5 years ago, I ran a series of articles ahead of the SDSR 2015 in which I highlighted what, in my opinion, were the priorities to be tackled in the review. Admittedly, it was perhaps easier back then, because some major requirements were well evident and it didn’t take much imagination to call for the plugging of those holes. But my predictions proved remarkably accurate, and so I want to write a short piece ahead of the incoming SDSR 2020 as well, pointing my finger at what I see as main issues to be tackled.
First of all, I will expose myself and say that I am, for now at least, somewhat at peace with the idea of the incoming review. I’m relatively confident that it won’t bring big cuts: I’m expecting the targets of the SDSR 2015 to overall hold steady. The Conservatives have committed to the 2% of GDP base figure, and extended the 0.5% annual growth above inflation for the duration of the new Parliament, which is progress, however modest, since that commitment was otherwise going to expire by 2022.
This gives the MOD a degree of certainty about the budget that will be available, and means that the uncertainty mainly stems from the exact entity of the rumored “black hole” in the future years programme. That “black hole” is not really easy to actually define, as its effective magnitude depends on a huge variety of factors that go from Foreign Exchange variations to cost growth in ongoing programmes, to variations in GDP etcetera. In the 2018 estimates of the Black Hole, it is possible, and actually pretty likely, that the 0.5% growth above inflation was not factored in beyond 2022, and that will have contributed to the “worst case scenario” figure. Estimates supplied in 2018, in fact, had a pretty dramatic range, going from a modest 2,8 billion to nearly 15 or more over the 10 years of the programme. Clearly, 15 billion would be a big problem. 3, not so much.
The MOD secured a much needed injection of cash recently, as we know, and that helped overcome the short term problems and avoided the old and highly ineffective solution of delaying expenditure, which inexorably results in an even higher cost further down the line.
The budget pressure is indeed mostly, if not exclusively, concentrated on the next few years since a multitude of programmes are supposed to start and, at the same time, several others are already under contract at the same time. What is already under contract cannot, obviously, be easily tampered with, leaving limited flexibility to deal with money shortages.
In future years the problem is less dramatic simply because much of the expenditure is planned, but not contracted, and can be simply be pushed to the right. Of course, this has an impact on capability as kit is not procured, but on the other hand does not require the frantic cutting of what is already there, which is what happened in 2010.
Much, if not everything, will depend on the real width of the “black hole” and on the flexibility available to deal with it. Obviously, the most vulnerable programmes are the ones which haven’t yet started: Multi Role Vehicle Protected, for example, could very easily slip further to the right despite decisions on both Group 1 and Group 2 being currently expected in 2020. WCSP production, Challenger 2 LEP, but also purchases of F-35s after 2025, the Future Fleet Solid Support ships for the Royal Navy and the procurement of Typhoon upgrades (AESA, Litening 5…) and the purchase of new build Chinook Block 2 are all exposed to delays and variations and potentially even cancellation. Contracts which have not been signed yet are, obviously, the easiest ones to remove from the 10 year programme, and they make for cuts which are quite “stealthy” and do not expose politicians to as much criticism.
In other words, despite the noise on some newspapers about Dominic Cummings’ previous comments about the carriers, it is not the Queen Elizabeth class which is exposed. Both ships are now in service and the acquisition programme is nearly entirely complete, so (thankfully) any further political meddling (like the delay imposed by Gordon Brown which resulted in a cost growth of over 1 billion, or the 2011 mess) is out of question.
The carriers can of course still be hurt indirectly by, for example, stopping the Fleet Solid Support project, but this is relatively unlikely given how unusually high a profile shipbuilding has played in the Election. Labour had promised to amend the shipbuilding strategy to ensure RFA vessels are built in the UK, and while the Conservative manifesto does not contain such a promise, the Prime Minister has promised more shipbuilding work. While I don’t expect the optional 3rd Solid Support Ship to ever be contracted, I’m optimistic that 2 will eventually come and I think building them in the UK is almost a certainty at this point.
Some other programmes are much more secure despite the lack of a contract. An easy example: apart from the capability rationale, Type 26 Batch 2 would be political dynamite to tamper with, due to the tensions with Scotland. SKYNET 6 satellites are also unlikely to suffer much, simply because they really are the kind of equipment which just HAS to be procured.
Space is expected to be a winner, in general. The Manifesto promises a Space Command, which might or might not grow into or from 11 Group, Royal Air Force, which is currently in charge for space activities, along with 23 Sqn, resurrected to be the first “space squadron”.
News coming out on some newspapers ahead of the Election suggest there will soon be announcements about a national Global Positioning System, aligned with the 5 Eyes organization (Australia, in particular, is expected to be involved in the project), which will give the UK a sovereign alternative to GPS and Galileo. If confirmed, this would be an exciting development, even if, with the pricetag being given at around 5 billions, I’m not sure should have been granted such a great priority. Much will depend on exactly how alternative it is to the existing GPS and “clones”. To be truly worth it, it should come with different technical approaches, hopefully obviating to some of the known vulnerabilities of the existing systems. With the UK’s (but Airbus-owned) Surrey having build the navigation system payload of the Galileo satellites themselves, know-how definitely exists.
What I truly hope to see is a bold and meaningful commitment to projects ARTEMIS and OBERON, in connection with the spaceports in Scotland and Cornwall. Both programmes have received some initial funding but are currently experimental: I hope there will be a solid commitment towards growing up both constellations to give the UK a sovereign space-based imagery intelligence capability (ARTEMIS) and a sovereign Radar and Electronic Surveillance capability (OBERON), so to drastically reduce what is currently pretty much a 100% dependency on Allies (mostly the US) in both areas.
ARTEMIS and OBERON are bold because they want to pack high definition imagery and Inverted SAR radar capability in small satellites. Since Britain is among the biggest producers of small satellites in the world, this makes sense in more ways than one. And since the UK will soon have two spaceports able to put small satellites into space from UK soil, this is even more exciting. ARTEMIS, in particular, includes provisions to demonstrate the ability to put satellites into space with short notice, exploiting the air-launched rocket and the modified Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” taking off from Newquay in Cornwall.
|The UK-developed "origami antenna" which should allow OBERON small satellites to have a powerful Inverted SAR radar sensor, with a resolution normally associated to much larger and heavier satellites|
This is extremely promising and potentially very, very significant, because (relatively) cheap ARTEMIS satellites could be launched at short notice to improve coverage in the future and, crucially, timely replace space-based sensors destroyed or denied by enemy action, kinetic or otherwise.
Britain-made, Britain-owned satellites, launched from UK soil, potentially with the Orbex’s british made rocket. That would be a great capability to have, and it would go quite some way towards healing the disastrous decisions of the past which put UK space on a dramatic capability holiday just after the UK had become one of the few nations in the world to put a sovereign satellite into space with a sovereign rocket (PROSPERO satellite and BLACK ARROW rocket, in 1971).
The RAF putting one first pilot into Virgin’s space programme is also a welcome step going in this very direction.
|UK built satellites, launched from the UK, potentially with a RAF pilot at the controls. As early as 2021|
Obviously, further support for the SABRE engine is to be auspicated. The recent RAF contract for studies into the potential benefits coming from integrating the pre-cooling technology of SABRE into the EuroJet engine of the Typhoon is a very welcome development and hopefully it’ll be just the first of many applications. SABRE is a true potential revolution in the making, so I’d like to see support to this exciting project being front and centre.
In general, Space should be a winner in the coming review and beyond. Space investment is in no way a Defence exclusive, and the UK has already confirmed a substantial uplift of investment into ESA projects, in exchange securing lead roles in a number of key initiatives. Further investment into space tech for the military sector is likely to be guided in large part by the Space Strategy document which was announced back when Gavin Williamson was still Secretary of State for Defence. The document has not been published yet, but we can expect much of its content to migrate into the new SDSR.
Much the same can most likely be said for the Arctic Strategy as well, which saw the UK committing to a 10 year programme of support, primarily to and in Norway, which will become very apparent with the large scale 3rd Commando Winter Deployment 2020 (WD2020) which is in preparation. The Northern Flank of NATO should, for obvious reasons, be confirmed as an absolute priority engagement area for the UK. The North Sea is the UK’s exposed flank in any Russia scenario, and this is enough of a reason to ensure appropriate attention is pinned on this sector and on key capabilities such as Anti Submarine Warfare.
A welcome step was the revitalization, back in November, of the NATO Channel Committee to oversee plans for the protection of vital shipping routes across the North Sea and the English Channel. A document was signed on November 7 between the Navies of UK, Germany, France, Belgium and Netherlands to breathe new life into the NATO Advisory Body - Channel Committee (CHANCOM), and it is in the UK’s best interest, for reasons I hope are obvious to everyone, to play a key role in this organization.
With the Type 31 under contract and the Type 26 being a top priority as well as politically red-hot things no one will want to mess with, I’m expecting the Royal Navy to fare well in the review, despite whatever grievance Dominic Cummings might have against the carriers.
The First Sea Lord will go to the SDSR table with the Future Commando Force as one of its top priorities this time, and hopefully that will help the amphibious flotilla and the Royal Marines survive another round of political meddling. This remains, however, the most exposed area for the Senior Service, so it is where the hardest battles will be fought.
I’m relatively optimistic about the Littoral Strike Ships eventually materializing since I expect that this requirement will be put in close relationship to well known ambitions for “disaster relief / hospital ships” which will be at least partially funded with Foreign Aid money. According to the latest reports, Boris Johnson is much more open towards the idea of using Foreign Aid to fund programmes which more directly benefit UK interests. The Department for International Aid is said to be heading for incorporation within the Foreign Office, in fact, and in general I expect that Defence will be aided with some of this very budget, where possible.
According to the Press, Ben Wallace might soon lose his role of Secretary for Defence, but until then we have to take due consideration of the priorities he has given in debates ahead of the Election. For the Royal Navy, the absolute priority is making better use of what is already available, and it’s impossible not to agree.
Ships that have been tied up in harbor should be returned to full operational status as soon as possible, and every effort should be made to put a brake on the delays to refits and maintenance periods which are keeping too high a proportion of the existing fleet tied up. The gains will take time, however, and not everything can be affected at all: Type 23 Life Extension refits are demanding and time consuming, and the Type 45s are going to have to circle one by one through Birkenhead to have their Diesel gensets replaced under Project NAPIER. Every effort should be made to ensure that the refits stick to the schedule, however, and even more effort should go into ensuring that all ships in the fleet are used as much as possible. This, of course, means also putting further effort (and money, if necessary) into filling up the manpower deficit.
If sacrifices cannot be avoided, I feel that the first “victims” should be the WAVE and FORT classes. Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie have a dismal record for sea days in the last several years, and 6 tankers are probably too many for the fleet that remains in Royal Navy service. At any one time, several RFA vessels are actually tied up into Birkenhead, inactive and effectively mothballed, and the cause of this should be finally identified and cured. If the RFA cannot actually crew and use the WAVEs, I think they should be sold while they have still value. As for the two oldest FORTs, they have not received the modifications given to Fort Victoria to make them compatible with the new aircraft carriers and thus their usefulness is limited. If there is no way to put them back at sea quickly, it might be better to just sacrifice them. It would not save much money at all, but neither it would hurt the Service that much, since they are mostly only ever parked up in port anyway.
Going back to the Future Commando Force, instead, one priority I’d set if it depended on me would be to bring back into full service the mothballed LPD.
It would be a major win for the Navy and it would reflect the priority of using to the max everything that the Navy already has. Moreover, it would greatly help in achieving one of the key targets of the Future Commando Force, which is to have more Marines forward deployed at sea.
Forward basing in general is likely to be a key theme for the Navy in the new Review. Two 1st Sea Lords in a row have, correctly in my opinion, identified it as the only option to increase presence abroad without an increase in the number of ships. HMS Montrose in the Gulf for 3 years is the first of, hopefully, a few more long-term forward basing arrangements, with the Royal Navy looking in particular at the Caribbean and at South East Asia. The 1st Sea Lord would like to “initially” put a couple of OPVs in Asia, and while this might seem low key, it would be a very significant first step, which Type 31 might in future make more meaty.
It will be important, however, to secure a further extension to the operational life of the 3 River Batch 1 ships to cover home water needs and let the more capable Batch 2s free to show the flag abroad and complement actual frigates.
It would be easy to ask for more frigates, but I won’t even waste the time it would take me to write about it, because there are no real chances of it happening any time soon, I’m afraid. Apart from increasing the readiness rate of the existing fleet and expanding its footprint with Forward Basing and Littoral Strike Ships and accompanying groups, my priorities for the naval sector would be:
- Unmanned vehicles. Some good experimentation is ongoing thanks to 700X NAS and the Royal Marines respectively, but every effort should be made to finally move beyond the experimentation phase. The Royal Navy and Marines both need UAVs to increase their ISTAR collection capability. I’d like to see more work going towards unmanned surface and sub-surface vehicles configured for ASW tasks as well.
Among known projects, the Royal Navy is seeking a few PAC-24 RHIBS converted into USVs, and project MINERVA is working on a large quad-copter which will be able to locate a man at sea and drop a SAR raft and smoke markings to aid rescue efforts. MINERVA, if successful, could greatly reduce the need to tie up an helicopter as plane guard during every launch and recovery evolution on the aircraft carriers, for example, resulting in significant efficiencies in the use of precious and finite assets. The PAC-24 USV could be a precursor to more ambitious surface combat assets for inspection and force protection and, eventually, for ASW.
Another option immediately available is insisting with either ARCIMS or Halcyon from the unmanned MCM solutions: those are already able to tow sonars, and could complement the scarce frigates.
It’s also time to look again at plans for a rotary wing tactical UAS, which would also be very important for the future of the Yeovil factory. Leonardo was given 8 millions for studies back in 2017, but only ominous silence has followed.
- Force Protection / Combat Boats. These would be essential not just for the Future Commando Force’s needs, but for the wider Navy. Well armed, enclosed, all weather combat boats with a good operational range could truly open up raiding opportunities along great lengths of enemy coast and even up rivers. Moreover, said boats, deployed from a Bay, a LPD or a Littoral Strike Ship or even a Type 26 or 31 could extend the influence radius of those units by hundreds of miles. Imagine, for example, well armed force protection crafts supporting the few frigates in the Gulf in the challenging task of escorting merchant shipping in and out.
|Combat Boats such as the Mark VI, or the swedish CB90, would hugely boast the capabilities of the Navy and Royal Marines in the littoral|
- Ship to Shore Connectors. Much as “raiding” seems to be the sexy word of the week, the future of the Royal Marines still lies with their ability to put an enemy coast at serious risk, forcing enemy units to mount guard along hundreds or thousands of miles of littoral. Moreover, the amphibious capability of the Royal Navy is only truly valid until it is dimensioned in such a way to enable the landing of heavy, mechanized force elements. New Ship to Shore Connectors, much faster and thus more survivable, are a key component of the future Commando Force, which means that resurrecting the LCU Mk 10 replacement programme as soon as possible should be high up on the list of priorities.
- Investment in helicopters. Data links for WILDCAT and the addition of LMM missiles and radar on the Army variant of the AW-159.
The Commando Helicopter Force would also like to more heavily arm the Merlin HC4 (miniguns fit) and introduce the ability to refuel in flight.
Finally, in an ideal world the number of Merlin helicopters would be increased by repairing and updating as many of the remaining, stored HM1s as possible. This would be expensive, but everybody knows that 30 Merlin HM2 doing ASW and AEW at once are too few. The pressure on the fleet is very intense.
For the Air Force, with the deliveries of Typhoon now completed, the only combat aircraft still being acquired is the F-35, and this review will have to look at what happens after the first 48 jets have all been acquired. With the Block Buy contract for lots 12 to 14 having been signed, focus now shifts to reaching a deal for Block Buy II, covering lots 15 to 17. These lots will complete the purchase of the first 48 jets and include an unknown number beyond those.
The questions still without answer are many. We don’t know over how many years the MOD proposes to acquire the famous 138 jets. We also do not know whether the RAF can, and if yes how, absorb that many jets and form additional squadrons from the manpower it has. Officially, the Typhoon Tranche 1 is now going to stay all the way to 2035, but that continues to sound pretty suspect to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see those 2 squadrons eventually becoming F-35 units with the very limited Tranche 1 heading out of service. By 2023 there should be 7 Typhoon and 2 F-35B Squadrons, and this is about as many fast jet units as the RAF has had in recent times. Where is the manpower margin to form additional units?
How many F-35 will the UK be able to purchase, year on year? The largest yearly order currently planned is for 8 jets in Lot 14; if the UK purchased 8 aircraft per year after 2023 it would still take more than eleven years to procure the other 90 jets, meaning that the last british F-35 could be delivered in 2035.
In that same year, rather optimistically, Project TEMPEST should deliver the first jets to RAF service.
I believe the UK will never acquire 138 F-35. The actual number will be lower than that, because expenditure on Project TEMPEST will have to ramp up over the same years and something will have to give.
This is not necessarily a “bad” thing, however, simply because there does not seem to be the manpower to form additional squadrons anyway. With today’s manpower figures, I don’t think the RAF can actually use 160 Typhoons and 138 F-35s.
Another question yet to be answered is, of course, the make up of the F-35 fleet. The RAF would love to switch the purchase to the A model, but if that happened immediately after the first 48 jets, it would make it impossible to ever fill up even just one of the two aircraft carriers. Moreover, it would make it very challenging to embark, with any sort of regularity, the objective airwing of 24 jets. It would mean embarking 100% of the frontline fleet, and that is unlikely to be feasible for obvious reasons.
The Review should determine how many fast jet squadrons can realistically be formed, manned and supported. Until recently, the target was to eventually field 4 F-35 squadrons. If this number is confirmed, splitting them 50/50, B model and A model, would be pretty horribly ineffective, leaving two small fleets, none of which truly able to meet all needs, which will inexorably be at each other’s throats all the time over finite budgets for updates, maintenance and support.
The last time the RAF had a 2-squadrons fast jet type, it ended up cutting the whole fleet because it was “not efficient”, remember? I would very much like to avoid going there again.
While the A does have some kinetic and range advantages over the B, I would very much recommend going for 4 squadrons of a single type rather than 2+2.
The reasons, I’ve already explained in detail in other occasions in the past.
To complete the Combat Air section of the review, I would of course like to see continued support for capability insertions into Typhoon. The adoption of STRIKER 2 helmets, LITENING 5 pods (with some reconnaissance capability making up at least in part the loss of RAPTOR) and SPEAR would definitely add a lot of capability to the fleet and I hope to see all of those confirmed.
The other and biggest capability enhancement is the AESA radar, with the UK busy developing a “R2 variant” which is expected to have a significantly greater EW capability than the R1 and R1+ chosen by Germany, Spain and Qatar. The timeline for the retrofit is still a question mark and, while Germany has now officialized its intention to retrofit all its Tranche 2s as well as the Tranche 3s, the UK’s plan remains obscure. Extending the Retrofit to the Tranche 2s is incredibly important, longer term, since that is the standard of most of the aircraft in the fleet. There are just 40 Tranche 3s.
Beyond Combat Air, one question which needs answering is what happens in 2021 to the wide area radar ground surveillance capability. A further extension to the Sentinel R1’s service life? A capability gap with their withdrawal going ahead? Or a replacement through the purchase of AAS radar pods for the P-8 Poseidon fleet, ideally along with a few extra airframes?
My favorite option would be withdrawing Sentinel but adding to the P-8 numbers and adopting the air to surface radar gondola.
For the unmanned portion of the ISTAR fleet, the Review will have to consider how many PROTECTOR to purchase. 16 are currently on order, with the stated aim of going beyond 20 with follow-on orders. Will those be confirmed?
Apart from purely financial considerations, manpower margins will play a part in the decision. It should also be noted that the recent spate of UAVs shot down (over Libya and Yemen, but also the Global Hawk shot down by Iran over the Gulf) has reminded everyone that these systems are currently completely (or in some case almost completely) defenceless. Even against enemies which are in no way peers, such as the militias in Libya, the UAVs are quite vulnerable.
I think a pause in the orders would definitely not be a tragedy. Indeed, it might be better to put some money into defences for the PROTECTORs already on order. In particular, I wonder if the defensive pods that came off Tornado GR4 and which saw considerable investment right up to the end of their service life, couldn’t be adapted for PROTECTOR.
Eventually, I would also like to see investment in the proposed ASW capability for PROTECTOR, with SEASPRAY radars and sonobuoys pods eventually becoming part of the fleet’s equipment to give the type a maritime role in support of the precious few P-8 Poseidons.
One expensive programme which has made very little noise so far but which will undoubtedly be reviewed is the Chinook Capability Sustainment Programme. The UK basically intends to procure new build Chinooks, ideally at the latest Block II standard, to progressively replace the oldest airframes. It has already secured in 2017 the authorization to purchase up to 16 such machines and according to Boeing a contract for 14 could come soon. Review permitting, obviously. This would be an expensive endeavour and it might well be postponed in a hurry to ease the pressure on the budget.
If it does instead proceed, the authorization document suggests the UK has requested helicopters at the MH-47G standard, so the full-optional Special Forces one, with just one very evident item missing: the air refueling probe. In the meanwhile, however, the US have offered the probe for export to Israel and Germany both, so the UK should have no problem obtaining them.
Ideally, it should.
Putting probes on Merlin HC4 and Chinook, however, is only half the job. The UK would then have to procure either C-130J tanker kits, or A400M pods. The A400M is basically “tanker-ready” and recent tests with the reworked pods, carried out in France, suggest that the capability will indeed become available, so procuring a few pods should not be overly complex or expensive.
The C-130 tanker kit is an alternative, but the KC-130s are all short fuselage models, and the RAF is retaining only one short C-130. Converting just one aircraft wouldn’t be great. Had more short fuselage been retained, the ideal solution would have been to procure some HARVEST HAWK kits from the USMC, adding not just air refueling capability, but weaponry.
This would have fit into the spirit of the “VENOM” project announced by Gavin Williamson but never detailed. Assuming VENOM is not quietly cancelled, this should see the integration of a non better specified “kinetic strike” capability on some of the RAF ISTAR / support aircraft. HARVEST HAWK kits would be the absolute best fit among what is already out on the market, and the Special Forces would no doubt appreciate.
This whole initiative, however, is one of the easiest to cancel and will undoubtedly quietly vanish away if saving money fast is imperative.
My list of priorities for the RAF would include:
- Expanding 216 Squadron activities and capabilities (the unit is standing up to work with Swarming UAVs)
- Investing in the LANCA “loyal wingman” development, including the requirement for “runway independence” to ensure they can readily be embarked in support to the F-35Bs of the carriers as well. Maturation of the LANCA capability should be pursued with decision, because this is probably the only truly feasible way to expand the number of aircraft in service
- A plan to get to a total of 4 F-35B squadrons. Avoid a fleet split, especially if no more than 4 Sqns can be expected to stand up in total. A reduction in total number of airframes is not only acceptable, but borders on the advisable, in order to free up funding for Project TEMPEST
- Project TEMPEST should be supported and nurtured and every effort should be made to try and involve more countries, beginning with Japan in particular. Speaking of Japan, continued support to joint development of the Joint New Air to Air Missile (evolved Meteor with AESA seeker) should be a priority.
- AESA retrofit extended to cover Tranche 2 Typhoons as well; STRIKER 2, SPEAR and Litening 5 to be adopted as soon as practicable
- Investigate adding some self-defences on PROTECTOR; ASW capability if financially possible.
- Acquiring 2 to 4 sets of AAR pods for the A400M fleet once they have been proven workable
Ideally, go ahead with the Chinook CSP, including AAR capability for at least a portion of the fleet
If money could be secured, I would recommend investing further in capability aiming at the suppression and destruction of enemy air defences. In particular, an anti-radar missile derived from Meteor (MBDA has already proposed such a development) and eventual adoption of Escort Jammer pods for use on Typhoon would be my favored investments. An anti-radar weapon derived from Meteor would come with the key advantage of being compatible with internal carry into the F-35, while escort jammers would give better chances to the Typhoons to stay relevant well into the future.
Finally, the Army.
While for the other Services I auspicate a continuation of current programmes and approaches, I would recommend a wide ranging rethink of the Army plans. As I’ve written many times, in multiple articles, the Army plans for the future are by far the messiest and less convincing.
To this day, few seem to have awakened to the fact that more than half of the Army’s infantry battalions are “parked” within 4 “brigades” which have no artillery, no signals, no logistic, no engineering units of their own. The whole 1st Division is a container for “spare” infantry and some Light Cavalry. For me, this is an unacceptable waste of finite resources. I can accept some “spare” battalions (the UK needs a few just to cover rotating, standing tasks including Public Duty, Brunei and Cyprus), but maintaining a ghost division and parking in it around two thirds of the available Infantry is in no way acceptable.
Fixing 1st Division, and indeed the wider imbalance within the Army, should be priority number one perhaps of the entire Review. The plans that Carter left behind himself are in large part unworkable and should definitely be rewritten.
Re-balancing the Army will require the courage to tackle head on the one and only true Sacred Cow in Defence: the british fetish for the infantry battalions and their capbadges. Courage will be needed to merge and / or disband a few more battalions in favor of beefing up what remains and in favor of standing up more supporting units, to ensure that the brigades that remain are actually able to deploy into the field with their own communications, logistic, engineering and artillery support.
In particular, I would recommend adopting an army structure similar to the one adopted by France with the recent “Au Contact” restructuring. In practice, instead of having all deployable brigades in 3rd Division and “everything that’s left” into 1st Division, I’d encourage the formation of two more equally resourced Divisions, each one comprising an Armoured Infantry brigade, a Medium brigade (STRIKE, if you truly must insist with that rather empty title) and a Light brigade. In the past I had attempted a detailed look at such a possibility, and while today I’d go a slightly different way about it, that article remains interesting to see, in detail, what would be needed and what is instead already available.
One of said Light Brigades might have to be 16 Air Assault. This would cut down to a minimum the need to raise new Artillery, Logistic, Engineer and Medical formations, since 16AA already has these formations (albeit with just a couple of sub-units each).
On the other hand, ideally I’d want 16 Air Assault and 3rd Commando and the Specialized Infantry Group (which could well be given a Brigade identity, since it is a 1-star command anyway) sitting together under a Joint Divisional Command specializing in unconventional warfare and theatre opening. The reasoning behind such a grouping is simple: Specialised Infantry is meant to be constantly deployed abroad, building security but also local knowledge of various reasons which might one day be theatres of action. 16 AA and 3rd Commando are early entry forces and, in particular with 3rd Commando, a raiding / unconventional warfare force which could be used to create the conditions for a subsequent deployment of a larger Army force.
I’d alter the (too) ambitious Carter target of being able to deploy a Division of 2 Armoured and 1 Strike brigade, which does not appear realistic, in favor of being able to deploy either one of the two “identical” divisions instead. They would be individually lighter, but they could rotate in and out of operations and ensure the Army is not just a single use silver bullet which, if ever expended, is then out of the picture nearly completely for years.
On the equipment front, I’m recommending that the MoD does not proceed with a production contract for the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme. If the decision was in my hands, that budget would be immediately moved across to the MIV programme to purchase further BOXERs, which would then be equipped with the WCSP turret (the only part of the program which is already under contract). The turreted BOXERs would then be mixed with the APC variants to form 8 battalions: 2 for each Armoured and Medium brigade. There are many reasons for me to formulate this recommendation, but they all more or less stem from the following main considerations: the Warrior hull is old and tired and the CSP does not quite solve that, nor does replace the old powerpack; an all MIV fleet helps standardization; having the infantry on wheels helps the Army be more self-deployable and means the precious few Heavy and Light Equipment Transports (89 and 77 respectively) are free to focus on moving the MBTs and other tracked platforms, such as AJAX and TERRIER; having at least a portion of the BOXERs well armed with a 40mm gun means that, apart from being able to get to the fight, they will also be able to fight. The current MIV, armed like a SAXON, can get there but can’t get into a fight, only drop its infantry a safe distance back.
Finally, plans for a new tracked support vehicle to replace FV432 seem to have died entirely, and it would border on ridiculous to field a 28 tons tracked Warrior supported by wheeled 8x8s weighting close to 40. Boxer is a modern and well protected hull, and if the Army cannot afford a proper split of tracks and wheels, on balance of merits and defects, wheels should probably take precedence. This is what France has done, by the way, with the VBCI replacing the last tracked IFVs of the Armee de Terre.
Again, a priority for me would also be to re-evaluate the variants of MIV to be procured, reducing to the bare minimum the number of ambulances and command posts in favor of pursuing instead a 120mm mortar and an ATGW variants as well as, potentially, more APCs / IFVs to increase, if at all possible, the number of mechanized battalions in the Army. With over 500 vehicles already on order, it should be feasible. I’ve written about this in greater detail in a previous article.
The Ambulance role and, wherever possible, the C2 role would be instead “offloaded” onto much cheaper Multi Role Vehicle Protected variants. Regarding MRV-P, I’d personally urge the Army to finally proceed with the programme with the aim of rationalizing the current dog’s breakfast of multiple “mini” fleets, getting rid progressively of Husky, Panther, DURO, Pinzgauer and part of the Land Rovers.
My favorite for Group 2 would be the Thales Bushmaster, to be assembled in their Glasgow plant as promised by the company and by the Australian government.
Unfortunately, the near totality of the Royal Artillery modernization attempts are not under contract yet and are thus exposed to silent cancellation. It would be a repeat of the “lost decade+” that saw the previous programme of evolution nearly entirely killed off by budget cuts. The Royal Artillery’s main priorities for the new decade are pretty much the same as the previous decade:
- Land Precision Strike. Initially delivered by EXACTOR MK2, it is meant to evolve towards a weapon system with a much greater range (at least 60 km, eventually). EXACTOR has a provisional OSD of 2023, but might be the successor of itself through a Mid-Life Upgrade. The Land Precision Strike system should be mounted on a vehicle, and EXACTOR itself (currently launched from a small trailer) might end up retrofitted onto a vehicle base in the next few years if the MLU happens.
- Deep Fires Rocket System. This modernization / eventual replacement of MLRS should expand the striking range and introduce a greater variety of ammunition and effects. The Royal Artillery hopes to procure the GMLRS Extended Range rockets being developed, which would double the current range (to above 150 km) and it should also pursue the Alternative Warhead developed by the US as replacement to the old submunitions to restore an area suppression capability. Procurement of the new Land Precision Strike missile developed in the US or of a national alternative would enable strikes to 500 km or potentially beyond, reducing the gap against Russian systems, primarily ISKANDER.
- SERPENS. This key programme is about procuring replacements for the handful (literally) of MAMBA artillery locating radars and the sound ranging equipment. High priority should be attached to this programme and to the Army’s Surveillance and Target Acquisition capability in general. Ideally, “basic” STA should be pushed down into the Close Support Artillery regiments, while 5 Royal Artillery Regiment should focus on Theatre-wide / Divisional level STA. More and better radars are a key upgrade the Army cannot do without if it has to be taken seriously in a peer scenario.
- Mobile Fires Platform. The replacement for AS90 and for the L118 Light Gun in the “STRIKE” regiments. Around 98 systems for equipping 4 regiments, with initial capability expected in 2026. This programme is also very vulnerable to stealth cancellation, but it should be accorded high priority because the British Army’s artillery is truly in bad shape. In this very early phase of the programme, the Army has essentially looked at autocannons (CAESAR and ARCHER above all) but I’d recommend a more careful evaluation of the options. The US are about to move on to a 58 caliber 155mm gun system, while in Germany Rheinmetall is now working on a 60 caliber retrofit option. It would be very unwise for the Army to procure (with so great delay) a 52 caliber system only to still lag well behind both Allies and Enemies in terms of range.
- Precision / Near precision 155 mm ammunition and, ideally, a smart shell with top-attack capability for use against enemy armour on the move. The Army had selected SMART shells for this requirement but the procurement was just one of the many programmes to be cancelled in the lost decade.
Other priorities, Army-wide, include finally pressing home the reorganization of the Army Air Corps and Joint Helicopter Command. Plans have been ongoing since at least 2015, including a seemingly endless review into the possibility / opportunity of moving the Apache helicopters out of Wattisham to rationalize the AAC bases.
Plans were well advanced, but implementation has largely been put on hold. It is now likely that the plan will be brought into the SDSR 2020 and the formation of a Combat Aviation Brigade on the American model will be part of the final document. Next year, a UK combat aviation battlegroup will deploy in Europe together with a US CAB during the mega exercise DEFENDER EUROPE 2020, and this is likely to be a key test for the new structures and methods. The implementation of the Combat Aviation Brigade plan should be a priority and it should, obviously, involve the RAF Apache and Puma squadrons.
Finally, I’d urge the Army to proceed with the Challenger 2 LEP, because the obsolescence of the type can no longer be denied. The new turret put forwards by Rheinmetall BAE Land Systems will cure the problems and turn Challenger into one of the very best tanks within NATO, ensuring its validity for the next couple of decades. Ideally, a powerpack change should also be funded, however, since the current engine has too little power for such a heavy machine, and is getting increasingly unreliable.
Rather than cutting the number of tank regiments from 3 to 2, I’d encourage the Army to set up 4 tank regiments, albeit individually smaller (Type 44 instead of Type 56, for example), to ensure that the two Armoured Infantry brigades can have a solid “square” base and assign a tank formation in support of each infantry battalion.
Ideally, in a more courageous Army, I’d urge the reorganization of the Tank and Armoured Infantry regiments / battalions into Combined Arms Battalions, similar to the American ones, permanently combining tank squadrons and IFV companies. With Armour now being all concentrated in the Salisbury Plain area, this should not prove overly complex.
In terms of Commands, I remain unconvinced by the restructuring last August which saw Force Troops Command dismembered and renamed. While I recognize that the “spare infantry” of 1st Division would be used to secure the rear in a Divisional deployment and would provide security to theatre opening activities, I still don’t think 104 Logistic Brigade, 2nd Medical Brigade and 8 Engineer Brigade belong there.
As I said, in my “ideal” army, a Joint Rapid Reaction divisional HQ would group together 16 AA, 3 Cdo and Specialised Infantry, while 1st and 3rd Division would be nearly identical in structure and would alternate into readiness (and deployment, when necessary).
Force Support units would probably sit under a command focusing on logistics. However close the liaison would have to be with the “fighting” divisions, I don’t think the current arrangement is a good idea.
This piece is a summary of my expectations and opinions ahead of the SDSR 2020. As such, it might well be proven wrong in multiple areas. Things might end up being a lot rougher. I would lie if I said I was relaxed and solely confident in the outcome of the review.
I am, however, moderately optimistic. I’m expecting something upbeat, more similar to 2015 than 2010. There will be less big programmes launched, compared with 2015, and much of the focus will be on Cyber (thus on area where progress is hard to visualize and even harder to measure, allowing loud and cheap claims) and on Space. In general, I think the 2015 targets will be maintained as much as possible, and I hope there will be room for a few welcome adjustements and boosts in key areas.
As I’ve made clear in the article, pain is likely to be felt mostly in the less glamorous programmes which are part of the 10 years plan but are not really known by the public and are not yet under contract. Stealth cuts are a constant at the MOD, and this review will not be an exception. I don’t think Boris Johnson will want to associate himself and his government with draconian cuts to what is left of the Forces, so I’m trying to focus on the positive. The one area in which I think a revolution is necessary is the Army. Unfortunately, it is the one area which is most resistant to change. There is often much talk about “sacred cows” in defence, but as often happens, what is talked about the most is the smokescreen, not the problem.
Sacred cows are not the Paras, or the Marines. The one Sacred Cow is the Army’s insistence in clinging on to its regiments and infantry battalions, even at the cost of maintaining a ghost Division with very low actual combat capability.
This is the one sacred cow I’d want to slay right at the start of the Review.