Peter Roberts for puzzle-palace.com
The UK Integrated Review has started. Billed as the most profound review of defence and foreign policy since 1945, expectations are high. In fact, from an MoD perspective, the review is but a continuation of the exercise that started in 2015 and has continued – almost without rest – ever since. What is clear from political leaders, however, is that simply regurgitating the same arguments, data, and recommendations is unlikely to satisfy the ambitions from the government. The Prime Ministers special advisor, Dominic Cummings, has been clear in his ambition to shake-up the whole of the defence establishment.
In terms of challenging some enduring preconceptions, assumptions and force drivers, the review is likely to engage with the theory of theatre entry. Having been a core facet of British defence policy for centuries, the Cold War saw the primary role of such forces broken into specific roles: The Royal Marines (RM) in Norway, and British Army airborne forces employed as a light, rapidly deployable, global intervention force. In 1998, the Strategic Defence Review codified the role change for UK armed forces to primarily an expeditionary one in support of a reinvigorated British foreign policy. This, in itself, was not without significant debate. Nonetheless, the requirement for long distance theatre-entry has remained a core role for the UK military for more than 20 years, and has seen use in Sierra Leone, Iraq, and – by some definitions – Afghanistan.
Arguably, to claim to possess a ‘full spectrum military’, the state does need to be able to access another foreign state by air, land or sea to order to maintain a credible freedom of entry. Such capabilities are, however, expensive and only have utility when there is a credible follow-on force to exploit the access points gained. In 1998, both facets (the entry force and the follow-on force) where present and available – albeit perhaps not at the level of readiness or capability that might have been desired.
Yet subsequent and successive cuts to the overall UK force structure, as well as the focus on low-intensity, unconventional operations (between 2003-2018) has skewed what was, arguably, a balanced force design. Today, the reductions in land, air and maritime forces in terms of manpower, structure, readiness, deploy-ability and availability make the commitment to theatre entry more problematic, perhaps simply theoretical, at anything but the smallest scale. In reality, the current structure of the UK forces only allows for the commitment of a light entry force and a small follow on force. Both elements might have excellent manoeuvrability, better ISTAR, and improved firepower than previously, but lack the scale to exploit or leverage a position of advantage against even a sub-peer adversary; making mission success a dubious proposition. This deliberate shift to quality over quantity flies in the face of everything we know about combined, joint or integrated operations beyond the immediate past, and certainly in comparison to almost every hard-earned lesson from previous eras of Great Power competition.
It seems that to many political and military chiefs, technology holds the answer: the silver bullet that will miraculously deliver an answer to pressing challenges such as this. Perhaps a combination of cyber, AI, and drones will deliver boutique intelligence that can allow a platoon to achieve what previously required divisional strength. This certainly seems to be the narrative perpetuated by some. There is little evidence to validate this theology of ‘technological determinism’ however, either from recent experience (from which one can draw a powerful argument about force utilisation), or from a longer arc of history (that delivers more enduring lessons about the utility of forces).
The lessons from contemporary conflict as experienced by others expose something starkly different from UK assumptions. The way adversaries are fighting, and how they are forcing belligerents to engage in warfare, exploits technology as a subservient facet to a military concept of fighting. The West seems to have forgotten this, instead preferring to develop a way of fighting built entirely around technology and assumptions of a competitive edge. The hubris of such a belief, almost a pre-ordained right to victory, is peculiar.
If one chose to do so, the recreation of a credible and capable theatre entry force of old is possible. Whether political leaders actually wish to resource and create one is perhaps more moot: as indeed is the idea that this is the way the UK wishes to engage and intervene. On the military side, the divergence of the British Army’s operating concept (a force built for high intensity war fighting but with utility in other states of competition), and Navy Command priorities (a lightly armed force with high utilisation in constabulary actions but with far less utility in any form of combat), has left the Royal Marines in a most precarious position: Working, as it is, for a policeman but acutely aware of the actual need for war fighting capability and ethos. Without the will to build a brigade level commando force at the expense of polishing two new aircraft carriers, the RM Corps will continue to be frozen out of the meaningful discussion regarding the national theatre entry capability. Relegating the RM commandos bit parts (arctic training commitments in Norway, chief challenger to Russian competitive strategies, and occasional duties as boarding parties in difficult circumstances) does not make for an enduring raison d’étre, and opens the Brigade to salami slicing both now and in the future.
There are no signs, however, that the current UK government wishes to do less, to change the mission set of the UK Armed Forces, or to walk back on capabilities and commitments to intervene at a time and place of Parliament’s choosing. In the absence of a political mandate to significantly cut force levels, no new money, and a continuing ambition to commit to the same military tasks as have previously been undertaken, what might the future of UK theatre-entry look like?
There are four courses of action that might emerge. The first option is to perpetuate the credibility gap already present with policy requiring the same capability, but with less money available, lower priorities for theatre entry equipment and divergent concepts of operations. The result would be that the sum (of theatre entry capability) will have less value less than the parts of it (people and platforms). Perhaps there is already some truth in such an assessment.
Secondly, one might amend the political ambition for theatre entry and rely on other states for the capability gaps that would emerge. The UK might, for example, propose to focus on below-threshold competition with Russia, along with more capable follow on forces designed to be interoperable at the highest level, accepting that the US (or perhaps – at a stretch – NATO) would be needed to deliver theatre entry. This argument ignores the utility of theatre entry capabilities for other missions, just as the implications of climate change make them more applicable, and undermines the idea of a full-spectrum military able to support and uphold the mantra of ‘Global Britain’.
Thirdly, the UK could retain the current theatre-entry capability but at a much-reduced state of readiness. Such activity could entail mothballing ships, re-prioritizing core equipment as ‘fitted-for-but-not-with’, and removing theatre entry exercises beyond the theoretical and staff training CPX functions. In many ways, this path has already been pursued to a natural inflection point. Recreating theatre entry for anything other than a benign environment at minimal levels is not realistic without months, perhaps years, of procurement and preparation.
Finally, UK policy could adapt its understanding of theatre entry again. This time, however, instead of simply defining the risk and threat envelope in which the UK would be willing to undertake such activity, it might be an opportunity to recast the concept of theatre entry and the formations that would undertake it. Perhaps this should take the form of engagement with the adversary.
Recasting the marines
In 2017, the idea of a spearhead brigade was mooted, amalgamating 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade into a single formation responsible for theatre entry. As argued then, such a decision could allow for the deletion of some expensive platforms that front line commands, and the RN in particular, have only begrudgingly resourced. Indeed, the shift of manpower liability from between commands would solve several issues: Navy Command would be able to afford the naval manpower needed to man the ships at sea and Land Command would suddenly overcome its long standing and very public shortfall in soldiers. Yet, such a move continues to strike fear into many hearts: It is certainly what General Sir Nick Carter would describe as a defence shibboleth.
Today, it seems that future force planners would like an integrated force for theatre entry that covers land, air, maritime, cyber, information and space. Realistically, this would already be a ‘best effort’ affair for the entirety of the UK Armed Forces. As if to overwrite the complexity and effort that would be required to undertake such activity – even under the most benign conditions – the latest concept note from the MoD’s doctrine centre focuses more on information, cyber, and command style during theatre entry than the actual fighting style and skills needed.
The realities of theatre entry today are changing. Coastal missile batteries, sophisticated targeting networks, a proliferated array of fires weapons, cheap IED/beach mines, and highly motivated adversaries make over the shore access very high-risk scenarios. Similarly, in airborne terms, British airborne forces are probably incapable of penetrating battlespace protected by Russian Surface-to-air missile systems, in the same way Soviet Airborne forces were unable to do so during the Cold War. Likewise, the no-risk, low-tech theatre-entry activities of the past 25 years no longer seem worst case, or even best case. Adversaries today are more likely to be proxies, or even be supported overtly, by Great Power rivals, leaving the British not just facing a situation of military parity, but one in which they are more likely to be out-matched in mass and political will. Today, it would appear more sensible to administratively deliver a force to a neighbouring state, and drive into the theatre of operations. This would circumvent the access denial tools and systems now in place by many competitors (both peer and sub peer alike). A new approach is needed that deals with these realities.
Given such evidence, there is an argument that theatre entry is not a separate role for the contemporary conflict environment – certainly not as historically imagined. The narratives around large, heavy formations driving through a competitor’s countryside are all but gone. Even high intensity conflict (as seen in, for example, the British Army’s quite excellent Conceptual Force Land 2035), is not imagined in these terms. Thus, one might wonder why theatre entry is still seen as a basic building block: A lodgement or port to offload large quantities of platforms does not seem to relate to the way anyone is imagining future conflict.
Without posing these questions, British doctrine stops short of considering Forcible Entry Operations in a different way. Whilst stymied by such pedestrian thinking, it is unlikely that either political or military imagination can produce a worthy result. Instead, and in the shadow of examination by an ‘Integrated Review’ process, the UK forces slated for theatre-entry need to take two actions. First, to be truthful in assessing what they can achieve given the current levels of resourcing and prioritization. To be less than blunt in their honest assessments, commanders are doing a disservice to their people. Second, these forces need to reconsider their role, less as a kick-the-door down force, but instead as one that disrupts enemies and poses multiple dilemmas to adversaries in the deep battle. This becomes the theatre entry exercise in itself. In doing so, such actions might force adversaries to mass and co-locate to counter attack, thereby making themselves susceptible to defeat by strike weapons that can actually penetrate complex defensive bubbles.
To move on intellectually in such a fashion, marines need to stop thinking about theatre entry, littoral manoeuvre, and constabulary operations. The Corps has the intellectual curiosity and courage to find a new concept, but it can only do so if freed from the shackles of the Royal Navy.
About the author
Peter Roberts is Director of Military Sciences at RUSI, having been a Senior Research Fellow there since 2014. Peter has a master’s degree in War Studies from KCL, and a doctorate in politics and history. He is the non-resident Professor of War at Ecole de Guerre in Paris.