Tuesday, November 24, 2015

After the SDSR - Strike brigades: a big deal?

 Strike brigades: a big deal?

The Strike Brigades: a big deal?

The “Strike Brigades”, which seem actually destined to be mechanized infantry brigades, fantasy-titles aside, represent a far great change for the army than most appreciate from the SDSR document, which is completely devoid of details.

What is the extent of the change, and what are the implications?  

What is a strike brigade?

Answer: we don’t yet know exactly what shape it is supposed to have. It will include the Ajax family of tracked vehicles and the new Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (a wheeled, 8x8 armoured vehicle) to be procured in the coming years.

It is also expected to have the full range of supports, from logistic to artillery, from medical regiment to REME to combat engineers.

Where do the strike brigades come from?

One Strike Brigade will be obtained downgrading one of the current three Armoured Infantry Brigades; the other will come from the upgrading of one of the seven Adaptable Infantry Brigades.
The end result is a force with 2 armoured infantry brigades, 2 strike brigades, 6 infantry brigades.


The key questions are: how will Ajax be distributed? The most likely answer is in a single Cavalry regiment for each brigade. The implication: the Ajax fleet has been ordered under the Army 2020 plan, which would have seen Ajax replace the ancient, light CVR(T) vehicles in the reconnaissance regiments and in the recce platoons within tank regiments and armoured infantry battalions.
The assumption was that the vehicles would equip 3 cavalry regiments and 9 recce platoons (in 3 tank and 6 armoured infantry units).

Now we must assume that the cavalry regiments will be four, one for each armoured and strike brigade. In addition, Ajax will continue to be required for the recce platoons in the Tank and Armoured Infantry regiments and battalions.

The Ajax fleet on order is not expected to be expanded: it should be possible to squeeze four cavalry regiments out of the fleet, but it might take some Whole Fleet Management magic: the number of the specialized variants is carefully thought out for 3 regiments. Adding a fourth might mean that there are not enough vehicles for everyone, and regiments are only given access to all the vehicles on the ORBAT only when deploying.

Next, how many MIV? Until yesterday, the Army required the MIV as a replacement for the Mastiff and Ridgback MRAPs employed by 3 battalions of “Heavy Protected Mobility Infantry”.
One such battalion is present in each armoured infantry brigade.

Now the MIV could be required to equip as many as 6 battalions of infantry, or as few as 2, or 4. We have no real idea what the plan is. A Strike Brigade will have, one would expect, the canonical 3 infantry battalions. But how will these battalions be configured? They could be all mounted on MIV, or 2 or even just 1 on MIV and the rest on Foxhound, or some battalions might even be of the Light Role type, with no section vehicle at all and soldiers on foot.

What will the Engineer regiment of the brigade use? The description of the brigade’s concept would appear to rule out the massive Titan bridgelayer and Trojan AVRE vehicles, so the 30 tons Terrier will be the main item, with the truck-mounted ABLE and REBS bridging systems as likely complement, plus wheeled excavators, trucks and all the rest.

REME? We can expect no Challenger recovery vehicle for the same reason. Ajax recovery variants, MIV recovery variants, MAN Wrecker are the most likely tools.

Medical regiment: a MIV ambulance variant is a most likely fit.

Artillery: AS90 is excluded by its weight and logistic tail. The Light Gun is the most likely initial solution, although it really is an underwhelming weapon for use in a mechanized formation: a 155 mm system such as the French CAESAR would be ideal later on.

Direct Fire: armoured infantry brigades enjoy the firepower of main battle tanks. Traditional Mechanized Infantry Brigades also have tanks, but the “strike brigade”, as described, seems destined not to have tanks as they are too heavy and difficult to deploy.
If money wasn’t a problem, a MIV Direct Fire variant, sporting an MBT-class main gun but on wheels, would be procured, but it takes quite a bit of optimism to imagine the british army being able to afford this.
Italian Medium Brigades, which are mounted on Freccia 8x8 vehicles, enjoy the presence of the Centauro 8x8 tank destroyer with a 105mm gun, and its eventual replacement, the Centauro 2 with the 120 mm. The Centauro is used in the reconnaissance cavalry role.

Being the result of endless change of plans, the british Strike Brigades, despite being almost entirely wheeled, will instead end up using the tracked Ajax for reconnaissance and combat screening. Not exactly the best of solutions.

Logistic: the RLC element for the Strike Brigade will not be as large as that associated with an armoured infantry brigade, but nonetheless will have to be much larger than that found in an Adaptable Infantry Brigade. 

For the Full Size image click here

The transition from Army 2020 to Joint Force 2025 and its implications. Note: the 2025 structure of both the Strike and of the Armoured Infantry brigades can, at this stage, only be a guess. For all we know, the armoured brigades could have 2 smaller tank regiments each and 2 or 3 infantry battalions on Warrior. The Strike brigades might have to complement MIV with Foxhound battalions. We literally have no idea for now. Hope the army has a more consistent plan...


Mechanized Infantry Battalions are only slightly smaller than armoured infantry ones in manpower terms (709 versus 729, in Army 2020). They are however some 150 men larger than a Light Role infantry battalion (709 versus 561). Since the Army’s overall manpower is not increasing, the larger units needed to transform an Adaptable Brigade into a Strike Brigade will require other infantry battalions to get even smaller. 
Supporting elements will become smaller as they move from armoured to mechanized, but again we must assume that current "light" supports will have to grow to account for the other strike brigade, and this will require even more manpower. 
Sure enough, the SDSR says that “a number” of infantry battalions will be “reconfigured for mentoring and defence engagement”: another way to say that they will shrink further as manpower goes in other directions.
Mind you, it is not necessarily a bad thing: in earlier posts I’ve argued for this kind of approach (I actually suggested closing down entire battalions rather than keeping a lot of tiny, understrenght units, but I knew all too well that the government wouldn’t have the guts to face a “disappearing capbadge” outrage scenario), but the SDSR uses nice words to announce the change without making it explicit.

Heavy metal

The armoured infantry brigades remaining will have to change in some way. How, we don’t yet know.

Everything is possible, in theory. Two fairly safe assumptions are that the brigades will continue to have their own cavalry regiment on Ajax but will lose their Heavy Protected Mobility Infantry battalion in favor of the Strike Brigades.

The six armoured infantry battalions could all stay and be spread 3 and 3 into each brigade. Logical, but expensive, especially if another six battalions get mounted on MIVs. 

Similarly, what happens to tank regiments? Now 3 (+1 reserve): tomorrow? Will they become two, but larger? Two, same size? Four, smaller?

GMLRS: difficult to even guess. Its precision and long range is key, and its weight class isn't far from Ajax or what we can expect for the MIV itself. It could go both ways: we could see a fourth precision fires battery formed, or we could see a reduction to two. Hard to say.

AS90: how many will be cut? It seems an unlikely fit for the Strike Brigades, and, as of march 2015, the OSD of AS90 is 2030. The Army is already thinking about replacing it, perhaps with the french CAESAR (which 1st Royal Horse Artillery has extensively trialed). GMLRS OSD is also 2030, but this will probably not hold true, while it might for AS90.

Titan & Trojan: how many will be cut? 

Assuming each armoured and each strike brigade gets a Cavalry regiment on Ajax, a fourth such regiment has to be created. It could be obtained by re-roling one Tank regiment, or by re-roling a Light Cavalry regiment, in theory. It seems far more likely that a tank regiment will be re-roled, sadly, because this would free up some manpower (although not terribly much: a Challenger 2 regiment has an establishment of 587 versus 528 for an Ajax cavalry regiment, in army 2020) and money.

Infantry brigades and enduring deployments

The British Army currently works according to the Rule of the 5: it takes 5 man to keep one constantly deployed, as this allows said man to enjoy a 24 months interval between one 6-months operational deployment and another.

Army 2020 delivers the ability to sustain a brigade-size enduring deployment by means of 3 armoured brigades and 7 infantry brigades. The latter, which are really “containers” of deployable regiments and battalions, can deliver two deployable brigades to deliver the fourth and fifth deployment in an enduring operation. The rhythm works out as: armoured, armoured, armoured, adaptable, adaptable, and again armoured and so on.
The air assault battlegroup and the amphibious battlegroup are in addition.

Will Joint Force 2025 deliver the same kind of capability? If the answer is yes, how?
We can assume that, from the six remaining infantry brigades, a third 2-brigade, 2-year force generation cycle could be sustained, delivering each year an infantry brigade at readiness. Supports elements would be available for a single deployment, assuming that the current “5 of everything” approach is maintained.

There currently are 5 artillery regiments, 5 signal regiments, 5 engineer, 5 REME, 5 logistic elements and so along. Will Joint Force 2025 cut back from 5 to 4?

Or perhaps will Harmony Guidelines be changed to account for a 1 in 4 rule, meaning 6 months deployed at intervals of just 18 months?

We don’t yet have an answer to any of these questions.


The Strike Brigades have profound implications for the Army. They are extremely likely to cause further losses in heavy armour assets and in heavy, self propelled artillery, despite the relevance of these systems having been dramatically reaffirmed in Ukraine.

The formation of the Strike Brigades will send ripples across the entire army and its procurement plans. Depending on the structure of the brigades, the numbers of the MIV programme can change dramatically. The requirement for ABSV will become smaller as one brigade moves from tracks to wheels.  
Each Corp of the army will be touched in some way. And there are enormous implications in terms of force generation cycles and potentially of harmony guidelines.

The army might finally get its long dreamed Medium Brigades and new 8x8 armoured vehicles, but how much it will have to sacrifice to get to them is not yet clear.
Army 2020 is no more: a new plan needs to take shape, and we can only hope the Army knows more than we do. The SDSR provides no answers: let’s hope the Army has an actual plan about the way forwards. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

SDSR 2015 - What does it say, what does it imply - UPDATES

As was to be expected, plenty of questions remain without an answer at this time, but what we know is:

This is the maximum level of detail provided. And it clearly is not much.

Royal Air Force

In manpower terms, the SDSR seems to suggest that the RAF will gain around 300 personnel. That is because the document says that Royal Navy and RAF together will grow by 700, and 400 are expected to be for the Navy.

MPA: P-8 Poseidon purchase. 9 will be acquired, to be based in RAF Lossiemouth. At least three will be delivered quickly, within the current Parliament. The official MOD release affirms the importance of having a proper, ASW- capable aircraft armed with torpedoes and missiles. No detail yet on whether US torpedoes will be acquired or if integration of Stingray will be sought.

Overland surveillance capability is openly mentioned and thought to be in direct connection with eventually replacing Sentinel R1 in providing wide area surveillance and GMTI targeting.

Sentinel R1: will be operated into the early 2020s (was 2018). Around 2022, the P-8 Poseidon should acquire the capability to employ the AAS radar for overland surveillance, and this might be the reason. 

UPDATE: Gareth Jennings of Jane's gives the new OSD as 2021. A RAF article says that 4, not 5, will be extended. Typo or correct information? 

Shadow R1: this secretive asset will be extended out to at least 2030. The graphic showing the “Joint Force 2025” reports 8 Shadow R1: at the moment there is no telling if it is a mistake or an indication of further purchases. Only 5 are in service at the moment: a sixth aircraft was purchased but not fitted with the mission kit in the end and remains in use as a training aid. An expansion of the fleet would thus be a considerable U-turn in its own right. 

UPDATE:  Gareth Jennings of Jane's reports that the MOD has confirmed that 2 extra Shadow R1 are to be procured and that the sixth will now receive the mission suite, giving a fleet of 8.

Sentry:  the AWACS fleet will be extended to 2035, the current NATO out of service date for the type. It is to be assumed that funding will be made available to adopt the same kind of Mid Life Upgrade that NATO is carrying out to achieve that date, but no detail is provided. 

UPDATE:  Gareth Jennings of Jane's reports that the MOD expects to launch the upgrade programme for Sentry in 2020. The number of crews will also be increased, from 9 to 12 in 2021.

Rivet Joint: will operate out to 2035.

Typhoon: the Tranche 1 aircraft will be retained and this will enable the formation of 2 more squadrons, for a total of 7. Basing and timeframe is not detailed yet. Since the manpower increase to the RAF is limited to around 300 men, the only possibility is that the two additional Typhoon squadrons will only come on the back of disbanding Tornado GR4 units. This passage is however complicated by the fact that Tornado remains engaged in operations and cannot be withdrawn, while Typhoon will take several more years to become ready to employ Storm Shadow (August 2018) and Brimstone (in 2019 at the earliest).

F-35: the biggest surprise is the reaffirmation of a procurement plan for a full 138 aircraft in the long term. There is no variant mentioned, keeping the door open to purchase of the F-35A later on. By 2023, 42 aircraft will have been put into service, supporting the formation of the 2 squadrons already planned, 617 RAF and 809 NAS. We also know that an OCU is planned from 2019 in Marham and 17(R) Sqn will carry on in Edwards AFB, USA, as the Operational Evaluation Unit.  

Protector: at least 20, to replace the current 10 Reaper around 2020.

C-130J: another big surprise is that more than half of the Hercules fleet is no longer expected to go out of service in 2022. They will continue out to 2030, probably in 47 Sqn and with a heavy focus on Special Forces support. Whether the increase in funding for the Special Forces also covers addition of weaponry to the Hercules (on the lines of what, for example, French special forces are planning) is not known. They will be “upgraded and extended” to support a “range of operations” out to 2030.
It is possible that the 14 Hercules retained will all be of the -30 variant, with the stretched fuselage and greater cargo space.

A400M and Voyager: numbers unchanged. One Voyager will be refitted with a VVIP compartment allowing secure transport of ministers and of the royal family over long distances.

FCAS and Complex Weapons: again, no details, but the promise is to continue working on FCAS with France and progressing collaboration on Complex Weapons as well. Important decisions are expected already in December regarding the shape of the FCAS unmanned aircraft, while there is expectation for Storm Shadow mid-life upgrade and launch of Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon work during 2016.

Royal Navy

Manpower: an increase of around 400 men.

Carriers: both will enter service and both will be crewed. The document mentions that one of the two will receive enhancements specifically thought for better supporting the amphibious assault mission, since HMS Ocean will retire without a dedicate replacement.
This opens the possibility that we will see both at sea together, covering different roles. But a more realistic settlement would still appear to refit the “amphibious” bits to the other as well, at the first major refit period, to allow each ship to act in both roles and, indeed, in a mixed role. The assured availability is for only one carrier at a time, after all.

Frigates: BAE was unable to keep the Type 26’s cost down, and sure enough the axe hit home. The Type 26 building phase is being further delayed and the first ship will only enter service around 2025 now. Only 8, all in ASW configuration, will be built.

The MOD is reverting to the “C1 and C2” approach it abandoned at the beginning of the Type 26 project, and is now seeking the design for a smaller and cheaper frigate to be built in at least 5 examples, and ideally more, after the Type 26 production ends. The target remains for 13 frigates, of which 8 ASW and 5 GP, with the hope of possibly building more of the GP ones by virtue of them being cheaper.

In the old days, C1 was to deliver 10 “high-end” ASW frigates and C2 was to deliver 8 cheaper general purpose frigates.

A shipbuilding strategy detailing dates and targets will be crafted in 2016. At the moment, it is hard to express a judgment of the decision: much will depend on the shape of the “light frigate”, which is, anyway, years away into the future. The Type 26 procurement was always going to be a long-term affair, and plenty of questions will remain with us for years to come. For all we know, by the time the first series of 8 is almost complete, a decision will have been made to build more of the same to complete the replacement of the Type 23s.

Type 45 BMD: studies and "investigation" about the capability of the Type 45s to detect, track and one day counter ballistic missiles will continue. The UK remains involved in the NATO BMD projects and will "invest in a land-based BMD radar". Not clear if it refers to RAF Fylingdales, to a whole new installation or a NATO project outside of the UK entirely. 

OPVs: a further two OPVs (almost certainly other River Batch 2s) will be ordered to keep the yards busy as Type 26 is delayed.
The Royal Navy is to have “up to 6 OPVs”. Initially, we have to assume that they will be the 3 new River Batch 2s plus two of the existing River Batch 1s plus HMS Clyde in the Falklands.
In a few years time, the 2 River batch 1 would be replaced by the two new OPVs to be ordered.
HMS Clyde could continue to serve as, unlike the 3 Batch 1s in UK waters, she has a flight deck.
Depending on her fate, the Royal Navy will have 5 or 6 OPVs.

There is no detail about perhaps forward basing 2 of the OPVs abroad, as I continue to suggest, but it is a possibility. Use of the OPVs to support british interests “abroad” gets a mention.

MCM: there is no mention of cuts, but only 12 MCM vessels appear in the graphic showing “Joint Force 2025”. This suggests a reduction of 3 vessels from the current fleet, with the Sandowns being most exposed due to the Hunt having an open stern area which is more readily converted to a mothership arrangement in support of the new MHC unmanned vehicles expected to be procured over the coming years.

MARS Fleet Solid Support Ship: the SDSR promises that three new Solid Support vessels will be procured to add to the six fleet tankers (2 Waves and the 4 new Tides). Plenty of questions remain on the capabilities that these ships will have and the timeframe for their purchase as well as about where they will be built. The news is to be welcomed, but now begins the sentry duty, scanning the horizon for finding the details.



Manpower: unchanged.

Structure: the two new “Strike Brigades” represent the upgrade of one of the Adaptable Force brigades planned so far and the downgrade of one of the three armoured infantry brigades.
Beyond the fancy “strike” title, the very few words offered by the SDSR suggest that these will be medium-weight, mechanized brigades equipped with the Ajax tracked vehicle and with the Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV), an 8x8 to be procured in the coming years. Once, we called it FRES Utility Vehicle.
The time needed to procure the MIV is the most evident cause for the long time expected to be required to bring these brigades into operation: they are planned to be ready only by 2025, and even that seems ambitious.

Once again, the SDSR provides no detail about the changes connected.

One hypothesis is that one Challenger 2 regiment will be re-roled to become a fourth cavalry regiment on Ajax, so that each armoured and each mechanized brigade has its own recce formation.

The number of armoured infantry battalions could in theory remain the same, but spread on only two brigades, each comprising also a single tank regiment. The Warrior CSP remains in the plan, as is the Challenger 2 LEP and, hopefully, ABSV.

The MIV was initially about equipping 3 mechanised battalions in the armoured infantry brigades, but could now be about re-equipping a total of 6 battalions, if all the infantry units in the new medium brigades are to be mounted on 8x8.

6 infantry brigades will remain in the Adaptable Force, but “a number” of infantry battalions will be reconfigured for counter-terrorism and defence engagement and mentoring roles. What this likely means is that several battalions will become even smaller, which is a necessity if the mechanized battalions (each requiring more than 700 men) are doubled and if the combat support and combat service support units in the mechanized brigades are to be reinforced.

The Ajax order is not expected to change, but an impact is likely in Challenger 2 and AS90 numbers, potentially even GMLRS as the three heavy artillery regiments will probably become two, and we have no indication of what the “strike” brigades will have in terms of artillery support. Warrior numbers could be severely affected depending on the new shape of the remaining armoured infantry brigades.

Apache: the procurement of upgraded (Block III) capability is confirmed, as are 4 frontline squadrons. Training formations are not counted in the graphic, so there is no certainty about the OCU and the Conversion to Role squadrons, but hopefully there is no change to the plans. 

Nuclear deterrent

Four replacement SSBNs are to be procured. The number of missiles and warheads remains unchanged from the SDSR 2010. The entry in service of the four new submarines will now begin in the “early 2030s”, so a bit later than the 2028 which was the plan until it became evident that HMS Vanguard needs one last nuclear core refueling.

The cost estimate, including inflation, has been revised upwards by six billion, to 31. A large contingency fund of 10 billion is also reserved to absorb any cost growth emerging during the life of the programme. 

The programme will be delivered with staged investments, and will be overseen by a new team within the MOD, headed by an experienced commercial specialist. 

Special Forces 

Despite much noise being made about new equipment for the SF, the SDSR provides no details. Part of the “extra” money for Special Forces is most likely employed to keep the C-130js going. There is mention of investment in high altitude unmanned platforms which are expected to be the Zephyr drone. The purchase of 3 such unmanned air vehicles should soon be authorized, but they will initially be mostly for testing as the Zephyr still has to overcome a big problem: it has a tiny payload available for sensors. Flying at 70.000 feet for 3 months is great, but is only useful if the right payload can be put on the UAV.

Another interesting phrase is “we will upgrade our helicopters and transport aircraft so they can deploy further and faster”. This could mean anything. 9 C-130s have been recently fitted with under-wing fuel tanks, but on the helicopters front the way forwards is less clear.
The Special Forces need to replace the Lynx AH9A used by 657 AAC squadron and if we wanted we could speculate about adding air refueling capability for helicopters using the C-130s. It is unlikely, though. We will have to wait for actual developments.


In August 2022, the current Skynet service provision contract will end, and Airbus will hand back to the MOD the full ownership of the ground and space infrastructure, including the constellation of communication satellites.

The way forwards from there is still uncertain. Decisions have yet to be made, but collaboration with France could prove pivotal going forwards.
As from early November news reports, the MOD seems determined to work its way out of the Private Financing Approach. A new satellite, expected to be launched in 2021 / 2022 will extend the life of the current system and begin opening up new and up-to-date capabilities, to be further increased later on with a second. 

A review about the way forwards should be completed next year, though.

Civil servants and defence estate

A major 30% reduction is announced, bringing the total down to 41.000 by the end of this parliament.

A 30% in the built defence estate is also envisioned, releasing vast areas back to civilian use.

The impact of these two cuts is difficult to evaluate at this stage.

A final comment

Until not long ago, defence was facing an abyss: had the 2% of GDP spending target not been confirmed, the armed forces today would have been hit by a dramatically different and far less pleasing review.
Today we have reasons to be quite happy: there are several good news, some expected and others which no one dared to hope for.

But, as was expected, plenty of questions remain. It is also worth remembering that projects stretching in the very long term, such as Type 26, F-35 (beyond 2023 and the first 48 and two squadrons) and indeed the running on of C-130J are promises, not certainties. Much can change in the many years that have yet to come and pass.

What matters is that the MPA hole is finally being plugged, and with the right aircraft. The carriers will enter service and a plan is in place for the initial two squadrons for them; the need to think about amphibious assault capability for the carriers is recognized; extra OPVs will be kept (and hopefully used abroad to ease the workload of actual frigates); the vital ISTAR assets of the RAF are getting air in their lungs and the MARS Solid Support Ship is finally on the radar.
This is a huge, huge improvement. The fact that we are no longer staring at a six squadrons RAF in 2020 is also to be welcomed with enormous relief.

I’m particularly worried by the Army’s position, and I am immensely curious to learn about the impact of the “strike brigades” on the force structure and on heavy, tracked armour capability.
The new structure will also require a rethink of the force generation cycle, since the burden of readiness is now shared by two couples of brigades instead of 3 plus 3-out-of-7-to deploy-2.
Now begins a new quest for details.