FCF AND THE GREY ZONE: CREATING AMBIGUITY
By Maj RM.
24 Jan 20
The Royal Marines step-change towards a Future Commando Force (FCF) appears to be heavily leaning towards a force designed to combat A2AD threats. This article will attempt to lay out how this myopic focus is a red herring leading to force redundancy, reminiscent of the 1981 Defence (Nott) Review which looked to downgrade amphibious capabilities. Whilst this task offers a high capability aiming marker, it is also very niche with critical requirements on new technologies not yet funded. Focussing on this niche skill set which is seldom, if ever used but for a deterrent effect will eventually raise the question over the forces value for money.
Whilst discussing the future of expeditionary warfare, General Neller makes the illustrative comparison between American Football, with a clear forward line where the referees can oversee events, and soccer where competitors are intermingled and the referee is in the middle, obscured and fooled by diving and deception. As we look to the Future Operating Environment 2035, laid out not least by UK DCDC, we can see significant trends in favour of modern amphibious forces, within a scenario of 4C’s which Neller describes as soccer. These trends are repeated with evidence by strategists like Dr David Kilcullen that threats will emerge in the urbanised littoral of developing countries. Kilcullen assesses that as emerging economies grow, so too will their susceptibility to insecurity and fragility in the developing regions. These developing countries have a far-reaching diaspora with global connectivity, which spreads into countries like the UK and therefore indirectly affects UK domestic agenda – with UK citizens prompting support for their native countries insecurity. Whilst A2AD may fall within some of these geographic regions, it is unlikely to neatly fall within this environment, purely by the nature of urban sprawl limiting the capability effects. However, influence over these nations may offer geo-strategic advantage, which could amount to quasi-A2AD. As identified by Gen. Berger this is likely to facilitate great power competition for influence in developing countries with latent resources, growing economies and geostrategic locations. Gen. Berger has openly directed this is where the USMC is to focus on. Similarly, Dr Kilcullen has ironically delivered a speech at Commando Training Centre over 2 years ago, suggesting the same thing, alongside the end of wars won by occupation but instead by interdiction. This is clearly where the RM and FCF should be focussing its energies. To be precise, it should focus on the grey space between these competitions, which CDS highlighted as a key concern in his RUSI lecture. Focussing on a threat, like A2AD, with a high capability is logical if everything else beneath it is easy. However, tactically A2AD is conceptually simple with a clearly defined enemy and a battle space with an obvious FLOT/FLET – note the American Football metaphor. Ostensibly, this easy association is what is attracting much of the thinking; it is easy to comprehend and design for what you know. All the while, truly complex multi-domain, pan-government challenges are unfolding, which should be the focus if RM truly wants to achieve FCF relevancy.
This article will argue that conceptual thinking should be focussed around Grey Zone operations in the urban littoral of developing countries. More specifically it must become masters of Grey Zone operations, using ambiguity to obfuscate activity. If the Corps wants to survive future SDSRs, it must embrace true complexity within the domains and harness them together, not merely work in conjunction with them. Policy buffs will highlight that RM cannot operate under the same ‘deniable’ banner as UKSF. Whilst this is likely true, it is stifling RM ability to get out on operations to satisfy those that joined – this point comes up consistently in AFCAS. Therefore, the RM must find a space that is close to it, as being ‘persistently deployed’ in a tin-can will not resolve the retention headache. The concept of Implausible Deniability presents an option.
Covert action is often prescribed to Special Forces (SF), quite rightly due to the inherent risk of the operations. However, covert action is largely reliant on deniability. This deniability by its nature fails to leverage the positive effects of these activities by signalling resolve and intent, which is key to power competition. This is where the RM must focus to exploit this gap in the policy. The proposal indicates that operations – namely para-military proxy operations – are no longer ‘plausibly deniable’, due to proliferation of media and Information Computer Technology (ICT). To be ‘plausibly deniable’ it must be unacknowledged and not apparent – secret. Therefore, much of this traditionally covert action is no longer possible. We only have to look at North Africa, West Africa, Yemen, Levante (etc) and very quickly undisclosed SF operations are obvious through open source media. As stressed above some of these undisclosed and denied operations have positive effects in power competition. This is the opportunity. ‘Implausible Deniability’ is ‘apparent but not acknowledged’ operations. Gaining permissions to conduct overt operations alongside partner forces or independently opens an Information Operations opportunity to message resolve and intent, to counter competition. Indeed, these operations effects may spread across borders – if they are close by. However, these activities can only add value if adversaries can see and/or understand it, like deception and deterrence. This highlights an opportunity to move into the Grey Zone, without the pitfalls of policy permissions.
If assessments of a return to the Cold War, and characteristic competition are right, we must offer a RM concept of employment that contributes. Activities such as The Bay of the Pigs or support to Mujahedeen in Afghanistan all provided sub-threshold competitive advantage over the Soviet Union, which diverted their focus from their aims. Not least their open secrecy increased Presidential approval ratings as it showed action and resolve. Similarly, Russia’s ‘active measures’ concept uses covert overlapped with overt methods to create misdirection and ambiguity. This is therefore hard to conceptualise, which supports the point why A2AD has become a focus; because it’s easier to conceptualise. This highlights where FCF should target, if they are to offer utility.
Activities aligned with these types of operations are not especially covert – albeit they can have aspects. Some including Raiding, Forward Air Control and Capacity Building etc do not explicitly require secrecy. In fact, an element of exposure would be positive for British public relations – as long as it is moral, ethical and legal. Meanwhile this activity would act to obfuscate any covert action (secret) enhancing the ambiguity alluded to in the title. This balance of activity would be destabilising to competitors and consume finite resources, away from their key aims. The increased ‘white-noise’ makes the presence in country apparent, but specific activity of missions can still be unacknowledged to achieve Implausible Deniability. Policy permissions do not mandate specific elements of a tactical mission or preclude linked tasks. It should set constraints to what can/cannot be done, measured against factors like safety, reputation, diplomacy etc – strategy. Acting within a country under the intention of, say, Capacity Building does not preclude raiding human trafficking operations alongside a partner force, for example. This example would disrupt criminal activity, which is often linked to insecurity and powerful (state sponsored) individuals and VEOs, whilst enhancing British profile to counter competitors’ attempts to gain influence. Linked to this could be more discreet aims. A more extreme example (not really in RM bailiwick) could train/partner NATO countries like, say, Mongolia to enhance regional competitors’ paranoia of activity on their doorstep. Meanwhile this overt activity could obfuscate covert (deniable) action to influence the Uighur community in Xinjiang province, China and Kazakhstan. All this activity blurs the lines between internal disorder and external intervention, to impact strategic decision making. Cormac highlights that creating ambiguity in this manner ‘enables blurring of the lines between secrecy and acknowledgment, truth and lie, fact and fiction’. This therefore seeks to unbalance adversaries’ attempts to gain competitive advantage by ‘communicating or creating uncertainty’, whilst also enhancing British profile publicly.
Our adversaries are already doing this. The obvious example is Russia in Crimea, however the most prevalent is Iran. Interdicting British shipping in the Gulf demanded the UK surge more force protection into the area. Consequently, these resources are taken from elsewhere, while cognitive capacity is impacted to try and manage threats on multiple fronts. This relieves Iran and Hesbollah proxies of pressure to focus distinctly on their aims to destabilise the Levante and Arabian Peninsula and further their expansive hegemonic aims. This includes growing action of Iran backed Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) in Iraq and Syrian Army, to maintain GLoCs from Persia to Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula. All of which pushes their ideology and competes against Sunni dominance (by Saudi Arabia). From this, we can see clear cascade effect of Grey Zone operations. Some, but not all of these are apparent but not acknowledged with most overlapping. This increasing freedom has led to the status of omnipotence and perceived international standing to boost domestic profile. This rogue status emboldened by freedom of action and delivered by Implausible Deniability became intolerable and led to the US strike on Soleimani – the orchestrator. Apparent FCF activity focussing on supporting Yemeni forces combatting Hesbollah backed Houthi’s would immediately consume Iranian bandwidth – or AQ on the southern coast. Then, unacknowledged activity would increase paranoia and demand further investment to try to understand the activities. This would keep Iran largely in check whilst boosting British profile in a geostrategic location. However, British colonial legacy in Yemen (including RM) would demand the narrative be messaged carefully through comprehensive Information Operations. The beauty is, RM do not even require risky, resource-heavy land bases to facilitate this activity. Floating fobs sat off the coast provide it, to control and mitigate risk through ISTAR, Med, Beyond Line of Sight comms and a safe sanctuary with fewer force protection requirements.
Not only is this area best suited to the RM and FCF because of littoral access, but also because of the investment in Intelligence and Information Exploitation, alongside 42 Commando work developing Influence Operations (STTT). Recent advancements in these areas show aptitude to conduct technologically and cognitively complex tasks in this field. Furthermore, to achieve Implausible Deniability, the actor must control the narrative. A homogenous force like RM with a broad skills set (listed above) offers a joined up way to control the narrative. If we take Cormac’s view, acknowledgement and denial sit on a continuum instead of absolutes, with a metaphorical ‘grey zone’ of unacknowledged sitting somewhere between. Information Operations, exposure of forces and activity overlapped with deniable operations will further advance UK ability to compete in the Grey Zone and achieve Implausible Deniability. These activities can come from a Littoral Strike Ship sat off the coast of a country that is a victim of great power competition. Or it could be partnered and unilateral operations at the invitation of the state, to boost UK profile and undermine competitors. The outcome is allying that state to provide area denial, which could be supplemented by air denial: quasi-A2AD.
Many of these activities are deemed special operations, with the associated ‘denied’ tag. The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, has responded to a recent clamour for further oversight and transparency of SF operations with rejection. Research by academics has highlighted that greater transparency will allow for legitimate legal process to be upheld, whilst also providing clear opportunities to learn from unpublished failures. Recent articles highlight changing US policy over SOCOM operations, which give congress better oversight and control, in addition to an assigned Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Implausible Deniability could quell calls for more transparency, as activity would be apparent and declared through parliament, but specifics not acknowledged and disguised by partner force activity. Furthermore, as RM falls outside of SF policy it could be scrutinised by a Select Committee to offer greater oversight. Balanced carefully it is ‘win-win’ with transparency and Implausible Deniability being achieved, whilst protecting deniable operations.
To coin Tony Blair… “We never comment on intelligence matters… except when we want to.” This highlights an opportunity to increase the positive messages the UK can project. Currently, all intelligence and Special Forces activity is denied with the banal ‘we do not comment on these operations.’ However, this attempt at Plausible Deniability is no longer as effective – as it was. Therefore, Implausible Deniability is the best option for RM, using apparent activity but not acknowledging the specifics of the activity to create ambiguity and paranoia in competitors OODA loop cycle. This services all of the main areas which the FOE (and strategists) point too. It offers outputs focussed on developing nations to enhance their security and prosperity, whilst also indirectly benefitting the UK. Moreover, it supports Grey Zone operations to remain competitive against great powers as an attempt to sustain the UK international status. This puts RM and FCF front and centre of future Defence planning, and makes RM its most relevant force.