The Integrated Review promised Royal Navy’s future amphibious capability would be built around two Littoral Response Groups (LRG). Here we look at how this will be delivered, the strategic questions raised.
As promised in the IR, the first of the newly-renamed Littoral Response Groups was deployed on an experimental deployment (LRG(X)) to the Mediterranean from September to December 2020. The LRG (North) was subsequently deployed for 3 months between April – June 2021, operating under NATO and the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) construct off Norway and in the Baltic. The LRG(N) was centred on HMS Albion and RFA Mounts Bay carrying 45 commando Royal Marines.
To some extent, the LRG is just a re-branding exercise and follows years of similar amphibious deployments that in the last decade have operated under the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) and Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) (JEF(M)) banner employed on the ‘Cougar’ (2011-15) and ‘Amphibious Task Group’ deployments. What will be different about the LRG is the (as yet unrealised) ambition to be ‘persistent, ie. forward-deployed and at a high state of readiness along with the new operating model for the Future Commando Force (FCF).
The RN describes its vision for Littoral Strike and the FCF as “a transformation from a 20th Century facing intervention capability into a forward-based maritime advance force. Integrated into Defence and Agency networks and persistently deployed to engage in strategically important activity. It will produce comparative advantage across the spectrum of operations and provide increased political options.” In general terms. heavy vehicle fleets, linear supply lines, inaccurate fires and vulnerable surface craft will be replaced with precision strike, high mobility, modern C4ISR, networked autonomous systems and deception capabilities.Littoral-Strike-Group-Concept-1
The LRG(N) spanning operations in the North Atlantic, Baltic and Mediterranean will be the lead and include an LPD, a Bay class, a 45 Cdo company and supporting elements (probably around 250 personnel). The LRG (S) will include a company of 40 Cdo and will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific region from 2023 onward, based on a Bay class RFA modified as a Littoral Strike Ship. The LRG construct is intended to be inherently flexible and operate closely with allies or other RN assets. The two LRGs may aggregate together to form a more substantial Littoral Strike Group or join with the Carrier Strike Group to form an Expeditionary Strike Force on occasions.
The Defence Command Paper promises a £40M investment in the Royal Marines as they transition to the FCF model which will underpin the LRGs. The new commandos will be: “Forward deployed to respond rapidly to crises, this special operation capable force will operate alongside our allies and partners in areas of UK interest, ready to strike from the sea, pre-empt and deter sub-threshold activity, and counter state threats.”
North and South
The LRG (North) should primarily be seen as a ‘convening force’ to which NATO or JEF nations may contribute assets to make it a more capable group. In the Cold War, the primary raison d’etre of RN amphibious capability was to ‘protect the Northern Flank’. The names and faces may have changed but to some extent, Putin’s new Cold War revival implies the reinforcement of Norway in the event of Russian aggression. Retaining control of the airfields of Northern Norway would be vital to dominate the seas inside the Arctic Circle and contain the threat of the Russian Northern Fleet.
In the Baltic, the LRG may have a role to play in protecting Scandinavian nations and the reinforcing Baltic States. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad is home to a variety of conventional and nuclear cruise missiles, long-range radars and air defence missiles that are a thorn in NATOs side. Containing the Russian Baltic Fleet would be another task, should conflict break out. The LRG(N) alone has limited strategic significance but its regular presence operating with NATO and JEF partners signals to the Russians a multi-national determination to maintain their security.
The LRG(N) may also serve in the Mediterranean but its tasks there are harder to predict. Anti-terrorism and migration control operations off North Africa are a possibility. Operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant seem less likely as Daesh has now largely been defeated and there is no appetite for any involvement in Syria. The LRG is well equipped for humanitarian aid disaster relief (HADR) or Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO). Historically amphibious forces have been called on to conduct this task more frequently than combat operations.
The LRG (South) will operate in a very different environment, likely to be involved in more small scale active operations to deter terrorism and its state sponsors. Based in Duqm, Oman, LRG(S) will have an area of operations that could potentially extend from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and even the Pacific. The LRG would appear to be very well suited to anti-piracy and Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIOps) in the Middle East region. A recent spate of attacks on merchant shipping appears to be part of a proxy war between Iran and Israel. At sea with helicopters and troops at high readiness, the LRG could also be well equipped to deter and potentially intervene to protect commercial shipping from this kind of attack.
The LRG(S) is also likely to operate in the Gulf and be on call for operations directly against Iranian forces if required. In the Red Sea, the civil war in Yemen continues to threaten shipping, particularly in the Bab al-Mandab Strait. US and Saudi warships have been attacked by Houthi rebels using shore-based missiles and suicide craft. Raids by special forces to degrading this kind of capability could be launched from platforms such as the LSS. Beyond the Gulf region, LRG utility is harder to define and will need to be aggregated into other naval forces for logistic support and to have significant mass if deployed against more formidable adversaries.
Power, presence and protection?
The composition of the LRGs will be flexible but just a single or pair of ships will form the core. The LRG(N) based around the LPD is the more balanced of the two and can deliver more than twice the effect of the LRG(S). Assuming both Bay class ships receive new hangars, at least 3 Merlin Mk4’s could be assigned, helping to offset the LPDs lack of hangar. Available helicopter numbers are limited, just how many Wildcats or Merlins will be can be permanently embedded with the groups, especially for LRG(S) is critical. Airborne raids are likely to assume greater importance than delivery by landing craft and the Groups are expected to cover an enormous geographic area.
For much of its existence, the LRG(S) may have to rely on deception and blending in for its safety while the LRG(N) will be heavily reliant on warships of other NATO allies to provide protection. The RN managed to assign HMS Lancaster and HMS Northumberland, to participate in parts of the 3-month 2021 LRG(N) deployment. If both LRGs are aggregated with the Carrier Strike Group (ie. virtually the entire operational surface fleet) then the formation might be secure enough to mount a very modest amphibious operation without reliance on the direct support of allies.
Other vessels may be attached to the groups depending on the mission. For the Duqm-based LRG(S) this may include the frigate based in Bahrain and/or other occasional RN warship visitors to the region. The only other relevant government-controlled assets are the 4 civilian-crewed Point class Ro-Ro sealift vessels leased from Foreland Shipping Ltd. They have 2,650 lane-metres of space available to transport substantial numbers of military vehicles and stores but are intended to be loaded or unloaded in friendly ports. Theoretically, they could support an unopposed administrative landing using Mexeflotes to discharge onto the beach. The lease of these busy ships expires in 2024 and it is unclear whether it will be renewed and new vessels acquired.
Losses and gains
Against the odds, the RN managed to retain the LPDs in the Integrated Review but overall amphibious capability is in decline. The Littoral Response Groups make sense in an age of continual sub-threshold war and grey zone activity but should the RN ever be called on to mount opposed amphibious operations against a peer adversary, assets are thin. The investment in autonomous systems, USV, UAVs and loitering munitions all make sense but there is an expensive shopping list of new kit required to return to being a credible heavyweight amphibious force. This would include; a helicopter carrier (LPH) to replace HMS Ocean with adequate helicopter numbers (and ideally V-22s), modern replacements for the slow landing craft (LCUs and LCVPs), new armoured amphibious vehicles and a big increase in mobile air defence capabilities and supporting fires such as MLRS. The Integrated Review promised no such investment so it is important to be honest about what the LRGs and FCF are really capable of.
The LRGs have considerable merit, especially being at higher readiness and forward-deployed and able to respond more quickly to events. The LRG(S) will be ‘in theatre’ although the LRG(N) presumably will remain UK-based as there does not appear to be any plan for forward-deployment in a European or Scandinavian port. The ability to raid and conduct rapid MIOps is useful but the LRG is essentially a ‘first-responder’ or a special forces type formation that has the ability to open the way for larger follow-on force. Either the reductions in the strength of 3 Commando Brigade need to be dramatically reversed or there has to be more coordination with the Army on future littoral operations.
The disastrous conclusion to the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan has probably killed off any lingering political will for foreign interventions involving the deployment of anything beyond a handful of troops. Unfortunately, future conflicts may no longer just be at a time and place of our choosing. The deterrent effect and uncertainly in the mind of an adversary that is created by a credible amphibious force is out of all proportion to its cost and the UK is unwise in compromising this capability. The Littoral Response Groups are a sensible concept but their obvious limitations are symptomatic of a navy stretched too thin, trying to deliver global reach while under-resourced.