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The Role of Britain’s 17 Port and Maritime Regiment in Force Projection


Many of you reading this article have had firsthand experience in working with British forces, either on exercise or on an actual operation. What may prove surprising, however, is that some U.S. Army soldiers have served at the very heart of British Army regiments. For example, a U.S. Army Transportation Corps officer, a major, served as the Operations Officer of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, during that unit’s deployment to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, this article is not about that officer or the regiment’s exploits during what the British call Operation Telic [the code name for the British campaign in the Persian Gulf in 2003]. Rather, it is about the regiment’s role in enabling the United Kingdom to project military power throughout the world by sea.

Sea Move Issues

Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have the capacity to deploy, sustain, and recover a combat force, including an armored division, to and from any continent in the world. That it can do so is utterly dependent on its logistic enablers, one of which is 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, complemented by its reserve component, 165 Port Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps (Volunteer).

The bulk of any expeditionary force invariably moves by sea. The most complex logistic aspect of a sea move is loading the force onto the ships and its subsequent offloading. It is complex because the move must be sequenced, the assets to be moved must be tracked, different cargo commodities must be handled, and, if necessary, the move must be completed at night. Moreover, the ships involved may be at sea, possibly in adverse weather, and trying to avoid an enemy that is doing its utmost to wreck the offload. These factors combine to make a sea move difficult. However, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment has the physical, moral, and conceptual components to do the job.

History

In the annals of British military history, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment is a relative newcomer. It was created in 1949 as a Corps of Royal Engineers unit and was tasked with operating ports and beaches all over the world in support of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Since that time, the unit has been based at the military port of Marchwood opposite the international trading port of Southampton, which is on England’s south coast. Army restructuring over the years saw the regiment evolve from the Corps of Royal Engineers to the Royal Logistic Corps. Notwithstanding this evolution, the regiment’s disciplines remain the same. It continues, to this day, to provide the watercraft, rail, and port-operating skills required by an army that is serious about expeditionary warfare. This is important because, sadly for the British people, war is an ever-present factor in their national life.

Britain has been involved in large-scale conflicts during every decade of the last century. Two were major conflagrations. Superimposed on this catalog of conflicts were the peace-support operations associated with Britain’s withdrawal from Empire [withdrawal from its colonies in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific] and its historical duty to prevent the two communities of Northern Ireland from tearing themselves apart and descending into an abyss of hatred. Not surprisingly, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment has been involved in numerous conflicts from Korea to Iraq.

Mission

The regiment’s mission is to maintain the readiness of the United Kingdom’s deployable port, maritime, and rail capabilities. The regiment is charged with providing a sea point of embarkation or disembarkation using a well-found [properly equipped] port, an austere port, or a simple beach and, having done so, operating rail and riverine lines of communication. The regiment also must be able to provide a tactical loading and discharging capability to support the Royal Marine Commandos on amphibious operations.

Put simply, the regiment must be able to load and discharge ships at sea or in port, whether or not the enemy is around, and then move supplies forward by rail and river. To accomplish this, the regiment can operate over a beach or through a port. If necessary, the regiment can control all the port functions from the start of the main supply route (MSR) to the fairway buoy [the buoy marking the seaward end of navigable water in a channel, harbor, or river], including tug, pilotage, lighterage, and quayside [wharf] operations. Quite a task, you may think, but the unit has been at it for over 50 years during conflicts in Asia, Europe, and Africa.


Soldiers

The soldiers who constitute 17 Port and Maritime Regiment are employed in a variety of trades. Some are seamen, while others are port operators, railway operators, or marine engineers. You may be surprised to learn that, like its sister services, the British Army recruits from the more than 50 countries of the British Commonwealth and from the Republic of Ireland. Currently, soldiers from over 20 different countries serve in 17 Port and Maritime Regiment. As would be expected, most are from the United Kingdom, and a sizeable contingent hails from Fiji. This makes for an eclectic mix of soldiers with differing cultures, religions, and backgrounds.

Most of the major ethnic groups are represented, and there is not a sport the soldiers in the regiment cannot play. Despite the rich level of diversity within the regiment, as well as in the wider Armed Forces, all British soldiers have two fundamental characteristics in common. The first is that each has sworn allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, and the second is that every soldier upholds the Army’s values.

Training

Because 17 Port and Maritime Regiment is in the enviable position of having its barracks adjacent to a working military port, the soldiers operating the Sea Mounting Centre, as the port is known, are at the cutting edge of readiness. Having an amphibious training area nearby on The Solent (the channel between the Isle of Wight and Hampshire in south England) also allows the unit to practice its trade over a beach. Furthermore, squadrons frequently are attached to the Royal Marine Commandos to support their military exercises. The many opportunities to train foster a cohesive level of readiness in the regiment. The regiment’s operation of the Sea Mounting Centre is also financially astute; the Defence Logistic Organisation saves the fees that it otherwise would have to pay to commercial companies to load and unload ships, and Headquarters Land Command does not have to pay for the use of modern port facilities for training purposes.

Equipment

As you might expect of a specialist logistic regiment of its type, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment has a wide variety of equipment. Looking from ship to shore, the first piece of battle-winning equipment one notices is the ubiquitous mexeflote. This vessel is a raft propelled by two outboard engines. The hull of the raft consists of metal boxes locked together. These boxes can be arranged in any number of configurations, depending on the lighterage requirements. Commanded by a corporal with a crew of five, the mexeflote is moved into theater either lashed alongside a specially designed landing ship logistic or unassembled in boxes on the deck of a conventional ship. The mexeflote is robust and capable, with enough lift capacity to hoist a bombed-up Challenger tank. None has ever foundered; they even withstood strafing by the Argentinean Air Force during the Falklands War in 1982.

The other major maritime asset of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment is the ramp craft logistic. Like the mexeflote, it can lift a main battle tank and can be used to conduct a volume offload over a beach. Unlike the mexeflote, however, it can
self-deploy along the coastal waters to Asia, Africa, and Europe.

On the land side, the regiment has the Case rough-terrain forklift. The Case, as it is commonly known, can carry pallets to and from ships over a beach in either cold or warm climates. The regiment also uses the 53,000-pound capacity rough-terrain container handler (RTCH) RT 240, which is well-known to U.S. logisticians. Other assets include rail locomotives that are owned by the Defence Logistic Organisation and a variety of other watercraft and trucks.

How It All Works

Loading. Let us suppose that there is trouble afoot somewhere in the world and that Her Majesty’s Government has agreed to support the United States in an intervention operation. This support could consist of a joint force made up of a commando brigade, an armored brigade, and the necessary combat support and combat service support elements. Let us further suppose that a friendly nation would allow U.S. and U.K. forces to transit its territory.

The soldiers of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment would be engaged immediately. Commando assets would flood into the Sea Mounting Centre—the sea point of embarkation—and the regiment would load the assets onto specialist amphibious assault ships. Before sailing, a squadron from the regiment would embark. The armored brigade’s assets then would pour into the Sea Mounting Centre for loading onto U.K. strategic lift ships. If more space was needed, other ships taken up from trade (STUFT) would be employed to transport the cargo. Concurrent with the loading, the regiment would hand over the running of the Sea Mounting Centre to its reserve component—165 Port Regiment—so that the balance of the regiment could break clean and move its manpower to the Air Mounting Centre for airlifting into theater. The strategic ships then would sail either immediately after loading or as part of a convoy if the threat conditions required it.

Discharging
. Let us assume that the enemy has been far more aggressive than expected and that the host nation airfield and port have been disabled through terrorist actions. Possible responses would be for the commando brigade to conduct theater entry over a beach using assault landing craft or by air using helicopters. Using its mexeflotes and ramp craft logistic, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment would support the commando brigade’s assault landing craft in the amphibious operation. After the Royal Marines had secured the beachhead, the deployed squadron from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment then would be assigned the role of developing the beach into a sea point of disembarkation (SPOD).

Once the Royal Marines had secured the airport and an air point of disembarkation had been opened, the rest of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment’s manpower would arrive by air from the Air Mounting Centre. On arrival, the troops would move swiftly to the SPOD. As the strategic lift ships and the STUFT arrived, the regiment’s port operators would be ferried to the ships lying at anchor to offload the armored brigade using skills unique to the regiment. The soldiers would man the ships’ cranes and offload cargo onto mexeflotes and ramp craft logistic, which are crewed by the regiment’s seamen and marine engineers.

Ideally, however, soldiers would build ramp support pontoons (RSPs) for the ships’ stern ramps using some of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment’s mexeflote assets. The stern ramps would rest on the RSPs, which would provide a platform at the stern of the ship where the mexeflotes and ramp craft logistic could beach. The port operators, assisted by the vehicle crews, would drive the fighting vehicles and other assets over the RSPs and onto these watercraft. The port operators would use the Cases and RTCHs to move pallets and containers onto the watercraft and again to unload them when they beached. As soon as the engineers and host nation resources brought the port back on line, all SPOD operations, except ammunition handling, would switch from the beach to the port. Soldiers of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment then would concentrate at the port, and, if the host nation was unable to provide support, they would take responsibility for the port’s operation. Shipping would be discharged conventionally, and the tonnes [metric tons; 2,204.6 pounds] of stores and equipment needed to support a division would be unloaded on the quay. The port then would be cleared using road, rail, and riverine MSRs. The road MSRs would be operated by transport regiments, whilst the unit’s ramp craft logistic and rail assets would work the riverine and rail routes, respectively.


To project power, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces must have a specialist port and maritime capability, which it has in the form of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment and its reserve component, 165 Port Regiment. The soldiers of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment have the moral, physical, and conceptual competence to do the job, which, simply put, is to load and discharge cargo—sometimes at night—from ships that may be at sea and under the watch of an active enemy. That the regiment can do this is attributable in part to its location at the Sea Mounting Centre, which has readily available port and beach training facilities, its equipment, and its vast operational heritage that extends over 50 years. However, the real key to the regiment’s success is its soldiers in all their variety and richness. ALOG

Major Lyndon M. Robinson, Royal Logistic Corps, is on the faculty of the Army Logistics Management College at Fort Lee, Virginia. He formerly was second in command of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment and served in the regiment on three separate occasions, including during operations in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and Iraq.