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.
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.
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.
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.
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.