Europe’s Marines in the Future European Littoral Operating Environment


In the early 20th century, following the Battle of Gallipoli in which entrenched Turkish forces inflicted considerable losses on a more powerful allied army and fleet, the future of amphibious warfare was called into question by many thinkers and practitioners. Not long after, then-Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was proclaiming “a Marine Corps for the next 500 years” in the wake of the U.S victory at Iwo Jima. This turnaround in fortunes was in no small part driven by reformers who recognized that retaining the underlying utility that amphibious forces provide in terms of both tactical and strategic mobility demanded changes to their underlying concepts of employment as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures. Underpinning this transformation was an effort to define role of amphibious forces as an enabling capability for the fleet itself rather than merely one that was enabled by the rest of the force.

Europe’s amphibious forces are at a similar inflection point when they will have to define their role in the future combat operating environment. These forces, which have traditionally represented a mechanism through which rapid reaction could be delivered on both Europe’s own maritime flanks and at reach, will be presented with two challenges. At sea, the challenge of anti-access/area denial capabilities will hold the shipping that supports amphibious forces at risk. On land, organizations such as the British 3 Commando Brigade and the Dutch Korps Mariniers will have their ability to concentrate for tactical effect contested by adversary militaries organized to deliver large volumes of fires on rapid cycles, cued in by unmanned aerial vehicles. As light forces without their own organic short-range air defense systems (beyond man-portable air defenses), European marines will face considerable challenges in this context.

This need not, however, represent a basis for surrendering the tactical and operational opportunities that amphibious forces provide a joint force. In many respects, the contribution of forces that can exploit the entirety of the littoral as a maneuver space will be of ever greater importance if peer competitors such as Russia are to be denied the opportunity to operate as they would prefer to do on narrow linear fronts in theatres such as the Baltic and NATO’s northern flank.



However, to deliver continued tactical and operational utility, forces such as the Royal Marines will have to resolve an underlying challenge. To survive they will, among other things, have to become an increasingly distributed force. However, distribution brings with it inherent challenges in terms of both sustaining a force and delivering meaningful effects on the battlefield. Of course, this dynamic is not unique to amphibious forces as distribution is becoming more important across the board. However, the question is how forces that are both distributed and inherently light can continue to be effective.

In a recent report, my coauthor and I argue that European marine forces (including the Royal Marines) can deliver considerable utility if they subsume their concepts of operations within the traditional maritime functions of strike and securing sea control. Our premise is that there is a basis for closer alignment between marine organizations and fleets (in particular fleets traditionally optimized for sea denial in littoral spaces) as well as between emerging concepts of operations within marine organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. Recognizing this can help resolve the “dispersal dilemma” and can, moreover, allow marines to help resolve a growing spatial separation between fleets that operate at reach and joint forces.

Both littoral-oriented fleets and evolving amphibious forces such as the U.S. Marine Corps can deliver capable strike capabilities — something that is as relevant to disruption inland from the littoral as it is to tasks such as sea denial in the Indo-Pacific. However, strike-centric operations need to be enabled by surveillance and reconnaissance inland, as well as by shaping operations that influence an opponent to behave in ways that maximize his vulnerability. It is here that European marine forces redesigned to operate as a distributed raiding capability can offer the greatest value. In effect, then, there is an inherent complementarity between light European marine forces, which must of necessity operate in a distributed manner, and strike-centric forces that can generate fires from the littoral. These forces would thus evolve into the forward edge of a single archipelagic capability encompassing fires distributed in the littoral and smaller coastal combatants. European marines employed in this way would become a critical enabler for any effort to deliver effects inland from the littoral.

Change: Drivers and Opportunities

During the Cold War, European marine forces such as the Royal Marines and the Korps Mariniers were expected to provide a rapid reaction capability on Europe’s northern flank. Structured and equipped as light infantry, these forces would represent the vanguard element of an amphibious force that would include the U.S. Marine Corps. This force would, itself, be reinforced by the Norwegian army as the state mobilized based on its conscription system.

Today, important elements of this vision would prove difficult to replicate. First, though a credible and dangerous sea denial challenge existed in the 1980s as well, the threat has evolved. The processing power to fuse data from multiple sensor types and from multiple sources has developed in tandem with the emergence of supersonic and hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles such as the P-800 and the Zircon. The proliferation of different sensor types as well as the means to cue them will make hiding on the surface increasingly difficult, while faster missiles reduce the salvo sizes needed to penetrate an air defense screen. To be sure, Russia has struggled to engage dynamic targets in the conflict in Ukraine, but it should be assumed that it will improve in this regard. Similarly, a combination of more capable man-portable air defenses and longer-ranged air defense systems will challenge insertion using helicopters in many cases. All of this was in evidence in the early days of the conflict in Ukraine, when the reconnaissance elements of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade encountered stiff resistance near Odessa when they attempted insertion by both sea and air. This does not mean that amphibious insertion is impossible, but it will occur under increasingly contested conditions.

Secondly, lodgments ashore will become increasingly difficult to defend. This is not exactly a new issue and has been a challenge for amphibious forces historically. Examples such as the Falklands War illustrate how vulnerable a force that gradually builds up combat power ashore can be to air attack. However, the air and missile threat will become more complex for a number of reasons. First, increased precision means that tools such as short-range ballistic missiles can be used effectively as tactical tools. Secondly, armed and surveillance drones such as Russia’s Okhotnik and China’s GJ-11 can provide adversaries with a relatively simple means of generating very low observable air power. Third, opponents can generate large volumes of less-precise standoff by equipping dumb bombs with glide kits as the Russians have with the FAB-500. Finally, supporting assets will be occupied with tasks such as self-protection, the defense of carrier groups, and, in the case of aircraft, suppression of air defense — all of which means that external defensive counter-air cannot always be relied upon.


There are a number of reasons to believe that the ability to exploit the maneuverability of amphibious forces in the littoral can be both sustained and exploited to good effect. On the likely fronts where a Russian force might advance into Europe, Russia would enjoy the advantage of operating on narrow fronts where firepower, electronic warfare assets, and air defense systems can be concentrated to devastating effect. In Estonia, for example, NATO forces might face Russian forces on a front of roughly 50 kilometers.

Should Russia meet the targets that it has set itself under the aegis of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s planned force design, it will field a force of 1.5 million that includes 10 new divisions in two new military districts. Such a force would almost certainly be of variable quality, much like the current three-tiered Russian force structure in Ukraine (divided between disposable units, line infantry, and high-quality assault infantry). The force described would, however, generate considerable combat mass. A Russian force thus constituted could, for example, fix NATO forces on multiple points on the alliance’s frontier with Russia while concentrating its higher quality

As illustrated in the campaign for the Donbas in July 2022, when Russian forces are able to concentrate in this manner, they can generate fires on a scale and with a level of responsiveness that would impose considerable attrition on defenders (at one point, Ukrainian forces in the Donbas were losing 200 men a day). Narrow fronts allow a Russian force to saturate its line of advance with drones such as the Orlan-10, which can allow Russian forces to cue in fires in as little time as three minutes from initial observation. While ground- and air-based precision strike assets can disrupt the lines of communication and supply upon which such a Russian force depends, Russian forces have adapted to systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and, moreover, would be able to concentrate a considerable portion of their surveillance and strike assets to detecting and destroying ground based systems in a congested theatre. As illustrated by Russia’s use of Iskander missiles to destroy individual Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems, when Russian forces believe that a capability is sufficiently important they can devote disproportionately costly resources to engaging it. In Ukraine, the size of the frontline has complicated Russian efforts to responsively engage Western strike assets but this may be a simpler task on many of the fronts where Russian and NATO forces would be likely to meet.

The geometry of the battlefield can, however, be expanded considerably if the littoral is treated as a space from which inland strike can be generated. Estonia, for example, has 2,222 islands while Norway has, by some estimates, over 200,000. Strike platforms such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, both of which will likely feature heavily in the U.S. Marine Corps’ future force design, can thus be considerably more survivable if they can operate both on continental main lands and offshore. While the utility of concepts such as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations has largely been discussed in the context of the Indo-Pacific, the same concepts can enable an allied force to fight the deep battle more effectively in the European theatre by operating from a wider range of positions. Not only would this complicate the challenge of surveillance for Russian forces by expanding the area that must be surveyed severalfold, but it would also introduce a requirement for platform specialization and complicate the use of some intelligence and surveillance assets, since drones built to operate overland are less stable and survivable in the maritime domain due to climatic conditions.

There is a second opportunity in the European littoral, revolving around the existing surface fleets of new NATO members in theatres like the Baltic. Historically, nations such as Finland and Sweden built their navies for sea denial against what was presumed to be a superior Russian naval force in the Baltic Sea. While the continuing threat posed by the Russian navy in the Baltic should not be understated, it is nonetheless the case that this force will likely be heavily overmatched against NATO — meaning that the original function of sea denial that underpinned these fleets is no longer relevant. However, small missile-equipped platforms such as the Hamina-class fast attack craft and the Visby-class corvette, which are optimized to operate in shallow waters and equipped with dual use missiles such as the Swedish-made RGB-III, can just as easily form the core of a forward postured element of a NATO maritime component where their function would be delivering strikes inland from a narrow sea like the Baltic. The demand signal for such vessels from the wider force would be considerably less significant than for vessels like frigates and destroyers, which will also be required for blue water functions such as anti-submarine warfare and task group protection, and they would represent both smaller and less appealing targets for Russian shore-based sea denial systems than would larger, more expensive allied platforms. The navies of new allies could thus retain their littoral-oriented role in narrow seas but in a forward posture that would considerably complicate Russian planning on the maritime flanks of an invasion.

At the operational level, the ability to posture strike platforms such as those envisioned within the U.S. Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 in areas such as northern Norway during a crisis would also impose dilemmas on Russian theater-level planning. Such systems would pose a considerable threat to facilities such as Severomorsk and would necessarily need to be engaged. Yet resourcing an effort against them would likely strip Russia’s other fronts of critical assault units (primarily from the Airborne Forces and 200th Arctic Brigade) since the ability to execute cold weather operations is not held across the force. Moreover, such forces would have to advance on narrow fronts and difficult terrain where, if they cannot suppress allied forces by sheer weight of fire and surveillance saturation, they would prove highly vulnerable, much as the Russian army was in its initial assault on Kyiv. The posturing of strike platforms can thus enable operational dislocation and — if an opponent cannot easily track them — can reinforce deterrence. As an example of how an inability to track allied assets has contributed to deterrence in the past, we might consider NATO’s exercise Ocean Venture, which saw allied maritime platforms go emissions-dark in the High North, much to the consternation of Soviet planners.

European Maritime Forces

Thus far, this article has discussed European naval capabilities as well as systems likely to be held within the U.S. Marine Corps. Restructured European marine forces can add considerable value to the framework described.

The challenge for European marine forces is that they can no longer function as conventional light infantry brigades. However, they can provide a crucial offer to strike-capable partner forces, namely the capacity to both identify targets inland and to dislocate and fix adversary forces in ways that enable strike-centric components to be used to good effect.

To this end, the Royal Marines envision restructuring the traditional commando company into 12-man strike teams. Such teams, if enabled to operate along the depth of an opponent’s frontage, can represent a considerable force multiplier for strike-centric partner forces.

The ability to operate at depth can be enabled by the fact that the maritime maneuver space is effectively parallel to an opponent’s likely line of advance. If enabled by surface maneuver platforms with sufficient reach and low observability, this can enable the insertion of strike teams at depths that other force elements might not always be able to achieve. This would presume a shift in design philosophy, with surface maneuver craft and not surface connectors representing the force’s primary maneuver capability. The latter would require characteristics such as low observability, which necessarily comes at the expense of carrying capacity. Moreover, such platforms could be enabled with their own strike capabilities. We might consider, as an example, how Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has equipped British-made Bladerunner speed boats with missiles.

While observation in the littoral represents a considerable challenge, adversary sensor networks are inherently dependent on radar given the narrow fields of regard that other modes of detection such as electro-optical sensors allow. Efforts to beat radar through both low observability and the use of decoys and countermeasures to exacerbate the effect of climatic conditions such as super refraction (which generates false positives) can make an entire maritime network less effective. Sufficiently versatile vessels could also be equipped with Short Ranged Air Defense capabilities — something that China has emplaced on the 42-meter Type 022 catamaran. Notably, Sweden’s navy and marines appear to already be making this shift with planned surface maneuver vessels equipped with NEMO mortars. Fired from the littoral, such mortars can in principle be used against targets at depth (at least near coastal areas) because they can bypass an opposing army’s front line.

The cost of a shift emphasizing surface maneuver would come in terms of both size and overall carrying capacity once requirements such as low observability are accounted for, making it necessary for marine forces to rely on light vehicles such as the Polaris MRZR. On the one hand, it might be argued that this introduces a gap between marines and land components as the latter’s equipment cannot be easily moved. While true at one level, this would also introduce complementarities in other areas. Marine forces thus equipped can, for example, as easily interoperate with units such as the British Army’s Deep Reconnaissance Strike Brigade as part of a whole-of-force effort to win the deep battle. Forces do not always have to be interoperable to be complementary.

There is some evidence to suggest that distributed light raiding units operating at depth can be a considerable force multiplier. Russian doctrine presumes a ratio of 12 infantry to one when operating against special forces in rear areas, meaning that such forces can tie down assets of disproportionate value. The ability of Ukrainian infantry equipped with Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapons to tie down Russian armor to enable their destruction by artillery represents another example. Exercises such as Green Dagger reinforce this. In the context of Green Dagger, a force comprising 40 Commando and the Korps Mariniers operated ahead of 7th Marine Regiment against a U.S. Marine Corps opposing force. 40 Commando was divided up into 12-person strike teams that operated ahead of a light defensive screen. The presence of distributed raiding strike teams of marines posed considerable challenges to the opposing U.S. commander, who could not distribute his forces without raising the risk of raiding but was exposed to fires if he chose to concentrate to both better defend against raiding and to overrun a fairly light Royal Marine defensive screen. In effect, there is an inherent complementarity between distributed light forces and strike-centric ones including those in littoral spaces.

The former can operate at depths and in ways that enable the latter while the weight of fire that strike-centric forces at sea in the littoral can bring to bear allows distributed vanguard elements to generate effects without concentrating. Removing the requirement to concentrate in turn reduces the need for the build-up of capabilities that can support a conventionally structured brigade, which, as discussed, are inherently vulnerable. Moreover, distributed small teams have certain other advantages. They can deploy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms with credible sensor payloads at short ranges, which is critical as large longer-ranged systems are inherently vulnerable. Moreover, smaller units can benefit from solutions such as multispectral concealment that are viable even in the current operating environment but do not scale due to the costs involved.


In many ways, things must change in order to stay the same. The utility of maneuver on and from the littoral remains an important part of the solution to the challenge of Russian combat power in Europe, much as it was during the Cold War. However, the methods by which effects such as operational dislocation and tactical disruption are achieved will need to change.

The ability to generate long-range strike both from offshore islands and maritime platforms can help to resolve the challenge of generating concentrated effects with distributed forces. This has relevance both to the application of U.S. Marine Corps concepts of operations in the European theatre but also for how littoral-oriented European coastal fleets might be used in a NATO context.

European marine forces will to a great extent need to frame their future utility in relation to these trends. They have considerable opportunities to add value to strike-centric concepts of operations for littoral maneuver and early experimentation by the Royal Marines would appear to validate this. This will, however, require shifts in how forces like the Royal Marines are structured and equipped (some of which are underway) and how their employment is conceived. It will also require a wider allied effort to align concepts of operations among both allied marine forces and littoral-oriented navies.

A viable concept of littoral maneuver can help reduce the possibility of a growing spatial gap between fleets operating at reach with strategic capabilities such as cruise missiles and other elements of the joint force and ensure that both marines and maritime forces more broadly can contribute to a multidomain deep battle.



Sidharth Kaushal is the research fellow for sea power at the Royal United Services Institute where his research covers the evolving character of maritime operations. Sidharth holds a Ph.D. in International relations from the London School of Economics.

Image: United Kingdom Ministry of Defence