In this series of short posts I pursue two key objectives:
- Argue that the British Armed Forces, in times of severe budget difficulties, should not pursue “ham tomorrow” at all costs, but focus instead on a number of areas in which they still have the seeds of excellence.
- Provide a more detailed background to my “Alternative Army 2020” proposal, showing the reasoning behind certain approaches.
The approach behind my reasoning is simple: building on what is available, to secure and improve a number of key capabilities that make the UK a major player in defence within NATO.
Rather than dismantling mass and capability even further to pursue new “Strike Brigades”, or seek savings by cutting back on the more “exotic” specialties, I argue that it makes more sense to move back a step and watch the picture from a slightly different angle.
It is by now constantly repeated that the British Armed forces will always operate in Coalition and that this or that gap are not worrisome because allies will help plug the hole. However, unless the “ally” is invariably Uncle Sam, certain decisions make no sense as they are not at all aligned to what the European allies could effectively provide in a joint operation. The result is that certain cuts and proposals only exacerbate weaknesses that already exist within NATO and sacrifice precious specialism.
Does it make sense to cut back on Heavy Armour when, even with all the well known obsolescence issues of Challenger 2, the british heavy contingents are the only ones with true, recent wartime mileage in Europe?
Does it make sense to cut back on the ability to project power from the sea through amphibious operations when 3rd Commando Brigade and the shipping available for it remain a very large percentage of Europe’s capability in this specialist area?
Does it make sense to weaken the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and pretend that there is no manpower problem, when the RFA represents the vast majority of complex logistic shipping in Europe, making it a truly invaluable component not just for the UK, but for its allies as well?
Does it make sense to cut back on air-ground manoeuvre when there are 60 Chinooks, 50 Apache and 8 C-17 in service, giving the UK the best mix of tools for air manoeuvre in all of Europe?
Does it make sense to still tinker with the idea of cutting Sentinel, when the air ISTAR elements the UK can field are without rival in Europe?
Certain suggestions and, worse still, certain MOD moves appear to me to be absolutely misguided. Dismantling capability in areas in which the UK is the major European player is not going to make any favor to Her Majesty’s Government political weight. Being leaders in a number of specialist areas is more valuable than being able to field half-formed, half-tracked “Strike Brigades” able to respond “quickly” to… no one really knows what.
Not to mention that if the specialist capabilities are retained and nurtured, the potential for independent action, albeit on a small scale, remains more realistic. And the ability to take action independently is a key differentiator in the weight of a country at the table. An independent nuclear deterrent on its own will lose value if the rest of the armed forces turn into handicapped forces, plagued by capability gaps, pursuing political clout by being always the first to deploy in any new crisis. The UK still has a budget large enough and capabilities good enough to be a leader within NATO, a framework nation to which smaller players can contribute reinforcements. The UK should be, first of all, a Strategic Enabler: a military power lacking in mass, for obvious reason, but with the most complete range of capabilities possible. Even more so because it already possesses much of what it takes to do so. It is actually cheaper, or at least more cost-effective, to build upon what there already is.
While large-scale airborne operations are of questionable, at best, likelihood and of uncertain wisdom in this day and age, and anyway outside of the UK’s material possibilities; smaller scale parachute operations and, above all, manoeuvre by the air at battlegroup level, remain absolutely valid and useful. Air manoeuvre has been extremely effective and very widely used in Afghanistan and in Mali. In Mali, the French had some success with company-group parachute assaults as well, showing that there is still merit to having this kind of rapid insertion capability.
It is my belief that the British Army absolutely needs to maintain parachute assault as a capability, albeit at relatively small scale. Even more important is maintaining a significant ability to manoeuvre significant forces by air, both for securing key points ahead of the ground forces and for flank operations.
This is a complex, demanding and expensive proposition but, among the good reasons for insisting on this capability, is the fact that the UK is actually relatively well positioned to maintain and expand its know-how in this area. It is not my intention to produce here an history of the various SDSRs and of the procurement decisions they have generated, because it would take several pages at best, but the important thing is that the various decisions taken in the past have generated:
- A fleet of 8 C-17 strategic cargo aircrafts, which provide a lift capability with no match elsewhere in NATO
- A fleet of 22 A400M Atlas; not as numerous as desirable but certainly significant
- A fleet of 14 C-130J to be retained in the long term thanks to a sudden dawn of wisdom in the SDSR 2015
- A large and very capable helicopter fleet, composed of, crucially, 60 Chinooks providing a lift capacity that only Germany, having the CH-53, could hope to match.
Add the 50 Apache E with their proven firepower and sensors; 23 Puma HC2 and the Wildcats, and the resulting pool of resources is actually very considerable. It is easy to lose heart in front of the constant downpour of cuts and capability gaps, but there are actually still areas of excellence which could and should be better exploited.
Arguably, the UK has better resources in this area than anyone else (always excluding the US, obviously) within NATO, yet 16 Air Assault brigade hasn’t fared too well in the last decade. Its organic supports (Artillery, Logistic, Signal…) have been eroded down to such a degree that the brigade today cannot be considered a “true” brigade. It has three regular infantry battalions thanks to the recent addition of the Gurkha rifles, but for lack of supports it would not be able to convert all three into battlegroups and deploy en masse. It has also lost the little bit of semi-organic cavalry support it had, and the Patrols platoons within the PARA battalions cannot be considered an adequate replacement.
In my opinion, this amounts to wasting a fine unit and a great opportunity. Those who have read my alternative proposal for Army 2020 Refine know that I called for a reinforcement of 16 Air Assault Brigade in its supporting parts as well as, if at all possible, the expansion to a four-battalions structure. What is needed is an “air-mechanized” brigade composed of two air mobile battalions and two light mechanized battalions (on Foxhound and Jackal). The whole brigade remains relatively light and easily deployed, but comes with everything it needs to be a true Strike force, tactically as well as strategically agile and able, from within its constituent units, to replicate the kind of combined air and ground manoeuvre that the army has most recently carried out during operation Herrick.
It is worth mentioning Operation Panther’s Claw (Panchai Palang) in the summer of 2009: 3rd SCOTS, then deployed as Aviation Assault Battlegroup, saw 350 soldiers of A and B companies (the Aviation Strike Coys in the group) airlifted in a single large wave to secure key crossing points in the Luy Mandeh wadi, north of Babaji. The reinforcements came in the form of a 64-vehicles convoy, with Mastiff, Jackal, Vikings and trucks from Camp Bastion, led by Task Force Thor, an American C-IED route clearance unit. The single-wave assault was made with 12 Chinooks, both british and American, supported by 4 Apache and 2 US Black Hawks.
2 weeks later, after holding the ground, B company carried out another aviation assault to secure another key passage ahead of the advancing Light Dragoons battlegroup. In July, during the third phase of the operation, Alpha coy was inserted using 5 Chinook and the support of 2 Apache. This operation included link-up with an armoured thrust by Charlie Company, 2 Royal Welsh in Warriors. The Fire Support Group operated on the ground, mounted in Jackals.
Air manoeuvre remains an essential capability, and the Army and RAF own the most expensive pieces already: there is no reason not to expand on them to put meat on the bones of 16 Air Assault Brigade.
As 3rd SCOTS example proves, in addition, air mobility is not necessarily a job for PARA troops, provided that the necessary expertise and procedures are well rehersed and understood within the army. In my alternative Army 2020 proposal, 51 Brigade has the same structure: 2 Light Role Battalions replace 2 and 3 PARA, and are meant to provide the air mobile element, while two light mechanized infantry battalions provide the ground mobility element. Each brigade also has a Light Cavalry regiment on Jackal.
Several equipment problems are immediately evident:
- The army currently lacks the capability to parachute Jackal into battle, and this means that the first Fire Support elements are forced to enter the fight as dismounts.
- The Jackal is a good vehicle, but it was not engineered to be a rapid air landing assault platform. As amazing as it might sound, the Jackal cannot charge out, combat-ready, from a C-130 since the machine gun on top has to be removed in order to fit. So, even as an air-landed follow on reinforcement, it needs some time to make ready before it can move into the fight.
The latter problem is possibly going to go away thanks to the A400 Atlas. The first can only be solved by procuring a strong enough parachute platform system for use on the Atlas. The British Army has decided to entirely gap Heavy and Vehicle airdrops by withdrawing from service the old Medium Stressed Platform, which was compatible with the old C-130K cargo floor but not with the J’s. After seeking a modification to integrate the platform on the C-130J, the army decided that it was too expensive and accepted the gap. In the last few years, 16 Air Assault brigade has been able to parachute its artillery and other heavy loads into action only by exploiting US help and kit.
A new platform and the A400M are supposed to fix the problem.
The light cavalry mounted on Jackal has a firepower deficit, as the .50 HMG and 40mm GMG alone can’t give the reach and the heavy punch required to stand up to more threatening adversaries. Without even needing to go all the way up to Russian or Russian-style light armoured vehicles, the Jackals could end up being severely outgunned by “technicals” such as those seen in Syria. While the accuracy of fire coming from a ZSU-23 mounted on a Toyota pick-up might be questionable at best, it is not acceptable to step into a fight knowing that the enemy already has a range and firepower advantage almost every time (14.5mm machine guns, ZSU-23s and even old BMP turrets are easily found around in every theatre of war). Syria and Iraq are also showing how dangerous hastily and crudely armoured vehicle-born IEDs are: having a 30mm gun to decisively hit and stop them at a safe distance would make the difference.
The cheapest and easiest solution is to fit a number of Jackal vehicles with a remote turret armed with the same 30mm gun employed by the Apache. It is a weapon the army already has and supports, limiting its impact on logistics, and it would help the Light Cavalry a great deal. It does not weight much and it is getting a boost thanks to US Army plans to have it on top of JLTV in the reconnaissance role.
|In this photo by Army recognition, a particularly capable RWS, my Moog Inc., integrating 7.62 coax, Javelin missile and M230 30mm gun.|
|A simpler, lighter M230LF installation on M-ATV. The US Army is probably going to require this weapon on top of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicles used in recce role.|
|From heavily armed technicals to russian Tigr with 30mm guns. The Light Cavalry is not good for much unless it has the firepower to at least compete with this range of threats.|
Another issue, until recently, was the non exploitation of the C-17’s tactical capabilities. Thankfully, in the last couple of years the Army and RAF have begun to open up airdrops, rapid air landing and austere runways capability latent in the Globemaster fleet. Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before the C-17 can be fully exploited.
|Heavy Air Drop capability needs to be rebuilt; it cannot be delegated entirely to US help|
Relatively small investments can have a major impact on the British Army’s capability to manoeuvre from and through the air. Much of the required equipment exists. Central to my alternative Army 2020 proposal, air mobility is a key attribute of light brigades. Two such brigades, one of which based on 16 Air Assault; would provide the army with a sustainable and quickly deployable core of Aviation Assault battle groups supported by light mechanized formations ensuring post-landing mobility and lethality.
Parachute capability, normally at company group-level, continues to come on rotation from within the 2 PARA battalions, while air assault is more widely delivered by Light Role battalions.