Sunday, July 5, 2020

The sad farcical pre-Integrated Review: amphibious without ships

One area of massive concern ahead of the Integrated Review is the UK’s amphibious capability. Despite the attempts to put up smiles and talk of “exciting” times ahead for the “Future Commando Force”, it is impossible not to notice the horrendous persistence of a question mark on the fate of the amphibious ships that give the Royal Marines their meaning. Worse still, there are some very, very goofy attempts constantly going on at laying justifications for the loss of amphibious ships, mainly the LPDs of the ALBION class, using wildly inaccurate comparisons with the “USMC giving up its MBTs” or even statements as absurd as “the days of storming a beach are over".

Let me be absolutely clear from the very beginning: “the days of storming a beach are over" is another one of those typical british nonsensical claims generated purely by fear that budget cuts in an incoming SDSR are going to strip the capability to do so away. It is simply not in any way true and it is ludicrous to see people arguing otherwise.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but sadly it appears many need to hear it:
Nobody “storms the beach” because it is a pleasant or easy thing to do. It is done because it is sometimes beneficial and sometimes simply non discretionary to cross a significant body of water to access strategically relevant territory.
Amphibious maneuver might simply be indispensable to dislodge an enemy from a position; in order to access a theatre of operations; in order to force the enemy to spread out its forces along its coast, weakening its defences in other areas as a result; or even to turn the flank of an enemy front too solid to be dealt purely with through “frontal” assault on land.
Seas, islands and shores are not going anywhere and so isn’t the need to be able to move significant force over water, onto the shore and beyond. There will be occasions in which littoral maneuver is simply non discretionary because geography, both physical and political, dictates it.

And why beaches? Simple: because the enemy is not stupid enough to directly give up a port. If getting directly into a port is an option, obviously everyone is very happy to go for the port as unloading ships in port is countless times faster and safer and easier. But the enemy will make sure the ports are well guarded and / or timely sabotaged. Having the ability to land substantial force over an undeveloped beach and maneuver from there enormously complicates the enemy’s defensive needs and plans.

There are legitimate concerns about the ability to assault “defended beaches”, but first of all we should better define what a "defended beach" is. Many seem to automatically revert to images out of Omaha beach and imagine infantry charging in shallow waters at Atlantic Wall bunkers.
But nobody today would be able to defend in that way. Not even China has enough army to do that, and if you forced them to do it, it would be a victory in itself with how many troops and resources it ties down along countless kilometers of shore. Not to mention that precision weaponry of today means that the fortifications of a new Atlantic Wall would quickly turn into large graves.

A defended beach today is more likely to be a stretch of coast which can only be approached from directions which are covered by reconnaissance assets, perhaps with ground-launched anti-ship missiles in range and with the threat of enemy air assets as well as ground-based air defence such as long range Surface to Air Missiles. Enemy ground forces over and in the immediate vicinity of the beach are unlikely to be substantial, but mechanized units will be ready to move along the coast to timely meet an invasion force. For example, Italy during the Cold War developed the 8x8 tank-destroyer CENTAURO specifically to create wheeled, medium-weight formations which could race along the coastal roads to contain a soviet amphibious force landing (presumably) on the Adriatic coast. Now the TYPE 16 tank-destroyer being fielded by Japan is a continuation of that general idea.

These overlapping layers of defence are commonly identified as Anti Access; Area Denial (A2AD) “bubbles”, although this arguably tries to attribute to these threats a degree of novelty which they do not really have. A major feature of war has always been the need to prevent the enemy from accessing / taking over an area. What was a fort, a coastal battery, is not A2AD of its time?

What is “new” to A2AD is that, potentially, offensive weapons are currently seen as having better chances than the defences. In the endless struggle between “sword” and “shield”, we currently feel that the “sword” has the advantage. In other words, in the West, we no longer trust our warships to be able to cope with enemy missile and air attacks. We fear that modern technology has made it so much easier to detect, track and attack ships out at sea that getting past the “coastal batteries” might no longer be possible.

As I’ve written already while talking of the other commonly heard trope that “aircraft carriers are obsolete”, it is not the carrier that has grown more vulnerable than it was in the past, but it is our escort ships and embarked air wing that we no longer trust. If we feel we can’t operate the carrier / amphibious ships safely, the actual implication is that we do not expect the escort ships and embarked fighter jets to be able to defend them.

The answer to this fear cannot be “let’s do without carriers and amphibs”, because that would weaken the fleet even further (no air wing to fight the air battle with) and remove much of the purpose of the whole fleet. If the carrier cannot be defended, what can we defend? If warships cannot defend each other in a group, they won’t be able to prevent the enemy from cutting off the sea lanes either.
Basically it would mean we have lost not just control of the sea, but the ability to make any use of it, tactically and strategically. If we believe this, very urgent action is required to improve the “shield”.

But in truth, much of the argument against carriers and amphibs is born more out of interservice rivalry over insufficient budgets than by actual strategic and tactical thinking. If the latter was driving the policy, we would be talking of how to improve escort ships and their missiles as well as the capabilities of the embarked air wing. To be fair, it must be noted that some in the US are actually calling for an Air Wing rethink, but unfortunately they are an exception in a discourse which is otherwise a completely partisan battle for the budget, not for the sea.

But the USMC…

In this sad debate, largely devoid of actual technical content, many will happily mention the USMC reforms and their offer of their MBTs in sacrifice to free up funds for other capabilities as a sign that “storming the beach” is a thing of the past.

Some claim that the future is “raiding” to be conducted with small boats, stealthy infiltrations of small groups of Marines and helicopters for the rest, with little to no space for surface maneuver. They want this to be the future of the Royal Marines and they even claim this is what the USMC is doing.

Thing is, the USMC is definitely not giving up on surface maneuver. The moment an amphibious force does that, it ceases to exist, or at least it ceases to matter.

Using raids, stealthy infiltration of small and agile combat elements and carrying out “Commando” work, sabotage, reconnaissance and target acquisition in favor of the fleet is of course important and it is right to pour more effort into improving tactics and equipment for achieving greater effect. It is also rational to reduce the vulnerability of the force by coming in smaller groups from multiple directions at once: dispersion is an effective way to reduce vulnerability to the mass of long range fires some enemies are able to deploy.

Ultimately, however, raids and long range insertions of small bodies of troops to push the enemy back from the shore are pre-landing force work. The multiple pinpricks they directly deliver, and the much greater damage they can cause by calling upon and coordinating Joint Fires are meant to weaken the enemy defences and ideally drive them back from the shore to allow the fleet more freedom of movement, eventually all the way up to the landing of a mechanized force. All these activities (call them Commando work, if you must) are not new, and while we might evolve them and make them deadlier, they cannot, in isolation, in any way be the future of amphibious capability.

If you can raid but not land, you are essentially arguing to become a master of foreplay but with no actual capability to continue with the main act.

The USMC is definitely not giving up on its ability to go ashore with a significant force. It is not giving up on beaches and it is not aiming for “helicopters and boats”. If you actually read the papers about the USMC restructuring you will see that they actually intend to sacrifice several helicopter and even some tilt-rotor squadrons in order to free up funds. Specifically, Heavy Lift helicopter squadrons are due to drop from 8 to 5; attack helicopter squadrons from 7 to 5 or less; Tilt Rotor squadrons from 17 to 14.

Some of the funds will go towards one of the greatest priorities so far identified, which is the purchase of 30 more amphibious ships. Much smaller, simpler and “attritable” than current large amphibs, but, interestingly, actually able to beach themselves like the LSTs of old, and thus able to disgorge a significant load of vehicles or stores, all the way up to MBT size.  

Why would they want that?
Because their new concept of operation definitely still requires the landing over the beach of significant amounts of heavy equipment. While they recognize they must put the enemy in front of a much greater number of individually less attractive targets (30 ships means almost doubling the current amphibious fleet) to begin to change the dynamics, they know they can’t do that by turning amphibious capability into 8 or 12 Marines in an Offshore Raiding Craft with little or nothing behind them.

While the exact shape of the new amphibious ships for the USMC's future concepts has yet to be decided, the concepts make clear that landing heavy stuff on a beach is far from a dead requirement. 

The USMC wants to create multiple dispersed forward operating bases ashore, some of which equipped as forward arming and refueling points for aircraft up to F-35B or even F-35C (the latter is more complex, for obvious reasons, but the USMC has the capability to lay longer AM-2 strips and install deployable arresting wire sets). The Forward Bases will effectively become their own A2AD bubbles, armed with long range rockets and missiles, including anti-ship weapons. Indeed, the USMC plans to greatly reduce its holding of howitzers (from 21 to 5 batteries) but to treble the number of HIMARS rocket launchers and missile batteries equipped with even smaller launchers (from 7 to 21). Notably, the USMC is investing in an unmanned vehicle, the ROGUE, which is a JLTV without crew and topped by a launcher for GMLRS rockets or other munitions, including the Naval Strike Missile anti-ship weapon. The ROGUE is smaller and more easily deployable than even HIMARS and, obviously, is more remorselessly sacrificed. The USMC has also requested in the 2021 budget a first purchase of 48 TOMAHAWK missiles for launch from the ground, with the expectation that they will go for the new TLAM MK 5A Maritime Strike variant, aka the one fitted with an active seeker for use against warships at sea as well as moving targets on land. While it might be feasible to move ROGUE by helicopter (the USMC will have the massive CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift machines, after all), it is clear that in order to actually beef up and sustain the forward bases there will be an enduring need for surface manoeuvre. Only landing craft, or the new beaching amphibious vessel, will be able to deliver the quantity of stores, ammunition and combat vehicles required.

Test firings of a NSM anti-ship missile from a ROGUE prototype are expected soon. This new launcher has the firepower of a HIMARS in a smaller, attritable package. 

The new USMC Marine Littoral Regiment is still experimenting to find its final shape, but it is centered on a slightly smaller but “more powerful” infantry battalion mixed with long-range Fires, including anti-ship missiles. The Regiment obviously has its own dedicated logistic battalion. And, very significantly, there is a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion, which will be absolutely central to the success of the plan. Let the full implication sink in: a battalion of infantry, a battalion of air defence assets. That’s one special ratio of infantry to air defences.

For now there has been very little discussion about what exactly a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion will end up looking like, but personally I expect the USMC will move to field ground based anti-air capabilities with ranges and lethality going far beyond the remit of the current Low-Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalions. Investment currently is focused on providing a modernized SHORAD and Counter-UAV capability with weapons and sensors on JLTV vehicle bases, but it is reasonable to expect that much longer ranged SAMs will follow. It is only logical: the USMC “A2AD” bubbles will need to not only threaten ships but to help the fleet at sea in the fight against enemy long range missile and air attacks. The USMC is already working to ensure its ground-based radars can seamlessly share tracking and targeting data with the Navy’s and with the Army’s own air defence networks, but they will need to be able to put ashore their own long range SAMs, so I fully expect substantial investment in this direction.

The USMC forward bases, some of which will be decoys and some of which will be used rotationally, with frequent moves from one to another, are clearly meant to be “sponges” for enemy long range fires. Imagine forward airfields that can enhance the striking range of F-35Bs as well as fire Naval Strike Missiles, TOMAHAWK and other long range guided weapons: they constitute a threat that no enemy can ignore. Dispersion, movement in and out of bases and use of small and expendable weapon systems such as ROGUE, with a great number of small, cheap vessels shuttling the force around mean that suddenly, the target is much harder to eradicate and it starts absorbing more and more long range fires and more missiles. Especially so if it comes with its own anti-missile defences and can shoot down some of the incoming weapons, as well as “taking the others on the chin” without becoming combat-ineffective.
Imagine a few of these deployable A2AD bubbles forming a loose chain around a stretch of shore. Suddenly, the defender is the one struggling to get troops into the area to hold it against a force coming ashore.
You can see how the new USMC approach starts to change the picture.

The USMC having no MBTs of its own is more detail than substance when you realize that they will have the same, or indeed a much greater ability to put MBTs ashore if they so need. The USMC commander, General David Berger, has been very clear about what his thinking actually is: “We need an Army with lots of tanks. We don't need a Marine Corps with tanks.”

That phrase, alone, is enough to shoot down any wildly inaccurate claim that the USMC thinks the tank is obsolete, or that “storming the beach” is no longer a thing. It makes sense for the USMC to accept some sacrifices and a greater dependence on the Army’s own formations, if it can lead to a better overall result by enabling investment elsewhere. Not to mention that this is the United States of America that we are talking about: Congress might still decide to provide additional money and prevent some of the proposed cuts from even happening.

Even if all cuts do take place, please note that the USMC will no longer have tanks but it will have a very significant number of 8x8 vehicles, both for reconnaissance and screening (a LAV-25 replacement is in prototype phase) and for the infantry fighting.
The new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) destined to replace the AAV-7 will have far better on-land combat value than its predecessor, and the USMC is acquiring not just the APC variant but an IFV / Combat variant with turret and 30 mm cannon. This is an enormous capability uplift from the .50 HMG plus 40 mm Grenade Launcher in the tiny turret of the gigantic and vulnerable AAV-7.

While it is notionally planned that the number of Amphibious Assault Companies will drop from 6 to 4, this still means the USMC will have the ability to move 4 full battalions of infantry on 8x8s (note: each Amphibian Company of AAV-7s, and in the future of ACVs, is able to lift a whole battalion of Marines. The Amphibian companies are grouped in 2 battalions), maybe more considering that the individual battalion strength is expected to go down around 200 elements from the current 850. Overall, the number of infantry battalions itself is expected to go down from 24 to 21, so the reduction in vehicles is proportional to the overall force restructuring. 

The Reconnaissance Companies (currently mounted on the lightweight LAV-25 8x8) are at the moment penciled for an increase from 9 to 12, meaning that significant “cavalry” support will also be available.

In short: the USMC is certainly not giving up its ability to land a substantial force and maneuver aggressively inland. They will sacrifice their remaining 7 companies of MBTs, yes, but they will gain more capability elsewhere and will still be more than able to put ashore tanks. They will be army tanks, but that is secondary.

The Royal Marines have given up way too early on trying to secure an amphibious 8x8 future for themselves. The UK could use that kind of capability in many ways and scenarios, including on the continent. The complete absence of any amphibious armour in the UK's inventory (beyond the modest VIKING) is twice as surprising considering how much experience the British Army has collected in the Second World War on the usefulness of amphibious armour in getting acrosss rivers, littorals and flooded areas. 

The Future Commando Force

It is very worrying instead to observe the Future Commando Force work through a series of botched interviews and news releases and endless rumors which all reinforce the unpleasant feeling that we are staring at nothing more than a capability cut.

It is widely speculated that the ALBION-class LPDs will be lost at the Review table, and probably without any kind of replacement.
Not even the infamous Littoral Strike Ships.

In the last article on the Telegraph, the Littoral Strike Groups (one in the North Atlantic / Arctic area and one East of Suez) are described as nothing more than a Company-group held afloat on a single BAY-class LSD each. The possibility of the LPDs going and the LSS never happening is spelled out without much hesitation, and yet the annoyingly false pretense of “evolution” is pushed forth in what would be, with those premises, nothing but an insult to any thinking brain. 

Single company groups deployments on lone BAY class LSDs, but also on the LPD at times, have been happening for years under the heading “Special Purpose Task Group”. A SPTG based on HMS Albion operated into the Pacific in 2018, for example, while one on Lyme Bay operated in the Mediterranean. Eventually, the groups reconnected for an operation at more meaningful scale during SAIF SAREEA 3 in Oman.

Reorganize the Company-group all you like, add some UAVs and cameras on the helmets and a new uniform and C8 rifles in exchange for L85A3s, but what are you actually going to achieve?
Not much, frankly. It will still be an SPTG, in the end. With the same limitations due to operating from the very same ship it has been using for years. 

What would be new if the loss of the LPDs was confirmed would be the inability to do anything more than SPTGs. No ability anymore to do something at battlegroup scale. No ability to put ashore a mechanized force of any relevance.
That is not an “exciting future force”. That is a disastrous death for the UK’s amphibious capability.

“Dealing with new threats” has clearly nothing to do with the structure of such a force. A BAY is in no way more survivable than the LPD. In fact it is built to more relaxed standards, which make it even less of a hit-taker, in pure survivability terms.
It is not any better armed than the LPD. It does not come with new generation ship to shore connectors that enable the Royal Marines to get ashore faster, from further away, or just more stealthily. A forward deployed, one-ship Littoral Strike Group, or Littoral Response Group, depending on who you listen to, is in no way more useable or useful, than what could be done with the current amphibious ships.

I can trust the Royal Marines’ judgement on what they are trying to do with tactics for 12-man groups operating more dispersed, more “Special Forces-like” once ashore. But, dramatically, I see little to no attention paid to how to put troops ashore in the first place. Going back to what I wrote at the beginning of the article, it feels like we are debating all sorts of details about pre-landing force work, but completely ignoring the landing bit.

What we really need to see is ships, ship to shore connectors and vehicles talk. It’s impossible to take seriously the hype about “future force” without the actual fundamentals being secured. Until there is such a huge question mark over the fate of the ships and craft needed to lift and insert and sustain the force, everything else is secondary at best.

In all seriousness, if an amphibious force isn't even sure it will be able to hang on to its defining capability for lack of shipping, throwing money at new uniforms and C8 rifles is more infuriating than exciting. Is this expenditure truly necessary, considering that the amphibious capability as a whole is hanging by a weak thread…?

What if the LPDs go but Littoral Strike Ships come in?

Much would depend on what capability the Littoral Strike Ships would come with. However, for what we have seen and heard so far, the LSS was definitely heading into MV Ocean Trader territory. That is, pretty much, a POINT-class RoRo with a flight deck and hangar bolted on top, as well as an enlarged accommodation block added to the superstructure.
If this is the LSS, losing the LPDs to purchase them would be madness.

Let us be clear on one thing, once and for all: the LSS concept was born as a (very) poor man's LPH replacement because the current amphibious fleet's greatest weakness is the lack of aviation facilities.
The combination of ALBION and BAY classes was originally conceived with the expectation that there would be 2 LPH covering the aviation side. Of course, 2 LPH quickly became 1 (HMS Ocean) and then 0 today.
In absence of the QE-class carrier at readiness, the LSS was (is?) going to provide a forward deployed group with some hangar space, a big flight deck and extra lift to compensate, again, the loss of the substantial capacity that Ocean ensured.  
You might remember that the Commando Helicopter Force was thinking in terms of “Units of Action”, aka modular sub-squadron groupings of helicopters, indicatively described as 4 MERLIN plus some WILDCAT for the reconnaissance, escort and light attack roles. An air group similar to the one we can observe on RFA Argus right now in the Caribbean.

The PREVAIL concept is the best visualization we have been given of what an LSS could be. It would be a fantastic low cost floating base for forward presence, but makes very little sense as LPD replacement. 

A Littoral Strike Group of “2-3 ships”, centered on an LSS and comprising a BAY and eventually an LPD, would have been a significant forward-deployed force, especially with an helicopter “unit of action” on the LSS.
When the idea was proposed in these terms, it all made sense.

But if you start to picture the LSS as an LPD replacement, you are much better served by doing nothing and keeping the LPDs you have.
The LSS as imagined so far has nothing particularly magic about it and while it might carry several boats / Offshore Raiding Crafts it is highly unlikely to have any real ability to land heavy stores and vehicles unless she can use a port or go real close to shore to make do with Mexeflotes. It is no better than a normal POINT sealift vessel, in this particular regard. 
Which means that, whatever kind of fantastic insertion concept you want to imagine with RHIBs, "boats and helicopters", the only thing the LSS has that other ships in the amphibious flotilla don’t, is the hangar for maintenance on the helicopters.

Even if there was anything truly smart to "using boats and helicopters only” and withdrawing the LCU MK10 from service losing your heavy lift capability in the process, and there is not, you could do that extremely well from the existing LPD. You can fit plenty of boats in the well dock and vehicle deck; the davits have already been tested with CB90 combat boats in place of LCVPs, the flight deck can operate 2 CHINOOKs at once.

Which also means, again, that the LPD can do better than the BAYs as well. Whatever you can imagine doing from a BAY with "boats and helicopters", you can do better from the LPD. More boats and more helicopters, literally.

Capability-wise there is exactly ZERO reasons to lose those ships early, whatever concept of operation you want to fantasize about.
If the LSS is to be a replacement and not an addition, again there is ZERO reason to bother.

Beyond small boats, what defines amphibious capability is the possibility of inserting ashore a mechanized force with meaningful combat power. A force almost as agile as an airborne one in terms of deployability at range, but at the same time one which comes with armor, with mobility, firepower and sustainability that air insertion cannot give you.

For this fantastic, unique attribute to be true, however, you need LIFT. You need the right ships to carry that force, and the right Ship to Shore connectors to send that force ashore. Lose the LPDs and you've lost much of the LIFT (especially so if you get nothing at all in exchange, obviously) and the very vast majority of ship to shore capability. A single LPD operates 4 LCU MK10 and 4 LCVPs. The smaller well dock on a BAY can handle a single LCU MK10. The whole fleet of 3 BAYs combined is still one LCU short of what a single LPD gives you.
It's really simple math.

And since the carries thankfully exist, i'd rather take the lack of aviation facilities in the forward deployed element, knowing the carrier can at least be used when really needed, than go for the lack of ship to shore, which nothing else in the fleet gives you.

Talk money, if you have to. But whoever thinks the LPDs are a problem capability-wise is clearly not in touch with reality. Don't even try to spin it in capability terms, it destroys your credibility. 
Whoever thinks that using the BAYs alone has anything to do with “new scenarios” and “A2AD making it impossible to storm the beach like before” is equally living in fantasy.

What is the aim, at the end of the day?
What is the actual aim of the Future Commando Force work carried out by the Royal Marines? What is the desired end state, the actual thinking for the future?

Obviously the Royal Marines are not in the financial position for pursuing their own anti-air formations and follow the USMC lead, but what is being done, or at least thought of, to improve the capability at least a bit?

What does all the talk about “working more closely with the Navy” actually entail? For what we are reading right now, not much. Beyond the role change of 42 Commando, which has already happened, I don’t see much. The forward presence through BAY ships is more of a Navy realignment with the Royal Marines than the opposite, simply because the BAY class has been increasingly called away from the amphibious role in order to cover all sorts of other requirements, from disaster relief in the Caribbean to the enduring requirement for a mothership in support of the MCM force in the Gulf.

With 3 BAY ships in total, one of which tied down in support of the MCM force, keeping up a constant routine of forward deployments in the High North and East of Suez would exhaust the entire fleet. It is a concept of operations which will entail unavoidable presence gaps for lack of shipping whenever a BAY hits refit time.

The loss of amphibious shipping will also mutilate the role of 3 Commando Brigade in Norway and the High North, just after the UK has committed itself to a 10 year plan of support to its ally. Without the ships to lift a sizeable force and insert and move it with agility along the Norwegian coast, 3 Commando brigade is just another Light Infantry brigade with a problem of how to get to Norway in the first place and how to move quickly around the country once there. Its actual usefulness in the area drops down to minimum terms.

I hope there is a bit more to this Future Commando Force than cosmetics, but so far it looks like shuffling of chairs on the deck of a sinking ship. None of the work we’ve heard about is tackling any real requirement connected to actual amphibious work. The last time there was an attempt at something genuinely helpful was almost 10 years ago when the PACSCAT fast landing craft and the CB90 combat boats were extensively tested. Those could have been engines of change. Adding this or that UAV is helpful, and changing uniform might make a lot of difference to the individual soldier's comfort, but none of these small bits does a future force make.

Ultimately, is there is going to be no actual amphibious lift and capability left, the logical consequence must be the immediate disbandment of 3 Commando brigade, with the transfer of 29 Royal Artillery, 24 Royal Engineers and the Logistic Regiment and the VIKINGs to an army brigade in 1st Division, so that at least one brigade can be rescued from the current state of insignificance. If there is no capability to insert it from the sea, there is no reason for it continuing and being a drain on the Navy’s budget. Thanks to the VIKINGs, an Army brigade can take up the mountain / arctic role (if at least that is to be retained in some form, at this point there is no telling what the UK is even trying to do anymore), while 40 and 45 Commando should just be disbanded. They would be reduced to the status of infantry as expensive as Special Forces but not equally free of political caveats on their employment.

42 Cdo would remain to cover the “actual” maritime roles, as it already does; 43 Cdo will stay as long as the nuclear deterrent stays, in order to ensure its security; and 47 Cdo might still become something useful if, out of the massacre, they can at least buy actual combat boats for littoral / riverine support to the Navy.

Imagine what an actual maritime force multiplier a battalion more similar to the Swedish amphibious force, or the US Navy riverine squadrons, could be: if 47 Commando was equipped with well armed combat boats with decent range, something like CB90 or larger, it could actually complement other warships.
Imagine a BAY used as mothership for a substantial number of combat boats, deployed to somewhere like the Gulf, in a scenario of protection to commercial shipping, like we saw very recently. Fast, highly mobile combat boats cannot beat back a major Iranian offensive on their own, but they can virtually “multiply” HMS Montrose. In the vast majority of realistic scenarios, the presence of a suitable Royal Marines combat boat would be enough to dissuade attempts to seize the merchant vessel, even if the nearest frigate was a long distance away.

An expensive hollow force without a clear role is not needed: the British Army already maintains a whole Division of loosely put together infantry without supports, always on the lookout for a reason to continue existing. 3 Commando brigade should not join the count of the “fake” brigades.

But if it does because the disastrous decision to cut the amphibious ships is made, then I’m left to hope that there is the dignity and courage to at least be honest about the implications and follow through with reductions which can at least generate some actual savings in terms of manpower and money to devote to other priorities. 
The worst possible outcome is to mutilate amphibious capability to save the few dozen millions spent yearly for the LPDs, but continue sinking money on a brigade no longer able to carry out its mission.

If you really need to save money, at least do that decently. If you kill a capability to save pennies and gain no real personnel / budget headroom to do anything else anyway, you are shafting yourself twice.

Ultimately, the UK needs to decide what it wants to be. This is the one decision that constantly gets skirted around.

If the worst case scenario for the Integrated Review, which has been leaked to the Times today, ever comes to pass, the UK must be honest with itself and spell out the consequence: it is finished as a military power of any relevance. Not global, not even regional. It will be a small player with some absurdly good capabilities still in the arsenal merely because they are the ruins of what existed before. The whole structure, however, is losing so much coherence and stability that the comparison with other countries is increasingly humiliating. 

What we absolutely not need is the UK pretending to still be relevant and capable while mutilating itself.

Exactly like we don’t need the Royal Marines pretending to be an amphibious force for the future while amphibious capability actually vanishes.

Sort out what you want to be, with honesty.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A different angle to difficult choices

First, a premise. I really hate the “difficult choices” refrain that is constantly brought up when talking about UK armed forces. It’s right up there with “sacred cows” and other rhetoric figures which 99% of the time are empty of actual meaning other than making the speaker sound real deep and wise. In the end, it seems to only ever lead to arguing in favor of cutting off everything but your pet project of the day. 

If there is something that years of cuts have made clear is that in the UK the problem is not making “difficult choices” (its Draconian acts of self-mutilation are "admired" worldwide), but making difficult choices that make sense in an integrated defence policy and not in isolation. 
What the UK constantly fails at is taking difficult decisions that adhere to one coherent vision. Again and again, Defence starts investing on one particular area, then eventually, when it is more or less ready to reap the benefits of decades of work and investment, ruins everything by going with another short-term knee jerk decision in the desperate attempt to save some money. Savings which are often ridiculous compared to the damage inflicted to capability.

I’ve already written some time ago a longer dissertation on the cyclical suggestion of “cutting the PARAs and Royal Marines”, and explained just why that makes very little sense, so I’ll just point you to that article, while repeating once more that the really difficult and key question the UK must finally find an answer to is what kind of country and military power it wants to be. 
You can’t separate ambition from how much you are willing to spend.

Once a level of ambition is defined, the new SDSR should completely ignore the empty rhetoric of sacred cows, which are mostly just the latest evolution of inter-service bickering, and assess instead what the UK absolutely needs to do, first of all, and immediately after determine what it can do well, and specifically what it can do with what it already owns. Instead of wasting capability that already exists in pursuit of nebulous new ambitions, it should ensure that the maximum possible output comes from what is already available, for once.

If it is not possible to do everything, you should stick to what you are good at. If your money is not enough to purchase all you’d need, at least start by using well what you already have, and have already paid. The UK is extremely well positioned to deploy a very competitive and powerful naval task force; and owns most of the equipment needed to field a powerful airmobile army capability. It would be absurd not to capitalize on strengths built up with much effort and expenditure over decades.  
When you are “poor”, the last thing you should do is waste what you do have.

Instead of trying to convince the world that tanks are no longer needed; that wheeled APCs are the future; that air manoeuvres are now unfeasible and amphibious capability does not require landing craft and surface manoeuvre, and getting offended when the world does not agree; the UK should use a bit of actual realism and go for the real soul searching.

There are unpleasant questions that I never hear asked but that are staring us all in the face. One is about the wisdom of sinking so much manpower and money into 1st Division, which has more than half the Army’s infantry under command but that will have absolutely zero supports once the last set migrates to 3rd Division to enable the second STRIKE brigade. 4 Royal Artillery, 27 RLC, 2 REME, 2 Royal Signal and 32 Royal Engineer are the last CS and CSS resources that remain to enable the “Vanguard Light Brigade” that is organized rotationally from the 4 brigades that make up 1st Division (4th, 7th, 11th and 51st).

All of those regiments, and indeed presumably one of the brigade HQs as well, are going to be taken out to create the second STRIKE brigade, leaving 1st Division as truly nothing more than a container for spare Light Role infantry battalions that support Public Duty and Cyprus rotations and the “regional stand-by battalion” commitment at home, which has been expanded all the way to a 5 battalion requirement in recent times.

One actual difficult question to be asked is whether this use of precious finite resources is in any way efficient and wise. Over half of the Army tied down in “fake” brigades with no combined arms capability for complete lack of Combat Supports and Combat Service Supports is, to me, a complete folly, regardless of how many battalions you intend to justify by committing to penny packet presence projects all over Africa, or sandbag filling in the UK during floods.

And this brings me to an even harsher question that needs to be formulated: are 16 Reserve infantry battalions in any way justifiable?

Army 2020 hoped to squeeze more useability out of the Reserve. At one point, it literally cut down several infantry battalions from 3 to 2 companies each with the hope that Reserves would be sufficiently available to fill the gap.

That project never worked out, and eventually the Army has rebuilt the missing companies thanks to the manpower removed from the Specialised Infantry Battalions (which are just 267 strong and thus have released quite a few soldiers back into the system).

The Army Reserve was supposed to relieve the regulars of a number of those standing commitments that absorb so much manpower, but the results have been frankly far from stellar. Reserves have in a few occasions provided much of the Falklands Islands Roulement infantry company; and in February this year “history was made” by building up a Company group, 240-strong, with reservists from 7 RIFLES and 5 RRF for a six month UN peacekeeping turn on the Cyprus Green Line.

I know I will bring even more hate upon myself for posing this question, but I think it can no longer be avoided: is this output actually enough to justify 16 reserve Infantry Battalions?

I don’t blame reservists: they should be rightly praised and thanked for offering their spare time to their Country and I couldn’t respect them more. But the Reserve must be re-assessed for overall value for money, and for functionality. The problem is easily understood: a volunteer who depends on a civilian, full-time job cannot, no matter how well meaning he might be, be available often for long deployments and operations. It’s just unfeasible, unless the volunteers and employers are supported in a whole different way, which however would make the Reserve a whole lot less cheap. It is not an easily solved problem.

But if Regulars cannot be relieved in a meaningful, enduring and assured way from the variety of secondary, enduring tasks, what is the point?

Resilience and Regeneration in times of major crisis is the other big reason for having a Reserve, but again there is an enormous and majorly unpleasant question that no one is considering: is it really feasible, for the UK, to Regenerate combat mass in a crisis in this era?
What magnitude of crisis would make it conceivable?
What would the timeframes look like?
Could it realistically be done in any scenario short of an existential struggle?

If the UK was to be involved in a large scale operation abroad, which required a Division in the field for more than the 6 / 12 months at most that 3rd Division could sustain, is there any realistic chance of rebuilding enough mass to relieve the deployed Division with another, for example?

Obviously, 1st Division would have to be rebuilt into a formation capable of actual Combined Arms Operations. What it would overwhelmingly need, however, would be the CS and CSS units it does not possess, not 16 Reserve Infantry Battalions. The Division already has regular infantry, it is everything else that it lacks.

What level of capability could be regenerated, beyond the lightest and most barebone of formations? There is not any significant amount of equipment in storage that could be brought out and issued to Reservists. For example, even assuming the Challenger 2 LEP goes ahead, which in the current budget climate is in no way a given, the number of vehicles being mentioned wouldn’t even be enough for fielding the Royal Wessex Yeomanry in the field, no matter how dire the situation. The regiment has been uplifted to have the capability to put into the field complete, formed crews, but the UK would extremely quickly run out of tanks to give to those formed crews. Do the math by yourself: we have been told numbers that range from around 140 to 167. Even if every single vehicle was issued for operations, it still wouldn’t suffice for a third Type 58 regiment to hit the field.

Warrior CSP, assuming it goes ahead, also will deliver barely enough vehicles for the Regulars, if that. There is zero margin built in into any purchase, and the UK, unlike other countries, has the habit of getting rid of the fleets it removes from active service, to avoid having to spend on its storage and upkeep.

I’ve quoted the heavy armour bits, but the situation does not in any way change by looking at lighter AFV fleets, or other major bits of equipment.
The cupboard is literally empty, there is nothing behind the glass to be broken in case of emergency. What is in storage is needed to equip the regulars, and considering that just four facilities held the majority of the stores, vehicle fleets and munitions, it is hard not to think that in a major, existential crisis the enemy just needs to land good long-range hits on Ashchurch, Monchengladbach, Kineton and Donington to not only knock back any regeneration effort but to maim the regular force itself into near paralysis.

If we are not prepared to imagine a scenario in which an enemy will try to hit those targets, by default it implies we are not prepared to imagine an actual existential scenario / new major war. With all what descends from this.

I always struggle, as a consequence, to imagine Regeneration actually happening, regardless of whether the Army Reserve ever hits its 30.000 trained personnel target (in the near term it won’t, by the way).  

Even if Reservists were called out en masse and were to be actually available for operations, the ability to kit them out for a meaningful operation is next to inexistent.

I am not in a position to know whether Telford and Merthyr Tydfil could possibly be able to start producing whole new vehicles in a hurry in a major crisis, but output and timeframes, if not overall feasibility, are doubtful at best. Even if equipment could be sourced from the US (the only Ally which might be in a position to help, thanks to the huge number of items it keeps stored and its active production lines), a lot of precious time would still be needed to actually train and prepare units.

When it comes to “difficult decisions”, instead of looking at chopping the best manned and best recruiting regular units in the Armed Forces, I’d recommend looking at how the Armed Forces actually plan to fight, and at their true resilience.

A majorly unpleasant decision to be taken might indeed involve the Army Reserve, because those 16 infantry battalions look like a true white elephant. 

The SDSR might want to reassess Reserve numbers and, even more importantly, roles. 
Excellent results come through reservists contributing their specializations to the Army (medical units being just the most visible of examples); but the outcome from the infantry units seems hard to justify.

Moreover, Resilience / Regeneration should be approached in a more systemic and realistic way. A good way to start could be to try and provide 1st Division and its Brigades with the supports they lack, using Reserve or Hybrid formations. 
If even that proves unfeasible because of low availability, the future of the Reserve might be smaller and more niche. 

No matter how comparatively “cheap” the Reserve is, if it can’t deliver a meaningful output outside a few specific areas, it might still not be worth its cost.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The many weaknesses of STRIKE

An idea can only ever be as good as its execution

NOTE: this article was originally meant to appear also on, since it was initially conceived specifically as a reply to one of their articles. This intention had to be abandoned since the editor and the army voices on that portal feel that this article is too long and the point it raises have already been “discussed ad infinitum”. I felt I could simply not work along the lines that were asked of me.

My criticism of STRIKE has gained me the irritation of several Army figures, so I’m now known as an Army hater as well as an RAF hater. Facts of life, I guess. I actually care deeply for both, and want only the best for them. My critique is purely due to the firm belief that in some areas the Services insist on taking the wrong paths.

There can be no doubt that the “STRIKE prophet” who has written a new pro-STRIKE article on is speaking primarily, if not only, to me. I am the one who challenged “STRIKE prophets” to provide answers, after all.

I will now have to answer, and to once more clarify the exact nature of my critiques and concerns, which again and again are reduced to the absurd rather than faced head on. My critique is a bit more complex than “BOXER has no cannon and so is useless”.

I will quote several passages of the article in question, and refer to its author as “the Author”, but of course you should first of all go and read what he has to say about the STRIKEconcept. As you can tell I continue to have many reservations, but it is a more useful article than most seen so far.

I also need to point out a fact which should be obvious, but evidently is not: the STRIKE supporters that periodically try to prove me wrong have an easy time coming at me from their individual background and push forward their own idea and interpretation of STRIKE.

I’m locked in discussions with multiple people, however, and that means I am exposed to multiple interpretations of STRIKE, including those who insist that the Armoured Brigades should be sacrificed in order to go “full STRIKE” for the future. I have to answer to everyone, not just to one person, so this will require some extra space, and if it feels like I’m addressing things you haven’t said, it is because someone else has. It is also a factor in my hostility to the concept: the more STRIKE is presented as the One and Only Future for the Army, the more I tend to disagree.

The Author’s main point, in this case, is that:

In the simplest possible terms, [STRIKE] means giving a UK Division and/or Allied Corps a Screening and Exploitation Force. This has been publicly stated by the Army.  

It has, and it has never been in doubt. Screening and reconnaissance have always been part of the STRIKE concept, and in truth, since building STRIKE means taking the Armoured Cavalry element out of the Armoured Infantry Brigades, it can only be so. One of the first sacrifices STRIKE has required has been the shifting of AJAX to the “new” role and new formation, and the Armoured Brigades no longer will have a recce cavalry element of their own, other than the Close Recce troops part of the constituent Battalions and Tank regiment. Clearly, the requirement has not gone away; just the vehicles have.

Screening, reconnaissance and exploitation are extremely important in high intensity warfare, and we are witnessing increasing interest in powerful formations for this role also in the USA, where more and more often the old and extremely powerful Armored Cavalry Regiment of Gulf War fame is mentioned as a kind of formation that needs to return and might in fact provide a base for the future structures.
The premise is something I don’t disagree on.

The Strike mission requires highly dispersed operations enabled by low signature, highly redundant C2 which can concentrate effects in both time and space in ways far more detrimental to the enemy’s scheme of manoeuvre than might otherwise be the case if conventional methods were used.
Strike is looking to add as much friction and uncertainty to the enemy formation as possible by enabling Fires, Aviation, Air and a whole range of joint effects to destroy, defeat, and inflict attrition on enemy formations within a Division’s or Corps’ battlespace. Ultimately, this allows Armoured Infantry Brigades and/or coalition Armoured formations to conduct counterattacks and counter strokes under considerably better conditions than if Strike Brigades were not present.

The Author is right. This is part of the concept and is an effect that the British Army hopes to obtain through dispersion. From the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2019 we have learned that the STRIKE Brigade is looking at covering “a front width of 80 to 100 km, with a depth of up to 100 km, advancing on as many as 12 axis at the same time”.

Brigadier James Martin speaks from around minute 28:40. This is recommended viewing.

The Author’s mention of “uncertainty” for the enemy can actually be further developed. STRIKE is clearly the primary attempt of the British Army to fit into the new Multi Domain concept pushed by the US Army. To understand what I mean, I recommend reading this report (of course coming from the American side. Unfortunately the British Army is terrible at this kind of communication and rarely produces something which is both accessible and worth reading) from WARFIGHTER Exercise 19-04. This massive wargame / simulation exercise held in the US had 3rd (UK) Division involved and the article does an excellent job at explaining just what this concept of “creating dilemmas for the enemy” is all about.

“A single penetration, though conservative and often effective, would not achieve the commander’s intent. The penetration presents the enemy with one problem—a problem that other units have presented repeatedly. Dilemmas are not the same as problems. A problem is a situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful that must be dealt with and overcome. A dilemma, by contrast, is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones. To present the enemy with multiple dilemmas across multiple domains and in multiple locations, the Division combined penetrations with audacious turning movements and tactical deceptions, complemented and reinforced with nonlethal effects.”

“Conducted simultaneously, the penetrations, turning movements, and tactical deceptions enabled the Division to achieve a degree of irreversible momentum against the enemy. The armor penetrations kept the enemy’s sensors engaged. The turning movements avoided the enemy’s principle defensive positions and seized objectives behind the enemy’s current positions causing the enemy to both dislocate from its positions and to divert forces to meet the threat. The tactical deceptions, in particular feints, kept the enemy fixed on sizable threats, which influenced the enemy’s decision to prematurely unmask forces in sanctuary inside its underground facilities. Additionally, the combat aviation Brigade was employed as an independent maneuver organization focused on destroying enemy high-payoff targets—in particular long-range artillery. Synchronizing all of these actions in time, space, and purpose became a tremendously complex task and the primary focus for the Division main command post.”

It is pretty clear where the STRIKE concept fits in, and also the kind of considerations that have driven the (incredibly welcome) development of the British Army finally forming a coherent aviation Brigade for Division-level ops.

It is also pretty clear, however, how different the US and British approaches are. The British Army believes that this kind of warfare can be founded upon a wheeled (in part…) Brigade, with the consequent reduced sustainment needs, while the US Army has in no way identified a particular advantage for wheels or tracks. The US Army has actually not yet wedded itself to a new Brigade Combat Team structure for this kind of distributed warfare; but has actually started from evolving its FIRES, and the sensors and communications needed to employ them to strike out to 1,000 miles and beyond. The absolutely central role of FIRES is something that the American article once again makes clear, reaffirming how artillery is at the same time the main problem and the most promising solution.

The US is especially not betting that they can somehow practice dispersion by using a Brigade consisting of just 2 infantry Battalions to split across up to 12 axis of advance on a front of 100x100 km. They do consider a level of dispersion and wider fronts, but in much more realistic terms. Now, obviously the British Army is in no condition to throw as many combined arms Battalions at a front as the US Army can, but the worst possible thing to do is to pretend once again that “less is more” and aim for stars that can’t be reached.  

It is no mystery that I think the US Army approach is the more realistic one. And it is no mystery that the main thing that remains mysterious is how the British approach to dispersion is supposed to successfully work. It is more than legitimate to have doubts.

I will once again reference one of the most interesting proposals for future army formations in a Multi Domain Operations setting, which is the Reconnaissance and Strike Group put forward by US Army Colonel (retd) Douglas MacGregor, of battle of 73 Easting fame. His RSG has obvious points of contact with both the ACR of his days and with STRIKE. The formation he proposes is meant to cover a very wide front of 60 to 80 kilometers, with a depth of attack of 80 to 100 depending mostly on terrain.

The Reconnaissance Strike Group is built around its FIRES element.

It differs from STRIKE in many ways, however: it is founded upon a powerful FIRES formation literally at its center, and puts 4 extremely powerful and tracked Recce-Strike combined arms battalions all around it. It is a mobile fortress which fights on a very vast area, finding and striking targets. Its Battalions, in the proposal, are clearly meant to achieve infiltration by force, and lots of it. MacGregor wants something lighter than an MBT, but with firepower at least equal, and in fact superior: he urges the US Army to adopt a new standardized tracked Armoured vehicle coming in IFV variant with 30mm and Direct Fire variant with 120mm, if not with the new Rheinmetall 130 mm cannon. Moreover, he also wants the Battalions to have numerous organic AMOS 120mm turreted mortars on the same base hull.

Again, the US Army clearly can afford to purchase more and better kit than the British Army could ever afford, so a direct comparison of kit is not the point of this. What I truly want people to reflect on is that the extremely powerful RSG is meant to operate, with twice the mass and several times over the firepower, on an area which is smaller than the one STRIKE is supposedly meant to cover, against the same opponent.

How can this ever be realistic? If you can’t afford the equipment, you can’t cover the area. If you can’t infiltrate by means of force and are extremely unlikely to do it by means of stealth, what is left? This is my chief worry about STRIKE. It is not about the “30 mm on BOXER” in isolation, it is the fact that I do not see any real effort to make dispersion viable. STRIKE takes vehicles and armaments of a Brigade that used to count on MBTs for the striking power, and tells them, literally, to operate over a far greater area. How can spreading insufficient resources on an even wider area be considered a solution is mysterious.

In TANK, the Royal Tank Regiment journal, issue 2017, Lieutenant J. Benn writes after involvement in STRIKE simulations and mentions, among other things, that “in CATT, the AJAX Troop was spread up to 8 km apart, with commanders being able to make decisions for themselves about Limits of Exploitation and what risks they could take. Exploitation was the principle aim and if the threat picture became too great we simply dissolved into the ether in order to concentrate elsewhere”.

This might appear extremely bold and innovative to some, but it appears exceptionally fragile in a multitude of ways, and I seriously struggle to imagine much room for actual exploitation against a peer enemy with even the most basic of competence in using its own sensors and weapons. It literally seems like a desperate attempt to avoid annihilation via artillery by spreading out too widely to present a good target, but without a real answer about how to preserve a meaningful offensive potential.

When people pontificate that “strike cannot survive against a peer competitor,” they seem to do so from a standpoint which does not reflect an understanding of Formation-, Division- or Corps-level warfighting. So some people clearly think Strike is an alternative to an Armoured infantry Brigade, which given the announcement made in December 2016, that the Field Army would reorganise as two Strike Brigades and two Armoured Infantry Brigades is hard to understand, as the intended role of the Strike Brigades, if not immediately articulated, was obviously both different from and complimentary to, the Armoured Infantry Brigades. Even the most casual observer should have concluded that a Strike Brigade does not fight or operate like an Armoured Infantry Brigade and has a totally different mission. If 50% of the formation is reconnaissance vehicles, then logic would strongly suggest the role it currently has is far from being as “vague and unclear” as some suggest.

We have established in what contest STRIKE fits in. And while I can’t speak for others, I have always had in mind the fact that 3rd Division is meant to deploy as 2 Armoured Brigades and 1 STRIKE. But that does not in itself ease the concerns about STRIKE being unsuited for the kind of fights it imagines.

Also, please note that the British Army itself says that of the 2 AJAX-mounted regiments in each STRIKE Brigade, only one is expected to be truly recce roled, with the other called Medium Armour. The Army has made extremely clear that AJAX is there to act as a medium tank of sort in support of the infantry carried by MIV, and that the coupling of the two vehicles is indispensable because, as we know, MIV is extremely lightly armed. It is in fact an APC, and in other times this means it would have kept pretty much out of the fight; in STRIKE this is not quite possible and MIV will be in the very vanguard despite not being truly equipped for it.

I would avoid making the point that 50% of the vehicles are “recce” because it is not quite as meaningful as the Author implies. While in the future the aspiration seems to be that the line between “recce” and “striking” battlegroups will be increasingly blurred, if not cancelled, to claim that the presence of AJAX means everything is clear cut is not realistic. AJAX is there primarily because it is what the Army has. It is the most expensive contract the army has entered into for decades. There is no easy way out of it (if at all), and STRIKE needed something with Direct Fire capability and good “eyes”. There never was a choice; it was AJAX or nothing at that point in time.

The AJAX family: variants, sub-variants and procurement quantities. The Joint Fires sub-variant appears to be effectively dead, while the status of Overwatch and Ground Based Surveillance is not known.

STRIKE will not operate as a traditional Armoured Brigade and no one has tried to imply otherwise. Or at least, I haven’t. 
But it is a fact of life that at the lower levels, the cooperation between AJAX and MIV will still have to very closely imitate the relationship between an MBT and an APC in a Mechanized formation. AJAX being the armour, MIV being the APC which, unlike in a traditional scenario, will have to do more than stay well back and drop its infantry some distance away from the actual target. It is fair to say that at Brigade level the concept is very different from that of “normal” Mechanized Infantry Brigades, but deep down at platoon level the difference is far less.
Again J. Benn mentions: “in CATT, AJAX and MIV pairs worked alongside one another, with the AJAX commanders under the direction of the Platoon Commander”.

He goes on to make a series of reasonable points about how this will have to be taken into consideration in training both MIV and Platoon Commanders, which will have to be particularly prepared in both fields. Intimate collaboration at all training levels is also extremely relevant, but of course the STRIKE battlegroups only form up in the field, and otherwise are well separated entities with the AJAX half living in Tidworth and the MIV half in Catterick. Finding a way to create permanent STRIKE BGs was too innovative for this innovative project. Capbadge bunfights will have been in the way too, I bet.

Simulation of course helps, but the cost and intricacies of training are going to be massive if this has to work and it is another reason why I utterly despise the argument that STRIKE is a cheaper alternative to legacy Mechanized Brigades. They really aren’t, at no level, assuming you are serious about doing it right.

The Author suggests elsewhere in his text that the renewed concept of screening began with AJAX itself, and it is probably true, in a way. When it was still known as FRES SV, there were going to be several other variants in a number of successive production batches, with more vehicles ordered to cover more roles. Crucially, there used to be an actual Medium Armour variant which was meant to be procured to ensure the Scout variant would have intimate support of 120mm guns. You might remember that a lot of happy noise was produced back then because AJAX came with the large turret ring capability, ready to accept the turret and cannon needed to create the Medium Armour variant.

FRES SV clearly had plans that extended well beyond what AJAX now delivers. Medium Armour was already planned back then. The difference is that the previous plan had the firepower, not just the name.

General Dynamics has benefitted from that as it gave them a developed base to work on to mature their proposal for the US Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower medium armour programme (although armed with a 105mm rather than a 120, at least for now). 

The British Army, short of money, is stuck to saying that half of the AJAXs will be “Medium Armour” even though they are the exact same vehicle with the exact same armament. It is this kind of “magic” that I really can’t support. At one point in this story, the dramatic loss of firepower that intervened since the true Medium Armour and Overwatch (long range ATGW launcher vehicle) variants that had to be part of FRES SV have both vanished, has been brushed under the carpet. The firepower is no longer there, but the role is, and the area to cover is still the same. Or indeed much larger.

The latest image of General Dynamics’ offering for the US Army Mobile Protected Firepower. These are intended to equip a Squadron within each infantry brigade. The Stryker brigades have concentrated their wheeled 105mm Mobile Gun Systems at Squadron level within their cavalry element as well, while a Squadron of MBTs has been moved into the recce element of Armored Brigade Combat Teams.
Italy assigns a similar number of CENTAURO to the Cavalry regiment of each of its brigades. The challenges of urban warfare and the recognized need for a stronger screening are part of the reason for this firepower increase across various countries and brigade structures.

What I firmly believe was not planned before 2015 at the earliest was the eventual split of the same Brigade between tracks and wheels.
I don’t think anyone can deny that there was a rather dramatic split in ideas between the era of CGS Sir Peter Wall, which ended with tracks being the absolute priority and the signing of the AJAX contract in its very last days, and the era of CGS Sir Nicholas Carter which followed with the dawn of STRIKE. The equipment programme shows the damage that the about turn from tracks to wheels has caused, leaving the Army stranded in the middle with insufficient money to do both and, moreover, to fund everything else in the contour.  

I believe there can be little doubt that, had AJAX not been already on order, in the context of STRIKE it would not have been pursued in its current form.
We are where we are at this point, but let’s not turn a blind eye to reality.

This brings us to a key point about Strike, which again some seem not understand. Strike is not a platform-centric idea. Yes, Strike may have started with Ajax, but that was pure logic, based on the fact that covering forces were in the formation recce business, as in CVR(T) regiments. Ajax is the CVR(T) replacement. This means that criticism of Strike is based on shallow technical analysis of Ajax and Boxer. The most simplistic observations seem to focus on direct fire weapons and mobility.
High lethality is required, and any vehicle can increase its capacity to offend by adding a weapon, but that comes with large cost implications attached, and so the often heard comment that “Boxer needs a 30mm cannon” assumes the absolute need for such a weapon, or else Strike will be a “hollow force.” For Strike, what gives the 30mm weapon its real value is the sighting and detection system inherent to it. Thus, lots of people talk about the 40mm cannon on Ajax. Almost no one talks about the Thermal Imager, which is actually the key capability. The strike concept of operation clearly puts primacy on sensors and communications. To paraphrase Wavell: “Amateurs talk 30mm cannons. Professionals talk communications and sensors”.
As previously stated, lethality is clearly both important and required, but as the current Strike Brigade Commander has pointed out, what experience has shown is that for Strike to succeed it merely needs to be competitive with the enemy, as opposed to superior to the enemy. You just need to win the fight rather than the whole battle. Consequently, the plan has always been to  resource Strike units with both mounted and dismounted ATGM and anti-armour weapons, which are obviously high pay-off in terms of cost versus effect/ flexibility.

To some measure it is true that final capability is not purely due to platforms. But you cannot pretend platforms are not key. The idea might well be kind of platform agnostic, but its realization cannot be. MIV was always going to be wheeled, because it is felt that only wheeled armour has the kind of low sustainment burden needed for dispersion to have a chance. Moreover, the British Army selected the absolutely most expensive 8x8 on the market. Why, if platform attributes are not that important? Why has it insisted on having numerous ambulances and command posts on this very expensive vehicle base rather than be “innovative” and offload those to something less expensive, like MRV-P, in a fashion already seen in other countries?[1]

Because, I am told, you need the exact same protection and mobility level for those elements for STRIKE to work, because everyone has to work dispersed and, indeed, probably surrounded by enemies. There is no rear echelon anymore, is the argument, which if pushed to the extreme introduces all sorts of implications for the wider Logistic element too. I’ve seen people seriously debating the opportunity of carrying supplies in BOXERs, but I hope no one is seriously thinking about replacing MAN SV trucks with it. Some heavily protected load carriers have been seen before, of course, but it’s unclear quite how far the Army thinks it needs to go.    

For sure, it is serious enough in its belief that BOXER is the only base vehicle that will suffice, to bet its available budget on the current order. An order which is the largest ever made so far worldwide for BOXER vehicles. And yet, even though more than 520 BOXERs are incoming, at most 4 infantry battalions will convert to it. Or possibly just 2 plus a training margin, since some say that the first BOXER order is only sufficient for the first STRIKE Brigade, not also for the second. The exact details are not known yet.
In another European army such an order could have equipped about twice as many Infantry Battalions, since other countries would have focused their attention on the combat variants.
And yet, at the same time, key elements of combat capability such as the mortars have received no equal attention, which is another aspect that I find frankly incomprehensible.

The Author writes “This concept [STRIKE] then allowed the British Army to buy BOXER. So, no Strike, no BOXER.” I’d argue that it is more factually accurate to say that the British Army has actually decided “no BOXER, no STRIKE”: its procurement choices make clear that the one thing the Army absolutely wants to have in order to declare STRIKE operational is a large amount of wheeled APCs, “specialist” carriers, ambulances and command posts. It has put the available budget into buying BOXER, not in Satcom-on-the-move-enabled tactical headquarters, not on speeding up LeTacCis to move beyond BOWMAN, not on curing the recognized, immense gap in FIRES and not even on continuing the slow process of modernization of its Armoured Brigades, putting their very future into jeopardy. The Army has chosen its overriding priority in BOXER, and has accepted all sorts of limitations, both on the equipment fit of the vehicles itself and in other areas of its capability, in order to buy it. This is undeniable. Regardless of what the Author claims, the Army has decided that it could not use MASTIFF, or FV432 for the first part of the life of its new creature. It demands to have BOXER to declare IOC. So long for not being platform and wheels centric! You can’t deny that this has been the choice. The only question left to be answered is whether this was wise. If you ask me, it wasn’t. 

And yes, we have all been told about the wonder that the Thales ORION sight is, and how AJAX will be an excellent target finder. But I’m afraid I am a little less prone to believing in hype, and I don’t think the enemy’s own thermal cameras will be that much worse to tip the balance. And that’s without even venturing in how Thales thermal cameras have been supplied to Russia in the recent past. Or in how, absurdly, AJAX needs to have that prodigious sight removed in case fitting the RWS is felt necessary. Gods know how anyone could think this was a good idea.

I also do agree in principle on “winning fights, not battles”. Battles are for the whole force to win. But again, my arguments are being reduced to absurdity rather than countered more factually. To win fights you still have to be equipped sufficiently well to have good chances. Has someone taken a bit of time in the last while to observe Armoured vehicle development in Russia (and indeed elsewhere too), and appreciated that they tend to put ATGWs and 30mm guns almost on everything? And even heavier guns on the rest, I’ll add.
The Author say it is enough to be “competitive”, but the gap in both direct and indirect firepower is so vast that I’m far from convinced that even that modest requirement is properly satisfied.

I continue to struggle to see how the dispersed groups of the STRIKE Brigade infiltrate the enemy ground and win fights. Even assuming they can always evade the enemy MBTs, they don’t compare well to enemy AFVs either, including the wheeled ones which match of exceed STRIKE’s mobility and thus cannot be realistically avoided. Will they infiltrate by strength? They don’t have that kind of strength.

Are lightly armed APCs and AJAXs going to slip undetected past people with mobile phones which might be less than sympathetic, past UAVs, past enemy aviation and sensors and Fires and EW and the whole range of Peer capabilities? Will they infiltrate by stealth? It’s extremely unlikely, at best.

Will they infiltrate by means of superior mobility? Both BOXER and AJAX are around 40 tons behemoths with some limits on the actual choice of road routes, yet they are expected to disperse and concentrate at will. They are supposed to be both able to stay dispersed enough to be a poor target for enemy artillery, yet strong enough or at least able to concentrate when needed to be dangerous enough to count as the already mentioned “dilemmas” for the enemy.
I very much struggle to see how.

Boxer is not invisible. Its strategic mobility advantage is only true compared to what the British Army already has, but there is no advantage whatsoever when the term of paragon is enemy wheeled armor, better armed and supported by enormously superior Fires. Not to mention how difficult / impossible it would be to provide any kind of air defence to the distributed groups, and how easy it would be for the enemy to cut them off and suffocate them one by one.
And I’m not even venturing in the endless scenarios that could be drawn up when considering the many difficulties that would have to be faced in order to keep the dispersed elements resupplied, and the absolutely uphill battle of Electronic Warfare to enable the STRIKE elements to communicate and share data.  

Another point that I feel deserves a mention is that STRIKE’s unpredictability almost completely ends as soon as a meaningful river is encountered. There is little to no ability to cross unless a suitable bridge is secured, and that takes away a lot of that unpredictability. I was astonished during one of my early discussions at being told that STRIKE “does not anticipate having to bridge a gap in the direct fire zone”, so ABLE alone, or REBS, would have to suffice.

In more recent times it seems someone has realized that this is truly asking for too much luck and for an enemy truly too incompetent to be taken seriously, and project TYRO (the renewal of bridging equipment) has sprung a requirement for a Wheeled Close Support Launch Vehicle, aka an alternative, on wheels, to TITAN[2]. Again, note Army emphasis on wheels. Not a WARRIOR-based bridgelayer, or an ARES-based one, even though industry has demonstrated both. But the years keep passing, and TYRO is still without a contract, like so many other things.

Compare this to the Russian philosophy. Even their latest Boomerang 8x8 has amphibious capability, and while crossing a major river remains a complex operation, and sustainment still requires a bridge to eventually go up, they do have options. They can put some armour on the other side without waiting for the bridging equipment to arrive. That allows them more unpredictability than STRIKE will ever have. And it is yet another part of why I warn everyone that STRIKE does not have any real tactical mobility advantage over the enemy, so “mobility” is an extremely poor answer to the question “how does infiltration happen?”.

From the Land Warfare conference in 2019 we learn that STRIKE groups must be comfortable with the awareness that they have no secure flank. I understand the idea, but not the application of it: you need to have something that gives you the confidence to be a mobile strike group and not a cut off group lost in enemy land. Élan alone is not the answer.

It is clear to me that indirect FIRES are the primary, if not the only way to keep the dispersed group “light” yet ensure it has the firepower to hit hard. Also, getting back to the WARFIGHTER 19-04 report, once you have forced the enemy artillery to open fire and reveal itself because of your dispersed groups, the one thing you really want is to be able to timely hit it. This is not done necessarily with capabilities organic to STRIKE, but the ability to do this is very much organic to the wider concept. If this capability is not developed, STRIKE does not achieve its aims.

On the specific topic of ATGWs, again it shows that I debate these issues with more than one person. For years I have enquired about the Overwatch sub-variant of ARES, which is meant to deploy ATGW within the AJAX formations. I was told in no uncertain terms that money was not there to do more with it than kit the interiors to carry dismounted Javelin teams. The once hoped for BRIMSTONE is nowhere to be seen, and to my desperation I was told that there was no plan and no money even for something as basic as putting a single JAVELIN on the Protector RWS.

In more recent times, a couple of alternative army sources, including this Author, have instead claimed that kind of capability is funded (at least for some of the BOXER Specialized Carriers, still not sure about ARES…?), and I welcome that change of heart. I hope it proves true, but I still don’t know for sure who has it right. Unless the additional JAVELINs are yet another thing the Army plans to rob out of that sad fellow which is today’s 1st Division, at some point in the future we will be able to read a Foreign Military Sales document from the US detailing the purchase of new launchers and new rounds, and then we will know and have measurable data to judge.  

But again, it really doesn’t look like such a game-changing capability. For the British Army, absurdly, it is, but that’s only because under-armour ATGWs have not existed in any shape in the arsenal ever since the STRIKER / SWINGFIRE combination left active service. In comparison to what everyone else has had for years, it is still really the poor man’s attempt, however. Doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, the question is whether it is in any way sufficient.

And of course the enemy has its own missiles. On most vehicle platforms and in its infantry.
Your dispersed group needs to be able to effectively wipe out or at least seriously degrade some elements and positions of the enemy forces in order to be meaningful. You need to be lethal to screen, and you need to be lethal to create dilemmas. It’s all good delivering myriads of pinpricks to “overwhelm the enemy C2”, but those pinpricks must be meaningful enough to demand reactions and cause worry. If any amount of escorting infantry with a basic allocation of ATGWs are too much to overcome, you are pretty literally going to make no difference to enemy plans.
How dispersed STRIKE elements deliver meaningful hits by concentrating and then “dissolving into the ether” before being plastered by the superior enemy artillery remains not clear.

How many times in Afghanistan have we seen Company Groups with plenty of air support constantly overhead struggle to dislodge an enemy that was maybe numerous and holed up in a great defensive position, but also kitted with extremely poor equipment and few offensive options. STRIKE cannot afford to get bogged down in struggles that last for hours and if it concentrates too much it is artillery strike time once again.

The infantry hasn’t changed much from back then. AJAX will hit harder than SCIMITAR, and BOXER is roomy and mobile, and well protected for its category’s standards. On the other hand, all other supports are unlikely to be as readily available in a peer scenario and the peer enemy has plenty of its own ATGWs, UAVs, artillery and even access to its own air support. As well protected as MIV is, its protection matters not one bit against anti-tank missiles. If you think that issuing more JAVELINs and spreading them out over a vast area is enough to change the rules of warfare, you should wait and see the enemy issue more KORNETs to pick apart your dispersed vehicles at any chance while they travel around alone or in pairs / Troops.

So why are we expecting to obtain such good results? “Willingness to take risks” and “boldness” help, but if the whole plan revolves on “bold measures” and the willingness to take losses, I’m afraid it won’t last long. How quickly will the dispersed groups become combat ineffective?

Jane's attempt to wargame STRIKE with DSTL's own kit, which even includes capabilities that lay well into the future and have yet to be procured (new 155mm howitzers, for example) went very badly, and the enemy was a Russian force based around their parachute forces[3]. Which are the Russian units with the best training, but are also about as “light” as Russian troops come. That is not very encouraging.

The already mentioned Lieutenant J. Benn also writes in his article on TANK about STRIKE experimentation that as soon as the simulated enemy took on the characteristics of an “East Ukraine-scenario” near peer formation, “STRIKE began to struggle”. AJAX becomes the only thing between tanks and BMPs and the infantry in vulnerable MIVs, and even with the backing of JAVELIN it is a “fight that could, commander depending, go AJAX’s way but is not one that I would want to risk unnecessarily”. And also: “MIV must be comfortable operating on its own, inside a red picture and outgunned”.

I’m afraid that all this rather dramatically cuts down the number of Russian targets, even in the “rear echelon”, that can be engaged successfully. And this is assuming the enemy does not embrace dispersion himself, or at least its consequences, and insists on having a “well defined” rear echelon to penetrate while we seek to not have one ourselves. I think it is unlikely and Ukraine shows it. You will have to fight to get there.

How does infiltration happen, and how do dispersed groups of AJAX and BOXER achieve enough lethality to be “dilemmas”? How do they survive and fight, disperse and concentrate in the contested environment? If there is no answer to this question, we are heading into a dead end.  

What it also means is that lots of the equipment-based criticism and commentary on Strike are simply nugatory and ill-informed. For example, Strike doesn’t have to have organic fires to use fires, so arguing about which wheeled gun the Strike Brigade needs misses the point. It might or it might not. It doesn’t matter, and the best answers lie above that of the Strike concept in the wider evolution of Land and Joint Fires.

Organic or not, FIRES are absolutely essential to this concept of operation. STRIKE’s dispersed operations are in no small part meant to find targets and put the enemy’s own FIRES at risk. Remember that we are talking in the context of near peer and peer enemies (has anyone realized that it is the UK that is a Russia near-peer and not the other way around, by the way?) and of A2AD. Anti Access Area Denial has been part of Carter’s discourse and idea from the start.

STRIKE is meant to Self-Deploy because A2AD means some traditional ways of accessing Theatre might not be viable.

STRIKE is meant to fight dispersed because the artillery part of the enemy A2AD capability would otherwise destroy the massed groups, as Brigadier Martin himself remarks in the opening phase of his RUSI intervention.

STRIKE needs fires because A2AD means air support is not an option and, again I quote the Army itself, it is now the “Land that has to enable the Air” in some cases, by weakening enemy defences.

How can FIRES not be an absolutely critical part of the discourse? Any discussion on STRIKE which does not focus on FIRES and how to timely direct them almost literally from every single vehicle is a discussion that is ignoring reality.

The already mentioned “dilemmas” are actually primarily meant to force the enemy artillery into fights it does not want, because we know how lethal Russian artillery is and we need to silence it somehow. Unless STRIKE is seriously expecting to charge for the guns and take them out with AJAX’s gun, FIRES are front and center.

The “dilemmas” are meant to create the conditions for counter-battery, for taking out enemy sensors, and to allow Land Forces to strike, destroy or force out of position enemy air defence elements, so that in turn allied Air Power can truly land the blows. The Author himself suggests it earlier in his own article.

An article on Wavell Room previously also put the focus on STRIKE as an ISR enabler and as a way to move artillery detection sensors up-threat.

STRIKE absolutely needs significant organic FIRES, and moreover ready access to long range, hard hitting FIRES at higher levels. Which means that Sensors, Networking and FIRES need some real serious development.

The US Army has made FIRES its absolute top priority in the context of Multi Domain Operations.  
The Royal Artillery also has a series of very sensible requirements to contribute to this “new” way of fighting, but unfortunately has had them for sometimes close to 2 decades, without any of them getting funded. Longer range and more flexible rockets for GMLRS are now penciled in for 2030, while a Land Precision Strike requirement exists for a long range (60+ km) “overwatch” missile that can, among other things, lend lethality to dispersed groups (assuming target hand-over is well thought out), with EXACTOR partially filling this area until then.

Industry is quick to exploit what is perceived as a “BOXER for everything” hunger in some quarters of the Army. Here MBDA and RBLS push their vision for Land Precision Strike. Arguably, it should be easier to keep the missile launcher away from counterbattery threats, so a cheaper, and ideally more nimble vehicle base would do, in my opinion.  

Closing the lethality and range gap should be the absolute priority, but unfortunately is not, and the casual way in which this factor is constantly brushed aside, as if it was utterly secondary, is a recipe for disaster and one of the primary reasons why I cannot support STRIKE, or at least the way in which it is being handled.  

The Author rightly mentions the importance of sensors. I actually absolutely agree. I’ve been screaming from the rooftops for years that an Army as well aware as the British Army is of the enemy’s utterly crushing superiority in terms of FIRES cannot still field only 34 light counter-mortar radars and 5 MAMBA artillery locators in total.

As I’ve said in few characters on Twitter:
“Problem is UAV plans still very vague, EW and sensors are a sore spot (those poor lonely 5 MAMBA radars are a punch in the face)”

2012 was supposed to bring new radars. That became 2026 with the current SERPENS programme. Do we think this will be the right time…? Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic.

As for the debate on “which wheeled gun”, this goes on because the British Army has initiated the Mobile Fires Platform programme to procure 98 new mobile howitzer to replace AS90 and the currently entirely inadequate L118s of 3 RHA and 4 RA Regiments, the STRIKE units, and the selection of a wheeled platform is seen as overwhelmingly likely. I think it is an important capability and thus worthy of serious debate, but at the same time I’m not as dogmatically committed to just one solution as I’m made out to be. 

The Reconnaissance Strike Group I already mentioned earlier, for example, actually does not have any 155mm howitzers at all, but has replaced them in the Close Support role by massively uplifting the allocation of 120 mm mortars, while organic GMLRS and Loitering Munitions / Suicidal Drones give it its Deep Fire capability. It might well be that this is the future, or at least part of it. What is absolutely certain is that High Intensity warfare in the future will have more FIRES, not less. Everyone has accepted this, except apparently the British Army.

The Royal Artillery ran an experimentation already years ago exploiting the French army’s CAESAR autocannons. Here gunners from 1 RHA get trained in its use.

RBLS’s entry for the new howitzer for the Royal Artillery has good chances of being selected. It is a step up from CAESAR as it offers more traverse and does not need the crew to dismount in the open to fire the gun. Frankly, I would rather have the howitzer on the BOXER hull and the Land Precision Strike missile on the more fragile truck base, since the gun is more likely to be exposed to counterbattery, and over longer periods of time.

Funnily enough, the Royal Artillery could have had the Fire Shadow loitering munition already in service. The British Army was briefly in the vanguard in the field of Loitering Munitions, and I was one of the (few, at the time) supporters of that idea.
Like 99% of modern day Royal Artillery programmes, however, it ended up cut.

Until the pitifully weak FIRES are cured, I can’t imagine STRIKE going anywhere.  

The other odd claim is that “wheels and tracks don’t mix,” which is clearly a reference to Ajax being tracked, and Boxer being wheeled. Again, this can only be a lack of experience and/or understanding. For example, from the 1970s and 80’s the Bundeswehr had Divisional Reconnaissance Battalions which mixed Luchs wheeled recce vehicles with Leopard 1 tanks at the sub-unit level.  Clearly, you can mix tracks and wheels, and people do. The French Army routinely mixes tracks and wheels at the unit level with Leclerc, VBCI and VBL. There are many more examples including Soviet Divisional-level anti-tank Battalions and combat reconnaissance patrols which routinely mixed tanks, tracked IFVs and Armoured cars. Soviet wheeled BTR Regiments had organic tank Battalions. Tracks versus wheels is largely a false dilemma which is supposedly about mobility, but is actually more about cost and sustainment.

It is of course true that there are plenty of examples out there of tracks and wheels mixes, but they don’t prove anything unless they are taken in context. Is carrying infantry in wheeled APCs or IFVs in support of tanks a major problem? I don’t think it is. The wheeled vehicle will not always be able to traverse the same terrain the MBT could, but most of the time will and it comes with its own advantages, so it is overall an acceptable compromise. Wheels have their own merits, including a much higher degree of self-deployability. It makes sense to reduce a Brigade’s cost and sustainment burden by having infantry riding on wheels.

I have indeed recommended several times now that the cash strapped British Army might want to settle for less ambitious plans and move BOXER towards being a WARRIOR replacement, considering the bleak financial position.

An inviting demo BOXER with Lockheed Martin’s “export” variant of the Warrior CSP turret.

Obviously, my suggestion was met with plenty of outrage from British Army figures and experts of all kinds because it mixes tracks and wheels, and that is bad for all sorts of good reasons they were eager to school me in. Which was really amusing after other Army figures had schooled me and continue to school me in why mixing tracks and wheels is not a problem at all and STRIKE will work just fine.

I assume the Author of this particular article is not one of those who protested, but again, as I’ve warned at the beginning, I debate these issues with multiple figures, and part of my frustration comes exactly from that. Anyone you speak to gives you a different interpretation of what STRIKE is, and of whether tracks and wheels mix well or not, whether FIRES are key or not, etcetera. I am never afforded the luxury of debating a solid and enduring interpretation of STRIKE, which in itself is a further proof that the concept is not clear and not well understood, not even within the Army. The supporters of STRIKE come across as being supportive not of STRIKE how it is, but of how they imagine it.
It very much seems, and the Author himself in some ways confirms it in his piece, that the Army is at war with itself with various factions in disagreement over the direction of travel.

The Author also mentions examples of wheeled scouts being used in support of tracked Armoured formations. Again, context is everything, and I think those cases make sense. There are many examples in the world: France, USMC, Italy, Germany, Australia and others use variations on the theme of wheels scouting in favor of tracks. I think it is a decent solution because it allows the reconnaissance element to be a lot more sustainable, self-deployable and nimble. The screening element can move around with quite some freedom, with more endurance and less sustainment concerns.

So why do I criticize the “half-tracked” nature of the STRIKE Brigade?

Because the tracked element of STRIKE is the only one with serious Direct Fire capability. Moreover, it is the Scout, in the British case, that needs to ride on semi-trailers for as much of the travel as possible. It is the “eyes” of the Brigade that are most difficult to deploy and sustain, and this for me is an absurdity. And, tellingly, it is the exact opposite of what happens in the Countries mentioned before.

Moreover we have been told, including from then CGS Carter himself, that these Brigades are meant to self-deploy over great distances on road. The infamous 2,000 km self deployment march is an Army claim, not something I put into the Army’s mouth. Brigadier Martin reaffirms it in the RUSI Land Warfare Conference.

But by including AJAX in your “self-deploying” Brigade you are making things considerably harder for yourself. And since the British Army has few HETs and LETs (89 + 3 recovery vehicles the former, 77 the latter), you have limited options to move AJAX, and even fewer to move the heavy armour that has to “exploit the conditions that STRIKE creates”. STRIKE is supposed to get there early, infiltrate, scout, secure ground, again “create the conditions” for the rest of the force to enter battle on more favorable terms. If it takes ages to get there, and the rest of the Force does not arrive for an even longer time, it’s a serious issue.

STRIKE is also meant to be the British Army’s primary option for “SERVAL-like operations” in geographically vast battlefields such as the ones that might be encountered in Africa. Cue many mentions of Mali.

France of course did not mix tracked and wheeled vehicles in Mali: it does not need to. The French counterpart to STRIKE is not the Armoured Brigades because they have VBCIs alongside LECLERCs, but their Medium Weight Brigades which will have GRIFFON APCs, JAGUARs Cavalry vehicles and also a Battalion on VBCIs for the hardest jobs. Indeed, the French Medium Brigade has 2 cavalry regiments on JAGUAR, like STRIKE has 2 units on AJAX, which has always come across as an interesting coincidence. Of course, the French Brigade has more infantry battalions, and French formations are built to the rule of 4 and are larger.
Those same Brigades today have AMX-10RC, SAGAIE and VABs, which means they have a very healthy amount on firepower and sensors running on wheels and can indeed self deploy over very significant ranges and go straight into fighting, as they did in the early hours of Operation SERVAL.  

With STRIKE, if you don’t deploy AJAX you are missing out on both the firepower and the sensors.
The Author does not get into this side of the debate, but it exists, and many STRIKE supporters regularly bring STRYKER Brigades, or the French or Italian Medium Brigades into the discourse. And every time they do I will point out that it is a poor comparison, and one in which STRIKE loses on several fronts. It has less of everything, apart from tracks, when compared to those units, and it is an easily demonstrable fact.

In the end, regarding “tracks and turrets”, just to further clarify what my actual complaint is: STRIKE has its (limited) firepower all riding on tracks. Wheels, which are reasonably expected to be faster and better at self-deploying, have little to no firepower. It is simply counter-intuitive.

STRIKE, when described as this great opening act self-deploying over 2,000 km, always reminds me the original Italian CENTAURO Brigades of Cold War years, which were meant to race down Italy’s roads ahead of heavy armour following on trailers. Those Brigades had to contain a soviet breakout and, more specifically, any soviet amphibious landing on the long and exposed Italian coast. They had to get there quickly, on their own, and once there they were expected to delay, to screen and to hold, slowing down the enemy and allowing allied heavy armour to get into position. But to do that, they had CENTAURO with its 105mm gun and MBT-level of firepower, plus ATGW and SAM teams riding on Puma wheeled APCs. The cheap, light Puma 4x4 and 6x6 have eventually given way to today’s FRECCIA 8x8.

Wheels get there quick, and need the firepower to be meaningful once they arrive. STRYKER Brigades are adding 30mm guns, more JAVELINs, and grouping 105mm and Anti-Tank vehicles in their recce squadron to increase their punch. Japan has the Type 16 8x8 with 105mm gun. Italy has CENTAURO and is replacing it with CENTAURO 2 with a 120/45 (the ballistics are the exact same of the universally common 120/44, with the extra caliber compensating the pepperpot muzzle brake). Every Italian FRECCIA 8x8 comes with a 25mm, and the Brigade has a healthy allocation of SPIKE anti-tank missiles, Medium Range at Coy level and Long Range at Battalion level. France has AMX-10RC and, as it downgrades to 40mm on the JAGUAR, it made at least sure to put long range ATGWs in box launchers on the new vehicle to compensate. Poland has lots of 30mm and SPIKE missiles and proposals for 105 or 120mm cannons on ROSOMAKs periodically resurface. All of these Brigades also have 120mm mortars and 155 mm howitzers. And less ambitious CONOPS.
And then there is AJAX, MIV, 81mm mortars, L118s and the most ambitious of CONOPS. The problems should be evident to everyone.

If you are still stuck to tracked vehicles for firepower, you might as well be stuck to MBTs, then. At least once they arrive they'll be able to take on everything. But that brings us right back to already existing Mechanized Brigades constructs, such as Germany’s Jäger Battalions on BOXER which are slotted into Brigades built around LEOPARD 2s. Which in fact is exactly the space that MASTIFF, and later MIV, were going to fill in the original, pre-2015 Army 2020 plan. A single infantry Battalion on wheels as complement to those on WARRIORs.    
But STRIKE is supposed to be something different, innovative and lighter, with less of a sustainment challenge.

In short: if you are putting wheels into a heavy formation that comprises MBTs, you are driving some of the sustainment burden out; but if you add tracks to a Medium Weight Brigade meant to operate over extremely long distances, you are instead adding a whole lot of sustainment burden in. And in fact, Medium Brigades in other countries are entirely wheeled, and a wheeled solution was indicated from day 1 for MIV in the context of STRIKE as well. And I go back to how wheels are now a requirement in TYRO and the near certain winners in the AS90 replacement[4]. Coincidence? Clearly no.  

It is undeniable that the mixture of wheels and tracks in this particular concept and in this particular fashion is sub-optimal at best. You can’t simultaneously claim that STRIKE is different from existing Armoured / Mechanized Brigades and then use those very Brigades with their much different CONOPS as justification for your platform mix.

In passing, I must drop a bitter mention of (dis)honor for the decisions in 2010 – 2011 that have nearly killed off the Army’s ability to use railways to move its vehicles and kit across Europe. By 2023 some kind of U-turn is apparently going to come to maturation with some form of capability rebuilt and I welcome that, but in general the issue of deploying STRIKE, and moreover the Division itself, seems to be getting a lot less attention than it should, along with the enduring failures of Whole Fleet Management in ensuring vehicles come out of storage in good conditions. Fixing WFM would do more to speed up the Army’s deployment time than BOXER self-deploying on its wheels. But this is another story, even if tightly entwined with the wider argument about how the Army chooses its priorities.   

Given its remit to “redefine how the British Army fights,” is Strike the future of the British Army? The answer is “yes,” not “it depends” or “too early to tell.” It simply is.
Firstly, because there aren’t any other options, and secondly, thirdly and fourthly, money! The force structure descended from Cold War Armoured Divisions or even the short live multi-role Brigades, and now Armoured infantry Brigades might no longer be competitive for the cost.
In the eyes of some of the kit-junkies, an ideal UK Armoured Infantry Brigade would have Leopard-2 MBTs, CV-90 MkIV and some wheeled 155mm. In essence, all you would have is a more expensive version of what was causing the problem in the first place and avoids asking the hard questions about how to evolve or transform. The question that will eventually have to be asked is what comes after the Armoured Infantry Brigades? How can they transform in line with cost and effect.

This is where things get really slippery. 
We have established early on that STRIKE is a supporting tool. A screening and reconnaissance and exploitation force that is meant to “help others win”.

The “others” being the Armoured Brigades, for the foreseeable future at least. But, in the very same article, the Author casts doubts on the future and affordability of those very same Brigades. Unfortunately he is not the only one. Other STRIKE supporters have more or less openly urged the Army to get rid of its heavy armour in order to continue funding STRIKE. It is an alarming suggestion I encounter more and more frequently in UK circles and which has made RUSI pages in William F. Owen’s paper “War without tanks”[5]

Literally no one else thinks it is a good idea, at all, and before you mention the USMC I will remark that they are abdicating running their own tanks but count on the US Army to deploy lots of them[6], and they are now more than ever trying to think of a very specific role in a very specific environment. They make for an utterly irrelevant comparison.

To his defence, the Author here does not quite venture into saying out loud that armour should go, unlike others. He talks about STRIKE being in support of “2-3 other Brigades”, and leaves the rest to the classical “we should think about how they evolve in the future”, which is an extremely open ended approach. Well, I’d really like this point to be a lot clearer, though. This is no small issue. If the cost of this supporting tool is such that the formations it is meant to support have to vanish to free up money, we clearly have encountered a huge problem.

What price should the Army pay for pursuing this concept? This is THE key question. If CHALLENGER 2 LEP and WCSP and indeed the Armoured Brigades end up paying the price in the new Review, and unfortunately this is far from unlikely, is it worth it?
The Army has already accepted to cut 1/3 of its tank regiments, convert an Armoured Brigade and deprive 1st Division of all Combat Support and Combat Service Support formations[7] in order to eventually create 2 STRIKE Brigades. It is an hefty price as it is, but it looks like it is nowhere near enough to cover the costs yet.

Ultimately, if there is no real plan for the “2-3 other Brigades”, what becomes of STRIKE? Does it magic itself into no longer a supporting tool but a battle winning asset without any change to its structure, just like AJAX became “Medium Armour” without any real modification?  

Please, note that I’m not dogmatically opposed to doing things differently, but I want to be given reasons to believe that the new approaches work.

I will exploit the occasion to repeat something I’ve already said on Twitter about how the wider army transformation might go. The latest issue of the British Army Review sheds some light on the thinking for the Conceptual Force 2035[8], and tells us that by then there will be Future Combat Teams of just 500 men, permanently Combined Arms in nature, with robotics & autonomy and substantial organic indirect and direct fires, built to the Rule of 4. Less logistic weight, yet punch comparable to that of a 1250-strong Armd BG. It doesn’t say openly that there will no longer be “tanks”, but goes close to it in implying weight and sustainment burden has to go down. It says there will be a substitutive capability delivered by lighter vehicles, in no small part through ATGWs, although I guess that also leaves a chance that there will still be some form of lighter “tank”.

This is actually extremely fascinating because BAR calculates that today’s Army authorized strength of 82,000 would then be able to field 48 such units, to spread across 3 Divisions in a British Corps. It is a beautiful image, but I don’t know how it could ever be resourced in the real world considering that the poor 1st Division is reduced to a mere container of Light Role Infantry Battalions without any CS and CSS element left (102 Logistic Brigade is planned to disband; 2 Signal Regiment and 4 Royal Artillery, currently in line for the single Vanguard Light Brigade are needed for the second STRIKE Brigade when it eventually happens, along with engineers and everything else). But if it could be done, it would be wonderful.

Capability-wise, however, this idea smells of FRES and of US Future Combat System take 2, even more ambitious and possibly even more doomed to failure and/or unaffordability. How these units would actually achieve that kind of output for their size is still very, very vague and Autonomy and Robotics are nowhere near as mature as they’d have to be to easily imagine that kind of future in little more than a decade, which is very a very short time in defence procurement terms.

However, we won't know until we try, right? But I mean try really seriously. I’m absolutely all in favor of taking a Battalion, immediately, and turn it into a permanent Combined Arms Battlegroup. Give it absolute freedom to change its organic capabilities and structure. For example: wants organic EXACTOR missiles? Try it out. Wants a platoon back to 4 sections of 10 each? Try it[9]. Wants LMM on vehicles to have a degree of anti-air / anti-UAV capability as well as a flexible anti-surface weapon which is light yet gives you extra reach and lethality?[10] Go for it.

Start gradually driving out weight and personnel to see if it is feasible at all to go down to 500 and to the mythical light logistical footprint. Use this experimental BG as OPFOR in exercise, pitting it against free thinking Armoured BGs enhanced with simulated foreign capabilities. Make it the main “customer” of AWE experiments, and use it to bring coherence in all the little innovation attempts going on all the time, which today frankly often seem a bit disconnected one from the other. Let the field trial of this new experimental unit dictate what kind of robotic help is more promising and more necessary to cut down on manpower requirements.  
The result of the exercises shapes the following round of slimming down and capability insertion. 

And please, do not repeat the STRIKE experiment, which if we are honest has never been about developing a concept, but purely about trying to find a way to make something already decided beforehand "work". Remarkably, the Brigade structure has not changed at all from what Carter described in June 2016, before the experimentation group was even stood up, in April 2017. For all I’ve been able to gather, even the STRIKE battlegroup does not show any evident innovation and its structure is immediately familiar[11]. In one image of the tabletop wargaming exercises, the BG visible is pretty much literally a formation straight out of the 90s, but with AJAX / ARES in the place of SCIMITAR and SPARTAN, and MIV for the infantry. Of course, the Army might not want to share its newer ideas and perhaps is keeping something under his hat, but this is what we know and it isn’t particularly impressive.

The battlegroup being played in this tabletop wargame exercise does not seem to have anything truly innovative about its composition.

If it is proven, in a realistic fashion, that a good alternative to MBTs exists, then we can move on in that direction. But don’t go all-in on an unproven concept.

And when your budget is so tight, don’t throw away what you have counting on jam to arrive tomorrow, especially if, as in this case, you don’t really know what color the jam might even have.

It has been pointed out to me that most of the capabilities that need to be built up into and around STRIKE are for the benefit of the whole Field Army, and this is absolutely true and very clear. Things like LeTacCis, to evolve the communications side beyond BOWMAN; SERPENS and Mobile Fires Platform and others are very clearly whole-of-the-army programs. STRIKE, supposedly, adds urgency to them and helps getting them moving.

In practice, I’m afraid it does not. It’s literally a fact that several other programs could have been funded and started out if the available money hadn’t been put on BOXER instead. 
It seems to me at times like the Army, after criticizing the Royal Navy for many years over the decision to pursue the aircraft carriers as epicenter of its future, has now decided to create its own “Strike Carrier” flagship programme in the hope that more money will be made available to advance it and kit it out for success. This approach isn’t really working wonders for the Navy and is unfortunately highly unlikely to do any better for the Army.

I hope people understand that the British Army runs the very real risk of turning, with its own hands, what was meant to be a decent Division into nothing more than a Reconnaissance and Screening contribution to a NATO Corps which will have to be made up by someone else’s Brigades. It will be a very different Army, and a very diminished country output, no matter how innovative and sophisticated it might be in its core idea. We have to be honest in debating this point, because as the Author himself reminds us, money is very much a problem and the last few decades of British Army Armoured vehicle programmes have been an unmitigated disaster that cannot be repeated one more time.

There is no real reason why the British Army, starting further west than almost everyone else, should necessarily be the one to race east and try to get there first to maneuver as the “Multi Domain” recce and screen element. Considering how many capability gaps it suffers, starting with sensors and FIRES and going up to what unfortunately remains one of the most pitifully weak ground based air defences elements in the whole of NATO, it is very badly positioned for something so ambitious. Unlike many other NATO countries, it has to build up its Medium Weight force from scratch and misses out on several decades of 8x8 experience that others instead posses. 

Many are eager to describe STRIKE as a cheaper option to “legacy” Brigades. Unfortunately, STRIKE is not the cheap option at all, and reducing the number of compromises it has to live with in its force structure and equipment will cost immense amounts of money.

Nobody forces the British Army to deliver necessarily that kind of contribution: the one demand NATO has formulated is “30-30-30-30”[12]. The UK can contribute to NATO in other ways. Why go for the most ambitious and expensive possible concept, because this is what STRIKE is, at least in Carter's description of its aims? Is it purely for prestige reasons, because the British Army has to be seen as the one NATO ally “able” to follow the US into Multi Domain Operations right from day one?

Mind you, I think Prestige is a plenty good thing to aim for, but you have to be careful not to “volunteer for Helmand” again.

You can secure prestige by being able to provide some genuinely solid Brigades, able to cover less ground but do it reliably and autonomously with British troops and British supports. That kind of force would be less of a support tool in nature and more of a flexible instrument that would simultaneously preserve that degree of independent action capability that the Secretary of State for Defence has been begging to see retained. 

There are arguably better ways to use the money and all the manpower and resources of 1st Division too, to form an army which is less of a unitary silver bullet and more of a force that can sustain a complex task over a long period. It is no mystery, again, that I’ve spent years looking with interest at France’s “Au Contact” plan for two identical divisions which are clearly lighter than the currently imagined 3rd Division but that on the other hand ensure the Army does not exhaust itself in one single 6 to 12 months “make it or break it” kind of effort.

By definition, STRIKE without the FIRES, the sensors, and the “2-3 other Brigades”, can only ever be an ARRC asset that needs Allies to field everything else.

If your concept is predicated on supporting Armoured Brigades (or whatever form of “evolved” Brigade you want to imagine) that you risk losing in order to fund the concept; if it depends on Artillery programmes you are likely not going to be able to fund; Communications and Sensors you don’t have a line of sight (and funding) on; and a big question mark over how to be lethal while so widely dispersed, maybe you have to accept that the concept you are pursuing is not actually suited to you and your purse.

[1] France’s VBCI fleet of 600 vehicles does include 100+ command vehicles, but no ambulance, and equips 8 regiments, all individually larger than british Battalions. Italy’s FRECCIA family includes an extremely low number of command posts and no ambulance either. The British Army does get a lot of money, even in these days; it is often how it decides to spend it that downsizes the end result.

[2] The Wheeled Close Support Launch Vehicle was not there before the December 2018 re-issuing of the notice.

[3] Jon Hawkes and his team played the game; he and Sam Cranny plan to write a report about the experience. (@JonHawkes275 ; @Sam_Cranny)

[4] The requirements for the new Mobile Fires Platform do not specifically include wheels but a generic “increased range and mobility”. They are required to travel 520 km in 24 hours, including 200 km on unbounded roads and 30 km off road without assistance. The selection of a tracked platform is universally seen as very unlikely.

[5], the report requires membership to be accessed

[6] “We need an Army with lots of tanks. We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks” is the quote from Marine
Corps Commandant General David Berger himself.

[7] I’m firmly convinced that one of the highest priorities for the Army at the Review table should be to re-balance itself, cutting some infantry (no matter the capbadge tears) to rebuild the supports needed for actual combined arms operations.

[8] BAR Issue 177, Winter/Spring 2020;

[9] A recent experiment seeking to modernize the platoon tested the return to a 4 Sections structure, but was constrained by the order to keep it absolutely manpower neutral. The Rule of 4 was unsurprisingly liked a lot by the troops involved, but just as unsurprisingly, Sections of 6 men proved too small…

[10] Check out the WARRIOR VERDI demonstrator, in the days when Britain still had its own AFV industry and was still genuinely innovative.

[11] By default, expect a STRIKE BG to consist of 2x Mech Inf Coys, 1x Medium Armour Sqn, 1x Arty Tac Gp, 1x Engr Sqn and BG ech. The 2 BGs formed on the Mech Inf Battalions will have a Support Coy with mortars, JAVELINs, Snipers etcetera; but the one formed on the Medium Armour regiment won’t have a Support Coy, since MA is, you will have guessed already, modeled on a Tank Regiment. Information comes from @EdOBrien, who is working on British Army combat capability development.

[12] 30 Battalions, 30 ships and 30 Fast Jet squadrons within 30 days.