Sunday, August 30, 2020

The huge issues in the Integrated Review



Will the new Review provide an actual plan for the UK's F-35 purchase?

It is very much time to decide, because UK purchases are only planned out up to the 48th airplane. Specifically, the UK is acquiring:


3 jets in LRIP 12 (Fiscal Year 2018; delivery this year)

6 in LRIP 13 (2019; delivery 2021)

8 in LRIP 14 (2020; delivery 2022)

7 in LRIP 15 (2021; delivery was to be in 2023 but got slowed down. Just 2 deliveries expected in 2023 now)

6 in LRIP 16 (2022; delivery was to be in 2024 but got slowed down. Just 4 now expected in 2024. A total of 7 jets will thus now only be delivered in 2025)


The delay to deliveries was reported by the National Audit Office: basically, the MOD decided to delay delivery to spread out the expenditure across more financial years.


Note that Lot 15 and 16 are expected to be part of a 3-lots Block Buy (15, 16 and 17). The final production contract for this Block Buy, which will be as always concluded by the US Department of Defense on behalf also of the international partners, has not yet been concluded but will be in the near future.

The UK currently has no known plan for what to do with Lot 17: will it contain any UK aircraft? Will it be a complete gap year?  

In practice, beginning in 2023, the UK F-35 purchase is all up in the air.


The "138" number is probably entirely unfeasible. Many observers have been aware of this for years now, and I’ve written and tweeted about it many times over. Lately, with reports in the Press, it has emerged that this awareness is becoming very much “official” with the Integrated Review discussion reportedly focusing on having 70 accepted as the “minimum credible fleet size” to be pursued.

To me, and to several other observers, this is no surprise and no shock. Arguably, it is merely a measure of realism.


For several years now, the number 138 has arguably had zero actual relevance in regard to what the operational fleet can aspire to be.

The infamous key phrase to hang on to the number 138 was “the aircraft will be purchased over the life of the programme”, means the numbers would be spread over many years. Thanks to the MOD’s usual vagueness and deliberate murkyness, nobody even knows how many years.

The annual Major Projects Report has the F-35 programme end date as 31 March 2035, but how this should be interpreted is open to debate. Would 2035 see the last delivery? If so, the last order would have to be placed 2 years earlier, in 2033. Or would 2035 see the last order placed?

According to other interpretations, “over the life of the programme” should be read as “out to the aircraft’s Out of Service Date”, which is tentatively scheduled for 2048 as of these days (with the understanding that this will move to the right by potentially decades, as always happens).

Clearly it would be spectacularly dumb to be purchasing jets just before removing the fleet from service, and there cannot be absolute certainty that the F-35 production line would still be open at all by then. There are fair chances that F-35s will still be in production, but it’s just an assumption.

Not knowing on how many years the purchases are going to be spread out obviously makes it impossible to gauge the relevance of the total number. If purchases are spread out over decades, the actual available fleet will never grow beyond a fraction of the total.

Purchases very late on in the life of the programme might well be replacement airframes to make up for operational losses, or new-build machines purchased instead of replacing early production lot aircraft on value-for-money considerations.


In short: 138 was never going to be the F-35’s in-service fleet size.

138 F-35 would suffice for 6 or 7 squadrons, maybe more, but there is no manpower and no infrastructure for that to happen. That's why the number is meaningless and has been for years.

We have only ever been told there would be 4 F-35 squadrons.


And it would be very difficult indeed to create more.

The RAF currently has 7 frontline TYPHOON Squadrons and has repeatedly made clear that they want to try and squeeze an 8th one out, from a fleet of 140 machines (160 have been procured in total, but 1 was written off after a belly landing at China Lake in 2008; 3 were instrumented production aircraft for development and the Tranche 1 two-seaters have been withdrawn and dismantled for harvesting spares).

If you had 4 F-35B Squadrons, the total is 11 to 12 frontline Fast Jet units. The RAF hasn’t had this many from before 2010. And, notoriously, in 2010 the RAF shrunk down by 5,000 posts.

There clearly does not seem to be any manpower margin to create more Squadrons, even if there was the money to procure the airframes.


The fact that 70 F-35s are being described as the bare minimum requirement offers hope that the number of squadrons to be formed is still 4. A fleet of 70 to 80 jets should be enough to deliver that kind of force structure.


But again, there are too many things we do not know. One being the number of years in which the force will be built up. If 70 merely replaces 138 as a “through life” objective, we might well never see that many in service at the same time, and thus the number of squadrons would have to reduce.

If purchases are slow, the last 2 Squadrons might form only very late on, perhaps even beyond 2030. That would be very, very late indeed.


“70”, “138”, or whatever other number of airframes is individually almost meaningless.

If the Review finally gives us a realistic plan for the formation of the last 2 planned Squadrons by 2030, I invite everyone to leap with joy. 617 Squadron is operational, 809 will only stand up in 2023. What we need to see mapped out is the road that brings us to a third and a fourth frontline squadron.

The exact number of airframes is entirely secondary. Obviously, the more are purchased the easier it will be to form and sustain the fleet in the long term, but adjustements can be made. Less “attrition” aircraft purchased might be balanced by a greater investment in spare parts. Eventual losses should be faced with an eventual, occasional future purchase from a hot production line rather than by acquiring spare airframes early on, which will be difficult and expensive to keep up to date as the aircraft evolves.


I will be happy, quite literally, if people stop pestering us with a meaningless 138 number without dates attached to it in favor of an actual plan to get to 80 in 4 squadrons in an acceptable timeframe.

In fact, the UK should not commit to a fixed number of F-35s, and especially not such a high number. There will be time to make future purchases from a hot production line (for example if TEMPEST encounters delays, which is, let’s be honest, almost certainly going to happen; it always does) without having to unnecessarily constrain the Equipment Budget right at this time. 


My chief worry is that cutting back on the distant, long-term total number is in itself going to generate zero savings in the short term, were the financial problem sits. What needs to be settled satisfactorily is the timeframe 2023 – 2030 (2035 at the very latest).

This is especially true because the closer we get to 2030, the more F-35 will have to contend with TEMPEST for the same slice of budget. If you want TEMPEST by 2035 it means expenditure ramps up very quickly indeed. The UK has pinned on TEMPEST the future of its Aerospace industry and of its international credibility as a country able to lead a programme of this complexity. As a consequence, TEMPEST is an absolute priority and F-35 will inexorably tend to get crushed under its growing burden.


The real question is: can the UK afford another circa 40 F-35B by 2030? It would require the purchase of 5 jets per year beginning in 2023. This should not be unfeasible (the UK has ordered 6 or more jets in every year from 2019 to 2022) and is less aircraft per year than several other F-35 countries regularly order, but we know that the Combat Air budget is not looking very roomy in the next years and the RAF will have TYPHOON upgrades to fund; TEMPEST to develop and, hopefully, the LANCA unmanned loyal wingman to acquire. The same, small share of money will have to be cut up among these main programmes.

The situation is thorny enough that, I will repeat it again, 70 jets should make us all rejoice, provided that they are acquired over a reasonably short timeframe.

The real nightmare scenario we face is the impossibility to even do that.


Late 2020s and early 2030s will see TEMPEST expenditure ramping up more and more. As a consequence, I feel that the bulk of F-35 procurement will be over by 2030, by lack of money if not by design. Every effort, in my opinion, should be directed on getting those other 2 Sqns of F-35Bs by that date. And it is not going to be easy. It is in no way a given.

It is to be hoped that getting to 4 F-35B Squadrons will still happen, and that it will happen in a reasonable timeframe. The RAF will be severely short of Stealth capability until that happens, and the aircraft carriers will have a very hard time embarking a meaningful air wing. It would be a very embarrassing situation, as well as a dangerous one.


One welcome side effect of this much needed injection of realism is the fact that, if the RAF is at all sane, this will be the end of the ridiculous “Split Buy” idea. The fleet needs to be made up of one type, the B, which can work from the carriers as well as from land.

The F-35A is individually less expensive, yes. Has a slightly longer unrefueled range, yes. And can carry larger weapons in its internal bays, yes.

While these justifications are all true, the numbers (money, manpower and thus number of Squadrons, number of airframes) were never  sufficient to truly justify a split buy and were never going to be unless there was to be no TEMPEST. Splitting the fleet would result in tiny, operationally-ineffective fleets and in near-empty aircraft carrier decks.

The F-35A’s “advantages” would be totally illusory as well: the aircraft would be cheap, but there would be new costs associated to running two separate sub-fleets. Despite much commonality, F-35A and F-35B are not and will never be the same thing and there would be a constant fratricide struggle for securing a slice of the budget for covering the respective “unique” needs.

Moreover, the RAF does not own or plan a single payload which would fit the F-35A’s larger weapon bays but not the B’s ones. The large payloads are too large for both; the others fit the B just fine. So that is, and has always been, a moot point. Looks good on paper but never meant a thing in the UK’s context.


Hopefully, with the formation of the next two Squadrons now officially in jeopardy (unofficially, they have been uncertain for years to all who could look at the facts with the necessary realism) and the total number of airframes being revised downwards by 50% or even more, everyone will realize how utterly demented the idea of a split is.


The last time there was a 2-Squadrons small fleet, said fleet was offered up for the ritual slaughter because it was “too small to be sustainable and to support any sort of enduring operation, at sea or on land”. And honestly, it was. 2 Squadrons are too few to rotate in and out of task in a sustainable way. 4, ideally 5, is the number you are looking for.

That ‘s why the reduction of the number of squadrons in 2009 sealed the fate of that fleet, well before the 2010 SDSR even started.

That fleet was the HARRIER GR9 fleet. The number of airframes, ironically enough, was still 72 when the cut was decided. The number of crews and frontline squadrons operational on the type determined the cut, not the number of airframes.  


Whoever suggested that splitting the F-35 purchase in two to create not one but 2 barely-sustainable small fleets, both too small to meet their requirements, was being very unwise when 138 jets were still the assumption.

Whoever was to still insist on a split buy now would be, and I will unapologetically say this no matter how many might feel offended, an idiot. There really isn’t a kind way to say it.



CHALLENGER 2 Life Extension Programme


There is now a consensus on the fact that, if CHALLENGER 2 cannot be very decisively upgraded, it might be better to just remove it from service because it is suffering severe obsolescence, including in its main armament. The problem is well known: the rifled gun is a british oddity which has the drawback of employing two-piece ammunition. This means that the armor piercing rod cannot be lenghtened, creating a more effective round and putting an hard ceiling to the tank's lethality. It also means that there is no way to adopt the extremely flexible new generation of programmable, multi-mode explosive shells which are critical to counter reinforced positions and urban obstacles. 

I do not disagree on this assessment. The CHALLENGER has aged badly. It is also underpowered: its 1200 HP engine was arguably already inadequate when still new, especially considering that the british tank is heavier than its 1500 HP-powered counterparts. More weight and less power are a bad combination, that even the hydrogas suspensions cannot balance. 

What is extremely irritating, if not downright dishonest on the Army's part, is to come up with this radical assessment only now. Up to literally last year, the official position was that CHALLENGER 2 had no major lethality problems and only needed a refresh to optics, communications and electronics. 

For years i've written about the CR2 LEP and campaigned for the Gun and Powerpack to be at the very heart of the programme,. I went so far to suggest that LEP had no real sense to exist if the main issues were not to be considered. I did so before it was even confirmed that Rheinmetall was bidding a re-gunned upgrade solution, as this 2016 article shows

Yet, the Army initially launched LEP as a very limited obsolescence-removal effort, and it is only thanks to Rheinmetall's courage to show up with a new turret with the smoothbore 120/55 (what the Army wanted but did not dare asking for) that we are now looking at a LEP that, if it will progress, will actually mature the CR2 into that "world beater" it was falsely described as for all these years. 

Specifically, the latest Major Project spreadsheet, released in July and current to September 2019, reports on the sudden "change of heart" regarding CR2 LEP: 

The scheduled baseline project end date at Q2 1920 (30th September 2019) is 31/07/28, has lengthened by 791 days since last year's Q2 1819 date of 01/06/26, due primarily to the following factors;

 - In this period the programme's scope was expanded from obsolescence only to include enhancements to its lethality and survivability. The expanded scope has also lengthened the time to complete the work and increased cost over the assessment, demonstration and  manufacture phases.  These dates are currently subject to negotiation and will be confirmed when the full business case has been approved. 

The baseline Whole Life Cost at Q2 1920 (30th September 2019) is £1,304.19 m, due primarily to the following factors;

 - This reflects the financial position following the capability uplift endorsed by HMT. This sees a capability uplift and extension to the Main Battle Tank out to 2035.

Speaking to the Defence Committee, the Chief of the Defence Staff, previous Chief General Staff and mastermind of Army 2020 and Army 2020 Refine, General Sir Nick Carter, said that it has been "realized" that the CHALLENGER 2 needs the lethality upgrade to effectively face russian armor. 

I think the requirement is now pretty clear, and that is one of the reasons why Challenger 2 is taking a long time. It is because there was this realisation that the programme was not ambitious enough. It needed a smoothbore gun. It needed the ability to put a missile down that barrel to overmatch Armata, as you rightly describe. It needed its protection levels to be significantly enhanced. So the requirement has evolved. I think the Army now has a very clear idea of what it needs. The trick now is to find the resources to get behind what
it needs.

[Note: the mention of a "missile" can be interpreted as a new requirement for a gun-fired ATGW missile, but it seems that Carter was just being very "byzantine" in describing what is just the APFSDS round, but the longer-rod one enabled by the smoothbore cannon]

Carter's words do not reflect positively on him and on the Army as a whole. If they couldn't see the need for upgrade before 2019 they were not doing their job properly. 

The Army, of course, knew perfectly well that the gun needed to change: it was, in fact, looking for solutions already in the early 2000s, when the Challenger Lethality Improvement Programme was tentatively launched. It was in 2006 that a CHALLENGER 2 was first retrofitted with a 120mm smoothbore gun, in fact. Swapping the gun was never an issue: the issue was in the complete redesign needed to fix ammunition storage spaces and make room for the much longer single-piece rounds. This is the main issue to this day: the driver behind the need for a new turret. 

Have they forgotten everything about that phase? Was Carter being overly kind to his political masters, to the point of having the Army shouldering more blame that necessary? He was not shy earlier in the same hearing saying that it depends on money: why, then, say something as hopelessly stupid as this about CR2 lethality problems suddenly "dawning" on an oblivious Army...? 

The handling of the whole CHALLENGER 2 saga is horrible, and it makes me think very unpleasant things of the Army and of the current Chief Defence Staff. 

It strikes me as a binary choice: either there is staggering incompetence at play, or there is a fundamental dishonesty. 

The sudden "extremism" on the CHALLENGER 2 LEP issue at a time in which the risk of seeing the whole fleet axed for real is staggeringly elevate is very puzzling indeed. Up to last year they were fine with doing little more than changing radios and thermal cameras; now it's all or nothing. 

It's a terribly risky gamble. 

If not a deliberate ploy to direct the incoming cuts exactly in that direction. 

It feels like the 2009 reduction to the number of HARRIER Squadrons, which effectively made cancellation of the whole fleet the following year a foregone conclusion. 

Maybe i'm being overly harsh. Maybe my suspicions are unfunded. But it very much smells to me like an underhanded move on the part of what i suspect is a "wheeled faction" which seems to have gained the upper hand within the Army since 2015. 

I've long suspected the existence of a fundamental disagreement at the heart of Army planning between Tracks proponents and Wheels supporters. The dramatic change of priorities in 2015, just after the massive AJAX contract was signed, will always have me wondering. 

It is safe to say that, whatever the final outcome, as far as i'm concerned, the sooner General Carter's era ends, the better i'll feel. The original Army 2020 plan was a mess that had to be fixed with a long list of U-turns in the following years, and Army 2020 Refine now risks to destroy what's left of the British Army. It could hardly have gone any worse than it has. 

The prospect of the Army losing its MBTs and IFVs is one that is very hard to stomach. The destructive effect of such a decision would ripple farther across the force structure than most realize. It would be a life-changing injury for the Army. In the graphic below, I tried to evidence some of the less immediately-evident ramifications of such a scenario.




This graphic shows some (not all) of the true implications of doing away with the tank.
This graphic shows some (not all) of the implications of doing away with the tank. 


What is most infuriating about the tracked heavy armour situation is that the Army has laid its head into the guillotine all by itself. As we wait to see if the blade descends or not, we might contemplate the fact that in late 2019 the MOD signed into a 2.8 billion pounds contract for 523 BOXERs, as part of a Mechanized Infantry Vehicle contract which has an overall budget for procurement and first few operational years that is given as 4.6 billions in the latest Major Projects spreadsheet.

It is a fact that the Army put itself into this thorny corner by making BOXER its absolute number 1 priority, despite knowing that these 523 vehicles are a mere start, insufficient in numbers and variants to cover the need of the 2 STRIKE brigades.


In an alternate universe, the British Army has not strayed away from the 3 armoured  brigades of Army2020; has not yet bought a Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (MIV) and is making do with MASTIFF in its place but has but those billions into continuing the job it had started on Armour, getting CHALLENGER 2 LEP and WARRIOR CSP under contract and is, as a result, riding out the Integrated Review with a lighter heart.

This is a fact, and no hindsight is required. I’ve been shouting warnings for 5 years about the STRIKE adventure, as you will know if you have been following me for a while. I’ve collected hate from multiple corners, but I’m sadly, once again, proven right.

Believe me, I would very much like to be proven wrong in these cases, but it does not happen.

In pursuit of a concept that remains uncomfortably vague, the Army has put its core capabilities into a guillotine.


The MBT – IFV combo is the heart of any modern army. As the graphic hopefully helps understand, the ramifications extend across multiple formations and roles. All of that would have to be re-imagined and re-built around new concepts and new vehicles. This would be very expensive… and thus would likely not happen. Not anywhere near the scale that would be required.


Doing away with MBTs would require a very honest and very significant downgrade to national ambitions; a complete re-write of how the Army fights and against what kind of enemy it can go; and the rebuilding of the force structure around new and different vehicles and sources of firepower.


The problem is the UK would probably do none of the 3. Multiple governments have shown not to possess the necessary coherence and honesty to admit that having less capability only ever means doing less, not more. And the expenditure required to rebuild the army would be monstrous. If the tanks are cut for lack of money, you cannot possibly expect big amounts of money to be available right away, if ever, to launch a complete reconstruction of the force.


The Army would be left with BOXERs for some 4 infantry battalions, and plans for 4 regiments on AJAX. And that would be it. Half of 3rd Division would virtually cease to exist in one go, and since 1st Division is mostly only an empty shell containing multiple Light Role infantry battalions, there would be very, very little left to work with.


This is not the time to lose the MBT. Such a decision would also shut Britain pretty much out of any attempt to secure an industrial role in future MBT programmes. One popular option that gets mentioned a lot is “joining the franco-german Maing Ground Combat System”. There are multiple issues with this: France and Germany are not really looking for partners to treat with any equality. Industrial opportunities for other countries will be extremely limited. The UK would be welcomed as customer, not as partner.

And even if this was to change, the UK will have very little chance to secure any important industrial role simply because the relevant capabilities in this sector will have gone.


Rheinmetall BAE Land Systems is offering an incredibly fascinating option for a deep modernization of CHALLENGER 2: a whole new turret. This solves the ammunition problem of the CR2, which is the only NATO tank that uses 2-piece ammunition, which prevents the armor-piercing rod to be lengthened, thus hard-capping lethality. The CR2 ammunition is increasingly obsolete and is an oddity that offers zero commonality to NATO stocks and developments. No path to greater armor-piercing capability (important in the light of new Russian developments) and no chance to adopt modern programmable explosive rounds either. The new turret has been tested on a CHALLENGER 2 hull armed with the NATO standard 120 mm smoothbore and the very latest ammunition.

The new turret also comes fully digitalized and with modern systems, including new optics shared with AJAX, offering logistical commonality.


The first LEP demonstrator by Rheinmetall (now RBLS) focused on a "conservative" approach by going with the standard 120/55 smoothbore. 

The second demonstrator, publicly unveiled only last July, is more radically new as it comes with the 130/51 smoothbore. The turret is the same, but fitted with extra armour on the front and sides, possibly also as a form of counterweight for the cannon. Rheinmetall is betting big on this turret and this cannon; for them the CHALLENGER 2 LEP is an exciting opportunity, but the turret is very clearly aimed at future developments (MGCS) and at the LEOPARD 2 upgrade market. The first CHALLENGER 2 demonstrator was showcased at the NEDS show in the Netherlands in 2019, along with the 130 mm shell. It was a hint of what was coming, and a clear sign of the turret being meant for far more than just CHALLENGER. In the Netherlands, nobody cares about CHALLENGER. LEOPARD 2, on the other hand...

But more than that, the new turret is a product that Rheinmetall is using to develop next-generation solutions that could find a vast market in the future as LEOPARD 2 customers around the world take an interest.


In July it was revealed that the new turret, mounted on a CHALLENGER 2 hull (presumably the 2nd of the tanks given originally to Rheinmetall to become demonstrators for LEP proposals) has been trialed with the new 130/51 gun, which offers an estimated 50% lethality boost.

This new cannon is not yet a given for the franco-german MGCS, but is expected to eventually be officially picked, and it is assumed it will become a NATO standard in time as a consequence.


Clearly there is a risk that, in the end, the new gun won’t be so widely adopted. Or perhaps it will only be adopted over many years.

Then again, every risk comes with an opportunity. There is a more than real possibility that this new gun will only grow in relevance in the future, and that it might pick up big export orders.

If the UK became the launch customer and got RBLS to launch production of the turret, gun and ammunition in the country, the heavy armour industrial capability of the country would go from moribund back to very healthy. It would be much easier to secure a role into a future tank programme too. Perhaps even have a leadership position into an alternative programme to the franco-german one, with countries like Italy and Poland not at all thrilled by the virtually inexistent role for their industries if they were to buy into the MGCS.

Rheinmetall is likely to be sympathetic with a UK base for the new turret and gun because London is less likely to impose bans that prevent the company from bagging massive and lucrative middle east contracts. The german parliament has killed off several opportunities that Rheinmentall would have loved to pursue.


There is a huge opportunity within reach. In order to make CHALLENGER 2 fit for the next 2 decades, the new turret is a must. And whether it is armed with the 120 mm or the new 130 mm, new ammunition will have to be part of the expenditure. Arguably, this is exactly the time to be bold and adopt the new gun.





MIV is a huge part of why the Army’s budget is in trouble, but BOXER is a good vehicle, and there are understandable reasons for wanting wheeled armour. Ideally, there should be both fully tracked and fully wheeled brigades, but the British Army does not have the resources to make it happen anytime soon, and so a different approach is required.


As I’ve written multiple times, I think the best compromise that can be pursued from where the Army currently stands is the French one. This means giving up tracked IFVs in favor of wheeled ones.


WARRIOR CSP is not yet under production contract, and since the base hull, even after the upgrade, shows all the limitations of age and of a powerpack that is not being replaced with a more modern and powerful one, it might be wiser to just abandon the project and the whole fleet.


The money (more than 800 million are earmarked for the WCSP production), the 40mm gun and the turrets should instead be put into BOXER.

Integration of the turret into a BOXER module should not be overly complex. Lockheed Martin fit one onto a BOXER and carried out some early trials, including weapon firings, as far back as 2015. While these industry-led demonstrations involve integrations that are far less mature than one might think, there should be no reason for the turret not fitting on a troop-carrying module.


The turreted BOXERs would then be mixed with the APCs already on order with the aim of eventually forming 8 battalions: 2 for each Armoured and Medium brigade. There are many reasons for me to formulate this recommendation, but they all more or less stem from the following main considerations: the Warrior hull is old and tired and the CSP does not quite solve that, nor does replace the old powerpack; an all MIV fleet helps standardization; having the infantry on wheels helps the Army be more self-deployable and means the precious few Heavy and Light Equipment Transports (89 and 77 respectively) are free to focus on moving the MBTs and other tracked platforms, such as AJAX and TERRIER; having at least a portion of the BOXERs well armed with a 40mm gun means that, apart from being able to get to the fight, they will also be able to fight. The current MIV, armed like a SAXON, can get there but can’t get into a fight, only drop its infantry a safe distance back. 

With thanks to Jon Hawkes (@JonHawkes275) who dug up these old slides and posted them on his Twitter. He is a must-follow in the field of Armour. 

Finally, plans for a new tracked support vehicle to replace FV432 seem to have died entirely, and it would border on ridiculous to field a 28 tons tracked Warrior supported by wheeled 8x8s weighting close to 40.


Boxer is a modern and well protected hull, and if the Army cannot afford a proper split of tracks and wheels, on balance of merits and defects, wheels should probably take precedence. This is what France has done with the VBCI replacing the last tracked IFVs of the Armee de Terre. 

It is a compromise, since there a tracked IFV will always have a greater ability to run down obstacles and dug-in positions and will always have greater all-terrain mobility than a wheeled platform, but I feel it would be a good compromise all the same.


Again, a priority for me would also be to re-evaluate the variants of MIV to be procured, reducing to the bare minimum the number of ambulances and command posts in favor of pursuing instead a 120mm mortar and an ATGW variants as well as, potentially, more APCs / IFVs to increase, if at all possible, the number of mechanized battalions in the Army. With over 500 vehicles already on order, it should be feasible. I’ve written about this in greater detail in a previous article.  


The Ambulance role and, wherever possible, the C2 role would be instead “offloaded” onto much cheaper Multi Role Vehicle Protected variants. Regarding MRV-P, I’d personally urge the Army to finally proceed with the programme with the aim of rationalizing the current dog’s breakfast of multiple “mini” fleets, getting rid progressively of Husky, Panther, DURO, Pinzgauer and part of the Land Rovers.

My favorite for Group 2 would be the Thales Bushmaster, to be assembled in their Glasgow plant as promised by the company and by the Australian government.


I do realize, however, that a quiet, unspoken further delay to the whole of MRV-P is likely, as it defers expenditure into a vague, undetermined future.

Further pre-Integrated Review reading material: 

- Amphibious without ships  - There is no amphibious capability without adequate ships and ship to shore connectors. A look at the USMC reforms and the question mark over the Future Commando Force

- A different angle to "difficult choices" - If the UK really doesn't want to spend money to maintain its capabilities, it needs to at least be wise on what it invests on. Building on strengths is more cost-effective than trying to reinforce weakness. 

- The many weaknesses of STRIKE - 5 years on, there is still not a consensun on what STRIKE is actually good for. And it is becoming painfully clear just how much it might cost the Army to pursue this plan. 

- Towards the SDSR 2020 - This was written in December 2019, before the COVID spending generated the current psychosis around public expenditure. While we wait to understand if HMG chooses to obsess about Debt reduction and launches a new Austerity drive (hopefully not), the overview of the main issues remains valid. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The sad farcical pre-Integrated Review: amphibious without ships

One area of massive concern ahead of the Integrated Review is the UK’s amphibious capability. Despite the attempts to put up smiles and talk of “exciting” times ahead for the “Future Commando Force”, it is impossible not to notice the horrendous persistence of a question mark on the fate of the amphibious ships that give the Royal Marines their meaning. Worse still, there are some very, very goofy attempts constantly going on at laying justifications for the loss of amphibious ships, mainly the LPDs of the ALBION class, using wildly inaccurate comparisons with the “USMC giving up its MBTs” or even statements as absurd as “the days of storming a beach are over".

Let me be absolutely clear from the very beginning: “the days of storming a beach are over" is another one of those typical british nonsensical claims generated purely by fear that budget cuts in an incoming SDSR are going to strip the capability to do so away. It is simply not in any way true and it is ludicrous to see people arguing otherwise.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but sadly it appears many need to hear it:
Nobody “storms the beach” because it is a pleasant or easy thing to do. It is done because it is sometimes beneficial and sometimes simply non discretionary to cross a significant body of water to access strategically relevant territory.
Amphibious maneuver might simply be indispensable to dislodge an enemy from a position; in order to access a theatre of operations; in order to force the enemy to spread out its forces along its coast, weakening its defences in other areas as a result; or even to turn the flank of an enemy front too solid to be dealt purely with through “frontal” assault on land.
Seas, islands and shores are not going anywhere and so isn’t the need to be able to move significant force over water, onto the shore and beyond. There will be occasions in which littoral maneuver is simply non discretionary because geography, both physical and political, dictates it.

And why beaches? Simple: because the enemy is not stupid enough to directly give up a port. If getting directly into a port is an option, obviously everyone is very happy to go for the port as unloading ships in port is countless times faster and safer and easier. But the enemy will make sure the ports are well guarded and / or timely sabotaged. Having the ability to land substantial force over an undeveloped beach and maneuver from there enormously complicates the enemy’s defensive needs and plans.

There are legitimate concerns about the ability to assault “defended beaches”, but first of all we should better define what a "defended beach" is. Many seem to automatically revert to images out of Omaha beach and imagine infantry charging in shallow waters at Atlantic Wall bunkers.
But nobody today would be able to defend in that way. Not even China has enough army to do that, and if you forced them to do it, it would be a victory in itself with how many troops and resources it ties down along countless kilometers of shore. Not to mention that precision weaponry of today means that the fortifications of a new Atlantic Wall would quickly turn into large graves.

A defended beach today is more likely to be a stretch of coast which can only be approached from directions which are covered by reconnaissance assets, perhaps with ground-launched anti-ship missiles in range and with the threat of enemy air assets as well as ground-based air defence such as long range Surface to Air Missiles. Enemy ground forces over and in the immediate vicinity of the beach are unlikely to be substantial, but mechanized units will be ready to move along the coast to timely meet an invasion force. For example, Italy during the Cold War developed the 8x8 tank-destroyer CENTAURO specifically to create wheeled, medium-weight formations which could race along the coastal roads to contain a soviet amphibious force landing (presumably) on the Adriatic coast. Now the TYPE 16 tank-destroyer being fielded by Japan is a continuation of that general idea.

These overlapping layers of defence are commonly identified as Anti Access; Area Denial (A2AD) “bubbles”, although this arguably tries to attribute to these threats a degree of novelty which they do not really have. A major feature of war has always been the need to prevent the enemy from accessing / taking over an area. What was a fort, a coastal battery, is not A2AD of its time?

What is “new” to A2AD is that, potentially, offensive weapons are currently seen as having better chances than the defences. In the endless struggle between “sword” and “shield”, we currently feel that the “sword” has the advantage. In other words, in the West, we no longer trust our warships to be able to cope with enemy missile and air attacks. We fear that modern technology has made it so much easier to detect, track and attack ships out at sea that getting past the “coastal batteries” might no longer be possible.

As I’ve written already while talking of the other commonly heard trope that “aircraft carriers are obsolete”, it is not the carrier that has grown more vulnerable than it was in the past, but it is our escort ships and embarked air wing that we no longer trust. If we feel we can’t operate the carrier / amphibious ships safely, the actual implication is that we do not expect the escort ships and embarked fighter jets to be able to defend them.

The answer to this fear cannot be “let’s do without carriers and amphibs”, because that would weaken the fleet even further (no air wing to fight the air battle with) and remove much of the purpose of the whole fleet. If the carrier cannot be defended, what can we defend? If warships cannot defend each other in a group, they won’t be able to prevent the enemy from cutting off the sea lanes either.
Basically it would mean we have lost not just control of the sea, but the ability to make any use of it, tactically and strategically. If we believe this, very urgent action is required to improve the “shield”.

But in truth, much of the argument against carriers and amphibs is born more out of interservice rivalry over insufficient budgets than by actual strategic and tactical thinking. If the latter was driving the policy, we would be talking of how to improve escort ships and their missiles as well as the capabilities of the embarked air wing. To be fair, it must be noted that some in the US are actually calling for an Air Wing rethink, but unfortunately they are an exception in a discourse which is otherwise a completely partisan battle for the budget, not for the sea.

But the USMC…

In this sad debate, largely devoid of actual technical content, many will happily mention the USMC reforms and their offer of their MBTs in sacrifice to free up funds for other capabilities as a sign that “storming the beach” is a thing of the past.

Some claim that the future is “raiding” to be conducted with small boats, stealthy infiltrations of small groups of Marines and helicopters for the rest, with little to no space for surface maneuver. They want this to be the future of the Royal Marines and they even claim this is what the USMC is doing.

Thing is, the USMC is definitely not giving up on surface maneuver. The moment an amphibious force does that, it ceases to exist, or at least it ceases to matter.

Using raids, stealthy infiltration of small and agile combat elements and carrying out “Commando” work, sabotage, reconnaissance and target acquisition in favor of the fleet is of course important and it is right to pour more effort into improving tactics and equipment for achieving greater effect. It is also rational to reduce the vulnerability of the force by coming in smaller groups from multiple directions at once: dispersion is an effective way to reduce vulnerability to the mass of long range fires some enemies are able to deploy.

Ultimately, however, raids and long range insertions of small bodies of troops to push the enemy back from the shore are pre-landing force work. The multiple pinpricks they directly deliver, and the much greater damage they can cause by calling upon and coordinating Joint Fires are meant to weaken the enemy defences and ideally drive them back from the shore to allow the fleet more freedom of movement, eventually all the way up to the landing of a mechanized force. All these activities (call them Commando work, if you must) are not new, and while we might evolve them and make them deadlier, they cannot, in isolation, in any way be the future of amphibious capability.

If you can raid but not land, you are essentially arguing to become a master of foreplay but with no actual capability to continue with the main act.

The USMC is definitely not giving up on its ability to go ashore with a significant force. It is not giving up on beaches and it is not aiming for “helicopters and boats”. If you actually read the papers about the USMC restructuring you will see that they actually intend to sacrifice several helicopter and even some tilt-rotor squadrons in order to free up funds. Specifically, Heavy Lift helicopter squadrons are due to drop from 8 to 5; attack helicopter squadrons from 7 to 5 or less; Tilt Rotor squadrons from 17 to 14.

Some of the funds will go towards one of the greatest priorities so far identified, which is the purchase of 30 more amphibious ships. Much smaller, simpler and “attritable” than current large amphibs, but, interestingly, actually able to beach themselves like the LSTs of old, and thus able to disgorge a significant load of vehicles or stores, all the way up to MBT size.  

Why would they want that?
Because their new concept of operation definitely still requires the landing over the beach of significant amounts of heavy equipment. While they recognize they must put the enemy in front of a much greater number of individually less attractive targets (30 ships means almost doubling the current amphibious fleet) to begin to change the dynamics, they know they can’t do that by turning amphibious capability into 8 or 12 Marines in an Offshore Raiding Craft with little or nothing behind them.

While the exact shape of the new amphibious ships for the USMC's future concepts has yet to be decided, the concepts make clear that landing heavy stuff on a beach is far from a dead requirement. 

The USMC wants to create multiple dispersed forward operating bases ashore, some of which equipped as forward arming and refueling points for aircraft up to F-35B or even F-35C (the latter is more complex, for obvious reasons, but the USMC has the capability to lay longer AM-2 strips and install deployable arresting wire sets). The Forward Bases will effectively become their own A2AD bubbles, armed with long range rockets and missiles, including anti-ship weapons. Indeed, the USMC plans to greatly reduce its holding of howitzers (from 21 to 5 batteries) but to treble the number of HIMARS rocket launchers and missile batteries equipped with even smaller launchers (from 7 to 21). Notably, the USMC is investing in an unmanned vehicle, the ROGUE, which is a JLTV without crew and topped by a launcher for GMLRS rockets or other munitions, including the Naval Strike Missile anti-ship weapon. The ROGUE is smaller and more easily deployable than even HIMARS and, obviously, is more remorselessly sacrificed. The USMC has also requested in the 2021 budget a first purchase of 48 TOMAHAWK missiles for launch from the ground, with the expectation that they will go for the new TLAM MK 5A Maritime Strike variant, aka the one fitted with an active seeker for use against warships at sea as well as moving targets on land. While it might be feasible to move ROGUE by helicopter (the USMC will have the massive CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift machines, after all), it is clear that in order to actually beef up and sustain the forward bases there will be an enduring need for surface manoeuvre. Only landing craft, or the new beaching amphibious vessel, will be able to deliver the quantity of stores, ammunition and combat vehicles required.

Test firings of a NSM anti-ship missile from a ROGUE prototype are expected soon. This new launcher has the firepower of a HIMARS in a smaller, attritable package. 

The new USMC Marine Littoral Regiment is still experimenting to find its final shape, but it is centered on a slightly smaller but “more powerful” infantry battalion mixed with long-range Fires, including anti-ship missiles. The Regiment obviously has its own dedicated logistic battalion. And, very significantly, there is a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion, which will be absolutely central to the success of the plan. Let the full implication sink in: a battalion of infantry, a battalion of air defence assets. That’s one special ratio of infantry to air defences.

For now there has been very little discussion about what exactly a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion will end up looking like, but personally I expect the USMC will move to field ground based anti-air capabilities with ranges and lethality going far beyond the remit of the current Low-Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalions. Investment currently is focused on providing a modernized SHORAD and Counter-UAV capability with weapons and sensors on JLTV vehicle bases, but it is reasonable to expect that much longer ranged SAMs will follow. It is only logical: the USMC “A2AD” bubbles will need to not only threaten ships but to help the fleet at sea in the fight against enemy long range missile and air attacks. The USMC is already working to ensure its ground-based radars can seamlessly share tracking and targeting data with the Navy’s and with the Army’s own air defence networks, but they will need to be able to put ashore their own long range SAMs, so I fully expect substantial investment in this direction.

The USMC forward bases, some of which will be decoys and some of which will be used rotationally, with frequent moves from one to another, are clearly meant to be “sponges” for enemy long range fires. Imagine forward airfields that can enhance the striking range of F-35Bs as well as fire Naval Strike Missiles, TOMAHAWK and other long range guided weapons: they constitute a threat that no enemy can ignore. Dispersion, movement in and out of bases and use of small and expendable weapon systems such as ROGUE, with a great number of small, cheap vessels shuttling the force around mean that suddenly, the target is much harder to eradicate and it starts absorbing more and more long range fires and more missiles. Especially so if it comes with its own anti-missile defences and can shoot down some of the incoming weapons, as well as “taking the others on the chin” without becoming combat-ineffective.
Imagine a few of these deployable A2AD bubbles forming a loose chain around a stretch of shore. Suddenly, the defender is the one struggling to get troops into the area to hold it against a force coming ashore.
You can see how the new USMC approach starts to change the picture.

The USMC having no MBTs of its own is more detail than substance when you realize that they will have the same, or indeed a much greater ability to put MBTs ashore if they so need. The USMC commander, General David Berger, has been very clear about what his thinking actually is: “We need an Army with lots of tanks. We don't need a Marine Corps with tanks.”

That phrase, alone, is enough to shoot down any wildly inaccurate claim that the USMC thinks the tank is obsolete, or that “storming the beach” is no longer a thing. It makes sense for the USMC to accept some sacrifices and a greater dependence on the Army’s own formations, if it can lead to a better overall result by enabling investment elsewhere. Not to mention that this is the United States of America that we are talking about: Congress might still decide to provide additional money and prevent some of the proposed cuts from even happening.

Even if all cuts do take place, please note that the USMC will no longer have tanks but it will have a very significant number of 8x8 vehicles, both for reconnaissance and screening (a LAV-25 replacement is in prototype phase) and for the infantry fighting.
The new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) destined to replace the AAV-7 will have far better on-land combat value than its predecessor, and the USMC is acquiring not just the APC variant but an IFV / Combat variant with turret and 30 mm cannon. This is an enormous capability uplift from the .50 HMG plus 40 mm Grenade Launcher in the tiny turret of the gigantic and vulnerable AAV-7.

While it is notionally planned that the number of Amphibious Assault Companies will drop from 6 to 4, this still means the USMC will have the ability to move 4 full battalions of infantry on 8x8s (note: each Amphibian Company of AAV-7s, and in the future of ACVs, is able to lift a whole battalion of Marines. The Amphibian companies are grouped in 2 battalions), maybe more considering that the individual battalion strength is expected to go down around 200 elements from the current 850. Overall, the number of infantry battalions itself is expected to go down from 24 to 21, so the reduction in vehicles is proportional to the overall force restructuring. 

The Reconnaissance Companies (currently mounted on the lightweight LAV-25 8x8) are at the moment penciled for an increase from 9 to 12, meaning that significant “cavalry” support will also be available.

In short: the USMC is certainly not giving up its ability to land a substantial force and maneuver aggressively inland. They will sacrifice their remaining 7 companies of MBTs, yes, but they will gain more capability elsewhere and will still be more than able to put ashore tanks. They will be army tanks, but that is secondary.

The Royal Marines have given up way too early on trying to secure an amphibious 8x8 future for themselves. The UK could use that kind of capability in many ways and scenarios, including on the continent. The complete absence of any amphibious armour in the UK's inventory (beyond the modest VIKING) is twice as surprising considering how much experience the British Army has collected in the Second World War on the usefulness of amphibious armour in getting acrosss rivers, littorals and flooded areas. 

The Future Commando Force

It is very worrying instead to observe the Future Commando Force work through a series of botched interviews and news releases and endless rumors which all reinforce the unpleasant feeling that we are staring at nothing more than a capability cut.

It is widely speculated that the ALBION-class LPDs will be lost at the Review table, and probably without any kind of replacement.
Not even the infamous Littoral Strike Ships.

In the last article on the Telegraph, the Littoral Strike Groups (one in the North Atlantic / Arctic area and one East of Suez) are described as nothing more than a Company-group held afloat on a single BAY-class LSD each. The possibility of the LPDs going and the LSS never happening is spelled out without much hesitation, and yet the annoyingly false pretense of “evolution” is pushed forth in what would be, with those premises, nothing but an insult to any thinking brain. 

Single company groups deployments on lone BAY class LSDs, but also on the LPD at times, have been happening for years under the heading “Special Purpose Task Group”. A SPTG based on HMS Albion operated into the Pacific in 2018, for example, while one on Lyme Bay operated in the Mediterranean. Eventually, the groups reconnected for an operation at more meaningful scale during SAIF SAREEA 3 in Oman.

Reorganize the Company-group all you like, add some UAVs and cameras on the helmets and a new uniform and C8 rifles in exchange for L85A3s, but what are you actually going to achieve?
Not much, frankly. It will still be an SPTG, in the end. With the same limitations due to operating from the very same ship it has been using for years. 

What would be new if the loss of the LPDs was confirmed would be the inability to do anything more than SPTGs. No ability anymore to do something at battlegroup scale. No ability to put ashore a mechanized force of any relevance.
That is not an “exciting future force”. That is a disastrous death for the UK’s amphibious capability.

“Dealing with new threats” has clearly nothing to do with the structure of such a force. A BAY is in no way more survivable than the LPD. In fact it is built to more relaxed standards, which make it even less of a hit-taker, in pure survivability terms.
It is not any better armed than the LPD. It does not come with new generation ship to shore connectors that enable the Royal Marines to get ashore faster, from further away, or just more stealthily. A forward deployed, one-ship Littoral Strike Group, or Littoral Response Group, depending on who you listen to, is in no way more useable or useful, than what could be done with the current amphibious ships.

I can trust the Royal Marines’ judgement on what they are trying to do with tactics for 12-man groups operating more dispersed, more “Special Forces-like” once ashore. But, dramatically, I see little to no attention paid to how to put troops ashore in the first place. Going back to what I wrote at the beginning of the article, it feels like we are debating all sorts of details about pre-landing force work, but completely ignoring the landing bit.

What we really need to see is ships, ship to shore connectors and vehicles talk. It’s impossible to take seriously the hype about “future force” without the actual fundamentals being secured. Until there is such a huge question mark over the fate of the ships and craft needed to lift and insert and sustain the force, everything else is secondary at best.

In all seriousness, if an amphibious force isn't even sure it will be able to hang on to its defining capability for lack of shipping, throwing money at new uniforms and C8 rifles is more infuriating than exciting. Is this expenditure truly necessary, considering that the amphibious capability as a whole is hanging by a weak thread…?

What if the LPDs go but Littoral Strike Ships come in?

Much would depend on what capability the Littoral Strike Ships would come with. However, for what we have seen and heard so far, the LSS was definitely heading into MV Ocean Trader territory. That is, pretty much, a POINT-class RoRo with a flight deck and hangar bolted on top, as well as an enlarged accommodation block added to the superstructure.
If this is the LSS, losing the LPDs to purchase them would be madness.

Let us be clear on one thing, once and for all: the LSS concept was born as a (very) poor man's LPH replacement because the current amphibious fleet's greatest weakness is the lack of aviation facilities.
The combination of ALBION and BAY classes was originally conceived with the expectation that there would be 2 LPH covering the aviation side. Of course, 2 LPH quickly became 1 (HMS Ocean) and then 0 today.
In absence of the QE-class carrier at readiness, the LSS was (is?) going to provide a forward deployed group with some hangar space, a big flight deck and extra lift to compensate, again, the loss of the substantial capacity that Ocean ensured.  
You might remember that the Commando Helicopter Force was thinking in terms of “Units of Action”, aka modular sub-squadron groupings of helicopters, indicatively described as 4 MERLIN plus some WILDCAT for the reconnaissance, escort and light attack roles. An air group similar to the one we can observe on RFA Argus right now in the Caribbean.

The PREVAIL concept is the best visualization we have been given of what an LSS could be. It would be a fantastic low cost floating base for forward presence, but makes very little sense as LPD replacement. 

A Littoral Strike Group of “2-3 ships”, centered on an LSS and comprising a BAY and eventually an LPD, would have been a significant forward-deployed force, especially with an helicopter “unit of action” on the LSS.
When the idea was proposed in these terms, it all made sense.

But if you start to picture the LSS as an LPD replacement, you are much better served by doing nothing and keeping the LPDs you have.
The LSS as imagined so far has nothing particularly magic about it and while it might carry several boats / Offshore Raiding Crafts it is highly unlikely to have any real ability to land heavy stores and vehicles unless she can use a port or go real close to shore to make do with Mexeflotes. It is no better than a normal POINT sealift vessel, in this particular regard. 
Which means that, whatever kind of fantastic insertion concept you want to imagine with RHIBs, "boats and helicopters", the only thing the LSS has that other ships in the amphibious flotilla don’t, is the hangar for maintenance on the helicopters.

Even if there was anything truly smart to "using boats and helicopters only” and withdrawing the LCU MK10 from service losing your heavy lift capability in the process, and there is not, you could do that extremely well from the existing LPD. You can fit plenty of boats in the well dock and vehicle deck; the davits have already been tested with CB90 combat boats in place of LCVPs, the flight deck can operate 2 CHINOOKs at once.

Which also means, again, that the LPD can do better than the BAYs as well. Whatever you can imagine doing from a BAY with "boats and helicopters", you can do better from the LPD. More boats and more helicopters, literally.

Capability-wise there is exactly ZERO reasons to lose those ships early, whatever concept of operation you want to fantasize about.
If the LSS is to be a replacement and not an addition, again there is ZERO reason to bother.

Beyond small boats, what defines amphibious capability is the possibility of inserting ashore a mechanized force with meaningful combat power. A force almost as agile as an airborne one in terms of deployability at range, but at the same time one which comes with armor, with mobility, firepower and sustainability that air insertion cannot give you.

For this fantastic, unique attribute to be true, however, you need LIFT. You need the right ships to carry that force, and the right Ship to Shore connectors to send that force ashore. Lose the LPDs and you've lost much of the LIFT (especially so if you get nothing at all in exchange, obviously) and the very vast majority of ship to shore capability. A single LPD operates 4 LCU MK10 and 4 LCVPs. The smaller well dock on a BAY can handle a single LCU MK10. The whole fleet of 3 BAYs combined is still one LCU short of what a single LPD gives you.
It's really simple math.

And since the carries thankfully exist, i'd rather take the lack of aviation facilities in the forward deployed element, knowing the carrier can at least be used when really needed, than go for the lack of ship to shore, which nothing else in the fleet gives you.

Talk money, if you have to. But whoever thinks the LPDs are a problem capability-wise is clearly not in touch with reality. Don't even try to spin it in capability terms, it destroys your credibility. 
Whoever thinks that using the BAYs alone has anything to do with “new scenarios” and “A2AD making it impossible to storm the beach like before” is equally living in fantasy.

What is the aim, at the end of the day?
What is the actual aim of the Future Commando Force work carried out by the Royal Marines? What is the desired end state, the actual thinking for the future?

Obviously the Royal Marines are not in the financial position for pursuing their own anti-air formations and follow the USMC lead, but what is being done, or at least thought of, to improve the capability at least a bit?

What does all the talk about “working more closely with the Navy” actually entail? For what we are reading right now, not much. Beyond the role change of 42 Commando, which has already happened, I don’t see much. The forward presence through BAY ships is more of a Navy realignment with the Royal Marines than the opposite, simply because the BAY class has been increasingly called away from the amphibious role in order to cover all sorts of other requirements, from disaster relief in the Caribbean to the enduring requirement for a mothership in support of the MCM force in the Gulf.

With 3 BAY ships in total, one of which tied down in support of the MCM force, keeping up a constant routine of forward deployments in the High North and East of Suez would exhaust the entire fleet. It is a concept of operations which will entail unavoidable presence gaps for lack of shipping whenever a BAY hits refit time.

The loss of amphibious shipping will also mutilate the role of 3 Commando Brigade in Norway and the High North, just after the UK has committed itself to a 10 year plan of support to its ally. Without the ships to lift a sizeable force and insert and move it with agility along the Norwegian coast, 3 Commando brigade is just another Light Infantry brigade with a problem of how to get to Norway in the first place and how to move quickly around the country once there. Its actual usefulness in the area drops down to minimum terms.

I hope there is a bit more to this Future Commando Force than cosmetics, but so far it looks like shuffling of chairs on the deck of a sinking ship. None of the work we’ve heard about is tackling any real requirement connected to actual amphibious work. The last time there was an attempt at something genuinely helpful was almost 10 years ago when the PACSCAT fast landing craft and the CB90 combat boats were extensively tested. Those could have been engines of change. Adding this or that UAV is helpful, and changing uniform might make a lot of difference to the individual soldier's comfort, but none of these small bits does a future force make.

Ultimately, is there is going to be no actual amphibious lift and capability left, the logical consequence must be the immediate disbandment of 3 Commando brigade, with the transfer of 29 Royal Artillery, 24 Royal Engineers and the Logistic Regiment and the VIKINGs to an army brigade in 1st Division, so that at least one brigade can be rescued from the current state of insignificance. If there is no capability to insert it from the sea, there is no reason for it continuing and being a drain on the Navy’s budget. Thanks to the VIKINGs, an Army brigade can take up the mountain / arctic role (if at least that is to be retained in some form, at this point there is no telling what the UK is even trying to do anymore), while 40 and 45 Commando should just be disbanded. They would be reduced to the status of infantry as expensive as Special Forces but not equally free of political caveats on their employment.

42 Cdo would remain to cover the “actual” maritime roles, as it already does; 43 Cdo will stay as long as the nuclear deterrent stays, in order to ensure its security; and 47 Cdo might still become something useful if, out of the massacre, they can at least buy actual combat boats for littoral / riverine support to the Navy.

Imagine what an actual maritime force multiplier a battalion more similar to the Swedish amphibious force, or the US Navy riverine squadrons, could be: if 47 Commando was equipped with well armed combat boats with decent range, something like CB90 or larger, it could actually complement other warships.
Imagine a BAY used as mothership for a substantial number of combat boats, deployed to somewhere like the Gulf, in a scenario of protection to commercial shipping, like we saw very recently. Fast, highly mobile combat boats cannot beat back a major Iranian offensive on their own, but they can virtually “multiply” HMS Montrose. In the vast majority of realistic scenarios, the presence of a suitable Royal Marines combat boat would be enough to dissuade attempts to seize the merchant vessel, even if the nearest frigate was a long distance away.

An expensive hollow force without a clear role is not needed: the British Army already maintains a whole Division of loosely put together infantry without supports, always on the lookout for a reason to continue existing. 3 Commando brigade should not join the count of the “fake” brigades.

But if it does because the disastrous decision to cut the amphibious ships is made, then I’m left to hope that there is the dignity and courage to at least be honest about the implications and follow through with reductions which can at least generate some actual savings in terms of manpower and money to devote to other priorities. 
The worst possible outcome is to mutilate amphibious capability to save the few dozen millions spent yearly for the LPDs, but continue sinking money on a brigade no longer able to carry out its mission.

If you really need to save money, at least do that decently. If you kill a capability to save pennies and gain no real personnel / budget headroom to do anything else anyway, you are shafting yourself twice.

Ultimately, the UK needs to decide what it wants to be. This is the one decision that constantly gets skirted around.

If the worst case scenario for the Integrated Review, which has been leaked to the Times today, ever comes to pass, the UK must be honest with itself and spell out the consequence: it is finished as a military power of any relevance. Not global, not even regional. It will be a small player with some absurdly good capabilities still in the arsenal merely because they are the ruins of what existed before. The whole structure, however, is losing so much coherence and stability that the comparison with other countries is increasingly humiliating. 

What we absolutely not need is the UK pretending to still be relevant and capable while mutilating itself.

Exactly like we don’t need the Royal Marines pretending to be an amphibious force for the future while amphibious capability actually vanishes.

Sort out what you want to be, with honesty.