Royal Navy amphibious warfare capability in flux

It is an uncertain time for the Royal Navy’s amphibious warfare capability (now called ‘Littoral Strike’). A changing battlefield environment is driving a significant evolution of operating doctrine while at the same time, the Royal Marines and their amphibious platforms are potentially under threat from looming defence cuts.

Marines

Making the case for Britain to retain the ability to deliver troops from the sea feels like Groundhog Day. RN amphibious capability has been almost constantly under threat for decades, the most recent attempt to axe the LPDs, HMS Albion and Bulwark was seen off as recently as 2017. There are three key pillars of RN capability – The Nuclear Deterrent, Carrier Strike and Littoral Strike. CASD and the carriers are of the highest priority leaving the latter the most vulnerable, should a really heavy programme of austerity be forced on the MoD. On 5th July the Sunday Times reported planned cuts, claiming: “The Royal Marines commando brigade would be disbanded, losing its artillery, engineers and landing craft.” Such articles, prior to next year’s Integrated Review, should be treated as far from gospel and the Defence Secretary has robustly denied the story but the uncertainly remains.

‘Salami slicing’ has already seen a steady decline in the strength of the Royal Marines since 2010 and AFCAS reports reduced morale. The RN traded around 200 marine posts for extra sailors in 2017 and 42 Cdo was repurposed and is no longer a full commando. (Lead Commando duty now alternates each year between 40 and 45). The 3 Commando Brigade Headquarters, RM Stonehouse, is slated for closure with no definite plan for the promised ‘RM superbase’ in the Plymouth area. With the focus of the recent land campaigns now gone, there is a suspicion the Marines may get a raw deal from the stretched Navy Command budget.


The argument for keeping and investing in the specialist ships, the marines and skillset alive have already been well made many times. Like the aircraft carriers, the LPDs (HMS Albion and Bulwark) in particular, attract a variety of predominantly amateur ‘visionaries’ prophesying that they are outdated and have been made obsolete by new technologies. Meanwhile, almost every major navy in the world continues to invest heavily in amphibious ships.

Missions

There is a serious misconception that amphibious warfare still looks like the WWII ‘Saving Private Ryan’ scenario, troops wading ashore from landing craft and charging up heavily defended beaches into a deadly hail of fire. In reality, this concept of operations was largely abandoned in the 1950s particularly as the helicopter and airborne delivery of troops became increasingly important. A central tenet of amphibious operations is the use of mobility to strike an enemy where they are weakest. Even for a well-resourced opponent, it is difficult to protect every mile of coastline, island and littoral feature. Well-defended areas would be avoided as far as possible as the amphibious force can choose when and where to strike, creating uncertainly for an adversary. The force may stay poised at sea and never come ashore at all but their presence may tie down enormous resources to the wider advantage.

HMS Queen Elizabeth Helicopter Landing ship

Mockup showing HMS Queen Elizabeth configured as a helicopter assault ship for ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’. In 2019 the RN quietly re-allocated the £60 million earmarked in 2015 to upgrade communications, accommodation and flight deck arrangements needed to operate HMS Prince of Wales as a helicopter assault ship (LPH). It would appear plans for the aircraft carriers to be used in the amphibious role have been abandoned, at least for now.

Rather than land heavy forces in a large scale ‘invasion’ scenario, independent UK and coalition amphibious operations are more likely to include raiding, demonstrations of force, evacuations of forces or trapped civilians, and support to other military operations. The Littoral Strike group may be used to attack inland targets from positions in littoral zones, seize key terrain for limited periods of time and destroy coastal A2AD assets.

In the excellent RUSI paper ‘Requirements for the UK’s Amphibious Forces in the Future Operating Environment’ (by Kaushal and Watling, Nov 2019) they offer four specific examples of how UK Littoral Strike group could be used. (1) Intervention to remove a Russian force that had landed on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the high north to prevent the installation A2AD systems. (2) To reinforce or prevent the seizure of the islands of Gotland, Åland or Bornholm in the Baltic by Russia. (3) The seizure of the Iranian island of Abu Musa in the Strait of Hormuz to prevent its use as a base for mine laying and attacks on commercial shipping as the Iranians have threatened. (4) Intervention in Hodeidah, Yemen to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and reduce the threat to shipping in the Red Sea.

If the UK is serious about its stated commitments to an Arctic Strategy, support to NATO in Europe and keeping the sea lanes opens in the Middle East, it is clear that credible amphibious capability is a prerequisite. Although not the main justification for amphibious vessels, decision-makers should also remember they are perhaps the best suited of all warships for humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) and are likely to perform this mission more frequently than any other.


Manouvre

While many core operating principles remain, it is clear that technological developments are changing the amphibious game. There is a paradox that population shifts are making operations in littoral areas assume greater strategic importance but at the same time are becoming more challenging to conduct. The proliferation of powerful, accurate guided weapons and improving ISR options make it easier to implement Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategies to defend the coast. Even non-state actors and have the potential to put warships off the coast at risk with guided weapons, while mobile missile batteries are especially hard to counter. It is clear that the assault ship cannot safely loiter close to the shoreline until defences have been suppressed.

Littoral Strike Ship (LSS) concept (Image: Prevail Partners)

In a new concept of operations, Kaushal and Watling propose that a new Littoral Operations Vessel (or Littoral Strike Ship) would be kept almost permanently forward-deployed in the region, operating much like a commercial vessel and aiming to blend in with routine traffic. The LSS will carry special forces teams and small raiding and reconnaissance parties intended to eliminate at least some of threats to the main force.

While developing their ‘Future Commando Force’ concept, the Royal Marines are already moving toward this model and would like to have two Littoral Response Groups (LRG). If the funds are found one will be based East of Suez, and one in the High North. Major General Matthew Holmes, the Commandant General RM, says a persistent forward presence based on such ships offers global access and “poses greater dilemmas to our adversaries.” To undertake minehunting, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and potentially light missile launches, the LRG could be supplemented by Extra Large UUVs similar to the Boeing Orca and UAVs.

Once the light forces of the LRG have penetrated and degraded local defences, it would then be possible to deliver heavier follow-on forces from the LPD or carrier. There are those who consider the use of landing craft redundant and that amphibious assault should be entirely airborne. Besides the problem of the RN’s newly acquired ‘helicopter assault ship gap’, aircraft also have their vulnerabilities and can only deliver troops with what they can carry. If a presence on the ground is going to require a foothold more than a few hours, sustained supply of heavy weapons, ammunition, food and possibly vehicles and fuel will be needed, most of which will probably have to be delivered by landing craft over the beach.

These concepts will need further refinement and new resources but it is clear that with the right philosophy and platforms, Littoral Strike is still viable and worthwhile. LSS would probably be relatively affordable but should not be seen as any kind of replacement for the LPDs. There have been suggestions that the 3 Bay-class auxiliary assault ships could take up the slack. This is patently untrue as they can only handle a single LCU compared with the 4 of the LPDs, lack the crucial command and control facilities, are built to commercial standards and manned mostly be merchant seaman. On top of this, two of the three have spent most of the last decade deployed on other duties with just one of the vessels available to rehearse the amphibious role when not in maintenance.

Ideally, HMS Albion and Bulwark would be replaced by LHDs with both helicopter and docking facilities but funds for new any vessels may be hard to find. The RN must try to retain and develop doctrine for use of the LPDs while arguing for future replacements. At present both ships have more than a decade of life left in them and if they escape cuts, their planned out of service dates are 2033 and 2034 respectively. (HMS Bulwark is due for refit before being reactivated in 2023).

The majority of the Corps’ landing craft are in need of modern replacements. Recognising the journey to the beach will still be hazardous, new designs of stealthier and much faster ‘Ship to Shore Connectors’ (SCCs) are being developed by foreign navies. The Royal Marine’s ten Mk10 LCUs (built by BAE Systems in Glasgow in 1998) are robust, have good range and capacity but are capable of just 10 knots.

Besides LSS, better landing craft and unmanned platforms there is a need for long-range precision fires (LRPFs) capability. The naval gunfire support provided by frigates and destroyers needs to be supplemented by affordable weapons with better reach and greater destructive power.

A purpose-built ‘arsenal ship’ with a very large number of VLS cells for rockets and/or Tomahawks would be a luxury but an adapted ro-ro vessel carrying a few MLRS vehicles might be an affordable solution. Some modifications to the guidance systems to compensate for ship movement would need to be made and targeting information could be provided by UAV or even from an F-35.

The US Marine Corps have already tested their High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) vehicles lashed to the flight deck of an assault ship (USS Anchorage, Oct 2017) to provide a ready-made shore bombardment capability. The precision rockets of the MLRS in service with the British Army has a range of 84 km and could do a similar job.

Money

What is often overlooked is the complementary nature of Carrier Strike and Littoral Strike capabilities and how dependent they are on each other at times to be effective and coherent. One of the very good reasons for the great investment in carrier strike is for its direct or indirect contribution to amphibious capability. In simple terms, to conduct an amphibious operation may demand air cover provided by the aircraft carrier. At other times it may be necessary to mount raids or landings to neutralise coastal threats to the aircraft carrier before it can be safely deployed to deliver wider effects in a theatre.

The recent fire on board the USS Bonhomme Richard will deprive the US 7th Fleet of the flagship of one of its Marine Expeditionary Units for several years, if not permanently. The loss of this LHD, which was being upgraded to operate F-35Bs, will be noticeable just as the US Pacific Fleet is trying to counter the ever-growing challenge from China. This will only increase the value the US places on UK amphibious capabilities (and the QEC aircraft carriers). It would be poor timing to axe the LPDs without credible replacements. Closer to home, our allies in the Netherlands and Norway have a strong partnership with the Royal Marines and would be concerned about any planned reductions.

The Integrated Defence Review must be truly honest about what the UK expects of its armed forces and decide if it wants a credible maritime expeditionary capability. Either we must fund the navy properly or be content to live without critical enablers, accepting we can only offer a limited to contribution to efforts of allies. If CEPP and Littoral Strike are fully resourced, they have great potential to deter adversaries and encourage partners. A half-baked version of Littoral Strike that could emerge, lacking the necessary platforms, but rebranded and dressed up as reimagining doctrine will impress no one and could even be a liability or a waste of resources.