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.


  1. Gabriele, another good full and frank article- thank you.

    I've seen the headlines on USMC and tanks but not what is proposed beyond that. RM & RN have skills & experience which I support but here the USMC lead could be followed.

    I'm not a Times follower so your report is informative. Sometimes leaks of the worst case are there to make a bad case look not so bad. The way the future commando force seems to be going is bad.

  2. Dear Gabriele
    Thank you for your well thought out piece which I am sure will get the usual brick bats from those in the Military or Civil Service who have to continue to go to extraordinary lengths to justify.
    I am sure the new Commando Force document will contain “dispersed force”, “network enabled overmatch”, “grey warfare” and my favourite as PRC just threatened to blow US Carriers out of the water “full military conflict War is dead”.
    The reality is that the MOD faces a funding crunch as the 2010 SDR never addressed the fundamental issue which is that Britain’s ambitions in the Defence world and Diplomatic world outweighs its willingness to fund them. 2% of GDP spent on defence gets you in to the game in Europe, if you wish (And to be fair it looks as if it will be necessary) to operate East of Suez, protecting shipping in the Gulf, partnering with NZ & Australia in the Pacific that takes more than 2% if you intend to play any role in Europe deterring Russia and patrolling the North Atlantic to maintain supply routes etc. So fundamentally I think unless the UK is prepared to provide greater funding than a bodged 2% (Including Pensions etc does not make a fighting force) then UK Gov must make a choice. It has to look at ground forces in the “whole” not as part of the RN, part of the RAF or the Army. To that end I would suggest that the RM’s are moved into the Army in the Reaction Force under SF Command. The budget is left with the RN to fund amphibious ships. You then use the 2 Strike Brigades and the Royal Regiment of Scotland reequipped with the RM’s Vikings (To work in Norway) to provide your amphibious force. The RM then become the Commando units that enable the Amphibious forces to unload by identifying and attacking themselves or with RAF/RN Aircraft or Naval Gunfire/Missiles to destroy defender’s capability in the area. So, 45 Commando become Mountain and Arctic Specialists, 40 Commando Becomes Strike Brigade Enablers, and 42 develop in to a Riverine, Littoral/Marine raiding force, Pilot Recovery, with the only RM’s left in the Navy are the boat operators of landing craft etc who become Navy Ratings.
    The downside the Army has to cut 7,000 personnel to accommodate the RM’s, they do this by reducing 1 UK Div to 250 personnel Regiments equipped with 4x4 Pick Up trucks maintained by Local Supplier dealerships. Problem solved UK as an Island keeps in the deployment by Sea Game, the Army becomes more focussed on being an Expeditionary Force since withdrawal from Europe, Army gets extra enablers from RM’s to bolster numbers in Artillery/Logistics etc. Want to play at being mini special forces then end up in the place Special Forces are commanded from! But give RN Budget to keep Amphibious shipping is a must. Just ask Australia how long it takes to regenerate a Marine capability!

    1. I agree that it would be more than desirable to spend more than 2%, but that is unlikely in the extreme, which brings us back to the age old question - if you have a set pot of money, ie 2%, how are you going to prioritise its spending to meet the goals of the country. This is about making clear choices and sticking to them for 15-25 years at a time (because that is how long it takes to purchase and generate a capability).
      The core problem here is that neither HMG, nor the Forces (and in particular the Army) have set out a long term set of goals they wish to achieve and then figured out how they will be achieved within the 2%. Instead we get fantasy wish lists of equipment (again I give you Ajax and 30+ infantry battalions) which aren't linked either to a clear set of goals or the budget that is available.
      I often imagine what answer for a force structure for the Armed Forces as a whole on a blank sheet of paper you would get if you set out -
      1. A finite 20 year budget of, say, £600bn
      2. A request for clear UK defence goals over that period

      I don't know, but I pretty damn sure it wouldn't be what we currently have......

  3. Among the "big three" missions/capabilities: carrier strike, CASD, amphibious assaulting. Obviously RN can't afford all. So the question comes down to which one of them to be sacrificed.

    1. You are falling into the same old trap. Of course the Navy can afford all three - easily. But only if you think of the defence budget as an integrated whole, to which you are willing to give more emphasis to Naval/Marine activities than you are others (for example pointless infantry battalions, pointless Ajax regiments)

    2. We can debate all days regarding affordability. At the end of day, RN (and UK Armed Forces as whole) facing a bleak future with diminishing budget is a certainty. I am a realist. I prefer trade off over cross board salami cut on any given day.

    3. From Anonymous 2

      Joe123, what Anonymous 1 is saying holds a lot of truth. UK defence is not going to get more money so we have to make choices. To me that means following a maritime doctrine and cutting back on land forces. Leave it to the likes of Germany and Poland to concentrate on this.

      Realistically, the British Army is no longer a serious continental force and it has been that way for decades. The RN however is still a top tier player and this must be preserved, nurtured and properly funded. Better to be world-class in one area than mediocre in all.

    4. I can go even further. Personally I won't mind seen British Army transforming into all light force i.e. no heavy formations no Strike etc. I would then reinvest the Navy and RAF with free up resources. It's a pipe dream though. Politics dictates defense budget being evenly spread among the services. That being said, Navy's share of pie will not go up at the expense of her sister services. What can you do then, accept cross the board slicing or prioritization?

    5. "carrier strike, CASD, amphibious assaulting. Obviously RN can't afford all"

      The first problem is that there are many more requirements than these three mentioned. Patrols, minesweeping, anti-submarine work, etc. While individually it might be not so costly, combined it sums to a quite big number.
      The second problem is that need to land heavy vehicles implies some kind of more or less symmetrical scenario and the UK increasingly is more and more incapable of mustering forces for fighting a capable land adversary.
      Let imagine an intervention in Syria that has around a thousand tanks (mostly T-72, with sth like a hundred of T-90) in actual service, manned by experienced crews.

    6. Those are interesting thoughts Grzegorz. The RN has more requirements than "the big three", but is the big 3 a good way to look at the RN? I think not.

      Amphibious landing (avoiding assault of defended localities) should really have the capabilities of a carrier group. A carrier carries a company with air lift and air cover. An LPD lands a couple more companies with medium or heavy vehicles. I don't think amphibious is a separate big three capability.

      Anti-submarine is needed in a carrier group, but is also used elsewhere. Type 26 is the future ASW capability and maybe they should be one of the big three.

  4. BTW what happened to your recent posts? They disappeared.

    1. I've not noticed problems. Which posts seem to be missing?

    2. Weird indeed. The previous post I can view is dated on May 31 "A Different Angle for Difficult Choice". I no longer able to view your June posts.

    3. I think june is not showing because i must have posted nothing during that period. I'm no longer able to write on here very often... and since it is all too often about depressing news, i don't really feel like it a lot of the time, honestly.

  5. From MikeW:

    Hi Gaby.

    What a first-rate post! I must declare at the outset that I support every word you have said. The ideas being floated around at the moment about the future of the Royal Marines sound very much like a substantial cut and not an enhancement. As someone said in another blog, they “smack of one of those empty corporate re-brandings.”

    I just wanted to support, through one or two references and quotes, the truth of what you are saying about how the concept of amphibious operations definitely still requires “the landing over the beach of significant amounts of heavy equipment”. As you say, the Americans are still very much aware of this. “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.”

    The best of British commanders have, of course, long realized this. I would like to quote from to the “Daily Telegraph” written last year jointly by Maj-General Julian Thompson and his fellow Commander in the Falklands, Michael Clapp. In the letter they were repudiating the views of a certain naval designer. They said he suggested that the way to land troops in 1982 would have been by helicopter inland and on a smaller scale under air cover. They stated that they considered that approach, but rejected it on the grounds that they did not have air superiority, or enough helicopters to land enough troops and their supporting artillery in sufficient strength, in the time required, to fight off counter-attacks by the Argentine Army.. They stated that the only way to achieve a quick enough build-up was by landing craft..

    They proceeded to annihilate the designer’s arguments , pointing out that the main opposition came from the Argentine air force and went on to say ”Had we attempted major helicopter moves in daylight, the Argentine fighters “would have had a turkey shoot among our helicopters”.

    Their last paragraph is a comprehensive dismissal of the view that helicopters are enough: “The major factor that armchair warriors forget is logistics . . . You cannot hope to defeat an army equipped with artillery by landing a few troops with sandwiches in their pockets and what ammunition they can carry, unsupported by artillery. It takes 30 medium helicopter sorties to move a battery of six Light Guns and sufficient ammunition for one battle.”

    I said that the Americans have long realized this and the importance of heavy lift. I would therefore further like to quote from the letter I sent to the Commons Defence Committee when they were debating the future of the Royal Marines and the LPDs last year.

  6. From MikeW again:

    [sorry, whole post couldn't fit]

    I said, “The US Marine Corps, generally acknowledged to possess the world’s most powerful amphibious forces, has recently been bringing a new type of amphibious landing ship into service, the “America”-class LHA (or Landing Ship Assault). At first it was thought that because the Marine Corps wanted to keep the amphibious ships farther offshore, the emphasis in the design of the class should be based on sending Marines ashore in long-ranged MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. However, before he became Under-Secretary of the Navy, Robert O. Work, started to question the usefulness of an amphibious warfare ship without a well deck. Apparently, the concept of the Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) had proven unsatisfactory when their helicopters encountered enemy anti-aircraft systems off Lebanon “USS Bougainville”, will therefore be the first in its class with a well deck for deploying amphibious vehicles!”

    And there is another addition planned.

    As Gabriele says, “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.”

    Gabriele has also comprehensively dismissed the idea of the LSS being an LPD replacement: “You are much better served by doing nothing and keeping the LPDs you have.”

    Ignoring heavy lift? Try telling that to the (U.S.) Marines!

  7. Keep the LPD's, break up the Cdo Bde. An Albion class LPD can normally carry up to 305 marines. With another 356 on a Bay, a single Commando operation is possible, an amphibious Brigade is not.

    The RM should be providing a task group, smaller than a Commando, for an LPD. A QEC can carry a company sized group, smaller than an LPD group. So a Commando does not operate as a unit but generates different sized task groups.

    The Brigade supporting Artillery, Engineers, and Logistics elements will have to go back to the Army. A main role of a command task group is to secure (not storm) a landing area. That would include moving inland to secure against opposing rapid response forces, or to achieve limited objectives. If something stronger is required then the Army is brought in, just as the USMC expects the US Army to bring the tanks if required.

    So far what I propose looks like cuts. However to be effective, I think we need the 2nd LPD back in service - not 2 LPD's at sea at the same time but alternating in the same way as the carriers. Then, we really could use new fast LCU's like the BMT Caimen 90.

  8. Gab in your article you mentioned USMC potentially going beyond short range air defense for its own A2/AD bubble. It does have a Mid Range Intercept Capability requirement designed mainly for cruise missile defense. The material solution is based on Israeli Iron Dome system integrated with its own GATOR radar, something comparable to Sky Sabre/Land Ceptor.

  9. On line I follow you and Nicholas Drummond for British military affairs. Ironically you two are having polarization opinions regarding the direction of force development. Strike, F-35A, just to new a few things. It's good to get the perspective from both sides.

  10. Amphibious units without ships is farcical as Gabriele has comprehesively described. I have briefly suggested that even with the current ships, the current Brigade and units have no role. The press reports suggest littoral response groups not Commandos. So what is the future commando force?

    40 Commando in SW England could be dispersed between the other RM units in the area. 45 could be linked on rotation with 43. So, the cut is 40 and some detail adjustments.

    1. How do you battlegroup anything without logistic, engineer and artillery units to pick from...? There is nothing wrong with current ships. You can embark a more than decent battlegroup with VIKING mobility and artillery. It's not that far from a USMC MEU(SOC) if the amphibious ships concentrate together.

    2. Yes, an MEU is a battlegroup and that is the most the UK can do. I would like light guns and hope the RM could take that on - naval guns ashore is a tradition.

  11. Hi Gabriele,
    Slightly different subject, has the italian government brought more HH139's for the air force, to help industry in italy through covid 19, as well as other aircraft, thought id seen it some where.
    Best Regards

    1. In November 2019 Parliament was asked to give the go ahead to the acquisition of 17 HH139 to be added to the existing 13 ones for the SAR, CSAR and Slow Mover Interceptor.

      The other big programme is the Lightweight Utility Helicopter based on the AW169. The Army has ordered the first batch (out of a requirement for 50), and more are expected to go to the Navy and Air Force, eventually.

  12. Hello Gabi,
    Current affairs question, do you or anybody else reading this know how other countries deal with illegal sea crossings like were seeing here off the UK. By force?, not allowing any body through?, effectively blocking them or other methods?
    Many thanks

    1. Once you pluck them out of the water you don't have many options. Unless France takes them back on its shores, you are screwed. Which is why Italy sought agreements with Libya.

    2. In Australia they are intercepted in International waters, which means you have no obligation whatsoever to take the people into your country. The boats are then towed back to the edge of the 12 mile limit of the country they came from and left with just enough fuel to return. Operation Sovereign Borders, organised by former PM Tony Abbott.

  13. Hi Gabi,
    I am a big fan of the AMX fighter you have in the Italian Airforce, would it not make a great replacement for the Hawk in the aggressor role, does not Italy have plenty of used AMX available for a good price

    1. The AMX fleet will leave service soon enough, but i'm not sure anyone will bother doing much with them. As HAWK replacement it would be great, sure, but probably too expensive. Might as well have kept JAGUARs, at that point...

  14. Hi Gabi,
    Seen pictures of AN124 taking foxhounds to Bosnia, any idea why not C17 or even the A400. It's not that long away is it?
    Many thanks

    1. Not sure if they had a specific reason for calling up the AN124; for sure it can carry a lot more stuff per flight than even C-17, though.

  15. Hello there,
    Just seen the long term italian navy plan, new ships etc, looks really impressive, looking at the new mcm vessels, looks like we will be the only navy in europe not to have dedicated mcm vessels in the future, could the new destroyers your building replace the type 45?
    Many thanks

    1. Let's wait a bit longer on the future of MCM. There will be new ships to carry the drones, at some point; let's see what emerges.
      As for the DDX, it should be built a lot earlier than the time when Type 45 needs replacing, but in theory sure, it could work as replacement.


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