The concept of a Future Commando Force has understandably drawn much interest and a degree of criticism, based on fears for the future of the RM, concern about Britain’s future amphibious capability, but also sometimes on misunderstandings about amphibious operations and the role of the RM, and even on opposition to change simply because it is change.
To start with the basics: what is amphibious warfare? Simply put, it is landing troops from ships on to land, whether for a raid or an invasion. It does not require that the troops be landed by boats or other specialist types of vessels.
Picture this: a friendly government in East Africa is faced by a sudden revolt; the rebels seize an army base and the government appeals to Britain for military assistance. London agrees and orders a fast helicopter-carrying ship (with no dock) of the Royal Navy, deployed off Yemen, to carry an Royal Marines force to aid the beleaguered African government as fast as possible. Accompanied by a single escort, it does so. Arriving on the scene, the RN/RM force swings into action: the escort confuses the rebels by bombarding an uninhabited group of hills close to the rebel base while a company group of RM, complete with mortars and anti-tank missiles, is landed in a helicopter assault. An RM anti-tank missile knocks out the key rebel machine gun post, the marines storm the base, the rebellion collapses.
A scenario to justify the ‘Future Commando Force’?
No. A summary of what actually happened in what is now Tanzania – in 1964! The ship involved was the light fleet carrier HMS Centaur and, interestingly, for the operation it embarked two RAF Bristol Belvedere helicopters, then the biggest and most powerful helicopter type that Britain had. (1)
The first heliborne assault by the RN/RM took place in 1956, during the Suez Crisis. The first wave of RM went ashore in the traditional way, in landing craft, with the heliborne assault being the second wave. But in 1961, during the first Iraq/Kuwait crisis, the heliborne assault (conducted in a sandstorm) was both the lead and main landing, deploying an entire Commando (battalion) and securing the airport, allowing further reinforcements to be flown in. Then there was the 1964 action in East Africa. At the end of 1968, the rear-guard covering the British evacuation from Aden was provided by the RM and this rear-guard was withdrawn by helicopter, not landing craft.
In the 2003 Iraq War, the RM, working with the US Marine Corps (USMC), deployed overland or carried out a heliborne assault using USMC helicopters. The 1982 Falklands War, with its heavy dependence on landing craft, was a throwback, an aberration. Even so, troop carrying helicopters were of critical importance in that operation (2).
These heliborne assaults (and withdrawals) were made using aircraft carriers which had been permanently converted (HMS Albion and Bulwark, referred to as Commando Carriers), or temporarily adapted, to carry RMs and their helicopters. These vessels had no ability to carry any landing craft (except less than a handful of the smallest category of these vessels, which could be handled by the ships’ davits). From the late 1950s to the late 1970s real-world amphibious warfare for the RN and RM normally meant heliborne assault from the sea. Prior to 1982, the dock landing ships HMS Fearless and Intrepid seem to have seen almost no real-world action (as distinct from NATO exercises) at all.
However, to regain this capacity, used so frequently and successfully in the 1960s and 1970s, will require fast ships. The Albion, Bulwark and Centaur all had maximum speeds of nearly 30 knots.
This is why the RN was right to dispose of HMS Ocean: not only was she demanding in terms of crew complement (about 300), she was also slow (just 18 knots maximum speed). What the RN needs is a pair of fast, lean-crewed (about 150 each) ships capable to embarking a minimum of six Merlin, two Chinook and three or four small (Wildcat) helicopters, plus a self-contained company group of RM (250-300 personnel). Like the Commando Carriers, they should be built to merchant ship standards to reduce costs. They could be based on container ship designs, which can be fast (around 24 knots, which should be sufficiently fast for their role)(3).
The RN’s current dock landing ships, named after the Commando Carriers, are also too demanding of personnel (the RN can keep only one in commission at a time) and are again too slow (18 knots)(4).
They have good command facilities and their main use in recent years has been as flagships. But the arrival of the two new supercarriers has rendered that role redundant. As for being command ships for amphibious operations, two factors are undermining that. Firstly, the great advances in miniaturisation, modularisation and containerisation allow such command facilities to be placed in containers which can be moved around, including by helicopter, deployed where needed and quickly linked together to become operational.
All a ship needs to provide is a convenient deck handling system for the containers, deck locks, power connections, and a sufficient volume to accommodate them. Secondly, there is the reported restructuring of 3 Commando Brigade RM into two permanent “Commando Expeditionary Groups” (CEGs). By definition, these will each be self-contained with their own organic armour, artillery, engineer, intelligence, reconnaissance and logistical assets. In other words, the majority of the functions of the brigade HQ will be devolved down to the CEGs, leaving a much smaller brigade HQ (basically a task group HQ).
It must not be forgotten that Britain cannot engage in “conventional” amphibious operations against peer enemies, except on isolated islands, but can undertake fast, heliborne strategic raids. Strategic raids can tie down large numbers of hostile troops (as they did in the Second World War). Helicopters would allow the ships to stay well offshore, move fast, and manoeuvre freely most of the time, making it much more difficult for enemies to locate and target them. Conventional amphibious ships have to come close inshore, move very slowly and cannot manoeuvre, making them sitting ducks for modern long-range missile systems.
As for modern air defence systems, these are indeed very formidable – except at very low altitudes, at which their sensor and weapons ranges are very short. And helicopters can fly at very low altitudes. Of course, traditional amphibious ships still have their uses, which is why the UK should retain the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Auxiliary Dock Landing Ships. But the RN/RM cannot emulate the US Navy/USMC, and indeed have never attempted to do so.
Of course, successful amphibious operations, whether by helicopters or landing craft, whether raids or aimed at securing territory, need fighter cover and, although this can sometimes be provided by land-based air forces, only the possession of aircraft carriers can guarantee the necessary air cover, especially regarding strategic raids.
And one last point. The RM are a naval asset, paid out of the RN’s budget. They are an instrument of maritime warfare, both tactical and strategical. They are not an instrument of terrestrial warfare. Fundamentally, they must serve naval ends, including achieving strategic results from the sea, which they have traditionally done, over centuries, by raiding operations, or short-term landing operations, interspersed, on rare occasions, by longer forays on land. The FCF firmly re-establishes the RM as a branch and asset of the RN.
To sum up, the FCF concept assures the future of the Royal Marines. It will provide a capability of great value in both low intensity and high intensity contingencies. Coupled with suitable and fast ships, however it is structured it will provide the UK with a rapid reaction force that can be permanently forward deployed.
It is not, in fact, a plunge into a risky and uncertain future but basically a return to a proven, indeed highly successful, operating model from only a half-century or so ago. The fundamental mission will be the same now as it was then: to support and help protect friendly countries from both subversion and external attack, through deterrence and, when required, rapid action.
- David Hobbs The British Carrier Strike Fleet After 1945, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2015 pp 295-299.
- Hobbs, ibid., pp 162-205, 285-294, 455-457; John Keegan The Iraq War, Hutchinson, London, 2004, pp 169-171.
- Roger Chesneau Aircraft Carriers of the World, 194 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Brockhampton Press, London, pp 140-146; Werner Globke Weyers Warships of the World 2013/2015, Bernard & Graefe, Bonn, pp 120-121; “Fuel Consumption by Containership Size and Speed”, https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=5955, accessed 30/08/2020.
- Globke, ibid.