The Royal Marines and Mountain Warfare – can we do it better?
With the enforced pause of the national lockdown, the time at home seemed an excellent opportunity to reflect. And with 3 Commando Brigade’s return from Norway as the pandemic struck, a good topic of reflection is one which is so intrinsic to the Royal Marines’ identity: mountain and Arctic warfare. Except, with the Corps’ renewed commitment to annual Norway deployments, it seems that Arctic warfare has regained prominence in 3 Commando Brigade’s priorities and programming. Therefore, with the Arctic capability presumably secure with time and resources, it is perhaps more appropriate to focus on what could be Arctic warfare’s poor relation: operations in a mountainous environment. I use the term ‘poor relation’ because it is my view that mountain warfare receives relatively little attention in the Royal Marines despite it being a headline capability. One of the reasons for this perceived oversight is that, in the general psyche of commando forces, mountain and Artic warfare are viewed as two sides of the same coin. For example, the two environments are rolled into one acronym: M&CWW. This, I propose, is a mistake and continues to have a deleterious effect on the commando forces being able to properly meet its mountain warfare capability commitments. Most importantly, I believe that we could be so much better at it. There are three aspects to my case. First, that mountain and cold weather environments should be treated as distinct environmental problems (albeit with some cross-over); secondly, that the way we train neither affords mountain warfare proficiency nor does it enable the improvement of this mountain warfare capability; and thirdly, what to do about it.
Mountain and cold weather warfare are often thought about in the same breath. If someone asks what the Royal Marines do, invariably one of the responses is, “provide a mountain and cold weather warfare capability for Defence.” They would not be wrong. But what is wrong is the conceptual conflation of the two environments – they are not the same. Whilst many readers will be keen to point out that Norway has mountains and is very cold, I would offer that that observation is only part of the story. Whilst cold weather extremes are one feature of a mountainous environment, there are plenty of other mountainous environments that are not in the cold extremes, not least because mountains do not exist in a perpetual state of winter. For example, a brief flick through AFM Vol 2 Part 1 (Mountain Operations) will reveal variety in mountainous environments: ‘temperate wet’ (e.g. the Lake District and Brecon), ‘Cold’ (the Alps or the Balkans), ‘hot barren’ (e.g. Yemen and Morocco), and ‘jungle’ (e.g. parts of Malaysia, Borneo, and northern parts of South America). The other major distinction between the conditions experienced in the Arctic and the mountains is the terrain. Again, these can be in the extreme cold, but a Norway deployment for the majority of 3 Commando Brigade (maybe with the exception of SRS) does not contend with “the high passes and deep valleys, difficult paths, ravines, terrifying precipices, and a thousand other obstacles” that comes with mountain warfare. Compare this description to a normal Norway deployment, and the differences could not be starker. The Royal Marines in Norway use training areas where roads, valleys, forests, and plateaus are commonplace. In many ways, certainly from my experience, a Norway training exercise is not too dissimilar from the topography experienced in temperate conditions in the UK, albeit with the added feature of extreme cold weather. For those who doubt or misunderstand this observation, one only needs to look at the vehicles that are commonly used in an Arctic deployment: BV206, Viking, skidoos, and a winterised wheel-based vehicle fleet. My point here is that these vehicles would most likely be made redundant in the “high passes…and terrifying precipices” of a serious mountainous area. Therefore, even if it is not explicitly recognised, the Royal Marines are training in a cold weather environment that is not, bar largely personal safety and administrative cold weather conditioning, similar to the conditions experienced during mountain warfare.
The meteorological and topographical features that are found in mountainous environments have a profound impact on the character of the warfare and these are bourne out in the tactical functions. Manoeuvre is an obvious start point. Operations in a mountainous environment would cause a unit to drop, almost entirely, its dependence on a tracked and wheeled fleet. That may not sound like a problem but with much of the commando needing vehicle support this is not something routinely practised. This mobility problem is then exacerbated by how a unit balances the movement of rifle companies, HQ elements and logistics personnel with finite mountain leader (ML) manpower. With many of those ranks committed to reconnaissance, section commanding, or acting as company sergeant majors or troop sergeants, there is a limit to a unit’s dependence on ML guides. On fires, the commando group has not experienced the limitations imposed on artillery and its relationship to mortar fire support. In command and control, there is no model on how a commando unit breaks away from its reliance on the BV206 fleet for C2; and in intelligence, there is little common shared experience, learnt through training, on how mountainous terrain (in all its varieties) shapes enemy action. In sustainment, where a unit can no longer rely on its vehicles, we have not wrestled with issues like increased aviation support (which is then cut-back at high-altitudes), porterage or even mules (as used by the USMC and German mountain infantry brigades). Finally, there are tactics, like besieging methods, the use and construct of flanking detachments in a commando group, and cave clearances which are peculiar to mountain warfare. The point about this brief list of constraints and considerations (and there are more) is that a unit needs to train with these issues and do so in a combined arms context. Yet mountain training is not treated as a combined arms activity because the Royal Marines’ approach is to see it as an adjunct to Artic warfare.
If there was any doubt that mountain training is treated as an enabler for Arctic warfare, rather than a discrete discipline, I would offer both historical and contemporary evidence to prove otherwise. During my research, I stumbled across an old British Pathé reel from 1953 entitled Scotland: Marines train for the Arctic. What is fascinating about this news clip was not the material similarities to the modern day – such as marines marching in the Cairngorms, a ML preparing a fixed line, or the troop conducting 10-man tent drills – but rather the single conceptual similarity: that mountain training is a precursor for Arctic warfare training. Flash forward to 2019 (or the last two decades) and one will realise that not a lot has changed – the contemporary Corps continues to live with the historical legacy of this thinking. To illustrate my point, one only has to skim over the last decade’s worth of mountain training PXRs. There are some strong, consistent themes. The structure and purpose of mountain training has not changed. The packages are organised in company blocks; they cover essential safety, administrative and mountain movement training; and sometimes (if not rarely), the training culminates in a tactical exercise for that company. Time and again it is the tactical aspect of mountain training that suffers – and it is this part of the training that is most important. With some companies often committed to other activities, rarely does an entire unit cycle through mountain training and it certainly is not a combined arms package. This is not to say that the training delivered is not valuable (of course it is), rather that the training, particularly the tactical-warfare part of it, is inadequate.
The inadequacy of mountain warfare training is not only a symptom of unchallenged thinking but also a product of who delivers this training and who does not. The first problem is that mountain training is led exclusively by the ML specialisation. The ML branch, with perhaps the exception of some doctrinally inclined individuals, is not a mountain warfare specialisation. Their training, quite rightly, is focused on mountain movement, guiding and safety, and surveillance and reconnaissance. What they should not and cannot be expected to provide is combined-arms mountain warfare training (although they will certainly enable it) – this is the responsibility of all the echelons in the commando group to be able to adapt their skillset to the environment. A good analogy can be taken from urban warfare training. The Royal Marines would not depend on platoon weapons specialists to provide urban warfare expertise; that can only be developed if the commando trains as a group in an urban environment. That 40 Commando and 45 Commando have probably developed some decent urban warfare expertise from training in 29 Palms is not because the Corps has close quarter battle specialists but because the unit has trained as a combined arms grouping. The same applies to mountain warfare. Although this may seem like a criticism of the ML specialisation, it is not. Rather, for as long as the officer corps (primarily) and the different arms abrogate the responsibility of mountain warfare training to the ML specialisation, it is unlikely that a combined arms approach to training will be realised, without which no commando unit will actually become proficient in operating in a mountainous environment. Finite ML manpower cannot be everywhere all the time and they have day jobs (CSMs, reconnaissance, section Tp Sgts, and command, for example). Therefore, it is the business of every discrete part of a commando group (and supporting elements) to understand how their specialisation or arm operates in a mountainous environment.
So, what to do? If mountain warfare is to be taken seriously as a specialist responsibility for the Royal Marines and commando forces, then our approach needs some simple but fundamental improvements. The first, is to acknowledge that mountain warfare and Arctic warfare are different. There are cross-overs and efficiencies to be realised, but they are not the same. Secondly, mountain training should not be the responsibility of solely the ML specialisation; instead it must become a command-led activity with the focus on combined arms outcomes in the same way that environmental training is delivered elsewhere, such as the Arctic and the urban. Thirdly, time and imagination must be given to mountain warfare training in a way that has been lacking: short tactical exercises for a small company that lacks even a unit context is insufficient. Finally, take a deep conceptual approach to improving our knowledge about the art of mountain warfare. It is telling that in the 24 years since AFM Vol 2 Part 1 (Mountain Operations) was written, it has had only one very minor update. I suspect this is not because the Royal Marines know everything there is to know about mountain warfare but rather, we do not know nearly enough. Perhaps we can do things better.
AFM Vol 2 Part 1 (Mountain Operations) (1996).
Becks, R., “Arctic Strategy: Hundreds of Royal Marines Prepare for Norway Deployment,” in Forces Net last updated 22 Jan 2019.
de Folard, J.C., Traite de l’ordre profond, in Bibliotheque Historique et Militaire quoted in AFM Vol 2 Part 1 (Mountain Operations), 1996, p.i.
Grau. L. C., and Bartles, C.K., eds., Mountain Warfare and other Lofty Problems: Foreign Perspectives on High Altitude Combat, West Midlands: Helion & Co, 2011.
LCpl Seth Starr, “Marines train resupply techniques with pack animals,” Marines.mil at https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/500002/marines-train-resupply-techniques-with-pack-animals/ last updated on 23 Sep 2014.
“Pack animals, the German mountain infantry brigade,” YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2qdeGzASFY last updated on 18 Feb 2019.
British Pathé, Scotland – Marines train for the Arctic (1953) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTrUSwDKdFk&list=RDCMUCGp4u0WHLsK8OAxnvwiTyhA&start_radio=1&t=61
 R. Becks, “Arctic Strategy: Hundreds of Royal Marines Prepare for Norway Deployment,” in Forces Net last updated 22 Jan 2019.
 Mountain and cold weather warfare.
 Jean Charles de Folard, Traite de l’ordre profond, in Bibliotheque Historique et Militaire quoted in AFM Vol 2 Part 1 (Mountain Operations), 1996, p.i.
 LCpl Seth Starr, “Marines train resupply techniques with pack animals,” Marines.mil at https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/500002/marines-train-resupply-techniques-with-pack-animals/ last updated on 23 Sep 2014.
 Besieging methods were used during the battle of Chumik-Siachen in 1989 between India and Pakistan. See AFM Vol 2 Part 1 (Mountain Operations), 1996: p. 3-1 – 3-10.
 Soviet experience offers some useful examples during the Soviet-Afghan War. See L. W. Grau, “Flanking detachment in the mountains: A Soviet Experience,” in Grau and Bartles, eds., Mountain Warfare and other Lofty Problems: Foreign Perspectives on High Altitude Combat, (West Midlands: Helion & Co, 2011): 60-66.
 L. W. Grau and C.K. Bartles, eds., Mountain Warfare and other Lofty Problems: Foreign Perspectives on High Altitude Combat, (West Midlands: Helion & Co, 2011): 75.
 British Pathé, Scotland – Marines train for the Arctic (1953) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTrUSwDKdFk&list=RDCMUCGp4u0WHLsK8OAxnvwiTyhA&start_radio=1&t=61