The Times, almost certainly thanks to someone “leaking” from within the Army, has thrown the bombshell news of the British Army sinking even lower in the global league by preparing to see another massive reduction in the numbers of MBTs at its disposal.
The Army currently still has 3 tank regiments, with a fleet of 227 “operational” MBT remaining after the earlier round of cuts in 2010 and 2011, but the King’s Royal Hussars are still scheduled to begin converting to Ajax as soon as next year.
The Times report has caused a predictable eruption of discussions around the numbers and their meaning. Is mass important? Absolutely, it is. Is “mass” clearly defined and easily compared? Not quite. How should we read the numbers? It is pointless to compare MBT numbers with Russia, or Turkey, or the US. It is even arguably pointless to compare with nations with more comparable mass (France, Italy, Germany to a degree), because the british situation is, as often happens, particular. The numbers that matter in order to understand what the British Army can or cannot do are others. In this short article I will provide a few key information needed to have a clearer idea of how many tanks the British Army is actually able to field.
At the moment, the british tank regiment is known as Type 56 because it has a total of 56 tanks. Of these, 2 sit in the Regimental Headquarters, leaving the others spread on 3 squadrons of 18 tanks each. Each squadron is indicatively structured upon 4 Troops, each with 4 tanks, plus 2 MBTs in the Sqn HQ.
These are the paper numbers: manpower shortages already mean that some Troops might be understrength, while changes in the ORBAT are always possible. A smaller Troop of 3 tanks is a possibility, in order to form additional troops from within the regiment, for example.
We are, of course, talking about the Regular formations. The British Army’s only MBT Reserve Regiment has been expanded to 5 squadrons, but is not meant to be equipped and operated as a tank regiment in the field. It trains individual crew members and crew replacements in favor of the regular regiments and, following recent uplifts, can prepare formed crews as well, ready to be put on a tank and sent out on operations. The Royal Wessex Yeomanry regiment, in other word, is unlikely to ever see a whole regimental park of tanks and is not counted as a 4th Type 56 regiment.
Each regular tank regiment is assigned to an Armoured Infantry Brigade, in support to 2 battalions of armoured infantry, mounted on WARRIORs.
In the field, regiments and battalions typically end up splitting in sub-units that are then combined into Combined Arms Battlegroups which are the actual unit of manoeuvre you want to employ during an operation. The ORBAT of said BGs can vary pretty wildly, but I will use the most orderly of the base BG schemes to help you visualize what might happen: the 2 infantry battalions might form the basis for 3 battlegroups, each one with 2 Companies of WARRIOR IFVs and infantry. In turn, the single Tank regiment will split its Squadrons into “demi-squadrons” of 9 tanks, assigning one demi-squadron to each infantry company.
The result is a “square” battlegroup of 2 tank and 2 infantry companies. These are the real measure of the fighting power of the Brigade, as you pretty much never want armoured infantry to operate without intimate MBT support. There was a time in which it would have been normal to have a 1:1 ration between MBT and IFV in the battlegroup, but in the british army that is no longer feasible and hasn’t been for a while.
The issue of numbers gets more complicated when geography and Whole Fleet Management come into the picture. I apologize if the numbers in this section get speculative, but the Army does not like to reveal its workings in the detail, or keep information up to date, so what follows can only be indicative.
The British Army, many years ago now, adopted the so-called Whole Fleet Management approach, which is supposed to reduce costs, spread wear and tear from usage across the whole fleet and ensure there are always vehicles “ready to go” when the call for a deployment comes. WFM hasn’t been exactly a success and it is a source of endless debates in itself, but that is a story for another time.
For now, what you need to know is that British Army regiments are no longer assigned a whole fleet of vehicles. A formation has, instead, daily ownership of a greatly reduced portion of equipment, the Basic Unit Fleet (BUF). The make-up of a BUF can vary a lot, but for tank regiments I believe it is something like 20 tanks. Aka, 1 Sqn plus RHQ, the bare minimum needed for sub-unit level training (Collective Training level 1, CT-1).
When the time comes to train the regiment to an higher level of Collective working, the unit moves out to a training area (Salisbury, or Sennelager, all the way up to BATUS in Canada) where it “borrows” additional tanks from the resident Training Fleet. At the end of the exercise, said tanks are handed back to the TF depot, and wait for the following formation to arrive.
The rest of the vehicles sit in Controlled Humidity Storage, preserved for assignment to formations deploying for operations. In theory, said vehicles are meant to come out of storage in perfect material state and ready to go, but this has often not been the case.
|Whole Fleet Management and geography are two factors to consider when reading the numbers|
What does this mean, in practice? Well, the Times suggests that just 148 Challenger 2s might be updated and life extended. This is even less than expected (168 was a number that circulated for quite a while). In theory, it is plenty for an army with just 2 Type 56 regiments, so with an active fleet of, in theory, 112 tanks, (more or less as many as were deployed in Operation TELIC).
However, the Whole Fleet Management approach and simple considerations about geography, training needs and logistics mean that 148 are not “plenty”, not even for an army with just 2 MBT regiments.
The 2 regiments might have on-site Basic Unit Fleets of 20 tanks each, for a total of 40. Then there should be a Training Fleet allocation at Warminster, for use in exercises on Salisbury Plain. I have no clue how many tanks might be part of it, but at the very least I’d expect enough to equip at least a second squadron. Maybe enough to bring a visiting regiment up to full ORBAT, which would mean as many as 46 (without considering any spare). If we are anywhere near the true figure, we have already allocated 86 tanks out of 148.
Then there is BATUS. Considering the difficulty and cost of carrying tanks from the UK to Canada, the near totality of the vehicles used during Battlegroup exercises in BATUS are kept in a Training Fleet held on site. There are probably only enough MBTs for a 2-squadrons BG, but that means as many as 40 vehicles, still. And that would bring us to 126, leaving just 22 other tanks to allocate.
Sennelager? The Army is withdrawing from Germany, but does not want to vacate the Sennelager training area and will maintain a permanent presence there, to support exercises by visiting units coming from the UK. However, having tanks on site as Training Fleet risks being impossible. The numbers are merciless. Moreover, the British Army intends to continue using the Controlled Humidity Storage site of Ayrshire Barracks in Mönchengladbach. This depot is arguably ideally placed to ensure there are stored MBTs already on the continent, so that crews can pick them up and swiftly drive east if it ever becomes necessary.
The problem is that 148 tanks are nowhere near enough to have tanks everywhere. WFM, if done well, has merits, but those do not include reducing the overall fleet requirement, because geographic spread complicates things terribly.
With 148 tanks, the British Army will not be able to have stored tanks ready to deploy and appropriately sized and well placed training fleets. The whole concept will have to be reworked, and since the numbers are merciless, there is probably no real way to fix it. Ahead of any deployment, the British Army will have to literally collect its tanks from a multitude of different locations, raiding all training fleets to be able to put the 2 regiments in the field. And with virtually zero possibilities of ever rushing the Reserve regiment onto the field as a formed unit.
This only adds to the already numerous doubts about the Army’s ability to ever realize its ambition of being able to resource a Division-level deployment with 100% of its armoured brigades. The British Army claims that, in the future, it will be able to deploy 3rd Division for a complex operation with 2 armoured and 1 strike brigade, out of a total of 2 and 2. Respectively 100 and 50% of the total component, deployed at once.
The possibilities of it ever being feasible are very slim. And even if the ambition is realized, there will be literally nothing behind the deployed division. It will be a silver bullet that can be fired only once. After 6 months or so, if the need for Armour in theatre has not ceased, some other country will better show up, because the British Army does not have any other armoured formation to rotate.
All that remains is a bunch of Light Role infantry battalions (with no supports) coming from the semi-imaginary “1st Division”. I say semi-imaginary because a Division which will include literally zero Artillery, Signals, Engineers and Logistic assets is not a division. It's an administrative construct, and nothing more.
The British Army does not need just to reassess the number of MBTs to maintain. It needs, as I will repeat to the end of times if necessary, to reassess 1st Division, and the best use of the manpower and resources it currently absorbs.
As useful as Infantry Battalions are, I don’t think that maintaining 27 infantry battalions is wise, when it is painfully evident that the Army is horribly imbalanced and completely unable to provide them with communications, logistics, MBTs and artillery support.
Note: the number 27 is due to me leaving out of the total the 5 tiny “specialized infantry battalions”, including the newly formed 3 Royal Gurkha Rifles, as they are literally Company-group sized and have a completely different role).
16 of those battalions are small Light Role formations (or at most Light-mechanized with some Foxhounds) and are undersized even when fully manned (and they definitely aren’t fully manned, due to the 6+ % manpower deficit in the army). Britain loves its infantry battalions, but reality doesn’t.
It is time to admit that, if the resources do not increase, the army needs to rebalance its priorities and structures.
Or change its ambitions and settle sights on a different mission. The tiny light role infantry battalions are okay for securing the rear lines and fill gaps between manoeuvre formations fielded by allies. They are also good for a variety of stabilization tasks and “other-than-war” commitments. Is this what the British Army wants to be? Because it is what it will become if the current force structure and equipment choices carry on.