Future Amphibious Forces, 2020: What War Are You Preparing For?

By Robbin Laird

Recently, DefenceIQ held its Future Amphibious Forces conference.

It had been postponed earlier this year and was held as a virtual conference on December 1, 2020.

As the moderator of the day, a noted former British General, highlighted at the end of the day, “We have had a very good conversation throughout the day about the future of amphibious forces.”

But as he also noted, the key challenge really was to sort through where one wanted to take those forces in terms of “what kinds of wars or conflicts were being prepared for or prioritized.”

His question underscored the core challenge facing any discussion of the way ahead for Maritime special forces or amphibious forces: What is their role in the high-end fight?

What is their role in crisis management?

And how related are the answers to these two questions?

Put another way, focusing on amphibious forces and their future quickly takes one into the realm of warfighting capabilities now, the next five years and the decade ahead.

In turn, the question is posed as well with regard to what capabilities are desired and for which concepts of operations to shape what kind of warfighting outcome?

In other words, there is no single force design which will easily embrace the range of options or be able to answer the question of prioritization for the warfighting approaches for the high-end fight.

And this was clearly evident in the discussions during the day.

There was a discussion throughout the day of the advantages of shaping an Inside Force projected from the sea base to support operations in a denied environment.

But it was clear for most presenters that the Inside Force was inserted to support an overall campaign effort, but it was important that the Inside Force did not compromise the capabilities of the overall conventional forces or the overall campaign.

As the moderator closed the conference, he highlighted the challenge of dealing with such a risk calculus.

How much effort is required from the overall conventional force for Maritime Special Forces or an Inside Force to succeed?

And in making that effort, how much do you drain from those conventional forces and with what effect with regard to its ability to operate and succeed?

The entire point of discussing the future of amphibious forces from the standpoint of the new strategic environment is the flexibility which sea-bassing provides.

Several of the presentations highlighted the flexibility which projecting special operations forces from the sea can provide for crisis management and hybrid warfare operations.

With regard to peer competitors, the challenge is harder in terms of being able to insert force, and to ensure that it can survive and fight for another day.

Much of the discussion during the day was with regard to the ecosystem which inserting an inside force to work with the outside larger conventional force would require.

How to disaggregate for survival but be able to aggregate for combat effect?

This requires the right kind of C2, ISR accessibility, strike support, logistical support and an ability to be extracted.

None of this is easy and one should assume that the period where an Inside Force would be unobservable would be very limited indeed.

Signature and sustainability would always be flashpoints for the Inside Force.

Much of the discussion during the day was upon special force applications for the maritime force.

Also addressed was the challenge of the blending of those missions with overall fleet operations.

It was projected that he projection of this hybrid mix will be increasingly important in the thresholds below widespread conventional war.

Hence, the key question posed by the moderator: What kind of war are you preparing for?

The assertion was that there would be more interest in shaping different types of Inside Forces, but the ecosystem to support a wide use of such forces is simply not there.

But for now, reorganizations are under way to shape new templates to use Special Forces and shape variant types of Inside Forces  and to shape new templates for operations.  New technologies would be inserted over time to enhance the ability to project robotic power forward to build out an Inside Force.

A key challenge is working through information sharing among coalition partners and working ways that force insertion by a key nation was supportable by nations in the area of interest.

How do you choose the area in which project force?

And how best to do so with regard to coalition or partner support?

For those working on force design for an Inside Force, they face a significant challenge with regard to understanding how the overall conventional force capabilities will evolve, how the capabilities of the air, ground, sea, space and cyber components will intersect and how the Inside Force will fit into the overall redesign of the nuclear and conventional forces which nuclear countries like the United States deploy.

As a senior RAAF officer put it in a presentation made at a different DefenceIQ conference: “the detailed elements of force design can be extremely challenging as we can’t predict the frameworks that future capabilities will be built around.”

This officer added an additional point facing the challenge of designing an Inside Force or a new combat capability more generally with regard to the evolution of an integrated force, namely, anticipating and knowing “the framework and environment these futures will nest within.”

With the design of an Inside Force, the question is not simply reconfiguration for force insertion, but understanding the entire combat cycle envisaged whereby that force reinforces a conventional campaign rather than degrades it by putting hostages into the denied area with the commander’s task being reset to save the Inside Force from destruction.

It is a question of how to sustain the force forward, and how to provide ways to extract the force back into the ramp up of the conventional campaign.

The presentations generated some very helpful insights for those thinking through force development and operational re-designs.

Presentations were made by British, Brazilian, Swedish, Dutch Naval Special Forces or Marines as well as by a USMC officer and U.S. think tank members.