Sunset of the Royal Marines; Sunrise of the Future Commando Force.

As at January 2019

ABSTRACT – Modern day warfare’s increasing demand on Special Operations Forces (SOF) has seen other countries enhance their capacity. Therefore the gap between conventional and special operations is growing. With limited capacity of UKSF to meet this demand, the Royal Marines offer the best option for Defence to operate in this growing gap and maintain military strategic influence. Royal Marines currently offer NATO SOF Level 2 standard. Furthermore, they offer a unique ability to use maritime capability to project and sustain globally, along with their elite reputation, offers the aptitude to move into the SOF space and reclaim their eroding Commando status. In turn this will offer Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) greater opportunities to accomplish its strategic objectives. The time is now for Defence to restructure how the UK contributes to SOF operations, or risk losing its military status.

“A special operation is conducted by forces specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific target whose destruction, elimination or rescue (in the case of hostages), is a political or military imperative.”Admiral (Retd) W. McRaven[1] (Former US SOCOMCommander)

In 1987 US Department of Defence undertook a review of Special Forces (SF), after the failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran. The consequence was a transformational change into a two-tiered SF: White-SOF focussing on high risk, sensitive operations and Black-SOF focussing on extremely high risk, clandestine operations[2]. Despite other nations following this re-structure, the UK Special Forces (UKSF) exclusively conducts all of these types of operations, in addition to other domestic tasks. The revered strength of UKSF – which many nations originally modelled their own SF modus operandi on – has continued to hold its own on the world stage. However, this strength should not be overestimated. The increase in Violent Extremist and Criminal Organisations, sub-threshold activity in the ‘grey zone’[3] and Hybrid Warfare, along with protracted Counter-Insurgency campaigns are becoming the norm.[4] This leaves UKSF in danger of exhausting its capacity.[5]

This article highlights how the challenges surrounding cost/resources, policy, command and control and training are all surmountable. The outcome will offer HMG far greater global influence using a transformed Commando force – which is already trained to NATO Level 2 SOF.[6] This is not an attempt to subvert UKSF or undermine its capability (which comfortably achieve NATO SOFLevel 3), but to try focusing its expertise on tasks of higher national importance and give the UK strategic advantage. This will bridge the growing gap between conventional and special operations, and provide immediate opportunities for females to transition into SOF roles. The McRaven reference above arguably highlights a priority of imperative: political and military. In this case the Black-SOF capability is reserved for political imperative and White-SOF for military imperative – albeit at the discretion of commanders.


3 Commando Brigade is one of Defence’s Very High Readiness capabilities and deploys regularly on strategic training exercises, but rarely for specialist operational tasks. Alongside it’s amphibious obligations[7], 3 Commando Brigade provides numerous low level ‘specialist’ tasks: Joint Personnel Recovery, Mountain and Cold Weather Warfare, Maritime Boarding and Sniping, Information and Electronic Warfare (30 Commando IX Gp), Nuclear Protection and contribution to Special Forces Support Group. The specialist tasks are given to the RM due to the high calibre of its personnel (demonstrated through the quality of recruit (many qualified to officer level) combined with and evidenced through the RM contribution to the UKSF) and the extensive training, which enables diversity of employment. Not to mention it’s laureled history. These are the foundations for bigger opportunities. Commando Training Centre (CTC) is renowned for creating an elite commando trained soldier, which is innovative and adaptive.[8]  However, enhanced specialised training will be required to suit the complex future environment of special operations.[9] Revising the current commando course content may equate to slightly longer basic training, or could see continuation training in a specialised role. Specialist capabilities will be required to achieve relative superiority, at the decisive point of a special operation, to overcome a larger force.[10] This may include (but not limited too): Weapons Specialists, Communications and Electronic Warfare Specialists, Intelligence Specialists, Air/Fires Controllers, Autonomous Vehicle Controllers, Medics, Linguists, Dog Handlers and Demolitions Specialists. Many of these roles the RM already train for and specialise in, but would require enhanced training. Similarly, a review of doctrine would be required, to ensure concept of execution is aligned with the correct type of special operations tactics – Professional Military Education might exploit US SOCOM University.[11]

Due to existing foundations, the cost impact would be modest, in comparison to training other units. This shift in employment will also require enhanced kit and equipment, which combined will inevitably incur cost. However, with the RM budget in 2015/16 a mere 9.6% of RN budget (2.6% excluding wages), there is justifiable reason for growth. Furthermore, the partnering with other NATO SOF and the proven effectiveness of CTC, will undoubtedly notice cost-efficiencies. However, financial budgeting is not within the scope of this article.

Policy and Command

The US like the UK has its own SF Headquarters (Special Operations Command (SOCOM)) with subordinate commands. Within these commands there are numerous White-SOF elements, with one Black-SOF element, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) (this has the strongest relationship with UKSF) – which recruits from White-SOF. This command structure allows US decentralised command and control of special operations in over 80 countries worldwide.[12] The UKSF have a similar model (Joint Forces Command (JFC)), to ensure close relationship with intelligence agencies and the use of Joint assets. This poses a challenge for the inception of UK White-SOF, with potential Units belonging to the Single Services. However, this is not too dissimilar to the origins of most US White-SOFs: MARSOC originated from the US Marine Corps; 75th Ranger Regiment from the Army and Navy Special Warfare (SEALs) from the Navy. All are trained and recruited by their parent organisations, but then controlled by SOCOM.[13]

A similar structure and employment to these forces would deepen relations with key strategic partners in NATO SOF, synergise effort and provide the UK an opportunity to spread its influence further.  However, a review of policy, permissions and risk appetite will need to be conducted to change the way we think about the RM, to that of Commando force; which is little understood.[14] A restructure of command and control relationships, with 3 Commando Brigade becoming a Special Operations Command (or Commando Task Force), with Commando Task Groups beneath it (sub-Units), would offer broader opportunities, similar to SOCOM subordinate commands – whilst offering options for the re-role of CGRM (2*) underneath the Fleet Commander/CJO in an Operational Command role. These would be tasked in a decentralised manner in support of RN Maritime Operations or JFC operations through Permanent Joint Headquarters (or subordinate component commands). This would enable UKSF capacity to undertake more operations through DCDS (Military Strategic Operations), to gain strategic advantage.

As a proven force, the raw talent is there now, but risks being lost. With RM manning and morale declining to unprecedented levels (still the highest morale in Defence), Marines are becoming disillusioned.[15] They joined with the kudos of Commandos’ and the illustrious history, but are failing to fulfil their desire. Perpetual training deployments’ exercising an amphibious capability, displays a degree of strategic might, but does not aid declining morale – nor show tangible effect, as you cannot measure the effects of a demonstration or the indigenous force success on future operations, without accompanying them. Revising the objectives of these deployments, to support White-SOF operations worldwide (with allied and partner nations), will ensure the reputation is maintained and strategic might is not eroded. Assured access from the sea offers a unique opportunity for the RM to contribute directly to Defence’s strategic aims,[16] whilst also supporting conventional operations: ‘Decisive in the shaping and shaping in the decisive’.

Types of Tasks

“Amphibious flexibility is the greatest strategic asset that a sea power possesses.” B.H. Liddell Hart

White-SOF Concept of Employment:Contributing to the military imperative, White-SOF offers more mass and manoeuvre than Black-SOF Squadrons’ to tackle ‘high value, critical objectives with high risk and high payoff’[17] – either in support of or independent of Black-SOF – which equates to tactical activity affecting the strategic situations. [18] Largely this will focus up to Level 2 SOF tasks (Military Assistance, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and Direct Action).[19][20]

A scenario may see a Commando Task Group (CTG) deploy to regions deemed as strategically important, to a post-BREXIT global Britain[21], on board LSDA and/or Type31e or 26 RN frigates; depending on Fleet deployments and future Multi Role Support Ship procurement. Recently announced bases in the Caribbean[22] could use a CTG to counter narcotics, either at its source or in transit, unilaterally or with a partner unit; in the Caribbean out to Central/South America. This could see intelligence based F3EA[23] (supported by 30 Commando IX Group) amphibious raids on drugs labs/factories inland, or maritime sniping and boarding to interdict narcotics transit routes.This would build understanding and influence in the region and develop relations with other SOF nations in the area, whilst indirectly protecting the UK population and economy. Similarly, a CTG deployment could reassert UK influence into the Far East, aligned with intended future basing.[24] This could see raids to target terrorist training camps, weapons caches or nefarious activity, alongside partner/allied SOF forces. This would ‘lower what Clausewitz calls the frictions of war to a manageable level’[25] and provide stability for the local forces to regain and retain security, whilst directly countering terrorist threats to the region and UK – this would supplement or be discrete of UKSF activity. Consequently, UK profile would be enhanced in the region, benefitting the UK. Additionally, support to enduring Counter-Insurgency campaigns would benefit the UK, by contributing to NATO SOF outputs, as part of a NATO Special Operations Component Command (SOCC): Afghanistan and Iraq. [26] This would enhance UK profile within NATO, at a subsidised cost. Noteworthy, these skills and capabilities already exist.[27] Finally, Future Commando Forces through Littoral Strike could shape a new Counter-Terrorism strategy. The Sinai peninsula presents far reaching threats, as a nexus for jihadists transiting the region, alongside an upsurge in Daesh activity and the emergence of Hesbollah (a proscribed terrorist group) as an Iranian proxy force.[28] The strategic importance of Egypt/Israel/Saudi Arabia and the Suez canal is significant to Britain. Intelligence led amphibious operations sea based out of the eastern Mediterranean or Red Sea, would offer huge diplomatic and political opportunities for the UK.

So What?

This article has outlined the concept that RM is the most appropriate choice for future White-SOF and their enhanced contribution to UK strategic interests. SOF operations are the future ‘weapon of choice’,[29] but not the panacea;[30] Indigenous Force Development will be critical for the Specialised Infantry Group, but Future Commando Forces will complement by offering greater capabilities through Littoral Strike. Evidence of other NATO SOFs (notably Scandinavian) increased investment around the world, has seen other nations influence spread, which has ascended some countries onto the world stage militarily.[31] [32] Consequently, the UK risks being usurped of its status. Furthermore, a capability of this nature will offer more tolerable options to HMG[33] and align better with UK National Security Objectives: protect our people; promote our prosperity and project our influence.[34] The RN capability to project and sustain globally is not being fully exploited. The RN and RM offer a unique opportunity to extend UK influence across the world, post-BREXIT, on a persistent or reactive basis to reach the growing urbanisation of the world coastlines.[35][36] Consequently this will promote UK values, encourage UK Defence trade, deter aggression, counter Violent Extremist and Criminal Organisations and develop new SOF partnerships within a 26 nation NATO SOF – who exert similar effects.[37]  Furthermore, it provides greater capacity for UKSF (Black-SOF) operations to counter the increase in sub-threshold, ‘greyzone’ operations at ‘near-peer’ level, which hold a political risk not typically assigned to White-SOF.[38] Transformational change attracts apathy, but the Royal Marines stand well placed to mitigate risk, enhance Defence outputs and reclaim its Commando status. The time (and opportunity) is now.

[1] W. McRaven. Spec Ops.(Random House Publishing. 1995)

[2] SOCOM Reference Manual-

[3] CDS Rusi Speech. Dec2018 – \

[4] Spencer Meredith. Building Competencies for Special Operations Forces’Readiness in the Gray Zone. Special Operations Journal. Vol.3. 2017. 36-50 –

[5] Peter Robert. TheFuture of Amphibious Forces. The RUSI Journal. Vol 160, 2015-

[6] Allied Joint Doctrinefor Special Operations. NATO Standard. AJP-3.5. 2013. P2-1-4-

[7] Defence StrategicDirection 2018

[8] Peter Robert. TheFuture of Amphibious Forces. The RUSI Journal. Vol 160, 2015

[9] Global Strategic Trends– Out to 2045.

[10] W. McRaven. Spec Ops.(Random House Publishing. 1995)

[11] SOCOM Reference Manual-

[12] General JosephVotel.  Special Operations in anuncertain threat environment. Special Operations Forces: Elements, trends inforce structure and funding. 2014. 77

[13] Andrew Feickert. USSpecial Operations (SOF):Background and Issues for Congress. CongressionalResearch Service. 2018

[14] Peter Robert. TheFuture of Amphibious Forces. The RUSI Journal. Vol 160, 2015

[15] Royal MarinesContinuation Attitude Survey 2018

[16] Peter Robert. TheFuture of Amphibious Forces. The RUSI Journal. Vol 160, 2015

[17] Allied Joint Doctrinefor Special Operations. NATO Standard. AJP-3.5. 2013. p1-5

[18] W. McRaven. Spec Ops.(Random House Publishing. 1995)

[19] Allied Joint Doctrinefor Special Operations. NATO Standard. AJP-3.5. 2013. P2-1-4

[20]Provides a handrail forpotential operations:  SOCOM ReferenceManual –



[23] Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyse (Disseminate) – McChrystal SOF CONOP


[25] W. McRaven. Spec Ops.(Random House Publishing. 1995)

[26] Allied Joint Doctrinefor Special Operations. NATO Standard. AJP-3.5. 2013. p1-1

[27] Amphibious Warfare.First Edition, Vol 2.2. Maritime Warfare Centre. UK. 2014

[28] Dyerand Kessler. Terror in the Sinai. The Henry Jackson Society. 2014




[32] Peter Robert. TheFuture of Amphibious Forces. The RUSI Journal. Vol 160, 2015

[33] Russell Burgos. Pushing the easy button: special operations forces,international security, and the use of force. Special Operations Journal.Vol.4. 2018. 109-128

[34] National SecurityStrategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, 2015

[35] Global Strategic Trends– Out to 2045.

[36] Peter Robert. TheFuture of Amphibious Forces. The RUSI Journal. Vol 160, 2015


[38] Sandor Fabian. NATO Special Operations Forces: Even if It Is Not BrokenYet, It Needs to Be Fixed. Special Operations Journal. Vol.4. 2018. 188-201

The author is a Royal Marines Officer


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