assault and air assault capabilities in a larger hull, would have been a more sustainable choice, but there is no easy correction now. With air assault needs covered by the second of the QE class aircraft carriers, it is imperative to maintain the LPD capability until the ships are due for replacement, in the early 2030s.

The Bay class LSDs have a flight deck that can land one single Merlin. They have no hangar. Today they are regularly seen with a shelter that provides an enclosed maintenance space, but for a major amphibious operation this structure might actually need to be removed to restore the full capacity of what was designed as cargo deck.

The LPD carries 4 LCU versus 1 and has four times more well dock space, enabling two lanes operations and keeping up operational tempo to enable the delivery of more waves during one night period. The Bay class ships have a well dock dimensioned for a single LCU MK10. This was a welcome last-minute addition to their design. Still, a single Albion carries one LCU MK10 more than the whole fleet of 3 Bay LSDs put together.  
The importance of the LCU is that it is the only landing craft able to carry any kind of payload up to a Challenger 2 MBT. The mexeflote raft can carry even greater payloads but it is extremely slow and unprotected and is more suited to follow-on reinforcements than first wave insertions.

The LPD carries 4 LCVPs versus zero on the Bay. The latter can only embark them as deck cargo, stealing space otherwise destined to stores and containers. It is worth remembering that an amphibious operation would already see the Marines’ LCACs (light hovercraft) carried on deck, and the group would also carry at least one of the four army workboats that are used to aid Mexeflote ops (towing, tugging etcetera) and dracone ops for delivering fuel ashore.  
Some of the LCVPs should be eventually replaced with the Force Protection Craft. In 2011 the Marines trialed the Swedish Combat Boat 90 and demonstrated its compatibility with the LCVP davits.

The LPD is fitted with the command and control spaces and communication outfit needed to run the amphibious operation, while the Bays have a much more basic communications fit, which has only been enhanced somewhat in recent years using equipment taken out of the prematurely decommissioned Type 22 Batch 3 frigates.

The Bay has twice as many lane meters of storage space for vehicles and embarks more or less the same number of troops. The tables normally detail 305 for an Albion and 356 for a Bay, but the crew of the LPD includes 40 or more men of the Beach Tactical Party, which goes ashore with the HIPPO beach recovery vehicle, a communications team, excavators and trackway dispenser to open a safe exit from the beach, enable movement of wheeled vehicles on soft terrain and push back landing craft if they ran aground, so the difference is actually much smaller.

Losing the LPD means losing the dedicate amphibious C2 centre; some aviation assault capability; most of the group's landing craft; the tactical beach party; a good share of the capacity for stores within the group and a Company-group worth of accommodations for Marines and support elements.
That is before considering that one third of the Bay class is regularly Gulf-bound, where it serves as MCM mothership, and another ship of the class ends up spending Hurricane season in the Caribbean as a disaster relief first responder. While they could both be recalled ahead of a large amphibious operation, the UK conversely would probably not want to gap those standing tasks in “peacetime”, so that without the LPDs the Marines would often literally have no amphibious ship available at all.

Without the LPD and its landing craft the UK would no longer be able to insert the current battlegroup (1800 strong including its support elements) and, moreover, it would lose the capability to insert a mechanized element. Today, an amphibious group including an LPD and a couple of Bays can send ashore the beach tactical party and a whole company group mounted in Viking armoured vehicles (16 troop carriers, command and recovery vehicles plus 4 mortar carriers) in a single wave of 6 LCUs. Without LPD this capability is destroyed. 

The Viking provides protected mobility and firepower. It is amphibious, but too slow to routinely proceed on its own from an LPD to the beach. A Royal Marines company group can be mounted, along with its Mortas section, in 20 such vehicles. An 

The loss of the LPDs would have a completely disproportionate impact on the amphibious capability of the UK, and any claim that the Bays can fill the gap is at best misinformed and completely dishonest at worst.


What the UK can have with the Albion class

Within a few more years, the bleeding capability gap caused by the early demise of HMS Ark Royal will be closed with the entry in service of HMS Queen Elizabeth. At that point, if the UK does not mutilate further its capabilities in the ongoing “review of the review that isn’t really a review”, the Royal Navy will be able to match the Expeditionary Strike Groups of the US Navy.

With one QE class at the center, carrying a company group of Marines in addition to their helicopters and at least a squadron of F-35B, the group would then have one Albion and at least two Bay LSDs. The landing force would be closely comparable to a Marine Expeditionary Unit of the US Marine Corps. This would be a potent expeditionary force, able to threaten the sea side of any opponent and valuable enough to gain influence for the UK East of Suez, an area which is inexorably growing again in importance as the economies of Asia gallop and the world’s money increasingly goes east.

The USMC MEU. The United Kingdom lead commando battlegroup resembles this force. Centered on a QE carrier, an LPD and a couple of Bay LSDs, it could field a substantial air element; 6 LCU MK10 and 4 LCVPs. The armoured element would come with Viking, with non-armoured BV-206 vehicles in support. The RM also employ Jackals. 


The acronym CEPP, Carrier Enabled Power Projection summarizes what the carriers really are about: they ensure the fleet has the air support it needs to operate in the congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained environment of current and future warfare. Without organic air power, a fleet cannot venture far from the air cover coming from land bases. Without a fleet capable to go into a contested environment, far from home and potentially far from friendly land bases. there can be no power projection at any serious  scale. With the Navy planning to have one carrier at Very High Readiness (5 days notice to move) and the other at 20 to 30 days notice to move, continuous carrier capability is a realistic aim.

A USN Navy Expeditionary Strike Group: the Royal Navy expeditionary group would have Queen Elizabeth in place of the LDH; an LPD and a couple of LSDs plus Type 45s, Type 26s and an SSN, with the RFA in support. A full spectrum response force which would be the face the UK shows to the world. 

Air power is a fundamental requisite but it is also primarily a support element. Ground operations of some sort will always be required to achieve the desired results, and the naval expeditionary force can only be considered complete if it maintains this equally important element of capability.

The value of an Expeditionary naval group is summarized as follows:

-                     It safeguards the UK’s forcible entry option, albeit limited by considerations of mass. The UK simply does not possess the numbers required to mount a large operation independently; but a powerful naval group preserves a degree of operational freedom and puts the UK in a position of leadership within a coalition effort.

-          Its global deployment is a statement of intention that is not matched by any other short-term deployment form. At the same time, it does not come with the dangers of a long term presence in foreign territory, which can generate as many bad feelings as good ones.

-          It is valued by the US as it helps cover all stations, enabling the progressive shift of US naval groups to the Pacific. The UK has not been able to provide a comparable level of assistance since its last aircraft carriers helped cover the gaps created by the US involvement in Vietnam.


-          It represents a capability that, in Europe, only France can, in part, replicate. The amphibious force is also closely integrated with the Netherlands’ own Marines and is an enduring connection link between UK and Norway as the Marines are the UK’s arctic specialists and the designated reinforcement for NATO’s northern flank.



15 comments:

  1. Good Article Gabriel,

    I would also add that if the escorts of this group are fitted with stern ramps for CB90's that that in itself also adds a further dimension. A t26 should be able to hold 3 CB90's or at least 1 and 2-6 Rhibs. This is important as it spreads the force but does get infantry on the ground allowing the LPD's/Bays to concentrate on heavy assets.

    I also think Polaris light vehicles have a role to play here as they do offer speed and some cover (limited I know but better than nothing) and with a GPMG on top are a really cheap effective way of getting rapid fire down and moving 4 people around quickly to cause havoc.

    All said and Done I think the LPD's are critical and perhaps the Bays and Argos should be funded out of the DFID budget to release money and personnel to the amphibious force.

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  2. Hi Gabriele,
    Another great article. You put your case very well.
    I am in favour of keeping the amphibious capability for the following reasons;
    a. The UK has to be an independent maritime power, as we have commitments around the world.
    b. The amphibious capability is something we can add to NATO’s capability that many countries cannot.
    However, the RN doesn’t have enough sailors to crew its current fleet and has to make further efficiency savings. So keeping the current amphibious force must mean cuts to something else.
    In my view, that means either cutting another capability, for instance the type 31, or mine counter measures or coming up with a different force structure. This again would raise problems for an independent maritime capability.
    In my humble opinion, we need to step back and have another look at the RN force structure and platforms. For I feel sure there will be no extra money coming from number 11 for any of the services.
    Is it time to look at more versatile platforms for instance?
    Platforms that can defend themselves without escorts?
    A smaller RM CDO force, but far more mobile with light armoured vehicles?
    The army having a strike brigade that is far lighter, self deployable once on land and can be landed by sea?
    There has to be an answer, but it going to have to be creative and cheaper than the current force structure and require less sailors to man.
    I have to add, seeing the RN ‘guard’ Buckingham Palace at the weekend, did make me weep,
    No sailors to crew the destroyers but sailors guarding an historic building.
    Has the UK got its priorities right?
    Phil (the cynical ex pongo)

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  3. From MikeW:

    @Gaby

    A superbly written piece. A really comprehensive look at our amphibious forces. You have defined very well the main reason for having an amphibious capability, namely: “ the ability to insert a significant land force from the sea is one of the primary outputs of a Navy and one of the key attributes of Sea Power.”

    You mention how “there are signals of a partial return to the age of “every ship an amphibious ship and how “The embarkation of a relevant number of Marines in frigates and destroyers is becoming increasingly important.” However, you also mention how “Going lighter and lighter will soon make the Corps redundant.”

    You see, I am concerned that the fragmentation of Royal Marine resources with, for instance, the conversion of 42 Commando into a specialised Maritime Operations unit, will have serious repercussions. That will leave only 40 Commando and 45 Commando in the traditional amphibious assault role. In other words, will 3 Commando no longer really be an amphibious Brigade in the full sense of the word? I am asking because The Royal Marines have always been referred to by our military leaders as being another deployable (sixth?) brigade in addition to the Army’s brigades (2 armoured; 2 Strike? - difficult to say in the present state of flux - and 16 AA Bde).



    @The first Anonymous and Phil
    Also enjoyed reading your comments. Some fascinating ideas there.

    I’m sure, for instance, Phil, that your suggestion of “The Army having a strike brigade that is far lighter, self deployable once on land and can be landed by sea?” must have something in it and there must be some way of combining the capabilities of the Army and the RMs more effectively. Haven’t worked out how yet, though!

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    Replies
    1. It is an unfortunate fact of life that 3 Commando Brigade, just like 16 Air Assault, is no longer a "real", or at least not a "complete" brigade. But reversing that cut is going to be impossible in the current climate, so it is something we have to work around. 42 Commando can be useful in many ways, and the Force Protection Craft would be a huge addition.

      With the amphibious force being involved in a new and more realistic discussion about "strike", or, as i'd call it, that "re-mechanization" of the force that Agile Warrior calls for, the brigade could be beefed up with army units.

      But at that point more than ever the Port opening capability and something like a Mobile Landing Platform to ensure that troops arriving on transports can go ashore quickly would be even more important. I was extremely happy when the UK took the lead on that NATO initiative, and it is incredibly depressing to see nothing coming out of it.

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  4. Given the budget situation and the apparent inability of the 3 services to consolidate their efforts and resources, what I say next obviously makes no sense other than wishful thinking, but what the heck:

    If the UK took a hard look and decided to, as you said it, be a hero where it can, the better option would be to beef up the Marines to something of a true Corps-level force and forgo a true, full-scale commitment to armoured warfare at a brigade or divisional level. The Marines might then integrate heavier, mechanised and armoured units to give it kick and powerful manouver, with heavy artillery, mobile or towed, to provide effective all-round fires. Say, a corps with 3 brigades of essentially light infantry with a sufficiently numerous armoured/mechanised element to move and engage in depth.

    The army would maintain, but closely integrate, the airmobile/assault element (although the utility of maintaining this even this apart is debateable), a homeland defence function through the reserves and a certain number of dedicated specialised infantry forces.

    Cut our ambitions on land, buy two more LPH to replace Albion, improve sealift and ship to shore assault assets as you suggest (LCAC, faster LCUs), a few extra frigates, why not a 4 diesel-electric subs for litteral SuW, move all tactical/strategic airlift out of the RAF (give the (Cyber)Space and Air defence of the UK).

    Aim to be able to comfortably deploy a Brigade ashore by sea or air and capable of rotating it on 6-9 month cycles in a high-end fight, a battlegroup in smaller-scale circumstances, and simple reinforced company or smaller where more generally required.

    More Navy, more Marine, less Army and RAF (a heavy price and a hard call), but one hell of fist to brandy about.

    I love reading your articles, and I was beginning to get depressed! 9th September seemed like an age away!
    Many thanks for your work.

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  5. What I'd like to see is RFA Argus, the two LPDs and three LSDs replaced by four LHD based on something like France's Mistral.

    This combination would see the crew numbers fall from 930 to 640 so it should be affordable to operate and the number of helicopter pads would rise from 13 to 64 so a much increased lift capability.

    The design task would then be to accommodate the current numbers of LCU and LCVP to maintain this capability.

    And if the French built them four ships would only cost £2 billion in total - though heaven knows how much they'd cost to be built here!

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  6. Hi Gabby, a very good article. I sincerely hope that you submit it to the relevant parliament committees and a copy to every member of both houses.
    In my view, it is time to change track on two issues to ensure we have armed forces fit for purpose:
    1.Accept that funding for the defence of the realm needs to increase.
    2.As important and inspiring as the history of many units is it is time to stop protecting cap badges, historic structures (both uniformed and civil servant) and commands. These resources should then be used to provide a balanced force.
    Mike. R

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  7. From MikeW:

    @ Anonymous (November 30th 5.43pm)

    Am intrigued by your suggestions about acquiring four LHDs. Am I thinking the unthinkable by putting forward the idea of possibly exchanging our second large carrier (“Prince of Wales”) for those ships and some other kit? The current French carrier needs replacement and our 60-tonne behemoths are not really optimized for amphibious warfare. Four ships like LHDs would probably be of more use to us. At the moment we do not have the manning capacity to get both of the carriers crewed and operational at the same time anyway. Or is this heresy to many?

    @Mike R

    “Accept that funding for the defence of the realm needs to increase.”

    Agree with that wholeheartedly.

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    Replies
    1. The Charles de Gaulle is under 20 years old and will not need replacing for another 15-20 years. I think ending up with a single carrier would be the worst possible option as then the RN would only have a deployable fixed-wing capability for ~2/3 of the time. We could not deploy amphibious forces without such air support anyway in anything but a low-threat environment so the whole exercise would be self-defeating.

      The loss of the planned second carrier has been a huge blow to the French Navy and I think repeating this would be a mistake. An amphibious capability of sorts can be maintained in other ways (e.g. multi-role support ships to replace the existing Albions and Bays) and I would rather have that than lose such a valuable asset as the second carrier. Without it the RN is a part-time carrier navy.

      In addition, if the Charles de Gaulle is eventually replaced the French will most likely want a CATOBAR nuclear-powered carrier built in their own yards. That is unless they too decide to switch to the STOVL F35B (unlikely) and even then they would want a new ship built in-house.

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    2. Using the Prince of Wales to carry Marines and helicopters does not imply not carrying F-35B at all. During a major operation the RN would seek to utilize both carriers, and indeed reactivate the second LPD as well. Intrepid was in mothball in 1982 and was reactivated with urgency and sent down South. The commanders were determined not to start the San Carlos landing before both LPDs were in place.

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    3. The addition of 400 additional crew and other changes between 2015-20 means that both QE carriers are fully crewed.

      These changes include:

      Personnel growth +1,340
      HMS Prince of Wales +680
      5 River 2 OPV +300
      2 Astute SSN +200
      Lightning Force Command +160

      Personnel reductions -950
      HMS Ocean -285
      2 Trafalgar SSN -260
      RFA Diligence (not inc RFA) -150
      3 MCM Vessels -135
      4 River 1 OPV -120

      Total change +390

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  8. From MikeW:

    @Anonymous

    Thanks for informing me of the age of the Charles de Gaulle carrier. I had not realized it was so young! Perhaps I had read so many reports of the technical difficulties it suffered earlier in its career: combustion and a smoke incident; broken propellers; abnormal noises in the propellers area; fault in the propulsion system, the suspicion that it was slightly underpowered, etc. It seemed much older than it actually was. However, I was wrong and thanks for pointing that out. I also take your point that without the second carrier, the RN would be a part-time carrier navy. I have been put in my place!

    @Gaby

    Thanks to you too for adding your clarifying comments about the role of the carriers.

    Going back to your article, Gaby, I did not realize that the Royal Marines use the Jackal. How long ago were they introduced? I watched a fairly large amphibious exercise by the RMs only a few years ago on a Cornish beach near my home and there was no sign of them then. Are they used in a reconnaissance role or what?

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    Replies
    1. They have used Jackals for a while. The brigade recce troop uses them for sure, but they are also found in use with the Commando groups as an alternative or a companion to Viking.

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  9. Hi Gabriele and guys.
    Some interesting comments, but
    I feel there is a lack of realism to the current situation.
    The RN need to find savings, both sailors and money.
    (As do all the armed services).
    A. There is NO extra money coming from anywhere.
    B. If a solution cannot be found that keeps a form of amphibious capability,
    This capability will be lost.
    My own ideas are as follows;
    Couldn’t Albion and Bulwark be transferred to the RFA?
    (Of course that would mean the loss of some RFA ships).
    The number of RM would have to be cut.
    All 3 CDO units similar to 42 maybe?
    One in the air landing role and 2 in the beach landing role?
    Abandon the type 31, and replace with OPV.
    (The type 31 seems a pointless type to me).
    I think this would be enough to save the amphibious capability.
    (If there was any money over from cancelling the 31 buy some fast landing craft).
    Phil (the cynical ex pongo)

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  10. I´m surprised no one suggested the following: since the Marines are too ´light´ at the moment, according to some, and are therefore in danger of being sidelined in favour of the ´medium´ Strike Brigades, why not just make the Marines one of these brigades? That is what the French do with their Marines (and with their Foreign Legion) as well. By getting rid of a brigade we would save a lot of money for little loss of capability. If we are really broke, we could get rid of the other Strike Brigade, and leave the Marines as the only medium armour force, taking advantage of their increased readiness levels. This though would demand the return to a land role of 42 Commando, and the return of 43 Commando to its former role, which surely could be achieved given the savings generated by getting rid of two Army brigades. Obviously the Army would not like this, but who cares? Would the advantages of having one extra Strike Brigade really outweigh the loss of amphibious capability?

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