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.