By Dr Anthony King
The Royal Marines are currently facing a major reformation; indeed, the very future of amphibious operations and, therefore, 3 Command Brigade and the Royal Marines Commandos is under scrutiny. There are many aspects to the challenges which currently confront Britain’s commandos. However, one of the most important areas which the Royal Marines will need to consider is the issue of command. As they prepare themselves for new roles and future operations, how will Royal Marines Commando forces institute a system of command which maximises their combat effectiveness?
What is Command?
Command refers to the authority to make decisions about the deployment and use of military forces. Commanders decide what their forces will do and how they will do it. The armed forces are large organisations most of whose personnel do not know each other and, on a modern battlefield, are not co-present with each other. Consequently, it is imperative that there is a single point of authority which coordinates and directs the actions of subordinate units. Command is, therefore, one of the most potent force multipliers on the battlefield. It is an absolutely critical combat function.
Command has always been vital to military operations. However, in the twenty-first century, military command has become very challenging. In the twentieth century, generals commanded homogeneous, national divisions, corps and armies on relatively small, lineal battlefields; even at the end of the Cold War, a divisional front on the inner German border remained only 15 kilometres wide.
Today, military operations display radically different characteristics. As Stanley McChrystal has argued, they have become complex:
- Firstly, the range of operations has expanded dramatically; divisions, for instance, operate over hundreds of kilometres.
- Secondly, the velocity of decision-making has both expanded and contracted; even tactical commanders have had to think through the implications of their actions, weeks, even months, into the future, while also executing almost instantaneous strikes in the present.
- Thirdly, joint, multinational, and inter-agency operations have become the norm.
- Fourthly, operations have become multidimensional: electronic, cyber and informational activities have become crucial – all against hybrid opponents in urban terrain.
- Finally, western commanders are constrained by the requirement for precision and proportionality; lawfare is a reality.
Commanders must now make more decisions about a wider range of activities than in the past. Consequently, the challenge of command even for tactical commanders at brigade, battalion and even company levels has become acute in the twenty-first century.
The Command/o Challenge
Royal Marines commanders of the future will have to address the generic command challenge of contemporary operations. They will have to command complex operations. Yet, they face some additional difficulties.
Today the Royal Marines find themselves in a predicament. Despite having served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, 3 Commando Brigade is once again under existential pressure from defence policy makers. The general reduction of the defence budget has been a problem for the Royal Marines. In addition, the Royal Marines have also been pressurized by the Royal Navy’s changing priorities. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Royal Marines was a, perhaps, the key asset for the Royal Navy, ensuring the Senior Service’s relevance even in an era with no prospect of significant maritime conflict. While its fleet sailed peacefully around the world, Royal Navy personnel were on operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Royal Navy’s focus is now on its aircraft carriers; the entire fleet (woefully inadequate though it is) is being organised to crew, fight and defend these capital ships.
The Royal Marines and 3 Commando Brigade have, consequently, been demoted. Indeed, the Royal Navy now has only enough shipping to deliver a company size Amphibious Task Force ashore in a single action. The UK’s lead amphibious group could, therefore, take an objective against a peer enemy force of platoon strength. At the same time, 42 Commando has been re-designated as a maritime security force; 3 Commando Brigade has been stripped of a manoeuvre unit. Senior commanders in the Corps have been forced to contemplate new roles and new forces structures for the Royal Marines. There are three options open to them:
- The Royal Marines might maintain its aspiration to field 3 Commando Brigade as an amphibious assault force. Instead of assaulting beaches, a genuine theatre-entry capability of the twenty-first century would probably have to be able to seize a port or major facility by coup de main. Yet, the role is possible and, maybe, optimal for the Royal Marines, given the resources.
- Instead of a single brigade-sized force, the Royal Marines could transform into an equivalent of the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, which, in fact, developed from the British Commandos during the Second World War. The Royal Marines could specialise in the deployment small forces of highly trained commandos to conduct specific missions in support of the Special Forces, the British Army or the US Marine Corps. On this vision, 3 Commando Brigade would ultimately consist of six to eight independent, elite companies of Royal Marines Commandos, each supported by combat support and combat service support enablers from the Brigade. At present, mainly as a result of resource constraint, the Royal Marines seem to be going down the path towards this littoral Commando Force – rather than an amphibious Brigade.
- There is a third potential path: a complete return to the Royal Marines traditional role as sea soldiers, where small units operate exclusively on ships as force protection, snipers and landing or boarding parties. 42 Commando has already assumed this role; 43 Commando has effectively always served this function.
Senior commanders in the Royal Marines will have to select which role the Royal Marines are going to prioritise. However, whatever the role, the question for the Royal Marines in 2018 is how are they going to develop and enhance their current decision-making in order to maximise their combat power on future operations?
The Royal Marines have long had a distinctive command culture. As a commando force, their commanders have consistently sought to exploit surprise, speed and stealth to achieve their objectives. They have also been very capable of devolving authority and exercising traditional mission command. Royal Marines ethos has been an important factor here. Because every single Marine and officer undergoes the same training and tests at Lympstone, Marines are bound together in a dense community of trust. Consequently, Royal Marines commanders have been willing and able to allow subordinates to follow their own initiative, independently of immediate supervision. Indeed, as a result, the Marines are self-consciously proud of being able to ‘cuff it’.
Royal Marines commanders are, then, in a good position to develop a command ethos adequate to future operations. However, given the increased challenges of future operations, it would seem likely that the Royal Marines will need to enhance their capacity for command. Marine commanders at every level may have to refine the accuracy, speed and span of their decision-making. How will they do this?
Commando forces of the future will be thoroughly integrated into a joint force; air, maritime and land forces will play a crucial and enduring role in supporting them. It is highly likely that this force will be also multinational. Consequently, while it will be imperative to exploit the Commando assets of speed and surprise, Royal Marines commanders will identify where their small, specialist forces might best play a role in supporting a larger military effort. They will identify missions with precision. To do this, they will need to be able to analyse complex politico-military situations, identify the exact points which a small Commando Force can have most effect. They will negotiate carefully with superiors, subordinates and partners, as they develop this mission. Royal Marines commanders of the future will be military entrepreneurs, not just astute tacticians.
The Royal Marines may have to strengthen their current system of mission command. Ad hoc innovation has been a strength of the Royal Marines for decades. However, in the current era, when multiple partners are involved in any military operation, the traditional technique of ‘cuffing it’ may be less relevant and, perhaps, even obsolete. An independent force can adapt on the hoof. The Commando Force of the future, integrated into a completely joint, multinational and inter-agency operation, will have to coordinate itself with a diversity of supporting and supported agencies. Most of the forces which the Marines are working with will not be Marines. Flexibility is not impossible in this situation, but it requires greater care and attention, if operational coherence is to be maintained.
In this situation, it is no longer enough to empower subordinates to exercise their initiative at will, as the Marines have done so successfully in the past. Subordinates will be integrated into the overarching decision-making process – not just free to make their own independent decisions. Traditional Marine solidarity is not enough here where subordinates are simply trusted to do the right thing. Professionalised, collective decision-making is required; commanders at each echelon will be trained and prepared to make appropriate, anticipated and rehearsed decisions in line with the mission. It will be imperative to align decisions across the levels of command. Commanders from brigade to troop level will be united as a single executive body.
General James Mattis, the finest Marine commander of his generation and probably the best general of his era, may provide a good model for the Royal Marines, especially when he commanded 1st Marine Division during the Iraq invasion. General Mattis is rightly seen as a traditional commander. He was a powerful, capable and charismatic figure who dominated his Division completely. There was no question who was in charge; he alone defined the mission and ensured its execution.
However, 1st Marine Division consisted of 20,000 marines and 8000 vehicles, while the air-wing which supported it, occupied an air space up to 20,000 feet above it. Stretched over 90 miles as it advanced 300 miles to Baghdad, Mattis could not hope to direct this formation alone – he could not micro-manage all its activities – nor could he simply devolve decision-making in a laissez-faire fashion. His subordinates could not just follow their own intuitions as they wished; the result would have been chaos. On the contrary, his subordinates had to be trained very carefully in order to be able to exercise initiative properly. Consequently, Mattis mentored his subordinates closely; he formed dense professional relations with them, so that they could always communicate with him directly and so that he could impress on them precisely what he wanted.
In addition, through a series of ROC Drills and mission rehearsals, Mattis and his subordinates anticipated, imagined and practiced the decisions, which they thought they might have to make during the campaign. The result was that even at moments of crisis, subordinate commanders understood their decision options; those decisions were already anticipated by the Division. Indeed, one commander who failed to make decisions in line with his preparation was summarily dismissed. Mattis, in short, created a highly drilled and very disciplined command collective. He consciously saw it as a football team with himself at the centre of the field of play with his subordinates.
In 2003, Mattis commanded a division. However, his method of command seems entirely applicable to the command of Royal Marines Commando Forces of the future, even if the Corps go down the Ranger model. Royal Marines commanders will, like Mattis, have to decide a clear mission, in conjunction with their partners. They will want to exploit their traditional strengths of speed and surprise. Yet, in addition, they will prepare their subordinates for likely courses of decision-making to ensure that their actions cohere with the mission at all times; they will have to prepare decisions for all likely contingencies. Practice, anticipation, rehearsal will become imperative here.
Of course, long-standing Bootneck trust will remain important. It will facilitate coherent decision-making up and down the chain of command. However, the challenge of future operations is likely to require an intensification of Marine professionalism. A Commando Force is likely to demand a disciplined system of collective decision-making, demonstrated so effectively by General Mattis, where subordinate commanders are completely united around the mission and capable of integrating their decisions at every single level.
Anthony King is the Chair of War Studies at Warwick University. His most recent book Command: the twenty-first-century general (Cambridge University Press) was published in February 2019.