By Professor Peter Roberts
Doyens of modern maritime thinking spent 2018 socialising a key message to naval leaders around the world: marines should return to their historic position of supporting naval ships-of-the-line as small detachments of infantry. If even the USMC no longer considers opposed or contested theatre entry feasible, their thinking goes, then marines need a new focus. As a result, there has been considerable discussion in many naval headquarters over dispatching small detachments of naval infantry, sharpshooters and boarding teams to every deploying warship – much as Nelson would have recognised. Britain’s Defence Secretary, on the other hand, recently announced the purchase of two new Littoral Strike Ships that – ironically – seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to what HMS Ocean had been designed for.
Naval infantry would have been the perfect concept for the era of global maritime security (1996-2014), where non-compliant boarding, high value target interdiction, counter-proliferation and port visit shoreside protection for warships where at a premium. The UK purchase tilts (again) at a continuing era of the elective expeditionary doctrine from the 1990s (Forward from the sea?). Unfortunately, the reality of campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terror did not allow either option to be fully developed.
The Western world is well past an age in which constabulary operations are the central focus, neither do events (and conflict) allow for the niceties of beautifully planned deployment schedules, laid out several years in advance to pursue the dream of raiding and amphibiousity at small scale.
Whilst the world is no more complex than it has been previously (nor is it changing faster), the recognition of Russia and China as global competitors has refocused the defence establishment back on near-peer, high intensity conflict whether through grey zone competition or the up-arming of proxies. Reversion to military coercion and hard power are replacing the soft power and comprehensive approaches that have failed to deliver security outcomes in which so much was invested. Capable, credible forces that hold the interests of competitors at risk are now the key requirement of policy makers. In this – and as has been argued elsewhere – exquisite, sophisticated, connected and complex systems are unlikely to determine victors: rather it is the actions and activities of bands of determined people who are shaping outcomes. This isn’t new, but a selective approach to historical lessons is evident in UK doctrinal thinking sometimes makes it look that way.
Such conclusions mean that in determining the future of marine and amphibious forces, states face some serious choices in force design and capability that will shape procurement, recruitment and training over the coming decade. In making these choices it is important to understand the way belligerents wish to engage in co-operation, competition, conflict, and combat – and will do so sometimes simultaneously.
As Russia, China, Iran and DPRK have each challenged the West through threshold contests, coercive challenge, proxy warfare and brinkmanship; their successes have been noted by each other and other potential belligerents yet to emerge on the world stage. This is only likely to embolden and encourage competitive actors to use force in a variety of traditional and inventive ways, allowing them to gain and retain the initiative in starting, escalating and de-escalating interactions between forces.
Whilst responding at the speed of relevance has been mooted as a key characteristic in preventing escalation in engagements, the new US National Defence Strategy highlights four sectors of challenge that military forces will need to adapt to. Dynamic and changing political objectives and political will, a reduced credible deterrence against adversaries, a declining network of allies and partners who can be relied upon, and a reduced competitive edge combined with slow acquisition pathways and high per unit platform cost are all factors that make military operations less fixed, predictable and linear than current planning envisages.
But such issues take time to address, and several scholars have noted the likelihood that the next conflict will not have the warning time we have previously relied upon to deter, contain and eventually prevail. Belligerents will have no more than the equipment they take with them: they will be a come-as-you-are engagements. Guarantees of additional force training and integration periods should not be taken for granted. Neither should commanders assume that conflicts will be bounded in time and space the way many assume.
As General Martin Dempsey said, “The homeland is no longer a sanctuary”. The presumption that all warfare will be expeditionary and attacks on the home-base were unlikely was a consideration rejected by the US establishment in 2013. Insider attacks, intelligence gathering, subversion, espionage and sabotage at key points, bases and embarkation points across a homeland should not only be considered possible, but likely. Presumptions that combat is something that happens ‘over there’ and excludes personnel at home, their families, and infrastructure should merit serious review.
When engaged in combat operations, marines are likely to experience a different combat environment than they experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan. Adversary capabilities will offer a denied electro-magnetic environment in which command and control connections will be temporal, disrupted or simply impossible to achieve with certainty. Even supposedly secure information paths and data will have dubious veracity. In future conflict, formations will still be fighting their own IT and mutual interference, just this time the problems will be caused by adversaries.
Added to this complication, the ability to call on accurate fire from precision weapons should not be presumed. In the face of known and proven adversarial electronic warfare capabilities, modern GPS guided weapons will have few guarantees of hitting the targets they were designated for. The proliferation of such systemsis considered highly likely.
In sum, the future environment is likely to lack clear political intent, shifting outcomes and objectives (that perhaps diverge from those of key Allies), an unclear understanding of belligerents, no technical superiority, and an unbounded theatre of operations in which combatants are working without established command and control, an inability to guarantee or call on intelligence, FIRES and logistics support. A heady mix.
The solution to such challenges does not lie in the technological domain, clever scientific innovation or invention, the commercial sector, or in big data however. People are more likely to provide the answer. Specifically, people who are intellectually adept enough to provide decisive actions, follow intent not detailed direction, thrive within a chaotic environment instead of controlling it, and to shift from roles as capacity builders to liars, thieves and cheats in a heartbeat. The need is for anti-fragile people: small groups of determined people, capable and willing to kill people and destroy things.
The core values of the Royal Marines make them better suited to these challenges than most other formations in the British military machine. The Corps cannot be subordinated to simply provide the Royal Navy with force protection. A new vision is needed that puts the marines deliberately at the front edge of naval force design and employment: ships, submarines, aircraft, carriers, and littoral strike ships will need to adapt to roles as supporting units – not supported ones. It is not the capital ships that form the centrepiece of useful and winning force design: it is the people. In reality, it always has been.
*Note: The myrmidons were the chosen men of Achilles guard. Today, their popular description is as followers of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. But Homer’s Iliad describes them as ferocious warriors of remarkable ingenuity whose appearance ‘as mindless ants’ belied their true abilities in combat.
About the author.
Peter is Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, having been the Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and C4ISR since 2014. He researches and publishes on a range of subjects from strategy and philosophy, contemporary war, military doctrine and thinking, command and control, naval warfare, ISR, professional military education and disruptive warfare techniques. He lectures, speaks and writes on these topics as well as regularly providing advice for both UK and foreign governments.
Previously, Peter was a career Warfare Officer in the Royal Navy, serving as both a Commanding Officer, National Military Representative and in a variety of roles with all three branches of the British Armed forces, the US Coast Guard, US Navy, US Marine Corps and intelligence services from a variety of other nations. He served as chairman for several NATO working groups and 5 Eyes Maritime tactics symposia. His military career included service in Hong Kong, the Baltic, Kenya, the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, Iraq, South Africa, Pakistan and Oman, interspersed with deployments in the GIUK gap and the Persian Gulf.
Peter has a Masters degree in Defence Studies and a doctorate in politics and modern history. He is a Visiting Professor of Modern War at the French Military Academy.