Some analysis on hypothetical marine force plans

David Perry’s article, the only one under this discussion topic up until today, remains the most read on the Broadsides forum.  In April, Perry’s article set a new mark for popularity by being read by 314 different visitors to the website.  Normally, the most-read article would record 50 to 60 ‘hits’ and might be 20 or 30 places higher than the next most-read article.  Not this time: it ranked 290 places higher than the second-standing article!  Additionally, Perry’s article has never ranked out of the ‘Top Five’ since the forum’s inception almost two years ago.

Based on the popularity of this subject amongst our readers, the most recent CFPS Maritime Security Occasional Paper, the fifteenth in the series, was focused on the issue of Canadian marines.  Entitled Marines: Is an amphibious capability relevant for Canada?, the book included three articles that explored the types of marine and naval infantry forces in the world and argued the pros and cons of the concept.

I wrote the lead article, entitled “Marines: Which countries have them and why?”  It included a general survey of the 81 countries that have either a marine/naval infantry force, and/or an amphibious capability.  Of that number, four states have either marines or naval infantry but do not possess amphibious ships.  A further 38 countries with amphibious ships or landing craft have neither marines nor naval infantry.  Based on the findings, I described a seven-level typology of marines force structures.  One of the recognized types of marine forces is the Special Operations Force (SOF): thirteen states possess such forces and four of them (Ecuador, Israel, Pakistan and Malaysia) have only a marine SOF.  This is the type of force Perry recommends for Canada.

After the book, I explored the idea of a Canadian marine SOF, which resulted in an article in the current issue of Canadian Naval Review (Spring 2009), entitled “The Case for Canadian Marines.”  The Managing Editor plans to make the article available on the CFPS website in the near future.  In the meantime, here are a few comments (from both of my articles) on the idea of a marine commando ‘regiment’ for Canada.

The Conservative government’s proposal (which Perry’s article endorses)  is for an anti-terrorist response team to counter threats to people, places and things in the maritime environment where special operating skills are needed that are not normally resident in land forces.  In addition, they would be used for boarding uncooperative vessels and to assist in conducting Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEOs).  Recent analysis of terror tactics indicates a distinct move to swarming tactics, where the object is to overwhelm sentinel and patrolling security forces with multiple small teams of two or three attackers.  The idea is to counter even an immediate response Special Weapons and Tactics Team by presenting too many threats to deal with all at once.  The recent attacks in Mumbai and Lahore conformed to this general plan of attack, as have many others.

The ‘problem’ with the current 250-man ‘regiment’ is that is does not provide for the type of dispersed small-unit immediate reaction force that would be of most use to counter this type of threat.  The survey data on marine forces indicates that the average marine SOF tactical unit is a 32-person sub-company ‘group’.  A 250-man ‘regiment’ (which is a misnomer in any event, since the organization required to generate an average marine regiment is a force of 3,638 people!) is too large and cumbersome an organization for counter-terrorism task.  However, the administrative overhead required to organize, generate and sustain a 32-man tactical unit is, adjusted to CF proportions, about 560 people.  So, while a marine SOF a very different type of organization, the Canadian theoretical construct is not properly organized or supported.  In fact, it represents only about half of what would be needed to support a 32-person marine SOF on both coasts.

What types of ship and craft are needed to support a marine SOF?  The survey data show that these ships tend to be smaller and fewer in number (average was one) than typical well-deck or flight-deck equipped ‘amphibs’, but they have the ability to support a relatively high numbers of specialty craft (average total per SOF formation was 30 craft).  Keeping the tactical force small and having it capable of dividing into sub-units, which I suggest should be eight people, the 4-element marine SOF can be deployed quickly into a wide variety of existing ships and integrated into an equally wide variety of existing teams (diving, explosive ordinance disposal, boarding and boats crews).  Far from suggesting that a ‘Big Honking Ship’ is the place to start, my analysis of the marine SOF concept indicates that a much smaller, faster, and more manoeuvrable amphibious ship is where the CF should concentrate its interests.

In the CNR article, I suggest that the type of ship best suited for the CF in its early exploration of amphibious capability is a modified frigate that draws its inspiration from the destroyer troop transports (APDs) that first came into widespread use during the Second World War. Obsolescent 1000-tonne destroyers and destroyer escorts proved capable of supporting 200 marines, four landing craft, and 20 tonnes of supplies for tasks lasting 48 hours.  Today’s 4,770-tonne Halifax-class frigates should be capable of doing at least as well with some modification.  With the historical example as a guide, a modified frigate would be able to support even the entire 32-person marine SOF and the army’s only high readiness standby unit, a 100-man augmented company designed for a NEO.

Typically, discussions of amphibious capability for Canada centre on a 25,000- to 50,000-tonne amphibious ship that could move and support an infantry battalion-based landing force.  The requirements for support and sustainment often indicate that a multiple ship force is needed to prevent the whole from being exhausted immediately upon landing due to simple logistical culmination.   Before getting into a much bigger hypothetical construct that involves power projection with conventional land forces, the more logical approach seems to be the marine SOF.  Like Perry, I support the government’s notional proposal, although some adjustments are clearly necessary.