Sunday, February 28, 2021

The British Army: where do we go from here...?

The reckoning 

We are weeks away from the publication of the long awaited, much anticipated and very much feared Integrated Review and, in particular, of the Defence White Paper which should provide “details”. I think that previous experiences have made us all wary about what the MOD considers “details” and one of my greatest fears is that we will, in fact, be given vague promises that will keep us all wondering for the next few years.

Most of the other fears have, as was always predicted, the British Army at their centre. My increasingly exasperated battles in the last 5 years over the shocking self-harm that the Army was committing in pursuing the half-formed STRIKE at the expense of everything else are, sadly, looking likely to be vindicated. The questions that I’ve been formulating for 5 years are still without an answer, and the Army is reportedly about to pay dearly for its failure. If the leaks to the press are accurate, the British Army will disband at least 4 infantry battalions and will progressively settle downwards to a trained strength target of around 72.000, rather than 82.000.

And if that seems a painful price to pay, be wary that there will potentially be far more pain caused by the other reported cut: the loss of the whole WARRIOR fleet, mitigated apparently by a wish to “accelerate” the procurement of BOXER.


I made this scheme in November 2015. The ink on the SDSR's pages was virtually not dry yet, but already there were questions and risks evident in the just announced Force Structure. The following years have not provided answers; just evidenced further problems. 

There are key things we still don’t know, so estimating the full magnitude of what will happen is not yet possible. Chiefly, we do not know if there will be additional purchases to expand the BOXER fleet. This becomes the absolutely key question, followed by the determination of which roles BOXER will go on to cover. Will a turreted variant be added? Will a mortar variant appear?

The MBT – IFV combo is the heart of any modern army. CHALLENGER 2 LEP+ appears to be going ahead, according to the latest reports, and this is a great relief. Apparently, around 150 tanks will receive the new turret with the smoothbore 120mm cannon and all the new sensors and electronics. This is a remarkably small number but not truly surprising: the British Army has been planning for just 2 regular tank regiments for the best part of 5 years now. As the Army pursued its STRIKE dream, it instructed the 3rd MBT regiment, the King’s Royal Hussars, that it would eventually convert to AJAX.


A more recent scheme i produced to try and help people realize just how far the ripples travel through the armour if you cut CHALLENGER 2, WARRIOR, or both. They are the heart of everything the Army is, and you can't expect to rip the heart out without causing consequences. 


The British Army has recently reverted to its traditional Type 58 structure for MBT regiments, so the regular fleet will number 116 tanks, with a small reserve fleet on top. Too small, in fact, to even contemplate the possibility of rebuilding a third frontline regiment from the single Reserve MBT formation, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry.

A very questionable approach to that “regeneration” capability that the Army only ever pays lip service to, but this is how things stand. After the LEP+ upgrade, at least, the CHALLENGER 2 will finally live up to the otherwise largely undeserved hype that surrounds it.   

Losing the IFVs is however going to create massive headaches and a ripple of problems that will travel far and wide.

The above graphic, which I first made back in august 2020, hopefully helps in visualizing the ramifications of such a cut.

Just how bad it will get, we will only know once we are told if new BOXERs are happening, or not. The British Army will be keenly hoping for permission to commit money towards additional BOXER purchases and more variants.

They have always hoped that this would eventually happen: the MIV programme tender documents specify that arrangements have been made to keep the door open for the purchase of more vehicles. There are enough options for getting to a fleet of some 1500 vehicles in total, with specific mention that more variants could be added, and indeed developed in the UK.

All the way back in 2018, when those documents were published, I wrote a post about it, noting that it very much suggested a serious appetite within the Army to “go wheeled”, the way the French did with VBCI and then with GRIFFON/JAGUAR/SERVAL.

Back then I noted:

 

The notice specifies that additional variants and requirements could follow, and it specifically mentions the adoption of a “medium gun”, basically implying an IFV variant.

Moreover, the notice specifies that the MOD is asking for the option of ordering up to 900 more vehicles, for a total of 1500.

1500 does not appear to be a casual number: the Army has been planning for 380 upgraded Warriors; declares on its website 409 FV432 still in use; and fields / stores a fleet of 305 Mastiff Troop Carrier Vehicles plus 127 specialistic variants (Enhanced Communications Variant, Interim ECM, Interim EOD [possibly 23], ambulance, Protected Eyes / Praetorian) plus 118 Ridgback Troop Carrier Vehicles and 51 specialistic variants (Command, Ambulance), supported by 125 Wolfhound (Utility and at least 44 between Military Working Dog and EOD).

The total is 1515. Coincidence? Probably no.

It seems more and more likely that the troubled Warrior CSP will, in the end, be cancelled. This MIV notice seems to prepare for a WCSP cancellation scenario by making provision for the numbers and the addition of a medium gun.

 

In 2018, the increasingly dire situation of the Army’s plans was already pretty painfully evident and I urged the then Modernizing Defence Program to take a good, hard look at the whole mix of Army capabilities and choose a direction of travel. If tracks and wheels can’t be properly funded at the same time, and it was absolutely clear that they could not be, it only takes rationality to know that you have to pick one.

The French consciously picked the wheels side and have put all of their resources in building up a powerful wheeled force around their MBT fleet, which is pretty much the last tracked element in the Armee de Terre simply because it remains unreplaceable, regardless of the usual takes on how MBTs are supposedly obsolete.

The British Army could well have taken a similar decision.

But, and again I quote from my 2018 post, because the reality of facts is unchanged:

 

The replacement of WCSP with more MIV would put the British Army on the same path chosen by France with the VBCI, which entirely replaced their own tracked IFVs. Moreover, the replacement of FV432 with MIV variants would represent a rather dramatic shift in favor of wheels, completely changing the scenario that currently exists within the British Army.   

Such a change of heart would do wonders for commonality and obsolescence removal from what is an aging fleet of fleets, but it would also sideline Ajax even further, leading to further questions about where the tracked heir to FRES should sit.

Ever since the SDSR 2015 was published, Ajax has looked more and more lost, ultimately resulting in its “re-branding” into a “medium armour” capability which has, it is fair to say, convinced very few people.

 

AJAX, not WARRIOR, is the problem the British Army has created for itself.

To understand Army's pain in trying to shape its own vision for the Integrated Review, consider this: its absolute most expensive program is for a tracked family of vehicles, the AJAX gang, which delivers only a few roles, and is no Infantry Fighting Vehicle. In itself, it solves "nothing”, because you need WARRIOR, carrying the infantry, to give true meaning to the whole force.

The second most expensive program is for a wheeled APC which, by itself, also solves "nothing" because out of 523 BOXER, 15 are training vehicles and the 508 frontline ones are split between APCs, APCs with different internal arrangement for carrying engineers, artillery fire directors, JTACs and other “specialists” with related equipment, ambulances and command posts.

Once you put AJAX and BOXER together, you have burned over 10 billion pounds of budget room, but are left with a dysfunctional mix. There are a ton of tracked roles left uncovered, beginning with the absolutely key IFV but expanding to mortar carriers and supporting roles currently covered by FV432 in the hundreds.

And a ton of wheeled roles remain just as uncovered .

And the money is not enough to do both.

What is now happening in the Review was entirely predictable. As i've been writing for 5 years, the problem of how to mix AJAX and BOXER in a force structure that makes some kind of sense while also preserving at least the CHALLENGER MBTs is demanding an urgent answer. And poor WARRIOR is the designated victim at this point, because unlike BOXER and AJAX it is not yet under production contract.

It is merely the simplest one to cancel.

But make no mistake: WARRIOR is not the problem. AJAX is. Or BOXER, depending on whether you side with the track or with the wheel.

The truth is that the Army had the money and "ingredients" to outfit at least 3 excellent tracked, heavy brigades. In September 2014 it put AJAX under contract, and 2-3 more billions would have seen enough WARRIOR and CHALLENGER 2s upgraded to complete the renewal of 3rd Division as had been imagined in the original Army 2020 plan (published 2011).

Alternatively, the Army could have chosen to “go French” and bet big on wheels, beginning a wholesale restructuring by going for a huge BOXER purchase to effectively drive WARRIOR, FV432 and CRV(T) out of the door over N years.

But the Army did not want to pick just one side. The Army wanted to have both, and while I can see why they would want that, I cannot forgive them for ignoring the evidence and putting themselves into this mess.

In September 2014 they committed the biggest chunk by far of their future budget on AJAX.

In November 2015 they made wheels their absolute priority, and ever since, STRIKE had dominated the Army’s vision, all the way up to the signing of the BOXER contract at the end of 2019. Just in time to arrive at the Integrated Review with CHALLENGER 2 LEP+ and WCSP still uncommitted and thus extremely vulnerable.

In the middle there was the whole saga of the “delayed Review” and the Review to stop the Review, also known as “Modernizing Defence Program”. What that saga did was signal, without any possible doubt, that the money was not there to pursue both tracks and wheels at once.

The Army made its choice in late 2019, putting all the money on BOXER. Considering the situation, this was a suicidal choice. With AJAX in place, the Army needed WCSP and CR2, not BOXER. Splitting an already insufficient budget inexorably condemns the Army to a sub-optimal mixture of tracks and wheels which will drag on for decades into the future.

The time for a big change of heart was before the AJAX contract was signed.

The moment AJAX was put under contract it should have become a fact of life that the time for adding an 8x8 fleet could only ever come after WCSP and CR2 LEP had been secured.

And the British Army itself used to know this basic reality: up to 2015, the MOD Major Projects Spreadsheet contained a single title that summarized the whole modernization of the Army’s armour fleets. The Mounted Close Combat Capability Change super-program was started March 16, 2010 with a Project End Date set for December 21, 2033. The budget over that timeframe was given as 17.251,81 million pounds.

In April 2014 that colossus was split into its different components: Armoured Cavalry 2025 (AJAX), Armour MBT 2025, Armoured Infantry 2026 (WCSP and ABSV) and Mechanised Infantry 2029.

A telling indication, which the SDSR 2015 and the STRIKE obsession eventually turned on its head, trying to get MIV into service from 2023, with operational capability for the new brigades in 2025. This change of heart is now having its entirely predictable consequences.

Now we are in the worst possible limbo, with a force that doesn’t have the tracked vehicles it needs for holding on to Armoured Brigades and at the same time doesn’t have the wheeled vehicles needed for a true Medium, wheeled force. Where do we go from here?

 

 

A look at the budget figures

The annual major projects spreadsheet from the MOD helps us track what the situation is.

The Armour MBT 2025 program started in 2014 and currently has a Project End date set for July 31, 2028.

This represents a 791 days extension  on the previous target of June 2026 and is due to the fact that in Financial Year 2019 the Army turned the original CHALLENGER Life Extension Program in LEP+.

Specifically, the latest Major Project spreadsheet, released in July 2020 and current to September 2019, reports on the sudden realization within the army that just upgrading the thermal sights was not going to do much.  



The scheduled baseline project end date at Q2 1920 (30th September 2019) is 31/07/28, has lengthened by 791 days since last year's Q2 1819 date of 01/06/26, due primarily to the following factors;

 

In this period the programme's scope was expanded from obsolescence only to include enhancements to its lethality and survivability. The expanded scope has also lengthened the time to complete the work and increased cost over the assessment, demonstration and  manufacture phases.  These dates are currently subject to negotiation and will be confirmed when the full business case has been approved. 

 

The baseline Whole Life Cost at Q2 1920 (30th September 2019) is £1,304.19 m, due primarily to the following factors;

 

 This reflects the financial position following the capability uplift endorsed by HMT. This sees a capability uplift and extension to the Main Battle Tank out to 2035.

 

 

The above restructuring of the program was confirmed in an utterly shambolic intervention of the Chief of the Defence Staff, previous Chief General Staff and mastermind of Army 2020 and Army 2020 Refine, General Sir Nick Carter, in front of the Defence Committee. From his words, it appears the Army was essentially unaware of the lethality issues of the multi-piece ammunition of the current cannon until 2019. This is, of course, completely false, considering that the Army was, in fact, looking for solutions already in the early 2000s, when the Challenger Lethality Improvement Programme was tentatively launched. It was in 2006 that a CHALLENGER 2 was first retrofitted with a 120mm smoothbore gun, in fact. Swapping the gun was never an issue: the issue was in the complete redesign needed to fix ammunition storage spaces and make room for the much longer single-piece rounds. This is the main issue to this day, and the chief reason for swapping out the entire turret. 

Have they forgotten everything about that phase? Was Carter being overly kind to his political masters, to the point of having the Army shouldering more blame that necessary? He was not shy earlier in the same hearing saying that some decisions depend on money: why, then, say something as hopelessly stupid as this about CR2 lethality problems suddenly "dawning" on an oblivious Army...? 

It’s one of the many mysteries of the last few years of Army decisions.

 

Armoured Cavalry 2025, also launched in 2014, is supposed to end on April 30, 2025 although this seems optimistic considering the current delays in acceptance for the turreted AJAX variant and the fact that only handfuls of ARES, APOLLO and ATLAS have been delivered. Fair to assume that the end date will change.

Budget over the period is given as 6.288,95 million. As of 19, despite the deliveries having barely started at all, the MOD had already paid 2,78 billion pounds, which is part of the reason why AJAX is not being cancelled. In 2019/20, the MOD paid 643 million, down from a planned 694, exactly because of the delays with AJAX and with the consequent cancellation of expenditure connected with getting training in BATUS up.


Armoured Infantry 2026, also started formally in 2014, is due to end 31 December 2026. The last time we were given an indication about the total budget for WCSP is in the Spreadsheet released in 2017. Back then, the expectation was for 1612,72 million pounds.

Up to 2016 the budget had been 2176,45 million pounds. The difference was caused by the decision, in 2016, to de-scope the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle, which remains an “aspirational” requirement. Essentially, the Army has no clue how it will replace the ancient FV432.

From 2017 onwards, the numbers associated with the WCSP programme have been hidden for commercial interest as negotiations have dragged on to try and get to a contract.

As of financial year 2019, at least 474 million pounds have already been expended on WCSP. It is extremely likely that, if the program is indeed cancelled, the Army will have wasted another half a billion in exchange for nothing.


Finally, Mechanized Infantry Vehicle, launched in April 2018 and with a currently planned end date of 31 December 2032. Budget over the period: 4663,31 million pounds.

It is painfully evident that the money committed on MIV would have gotten WCSP and ABSV going. There was room to go with the 2010 target of 6 WARRIOR battalion sets, in fact, rather than the 4 that have been the reduced ambition since 2015 in order to accommodate STRIKE.

It also seems that some of the money once associated to the Mounted Close Combat Capability Change program is missing. The current budgets add up to 13,867 billion, rather than 17,251. This apparently vindicates the Army’s claims that it has been robbed of money to pay for cost overruns in the other Service’s programmes.

However, the budgets listed above give us no visibility on how much money was expended between 2010 and 2014 (admittedly unlikely to be very high as all programs were in very early stages) and also leave out several years. The 17,251 billion were to be expended out to 2033, while the current projects end dates (2028, 2026, 2025, 2032) all stop well short of that point. It is entirely reasonable to assume that the missing 3,384 billion will be expended across the various fleets in those missing years. Indeed, might even be more. We also do not know where programs like Multi Role Vehicle – Protected have their budgets: it seems reasonable to assume that this program in particular might have originally been part of what used to be “Mechanized Infantry 2029”. This adds further uncertainty.

Also, there’s no way to tell if the Army received formal indications in 2015 that it would get more money, and this eventually failed to happen soon afterwards.

We can’t say for sure if the total out to 2033 has really shrunk, and if so by how much. We can be sure that the Army has seen significant fluctuations in the amount of money allocated to it year on year, which might well have complicated project management and forced delays to the signing of contracts.

But I’m not prepared, given the figures above, to side with those who claim the Army’s woes are due to the other Services and to Government. I’m not sure they have had it that much worse than the other Services, nor are we in a position to determine if, and how much, the totals available out to 2033 have truly changed. The data available to us outside of the MOD is, simply, insufficient for determining that.

The data that is available is incomplete, but suggests the Army bears enormous responsibilities for its own troubles. AJAX is the most painful and undeniable demonstration that the Army’s own inability to set priorities has been destructive: the fact that, while deliveries have barely even started, the vehicle already is basically a square peg in a world of round holes, is damning.

Whatever is done now, AJAX is here to stay. But in the Army that is taking shape with the loss of WARRIOR, it looks like a orphan. Something that no longer has a truly good collocation anywhere in the force. And this is an obscenity. Your biggest, most expensive programme CANNOT be a problem. That it now is, is the measure of your failure.

 

 

What next?

Decisions should, as I already said, have been taken earlier. Now it is very difficult to imagine a truly “good” outcome.

Things will get spectacularly ugly if there are no further BOXER / AJAX purchases. Such a scenario would truly mutilate the Army, which would see a net 50% cut in the already insufficient number of infantry battalions it planned to mechanize.

The original Army 2020 Refine, in 2010, was based on 6 armoured and 3 heavy protected / mechanized battalions. In other words, 6 on WARRIOR and 3 on MASTIFF, later to be replaced by an 8x8 around 2029. Each of the 3 armoured infantry brigades would have 2 battalions on WARRIOR and a battalion riding on wheels, not unlike what happens in the German army where a single JAGER battalion (on BOXER APC) is integrated in heavy brigades.

But as we know, in 2015 Carter decided that the future was all about STRIKE, even though right from the start the cost of such a change was heavy: one tank regiment to go; one AS90 regiment gone; one armoured engineer regiment also gone. The Army 2020 Refine plan now called for 4 brigades, albeit individually smaller. Of these, two would be armoured and would have 2 battalions on WARRIOR each, and 2 would be STRIKE brigades, each with 2 BOXER battalions. Net result was a drop to 8 mechanized battalions in total.

Now, as Army 2020 Refine falls apart, if there are no new vehicle purchases, the Army will have managed the spectacular feat of crashing all the way down from 9 to 4 mechanized battalions, and all of them on lightly armed APCs, thus with an even more dramatic loss of firepower. And as we have seen in the Budget section of the article, it won’t be for lack of spending, to add insult to injury. It will have paid a sweet 10+ billion pounds to create this mess.

With just 4 mechanized battalions, it is likely the Army will collapse all the way down to a force of just 2 brigades worth of their title. Brigades with 2 infantry units are already sub-optimal; splitting 4 battalions across more than 2 brigades appears pretty much impossible.

I can only think of one way to do it in an acceptable fashion, and that is by adopting Permanent Combined Arms Battlegroups: instead of forming 4 AJAX regiments, as planned under Army 2020 Refine, some of the AJAX would instead be assigned directly to the infantry battalions, to create “square” battlegroups with 2 AJAX Squadrons in support of 2 Infantry companies on BOXER APCs. This, in theory, allows you to form 6 permanent BGs, which you can then spread across up to 3 brigades.

But this is, literally, the math of despair.

New vehicles are desperately needed for the Army to remain functional.

 

 

The French way…?

The British Army is likely to be headed the French way, since BOXER is all the rage these days. This will however happen more by accident than by design, with AJAX destined to remain pretty much an orphaned oddity in such a “new” army.

As I’ve written multiple times, I think the “French model” is very much an acceptable compromise. Not perfect, but good enough provided that the Army buys many more BOXERs, and suitable wheeled vehicles (through a revamped MRV-P) to support it, over the coming years. The last 30 years have seen the Army change its mind constantly, with utterly disastrous results: it has run around in a tortuous circle which has brought it back literally to the starting block (the BOXER saga is absolutely terrifying), but with several missing limbs and a scrawny body which has lost all muscle along the way.

If the Army is to recover, it will need to stabilize its aims.

My readers already know that I do not believe that wheels are key to adopting a more dispersed kind of fighting, and certainly I will never side with the British Army in pretending that having wheels is sufficient to change battle dynamics. Fighting dispersed is complex, dangerous and demanding. It requires more capability, not less. It requires capabilities currently relegated at higher command levels to be distributed far more widely, at far lower level. One such example is air defence: dispersion alone, in the age of the UAV and airpower in general, cannot possibly be a solution to anything if the dispersed groups have little to no ability to defend themselves from threats from the air.

Wheels, however, do have unquestioned merits in making a ground force element more readily capable to move independently over long distances without depending on semi-trailers and trucks. Wheeled armour also tends to be less thirsty, which means it can do with a smaller logistic train. For a small Army with a (relatively) small budget, wheels can represent a serious advantage.

Moreover, as we try and think of where the Army might go from here, we cannot ignore what the minds of the Armed Forces have indicated, in the Integrated Operating Concept 2025, as the necessary attributes of the future force:

Have smaller and faster capabilities to avoid detection

Trade reduced physical protection for increased mobility

Rely more heavily on low-observable and stealth technologies

Depend increasingly on electronic warfare and passive deception measures to gain and maintain information advantage

Include a mix of crewed, uncrewed and autonomous platforms

Be integrated into ever more sophisticated networks of systems through a combat cloud that makes best use of data

Have an open systems architecture that enables the rapid incorporation of new capability

Be markedly less dependent on fossil fuels

Employ non-line-of-sight fires to exploit the advantages we gain from information advantage

Emphasize the non-lethal disabling of enemy capabilities, thereby increasing the range of political and strategic options

 

Arguably, the above aims are not conceptually too far apart from the same drivers that were being FRES and the US Future Command System. Even in more recent times, If we take a look back at what FRES SV/AJAX was originally meant to eventually grow into, we can easily identify a future in which all capabilities, potentially including the MBT role, would have been delivered with FRES SV/AJAX variants. Tracked, but still much lighter than current MBTs (although very much not lighter than WARRIOR).

The AJAX family was supposed to be just the first capability Block within a larger programme that should have eventually included another two Blocks, introducing more variants. One such variant in particular, the ambulance, had been close to being purchased. It had already been named, even, as the ASCLEPIUS. But then 2015 happened, and any hope of further Blocks for the AJAX family has evaporated.


Looking back at what the Specialist Vehicle (then AJAX) was meant to be is a painful exercise. Had the Army persevered in this direction, very capable tracked brigades would be taking shape right now. It is very hard not to get Future Combat System vibes from this scenario. 

It is fascinating to think of what the British Army could have achieved by carrying on with the original FRES SV/AJAX plan, indeed expanding it to replace WARRIOR as well. Such an approach would very much replicate what the US Future Combat System used to be like. As you might remember, FCS was all about medium-weight tracked platforms.

While the IOC2025 directions do not openly favor wheels above tracks, however, the additional logistic weight imposed by tracked vehicles the size of AJAX, and the consequent financial penalty, very much suggest that, just like France, the UK would not be wrong in settling for wheels instead.

If we accept the design drivers identified by IOC2025, BOXER is probably the correct vehicle for the future. It is not “light” in a literal sense (the UK’s BOXER, built to the latest A3 configuration, can reach 38.5 tons) but it does come with greater, “faster” ability to move to and across the battlefield, while also being “lighter” in logistical terms. A battle force made up of BOXERs would certainly be easier to deploy and sustain than a tracked one, even one built entirely on AJAX as base.

This is especially true if we also consider the Army’s “Conceptual Force 2035”, which very much doubles down on the same kind of design drivers. This study imagines an army of 3 smaller but capable divisions made of lighter, faster, more deployable, largely independent battlegroups, with dispersion being the norm. Conceptual Force 2035 specifies that the disaggregated fighting requires Combined Arms capabilities to be organic at lower level, to ensure the dispersed Battlegroups do not have to wait for a superior echelon to make supports available. This includes having more organic Indirect Fire capability and employing it alongside greater ATGW capability to offset the capability currently delivered by MBTs through “lighter” vehicles.


Conceptual Force 2035 described in the British Army Review, issue 177, Winter/Spring 2020


The BGs will be expected to carry out, and I quote, deeper, more risky and aggressive manoeuvre. Robotic, sacrificial systems will be used to press on reconnaissance, and I quote again, to the point of destruction, in order to enable the BG to use frenetic op-tempo to make up for the lack of mass.

The resulting BGs would be around 500-strong but are supposed to match the current mission set of a 1250-strong armoured BG though the use of robotics and higher op-tempo. The Conceptual Force imagines that, from around 82.000 regulars, the British Army would be able to form some 48 such Combined Arms battlegroups. The organization would work to the Rule of 4, with an Assault Force, Covering Force, Echelon Force and Reserve Force. These BGs would be grouped in Brigades with enough CS and CSS elements to fight, again, largely independently from the Division level.

The key attributes described above, for me, are the key to the whole concept: if you want to fight dispersed and be lighter but still capable, you must pack a serious punch and have far more capability pushed down the levels of command. This is something that in STRIKE we are just not seeing in any meaningful way. Firepower has been dead last in the list of priorities so far, and that makes the whole thing not credible.

In fact, what is most striking about the Conceptual Force 2035 is that it is so entirely alien to what the British Army actually looks like today, in structure, “culture” and programmes. For example, Permanent Combined Arms Battlegroups are anathema in today’s British Army and among the purists of capbadges and specialty separations. CS and CSS are a scarce resource completely out of balance with the number of infantry battalions. Indirect Fires and ATGWs are weaknesses, not strengths. The Rule of 4 is nowhere to be seen, and indeed resources in multiple areas are spread so thin than even the Rule of 3 is dubious.



A LM proposal for a vertical launch missile module for BOXER, complete with mast-mounted radar and EO/IR. 

One key question ahead of the publication of the White Paper is whether the shock of this Review finally gets the Army to move from its current indefensible obsessions, or if the new manpower reduction results in just “more of the same”, through the loss of yet another “brigade-set” of CS and CSS. As I said, the sheer scarcity of combat vehicles to mechanize the infantry with suggest a reduction to as few as 2 brigades. Currently the British Army has Combat Support and Combat Service Support resources sufficient to aim for 4 brigades. My worst fear is that, consequently, the Army will go for the “easy” solution of removing up to 2 Engineer, Artillery and perhaps Signals and Logistic units, rather than go for a wholesale rebalancing and reorganization. This would only exacerbate the inbalance, rather than address it, and would inexorably prepare the stage for a further manpower reduction a few years on, when politicians will (rightly) observe that an output of some 2 brigades does not require 72.000 personnel.

The Army needs to decide, quickly, if it believes in the findings and directions of its own studies for the future, and start acting accordingly, reorganizing its structures and reassigning manpower to the capabilities that need to be expanded.

As a first step in a transition process to something resembling the Conceptual Force 2035, the Army should work to increase its ability to field combined arms brigades. The Corps of 3 Divisions and 48 battlegroups imagined by the Conceptual Force 2035 is very hard to imagine, as manpower is just one ingredient and the other expensive ones are all missing; but the British Army should be more than capable to put together 6 brigades, spread under 2 divisional HQs, mirroring, again, the French model. Each Division would have a Heavy, a Medium and a Light/Air Mobile brigade, one a revamped 16 Air Assault Bde, the other built by restructuring resources already available but tied down in the current 1st Division. Such lighter brigades would seek to fight dispersed primarily by exploiting Light Cavalry support, Foxhound and, even more so, the RAF's very precious and very significant fleet of 60 CHINOOK. Obviously, they would be limited in what they could achieve in the highest intensity scenarios, but they could find plenty of use across a multitude of cases. 

A third Division would continue to group up the rest of the force: the battalions busy on garrison / forward presence roles; the Specialised Infantry Group. Ideally, said Division should also serve as a Regular core force which a restructured Army Reserve should "regenerate" for action in times of need. But this is a complex topic better left for future discussions. 

The resulting division would be lighter than the 3rd Division as envisioned by Army 2020 Refine, but it is more realistically sustainable and having 2 of them make it possible to sustain an effort over time, rather than fire a silver bullet once and have nothing else left.

 In order to achieve this, more vehicles will be a non-negotiable requirement. Most likely, all efforts will go towards new BOXERs, although this is not necessarily the only option on the table. Obviously there will be no new tracked IFV purchased anytime soon (if ever again) if WARRIOR is cut. 

Even so, one could envisage an effort to maintain tracked, heavy formations by ordering more vehicles of the AJAX family. If AJAX was an IFV, it could replace Warrior. But AJAX has no room to carry infantry and there is no real way to change this fact. The structure of the vehicle and the vast turret ring (specified in part because there once was to also be a Medium Armour variant with 120mm smoothbore gun) prevent any conversion to an IFV. It is also probably next to impossible to pursue a “rewriting” of the contract that de-scopes some of the AJAX to make room for a new IFV variant, which General Dynamics is ready to offer and has tried (and failed) to sell to Australia.

However, the ARES APC already on order could easily be delivered with internal arrangements for carrying 7-8 dismounts. If more ARES were ordered and configured accordingly, it would be possible to create Combined Arms Battlegroups by mixing AJAX and ARES.

I don’t think, sadly that this is likely to happen. But it is a possibility worth considering. Permanent Combined Arms Battlegroups of AJAX and ARES carrying infantry could become a prototype for the Future Combat Team of 2035, adopting the Rule of 4 and beginning to develop true “Find, Fix and Strike” mechanisms by adding in organic Indirect Fires.

If more ARES could be squeezed in to make this happen, it would be possible to hang on to the superior all-terrain mobility of tracks and ensure that the remaining CHALLENGER 2s have appropriate intimate support. The two Heavy brigades could thus consist each of a single tank regiment and 2/3 AJAX/ARES BGs.

Otherwise, said BGs will inexorably have to be mixed, with AJAX supported by BOXERs.

On the BOXER front, an absolutely priority should be the acquisition of a turreted, well armed variant.

Ideally, the 40mm guns already procured and paid for WCSP should be used to create this new variant. The WCSP turret is, as we speak, close to completing extensive reliability trials. There’s no way to know how the turret behaved, but if it is doing well it would be wise to migrate the whole turret towards a suitable module to be developed for BOXER.  



LM's work in 2015 to demonstrate that a turret derivated from the WCSP's one could indeed work on BOXER. 

Such an enterprise would require some time, but should not be overly complex. Lockheed Martin fit one of its turrets onto a BOXER and carried out some early trials, including weapon firings, already as far back as 2015. While these industry-led demonstrations involve integrations that are far less mature than one might think, there should be no reason for the turret not fitting on a troop-carrying module.

Acquisition of such a turreted BOXER would enable AJAX, with its mobility penalty, to be taken out of the “STRIKE” / Medium brigades without a loss of firepower. The Medium force could then enjoy all of the advantages of being a purely wheeled formation, with the same level of mobility across all of its components.   

The turreted BOXERs would have to be mixed with the APCs already on order with the aim of forming the highest possible number of Combined Arms Battlegroups.

Not “cavalry”, not “infantry”. Permanent, combined arms BGs that will have to deliver that mix of “Find, Fix and Strike” capability by progressively integrating more indirect fire options, and the ability to target them from, if not any soldier, certainly from pretty much any squad and combat vehicle.

These BGs will have to progressively evolve towards those “Future Combat Teams” envisaged by the Conceptual Force 2035. A key capability to bring in as quickly as possible to enable that evolution is the Land Precision Fires system, which is meant to succeed EXACTOR MK2 and eventually expand striking range towards the 60 km mark. Land Precision Strike is an Artillery program, but this should not be allowed to stovepipe it away from the combined arms BGs. Land Precision Strike must become an Army-wide effort to give battlegroups a new and enhanced lethality.

The Army has lost mass and has lost many tanks as well; lethality cannot continue to be an afterthought. It is time to seriously approach the problem of how to increase it to compensate the other weaknesses. It is no good to only ever talk about compensating loss of armour with Indirect Fires while doing absolutely nothing to make it a reality. The Army needs to demonstrate that it is doable and that it is committed to a dramatic increase of firepower at lower command levels.

In order to ensure that as much money as possible goes towards the new capabilities, vehicle variants and additional vehicle purchases needed, the Army will have to get better at setting its priorities.

It remains foolish, in my opinion, that the British Army has prioritized ambulance and command post variants for the BOXER over more “fighty” frontline roles. I’ve already asked this question in the past, but I will formulate it again: does the ambulance vehicle really need to be a BOXER…? I fully understand it is desirable, but I don’t think it is necessary.




Again, a priority for me would also be to re-evaluate the variants of MIV to be procured, reducing to the bare minimum the number of ambulances and command posts in favor of instead pursuing, with maximum urgency, a 120mm mortar and an ATGW variants. With a wiser choice of priority on the variants to include in the order, the 508 BOXERs already on order could equip more than just a paltry 4 battalions. I’ve written about this in greater detail in a previous article.  

 The Ambulance role and, wherever possible, the C2 role should be “offloaded” onto much cheaper Multi Role Vehicle Protected (MRV-P) variants.


The Iveco ORSO (Bear), on the left, is pretty much the italian equivalent to what Multi Role Vehicle - Protected Group 2 hopes to be. 

I understand the allure of having everything on the same vehicle base, and I realize that there is no safe rear echelon when fighting dispersed and dealing with enemies who can contest, if not win control of the air and dominate the Fires battle. But I still don’t see “BOXER-for-everything” being in any way a solution.

Moreover, it is painfully obvious that the money is not and will never be enough for such an approach. Surely it makes sense to be very selective when it comes to what should ride in an extremely expensive BOXER and what can make do with something else. In fact, this is exactly what already happens in other countries: France definitely does not have an ambulance variant for VBCI, but rather for the less expensive GRIFFON. Italy, similarly, has limited its FRECCIA 8x8 almost exclusively to combat, frontline roles, using the Iveco ORSO for the supporting roles.

BOXER and Multi Role Vehicle – Protected should, similarly, ensure they work together to cover all bases, so that the BOXER purchase can be laser-focused on the combat roles, maximizing the mechanization of the army while keeping costs as low as practicable.

In the previous article, already mentioned and linked, I offer a more detailed discussion of what France and Italy are doing, so I won’t repeat the same things here. I will note that, finally, the British Army has last year tested the Elbit RHINO armoured shelter / container kitted out as command post. I’d like to see a lot more effort going in this direction, rather than in hundreds of super-expensive BOXER and ATHENA vehicles.


The Elbit RHINO is built inside a protected shelter that can be moved by trucks like a normal container. The Italian Army, as well as others including recently the US Army, has been putting quite some work into HQs-in-shelters. 

What practical problem is solved by putting the command post into a BOXER, at the end of the day? The main enemies of the command post in a high intensity scenario are Fires and Air attacks, and BOXER is not really going to give you a relevant survivability boost against those.

Being able to command and communicate on the move by ensuring the new data-radio systems have the relevant capabilities is going to make much more of a difference than BOXER’s armour does.

If the Army truly believes in innovation, it must be ready to truly revolutionize the command post, exploiting modern comms on the move and the possibility to reach back for support. Last year, the Royal Marines had their experimental exercise in Cyprus and their command and control on the ground was both slimmed down and revolutionized, and enabled by reach-back all the way not just to the ships, but to the homeland. The 1st Sea Lord himself was able to connect directly from his own station.

There are increasingly effective ways to ensure that the command function can be disaggregated, dispersed, handled faster and on the move, and with the support of staff physically located far enough from the battlefield to be safe. Naturally, this opens up new vulnerabilities in broadband, communications, risk of jamming and cyber attacks, but the Army itself is saying they prefer to wrestle in this domain rather than in the physical one. They did so in the moment they wrote down their guidance for the future by claiming that disaggregate operations and indirect fires are to counter the lack of heavy armour. That approach will inexorably mean the ability to communicate and share data and targeting third-part weapons becomes even more crucial than it already is.

Like everything else in life, it’s a compromise, but perfect solutions don’t exist. There are just good and bad compromises.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The huge issues in the Integrated Review

 

F-35

Will the new Review provide an actual plan for the UK's F-35 purchase?

It is very much time to decide, because UK purchases are only planned out up to the 48th airplane. Specifically, the UK is acquiring:

 

3 jets in LRIP 12 (Fiscal Year 2018; delivery this year)

6 in LRIP 13 (2019; delivery 2021)

8 in LRIP 14 (2020; delivery 2022)

7 in LRIP 15 (2021; delivery was to be in 2023 but got slowed down. Just 2 deliveries expected in 2023 now)

6 in LRIP 16 (2022; delivery was to be in 2024 but got slowed down. Just 4 now expected in 2024. A total of 7 jets will thus now only be delivered in 2025)

 

The delay to deliveries was reported by the National Audit Office: basically, the MOD decided to delay delivery to spread out the expenditure across more financial years.

 

Note that Lot 15 and 16 are expected to be part of a 3-lots Block Buy (15, 16 and 17). The final production contract for this Block Buy, which will be as always concluded by the US Department of Defense on behalf also of the international partners, has not yet been concluded but will be in the near future.

The UK currently has no known plan for what to do with Lot 17: will it contain any UK aircraft? Will it be a complete gap year?  

In practice, beginning in 2023, the UK F-35 purchase is all up in the air.

 

The "138" number is probably entirely unfeasible. Many observers have been aware of this for years now, and I’ve written and tweeted about it many times over. Lately, with reports in the Press, it has emerged that this awareness is becoming very much “official” with the Integrated Review discussion reportedly focusing on having 70 accepted as the “minimum credible fleet size” to be pursued.

To me, and to several other observers, this is no surprise and no shock. Arguably, it is merely a measure of realism.

 

For several years now, the number 138 has arguably had zero actual relevance in regard to what the operational fleet can aspire to be.

The infamous key phrase to hang on to the number 138 was “the aircraft will be purchased over the life of the programme”, means the numbers would be spread over many years. Thanks to the MOD’s usual vagueness and deliberate murkyness, nobody even knows how many years.

The annual Major Projects Report has the F-35 programme end date as 31 March 2035, but how this should be interpreted is open to debate. Would 2035 see the last delivery? If so, the last order would have to be placed 2 years earlier, in 2033. Or would 2035 see the last order placed?

According to other interpretations, “over the life of the programme” should be read as “out to the aircraft’s Out of Service Date”, which is tentatively scheduled for 2048 as of these days (with the understanding that this will move to the right by potentially decades, as always happens).

Clearly it would be spectacularly dumb to be purchasing jets just before removing the fleet from service, and there cannot be absolute certainty that the F-35 production line would still be open at all by then. There are fair chances that F-35s will still be in production, but it’s just an assumption.

Not knowing on how many years the purchases are going to be spread out obviously makes it impossible to gauge the relevance of the total number. If purchases are spread out over decades, the actual available fleet will never grow beyond a fraction of the total.

Purchases very late on in the life of the programme might well be replacement airframes to make up for operational losses, or new-build machines purchased instead of replacing early production lot aircraft on value-for-money considerations.

 

In short: 138 was never going to be the F-35’s in-service fleet size.

138 F-35 would suffice for 6 or 7 squadrons, maybe more, but there is no manpower and no infrastructure for that to happen. That's why the number is meaningless and has been for years.

We have only ever been told there would be 4 F-35 squadrons.

 

And it would be very difficult indeed to create more.

The RAF currently has 7 frontline TYPHOON Squadrons and has repeatedly made clear that they want to try and squeeze an 8th one out, from a fleet of 140 machines (160 have been procured in total, but 1 was written off after a belly landing at China Lake in 2008; 3 were instrumented production aircraft for development and the Tranche 1 two-seaters have been withdrawn and dismantled for harvesting spares).

If you had 4 F-35B Squadrons, the total is 11 to 12 frontline Fast Jet units. The RAF hasn’t had this many from before 2010. And, notoriously, in 2010 the RAF shrunk down by 5,000 posts.

There clearly does not seem to be any manpower margin to create more Squadrons, even if there was the money to procure the airframes.

 

The fact that 70 F-35s are being described as the bare minimum requirement offers hope that the number of squadrons to be formed is still 4. A fleet of 70 to 80 jets should be enough to deliver that kind of force structure.

 



But again, there are too many things we do not know. One being the number of years in which the force will be built up. If 70 merely replaces 138 as a “through life” objective, we might well never see that many in service at the same time, and thus the number of squadrons would have to reduce.

If purchases are slow, the last 2 Squadrons might form only very late on, perhaps even beyond 2030. That would be very, very late indeed.

 

“70”, “138”, or whatever other number of airframes is individually almost meaningless.

If the Review finally gives us a realistic plan for the formation of the last 2 planned Squadrons by 2030, I invite everyone to leap with joy. 617 Squadron is operational, 809 will only stand up in 2023. What we need to see mapped out is the road that brings us to a third and a fourth frontline squadron.

The exact number of airframes is entirely secondary. Obviously, the more are purchased the easier it will be to form and sustain the fleet in the long term, but adjustements can be made. Less “attrition” aircraft purchased might be balanced by a greater investment in spare parts. Eventual losses should be faced with an eventual, occasional future purchase from a hot production line rather than by acquiring spare airframes early on, which will be difficult and expensive to keep up to date as the aircraft evolves.

 

I will be happy, quite literally, if people stop pestering us with a meaningless 138 number without dates attached to it in favor of an actual plan to get to 80 in 4 squadrons in an acceptable timeframe.

In fact, the UK should not commit to a fixed number of F-35s, and especially not such a high number. There will be time to make future purchases from a hot production line (for example if TEMPEST encounters delays, which is, let’s be honest, almost certainly going to happen; it always does) without having to unnecessarily constrain the Equipment Budget right at this time. 

 

My chief worry is that cutting back on the distant, long-term total number is in itself going to generate zero savings in the short term, were the financial problem sits. What needs to be settled satisfactorily is the timeframe 2023 – 2030 (2035 at the very latest).

This is especially true because the closer we get to 2030, the more F-35 will have to contend with TEMPEST for the same slice of budget. If you want TEMPEST by 2035 it means expenditure ramps up very quickly indeed. The UK has pinned on TEMPEST the future of its Aerospace industry and of its international credibility as a country able to lead a programme of this complexity. As a consequence, TEMPEST is an absolute priority and F-35 will inexorably tend to get crushed under its growing burden.

 

The real question is: can the UK afford another circa 40 F-35B by 2030? It would require the purchase of 5 jets per year beginning in 2023. This should not be unfeasible (the UK has ordered 6 or more jets in every year from 2019 to 2022) and is less aircraft per year than several other F-35 countries regularly order, but we know that the Combat Air budget is not looking very roomy in the next years and the RAF will have TYPHOON upgrades to fund; TEMPEST to develop and, hopefully, the LANCA unmanned loyal wingman to acquire. The same, small share of money will have to be cut up among these main programmes.

The situation is thorny enough that, I will repeat it again, 70 jets should make us all rejoice, provided that they are acquired over a reasonably short timeframe.

The real nightmare scenario we face is the impossibility to even do that.

 

Late 2020s and early 2030s will see TEMPEST expenditure ramping up more and more. As a consequence, I feel that the bulk of F-35 procurement will be over by 2030, by lack of money if not by design. Every effort, in my opinion, should be directed on getting those other 2 Sqns of F-35Bs by that date. And it is not going to be easy. It is in no way a given.

It is to be hoped that getting to 4 F-35B Squadrons will still happen, and that it will happen in a reasonable timeframe. The RAF will be severely short of Stealth capability until that happens, and the aircraft carriers will have a very hard time embarking a meaningful air wing. It would be a very embarrassing situation, as well as a dangerous one.

 

One welcome side effect of this much needed injection of realism is the fact that, if the RAF is at all sane, this will be the end of the ridiculous “Split Buy” idea. The fleet needs to be made up of one type, the B, which can work from the carriers as well as from land.

The F-35A is individually less expensive, yes. Has a slightly longer unrefueled range, yes. And can carry larger weapons in its internal bays, yes.

While these justifications are all true, the numbers (money, manpower and thus number of Squadrons, number of airframes) were never  sufficient to truly justify a split buy and were never going to be unless there was to be no TEMPEST. Splitting the fleet would result in tiny, operationally-ineffective fleets and in near-empty aircraft carrier decks.

The F-35A’s “advantages” would be totally illusory as well: the aircraft would be cheap, but there would be new costs associated to running two separate sub-fleets. Despite much commonality, F-35A and F-35B are not and will never be the same thing and there would be a constant fratricide struggle for securing a slice of the budget for covering the respective “unique” needs.

Moreover, the RAF does not own or plan a single payload which would fit the F-35A’s larger weapon bays but not the B’s ones. The large payloads are too large for both; the others fit the B just fine. So that is, and has always been, a moot point. Looks good on paper but never meant a thing in the UK’s context.

 

Hopefully, with the formation of the next two Squadrons now officially in jeopardy (unofficially, they have been uncertain for years to all who could look at the facts with the necessary realism) and the total number of airframes being revised downwards by 50% or even more, everyone will realize how utterly demented the idea of a split is.

 

The last time there was a 2-Squadrons small fleet, said fleet was offered up for the ritual slaughter because it was “too small to be sustainable and to support any sort of enduring operation, at sea or on land”. And honestly, it was. 2 Squadrons are too few to rotate in and out of task in a sustainable way. 4, ideally 5, is the number you are looking for.

That ‘s why the reduction of the number of squadrons in 2009 sealed the fate of that fleet, well before the 2010 SDSR even started.

That fleet was the HARRIER GR9 fleet. The number of airframes, ironically enough, was still 72 when the cut was decided. The number of crews and frontline squadrons operational on the type determined the cut, not the number of airframes.  

 

Whoever suggested that splitting the F-35 purchase in two to create not one but 2 barely-sustainable small fleets, both too small to meet their requirements, was being very unwise when 138 jets were still the assumption.

Whoever was to still insist on a split buy now would be, and I will unapologetically say this no matter how many might feel offended, an idiot. There really isn’t a kind way to say it.

 

 

CHALLENGER 2 Life Extension Programme

 

There is now a consensus on the fact that, if CHALLENGER 2 cannot be very decisively upgraded, it might be better to just remove it from service because it is suffering severe obsolescence, including in its main armament. The problem is well known: the rifled gun is a british oddity which has the drawback of employing two-piece ammunition. This means that the armor piercing rod cannot be lenghtened, creating a more effective round and putting an hard ceiling to the tank's lethality. It also means that there is no way to adopt the extremely flexible new generation of programmable, multi-mode explosive shells which are critical to counter reinforced positions and urban obstacles. 

I do not disagree on this assessment. The CHALLENGER has aged badly. It is also underpowered: its 1200 HP engine was arguably already inadequate when still new, especially considering that the british tank is heavier than its 1500 HP-powered counterparts. More weight and less power are a bad combination, that even the hydrogas suspensions cannot balance. 

What is extremely irritating, if not downright dishonest on the Army's part, is to come up with this radical assessment only now. Up to literally last year, the official position was that CHALLENGER 2 had no major lethality problems and only needed a refresh to optics, communications and electronics. 

For years i've written about the CR2 LEP and campaigned for the Gun and Powerpack to be at the very heart of the programme,. I went so far to suggest that LEP had no real sense to exist if the main issues were not to be considered. I did so before it was even confirmed that Rheinmetall was bidding a re-gunned upgrade solution, as this 2016 article shows

Yet, the Army initially launched LEP as a very limited obsolescence-removal effort, and it is only thanks to Rheinmetall's courage to show up with a new turret with the smoothbore 120/55 (what the Army wanted but did not dare asking for) that we are now looking at a LEP that, if it will progress, will actually mature the CR2 into that "world beater" it was falsely described as for all these years. 

Specifically, the latest Major Project spreadsheet, released in July and current to September 2019, reports on the sudden "change of heart" regarding CR2 LEP: 


The scheduled baseline project end date at Q2 1920 (30th September 2019) is 31/07/28, has lengthened by 791 days since last year's Q2 1819 date of 01/06/26, due primarily to the following factors;


 - In this period the programme's scope was expanded from obsolescence only to include enhancements to its lethality and survivability. The expanded scope has also lengthened the time to complete the work and increased cost over the assessment, demonstration and  manufacture phases.  These dates are currently subject to negotiation and will be confirmed when the full business case has been approved. 



The baseline Whole Life Cost at Q2 1920 (30th September 2019) is £1,304.19 m, due primarily to the following factors;


 - This reflects the financial position following the capability uplift endorsed by HMT. This sees a capability uplift and extension to the Main Battle Tank out to 2035.




Speaking to the Defence Committee, the Chief of the Defence Staff, previous Chief General Staff and mastermind of Army 2020 and Army 2020 Refine, General Sir Nick Carter, said that it has been "realized" that the CHALLENGER 2 needs the lethality upgrade to effectively face russian armor. 


I think the requirement is now pretty clear, and that is one of the reasons why Challenger 2 is taking a long time. It is because there was this realisation that the programme was not ambitious enough. It needed a smoothbore gun. It needed the ability to put a missile down that barrel to overmatch Armata, as you rightly describe. It needed its protection levels to be significantly enhanced. So the requirement has evolved. I think the Army now has a very clear idea of what it needs. The trick now is to find the resources to get behind what
it needs.

[Note: the mention of a "missile" can be interpreted as a new requirement for a gun-fired ATGW missile, but it seems that Carter was just being very "byzantine" in describing what is just the APFSDS round, but the longer-rod one enabled by the smoothbore cannon]


Carter's words do not reflect positively on him and on the Army as a whole. If they couldn't see the need for upgrade before 2019 they were not doing their job properly. 

The Army, of course, knew perfectly well that the gun needed to change: it was, in fact, looking for solutions already in the early 2000s, when the Challenger Lethality Improvement Programme was tentatively launched. It was in 2006 that a CHALLENGER 2 was first retrofitted with a 120mm smoothbore gun, in fact. Swapping the gun was never an issue: the issue was in the complete redesign needed to fix ammunition storage spaces and make room for the much longer single-piece rounds. This is the main issue to this day: the driver behind the need for a new turret. 

Have they forgotten everything about that phase? Was Carter being overly kind to his political masters, to the point of having the Army shouldering more blame that necessary? He was not shy earlier in the same hearing saying that it depends on money: why, then, say something as hopelessly stupid as this about CR2 lethality problems suddenly "dawning" on an oblivious Army...? 


The handling of the whole CHALLENGER 2 saga is horrible, and it makes me think very unpleasant things of the Army and of the current Chief Defence Staff. 

It strikes me as a binary choice: either there is staggering incompetence at play, or there is a fundamental dishonesty. 

The sudden "extremism" on the CHALLENGER 2 LEP issue at a time in which the risk of seeing the whole fleet axed for real is staggeringly elevate is very puzzling indeed. Up to last year they were fine with doing little more than changing radios and thermal cameras; now it's all or nothing. 

It's a terribly risky gamble. 

If not a deliberate ploy to direct the incoming cuts exactly in that direction. 

It feels like the 2009 reduction to the number of HARRIER Squadrons, which effectively made cancellation of the whole fleet the following year a foregone conclusion. 


Maybe i'm being overly harsh. Maybe my suspicions are unfunded. But it very much smells to me like an underhanded move on the part of what i suspect is a "wheeled faction" which seems to have gained the upper hand within the Army since 2015. 

I've long suspected the existence of a fundamental disagreement at the heart of Army planning between Tracks proponents and Wheels supporters. The dramatic change of priorities in 2015, just after the massive AJAX contract was signed, will always have me wondering. 


It is safe to say that, whatever the final outcome, as far as i'm concerned, the sooner General Carter's era ends, the better i'll feel. The original Army 2020 plan was a mess that had to be fixed with a long list of U-turns in the following years, and Army 2020 Refine now risks to destroy what's left of the British Army. It could hardly have gone any worse than it has. 


The prospect of the Army losing its MBTs and IFVs is one that is very hard to stomach. The destructive effect of such a decision would ripple farther across the force structure than most realize. It would be a life-changing injury for the Army. In the graphic below, I tried to evidence some of the less immediately-evident ramifications of such a scenario.

 

 

 

This graphic shows some (not all) of the true implications of doing away with the tank.
This graphic shows some (not all) of the implications of doing away with the tank. 

 

What is most infuriating about the tracked heavy armour situation is that the Army has laid its head into the guillotine all by itself. As we wait to see if the blade descends or not, we might contemplate the fact that in late 2019 the MOD signed into a 2.8 billion pounds contract for 523 BOXERs, as part of a Mechanized Infantry Vehicle contract which has an overall budget for procurement and first few operational years that is given as 4.6 billions in the latest Major Projects spreadsheet.

It is a fact that the Army put itself into this thorny corner by making BOXER its absolute number 1 priority, despite knowing that these 523 vehicles are a mere start, insufficient in numbers and variants to cover the need of the 2 STRIKE brigades.

 

In an alternate universe, the British Army has not strayed away from the 3 armoured  brigades of Army2020; has not yet bought a Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (MIV) and is making do with MASTIFF in its place but has but those billions into continuing the job it had started on Armour, getting CHALLENGER 2 LEP and WARRIOR CSP under contract and is, as a result, riding out the Integrated Review with a lighter heart.

This is a fact, and no hindsight is required. I’ve been shouting warnings for 5 years about the STRIKE adventure, as you will know if you have been following me for a while. I’ve collected hate from multiple corners, but I’m sadly, once again, proven right.

Believe me, I would very much like to be proven wrong in these cases, but it does not happen.

In pursuit of a concept that remains uncomfortably vague, the Army has put its core capabilities into a guillotine.

 

The MBT – IFV combo is the heart of any modern army. As the graphic hopefully helps understand, the ramifications extend across multiple formations and roles. All of that would have to be re-imagined and re-built around new concepts and new vehicles. This would be very expensive… and thus would likely not happen. Not anywhere near the scale that would be required.

 

Doing away with MBTs would require a very honest and very significant downgrade to national ambitions; a complete re-write of how the Army fights and against what kind of enemy it can go; and the rebuilding of the force structure around new and different vehicles and sources of firepower.

 

The problem is the UK would probably do none of the 3. Multiple governments have shown not to possess the necessary coherence and honesty to admit that having less capability only ever means doing less, not more. And the expenditure required to rebuild the army would be monstrous. If the tanks are cut for lack of money, you cannot possibly expect big amounts of money to be available right away, if ever, to launch a complete reconstruction of the force.

 

The Army would be left with BOXERs for some 4 infantry battalions, and plans for 4 regiments on AJAX. And that would be it. Half of 3rd Division would virtually cease to exist in one go, and since 1st Division is mostly only an empty shell containing multiple Light Role infantry battalions, there would be very, very little left to work with.

 

This is not the time to lose the MBT. Such a decision would also shut Britain pretty much out of any attempt to secure an industrial role in future MBT programmes. One popular option that gets mentioned a lot is “joining the franco-german Maing Ground Combat System”. There are multiple issues with this: France and Germany are not really looking for partners to treat with any equality. Industrial opportunities for other countries will be extremely limited. The UK would be welcomed as customer, not as partner.

And even if this was to change, the UK will have very little chance to secure any important industrial role simply because the relevant capabilities in this sector will have gone.

 

Rheinmetall BAE Land Systems is offering an incredibly fascinating option for a deep modernization of CHALLENGER 2: a whole new turret. This solves the ammunition problem of the CR2, which is the only NATO tank that uses 2-piece ammunition, which prevents the armor-piercing rod to be lengthened, thus hard-capping lethality. The CR2 ammunition is increasingly obsolete and is an oddity that offers zero commonality to NATO stocks and developments. No path to greater armor-piercing capability (important in the light of new Russian developments) and no chance to adopt modern programmable explosive rounds either. The new turret has been tested on a CHALLENGER 2 hull armed with the NATO standard 120 mm smoothbore and the very latest ammunition.

The new turret also comes fully digitalized and with modern systems, including new optics shared with AJAX, offering logistical commonality.

 


The first LEP demonstrator by Rheinmetall (now RBLS) focused on a "conservative" approach by going with the standard 120/55 smoothbore. 




The second demonstrator, publicly unveiled only last July, is more radically new as it comes with the 130/51 smoothbore. The turret is the same, but fitted with extra armour on the front and sides, possibly also as a form of counterweight for the cannon. Rheinmetall is betting big on this turret and this cannon; for them the CHALLENGER 2 LEP is an exciting opportunity, but the turret is very clearly aimed at future developments (MGCS) and at the LEOPARD 2 upgrade market. The first CHALLENGER 2 demonstrator was showcased at the NEDS show in the Netherlands in 2019, along with the 130 mm shell. It was a hint of what was coming, and a clear sign of the turret being meant for far more than just CHALLENGER. In the Netherlands, nobody cares about CHALLENGER. LEOPARD 2, on the other hand...


But more than that, the new turret is a product that Rheinmetall is using to develop next-generation solutions that could find a vast market in the future as LEOPARD 2 customers around the world take an interest.

 

In July it was revealed that the new turret, mounted on a CHALLENGER 2 hull (presumably the 2nd of the tanks given originally to Rheinmetall to become demonstrators for LEP proposals) has been trialed with the new 130/51 gun, which offers an estimated 50% lethality boost.

This new cannon is not yet a given for the franco-german MGCS, but is expected to eventually be officially picked, and it is assumed it will become a NATO standard in time as a consequence.

 

Clearly there is a risk that, in the end, the new gun won’t be so widely adopted. Or perhaps it will only be adopted over many years.

Then again, every risk comes with an opportunity. There is a more than real possibility that this new gun will only grow in relevance in the future, and that it might pick up big export orders.

If the UK became the launch customer and got RBLS to launch production of the turret, gun and ammunition in the country, the heavy armour industrial capability of the country would go from moribund back to very healthy. It would be much easier to secure a role into a future tank programme too. Perhaps even have a leadership position into an alternative programme to the franco-german one, with countries like Italy and Poland not at all thrilled by the virtually inexistent role for their industries if they were to buy into the MGCS.

Rheinmetall is likely to be sympathetic with a UK base for the new turret and gun because London is less likely to impose bans that prevent the company from bagging massive and lucrative middle east contracts. The german parliament has killed off several opportunities that Rheinmentall would have loved to pursue.

 

There is a huge opportunity within reach. In order to make CHALLENGER 2 fit for the next 2 decades, the new turret is a must. And whether it is armed with the 120 mm or the new 130 mm, new ammunition will have to be part of the expenditure. Arguably, this is exactly the time to be bold and adopt the new gun.


 

 

MIV and WARRIOR

 

MIV is a huge part of why the Army’s budget is in trouble, but BOXER is a good vehicle, and there are understandable reasons for wanting wheeled armour. Ideally, there should be both fully tracked and fully wheeled brigades, but the British Army does not have the resources to make it happen anytime soon, and so a different approach is required.

 

As I’ve written multiple times, I think the best compromise that can be pursued from where the Army currently stands is the French one. This means giving up tracked IFVs in favor of wheeled ones.

 

WARRIOR CSP is not yet under production contract, and since the base hull, even after the upgrade, shows all the limitations of age and of a powerpack that is not being replaced with a more modern and powerful one, it might be wiser to just abandon the project and the whole fleet.

 

The money (more than 800 million are earmarked for the WCSP production), the 40mm gun and the turrets should instead be put into BOXER.

Integration of the turret into a BOXER module should not be overly complex. Lockheed Martin fit one onto a BOXER and carried out some early trials, including weapon firings, as far back as 2015. While these industry-led demonstrations involve integrations that are far less mature than one might think, there should be no reason for the turret not fitting on a troop-carrying module.

 

The turreted BOXERs would then be mixed with the APCs already on order with the aim of eventually forming 8 battalions: 2 for each Armoured and Medium brigade. There are many reasons for me to formulate this recommendation, but they all more or less stem from the following main considerations: the Warrior hull is old and tired and the CSP does not quite solve that, nor does replace the old powerpack; an all MIV fleet helps standardization; having the infantry on wheels helps the Army be more self-deployable and means the precious few Heavy and Light Equipment Transports (89 and 77 respectively) are free to focus on moving the MBTs and other tracked platforms, such as AJAX and TERRIER; having at least a portion of the BOXERs well armed with a 40mm gun means that, apart from being able to get to the fight, they will also be able to fight. The current MIV, armed like a SAXON, can get there but can’t get into a fight, only drop its infantry a safe distance back. 



With thanks to Jon Hawkes (@JonHawkes275) who dug up these old slides and posted them on his Twitter. He is a must-follow in the field of Armour. 

Finally, plans for a new tracked support vehicle to replace FV432 seem to have died entirely, and it would border on ridiculous to field a 28 tons tracked Warrior supported by wheeled 8x8s weighting close to 40.

 

Boxer is a modern and well protected hull, and if the Army cannot afford a proper split of tracks and wheels, on balance of merits and defects, wheels should probably take precedence. This is what France has done with the VBCI replacing the last tracked IFVs of the Armee de Terre. 

It is a compromise, since there a tracked IFV will always have a greater ability to run down obstacles and dug-in positions and will always have greater all-terrain mobility than a wheeled platform, but I feel it would be a good compromise all the same.

 

Again, a priority for me would also be to re-evaluate the variants of MIV to be procured, reducing to the bare minimum the number of ambulances and command posts in favor of pursuing instead a 120mm mortar and an ATGW variants as well as, potentially, more APCs / IFVs to increase, if at all possible, the number of mechanized battalions in the Army. With over 500 vehicles already on order, it should be feasible. I’ve written about this in greater detail in a previous article.  

 

The Ambulance role and, wherever possible, the C2 role would be instead “offloaded” onto much cheaper Multi Role Vehicle Protected variants. Regarding MRV-P, I’d personally urge the Army to finally proceed with the programme with the aim of rationalizing the current dog’s breakfast of multiple “mini” fleets, getting rid progressively of Husky, Panther, DURO, Pinzgauer and part of the Land Rovers.

My favorite for Group 2 would be the Thales Bushmaster, to be assembled in their Glasgow plant as promised by the company and by the Australian government.

 

I do realize, however, that a quiet, unspoken further delay to the whole of MRV-P is likely, as it defers expenditure into a vague, undetermined future.



Further pre-Integrated Review reading material: 


- Amphibious without ships  - There is no amphibious capability without adequate ships and ship to shore connectors. A look at the USMC reforms and the question mark over the Future Commando Force


- A different angle to "difficult choices" - If the UK really doesn't want to spend money to maintain its capabilities, it needs to at least be wise on what it invests on. Building on strengths is more cost-effective than trying to reinforce weakness. 


- The many weaknesses of STRIKE - 5 years on, there is still not a consensun on what STRIKE is actually good for. And it is becoming painfully clear just how much it might cost the Army to pursue this plan. 


- Towards the SDSR 2020 - This was written in December 2019, before the COVID spending generated the current psychosis around public expenditure. While we wait to understand if HMG chooses to obsess about Debt reduction and launches a new Austerity drive (hopefully not), the overview of the main issues remains valid.