Shortage of resources require coherence and joined up thinking at the budgeting table. Pursuing vague “revolutionary” concepts such as Land Strike while knowing full well that there is no chance to ever be able to afford the equipment needed to make it remotely workable is simply suicidal, particularly while the SDSR 2015 is already under a new review, exquisitely money-driven. Nobody in their sane minds can believe this new review has actually anything to do with supposedly changed geopolitics due to Brexit. It is about money, and they might as well admit it and show some honesty for once.
It is urgently time to go back to basics and set out a coherent way forwards that builds on the strengths the british forces already posses, rather than continuing to disorderly knock pieces off them in order to fit into the annual budgeting circle while pursuing two hundred different programmes, most of which end in nothing but sunk costs (FRES, LIMAWS, Soothsayer, FRES UV, SMART, FIST, Fire Shadow etcetera, I’m looking at you). The modern day army, although of course not entirely for faults of its own, has been particularly guilty of this sin.
Budget delegation is in many ways a welcome development, but asking each service to generate “savings” from within their budget without considering the wider implications is a recipe for further disasters.
A general direction of travel needs to be decided and then defended. It must be coherent and joined up: all services need to be working according to the same strategic guidelines. At the moment, this is not the case, as the talk of split buy for the F-35 or the dismantling of littoral and amphibious capability demonstrate.
Aim of the UK’s defence policy should be to preserve, as much as possible, the ability of the country to take independent action where absolutely necessary and within a realistic scale. Second, the equipment and force structure choices should be oriented towards making the UK a Leader within NATO, by making it a perfect candidate framework nation for the construction of multinational forces for more complex operations. UK policy makers in recent times like to remind us that future operations are likely to be coalition efforts, but the actions do not quite the rhetoric as cuts and corner cutting have far too often hit areas which were of great importance alliance-wide.
It is the case, notably, of the maritime patrol aircraft cut, thankfully eventually corrected, but also of Sentinel R1 (a unique capability in Europe), amphibious shipping and logistic shipping.
What does the UK bring to the table, and how can it get the most from what it has? This should be the question at the basis of an honest review.
Excluding the nuclear deterrent and the SSNs (by far the biggest influence buyers, as well as areas with a rather solid plan already in place), the UK’s areas of excellence include:
Special Forces. Highly respected and valued, the british special forces are a powerful strategic asset and an influence buyer. Repeatedly, government has promised to boost them, but progress can not be measured from the outside for lack of information.
What can be seen is, however, not actually encouraging: as will be discussed further below, the SDSR commitment to providing long-range vertical mobility (air refuel-able) to the Special Forces seem to have died in early stealth cuts. Another problem without an evident solution is 657 AAC, which is part of the Joint Special Forces Support Wing and provides support in the form of light assault helicopters (Lynx AH9A at the moment). 657 AAC is planned to move into Yeovilton, which suggests that it will probably convert to Wildcat when the last 8 AH9A are withdrawn from service.
Director Special Forces was almost saddled with 8 “Light Assault” Wildcat in 2011, of which 4 would have been new buys and 4 conversions from the 34 purchased for Army and Royal Marines. That project was announced, costed, and then killed without explanation. Reportedly, Special Forces were not happy with the helicopter.
Now, however, 657 AAC might end up being not an additional Wildcat LAH Sqn, but just one of 4 (?) Army sqns, equipped with the Battlefield Reconnaissance variant, with little or no mods. In other words, Director Special Forces is getting a far worse solution than the one it reportedly turned down in 2011.
The UK Special Forces Support Group (1 PARA) also recently disbanded one of its companies, removing a platoon from all Strike Coys and redistributing the Fire Support Groups to partially compensate.
21 and 23 SAS, the reserve formations, underwent a change of role as well, towards Human Environment Reconnaissance and Analysis. An important role, but the impact that this change had on availability of personnel for more “traditionally defined” tasks is unclear.
In addition, Special Forces are still waiting for the full range of mods and additions to the C-130Js under Project HERMES. Ever since the C-130Ks configured for SF work went out of service, there has been a gap in capability.
Not a reassuring picture. We have to hope that the unseen programmes are doing better, because for the rest, facts are not matching rhetoric.
Air Mobility. The UK has a very valuable C-17 fleet which is unique in Europe. There is a NATO mini-fleet of 3 C-17, but as helpful as that can be, it is clearly not enough. The combination of 8 C-17, 22 A400M, 14 stretched C-130Js and 9 (14 as max effort) Voyagers is a powerful one, and one of the most valuable assets that the UK can offer to its allies. A capability valued by allies means influence.
France and Germany will have much greater numbers of A400M, but no C-17s, and there are things that only the latter can do. France experienced in full the difficulties caused by lack of strategic airlift while transferring forces into Mali for Op SERVAL. 8 C-17s are too few to solve the problem entirely, but certainly mean the UK is better positioned.
The UK also is going to have a capable, large fleet of 60 Chinook, which represent a lot of lift capability for Air Manoeuvre of land forces. 23 Puma HC2 and 34 Wildcat also help, although a greater number of more capable medium helicopters would be desirable.
It also possesses a capable fleet of 50 Apache which, considering the Tiger’s constant woes, are arguably by far the most capable attack helicopter force in Europe.
|Heavy airdrop has been gapped|
|16 Air Assault has much reduced access to light armour these days|
A lot of money has been expended to build up this air mobility fleet, yet a succession of corners have been cut, denying the full exploitation of this sizeable investment.
- 16 Air Assault Brigade has been cut back in capability as well as size. The gapping of Heavy Airdrop capability and the failure to progress with the adoption of precision airdrop mean that the brigade’s already limited parachute capability is essentially virtual unless the Americans drop the heavy bits (vehicles, L118 Light Guns etcetera).
- The acquisition of long-range vertical manoeuvre assets seem to have been quietly cancelled once more. Although the SDSR was deliberately vague about providing longer reach to Special Forces, it was pretty clear that two options were on the table: MV-22 Osprey, which could refuel in flight from Voyager KC3s; or the retrofit of air refueling probes to at least part of the Chinooks and the fitting out of a couple of short C-130Js to serve as tankers. None of the two options seem destined to materialize.
- The failure of efforts to purchase internally transportable vehicles that would give air mobile troops far greater mobility after reaching the LZ inside Chinooks.
- The Voyager’s lack of a boom as well as the choice not to invest in a reconfigurable top-deck, which would have made it far more capable by opening up huge cargo possibilities.
|Foxhounds of 2 Gurkha Rifles are air landed in support of 16 Air Assault during ex Joint Warrior|
Air mobility, including air manoeuvre of ground troops via Chinook and Puma lift, is a partial excellence. The UK is an extremely good position under some points of view and in an extremely poor one under others. At the moment, it is an unfinished work.
In recent times there have been some welcome developments thanks to the end (op TORAL requirements aside) of the very demanding Afghanistan air bridge. In particular, the RAF has finally started to employ the tactical capabilities of the C-17instead of employing it just to lift heavy / high volume cargo from A to B. Airdrops and tactical air landing have been opened up, and 16 Air Assault brigade has experimented with “air-mechanized” operations by inserting small “packs” of Foxhounds (apologies for the pun) in support of the air assault task force during the last Joint Warrior.
This is an area of excellence which:
- Enables UK long-range operations, not just as part of a coalition, but, at limited scale, in substantial independence
- Is valuable to allies and, in its C-17 part, unique in Europe (which is a bonus in light of the need for influence during the Brexit process)
- Is valuable to the main ally, the US, and can be a vector for further integration
As such, it is a battle-winning and influence-gaining asset which deserves greater attention, instead of being repeatedly run into the ground by small money-savings measures that add up to huge losses of capability.
ISTAR. The UK has the most complete air-breathing ISTAR force outside of the US Air Force. This asset is highly valued by the US, as evidenced by the extremely close relationship in operating the Rivet Joint element. The 3 UK aircraft complement a fleet of just 17 in US service, making it an important contribution in terms of mass as well.
Protector, if “at least 20” are effectively put into service as promised by the SDSR, will represent the largest MALE fleet in Europe and the most capable, at least until the European MALE 2020 project delivers results. Something that it might or might not do.
The 9 P-8 Poseidon are a critical asset for the safety of the UK, which remains as exposed as ever to submarine warfare in the, perhaps unlikely but certainly catastrophic, eventuality of conflict against Russia. The new MPA fleet will also represent a large portion of Europe’s capability in the MPA sector, which is suffering NATO-wide and was officially listed already a few years ago as one of the critical weaknesses to correct.
And Sentinel R1 is as precious and unique as it is unlucky and constantly targeted by cuts guided by short-termism of the worst kind. The reduction of the fleet to just 4 aircraft and, more importantly, the marked reduction in the number of crews have already determined, or at least undoubtedly played a part in the gapping of this capability in Operation SHADER.
The UK is extraordinarily weak in terms of satellites. It has no radar, optical or SIGINT satellites of its own, relaying on the data supplied by US constellations instead. Even a good portion of the communications capacity comes via participation in the US AEHF constellation.
|Sentinel R1: a unique, praised capability facing a never ending struggle for funding|
The ISTAR fleet is another key excellence. Cutting back on the number of Sentinel R1 and crews is an example of damaging short-termism determined by lack of joined-up thinking. The RAF budget holder had to save money somehow, and I’m willing to believe this was the least damaging options among those at his disposal, but it remains, overall, a disproportionately negative outcome.
It is also very worrying and disappointing that there is still completely uncertainty about how to preserve this unique battlefield surveillance and targeting capability post 2021.
ISTAR ticks all the boxes again:
- It enables UK operations, in coalitions and in independence
- Is valuable to allies and, in several ways, unique in Europe
- Is valuable to the main ally, the US, and can facilitate further collaborations (with Norway and beyond, particularly thanks to P-8)
Long range strike. A multi-pronged capability made up by:
- Land-based aviation with Storm Shadow
- Carrier based aviation
The UK will be the only country in the European side of NATO to tick all boxes at once / in significant numbers, thanks to the F-35. This area of absolute excellence is not without its own problems, with the main one being the tiny stock of Tomahawk and the relative poverty of platforms able to fire it. The Type 26 will introduce the ability to fire long-range missiles from surface vessels for the first time, but Tomahawk by then will be out of production unless US plans change or the UK lodges in an order before it is too late.
In the future, Tomahawk and Storm Shadow (and Harpoon) could be replaced by the same weapon, the new SPEAR 5 / Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon to be jointly developed with France. Entry into service is not expected until the 2030s, however, with the Storm Shadow OSD being 2032.
Much too late to avoid a lot of problems for the Navy, forced to lose Harpoon already next year and facing the dilemma of how to arm the Type 26 in the meanwhile.
Long range strike capability could be expanded by putting cruise missiles on P-8 Poseidon or even by resurrecting the idea of ramp-dropping Storm Shadows from the back of cargo aircraft.
Future long-range strike should also be able to relay on the FCAS unmanned aircraft in development in collaboration with France.
This area is in relative health, despite the cancellation of Storm Shadow integration on F-35B. Unfortunately, the integration would only become effective much too close to the missile’s OSD to truly make sense. SPEAR 5, however, should definitely find its way on F-35B and Type 26.
The worst problem in sight is the dramatic firepower gap on Royal Navy warships with the loss of Harpoon.
Carrier Enabled Power Projection
For a long time, the UK has talked of the new carriers in terms of Strike, as that was the fashion of the moment. The truth is that “Carrier Strike” understates what carriers are for, reducing them to one mission when in reality they have many. The “Strike” capability of the new carriers come from their size: they can carry enough fuel, stores, weapons and aircraft to generate enough sorties to be a true power projection tool, unlike the Invincibles, which arguably achieved all they could and then some, but could never go past the limits imposed by their size.
Carrier Enabled Power Projection better summarizes what the carriers really are about: they ensure the fleet has the air support it needs to operate in the congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained environment of current and future warfare. Without organic air power, a fleet cannot venture far from the air cover coming from land. Without a fleet capable to go into a contested environment, far from home and potentially far from friendly land bases. there can be no power projection at any serious scale.
With the Navy planning to have one carrier at Very High Readiness (5 days notice to move) and the other at 20 to 30 days notice to move, continuous carrier capability is a realistic aim.
The programme for the first two squadrons of F-35B and for Crowsnest is now firm. The biggest risk for the realization of the CEPP’s promises regards the formation of the F-35B squadrons number 3 and 4. These are threatened by the “split buy” idea which could see the RAF go for the F-35A, in what would a sublime example of single service reasoning.
Unfortunately, to the F-35 budget holder (the RAF), the F-35A is alluring because it is cheaper than the B, and has (potentially) a larger internal, stealth payload and a bit more range. If joined-up thinking doesn’t win the day, there is every possibility that CEPP will be compromised for little to zero actual gain: the RAF does not own or plan a weapon for which the larger weapon bays of the A are both necessary and sufficient. SPEAR 5 will almost certainly be too large for internal carriage regardless, while all other weapons in service or planned do not need a larger bay.
The split buy must be avoided at all costs, at least until the B fleet doesn’t comprise a fleet of 4 frontline squadrons, which represent the threshold for a realistic, self-supporting force.
A more detailed explanation of the dangers of the split buy idea is here.
The Royal Navy’s effort should be focused on its Joint Expeditionary Force – Maritime, centered on the carriers and including the amphibious group. The UK has the tools needed to put to sea an “Expeditionary Strike Group +” , more capable than those fielded by the US Navy, which are centered on a LHA / LHD, a LPD, a LSD and some 3 escorts. The UK group can buy substantial influence:
- Its global deployment is a statement of intention that is not matched by any other short-term deployment form
- It is valued by the US as it helps cover all stations, enabling the progressive shift of US attention to the Pacific
- It represents a capability that, in Europe, only France can, in part, replicate
Royal Fleet Auxiliary
Too often overlooked, the RFA is an extremely valuable tool and one that truly sets the Royal Navy apart from other European navies. The capability and capacity of the RFA is unmatched in the European side of NATO. It is the tool that enables the Royal Navy to have blue water and expeditionary possibilities.
Unfortunately, some of its most valuable assets have been lost or risk being lost without replacement: RFA Diligence had no equal in Europe, yet it was sacrificed to short-termism in the hunt for savings. RFA Argus risks suffering the same fate in a few years time.
Two Point-class Ro-Ro sealift vessels and one Bay-class LSD were also lost to cuts, and the loss in capability far exceeds the savings.
|A design proposed for the Solid Support Ship, including a well dock for landing craft for increased amphibious support capability|
Particularly important to the RFA’s future is the nascent Solid Support Ship programme, which aims to build 3 ships that will replace Fort Austin, Fort Rosalie and Fort Victoria around the middle of the 2020s. Critical enablers for complex CEPP operations, these vessels should represent a priority in planning and their design should include Joint considerations, primarily through the provision of support to forces ashore, to the greatest possible scale.
The RFA is a key enabler for independent and coalition operations. It allows the UK to support multi-national efforts at reach and thus represents an influence-buying asset.
The future of this capability is particularly concerning as it is being squeezed to death by lack of joined up thinking and budgetary short-termism. With the budget holder (Navy HQ) forced to slice the salami to somehow fit into the annual budget cycle, the Royal Marines have taken a long series of hits, most recently the removal of 42 Commando from the traditional assault role in favor of “maritime force protection” task.
Equipment-wise, the amphibious force is about to lose Ocean after losing one LPD (in mothball) and 1 LSD plus 2 Ro-Ro sealift vessels.
Modernization efforts have been almost entirely frustrated by killing off:
- Force Protection Craft
- Fast Landing Craft
- BV206 replacement
- Joint Mini UAS (a proposed Royal Marines / Army replacement for Desert Hawk III)
The picture is currently very depressing and the future is full of worries, despite the Royal Navy correctly listing amphibious capability as one of its three defining capabilities (together with Continuous At Sea Deterrence and Continuous Carrier availability).
The dramatic reduction in amphibious capability extends to the Royal Logistic Corps losing its own large landing craft without replacement.
3 Commando Brigade, just like 16 Air Assault, has been partially dismantled and turned into a “demi-brigade” on two battlegroups alternating yearly into readiness.
And all this has happened in open contradiction with doctrinal studies that have reaffirmed, year after year, that the future of global geo-demographics is Littoral. This requires UK forces that are able to mount substantial littoral and riverine manoeuvre, as joint and Army papers, including the Agile Warrior experiment, constantly reaffirmed.
The Royal Marines are also historically connected to Norway and are one of the formations tasked with reinforcement of the Northern Flank in case of a “Russia scenario”. Consequently, they are defence’s sole specialists in Arctic and Mountain warfare. Even this aspect of their capability is under threat, with arctic training for 2018 reportedly entirely cancelled due to Navy HQ simply not knowing how else to fit into next year’s budget. In a triumph of bitter, humiliating irony, days before the news emerged, UK officers were saying, at the Air Power Conference, that the next theatre of operation will be the frozen north.
As too often happens in british defence, words tell one story, actions paint another one entirely.
The UK’s amphibious capability is a key asset for future independent and coalition operations; it is valued by the US and by other allies, in particular Norway; and represents much of the amphibious capability available to the European side of NATO.
The trend of reductions and capability losses should be immediately reversed. Royal Marines and Army integrations should increase, if this is what it takes to encourage more joint thinking and a common response to correctly identified trends. The current situation of agreeing on the key and growing importance of littoral and amphibious manoeuvre while cutting back on all elements of said capability is ridiculous and must end.
The UK also took the leading role in a NATO initiative to develop solutions for the opening of sea ports for deployment abroad. Considering that all UK operations, considering geography, will inexorably deal with multiple seaports every time, and that entry into a theatre of operations might well be complicated by damaged / poorly kitted out / contested and semi-demolished ports, this capability is a key national requirement as well as an influence-buyer within the alliance. It also has peacetime value as a disaster relief instrument.
Literally nothing has apparently move since the launch of the initiative, and it would be really important to revitalize the effort and invest in this area.
Anti-submarine warfare is back on the list of priorities as tensions in Europe remind NATO that the basic scenario has never changed: if things ever go seriously wrong, the fate of the conflict in central Europe completely depends on the ability of the navies to escort convoys loaded with American tanks and supplies across the Atlantic.
The UK’s vulnerability to submarine warfare is unchanged as well. There are less submarines these days, but there are far fewer escorts as well, and these days supplies and fuel travel on a far, far smaller number of far larger tankers, container ships and other vessels.
The loss of a few large merchant vessels today would have catastrophic consequences comparable to the complete annihilation of a few convoys back in the days.
During expeditionary operations, the presence of a few diesel submarines is enough to put the task force in grave danger: there is no certainty that the next torpedo fired at a Royal Navy warship will fail like those fired by the argies ARA San Luis in 1982.
The Royal Navy remains a champion and an authority in the field of ASW operations, and its Type 23 frigates, Merlins and, tomorrow, Type 26s and MPAs will be particularly precious. Gaps do exist, however, including the absence of a long-range anti-submarine weapon for warships. The Navy also has just 8 ASW escorts these days, and there is worrying talk of Type 31 being a non-ASW vessel as well. A rethink is urgently needed.
Survey and MCM
The Royal Navy has great survey and MCM capabilities, and both will remain precious in the future, since mines remain a huge danger.
The Royal Navy’s MCM capability is particularly valuable in part for the US Navy’s relative weakness in this area. From an European point of view, the RN’s MCM force is less valuable, only because pretty much all countries in Europe have maintained capable flotillas of their own.
The ability to survey the seabed and clear it from mines remain crucial for the safety of the UK and for the conduit of operations abroad.
The MHC programme that should eventually define the replacement of the survey vessels Echo and Enterprise as well as of the current MCM ships is particularly important.
The deployable Division
The ability of the UK to field a capable Division for operations at range is a key element in determining the country’s power and influence. Division-level deployment gives the UK a more realistic “independent” option and keeps the country in the top tier of contributors within the alliance. Deploying a division far from home remains a major undertaking and one that is beyond the possibilities of many states: as such, there can be no doubt about the influence brought by this capability.
The ability to deploy a Division should not, however, come at the cost of a force structure adequately thought out to sustain brigade-sized enduring operations, which are more frequent and just as important. Army 2020 Refine pursues a vague concept of “Joint Land Strike” at the cost of making the Army a one-shot only organization, with little to no staying power. It is a completely illusory target, built upon shaky, vague doctrine. The myth of merry, quick land wars is well and truly debunked, yet the British Army is effectively pursuing a structure that embodies that myth. General Carter made mentions of Operation SERVAL, the French operation in Mali in early 2013, as being an example of rapid, decisive action as that envisaged for the Strike brigades. However quick and decisive the combat ops of January 2013 were, SERVAL eventually lasted 1 year and 6 months, between January 2013 and July 2014, equating to 3 successive tours if the 6 months deployments are to stay true. And its conclusion became nothing other than the beginning of operation BARKHANE, which endures to this day. I will also remark that the particularities of Operation SERVAL make it hardly useful as an inspiration for British Army future operations: in particular, the French were able to move so rapidly because much of the troops employed in the first phase were already forward based in Africa. Again, the rapid movement overland of wheeled formations was enabled by the presence of allied forces that secured the rear (not just Mali forces, but allied contingents from Niger and Chad which were more numerous than the French contingent itself). I hope to write a more in depth analysis of what Mali can and cannot say about the utility of “Medium Weight” forces in the context of the STRIKE infatuation in the British Army.
As I’ve already done several times, I suggest the British Army abandons the current, suicidal course and thinks about using its resources, beginning with manpower and existing equipment, in smarter ways. Joint Land Strike is a wobbly concept, based on dreams more than on realistic assessment of historical operations. Its implementation is essentially limited, due to budget and manpower shortages, to four battalions worth of wheeled APCs and, maybe, a wheeled 155mm howitzer in the future, all paid for by severe mutilation of other areas of the force structure. It is not just a flawed concept, it is a flawed concept that the Army will attempt to pursue while knowing from the start that it does not have the necessary equipment pieces.
The Army should rethink its force structure and make good use of what it has, instead, ensuring that the current “fake” brigades are used to deliver true deployable formations instead, grouped in two deployable divisions, albeit lighter. That will give the army a more realistic and sustainable balance of forces. Army 2020 Refine reportedly aims to be able to deliver a “best effort” division of 2 armoured and 1 strike brigade.
There is every reason to be skeptical about the feasibility of such a deployment in the first place, which would require 100% of the Army’s heavy armour and 50% of its medium armour, right from the get go. Who was in the army at the time remembers what a struggle it was, for a much larger army than today’s, to deliver 1st UK Division in Iraq in 2003. That division had only one armoured brigade, 7th Bde, plus 3 Commando and 16 Air Assault Brigades plus divisional assets.
In terms of equipment, Army 2020 Refine’s stated ambition matches or exceeds the Operation TELIC numbers: a division of 2 armoured and 1 strike brigade would deploy, in theory, with 112 Challenger 2 (vs 116 at the time); more than 200 Warriors in all sub-variants (versus 140 IFVs plus sub-variants), 36 AS90 (same) and 12 to 18 L118 or their future replacement (vs 39), plus one hundred or more Ajax and probably one hundred MIVs.
Talk about doing more with less. 1st Division’s deployment had a long-lasting ripple effect that dragged on for years in the daily running of the army and in the allocation of spares, and one can only imagine what kind of impact would come from trying to deploy 3rd Division today, from a much smaller army.
Modernization should continue in the heavy armour sector, which is actually the one, together with light infantry, where the British Army has the best spread of experience. Substantial armoured forces were deployed in two Iraqi wars, and heavy armour is now once more in high demand with defence of East Europe now at the forefront of NATO tasks.
Going back to the Air Mobility point, seen earlier in this article, air-mechanized manoeuvre can and arguably should be the true “Land Strike” focus for the British Army.
While there are undoubtedly merits and attractions in wheeled armour, the British Army should not pursue them at all costs by turning itself in a “make it or break it” silver bullet that would leave behind little more than a smoldering empty case once fired. It has a number of ongoing programmes already competing for shares of an ever tight budget and a longer list still of capability gaps, weaknesses and new requirements coming up in the next few years. There is no real urgency to pursue the STRIKE myth: in Europe it would be of limited and questionable utility against far more capable Russian formations, hybrid or not; while in Africa and the Middle East it would be helpful but far from decisive. As currently envisioned, a Strike Brigade with MIV would not be too much of a step up from a deployment of infantry mounted in Mastiff. The MIV comes with far better off-road mobility, but with same (or indeed less, as the new 8x8 will definitely be in the 30+ tons region) strategic mobility and same (insufficient) firepower.
The whole thing costs too much for what it actually adds. The “8x8 revolution” has been announced many times but has never really materialized. While wheeled armour does work, undoubtedly, it has not and will not change warfare anytime soon.
The US are still trying to make their Stryker brigades work, and their latest attempt to make them more useful is the addition of 30mm guns and Javelin under-armour launch capability; both things that MIV is almost certainly not going to enjoy. France is building on its experience of wheeled armour by investing on vehicles substantially lighter and simpler than the 8x8 and Ajax envisaged for the Strike Brigades: the Griffon 6x6 APC and the Jaguar 6x6 armoured car. French brigades enjoy more firepower, more and far larger infantry regiments than the two battalions of the british strike brigades, and self-escorting logistic formations.
Italy is (slowly) building up the most complete 8x8 force in NATO, thanks to the combination of Freccia and Centauro, with Centauro 2 on the way. None of the 8x8 available have made any kind of game-changing difference to the operations we have seen in modern times.
In terms of availability of the capability, it should be noted that 8x8s have been chosen by smaller European armies which have had to renounce to their tanks for budgetary considerations. Denmark is investing in them, Belgium has them (and will in future stay wheeled but downgrade even further by going Griffon 6x6 after announcing recently the purchase of the new French vehicle) and Spain wants a large number to replace the wheeled vehicles already in use.
There is no shortage of 8x8s in NATO. There is, instead, a shortage of heavy armour and artillery, which is becoming more evident by the day as Russian forces modernization progresses. France is rebuilding a fourth tank regiment; Germany is bringing back more than 100 MBTs, the US are rebuilding at least two armoured brigades over the next three years.
The UK, conversely, is looking at dismantling one of its three tank regiments and cut back on what is a proven, battle-hardened capability, albeit weakened by the obsolescence of Challenger 2, delays in Warrior CSP and weakness in artillery.
Instead of fixing well known issues, the army is looking at making them worse, just to mount four infantry battalions on 8x8 APCs. It remains, in my opinion, the dumbest possible course of action. There really isn’t a gentle way to put it: it is just a suicidal direction.
Heavy armour is still the measure of an army’s combat power as well as the main asset for high intensity warfare, the only one which has existential implications and thus should be the priority.
That is not to say that the Strike Brigade could or would not be deployed in Europe for reassurance initiatives. I’m sure the british army would gladly copy the US 2 ACR’s road march with Strykers across Europe if it already had MIV. It would be certainly impressive and appreciated in East Europe, but if push ever came to shove, the MIV as currently envisaged (without turret and cannon) would be maybe able to race to the front but it would be crushed once there.
Peacetime shows do not strictly require MIV. The British Army attached Jackals to the 2 ACR’s road show, and as a political statement, it suffices. For operations, MIV is not enough.
The Strike Brigade, as of now, is just not a wise use of money, manpower and kit.
An in-depth examination of all the gaps in the British Army force structure and a proposal to close them is here.
You don’t often read this, but the British Army has excellent combat engineering regiments, well equipped and capable. They have a great spread of bridging capability, which is not easily found elsewhere, and they have great breaching equipment in the form of Trojan.
They are extremely valuable assets, which remain fundamental to any operation and which are likely to be more important than ever in future, heavily urbanized scenarios.
There are weaknesses too, though: the demise of SHIELDER exemplifies a dramatic decay of Counter-Mobility capability, which absolutely needs to be reversed as it would be key in any European war scenario, however unlikely.
Urban battlefields arguably suggest that re-introduction of a short-barrel, high-calibre demolition cannon such as the old 165mm is also highly desirable.
Project TYRO is (slowly) working on life-extending and upgrading or replacing the bridging equipment.
The M3 rigs are still operational and, in one of few good news contained in Army 2020 Refine, the regiment utilizing them. 75 RE; is due for considerable expansion as a renewed focus goes into wide wet gap crossing.
At the same time, Army 2020 Refine would remove 35 RE from the Close Support role, if not from the ORBAT altogether. This is part of the reductions that compromise the ability of the army to keep a brigade in the field for enduring operations, and should be reversed.
Battlefield recovery and repair
Despite the cuts suffered by REME in 2010 and an unfortunate and substantially failed re-organization of REME resources into battalions, the british army still enjoys a considerable richness of Recovery and Repair assets and expertise. A look at the equipment available in other European armies will rapidly show that the other countries tend to cut this corner a lot.
What is in short supply elsewhere becomes automatically valuable when the time to mount an operation comes.
The level of training and expertise that can be found in the british armed forces remains considerable. Training delivered by british forces is respected and valued, and the UK can buy security and influence through provision of training and assistance to friendly countries all over the world. Training deals also play a substantial role in supporting british defence industry in the export market: Typhoon jets can result a lot more attractive, for example, if british training comes along with them.
While there are good reasons to be skeptical about the “Defence Engagement Battalions” being created within the army, the general idea of having units permanently tasked with defence cooperation abroad is good under many points of view. Substantial uncertainty remains about the nature of these battalions, their effective capabilities and their employment. Several press reports have suggested that these battalions will be similar to American Green Berets, acting as Special Operations Forces where necessary, supplying covert or overt assistance directly on the battlefield. If true, this would make them particularly valuable but also particularly expensive to set up, man and maintain.
The area of foreign engagement, albeit unglamorous in many ways, does deserve attention and further work.
Delivery of naval and air training can be just as valuable. One problem in the Air domain is the puny size of the new training fleets. These are modern and capable, but truly minuscule. The SDSR 2015, by reverting some of the cuts of 2010, massively increased the requirement for trained aircrew, but did not adequately expand the training fleets to account for it. The number of instructors was expanded considerably compared to pre-2015 expectations, but the number of training aircraft was not corrected. There is already talk of adding an extra 2 Phenom and of doubling the T-6C Texan II line, from 10 to 20 or more aircraft, but well known budget issues have to be overcome for this to happen.
The reduced size of the training fleet means that there is little to no room for foreign pilots training, but cutting back on this kind of engagement is damaging.
Another important aspect of UK capability is the availability of a capable Red Air element to train against. Hawk aggressor squadrons, backed by EW and in-flight simulation deliver high-value preparation for warships and aircrew. In the post-2020 era, the fate of this capability rests on the ASDOT (Air Support to Defence Operational Training) programme.
Further to the training aspect, the UK is investing a lot of money into building an Integrated Training Center for F-35 training at RAF Marham. So far, this ITC is the only one planned in Europe, with the other countries planning to have their personnel trained in the US.
Substantial opportunities for collaboration exist due to the Marham ITC, and every effort should be made to valorize it.
The above list of considerations is a “back to basics” assessment of what elements of the armed forces have a clear, special value and a defined role in current and future operations. All of them are backed by the two true game-changing attributes that the UK has:
- The nuclear deterrent, with the freedom of action and the political clout it buys.
- The willingness to engage and use force where required.
Other countries have impressive armies but never really employ them for their unwillingness to engage in unpleasant, dangerous business.
The capabilities listed in this article have particular relevance and the range of possibilities they open up should drive the UK’s strategic thinking. These areas of excellence should be developed and valorized with the aim of buying influence in peacetime and delivering decisive effect in wartime.
The measure of their usefulness comes from evaluating their importance to the UK’s conduit of war operations as well as their relevance within NATO.
Is it a capability matched by other allies? Is it unique? If other allies have it, is it important enough to deserve investment all the same? Can I afford to disinvest in it, with the reasonable certainty that I will still have access to it through allies?
Even with the UK determined to stay out of any future “European army” (arguably even more so because of it, in fact), the UK must be very careful in assessing its capabilities and that of its allies, including a realistic assessment of how easy it would be to obtain access to said allied capabilities in times of need. Just saying that future operations will be a coalition affair is not enough: if the UK had been counting on France’s equipment to retake the Falklands, today the islands would be the Malvinas.
A capability that adds something to the overall roster is particularly valuable, and should be accorded priority. Overall, the most complete and balanced spectrum of capabilities possible should be pursued, to preserve the UK’s ability to act alone when truly necessary.
The UK retains many areas of excellence, but has badly damaged all of them in repeated salami slicing exercises that have fixed the short-term budget while opening large capability gaps all over the place. Coherent, joint thinking is required to preserve those excellences and build on them to deliver a capable force. It might well mean not having medium, pardon “Strike” brigades, but that is someone else’s area of excellence. 4 MIV battalions will not improve the UK’s world stance; this still impressive roster of military capabilities, if maintained and well resourced, will.