Reconciling the Old with the New: FCF and the Integrated Review
29 Mar 21
As we emerge out of the Integrated Review (IR) and the dust begins to settle, Seniors messages have started to pervade the Units, with everyone asking some important questions. Most importantly, how do we reconcile the ‘old’ with the ‘new’? This article will go through some of the factors affecting this, highlight constraints and hopefully offer some solutions.
Persistent competition is the catchphrase being used by senior officers and politicians. The Integrated Operating Concept (IOpC) (Sep 2020) proposes how we ‘get after it’ (another catchphrase) through the ‘Operate Model’ functions of ‘Protect, Engage, Constrain and War Fight’. However, the contention is that most competition is happening in the ‘Grey Zone’ below the threshold of war, which does not align with western democracies adherence to international law and transparency (what they disclose, anyway). In essence the Grey Zone is characterised by ambiguity, with adversaries often ignoring the rule of law (or employing LawFare), which is at odd with our values. This is closely linked to information, to legitimise or falsify activity. The IOpC and IR have clearly identified the change in the character of war defined largely by information: ‘We face an inflection point between the Industrial Age and the Information Age’. Much of our conventional capabilities are from the Industrial Age and therefore largely unsuited. This is going to demand we revolutionise the way we operate conceptually and in terms of equipment. Both the IR and IOpC acknowledge this, with the IOpC highlighting a ten-year plan for IOpC 2030 and an emphasis on ‘changing the mindset’. The Royal Marines (RM) has sought to capture this with Future Commando Force (FCF) and the heavy link with Special Operations being able to operate more adeptly in the Grey Zone. The RM will have to change their mindsets to a multidimensional approach, both coveting overt activity for War Fighting deterrence and ambiguity to achieve Grey Zone operations (Special Operations) as part of constrain. This is most challenging for decision makers where trust is crucial and therefore assurance of forces is necessary – which the RM has proven time and again. A critic would contend that ambiguity is the main contradiction of IOpC; It claims our values are the centre of gravity yet appears happy to cast them aside to compete in the Grey Zone. However, the counter argument is that indigenous forces legitimise the activity. I’ll let you judge…
The IOpC document provides some good thought (and logic) but the key thing to note is the complementary functions, in particular, constrain. Whilst all remain important in persistent competition – hence all being complimentary – constrain offers the most ‘proactive and assertive’ function; the RM must feel buoyed they have been trusted to pursue this function. This will be the one that ‘gets after’ creating multiple dilemmas for adversaries and therefore gives the UK a strategic edge. However, conversely, this is the one with most risk and has seen most activity in largely benign areas consequently delivering marginal effect. Interestingly, this is nothing new. It is essentially the Indirect Approach which spawned the Peripheral Strategy in WW2 and which conceived the Manouevrist Approach – the UK’s foremost tactical doctrine. This can be traced through to Liddell Hart and even further to Sun Tzu – to name a few. It is not new but has often been restrained by risk outweighing perceived reward and fear of miscalculation leading to escalation. The new IOpC recognises this as ‘requiring nuanced judgements about risk’ – note there is still no stipulation of accepting risk or metric. The military is just one instrument of statecraft and if integrated with all the others allow the escalation of one, to de-escalate in another/overall to prevail in competition. This is where the ‘nuance judgements’ will be, so we must choose carefully options which have mutual benefit. The overall aim is to de-escalate and/or deterrence, likely through an escalation in the use of force (military). The theme encapsulating all of this is persistently deployed forces relentlessly competing for advantage and escalating where required – planned Littoral Strike ships offer a unique advantage to this. With this all exercises and training represent an escalation which creates dilemmas for the adversary to consider. The cynic would therefore say… ‘no change: large scale overseas exercises will be the main means to compete sub-threshold and remain way below the risk threshold’. This article argues a different approach, as it doesn’t have the ambiguity aspect to create additional dilemmas as per the constrain function aims. Leaders must recognise this to achieve competitive success.
When you consider the Defence Tasks aligned with the RM through the RN it makes it harder to comprehend how the RM will become the Future Commando Force which competes below the threshold of war on Special Operations. Understandable clamour within the RM community insists these tasks will have to be transferred elsewhere, but we are yet to hear any high-level acknowledgement of this, be it through 1SL or ministers. The former Littoral Manouevre Headmark policy to maintain a Lead Commando Group (a Battle Group) at readiness will certainly reduce. But this is due to the forces inability to resource the numbers/capability, not due to the IOpC or IR demanding a change. The new Littoral Strike concept sees two Littoral Readiness Groups (LRG) with one Vanguard Strike Company each in two separate geographic areas (Atlantic and East of Suez). Aligned with the IOpC War Fighting consideration the two LRGs can aggregate to provide a Littoral Strike Group (LSG). This is then a 1* command providing a sovereign amphibious capability. Therefore, we can see clear overlap with an LCG, effectively making it an LCG minus but spread further; doing more with less. These Strike Companies can only be resourced by 40 and 45 Commando (whom each have three Companies (undermanned)) further amplifying the resource constraints -42 Commando focussed on Maritime Operations, 43 Commando on Nuclear Protection, 30 Cdo servicing the wider Brigade of specialists and 47 Commando providing the amphibious surface connectors. Here we can start to see a conflicting side to the ambition of IOpC for FCF engaged and constraining adversaries, whilst trying to maintain deterrence for War Fighting which requires large resources. Therefore, the RN will likely continue to use the RM as a conventional amphibious force, by projecting a deterrent through information operations, within the RN aims of maritime tasks. One could conceive this will continue the same as before where RM sit on ship while the fleet/task group conduct their maritime task, then RM disembark via a raid (or other demonstration) with a partner force to support information operations in the engage and War Fighting functions. Whilst, this will not fully achieve the constrain function it will be enough to satisfy the old model. The contention is the spreading of resources across multiple requirements. The narrative from leaders promises this is not the case, but there is no evidence it can/will be achieved.
The recent defence questions in the House of Commons highlighted a fall in trained strength from 7,082 in Apr 2010, to 5,968 as at Jan 2021. This 15% reduction in manpower has not experienced a commensurate drop in required tasks. Indeed, there are reports further cuts could be coming. Alongside the LCG (or new LRG) commitment there are numerous other non-discretionary tasks. As its own entity the RM must recruit, select, train and support itself. Therefore, this demands its own personnel and resource to effectively deliver. Furthermore, Commando Training Centre provides basic training, continued career, command and specialist training, consuming further manpower. We must also remember 3 Commando Brigade dedicates debilitating numbers of troops to readiness for UK Resilience tasks and overseas humanitarian aid. This is often to support MACA/MACP such as flooding, COVID, State Funerals, Salisbury chemical attack, hurricane season and others. This alone requires delicate attention to ensure the Brigade maintains its commitments alongside other tasks. Then there is Force Protection tasks, whether it be Base Security or Ships Force Protection Tasks – still no confirmation who is going to Force Protect Duqm… guess who? Then there are the hefty requirements for Nuclear Protection, alongside the Coy strength contribution to SFSG and the multiple roles in JCTTAT and pan-Defence. This will become even more challenging if Special Operations are added to the list of tasks – Special Operations Forces often get ‘protected’ from many of these tasks (not all). However, we must also consider morale. Commando trained personnel are readily deployed on exercise, away from loved ones, for the same pay as their counterparts who are not as eagerly deployed and who have not undergone arduous selection and training. Here we can see why the repetition of the phrase ‘Special Operations capable’ across the IR and informal channels is so important. This is a means to reinvigorate the force of its ‘commando roots’ and remind them why they joined. Motivated men and women do not undertake commando training for the pay (although it would be nice), they join for purpose and fulfilment. While the RM will likely need to retain an ability to scale up to war fighting in line with IOpC (who else would do it?), at present the RM must also conduct these other non-discretionary tasks. In combination, it is these tasks the RM fraternity insist be reconsidered which stifles ability to truly excel on tasks with strategic effect. Otherwise, the force risks burn out and manning becomes more dire than it is now, making the force unfeasible to continue. However, there has been no indication from Seniors or ministers that these tasks will be transferred elsewhere – who too? That can only leave the conclusion that the RM will continue in the same trend, but with less.
The drive behind IOpC appears logical; engage and constrain to create multiple dilemmas for the enemy, thereby increasing our chances of competitive success. However, it is hard to reconcile the old with the new. While the IOpC insists on the need for a ‘new mindset’, it appears much is the same outputs of old. Persistent large-scale exercises are much the same, but rebranded ‘Operations’ as they deliver output tenuously in line with IOpC. This is logical for War Fighting but doesn’t change the mindset of being competitive through ambiguity; it is still old metal hardware providing a demonstration of deterrence, which the concept acknowledges as obsolete. Furthermore, the commitment of 2 x Coys (one third of the eligible forces liability) and enablers every year for two months (to Norway) leaves no time to prepare and deploy on operations to constrain adversaries. Add to this prolonged exercises’ in 29 Palms (et al) annually, for 2 x Coys, further proves a failure to adapt the mindset. Importantly, we must recognise the preparation required for these exercises and the recovery (equipment support and delivery etc) consumes at least a month before and after. Therefore, we can see two thirds of the eligible force committed for circa 6 months per year to exercises – sorry, ‘operations’. This renders the Commando Forces incapable of mounting constrain operations in line with the IOpC and persistent competition. Commandos deploy on operations (which are exercises in all but name) with no comprehensible purpose and some fulfilment of seeing a new country only for new personnel – which given the repetition is unlikely. There is a danger personnel will reason the ‘commando roots’ slogan and the associated promises are fraudulent and vote with their feet – Seniors must beware of this rising feeling.
Meanwhile the announcement of other Special Operations capable battalions (Rangers) will be free to operate and develop their capabilities, as they are not constrained by non-discretionary tasks. This will leave the Commando Force flailing for opportunities, with no means to prove itself, as Rangers have seized the opportunities already. The result is, more of the same, but with a new brand – which erodes over time. Whilst unsporting, Defence has created a race for Special Operations, as it is the only means to actively operate – and if you are not first, you are last! However, despite RMs advantage of human capital and training credibility, they actually have a disadvantage. IOpC and IR/Command Plan highlight a necessity to innovate and experiment. Whilst ingenuity of a commando cannot be underestimated, its ability to experiment will be largely decided by funding and opportunity. While the RN have ostensibly recognised this with a healthy experimentation fund, this will be only to experiment with. The RM will be largely reliant on Army for major equipment programmes. This then leaves Commando Forces without the equipment – which they experiment with – to deploy and prove on operations. Consequently, Rangers (etc) are well placed to overtake RM in the race for capability to deliver Special Operations in the sub-threshold space. Combined with their freedom unshackled from non-discretionary tasks makes them well placed to dominate the Special Operations space. However, noteworthy is that Army Rangers will need to establish their own selection and training and grow their embryonic capability, which the RM is much further ahead with. This is the time advantage the RM have, and they must exploit it. The simple answer here is Senior Responsible Officers, with appropriate due diligence, must support safety cases and deployment of novel experimentation equipment which have been trialled and approved by the tactical grouping. The battlefield becomes the laboratory to comprehensively prove capability – otherwise there is a risk it could still fail on operations despite a full procurement process.
This all seems very negative, but there are opportunities. While there is still likely to be caution in delivering the constrain function of the Operate Model, this represents an opportunity. The FCF project is making good progress in seizing this opportunity, largely through demonstrating experimentation. Quite simply, the force needs to prove itself first! If it can then translate this capability quickly into operations of strategic benefit – for which the globe offers plenty- the RM has secured its place ahead of others; opportunity is key. In relation to IOpC, the FCF as a military instrument may prove this by partnering an indigenous force in the Philippines to counter Abu Sayyaf terrorism and outweigh an adversary competing for the same regional influence. Or it may Train, Assist, Enable and Accompany Mozambique forces to repel Daesh affiliated terrorists and thereby gain influence over British companies ability to tap the huge gas fields or mine its huge ruby deposits. Russia, through the Wagner Group, reacted immediately to secure this influence. The same can be said for Nigeria or other Gulf of Guinea states too. This ousts adversary companies from doing the same, which directly feeds their economy; escalating militarily, to de-escalate trade competition. Similarly, military partnering with states disputing the Paracel Islands may offer economic and political advantages over our adversaries, preventing their fait accompli strategy. Separately, the clearest present opportunity appears to be Myanmar, with Russia already sending military personnel. The ousted Aung San Suu Kyi is a key ally of western values, having been educated at Oxford and married a Brit. The only way to now reverse this is to support the civil uprising through ambiguous activity which can be announced – but would likely need to be cross border – or unannounced/deniable, but both can be ambiguous. The precarious position is now that Russia have been allowed to move in first, but this provides a direct opportunity to constrain Russia. This highlights that competition is about speed to seize opportunities first and is something which Russia keeps besting. True relevance for RM/FCF will be its speed to react to these events, before adversaries, and Littoral Strike Ships will enable this unparalleled capability. It should be noted all these nations are seeing stress along their coastlines, which is prime for RM.
All of these activities influence the chosen states to our values and denies our adversaries access to that territory and denudes their values influence. All these things considered, this character of war is now, and we are still stuck in the old model. Therefore, we must tackle the immediate threats to our transformation to ensure the RM has relevant outputs now. The biggest threats are in this glacial interim period while the aspirations are achieved. How do the RM sustain its non-discretionary tasks listed above, whilst increasing its outputs both physically and conceptually to achieve the hypothesised strategic outputs above – noting the force is already stretched thin. An estimate is needed to identify the non-discretionary ‘at readiness’ tasks which risk can be taken on, to free capacity. Secondly, now some guidance (from the IR) has been given, decision makers need to ‘change their mindset’ quickly and focus on what will deliver tangible outputs: “Ops pay the bills”. Some serious wrangling will need to take place to remove some non-discretionary tasks to provide the capacity. The FCF offers the RN unprecedented capability to deliver a diversity of strategic effects across all the Operate Model functions and cement the Service’s status – this is unparalleled for such a small force. MOD/RN will need to ‘spread the love’ of non-discretionary tasks. One option may be to introduce a contracted ‘professional enemy’, similar to the Army’s Project Hannibal. This reduces the demand on personnel needed to enable training events – known as RMART. Thirdly, how do the RM bridge this precarious gap and still retain its personnel who are getting fatigue of never-ending promises of new kit and purposeful ops. If they go, the credibility and expertise to operate goes with them – to coin SOCOM truths which are relevant to the RM: ‘Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced’ & ‘Competent SOF cannot be produced after emergencies occur’. There is a feeling that 2 years may be too long for personnel to feel the effects. All these points emphasise speed of transition, with a degree of haste accepted. Risk of haste can be managed by a variety of methods, notably identifying areas to mitigate and control risk consequence – some of which are provided here. This will offset the risk of haste but depends on what the ‘nuanced judgements of risk’ are(?)
There is a real danger the Future Commando Force tries to do too many things and achieves none and fails. Finally, the FCF must be careful not to outweigh the balance of effort too far towards Littoral Strike. It is clear the RN is focussed on the War Fighting aspect of IOpC and Littoral Strike is the RM contribution. Whilst this offers credible deterrence for war fighting, especially against A2AD, it is arguably that narrative which got us to this position now; LCG offers very limited everyday utility which can be seen as value for money. The wider audience cannot comprehend and appreciate a deterrent as easy – note the perennial Trident debate. However, value for money can be viscerally felt in the Engage and Constrain space. For long-term success, public support and ministerial advocacy the FCF must focus its priority on engage and particularly constrain, immediately. Otherwise, the next strategic review (likely next government) will cut the money committed at 4+ years and FCF will not be realised. The consequence will be an obsolete force which offers no utility. All that said, the promise of FCF offers much, and seems folly to not advance it quickly to meet todays character of war.