This is the first post of what could become a series for which i invite any reader interested in collaborating to step forwards and contact me. I will welcome suggestions, information and thoughts at the same way. This article is intended both as a take on the always actual, still-evolving Army 2020 situation and as a kick-start for what will hopefully become a wider reasoning over the future of the british Infantry in the modern scenarios.
Some Written Answers in Parliament in the last month and in June are painting a possibly quite depressing picture for the future of british Infantry battalions, which are possibly set for a marked downsizing as part of Army 2020 restructuring.
On 13 July 2012, in fact, minister Nick Harvey, answering to a question about the future of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, dispelled the myth, created by The Telegraph, that the surviving Scottish battalions would have their establishment downsized to around 400 or 450 in exchange for their survival. This, both fortunately and unsurprisingly, is not the case, as creating such small battalions, so much smaller and different from the others within the army would have been a severely damaging move.
Harvey makes clear that the establishment of each battalion will in future depend solely from the role to which it is assigned and added that, under Army 2020:
Any battalions that are in the Armoured Infantry role will have a full unit establishment of 729 personnel;Any battalions that are in the Mechanised (Heavy Protected Mobile) Infantry role will have a full unit establishment of 709 personnel;Any battalions that are in the Light Protected Mobile Infantry role will have a full unit establishment of 581 personnel;
[Official Report, Column 415W]
The Light Protected Mobile Infantry role is a novelty of Army 2020, represented by 6 infantry battalions which will be mounted on Foxhound vehicles, while the other three roles all already exist, even if the 3 Mechanized Infantry Battalions (currently 4th Rifles, 1st Royal Anglian and 1st Lancs) will have their vehicle changed as part of Army 2020 from FV430 MK3 Bulldog (now) to FRES UV (not earlier than 2022, possibly around 2025) with the Mastiff vehicle, brought into Core Defence budget after Afghanistan as interim solution.
The Armored Infantry battalions will go down to 6, but will continue to work on Warrior vehicles, although modified under the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme, with first deliveries of the upgraded IFVs in 2018, IOC in 2020 with an Armoured Company fully operative and deliveries completed by 2022.
Nick Harvey fails to provide a Full Unit Establishment for Air Assault battalions, which as part of Army 2020 might go down to just 2 (from four until now: 2 and 3 PARA plus 1st Royal Irish and 5 SCOTS). Currently, the full establishment for such battalions should be 582 all ranks, all trades.
According to the data I’ve managed to collate, the new establishment present some differences with the current ones, and most of these differences are not good ones.
According to Charles Heyman’s “The British Army Guide 2012 – 2013”, and ArmedForces.co.uk, the full unit establishment of a current armoured infantry battalion is 741, so that, if data is correct, Army 2020 implies a reduction of 12 men. At the moment, there’s no telling how this might be achieved, as there is not an evident source for the reduction in manpower (as would have been the case if, for example, the Warrior upgrade had walked down the road of Overhead Remote Weapon Stations and reduced the turret crew of Warrior from 2 to 1). One possibility is a reduction in the strength of the REME Light Aid Detachment, but this is only a wild guess.
With the same source of data about the current battalions, it seems the 3 Mechanized Infantry Battalions are getting a very significant uplift in manpower, instead, from 667 to 709, hopefully with the increase made up as much as possible by fighting troops. Might have to do with the fact that a Mastiff 2 or 3 can take up to 12 men aboard, even though normally it is described as a “2 + 8” vehicle which, in the case, would provide no evident justification for the manpower increase, since Bulldog is a 2 + 8 vehicle itself.
As said before, the Light Protected role is new, so there is no comparison to be made. One consideration to be made is how the Light Protected battalion will work, and how much of its strength will effectively be mounted in Foxhound vehicles and protected. How will it all be arranged? Foxhound is a 2 + 4 vehicle, and we could reasonably assume that the driver at least won’t count as a Dismount, while the commander perhaps will.
This would open the door to a fireteam of 5 instead of 4 men, but even if the Section stays 8-strong, there will be a need for 2 Foxhounds for each Section. That would mean as many as 28 Foxhound vehicles per each Rifle Company.
And numbers at that point do not work, because many more Foxhound vehicles would be needed over and above the 300 on order (even before the toll that Afghanistan will eventually take)[at least 35 for a training fleet] and the provision of drivers would become a problem.
Also, the Foxhound vehicles on order this far are all in the basic patrol variant, while a Battalion would arguably need weapon carriers (so the WMIK variant of Foxhound, or perhaps Jackals), an ambulance, ideally on the same chassis and with the same battlefield mobility (perhaps the Husky ambulance variant can be used in the short term, assuming that Husky is brought into Core post Afghanistan), a command post and so along.
Of course, this problem would not exist if substantial follow-on orders for more Foxhounds (in more variants) were to arrive, but for quite obvious reasons I find it hard to be that optimist.
Another reason not to be optimist is the comparison of the establishment of the Light Protected and Light Role infantry battalions: just 20 men of difference suggest that there won’t be that many vehicles, possibly, as the need for drivers and maintenance would suggest a much higher figure otherwise.
It will be very interesting to see how these Light Protected Mobility Battalions are actually organized: it might come down to having the capability of moving one Rifle Company in Foxhounds, for the look of it, and I frankly hope in something better than that.
But the real worrying part is the Light Role battalion itself, because a Full Establishment of 561 seems very low. According to the same sources named earlier, currently a Light Role infantry battalion full establishment is 630.
That would mean a cull of 69 men from each battalion, likely to imply a significant impact on the fighting force of the battalion, which will be balanced, on paper, by the famous “pairing” with reserve battalions. The Army 2020 document, presenting a force of 14 Light Role regular battalions, seemed to go in the direction of a possible “one to one” pairing, since the TA has exactly 14 Infantry Battalions.
The Army 2020 document also showed the Foxhound battalions paired up with TA battalions, though: will the Reserve expansion offer room and scope for a further 6 TA infantry battalions? I doubt it for many reasons, mainly for the fact that, was that the case, there would have been an easy solution for government in the delivery of the cuts: the names and badges would be saved by moving into the TA.
Since this has not been done, taking the usual flak connected to the loss of “historic” names, room for optimism is very small.
As you can easily see, there are some very hard questions left in search for an answer. The Telegraph was wrong when it reported that the Scottish battalions would go down to 450 men establishments, but the reduction in manpower might have been enforced army-wide, with the oddity represented by the Mechanized Infantry expansion.
This, of course, while we wait for better and more accurate data. I have no real reason not to trust the sources quoted earlier, but I’m taking them with some prudence.
However, there is another, indirect element in support of the downsizing fear: a look at the current Establishment.
The Establishment is different from the Full Unit Establishment. FUE is the total strength of the battalion, all-trades, all-ranks.
The Establishment instead is a figure that only comprises those soldiers from the unit’s specific Arm or Corps, excluding any supporting components from other Corps. The Establishment of an infantry battalion, in other words, is the count of the sole Infantry personnel, excluding REME, clerks, cooks and all other figures.
Current Establishment for a Light Role battalion hovers at around 530 men.
For an Armoured Battalion, it goes from 599 to 608, roughly.
For a mechanized battalion it is around 570, and for an Air Assault battalion it is 554.
Assuming, once more, that the figures from “The British Army Guide” are correct, there’s a 132 men difference between Establishment and Full Establishment for Armored Battalions, of which up to 90 are made up by the Light Aid Detachment (REME personnel).
The difference reduces to 97 for a Mechanized battalion (including a smaller REME component).
Some 100 man are the difference in Light Role battalions (a bit high, admittedly, since Light Role should not have that much in terms of supporting elements), reducing to just 28 for an Air Assault battalion.
If the figures are correct, the Army 2020 Light Role battalion might have an Infantry establishment of just 460 men from the Infantry. This is, obviously, highly undesirable, and goes against operational experience which very much calls for bigger battalions (an expansion to over 700 has been assessed as necessary already long ago).
The US Infantry battalion in an Infantry BCT has a strength of 685 men.
A Royal Marines Commando battalion full establishment is 692 men all ranks, too, even if the Royal Marines are semi-mechanized, with normally a Wheeled and one tracked (on Viking) “stand-off combat” companies plus 2 Close Combat Companies.
Looking at the strength and ORBAT of the infantry battalions, mainly the Light and Light Protected Mobility ones, will be very important to understand how much compromise the Army has had to accept, and how much damage the infantry’s capability has eventually taken.
I’ll keep my eyes open, as always, to try and catch any other useful information regarding this subject.
At the same time, there are questions we could try and reason about, for coming up with a realistic, desirable design for the infantry battalion.
Questions to be faced include:
- The Maneuver Support Company is valid in its current form? In Afghanistan it is very often broken down into Fire Support Groups, made up of sections of HMG, MG Sustained Fire, Javelin Anti-Tank, Mortar, Sniper. These sections are organized on the lines of a Platoon and assigned directly to the Rifle Company, giving it the firepower it needs to .
Normally the FSG will use the 60 mm Light Mortar, and the 81 mm mortars will be kept at Battalion level. In some cases, the Maneuver Support Company remains, albeit in a different form, including the RECCE element, a Fire Support Group and a Fire Support Team (the latter being the 6-man team for the direction of Joint Fires, be it mortar, artillery, rocket or an air attack). A Fire Support Team is assigned at Company level on deployment.
Are these “ad hoc” structures indicative of long-term trends?
What and how should be made permanent in the force structure?
- Mortars and guided ammo. 81 mm forever, or shift towards 120 mm? Is a mortar-cannon the best Fire Support Weapon, combining direct and indirect effect?
- Fire Support Team: vital direction for the whole range of support fires in a complex, joint environment. Definitely need more, how to integrate them in the force?
- The Load Carrier. At Platoon level? How many? Manned or unmanned?
- UAVs for the Infantry, how many, where, for what roles?
And, no doubt, many others.
With a major focus in thinking being the reduction in the weight carried by the soldier out on a mission. Current weight levels are way too high, and a substantial reduction is absolutely necessary.
Other issues include bandwidth and communications, especially in urban areas and C2 on the move, and this brings us straight to another problem closely connected to these: provision of power for all the optics and systems. Which means considering ergonomics of wiring, load carriage, and other issues.
A very complex and ample subject, so let’s start thinking.