When Airborne Goes Feet Wet

A guest post by Ferret.

SHAH ALAM: THERE have been several good discussions here about amphibious forces. But to start this article, I would like to remind ourselves of what they’re good for. Most of the literature say they are good for establishing a landing site for larger friendly forces, deny the enemy use of an area and, of course, the grandfather of amphibious operations, conducting raids to destroy facilities, gather intelligence and for deception.

Does Malaysia need amphibious forces? Yes, since Malaysia is not like Nepal, Laos or Afghanistan. It is an archipelago: peninsular Malaysia and Sabah are surrounded by the sea on three sides while Sarawak on one, and there are several plausible scenarios where an amphibious action may be the only viable option. One example is executing a contested landing on one of its many islands, either to reoccupy the island or to deny the enemy its use.

Malaysian soldiers at RIMPAC 2014. They are referred as "Malaysian Marines" in the US captions below. The M16A2s and armour vest are obviously on loan from the US Marines. Malaysian Marines "prepare to engage "enemy" forces at Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) during the air assault portion of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. Twenty-two nations, 49 ships and six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from June 26 to Aug. 1 in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. The world's largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. RIMPAC 2014 is the 24th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mathew J. Diendorf/Released)
Malaysian soldiers at RIMPAC 2014. They are referred as “Malaysian Marines” in the US captions below. The M16A2s and armour vest are obviously on loan from the US Marines.
Malaysian Marines “prepare to engage “enemy” forces at Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) during the air assault portion of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. Twenty-two nations, 49 ships and six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from June 26 to Aug. 1 in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. The world’s largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans. RIMPAC 2014 is the 24th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mathew J. Diendorf/Released)

Who should constitute the landing force of Malaysia’s amphibious forces? Watching the video of the Army Day seaborne demo (nod to Malaysian Defence.com) at Port Dickson, it appears that one of the Para battalion has been earmarked and, according to reports, perhaps a couple of line infantry battalions as well.

(The footage of the landing demo was very bad due to the unfavourable location permitted to the press and the lack of a tripod. -ED)

But of course, watching a dedicated airborne unit conducting a seaborne assault has raised some questions in my mind (not knowing the “evolution” of the exercise beforehand, I had expected to see a different unit). Conversions of Army battalions into new roles are nothing new, but in the case of amphibious forces I would argue the case for the conversion of one or more of the RGK regiments.

Malaysian soldiers taking part in RIMPAC 2014 exercise.
Malaysian soldiers taking part in RIMPAC 2014 exercise.

Why do I say this? Well, first, there’s the history. The RGK was formed at Tun Razak’s behest with help from the UK’s Royal Marines at Majidee Camp; hence symbols of the RM — the green beret, the Fairburn-Sykes knife, the lanyard, and the name “Komando” for the new unit. And the RGK has been involved in amphibious training and operations ever since. In fact, it was the de-facto amphibious force before the advent of Paskal, some of whom had initial training with Indonesia’s Marinir (and hence the crimson beret and the initial qualification badge). (GGK’s Special Boat Squadron is still active – ED)

Get Ready.
Get Ready.

Since they have been doing things amphibious all their life, I have always thought that the GGK (perhaps less one regiment for SAS-type roles) would be the ideal unit for conversion into an amphibious force. I would think that they were born for it — in general they’ve been trained to perform tasks done by the Royal Marines and they would be doing nothing different from what they have been doing all this while.

What about Paskal? Paskal has proven itself to be very good in the SBS role. It should ultimately be the nucleus of the specialist commando unit of the amphibious force. (Paskal is actually more attuned to SEALs. Every year they send a junior officer to Coronado to undergo training there – Ed)

Having said all that it could well be that the GGK have been earmarked for other tasks and operational constraints prevent their conversion. If that is the case, so be it. But it does raise an interesting question: wouldn’t 10 Para, the MAF’s rapid reaction force, be short of a parachute battalion? Is a brigade-sized airborne force, together with its supporting arms, no longer needed? I know “Flexibility” is a Principle of War but asking a unit to specialise in two roles (airborne and amphibious) is asking too much isn’t it?

Hold, Hold
Hold, Hold

Related to that, why do we have to look to the US Marines Corps (specifically, the MEU/MEB) for a model? Don’t get me wrong — the USMC is among the best in the world and the single superpower amphibious force remaining, but why are we not also looking at the Royal Marines (RM)? (Basically the US Marines are available in our vicinity due to their Forward Deployed strategy. Small teams of British Army and RM advisers are deployed to Malaysia annually, it must be noted including SF ones. Their visits are never publicised for reasons unknown – Ed)

I’m not talking about fighting prowess or firepower here; the USMC is at the top and no other marine outfit can beat it. I’m talking about “modeling”. My understanding of “modeling” is the usual dictionary one: “To try to make yourself very similar to someone else”.

Looking at our situation, it may be better to look at a smaller unit than a very large and well-endowed one. The US is a rich country, its armed forces are equipped beyond the means of any country in the world. But being rich brings along with it a “rich man’s” mindset. One of the problems of rich men is that they can’t think small or think cheap: who can afford to routinely expend divisional firepower to dislodge a platoon of Vietcong as happened during the Vietnam war? Not the UK and certainly not us.

If we model ourselves on the USMC, we are going to fight like them and that entails a very large logistic tail. We’ll need equipment similar to theirs, which we certainly can’t afford.

The RM, on the other hand, has several things going for it vis-a-vis the MAF. There’s the history (all of Malaysia’s wars since 1941), commonality in terms of traditions, military culture and doctrine, and thus operational familiarity. The sea component of the amphibious force, the RMN, is based on the Royal Navy, the parent service of the RM.

Also, there’s the FPDA. Operating under the ambit of FPDA has its advantages: it is low-key, well-established and not likely to raise the hackles of powers who view the US as a rival, if not an overtly hostile nation, in the Pacific and the South China Sea. (Sending an RM Task Force for a beach landing exercise even for FPDA is too expensive. More over the last decade or so, they were not available as they were mostly tasked in Iraq and Afghanistan) – Ed).

But most of all, the Royal Marines are what our amphibious force want to be: a brigade-sized force — small, well-trained, well-equipped and potent.

— Malaysian Defence

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