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.



6 comments:

  1. From MikeW

    Hi Gaby

    Congratulations on first-rate article, one which is penetrating and remains consistent with what you have said about the “Strike” concept in the past.

    My own opinion is very similar to yours. I have grave doubts about many aspects of “Strike”, not so much about the overall concept but about the way it seems to be being put into practice in terms of planned formations and equipment. Not the least of these is the lack of compatibility between the tracked AJAX and the wheeled Boxer. Ajax seems likely to arrive in the critical areas much later than MIV and therefore to be slower into action . Such a “pairing mechanism” seems pretty impracticable to me.

    What I really wanted to confine this post/comment to, however, was the question of 155mm artillery support. For some considerable time the favourite weapon to provide heavy indirect fire support for the Strike Brigades has been the Boxer fitted with a 155mm howitzer. Now, according to the RUSI pundits, this is no longer the case. In the full version of their paper they argue that that vehicle presents challenges to mobility. It is more than 4m tall, which indicates that it would be limited “in the means by which it can cross the channel and the roads by which it can travel”. It would also suffer from additional weight (it weighs considerably more than the standard MIV), a factor which also makes it lack mobility across country. Moreover, the long barrel would make movement through the forests of Eastern Europe difficult. Furthermore, such extra weight would cause more frequent mechanical failure and wear on the brake pads and other components. Also the force of recoil after firing would inflict heavy wear on the MIV’s suspension system. Overall, they reach the conclusion that the MIV-mounted 155mm howitzer appears “a sub-optimal, and potentially non-viable solution”. Instead they recommend the use of 120mm mortars and MLRS.

    Do you go along with their arguments? It would seem to me that perhaps the Strike Brigades do need the heavy support provided by a 155mm weapon as well as such things as 120mm mortars and HIMARS.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mike,

      regarding artillery, no, i don't agree with RUSI. Doing away with the heavy tube artillery is not viable for multiple very good reasons, including the cost and logistics of trying to use MLRS rockets "for everything".

      As for that shape the gun will have, there actually has never been an official expression suggesting BOXER with AGM is the "favored option". The Army has never said anything of the sort and the only thing they have tested operationally is the majorly non impressive CAESAR.
      The BOXER with AGM objectively has a sub-optimal arrangement, with that incredibly tall tower on the back, but Richard Drummond says they are working on a different, lower turret, and that will help. Regarding the impact on mobility, i suspect RUSI is overplaying that, especially since you don't necessarily need to drive the artillery EXACTLY where the frontline combat vehicles go. Besides, the artillery more than everything else needs to be able to meet with the trucks carrying the ammunition, so in some ways the mobility is shaped by MAN SV.
      The long barrel in forests might be a factor, but seriously. You work around it. You don't do away with artillery because it might impact your turning chances between trees. That's absurd.

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    2. From MikeW

      Hi Gaby

      Many thanks for your answer to my comments/question. You have given convincing reasons why doing away with the heavy tube artillery is not viable.I wanted to ask a further question, this time about combat engineering and what form the organic regiment will take.

      You say that, 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.” I think you are right there. By far and away, the majority of the Army’s current combat engineering kit is tracked (Trojan, Titan, Terrier, Argus, etc.) and it is only items such as REBS and, perhaps in the future, the Wheeled Close Support Launch Vehicle (CLV), that are wheeled. So what does the Strike Brigade do when it encounters problems and wants Engineering support fast? Do we have a lot of catching up to do in terms of development and are wheeled variants being developed? The RUSI experts seem, at one point in their paper to be against using vehicles such as Terrier (although I can’t find the reference and I may be mistaken). I am very concerned about the cost of all this.

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    3. The regiment will probably include some High Mobility Engineer Excavators, and from earlier documents it looked like Mastiff would carry on as protected mobility for supporting personnel, so maybe there will be some engineers riding in one.

      But in general, most of the army is centered around tracked formations, so almost nothing is genuinely wheels ready. As for BOXER engineer variants, there is one, but is little more than a section vehicle for engineers and some of their kit. A "TERRIER on wheels" is not yet available.

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    4. From MikeW

      Hi Gaby

      Many thanks for your answer on Combat Engineering in the Strike Brigades. I just wanted to write one final comment, which is this. If our funds for defence are still going to be extremely limited, can we really afford two Strike Brigades? Might it not be better just to go for one in the near term?

      I really do doubt whether (despite Jeremy Hunt’s statement today) we shall get anything like the funding for sufficient variants to create genuine all-arms or multi-role brigades and, unless we are going to risk the whole thing going off at half-cock because of insufficient resources, the following might be preferable.

      Keep with the idea of creating one such brigade but declare it to an experimental area until three or four years down the line, by which time most of the most of the decisions about doctrine, formations and equipment will have been decided. If the “experiment” proves successful, then by all means go ahead with the second such brigade. In the meantime use any funding released by such a decision, to make our Armoured Infantry Brigades as strong as possible. I remember reading a comment some time ago about how such formations should be made as “hard as nails” and I would go along with that. Who know, we might even be able to form three such brigades.

      The other solution, and it is an ingenious one, is to use your suggestion: “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.” Were you thinking of something akin to the old Mechanized Brigade formations but with much faster, better protected wheeled vehicles for the Mechanized Infantry element?

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    5. I would replace WARRIOR entirely. That would give you 8 battalions on MIV, with companies using both vehicles with turrets and vehicles in APC configuration, to keep cost down.
      I would still form 4 AJAX regiments, tasked with recce, and i would pour any saving into CHALLENGER 2 to keep the 3 regiments and indeed bring back a 4th, even by reducing the regiments back to Type 44 establishments, if necessary. That would give you 4 very good armoured infantry brigades.

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