Monday, December 2, 2019

Of compromises and priorities




The signing of the contract for the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle for the army is something to be cheered, of course, but i don’t think it should be welcomed without critique. This hugely expensive contract comes decades late, and it ends (hopefully) a whole 3 decades of disasters in army vehicles procurement. Almost everyone knows that BOXER, today’s MIV, is yesterday’s MRAV. The British Army was a founding member of the programme and had a big input in the design of the vehicle, which was originally meant to be the wheeled part of a comprehensive modernization programme for the Army, which included a tracked counterpart.




Equally notoriously, the whole programme fell apart and was succeeded by that utter disaster that was FRES. A whole 3 decades on, the original requirements are still only partially covered, and neither AJAX / WCSP nor MIV have yet managed to define a path towards complete replacement of all FV432 variants. To say that this saga has been a colossal failure is still an understatement, and the army cannot and should not pretend that all blame lays with politicians. Moreover, the Army should stop pretending that the blame lies on the expenditure for the Aircraft Carriers, or some other piece of equipment of the other two services.

In this article, however, I want to focus on the present, not the past. The past can’t be fixed, anyway.
The Army secured a sizeable first purchase: after initial talks of 300, up to heights of 600, down to an expected 508 in the final phases of the negotiation, it eventually signed for 523 series production vehicles and 5 prototypes. This is already enough to make it the world’s biggest BOXER operator, since even Germany only acquired 403 in two batches (a recent one for 131 and an earlier one for 272).

In the tenders published in the run-up to the contract, the MOD specifically sought to include options for further variants and successive purchases of vehicles, to get to a total of up to 1,500.
This enormous number is not expected to translate into a large number of mechanized infantry battalions, because many of the BOXERs would be used to replace FV432s and other vehicles across a multitude of supporting roles.

In fact, supporting variants are likely to make up a very significant portion of the 523 vehicles on order, even though we do not know yet the exact partitioning of the order. Known STRIKE plans involve just 4 battalions of infantry to be mounted in MIV vehicles, and this can be achieved with fewer than 250 – 300 vehicles. The exact number entirely depends on how many supporting variants are included: a WARRIOR battalion, for example, will have WARRIOR hulls for the infantry platoons, tactical HQ elements, ATGW platoon, recovery and repair (FV512 and FV513 variants). Mortar carriers, ambulances, HQ support vehicles and some other roles are covered by FV432s since the relevant WARRIOR variants were never acquired.

The current MIV order includes just 4 variants: APC, Command Post, Ambulance and a “Specialist” carrier whose role is not yet entirely clear. It is understood to be derived from the Dutch engineer variant, so it basically comes with less seats and more storage space for equipment. It might come with racks for Engineer recce teams but also come in, for example, a variant equipped to carry JAVELIN missile teams. In other words, it looks like a wheeled counterpart to the ARES (at least in some of its configurations) and ARGUS vehicles from the AJAX family.

In other words, not too many roles within a battalion will be actually covered by MIV variants, at least in the foreseeable future, and so it is even more likely that only between 250 and 300 vehicles are needed for the 4 battalions. 300 having been, not casually i dare adding, the first number thrown about for MIV.
The rest will be made up of ambulances, command posts and specialist carriers destined to other units. MIV Ambulances are most likely headed for the Armoured Infantry battalions mounted on WARRIOR, since the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle (ABSV) programme seems to be dead and the AJAX family has not, in the end, included an ambulance variant.

MIV ambulances will obviously go to the Medical battalions of the Armoured and STRIKE brigades; MIV Specialist carriers could be headed for the Engineer regiments of the STRIKE brigades. I say could because the exact role of these “specialist” variants is far from clear yet and because there is already the ARGUS variant from the AJAX family. It might be that ARGUS will be concentrated in the two regiments aligned with the Armoured brigades, mainly tracked, and MIVs in similar configurations will go to the STRIKE engineers. It is yet to be discovered. The “Specialist” might also equip STRIKE artillery units, to give mobility to their Fire Support Teams as they track and designate targets.

In practice, the British Army is approaching MIV in a way that is a hybrid of Germany’s and Netherland’s approaches: the Dutch, in fact, procured 200 BOXERs in various Support Role configurations as replacement for their tracked M113s. They have no infantry mounted in BOXERs at all.
Germany has procured mostly APCs to equip its Jäger (Light) infantry battalions, and some support vehicles to go along with them.
The result of this hybrid approach is that Germany will have mounted more infantry battalions in BOXERs than the British Army, despite purchasing less vehicles.

This is not necessarily wrong in entirety, but it is the result of different compromises. Germany clearly thinks that such a massive, expensive and capable vehicle is mostly to be destined to frontline, combat role, while support roles, with some exceptions, can be entrusted to less expensive machines. The UK is currently planning to increase protection levels massively for a wider range of roles, but at the cost of leaving most of its infantry battalions standing literally on their feet.

There is a discussion to be had on whether the British Army’s priorities are the right ones for a cash-strapped force which is currently aiming for a grand total of 8 (small) battalions with some form of mechanization (4 on WARRIOR, 4 on MIV as of today’s plans). Wouldn’t it be better to reserve BOXERs for frontline roles, and have less expensive vehicles for supporting roles wherever this is reasonable?

Other armies clearly think it is a good proposition: France procured 630 VBCIs in just 2 variants: IFV (510) and Command (120) and equipped 8 regiments with them. And please, take due note of the fact that French regiments are based on 4 rather than 3 Companies and are much, much bigger than british battalions. Supporting vehicles today are mostly VABs, and tomorrow will be GRIFFON 6x6 vehicles, immensely cheaper than a top-class 8x8 and purchased in literal thousands.

Italy gets often overlooked, but actually fields impressive and very active armed forces, especially considered the tiny budget the service chiefs have to work with. It is also one of the most active western players when it comes to wheeled armour, and 8x8 in particular, thanks to the CENTAURO tank destroyer and then to the FRECCIA family.

The FRECCIA family is an interesting case of prioritization completely different from the British Army’s approach. FRECCIA orders are still coming and production is still (slowly) progressing due to the already mentioned tiny budget, and it is worth noting that almost the entire purchase is devoted to frontline combat. In fact, between delivered, ordered and planned, the vehicles of the family include 335 IFVs, 72 anti-tank vehicles (with SPIKE missile pods on the sides of the turrets), 34 120mm Mortar Carriers, 40 Recovery vehicles, 60 Reconnaissance vehicles in FAR configuration and 60 in CLOSE configuration, and just 26 command vehicles in 2 different variants (note: some of the IFVs are kitted for infantry company command).
16 Ambulances were envisaged at one point, but the idea was abandoned in favor of less expensive alternatives.

What alternatives? And why so few command posts?
This is arguably the most interesting part.
On the ambulances front, the answer is that the role has essentially been pushed down onto the Italian counterpart to the Multi Role Vehicle – Protected (MRV-P) that the British Army hopes to acquire. For those who don’t remember what MRV-P is, I’ll mention that it is a large programme meant to replace (part of) the unprotected Land Rover variants; the Pinzgauers, the PANTHERs and eventually the HUSKYs. To do this, two “Groups” are envisaged: Group 1 is for a 4x4 vehicle, so (relatively) small, while Group 2 is for a larger vehicle, with effectively only 6x6s left in the races, for more demanding roles.
For Group 1, the British Army has expressed its favor for the American Oshkosh Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and has already secured, back in 2017, the US approval for a purchase of up to 2,747 vehicles and associated kits and equipment. Back in April this year, a 2-year demonstration phase has been authorized to test and develop british-specific fit-outs and work out integration and mission safety features.
Up to at least this September, government reiterated in Written Answers that it expects decisions on MRV-P during 2020: in particular, the JLTV purchase could get the go ahead while a selection should also be made between the two contenders left in the race for Group 2.
These are the Thales BUSHMASTER and the General Dynamics EAGLE 6x6. The BUSHMASTER is sponsored by Australia, which through its defence minister has promised that production of the vehicles would happen in the Thales facility up in Glasgow. BUSHMASTER is seen as the favorite, but while a selection is supposedly due in “early 2020”, all timings are obviously always doubtful when it comes to the army and even more so now that there is an SDSR coming after the elections.
There is (was?) also a “Group 3” requirement, which is specifically about a Lightweight, air portable Recovery vehicle, which is required not just to service MRV-P itself, but to support units mounted in other “light” vehicles, such as JACKAL/COYOTE and FOXHOUND. At the moment, apart from a few HUSKYs partially fitted out for the role by the REME, there is no real alternative to the MAN SV Wrecker, a 32 tons behemoth that is, for obvious reasons, actually very poorly suited to supporting Light Cavalry and Light Mechanized Infantry on FOXHOUND.
The Lightweight recovery vehicle was very much craved by 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando brigades and was supposed to be a funded requirement, but even so it has not progressed to a selection and contract award, despite a number of interesting entries, led in particular by SUPACAT’s own product based on the same high-mobility family that spawned the JACKAL.

Said of the british MRV-P, let’s talk about the Italian one, which arguably provided the inspiration for the Group 1 and 2 split. In fact, Italy’s Group 1 is made up by thousands of Iveco LINCE (Lynx, the vehicle that was the base for the british PANTHER variant), while Group 2 is made up by the much larger, but still 4x4, Iveco ORSO (Bear, or more specifically Grizzy, especially in the german 6x6 variant, which however has been more or less abandoned).

ORSO and LINCE (long wheelbase variant) ambulance variants 
Due to the insufficient budget (Italy unfortunately spends much, much, much less than the fabled 2% of GDP on defence) the purchases are very slow, but the ORSO is meant to cover a huge variety of roles including Ambulance, Command Post, Comms and EW, EOD and Route Clearance.
It does, and increasingly will as more are acquired, offload most supporting roles from more expensive fleets, such as the FRECCIA, while enabling a standardization of the various existing fleets. The Route Clearance package based on the ORSO, for example, is allowing the Italian Army to let go of the US COUGAR-based MRAPs that it had urgently procured for operations in Afghanistan. One route clearance package is being assigned to the Engineer regiment in each brigade.
The ORSO will also be supporting the tracked DARDO (Dart) IFVs since the Italian Army has given up its M113 fleet to save money. This will be somewhat sub-optimal due to the mixing of wheels and tracks, but at least it won’t be quite as ridiculous as having a behemoth BOXER ambulance literally dwarfing the WARRIOR IFV it will support. The maximum mass of BOXER in the latest variant, which is the one the British Army will acquire, is 38,5 tons. Probably the ambulance won’t weight quite that much, but a baseline WARRIOR at FV520 standard (the new post-CSP designation) weights around 27…

A Route Clearance package based on the ORSO, with ground penetrating radar, anti-mine rollers, mast-mounted sensors for situational awareness and then the vehicle with the rummaging arm for anti-IED checks. One such package will be assigned to each brigade of the italian army for Mobility support. 



I make no mystery of the fact that I’m much more attuned to the Italian priorities than to the british ones. The British Army is about to splash a lot of money on a big number of massive 8x8 ambulances, while, at the same time, having still no plan at all for what vehicle will carry the battalion’s mortars after the FV432 finally retires. The problem is common to both WARRIOR and BOXER battalions, and it amazes me. Add to this the fact that the british battalions continue to have access to nothing more than hand-loaded 81 mm mortars while everyone else has long had 120mm mortars, more often than not semi-automatic, and you might understand why I’m utterly perplexed. Surely BOXER hulls with full protection would be better spent for this key role…?
The British Army is also still without an under-armour launch capability for anti-tank guided weapons. It last had one in the early 2000s, before the last CVR(T) STRIKERS armed with SWINGFIRE missiles were withdrawn without direct replacement. The only ATGW capability is given by dismounted JAVELIN teams, or soldier-carried NLAWs. There is a possibility that some PROTECTOR RWS will get a single JAVELIN launcher strapped on (the option is readily available and was trialed successfully in the UK from a modified SPARTAN already years ago), but this is still quite underwhelming to what is the norm elsewhere. The FRECCIA ATGW variant carries dismounted SPIKE teams in the back, but also has SPIKE Long Range missiles in box-launchers on either side of the turret, for example.

WCSP, AJAX and now BOXER have all failed at trying to bring any progress in this area, despite their enormous cost. And again I wonder if this shouldn’t have been granted a much, much higher priority. If you ask me, yes, it should have. Especially since you are exhausting most of your budget for the next few years on this purchase, and effectively ensuring that these capability gaps will not go away anytime soon.

The latest BUSHMASTER evolution is seen as the favorite in the MRV-P race. Some BUSHMASTERS are already in use, including in Syria, with the UK Special Forces. The selection of BUSHMASTER would also be a "returned favor" after Australia jointed the Type 26 Global Combat Ship project. 

MRV-P Group 2 is mainly composed of “Troop carriers” (2+6 seats) and Ambulances, yet it is evidently felt that these will mostly be about replacing Land Rover-based ambulances, we have to assume.

The EAGLE 6x6 is the other Group 2 aspirant 

When it comes to Command Posts, the discussion to be had is even more urgent and more complex. I’ll again look at the Italian Army, because for all its shortcomings and budget problems it has been one of the most innovative in the last several decades and has been carrying on impressive experimentation and development. In particular, it has been working very hard on digitalization, and is seeking to truly modernize the command posts on the field.

In its Network Enabled force plans, the Italian Army has sought to define various levels of command / access to information. Tier Zero is the Sensor, which might well mean a small unattended, automated sensor on the ground. T1 is the individual soldier, then T2 is the Section, T3 the Platoon, T4 the Company, T5 the Regiment and T6 the Brigade.
Most of these command levels have relatively low need for data and information. Things start getting interesting at T2 level. Digitalization, of course, is supposed to make even Sections much more capable by allowing them to know more about their surroundings, collect and share more data, access more directly to supports. The Italian Army is thus investing heavily on Software Defined radios and Satcom On the Move (SOTM). SOTM, in particular, means your command post can continue to communicate while it is moving, while “normal” HQ are only able to access most of the data On The Halt. Obviously, the more command and comms function work while on the move, the more your battle rhythm can be quickened, at least in theory. Your command also becomes enormously more survivable as it does not need to stop, set up tents, camouflage itself, wire itself into gear etcetera.
T2 to T4 tiers are getting LINCE vehicles outfitted with software defined radios and SOTM X-band comms where necessary, to expand their capability. 

A LINCE 2 (the current production standard, much improved and more roomy than the original LINCE) equipped as command post. The flat antenna on top of the rear is the SOTM X-band antenna. 

At higher levels, company commanders riding in FRECCIA do not really need a specific command variant, because digitalized comms on the FRECCIA, integrated with a JANUS panoramic EO/IR sensor ball, are sufficient to build situational awareness and exercise command. At a slightly higher level of complication in battle command, the Command variants of the vehicle do step in. As I mentioned earlier, there are actually 2 command variants to the FRECCIA: one is for tactical command, when the officers need to be close to the action, and comes with turret and 25mm gun, like the other IFVs.
The “Main” command post is a FRECCIA APC with more room in the back and just an HITROLE RWS for self defence. This distinction is of course not necessarily “new” in itself. The British Army itself of course mixes WARRIORs or, where applicable, CHALLENGERs for “tactical” HQ to FV432 / 436 kitted out to form the main HQ element. An interesting image tweeted by a British Army officer and showing a tabletop wargaming exercise with STRIKE ORBATs shows that with AJAX and MIV the situation will be much the same, with a couple of AJAX for the tactical element supported by ATHENA vehicles for the actual command.

A glimpse of the STRIKE wargames offer a vision of some company level organisation. The most notable thing is that the ORBATs are actually very, very traditional. The AJAX Sqn literally swaps SPARTAN for ARES and SCIMITAR for AJAX, with no other visible change. Note "GW Troop", Guided Weapon Troop, on ARES: this will be JAVELIN missile teams. What is not yet clear is whether there still is a dedicate "Overwatch" sub-variant of ARES and whether this includes at least a JAVELIN on the RWS, to have at least a hint of under-armour ATGW capability. There does not seem to be any mortar at all in sight in the ORBAT. The only possible surprise is the very recognizable shape of FOXHOUND wherever a CLV (Command and Liaison Vehicle) appears in the ORBAT. This might or might not provide a hint of where FOXHOUND is next headed. It might also be a shape used semi-randomly to indicate the yet-to-be-procured MRV-P, however. 


What is interesting in the Italian army’s approach is that the number of such commands is more limited. Digitalization is exploited to reduce the need for dedicate command vehicles. The AJAX family already includes 112 ATHENA vehicles, and the first MIV purchase is likely to add quite a lot of its own C2 variant. Is this really unavoidable, or even tactically sound?

In the Italian army, again the ORSO steps into the fray. Forza NEC, the network-enabled force project of the Italian Army, has invested into other ways to create command posts that are both connected and mobile, capable and survivable. One such fully mobile HQ model is built upon 4 ORSO vehicles, 2 built for the Command role and 2 specializing in communications.
At brigade level, the new model of digitalized command post is based on 6 ISO expanding shelters, fully mobile once carried on trucks. Of the 6 shelters, one is for analysis and planning, one for the management of ongoing manoeuvre, 2 are for comms and EW, one for Artillery and one for Logistics.
This shelterized HQ is fully mobile, is faster into action than a classical tented solution and cheaper than a solution based on armoured vehicles. It is also arguably easier to hide “containers” among normal logistic movements and keep the enemy guessing about where the HQ is. This kind of shelter can also relatively easily be equipped with ballistic and CBRN protection. The Italian army has anyway developed a tented variant, which can be used when the HQ is not at risk and can be static for longer, and there is even an hybrid variant which combines tented spaces and shelterized equipment to cut down on assembly and wiring times.

Unfortunately, the British Army does not appear to have approached the issue of command posts anywhere near as seriously and comprehensively. In recent times there have been some low-budget experiments within infantry battalions which have sought to make their HQs more survivable by mounting the equipment into MAN SV trucks, cutting down the wiring time. The HQ in this experiment was still essentially an old-style affair, just quicker in relocating to enhance its chances of survival. Those who took part, predictably, noted that shelters thought specifically for the purpose would, of course, work better.

In 2017, finally, the British Army started experimenting with something more ambitious and adequate to the modern world with the Tactical HotSpot experiment which has seen a couple of PANTHERs and then also FOXHOUND kitted out to deliver both SATCOM On The Move and bubbles of secure data connectivity.
The HotSpot is meant to enable processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) of ISR data as well as high capacity line of sight meshed networks; it employs Satcom On the Move (SOTM) and Mobile Ad Hoc Networking (MANET) support air and land operations in an integrated way.
Its deployable masts give it FALCON connectivity as well as BOWMAN reach, and there are 4G networking and Link 16 also involved. Amazingly, it all fits on a PANTHER. These demonstrators have been followed by the HAWK, which is a similar HotSpot development packed into a FOXHOUND instead, and first showcased and demonstrated to the Army in 2018.



The PANTHER HotSpot demonstrator, with the very evident telescopic masts at the rear 

Agile Command, Control and Communications is the theme of the Army Warfighting Experiment for 2020, and both HotSpot demonstrators are highly likely to feature at the event, hopefully alongside other solutions including shelterized command posts, which in the meanwhile have been gaining ground in the US as well. It is to be hoped that the experiments in this AWE edition will lead, this time for real, to a true modernization effort for how the army sees, deploys and employs command posts.

A final note on the FRECCIA reconnaissance variants, because they are a very interesting topic: both are armed with the usual 25mm gun turret, but they are otherwise complementary due to the sensors and systems they carry. The FAR variant is equipped with the VIRESS sensor suite on a telescopic mast, combining a radar LYRA 10 and a HORIZON HD long-range EO/IR optic, as well with HORUS UAVs which are launched from boxes on the sides of the turret, similar to normal SPIKE missile launchers. Both sensors are also man-portable for dismounted use away from the vehicle.
The CLOSE variant has the SPIKE missiles in the boxes and carries an Unmanned Ground Vehicle RTP-2 in the back.
Procurement is moving slowly, but the eventual ambition is to equip almost every brigade in the Italian army with a recce Cavalry regiment which will have one Squadron of CENTAURO 2 tank destroyers (120/45 mm smoothbore gun on 8x8) and 2 mixed squadrons of FRECCIA FAR and CLOSE.

The CENTAURO 2 prototype (left) next to a current CENTAURO with 105 mm gun 

There was a time in which the AJAX family was expected to be similar, with a Medium Armour variant with the 120mm in support of the base AJAX and of the few, still mysterious “Ground Based Surveillance” variant which, assuming it is still planned at all, should carry some additional sensors. Today, the AJAX in its basic Scout variant is being asked to “impersonate” the defunct Medium Armour variant within the STRIKE brigades, with no uplift to its firepower or sensors.


Standardization?

The first (and pretty much only) objection that was formulated against my doubts about the expenditure on so many BOXER support variants is that having “everything” on the same vehicle base simplifies logistics. I can see that by myself, but what I can also see is that the British Army is nowhere near to any degree of true “standardization” and won’t be for many more years, if ever. As already mentioned, only a very limited number of variants of BOXER are funded, and they are insufficient to achieve a complete standardization even within the MIV-mounted infantry battalions. Elsewhere in the Army, you’ll have a few lone BOXERs into a WARRIOR or AJAX battalion, because there is no new tracked ambulance. And nobody knows yet what will be done about the mortars, I’ll again remark. Something that, to me at least, is unconceivable.

BOXER-standardization is a dream that entirely rests upon those nearly 1000 options for future purchases. It is the quintessential example of living on a prayer, hoping in the jam that will come tomorrow. And “tomorrow”, even in the very best case, means several years further down the line. We all know just how many things could go wrong. The Army has selected the most expensive 8x8 on the market while knowing full well that there are many other requirements desperately calling for funding. The British Army does not have the budget to use “Rolls Royce” cars for everything, and will never have it. Just as the Navy and to a lesser degree even the RAF have accepted that they can’t use high end platforms for everything, the Army needs to also get real.

Multi Role Vehicle – Protected, if properly funded and finally allowed to begin, could bring about a wider standardization than BOXER ever could. HUSKY, PANTHER, PINZGAUER, DURO and some of the old, tired Landies could all be replaced by 2 fleets, more modern, more protected and more reliable.

The JLTV family. New variants and mission fits have already started to appear, which is one of the advantages of going with a vehicle that will be in so widespread use in the US Armed Forces 

Everything in life is some sort of compromise, and in my opinion it is better to compromise on your ambulance vehicle than on your mortar carrier, or on the fact of having one more battalions riding into battle over BOXER rather than on foot, or on seats strapped in the back of an HX60 truck.
Speaking of compromises and standardization, the situation in the British Army is getting so ridiculous due to the enduring problem of how to replace FV432 and get WARRIOR into the 21st Century that perhaps the greatest priority I’d personally associate to BOXER is replacing WARRIOR itself.
The WARRIOR CSP production deal has not been signed yet. Only the turrets and cannons are under contract, and this, in my opinion at least, is a blessing. What better standardization than to replace those tired WARRIOR hulls with BOXER hulls, modern, well protected, with much more room available and seats for 8 dismounts even when a turret is fitted. Use the WCSP budget to procure some 245 new hulls (in theory at least the cost would be exactly around a billion pounds) and have the turrets installed onto those.
Then spread those 245 turreted vehicles spread across 8 battalions, mixing them with the cheaper APC variant being procured under the current deal. Is it ideal? No, it is a compromise. We all know that the tactical mobility of tracks in atrocious terrains is probably never going to be entirely matched by wheels. But the British Army has no path to a fully tracked force since ABSV appears dead, so rather than have BOXER ambulances dwarfing the IFVs they support while struggling to match their mobility in the mud, I’d very much rather “go french” and give up the tracked IFV fleet. Again, everything is a compromise. But is it a better compromise than 4 battalions on WARRIORs and 4 battalions on APCs armed with nothing more than a .50 HMG? In my opinion yes; it is a massive improvement in my eyes.

It also fixes, at least partially, another flaw with the BOXER purchase as it is currently planned: the incredibly light armament. The MIV Troop Carriers are, for now at least, expected to be armed just with a PROTECTOR RWS, which can take machine guns up to the .50 HMG, or a 40mm GMG grenade launcher at best. This is in line with the dutch BOXERs (which however are not troop carriers at all, as we have seen) and with Germany’s own, which however were originally procured as battle taxis for the german army’s light infantry.

It should be noted that according to the latest news the German army is actually about to procure 30mm turrets for its BOXERs. This follows similar moves by the US (30mm on STRYKERs) and Poland (which put 30mm guns and anti-tank missiles on the portion of its ROSOMAK fleet it had originally procured in APC form).

The British Army’s plan is for the BOXER-borne infantry to be the very vanguard of the Army, as well as, laughable as it sounds, its countermeasure to Anti Access; Area Denial (A2AD) tactics. In the Army’s thinking, these vehicles, which are in no way more mobile than Russia’s own wheeled force while being enormously weaker in terms of firepower, will “disperse” over a wide area, “dance” around main enemy forces and strike at will at vulnerable points to “complicate the enemy’s C2 picture”.
I think it is utter nonsense, as I’ve made plenty clear in many other articles. But it would be a little less unbelievable if the BOXER battalions had their own share of 40mm guns to fight back against enemy AFVs (note: Russia puts 30mm guns AND anti-tank missiles on nearly anything that moves) without having to stick close to the tracked AJAX.
It would also bring forth some serious standardization. For real, this time.

It is no mystery that the STRIKE concept does not convince me at all. Especially with the kind of equipment and mass that the British Army has and will realistically have. Every time I think that the army owns just 89 Heavy Equipment Transports (plus 3 recovery vehicles) and 77 Light Equipment Transporters, and any STRIKE fantasy immediately dies, together with much of the feasibility of deploying the fabled “warfighting division” in a meaningfully short timeframe.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d rather “STRIKEIZE” the existing brigades by replacing WARRIOR than pursue STRIKE brigades in the way that has been imagined so far.
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A BOXER for everything?

Ultimately, the question for the cash-strapped British Army is: does it make any kind of sense to even try and purchase BOXER for all roles? The modularity of BOXER does not change the fact that it is a behemoth, and an expensive one at that. There have already been all kinds of pitches for further variants, including an armoured LEAPP / Skykeeper module complete of its own Saab 1X radar or the Land Precision Strike pitch by MBDA. This variant, in particular, would be a launcher for missiles with a range requirement of at least 60 km. Land Precision Strike, in the interim, is delivered by the EXACTOR (SPIKE NLOS) missile, currently launched from a tiny trailer-launcher. The Royal Artillery would like to update this capability by extending its range and by having the missiles mounted on a vehicle, but should that vehicle be a BOXER?

This vehicle will spend most of the time hiding. It will fire missiles from a great, “safe” distance and then it’ll seek to vanish away before the enemy can react. Does it NEED to be a BOXER? I’d rather have it installed on an inconspicuous and ideally very light vehicle, to preserve, as much as possible, the good attributes of the tiny trailer: complete air mobility and ease of concealment. Indeed, while a vehicle-mounted launcher would be a great addition, I’d personally recommend the Army to retain the trailer launchers as well, because their ease of movement on the battlefield is an awesome characteristic in itself.

My recommendation to the Army is: think very carefully about what needs to be a BOXER, and what does not. Don’t waste finite millions on trying to BOXER-ize everything. Moreover, start from the most dangerous roles. I come back to the Mortar Carrier, or ATGW vehicle. These two roles certainly require the best mobility and protection and firepower that can be acquired. A 120mm mortar should be an absolute priority. An urgency, even. A mobile, under-armour ATGW capability is also an urgency.

A 60+ km Land Precision Strike missile, if it’ll ever truly be funded (the past decade saw nearly all Artillery modernization programmes mercilessly killed by budget cuts, not sure this decade will be any different…) might not need to be on a BOXER hull. It will be one of the least exposed to direct and indirect fire simply because it’ll hide, fire very quickly, hide again. Its worst enemies will be of the flying kind, and being on a BOXER hull won’t be really decisive in ensuring survivability against those.

Conversely, it seems the Army is happy with having its future 155mm howitzer based on a lightly protected truck. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it on a better protected platform, since guns, unlike rocket / missile launchers, tend to end up firing very frequently and, critically, for extended periods of time?


ARCHER automated gun module on HX truck base (Top) and MBDA's Land Precision Strike pitch. Wouldn't it make more sense if the base vehicles were inverted...? The ARCHER on MAN SV base is one of the main contenders for the Mobile Fires Platform programme which should re-equip 4 Royal Artillery regiments, replacing AS90 and part of the L118 Light Guns. Land Precision Strike is the evolution of the current EXACTOR capability. 

I think a honest assessment of relative risks will agree with me that the howitzer is more likely to end up framed by counterbattery fire than the Land Precision Strike launcher.

A decision on “what does what” is overdue. The Army has spent the last decade dodging the question of how to make AJAX, WCSP, MIV and MRV-P fit together in a way that makes sense and allows the FV432 and all CRV(T) to leave service without capability gaps opening all over the place. Billions of pounds of contracts later, it still does not have an answer yet. It is time to formulate one which is more realistic than expecting repeated BOXER purchases for the next X decades until most of the army is equipped with it. Even if it was financially feasible over the long term, it’ll take so long that the BOXER will be an old vehicle before deliveries even conclude.


Realism, please

News have already started to appear in the press about how things are moving in the MOD Main Building ahead of the expected SDSR 2020. Some reports are less credible than others, but one line in a recent Times article has caught the attention by suggesting that the current Chief of General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, is in open contrast with the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, which preceded him at the helm of the Army and crafted the initial Army 2020 Refine plan.

According to the Times, Carleton-Smith is warning CDS that said A2020R ambitions are unachievable, at least in the near future and with the resources planned. Carter, on the other hand, is said to be adamant that things must progress in the way he had envisioned them.

It’s hard to say whether the Times has got it right and what is the exact state of play, but many aspects of Army 2020 Refine made no sense at all, and continue to make no sense. The whole STRIKE concept as initially crafted is simply not believable; the mixture of tracks and wheels is sub-optimal at best and is only possible by robbing RECCE cavalry away from the Armoured Brigades, and the demand to the army of being able to deploy a Division of 2 Armoured and 1 STRIKE brigades is arguably unachievable. It would require deploying 100% of the heavy armour complement and 50% of the Medium armour at once, and anyone who remembers previous Divisional deployments, when the army was larger than it is now, will most likely confirm that it is next to impossible to do. Even though such a scenario would be a literal “silver bullet”, fired only once and after a sizeable preparation time.
The cupboard would be wholly and miserably empty once all that is out of the door.

Back in august, when the Army once more moved chairs around in its frankly dysfunctional force structure, it did one thing that makes a whole lot of sense: concentrated 1st Division’s infantry in fewer brigades by removing all infantry units from 160 and 38 Brigades.
1st and 6th Rifles (regular and paired reserve) moved from 160th to 7th; 2nd and 8th RIFLES from 38th to 51st; 2nd and 6th SCOTS from 51st to 4th, 1st and 2nd IRISH from 160th to 11th and 3 PWRR from 7th to 11th. Earlier still, the Army had done away with 42nd Brigade.

Gone are the (frankly utterly ridiculous) 7 “adaptable” brigades of wildly variable structure and size, replaced by a somewhat more realistic nucleus of 4 brigades. This allows a more realistic “concentration” of the force, but still does nothing to solve  the fact that none of these brigades include anything beyond some infantry and, in a couple of cases, Light Cavalry. There is no artillery, no logistic unit, no medical unit, no engineer unit.

An injection of realism is urgently needed in matters of Force Structure as well as in the choice of vehicles and priorities for equipment. 
France, with a considerably larger army and far more vehicles available and on order, has 6 brigades in total (7 if you want to count the Franco-German binational brigade as well).

Excluding 16 Air Assault, which anyway is no longer a “complete” brigade itself as its supporting elements are only large enough for supporting 2 battlegroups, one of which always at readiness, the British Army has 7 other Brigades, plus 38th and 160th "Brigades" as 1-star regional commands, plus the Specialised Infantry Group as another 1-star command.
It however has only 4 artillery regiments, medical units, logistic groups, signal formations etcetera, because these were the first units to be cut in 2011, due to the need to preserve the precious infantry cap badges, the only real sacred cow in Defence.

For what is worth, I continue to urge the Army to rebalance its force structure. Perhaps go more “French”. 

France’s new Army structure is perfectly rational: two homogeneous Divisions, each with a strong Armoured brigade, one Medium, Wheeled brigade and a Light / Specialist brigade (Mountain and PARA respectively). Individually, the French Division is less capable than the “Warfighting Division” imagined by Carter.

Armee de Terre under "Au Contact" structures. I've added some color notes to evidence some of the roles and equipment of the units. This is a far more rational Force Structure, which matches Manoeuvre units and Supports in a more realistic way. 

But, unlike Carter’s Division, the French ones exist, are being kitted out, and can both deploy across the spectrum of operations. While the British Army’s 3rd Division is a one-shot silver bullet with nothing behind it, the French Divisions can rotate in and out and ensure the Army’s output lasts.

While the British Army has an abyss separating the capabilities of 3rd and 1st Division, the French have chosen near perfect balance, and have sought to ensure that every brigade can take on a whole multitude of tasks.

The brigades in 1st Division are “containers” of useful infantry battalions, some of which are rotationally committed to a variety of roles such as Cyprus and Brunei. This is clear and understood. But they are extremely, extremely limited in their ability to do much of anything else. The 4 brigades within 1st Division can only look forwards to Rear Line security, prisoner guarding and security tasking in support of a 3rd Division deployment. It is not by pure chance that, back in August, 104 Logistic Brigade was moved into 1st Division: its role is to set up the Theatre access for 3rd Division to come through, and elements of a scraped together “Lead Light Infantry Brigade” would be used to cover the security requirements connected to that. While that too is a requirement, I would urge the Army to use its manpower better.

It’s absurd to relegate the majority of your precious infantry into ghost brigades, part of a “fake”, undeployable Division good only for other-than-war tasks.

In the new SDSR, Carter’s horrendously unbalanced plan should be picked apart, and the pieces put back into a more realistic balance.

Even if it means some infantry battalions must go.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

RUSI tries to fix STRIKE, but can it be fixed?



RUSI has published the Occasional Paper “STRIKE – From concept to Force”, and in many ways its authors agree with me on the problems of STRIKE and, partially, even on what is needed to correct them.
The Paper actually does mention me, albeit in passing, by saying that I’m “confused” by the lack of communication from the army and I haven’t realized that the problem that STRIKE addresses is real.
I disagree. I can see there is a problem, but I can also see that STRIKE, while being in theory a solution to it, really is not. The authors actually agree with me more than they realize, since they go on to basically destroy the Army’s plan for MIV and the STRIKE brigades, rewriting much of it with new approached and new vehicle variants and a renewed emphasis on STRIKE.
Those changes, while not quite in the same form, are something I’ve campaigned for since at least 2016/17, when my fears about the direction of travel for the project were confirmed by the first details coming out.

RUSI notes:

This paper is an attempt to conduct an independent assessment of the missions that a Strike Brigade may plausibly be expected to undertake, the capability and training requirements for the force to fulfil its missions, and the systems and platforms available that meet these requirements. The paper hopes to provide an independent evidence base to inform policymakers examining the army’s procurement plans to deliver the Strike Brigade. This paper is not a study of the merits of the Strike concept as a purely theoretical force. It does not, for instance, re-tread the well-worn debates over Ajax’s suitability for the concept. With two regiments in 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade already receiving the vehicle, the useful question is how Ajax can be integrated into the force. Nor is this study a comparison of Strike with other potential formations. It is a narrow study of the non-discretionary requirements to make the Strike Brigade a viable force in fulfilling a set of identified missions.

I appreciate that this has been their choice of method, but trying to fix the biggest logic holes in the plan might just not be the best way to proceed. It might simply be unaffordable to apply such corrections, indeed.
So, unlike RUSI, I’m not giving STRIKE as a concept an automatic pass, and then thinking about how it can be fixed. I’m yet to be convinced that the concept itself is actually valid. The mission concept and the results that are expected from Dispersion appear completely devoid of realism. The army expects from this wheeled brigade (actually, half-tracked brigade) things that have never been achieved, or even asked to, existing wheeled brigades in other countries, even though those are, in many ways, better and more coherently resourced.
Dispersion is supposed to cure all problems and allow Platoons to perform Company-level independent actions, without providing a single rational explanation of how that would happen. I’ve written about this topic many times already, but once again I felt the need to go through what has emerged.

It is recommended to give the RUSI report a read: https://rusi.org/publication/occasional-papers/strike-concept-force
I quote some passages from it, to expand on some very important aspects.

It is also recommended to page through FANTASSINS, Issue 42, Summer 2019. It is published in a helpful bi-language paper, French and English, and contains a lot of interesting material on the role of all Corps in support to the future manoeuvre warfare, as well as an overview of Army programmes in allied countries, including UK, Germany and Italy.
In pointing you to it, I will shamelessly exploit the occasion to beg the British Army to consider publishing something comparable, in which actual military themes are discussed in some details. We all love reportages from adventure training and exotic training exercises and they are good for Recruitment, but it would be nice to have a British Army voice and source of discussion on contemporary themes other than the “immaterial” ones, such as endless discussion of what constitutes Innovation, or Leadership.
Talking about how the army actually works and expect to work in the future is not a bad idea! https://amicale8rpima.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019_n42_fantassins.pdf


An introduction to STRIKE, from France

In order to collect some literature on the STRIKE concept one has to hunt for unlikely sources, since the British Army is one of the least talkative organizations on Earth. It so happens that a brief explanation of STRIKE has actually appeared on a French Army magazine, the journal of the infantry [FANTASSIN], within a special issue talking about the modernization of the Armee de Terre (project SCORPION) and similar programmes in Europe.
Thanks to the regular exchange of information between the two armies, the French have compiled a short piece which is, nonetheless, more than we have heard from the British Army itself.
Among the things we read is this list:

The Strike brigade is greatly inspired by the US Strike model or the French SERVAL and must be able to defeat hybrid enemy forces, in difficult terrains, thanks to powerful assets and above all through innovative courses of action.The key word to understand Strike is mobility. This brigade is designed to advance independently against the enemy over great distances. It should be able to fight in a dispersed manner to dominate a larger battlefield, to concentrate quickly to make the best of its infantry strength in difficult terrain and facilitate the division’s deep operations. The required capabilities and the courses of action which are currentlycontemplated are the following: 

- the ability to advance against the enemy from Tidworth to Tallinn (2719 km) or from Tidworth to Bucarest (2730 km)

- the durability to carry out its tasks during more than 10 days,

- the ability to coordinate joint fires,

- the flexibility to operate with 50% supplies,- the ability to operate COTS electronic equipment beside the military equipment,

- the confidence to operate with a unique command through a common display equipment,

- the ability to integrate 3 (UK) DIV, a US division or a division CJEF1 staff.

Tidworth being, indicatively, the home of the AJAX-equipped elements. MIV-equipped elements will actually be Catterick based, so their ride will be longer.

About MIV, the French write:

Although the buy has not been definitely concluded, Great Britain should procure the BOXER. The MOD has announced the purchase of 500 vehicles in September (2018).

- 460 vehicles pro STRIKE brigade
- 4 different versions
- the armament is currently limited since it will be equipped first with machine guns and automatic grenade launchers.
- A reconnaissance and fire support version should nevertheless be equipped with the Javelin
- Key milestones:
- beginning of deliveries in 2022
- IOC 2023 for the first mechanised company
- IOC 1 STRIKE brigade from 2025 on
- End of vehicle deliveries by 2032

The French article seems to suggest that a number of MIV vehicles will get a single JAVELIN missile attached to the RWS, something already tested in the UK on a modified SPARTAN. It is not much at all, but better than nothing.
The same RWS HMG + JAVELIN might also go to the Overwath variant of ARES, the APC in the AJAX family.

DefencePhotography.com gave us a rare glimpse into Army thinking regarding STRIKE 

The article wording seems to suggest a single STRIKE brigade would field 460 BOXERs, but I suspect this is a bad choice of words only. With just 2 battalions on MIV in each brigade; even assuming the Medical regiment gets plenty of MIV Ambulances and throwing in some for the Engineer Regiment as well, the numbers are much lower. I’m pretty sure 460 are for both brigades, and even then it still seems a high number.

The 4 variants are expected to be the APC, Command, Ambulance and an “Equipment Support” variant which probably combines Recovery and Repair.
Like with AJAX, there might be sub-variants. One could be an “Overwatch” one with the “pimped” RWS with JAVELIN, and maybe another might be kitted out to carry the L16 81mm mortar. Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely that the British Army will procure a 120mm mortar variant, no matter how many times that is recommended. RUSI, in its report, recommends it, if you are wondering.

The rumor going around is that the MIV order will be for 508, with 408 to be built in Britain and the first 100 coming from Germany. Options for up to 1,500 have been included in the Request, but we’d better not dream too far.
Even at 508, the order would be the greatest in the history of BOXER, surpassing the total purchases of Germany.

Just in case, the French note “1 STRIKE brigade should be combat ready by 2025. Uncertainties about the second brigade are still remaining, the future of which will depend on budgetary decisions to come”.

After the latest changes, the STRIKE brigades (1st Bde, converting from Armoured Infantry, and another brigade HQ to be chosen) structure is the following:

1st STRIKE Brigade

Unit
Current role
Future role
Current Base
Future Base
Household Cavalry
Recce Cavalry on CVR(T)
Ajax regiment – reconnaissance
Windsor
Salisbury Plain
Royal Dragoon Guards
Recce Cavalry on CVR(T)
Ajax regiment
Catterick
Warminster
1st Battalion Scots Guards
Mechanized Infantry on Mastiff
Mechanized Infantry on MIV
Aldershot
Catterick (?)
3rd RIFLES
Light Mechanized Infantry on Foxhound
Mechanized Infantry on MIV
Edinburgh
Catterick (2021)
3rd Royal Horse – Not organic; part of 1st Artillery Bde Artillery
Light Gun regiment
Medium Gun regiment
Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
5th Medical Regiment
Medical regiment
Medical regiment
Catterick 
Catterick 
21 Royal Engineer
Adaptable Force
Engineer regiment
Catterick
Catterick
1 RLC Regiment
Close Support in 101 Log Bde; aligned with 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade
Merged into a single Strike CSS regiment – will it become organic to the brigade?
Bicester
Catterick
1 Close Support Battalion REME
Adaptable Force; part of 102 Log Bde
Catterick

As yet unidentified STRIKE Brigade

Unit
Current role
Future role
Current base
Future base
King’s Royal Hussars
Type 56 Challenger 2 regiment
Ajax regiment
Tidworth
Tidworth
Royal Lancers
Recce Cavalry on CVR(T)
Ajax regiment
Catterick
Warminster
1st YORKS
Armoured infantry on Warrior
Mechanized Infantry on MIV
Warminster
Catterick (2020)
The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland
Mechanized Infantry on Mastiff
Mechanized Infantry on MIV
Catterick
Catterick
4th Royal Artillery – Not organic; part of 1st Artillery Bde
Light Gun regiment
Medium Gun regiment
Topcliffe
Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (2026)
3rd Medical Regiment
Medical regiment
Medical regiment
Preston
Catterick
32 Royal Engineer
Adaptable Force
Engineer regiment
Catterick
Catterick
27 RLC Regiment
Theatre Support in 101 Log Bde; aligned with 12h Armoured Infantry Brigade
Merged into a single Strike CSS regiment - – will it become organic to the brigade?
Aldershot
Catterick (2 CS REME moving in 2021)
2 Close Support Battalion REME
Adaptable Force; part of 102 Log Bde
Leuchars


Long range deployment

[…] speed of deployment is critical in modern conflict. Extensive analysis by the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has concluded that the force ratio required to be reliably successful in the attack without suffering significant losses has climbed from 3:1 to 6:1 in urban operations. It is worth noting – when considering deterrence – that Russian doctrine has shifted from expecting to need a 4:1 advantage in attacking urban areas to a 6:1 force ratio requirement. Seizing complex terrain is gruelling, costly and slow. The force that can first occupy key terrain with infantry therefore has a significant advantage. Britain’s armoured infantry brigades are expected to take more than 60 days to deploy to the Baltics. In all probability, an adversary could achieve its objectives within this time.

 [...]
The inclusion of Ajax in Strike has caused conjecture as to the viability of Strike’s speed of deployment. With a top speed of 70 kph and a range of 500 km, Ajax is far slower than MIV. At 42 tonnes, there is less infrastructure suitable to sustain its weight. Moreover, as a tracked vehicle, the rate of mechanical failure over a 2,000-km march would be unacceptable. Its size also limits options for getting Ajax vehicles across the English Channel. Once the Rail Baltica project is completed in 2026, there will be a single train route capable of transporting Ajax from France to NATO’s eastern flank. This, however, would represent a single point of failure that is highly vulnerable to conventional or cyber sabotage. The only reliable way of deploying Ajax over a 2,000-km march is by modified light equipment transporters (MLETs) or heavy equipment transporters (HETs).


At the moment the Army has a fleet of 91 Heavy Equipment Transporters, delivered through a PFI. 3 are equipped as recovery vehicles, so on the very best day there are 89 transporters for MBTs and derivatives in the whole army. RUSI says 71 are available. Up to 30 have been recently been made available to the US Army forces in Europe to aid their own transfers across the continent, and I’m not sure whether the loan is still in place.
On 1 July 2024, the HET PFI comes to an end and it will be crucial to invest in an increased capability in this area, whatever approach is chosen for the future. The Army cut one of its 2 Tank Transporter squadrons back in 2014, leaving the sole 19 Sqn RLC in the role. Despite recent, small expansions to the manpower allocated to the role, this is a big point of failure.

There are 77 Light Equipment Transporters, which are Oshkosh tractors taken out of the Close Support Tanker fleet and re-roled to pull trailers good for loads up to 44 tons. These trucks would be used to move AJAX, WARRIOR and TERRIER. The number is clearly not something to be particularly proud of, either.
The LET fleet will be crucially important in deploying AJAX as part of the STRIKE brigade, but 77 vehicles won’t be enough to carry all the AJAX-family vehicles of the two regiments part of a single STRIKE brigade, either. Moreover, tying them down to deploy what is supposed to be the vanguard, self-deploying brigade would obviously slow down even further the movements of the battle-winning armour that should follow.

Whenever it is possible, even wheeled armoured vehicles catch a lift to cover great distances. In general, the less km you have to drive to get there, the more kms you'll have available to drive in the battle area before something breaks down... These italian CENTAUROs are heading to Germany for an exercise. But we also saw the same with french VBCIs heading to the Baltic. 

Finally, the Army notoriously disbanded what little was left of its Railway capability in the cuts of 2010, and is now scrambling to regenerate some kind of capability (the details are not publicly know) by 2023.
There is no solving the deployment problem without tackling these areas, and arguably a much smaller investment than that necessary for the STRIKE brigade, poured into these strategic enablers, would actually achieve more.

While it is overall rational to depend on the armoured brigades for the decisive clash, the STRIKE brigade must be adequately resourced to at least hold ground and screen effectively. Moreover, the STRIKE brigade is supposed to solve the “deployment problem”, but it won’t unless adequate investment goes to the ability to move said armoured brigades forwards faster.

The biggest equipment problem with STRIKE is really a FRES problem. At the end of 2014 the Army entered the biggest contract in its modern history to procure a capable scout for its tracked armoured infantry brigades.
In 2015, when STRIKE emerged, the army realized that to put some firepower into the new brigades it would have to use the only “medium armour” it was able to fund. And that was AJAX.
An unfortunate series of decisions within an Army which evidently cannot agree with itself on its future role and shape, has led us to a concept that in some ways copies the role of the wheeled brigades envisaged by the Italian army in the 80s. The Italian problem was how to defend the Adriatic coast from soviet amphibious assaults, since heavy armour was based and committed elsewhere.
The solution was the CENTAURO wheeled tank destroyer, followed by the PUMA APC. Brigades equipped with these wheeled vehicles would race south along the many roads available and would quickly contain the soviet assault, while heavy armour followed on Heavy Equipment Transporters and trains.
The British Army’s Adriatic coast is the Baltic. Unfortunately, the British Army’s CENTAURO is AJAX.


Dispersion and firepower

STRIKE is not designed to defeat an enemy during symmetrical operations. This role is entrusted to the armoured brigades. Its aim is really to take advantage of the mobility, the speed, the connectivity, a better situational awareness, the fires, the cyber assets, the electronic warfare, a better sustainability and a reduced logistic load to overwhelm the enemy C2, confront it with confused situations through isolated operations at numerous locations, to employ deception and avoid mass commitments. STRIKE brigades can be committed autonomously or to support armoured brigades. [FANTASSINS, issue 42; Summer 2019]

The Army has been working to a concept of dispersion centered on groups of 8 vehicles, normally 4 AJAX and 4 MIV. This would result, effectively, in a Platoon group, with 32 dismounts (a full section on each MIV) supported by 4 AJAX acting as “medium armour”, providing intimate fire support like an MBT would in a mechanized operation. The MIVs, being APCs, however large, and having, under current plans at least, very limited firepower, would seek to stay back and avoid direct fighting wherever possible.
Considering AJAX’s armament, this ultimately means that each group would, effectively, be equivalent to a slightly larger Armoured Infantry platoon. It would have more dismounts (32 versus probably 24) but the same kind of fire support as a Platoon of 4 WARRIORs (the same 40mm gun).

The British Army has examined whether Ajax and MIV can operate in mixed platoon/troop-sized combat teams. This is problematic. Ajax has CSS requirements that MIV does not. While a standard MIV can recover a standard MIV, it cannot recover Ajax. Furthermore, Ajax is not capable of peer-to-peer recovery in the event of breakdown or mobility kill and must rely on a specialised recovery vehicle. It is not possible to attach Atlas and Apollo recovery vehicles to every troop as it would require too many recovery vehicles and increase the size of the combat teams beyond what is manageable by a troop commander. However, given Strike’s dispersed deployment, without these attached recovery vehicles, mixed platoons/troops could be fixed simply by one of their attached Ajax suffering a mobility kill.

In its report RUSI correctly notes that such a group is both under-equipped and logistically constrained by the fact that AJAX is large, heavy and tracked. It cannot self-recover, nor be towed around by a MIV. According to RUSI, it is instead feasible to self-recover a MIV using another MIV. I have doubts on this statement and I suspect it is only true in benign circumstances, but unfortunately I don’t have access to any good data from current BOXER users, so I will assume RUSI knows best.
Including AJAX in the group immediately increases the logistic burden by requiring more fuel and more frequent refueling, and introduces a recovery problem. As soon as a vehicle suffers a mobility kill, it is lost unless ATLAS and APOLLO vehicles of the REME are nearby. They’d have to be included in every dispersed group, but that would be completely unfeasible.

RUSI recommends the use of AJAX in all-AJAX groups as advanced screens, and groups of all-MIV vehicles, upgunned to be able to tackle a firefight on their own. RUSI recommends the following mix:

                        A command MIV with a heavy machine gun (HMG) remote weapon station (RWS)
                        A MIV with a 25-mm Gau-22 or BK -27 RWS – thought primarily for a counter UAS role, waiting for laser to be viable
                        2 MIVs with HMG RWS
                        2 MIVs with turreted 40-mm cased telescoped cannons and twin ATGMs
                        A MIV with 120-mm mortar
                        An engineering MIV with dozer blade and HMG
                        Four Javelin teams among the combat team’s dismounts.
                         
RUSI goes on to say:

Ajax may be better employed in three ways. One Ajax regiment should conduct formation recce, establishing listening posts in advance of the brigade to ascertain the adversary’s axes of advance and to direct strikes on high-value targets with the EXACTOR missile system and/or MLRS. The second regiment should form a medium-armour reserve to bring concentrated lethality to reinforce success, or to evade enemy axes of advance and thereby strike advancing enemy CS and CSS elements.


The Army already plans to have in each Strike Brigade a “reconnaissance” regiment with AJAX and a “medium armour” regiment organized and acting like it was an MBT formation, but the assumption for the latter, for all we know, was to be broken down into Troops to be assigned to the various 4+4 groups.
RUSI, sensibly, recommends to drop that approach, and in general I have to agree with their recommendation. What RUSI does is exposing yet once more the basic flaw of the pairing: the Army has entered the biggest contract in many decades to procure hundreds of tracked vehicles, and soon after that has decided that what it really wants is wheels. Fearing not to be able to fund turrets and cannons for MIV itself, they resorted to this pairing mechanism, despite all the defects it implies, and at the cost of leaving the Armoured Infantry brigades bare of their own Recce Cavalry formation.


Regarding the novel AJAX Recce formation type, the Household Cavalry is trying to shape up the new concept, being the first regiment that will convert to the new vehicle. They have identified the need to reinforce, in particular, the organic "ISTAR" Squadron (which actually includes Snipers Troop, Guided Weapons (JAVELIN, essentially) Troop, a "Manoeuvre" Troop and, only real new thing, a "Drone troop". 
During 2018, a number of WARRIORs were used to "simulate" AJAX (they are similar in size) and enable some experiments before deliveries began (with some ARES variants at first). 
Unfortunately, experimentation is progressing slowly due to lack of resources and the deficit in manpower. The Drone Troop will be particularly important, especially keeping in mind that the Army plans to disband 32 Royal Artillery Regiment in 2021 and withdraw its Desert Hawk III from service. Plans for the post DH III era are unclear, although a number of PUMA All-Environments mini-UAS have been procured. Battlegroup-level reconnaissance will make a huge leap backwards in time and capability unless a new UAS system is chosen for the future and a new operator is found. If the Royal Artillery loses the BG-level UAS mission, who picks it up? The cavalry appears to be trying, but the plan seems very much up in the air still.

Going back to the dispersed mini-groups, RUSI’s proposed group would obviously present a far greater danger to any enemy than the original 4+4 construct imagined by the Army, but it would still amount to a very, very small manoeuvre component. I must ask, once again, what is the rationale for believing that fighting in multiple dispersed group this small will be a sufficient nuisance for the enemy.

I don’t even want to spend much time on debating on how these groups are supposed not just to be nuisances, but even to open holes in an A2AD bubble strong enough to keep the RAF and/or the Royal Navy out of range. An enemy with Fires powerful enough to keep out a force protected by Type 45s and spearheaded by F-35s and Typhoons is never going to be thrown into disarray by a reinforced platoon of infantry riding on 8x8s. There really is no other way to say it: it is not going to happen.
Such groups can perhaps be a disturbance, even a danger in some circumstances, and sometimes might get lucky and land a few good hits, but there is no rational reason to believe that the concept can achieve anything more. Dispersion has merit, but I think that going below Company-group size at the least will hardly be workable.
Wheeled brigades, much better armed than the british ones seem set to be, have existed for decades, yet no one else would ever think of splitting down platoons over a dozen different lines of approach and call it a revolutionary concept. The BOXER is an 8x8, not a novel, invisible, revolutionary hover-tank. It will not be able to sneak up on anyone in the age of drones and social media. There are millions of ways in which the dispersed group could be localized, and then attacked. It is also just too small to attack any meaningfully sized target, and with so few dismounts in it, it will become combat ineffective really, really quickly.
The proposed group would be far, far smaller than even the Mobile Operations Group that carried out the ill-fated raid against Jugroom Fort in southern Helmand in 2007. Far smaller. We have to be realistic about what can actually be achieved.

Even the smallest tactical group employed by the French in Mali was larger than that, and it was fighting against an enemy which was, with all due respect for the French valiant and admirable efforts in Op SERVAL, about as incompetent as they come. I’ve read reports that say that the Mali groups were literally incapable to use proficiently a mortar. An enemy of this kind cannot be a planning benchmark. And certainly the concept cannot go from Mali to peer warfare against an A2AD kind of opponent. It’s just completely unrealistic.
Why the dispersed platoon-group should “evade superior enemy fires” or be “too small to be targeted”, yet achieve any significant offensive result? How does that happen? What has changed to make such a concept realistic? As far as we know, the infantry embarked on the BOXERS will have nothing particularly new at its disposal. Even if a few UAVs and UGVs were added in, it would still not be anything truly different from what is already available. How do we go from a platoon of infantry on lightly armed APCs to “fight dispersed to dominate a larger battlefield”? Unless MIV procurement plans change, the vehicles won’t be anything special either, so what is the reason for assuming success?
I am still waiting for a good explanation to this one.

The British Army has not invented the 8x8. It is coming to the party with 30 years of delay, if not more. It cannot seriously think that, without any real innovation at all, it can achieve completely unfeasible results, and somehow move around the battlefield, concentrating and dispersing at will without being caught.
The Russians have more and better armed 8x8 than the STRIKE brigade has. Even assuming the dispersed elements can indeed “dance” around massed heavy armour and avoid contact, how will they avoid to be caught by enemy wheeled elements matching, if not exceeding, BOXER’s mobility? Especially if we think about MIV “as planned”, so armed with nothing but a HMG or GMG in a remote weapon station. The Russians have 30mm guns and ATGWs on the vast majority of their combat vehicles. BTRs are less protected than BOXER (but what about the incoming BOOMERANG, by the way?) but are much better armed. What is STRIKE’s counter to those groups, with at least equal mobility but greater firepower?

Other than dispersion and camouflage where possible, how do these dispersed groups survive to enemy air attacks, both with UAVs and helicopters or fast jets? The British Army is extraordinarily weak in terms of air defence and has only short range systems in service. With only 4 batteries of SkySabre (CAMM) planned, of which one permanently Falklands based; and with 3 mechanized batteries of Starstreak / LMM for vSHORAD, how do these dispersed group get any degree of air protection? They are supposed to operate in an A2AD area where, by definition, air support will not be available, or will be available with many limitations. This also means that air cover won’t be available, so the usual “the RAF will handle it” doesn’t hold.
RUSI has recommended having at least one MIV in each 8-vehicle group equipped with a GAU-22 (the 25mm gun used by the F-35) or a BK-27 (the Mauser 27m of Typhoon) as a C-UAS solution, at least until a laser solution is properly mature. This is certainly better than nothing. But nothing, as far as we know, is what MIV includes to face this problem.


Fires

Operating in absence of air support, or at least where air support might well not be able to come, requires access to powerful organic fires. At the moment, the “STRIKE” artillery regiments are the “Adaptable” regiments of Army 2020, which means they are actually incredibly weak (12 L118 Light Guns) and, amusingly enough, they contain an extra helping of JTACs to direct air attacks.
Of course, the Strike Brigade itself does not exist yet, so the glaring contradiction doesn’t mean much at this stage, but it is imperative to dramatically change and improve these units.
The Army has launched the search for its next 155mm howitzer, under the name Mobile Precision Firepower, looking for a system with long range (52 caliber barrel at a minimum; notoriously the Americans are working on Extended Range Artillery Cannon demonstrating a 58 caliber gun) and, most likely, installed on wheels.
MPF is meant to replace both AS90 and part of the L118. Specifically, the L118s of the Strike Brigades, which is why it is fair to assume it will be a wheeled system. Hopefully it will be something a bit more ambitious than Frances’s CAESAR. Even in its latest 8x8 variant, CAESAR is an autocannon, not a true self propelled system. The crew no longer needs to dismount in the open to fire the gun, but traverse and protection remain limited.
Moreover, even though the program is now formally in existence, we can’t be overly confident it will deliver. The past decade saw the cancellation of nearly the totality of Royal Artillery programmes. One hopes this time things will go better, but at the moment that’s all we have: a hope.

On the rocket artillery front, when 16 Bty, 26 RA went into suspended animations months ago we were given an unusual hint about the battery reforming “in the 2020s” to operate a “new capability” in the Deep Strike capability area.
The specific capability should be the a long range, large missile for MLRS, which in the 2020s almost certainly means whatever missile the US Army selects for its own Precision Strike Missile requirement for the replacement of ATACMS.
Again, the Royal Artillery has been trying to produce ATACMS for two decades or more, without any success. This time might or might not be different.
Depending on how optimistic you are feeling, you could be excused to think that the standing up of a new battery would imply new launcher vehicles as well (otherwise you’d just give the missile to the existing, tracked batteries, don’t you think?), and given the new wheels obsession, you could imagine a Foreign Military Sales request for a number of HIMARS along with the new missiles.
If that happens, the STRIKE Brigade could get a very potent Fires capability, not organic but certainly at least aligned.

The British Army also desperately needs to put into service more and better STA sensors, beginning with artillery locating and battlefield surveillance radars. It is unthinkable to go to war over the Baltics with 5 MAMBA WLRs in the entire Army.

The crucial Fires area, at the moment, is all about hopes for the future. The present is very bleak.


Communications, EW, logistics and combat engineering

If mobility must be the key weapon, the Brigade HQ and all other command layers below will need to be mobile as well, in ways that have no current equivalent in the army. Indeed, the British Army arguably lags behind several other players in terms of HQ mobility and communications in general.
In recent times, some interesting trials have taken place with semi-mobile HQs obtained by putting the essential command tools on MAN SV trucks, reducing to the bare minimum the amount of assembly / disassembly required and cutting down on tent erection times. Most of these trials have been carried out on the (very) cheap and while some problems were solved, much more work will be required to field a truly mobile HQ, which will require On-the-move communications currently not available to the British Army.

More ambitious work has been carried out regarding mobile Hotspots, tactical alternatives to FALCON to create ad-hoc networks for deployed formations. BAE has notoriously developed a PANTHER-carried FALCON + SATCOM hotspot, and General Dynamics has a demonstrator of its own, into a modified Foxhound.
Fixing the shortcomings will depend entirely on how the big projects in the Land Environment Tactical Communications and Information System (LeTacCIS) mega-project go. Moving beyond FALCON, replacing BOWMAN (project MORPHEUS), finally fielding a final Dismounted Situational Awareness tool, etcetera. 

Tactical Hotspot PANTHER, with the big masts folded down, during a trial 

Dispersion will not cut down communications needs. If anything, it will add complexity, if not additional voice and data traffic. Such tactical hotspots will be a key backbone for the entire operation.
This, in turn, will open up vulnerabilities in the EW sector, exactly one of those areas where the Russians have invested. The British Army lags horrendously behind in EW, especially from when Soothsayer was cancelled without replacement. LandSeeker, or whatever it is called this week, will have to be funded to deliver some competitive capability if the army is to do decently in the future. 

Finally, logistics. Even with its remarkable operational range and carrying capacity, the BOXER will need resupply, and the volumes to be moved around will be very significant.
The investment the army is making in autonomous systems will help, but unmanned vehicles might prove vulnerable, again, to enemy EW.
The army is pursuing both a “last mile resupply” system using UAVs and UGVs of small dimensions, for small but time-critical transports by air and land. This will be useful, but the current payloads are far from what is required to keep even a 8-vehicles group moving.
More relevant is the joint project with the US Army for semi-autonomous convoys, in which a number of unmanned trucks drive along with a limited number of manned vehicles, freeing up precious manpower for other roles, including force protection.

On the combat engineering front, it is not yet clear what shape the organic regiment will take, and what capabilities it will have on call. At least initially it seems very likely that it will be a largely tracked formation, since there is no Engineering variant of MIV in the planned purchase while substantial investment has gone into ARGUS (the engineer’s AJAX-family variant) and, of course, TERRIER.

The Rapidly Emplaced Bridge System (REBS) originally procured as UOR for Afghanistan and mounted on the back of a MAN HX77 8x8 truck, has been used in training and STRIKE-related trials, but the Royal Engineers are probably trying to procure something more capable, with a much greater Military Load capability and maybe with a better protected launch vehicle. Specifically, in the latest tender put out for the Close Support branch of Project TYRO (renewal or replacement of BR90 bridging equipment) a new vehicle type has emerged alongside TITAN (tracked, notoriously) and the tank transporter truck. There is now a requirement for between 14 and 36 “Wheeled Close Support Launch Vehicles”.

Provision of Close Support Bridge sets with a Military Load Classification of at least MLC100(T) which can be rapidly launched and recovered by the TITAN Armoured Vehicle Bridge Launcher. Any modifications to the TITAN Launch Mechanism to meet the detailed technical requirement is also included in the CSB scope. Provision of a suitable Wheeled Close Support Launch Vehicle (CLV) and Wheeled Support Vehicles/Trailers to transport bridging components.


Surprisingly, though, the requirement for the General Support Bridge (ABLE) have been cut back a lot, to the point that only 7 to 13 launch vehicles are now requested.


STRIKE in the US

The closest thing to what STRIKE hopes to be is probably the Reconnaissance Strike Group proposed for the US Army by Colonel (ret) Douglas McGregor, who is very evidently influenced by his experience of those incredibly powerful formations that were the Armored Cavalry Regiments of the “old” US Army.

His concept (http://douglasmacgregor.com/rsggeneralpublic.pdf) for a 6,000-strong “All Arms, All Effects” battalion is, in my opinion at least, the most realistic take on “dominating a larger battlefield” and contrasting A2AD. He imagines this force as a self-contained “STRIKE – ISR” force operating across a front of 80 – 100 Km, very possibly while “surrounded” by enemies on all sides in a fluid, vast battlespace without a clearly defined rear area.
The deployment problem, the A2AD aspect and the “larger, complex, contested” battlefield assumptions are very much the same. According to McGregor, the RSG operates on a range of 1,800 km with 10 days of endurance without replenishment. STRIKE aims for the same 10 days, but for 2,000 or more km of transfer.
Despite the points of contact, the proposed solution is very much different, however.

Rather than seeking the solution in wheels, McGregor seeks the solution by reducing the number of different vehicles types (he recommends a new family of combat vehicles based on the german PUMA IFV, tracked) and improving access to sensors and Fires.
He envisions a 120mm-armed PUMA derivative as a “medium armour” substitute for ABRAMS, and mixes it in along with the IFV variant within each Manoeuvre Battalion. In support, he envisions a large number of 120mm mortars.
Each battalion also gets a number of PUMA armed with 35mm turrets for low-level air defence and, crucially, counter-UAV defense.
NASAMS surface-to air is used at RSG level to provide a mobile, local area air defence bubble.
McGregor puts FIRES at the center, literally. When necessary, the RSG forms a “mobile bubble” of its own, with FIRES and Air Defence at the center of a 360° “front” held up by 4 homogeneous All-Arms battalions.

RSG's idea of dominating a vast battlefield 

Rather than the “afterthought” that artillery seems to be not just within STRIKE but within the British Army in general, long range fires are key within the RSG, with organic MLRS and a vast number of reconnaissance and strike drones / loitering munitions. Moreover, the RSG would have significant organic Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA), so that the battalions fighting “dispersed” can call in devastating fires to destroy the enemy and really break off pieces of an A2AD bubble.

The US Army’s future formation might or might not reflect some or all of McGregor’s suggestions. That has yet to be decided. One thing is certain, though: the Americans are putting Fires at the centre. Their Multi Domain experimental force is a Field Artillery Brigade and much of the effort and funding is going to artillery and sensors.
While the US Army has STRYKER, there is no sign that Multi Domain will have any particular connection to wheeled armour. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering the kind of enemy vehicles that can be expected in an A2AD scenario. The wheels obsession is a very, very british thing, not really shared by anyone else. Most countries have capable mechanized, wheeled brigades and have had for many years now, but no one thinks that a concept of employment on the british lines is how you use said formations.

Clearly, the kind of resources available to the US Army are not a luxury the British Army shares and we should never forget this fact. However, McGregor puts forwards a concept that has rational merits. Long range fires act as glue between the dispersed groups and give the RSG real offensive weight. The combination of infantry and MBT-levels of direct firepower make the battalion, while lighter than an ABRAMS-Bradley combination, exceptionally dangerous. There are organic sensors and organic air defence.

The STRIKE Brigade, even in the widely changed and corrected flavor put forwards by RUSI, has a more tenuous rationale. Mobility is supposed to be its secret weapon, but even in the best case that mobility will be equal, not superior, to that of many and better armed enemy formations, supported by overwhelming massed fires.
If the RUSI-recommended changes (which, by the way, differ from mine and other’s in detail more than in sentiment)  are not funded, the situation remains even worse, because we’ll be literally talking about plain, lightly armed APCs as an anti-A2AD tool.


Conclusion

RUSI decided to give the STRIKE concept the thumbs up, even while effectively recommending the Army to dramatically rethink brigade structure, and MIV variants.
Personally, I remain full of doubts about not just MIV variants and brigade structure, but even about the concept itself. A wheeled, self-deploying brigade can certainly solve part of the “deployment problem” and carry out several important missions. That is self-evident, and it is why other countries have had wheeled armour for decades already.
Even dispersion has merits and is probably a key component of future warfare.
But even agreeing on these points, I still cannot give the thumb up to STRIKE. For what it is worth, I must insist on the fact that there are so many and so large capability and conceptual holes in the whole idea that I cannot see how it could ever work.
To achieve its ambitious aims, the STRIKE brigade needs more resources and a better plan. Operating in multiple tiny groups is not going to solve any problem, nor cancel any existing vulnerability.

I agree with RUSI that the passage from concept to force is difficult, expansive and long. We cannot expect everything to be perfect from day one.
But we should not support a concept with so many logical chasms in it. If even the concept looks unworkable, the Force that follows will not do any better.
Ultimately, if the passage from Concept to Force is too expensive and can’t be resourced, it might just be better to work on a different concept. It comes down to how many compromises it is worth accepting to carry on with a project that, everyone agrees, cannot go in the direction it should be going.
Is dropping to 2 tank regiments an acceptable cost for this new force? Is the truncated modernization of Heavy Armour (ABSV again lost in the mist, WCSP cut back to the bare minimum, AJAX robbed out of the armoured brigades to build up STRIKE…) a fair price to pay to build up another kind of brigade, equally incomplete / sub-optimal?

RUSI has very quickly liquidated the very important question “why should it be the UK that races a lightly armed brigade all the way to the Baltic in a crisis?”. I appreciate that showing unwavering commitment to Article 5 is a priority, but no one has ordered the UK to do it through this method. The UK has much to give and its credibility as a NATO member can be maintained, or even enhanced, investing in other areas.
I’ve mentioned HETs and LETs. Having a powerful, large transport element capable to project forwards a large armoured formation via road, and restoring an effective railway capability, would arguably be even more important, as well as cheaper.

If we are convinced that wheels are truly the future, there are other ways to get to them. Instead of using the STRIKE brigade as a stepping stone, the Army could use the armoured brigades themselves.
The WARRIOR CSP could be sacrificed, its turrets put on BOXERs, and the Armoured Brigades could be “STRIKE-ized”, at least in part, with a strong road-mobile infantry element, followed closely by AJAX, back in the role for which it was designed and procured, and upgraded CHALLENGER 2s riding on new, more numerous HETs.
It is not a perfect scenario either, but arguably makes more sense in many ways.