12 July 19
By Anonymous RM
“The first to adapt” is one of the key phrases that make up the Commando mindset; a phrase that perfectly underpins the development of the 21st Century Commando in the context of the Future Commando Force (FCF). The characteristics of conflict in this modern, digital era are fluid and ever-changing, with a battlespace that is increasingly becoming more congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained. This means that, in order to remain a credible and effective asset for HM Government, commando forces must adapt in line with these changes and encourage its members to be forward thinking in their planning, training and delivery. The FCF outlines an ambitious plan for this adaption and provides the context for further discussion as to what could ultimately define the commandos of tomorrow. This article, will look to explore in greater depth how change to a FCF may be reflected. By considering their historical application and the relative strengths and weaknesses of a future commando force, it will ultimately seek to define what the Commando of the 21st century may look like as a result of this adaption to UK Defence’s requirements of tomorrow.
While anticipation and adaption to new and evolving threats has clearly defined the development of the FCF, it is imperative that the idea of a 21st Century Commando considers the modus operandi that made its forebears so successful. Formed in 1940 during the darkest hours of the Second World War, the original British Commandos consisted of small groups of highly trained and motivated soldiers that specialised in raiding and reconnaissance. Early commando raids focussed on the disruption and neutralisation of key targets along the Nazi-occupied European coastline, with the key intent of having a disproportionately larger strategic impact on the enemy than assaults launched by conventional forces of greater number. The memorial at Achnacarry stands as a stoic tribute to the rigorous selection these original commandos had to endure, for this new type of asymmetrical warfare required a radically new type of training and doctrine. This ‘Commando’ style of engagement, as well as the ethos it produced in its members, has largely endured throughout the decades since WW2, with raiding, reconnaissance, and small scale action to achieve large scale effect forming the cornerstone of modern commando training.
From this historical context of what it means to be a commando, we can draw out the key elements that could be combined with the character of modern conflict to define the type of commandos required in the 21st Century. Fundamentally, at their core commando forces should seek to recruit, train and equip the highest calibre of field soldier that is confident working in arduous conditions and at reach from their chain of command. Commando training and operations in the 1940s were centred on small team raiding and reconnaissance missions, with less of a focus on large-scale conventional actions and therefore requiring this different quality of soldier. Current training at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines in Lympstone is adequate in selecting individuals of the required physical and moral fibre. However, there is still an emphasis on conventional ‘green skills’ field training that is slowly becoming outdated when compared to Defences vision of the Future Operating Environment. Training could therefore be adapted to reflect this new urbanised battlespace, while also refocussing on the historic commando speciality of small unit action that will thrive in future cluttered and confined environments where large scale conventional tactics will not.
As the commandos of WW2 did so successfully, the modern force should also strive to have a disproportionately greater strategic effect on operations than the sum of its parts. Exploiting new and emerging technologies to further enhance the capabilities of its people will help achieve this, just as it did in the 1940s. As an example, superior communications equipment and the training to use these at all levels should be a priority to enable operations at reach and in environmental extremes. In this modern digitised era, it is hard to believe commando forces (or the British military as a whole) are still expected to make-do with outdated systems like Bowman. The ‘Fight Light’ concept should underpin future equipment procurement, with lighter weapons and kit meaning commandos can move faster, react quicker, and ultimately outpace their adversary. However, care must be taken as to what extent technology is incorporated in future employment models. Its tendency to fail, especially when exposed to the adverse environments the commandos should expect to operate in, must mean that any future equipment is designed as a tool to complement capability, and not meant to redefine commando operations. Equipment is not the answer to all our challenges.
Finally, in order to make the most of its superior human capital, specialist training and advanced equipment, commando forces of the 21st century could be reorganised to allow flexible and agile deployment. The current Special Purpose Task Group (SPTG) is the ideal model to achieve this, with Company-sized groupings of commandos being forward deployed in strategically important locations around the globe. This pre-emptive positioning, combined with its ORBAT of various specialisations and capabilities, means an SPTG can react at short notice to engage in a range of tasks from humanitarian assistance to small scale offensive actions. As with their training, commando operations should subsequently steer away from large scale conventional deployments (i.e. Unit-sized Lead Commando Groups) where the calibre of the individual is outweighed by the need for mass – the individual is our best asset. Instead, rapid intervention and expeditionary missions tackled by an agile and adaptable SPTG should be what define commando operations of the 21st century. Targeting enemy/adversaries High Payoff Targets (HPT) and consequently affecting enemy Centre of Gravity, will be the priority over seizing and holding terrain with mass. Small, precise SPTG will be critical to this.
Based on such foundations, there are many strengths that this commando force would possess. Beyond the obvious advantages any organisation that recruits and trains the best candidates inherently has, there are a few primary examples worth discussing. First and foremost (especially when considering the needs of HM Government), would be its ability to rapidly and effectively respond to a developing crisis almost anywhere in the globe. Forward deployed and consisting of a mixture of troops and specialisations, a Commando SPTG will be able to adapt and respond to a situation quicker than a conventional large scale formation. Even if it lacks the mass to resolve the issue, the SPTG could still utilise its available mix of skills and equipment to shape the battlespace for future friendly operations, whether they be fixing or deceiving an enemy force, or providing emergency first aid in a humanitarian disaster; Theatre Enablement. Secondly, the flexible nature of a Commando SPTG means it is not only highly adaptable to a specific situation, but also to who it works with. Functioning in a Joint capacity has always dominated Royal Marine operations, and the increased utility of future commando forces means this strength should be exploited to a greater extent. This includes NATO partners (expected to remain the UK’s defence alliance of choice), with a Company-sized SPTG easily incorporating into an allied ORBAT, providing it with niche commando capabilities and furthering interoperability. This could see the SPTG broken into small detachments of Commandos within indigenous/NATO tactical formations, similar to the Tiger Teams which were used to great effect enabling Afghan National Army operations. Additionally, a commando’s ability to operate efficiently in all environments, from arctic to jungle, has been a long-standing strength of the Royal Marines and one that should continue to define future training and operations. This adaptability emphasises a Commando’s aptitude and utility for broad employability within the modern FOE. While future conflict is likely to be centred on urbanised centres of population based close to the coast, the ability to project into un-permissive environments will further enable commando forces to generate a disproportionately greater influence against a threat (i.e. through surprise and/or deception).
Although there are many positive aspects to a future commando force (the above is by no means an exhaustive list), it is also vital to consider its weaknesses and how to address them. Firstly, as mentioned throughout this article in various scenarios, if remodelled to focus on Company-level SPTG groupings, commando forces will be trading their mass for increased flexibility and therefore sacrificing their ability to conduct independent large-scale action. In order to have a global presence that would facilitate rapid reaction from forward deployed locations, SPTGs would be operating independently at reach from one another and as such may not easily come together in the same way as the LCG does today. This would ultimately place a restriction on the impact commando forces could expect to have, for while an SPTG could react to a variety of tasks, there will always be situations that require the mass and resources of larger formations. This is not to say there would not be a place for commandos in these operations, however as mentioned their utility would lie largely in the shaping phase as opposed to the decisive. Another weakness would be the financial aspect of completely overhauling and subsequently maintaining the ‘new’ 3 Commando Brigade (or whatever designation the future commando force has). Initial ‘full-fat’ estimates (redacted) for the conversion to an FCF construct would be astronomical, but with graduating levels of change offering cost options. While these are only an estimate and represents the ‘highest end of transformation’ it is still a substantial figure for developing what will be only a small formation within wider UK Defence. What any FCF figure also fails to take into account is the significant financial implications of maintaining and resourcing multiple forward deployed SPTGs, often for months at a time. In all, given the current UK financial climate, justification for these funds will be hard fought and it will be up to the commando forces themselves, once formed, to find employment as soon as possible in order to vindicate the investment.
In conclusion, the development of a ‘future commando force’ that is able to meet the current and predicted threats of the 21st century will be an important asset to the continued survival of commandos and the Royal Marines as a whole. Fuelled by Defence cuts and an uncertain political environment, its urgency is evident in the ambitious plans outlined in such documents as the Future Commando Forces paper (undisclosed). The FCF, while neither a concept of operations nor concept of employment, does outline an interesting vision of how commando forces could be equipped and utilised by as early as 2022, and provides useful context for discussion. However, as this essay has sought to outline, commando forces in the 21st century need not to be so radically altered as to include squadrons of ‘gun bots’ and swarms of UAV’s like the FCF suggests; they simply need to continue doing basic soldiering well and refocus themselves on the kind of operations commando forces have always thrived on. Ultimately, it will not matter if they’re formed into SPTGs or armed with lighter rifles, as long as commando forces in the 21st century retain their ability to be the first to understand, adapt, respond and overcome, then they will always be an asset to UK Defence.
 DCDC, Future Character of Conflict (2014)
 For context, the Future Commando Force paper discusses some conceptual technologies that it foresees being utilised in future Commando operations. While many of these are worthwhile, the idea of 4-tonne ‘gun bots’ in fighting companies seems out of touch when considering the operating environments Commandos have historically excelled in, i.e. vertical assault, and riverine and jungle warfare.
 Strategic Trends Programme, Future Operating Environment 2035 (2015)