3 Jan 20
By RM Officer
As the Royal Marines continue to search for a way forward with the Future Commando Force (FCF) concept, there is a worrying consistency with which the phrase ‘just take more risk’ seems to be the answer to every problem. I read the article ‘Commando 2035 – Sci-Fi or Reality’, which I think is symptomatic of the risk panacea fallacy that pervades so much of the attitudes to FCF development. In the article it suggested that once successive Commandant General RMs (CGRM) had made the case for accepting greater risk, then the Commando 2035 concept could become a reality – i.e. expand the risk envelope for commandos and FCF’s potential can be unleashed.
Since taking shape, the FCF concept has hit the hard reality that it requires an unprecedented financial investment, beyond what is needed to close current capability gaps. As the Royal Marines appreciate that FCF cannot be realised without this financial investment and boutique equipment programmes, it has resorted to using the ‘taking-more-risk’ approach as the panacea to capability shortfalls. A typical example goes something like this: the FCF concept is about disaggregated small commando teams dispersed over a large area (further than land doctrine would recommend)converging on the objective to generate mass or conducting simultaneous assaults on multiple targets. The detractors would, justifiably, point out several simple issues: how do these teams communicate with one another now they are out of tactical CIS range? What happens if multiple teams sustain casualties? How do we sustain these teams dispersed over a large area with a logistic framework previously built around the echelon system for a battlegroup? All sensible questions. The FCF adherent response goes something like this: we just need to take more risk.For the lack of communications, the FCF units will go on ‘scheduled reports’ (even though ‘skeds’ are not a mitigation for a frail communications network); with the lack CSS coverage, including medical, the way around is to tolerate the risk. The dependence on the ‘risk panacea’ can be explained on a few fronts: first, a wilful attempt to overcome the constraints of in-service capability and a lack of a bespoke equipment programmes to unlock FCF tactical problems; secondly, the erroneous extrapolation of special forces (SF) tactics to an FCF context; and thirdly, wanting to orientate the present day Corps closer to its World War Two commando forebears. All these influences conspire to mislead the Royal Marines about the implications of taking more risk in commando operations.
In ‘The False Promise of Re-organisation’, it is suggested that the Royal Marines are pushing for re-structuring 3 Brigade’s commando groups into FCF units despite a lack of key enabling DLODs that would make the capability credible. For example, without any likely improvement to over-the-horizon surface lift and beyond line of sight communications in the offing, the way around these problems is to assume that raising the risk threshold will mitigate the capability gap. This is a misguided approach. Whilst taking risk is a necessary part of military operations, one would not launch a capability primarily on the basis that more risk is the answer. On the contrary, by enhancing the effectiveness of the capability – in this case FCF – commandos should be used to mitigate or reduce the risk associated with the most challenging operational tasks. For example, in the A2AD scenarios, on which much of the FCF conceptual development is based, the benefit of using multiple dispersed teams is offset by the lack of robust communications and very stretched (and in some cases non-existent) medical timelines. I.e. rather than patiently building FCF capability to properly mitigate and manage the highest risk operations, the ‘risk panacea’ shortcut would make employing an FCF unit a very dangerous endeavour.
This ‘risk-panacea’ thinking is not being helped by drawing lazy parallels with SF’s acceptance of risk. FCF and SF are not the same. Here are two key differences: first, SF operates on a scale rarely greater than a (very small) squadron or troop, whereas the FCF envisages operating at company to unit level; secondly, SF are supported by a disproportionate number of very expensive enablers whereas the Royal Marines are not. To elaborate, the FCF concept imagines multiple SF-like team-sized groupings dispersed across the battlefield – not one or two, but multiple. This will stretch all the enabling elements of the littoral strike group in way that SF operations do not have to contend with. If a lot of risk simultaneously materialises (such as contacts and/or casualties across multiple teams over a dispersed area), then dispersal becomes the FCF’s unit major disadvantage, not its tactical advantage. The lesson from SF experience is that their ability to take on the riskiest operations is, in large part, due to the disproportionate enabling wrap that supports them. Furthermore, because of their relatively small scale, an SF team’s failure is more easily contained and managed. It also helps that Defence does not have to declare SF operations in a way that it would if commandos were deployed. It is, therefore, incorrect to assume the key element of SF’s assignment to the most dangerous tasks is primarily down to a higher risk threshold. Rather it is because of SF’ design, support and operating model that it can afford to take more risk. These are characteristics that will not be shared by commando force anytime soon.
In a similar fashion to the SF-FCF discussion, the inference behind a return to our ‘commando roots’ is hopelessly naïve. If one thinks that adopting a mindset of the risk levels assumed in World War Two is the way forward then, unfortunately, using an FCF unit might be costly in both blood and treasure. As inspiring as the pre-D-Day commando raids may be, they did not really move the drinks trolley any closer to Berlin; no matter how much risk was taken. At best they were strategic distractions and at worse operational and/or tactical folly. I am not suggesting that serving Royal Marines officers are thinking about accepting precisely the levels of risk adopted in World War Two, but by invoking the commando appetite for risk, the Corps might be deceiving itself into believing that risk taking is the answer to the FCF’s capability shortfalls – it is not.
All military operations involve risk and risk should be taken based on sound military judgement. However, using risk as the panacea to paper over the capability cracks is not a pragmatic way to develop capability. On the contrary, this approach is likely to compound, not reduce, the tactical and strategic risk associated with using an FCF unit for the tasks its concept envisages. Also, the FCF debate has not been helped by invoking our ‘commando roots’ too literally and drawing lazy parallels with SF operations. The ‘risk panacea’, therefore, must be avoided if the FCF concept, as it evolves, is to operate within its capability constraints. If this means having to de-scope the FCF ambition commensurate with its actual (not idealised) capability, then so be it lest the Corps is used operationally for a task that is beyond its capabilities. The risk panacea is a pernicious but alluring idea and the Royal Marines must avoid falling into its trap. If it continues to frame risk in this manner, then the Corps will be engaging in professional deceit where prudent military professional sense should instead prevail.