Saturday, September 9, 2017

Shipbuilding Strategy and Type 31: it does not actually look like renaissance.


The strategy

In its Shipbuiling Strategy, the MOD claims to have accepted all of the recommendations put forwards by sir Parker, and this is a welcome surprise, although on several points their acceptance is tied to too many exceptions.
With a courageous decision, the MOD opens the gates to the possibility of building frigates away from the Clyde. This of course opens their flank to SNP complaints about “betrayals” of workers in Govan and Scotstoun, but having a workable shipbuilding alternative to the yards in Scotland is not just a political weapon, but a strategic must. The UK cannot possibly depend entirely on Scottish yards as long as nationalistic nonsense about independence remains such a real danger.
In addition, breaking the BAE Systems monopoly is pretty much the only thing left to attempt in order to reduce the cost of building ships in the UK. The pricetag for the Type 26 frigates is simply monstrous and the Royal Navy desperately needs a way out of the death spiral.

In an earlier article I argued that working to a 30 years horizon when defining future plans for entire capabilities (and thus entire classes of ships) was the single most important factor. I remain of this opinion: short termism and insufficient joined up thinking has ended up forcing a premature order for OPVs that are being paid an absurd amount of money to bridge an occupation gap and keep the workforce going. Further to that, it has generated the Type 31 itself, a ship that risks to be an extremely low-capability constabulary worker which in some ways overlaps with River B2s and arguably with what the MHC mothership should have been (and could still be).
I did not expect the government would accept the 30 years plan recommendation. The inclusion of this element in the strategy is a very welcome development, and in some ways a surprise. However, it is clear that the MOD “Master Plan” is not and will never be the kind of outlook that is necessary and that sir Parker argued for.

The Master Plan will not be public. It will be an internal document, guiding the actions of the “Client Board” chaired by the 1st Sea Lord. The details will not be released. Industry should get some visibility on it, but the secrecy will ensure that the plan never translates in a commitment with any sort of assurance attached to it. Just like the Equipment Plan at large, it will remain subject to endless and stealth change. This negates much of its usefulness: I’m sure the Navy already compiles long-term plans of its own, after all. What was needed was a clearer direction, with a substantial degree of “certainty” attached to it. Something like the US Navy’s own 30 years ships master plan, in other words.

The UK’s Master Plan offers no real assurance. Where Parker argued for a “set and assured” outlook for budgets, the MOD responded by saying that the budget for a programme is set at Main Gate. And even then it remains subject to successive reviews. In practice, there is no real change from the current arrangement. The stability of funding lines, even at programme approved and underway, will be down to common sense and good will, with no additional assurance provided by “the strategy”. While no government is ever going to set definitive budget levels for such a long horizon, it is essential that the Navy and Industry have a good idea of what kind of budgets they’ll have to work with, well before the project reaches the technical maturity requested by Main Gate. 
The Client Board chaired by the 1st Sea Lord will produce the Naval Ship Acquisition Master Plan and seek the endorsement of the “Sponsor Group”, chaired by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Capability), which will own the actual shipbuilding strategy and refresh it periodically. The Sponson Group includes the Treasury, so the budget battles will be fought at this level. The Client Board will have to juggle the priorities within the Master Plan and allocate the budget to the various programmes, holding them to account. Project Teams will deliver the actual programmes.



The shipbuilding strategy reaffirms the intention to build all “complex” combat ships in the UK, but effectively throws everything else open for international competition. This includes the amphibious shipping as well as survey and MCM vessels, and all RFAs. This does not necessarily mean that the UK shipyards will not be selected for major programmes in this area, but it introduces a very big risk. It is difficult to win competitions with foreign yards that build more, more often and, were applicable, count on cheaper manpower. For the Navy this might not be bad news (the 4 Tide class tankers bring a lot of capability for a very good price), but it is hardly a welcome proposition for british shipyards. Clearly, the hope is that british yards will be able to benefit from Type 31 modular construction and become more competitive, but a return “to greatness” from the current condition of the sector is not going to be easy. Building 5 Type 31s in blocks is highly unlikely to suffice. Building large blocks for the carriers was one thing; the Type 31 is unlikely to have a comparable effect.

Building large ships, such as the incoming MARS Fleet Solid Support, would inject more energy into the yards. The government is promising to evaluate with favor the effects of building in Britain over building abroad, but there is no assurance that british bids for the FSS project will be successful. It is my opinion that a firm decision to assemble the large FSS vessels in Rosyth, using the No 1 dock and the Goliath crane to receive and weld together modules coming from other yards would have had an infinitely more tangible effect on the growth of british capabilities in the sector in the near future.
It is down to industry, now, to propose something similar and do it in a way that convinces the government. The FSS are likely to be ships of 40.000 tons or more, the largest by far in the fleet after the carriers themselves, and the nature of their mission dictates that they will be relatively complex systems. In turn, that means valuable and consistent work for thousands of people.
Similarly, future large amphibious ships would have a key role to play in keeping the yards going.



From a Royal Navy point of view, the draft master plan enables a series of observations. First of all, Type 26 is expected to take a long time to reach operational capability. According to the Master Plan, it’ll be 2026/27 before HMS Glasgow achieves IOC. According to a different table within the document, HMS Glasgow won’t even be delivered before 2026. That is a pretty incredibly slow pace, and does not suggest a great level of confidence in what the Clyde shipyards can do. In part, this is the fault of government which did not authorize and fund the development of the single site “frigate factory” development. The build of Type 26, a large and complex ship, inside infrastructure which is clearly inadequate is clearly not of any help. On the other hand, government is faced with the horrible risk of investing into a world-class shipbuilding facility which it might lose to a nationalistic pipe-dream; not to mention that going down from two yards to one, albeit more capable, would generate its own amount of moaning and bad press. It is not a problem of easy resolution, and we ought to accord government at least this one extenuating circumstance. Substantial investment in Faslane, in Lossiemouth and the building of the Type 26s themselves is already more than enough of a risk that they are taking. The consequences of losing all those investments to a future referendum would be nothing short of devastating for defence, first of all for the navy.

The schedule for the Type 31e is, instead, extremely ambitious. After a swift competition phase, the aim is to achieve Main Gate in the fourth quarter of 2018 and commence building in early 2019, with the first ship entering service in 2023 to replace HMS Argyll. The other four would follow at 12 months intervals, while Type 26s will only arrive every 15 to 18 months. The second Type 26 will be laid down in 2019, the third only in 2021. The timings work out acceptably due to the fact that the ASW Type 23s hit their OSDs later than the 5 tail-less General Purpose ones.

The Type 31, however, exposes even more the overall diffidence that government and navy feel for the shipbuilding industry: the Core Requirements outlined by the Royal Navy for the ship, which has a cost cap of 250 million pounds, are humiliatingly basic. The service didn’t even dare asking for a Merlin-sized hangar, or a gun of more than 76mm caliber, or a CAMM installation in its core requirements. This suggests that very few believe that british yards will be able to deliver any kind of meaningful capability within the price boundaries. Certainly the navy is hoping with all its forces that industry will be able to accommodate some of the extras (or “adaptable” features, in the document released at the industry day) within the RN design, but it seems like nobody dared putting it on paper.
Nobody will be able to complain about the requirements being too ambitious or gold plated: the list of core requests makes the Type 31e equally or less capable than some of the OPVs in service around the world. They could not possibly be any humbler and vaguer.
For the first time in many years, the MOD is doing what was done at the time of the Type 24 and 25 “Future Light Frigates” in the 70s (without generating any actual build, however) when the designers were given maximum freedom: “all you want if it does not cost more than 100 million”, write David K. Brown and George Moore in their “Rebuilding the Royal Navy – warship design since 1945”.  

The Draft Master Plan shows that the MCM and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme is still moving roughly on the same path as before, anticipating the IOC of a new ships for the period 2028 – 2032. The Capability Decision Point is expected before 2022: by that point the joint MCM programme with France should have been extensively trialed and the UK-only unmanned sweeping capability should also be (finally) mature. The expectation is that a number of Hunt-class ships will be modified to turn their “open” sterns into mission areas equipped for carrying, deploying and recovering the unmanned vehicles employed by the new MCM solutions. The Sandowns are not suitable for the same kind of conversion, on the other hand they are key, with their Type 2093 sonars, to mine hunting in deeper waters.
The MCM flotilla badly needs the unmanned systems to progress: the unmanned sweeping system is more than a decade late, considering that it was meant to replace the conventional sweeping capability of the Hunts, last deployed at sea in October 2005. The unmanned sweeping capability, born as FAST (Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology) became a rolling programme of demonstration and experimentation, but while it allowed to advance the future of MCM ops this prevented the Navy from re-generating a deployable sweeping capability in the times once planned.
Both Hunt and Sandown class MCM ships are receiving updates and life-extension interventions in their refits, but the two fleets are in the crosshair of budget cutting: the SDSR 2015 made clear that 3 ships would be removed from service by 2025, and the Times now report that 2 ships will leave service already next year. According to Deborah Haynes, defence correspondent for The Times, those two ships would be in addition to the 3 already earmarked for dismission, signaling a cut of 5 hulls.
It is clear that the entry in service of the novel systems cannot happen soon enough, and that shaping a way forward for the Mothership segment is a matter of increasing urgency. Removing the need for specialized, expensive GRP hulls for MCM ops opens the door to the adoption of larger, steel-hulled vessels with far greater sea legs and utility across a wider range of constabulary tasks.
Unfortunately, the Type 31 and the River Batch 2 have invaded the “patrol” sector and the P has been shaven off by MHPC. It would be a grave mistake, however, to not exploit the MHC mothership as a way to enhance the global presence of the Navy.
I never made any mystery about my opinion on the Type 31 / MHC matter: if the “Light Frigate” ends up being an extremely low-key patrol ship for constabulary tasks, the only sensible thing is to merge Type 31 and MHC and build a single class of self-escorting motherships for constabulary tasks.

Interestingly, a capability decision point for the post-Type 45 world is expected as soon as 2022, with the aim of achieving IOC with a future AAW solution in the 2033 – 2037 time window. Assuming that a new ship is implied, this would mean decommissioning the Type 45 at the end of its intended service life, without extension. The 25 years service life of HMS Daring would expire in 2034, in theory, and by 2039 the whole class would be gone. Replacing, rather than life-extending, is a key recommendation of the Parker report that the government, at least for now, seems to embrace.
There is every reason to doubt about the long term commitment to the approach, but that is another story. It is also going to look pretty weird to begin decommissioning the Type 45s before the last of the Type 23s is replaced!

Very vague indications come about Future Maritime Security UK and Overseas Territories. The Draft master plan doesn’t help in understanding whether the idea of losing all River Batch 1s in the next two or three years is still the plan, or if there have been changes. It also offers no clue as to what comes after the P2000s or the Gibraltar patrol boats, the latter supposedly due for replacement within two years.

By 2022 the Navy expects to decide on the future of the Amphibious flotilla, which will reach the end of its service life in the early 2030s. Jane’s reported recently that a pre-concept study, expected to report in early 2018, is evaluating a Multi Role Support Ship concept which could cover amphibious, forward repair and medical capabilities.
It seems too wide a spread of roles to be covered with the same hull. Clearly, medical capabilities would benefit from a ship with ample aviation facilities and a well dock for boats and crafts, but the Forward Repair capabilities offered by RFA Diligence until its untimely demise seem far harder to conciliate with the rest. It is at least comforting to know that something is moving.

Before 2022 is over the Navy also expect to have to take decisions about the replacement for the Auxiliary Oilers, also known as “Fast Fleet Tankers”, RFA Wave Ruler and Wave Knight. The replacements should achieve IOC around 2030, according to the table.

The navy is aiming to hit Main Gate for the MARS Fleet Solid Support programme in December 2019, with contract award by March 2020. The Draft plan confirms that the 3 vessels are meant to replace the “Auxiliary Fleet Support – Helicopters”, aka Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie as well as the Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Fort Victoria. IOC is indicated in the late 2020s, while delivery was repeatedly promised “around the middle of the 2020s”. The two things are not incompatible, but the current OSDs for the three Forts will have to be extended if a colossal capability gap is to be avoided: Austin would bow out in 2023, Rosalie in 2024 according to earlier plans.

The future of RFA Argus remains a huge concern as well. The Draft plan puts the Medical Ship decision point in 2028 at the earliest, while the last OSD given for RFA Argus is 2024. IOC for the future medical capability is given close to 2040: frankly, the most puzzling element in the entire table.



The Type 31e

The document revealing the requirements for the Type 31e design distinguishes between “Core” and “Adaptable” features. Core is described as what is designed, integrated and assembled in the UK and represents what the Royal Navy absolutely wants to have.
The Adaptable features are described as “available for build under license overseas”.



As a consequence, it is to be assumed that at least a part of the “adaptable” features will not be available for the Royal Navy, not even as “fitted for but not with”. Even FFBNW has a cost, after all, and whatever doesn’t fit in the 250 million simply won’t be included.

The Core requirements include:

-          a crew of 80 to 100 with some room for augmentees and specialists.
-          Capable of fitting a hull-mounted sonar
-          6500 nautical miles at economic speed and 28 days logistic endurance
-          armour in key areas for the protection of personnel
-          hangar for a Wildcat and Rotary Wing UAS system, or alternatively for a single medium helicopter such as NH-90
-          Seaboats and ability to carry and operate unmanned vehicles
-          Interoperable with allies as well as joint forces and civil authorities
-          Sensors for operating area situational awareness
-          Medium gun and light guns for anti-FIAC use and maritime interdiction
-          Point Defence Missile System or CIWS and FFBNW point defence missiles
-          Ability to replenish at sea
-          Commercial shipbuilding standards are the default, with enhancements only where a clear need or benefit exist

Everything else falls in the “Adaptable” bracket, beginning with:

-          Flight deck and hangar suitable for Merlin operations
-          CBRN citadel
-          Command and Control for Maritime Task Unit and up to Task Force
-          Active hull mounted sonar for ASW
-          Towed array sonar and ASW weapons
-          Anti-ship missiles
-          Space of an embarked force of 40
-          Mission bay or deck space for 2 containers
-          A gun of caliber superior to 76mm, fit for Naval Gunfire Support

It is immediately evident just how basic the Core requirements are. The hull mounted sonar is not requested specifically; there just has to be the ability to install it.
CAMM is not mentioned, even though the Royal Navy will be able to recoup it from decommissioning Type 23s: while Sea Ceptor has local area air defence capability, the requirement specifically talks about point defence only.
Merlin operations are not envisaged. ASW is completely left out, as is anti-ship firepower. The RN is apparently fine with a main gun of max 76mm caliber, even though this means introducing a new gun system into service. In theory a DS30M 30mm gun, a 57mm MK110 as on LCS or a 76mm would all be accepted.
Dimensions are left to be driven solely by seakeeping considerations, and the RN does not detail what the “wide range of sea conditions” exactly entails. Industry is given pretty much complete freedom: it is almost impossible to write a requirement list any poorer and vaguer than this one.

In the run up to the Type 31e announcement, industry has revealed a number of designs for “affordable” frigates. Notably, BAE has proposed AVENGER and CUTLASS; BMT its VENATOR 110, Team Stellar its SPARTAN and Babcock its ARROWHEAD.
The brochures are impressive and show flexible ships with a good spread of capability, with the bottom represented by the BAE designs, CUTLASS and AVENGER, which also happen to be the least detailed offerings. The news of a very demanding price cap being placed on Type 31 have generated comments from BAE about the competition being a dangerous race to the bottom in which industry could end up making promises it can’t keep and end “out of business”. Nobody believes they won’t file an offer but they might actually elect to put very little effort in it. The MOD in recent years has been, at least in the Land sector, apparently following a “anyone but BAE” policy, and BAE might be about to sit this one out as a sort of revenge, letting the other yards bet their future on this dangerous race.

The other designs are well detailed in the brochures released by the respective owners:


BAE AVENGER 


BAE CUTLASS









All the proposals pre-date the announcement of the 250 million pounds price cap. The reasonably capable ships proposed by BMT, Stellar and Babcock will no doubt need a considerable strip-down to meet the cost target. The key question is just how much will have to be stripped out of the design. Even BAE’s AVENGER, effectively a stretched River OPV, a sort of “Batch 3” with helicopter hangar, a stack containing CAMM cells and a 127mm on the bow, exceeds the core requirements detailed by the Navy. The CUTLASS, which is a 117m extended Khareef corvette, itself a development of the River class, is also overspecced compared to the Core demands, as it includes a CBRN citadel, a 127mm and CAMM.
What price did BAE have in mind when it formulated those proposals? What kind of money do the other proposals require?

The decommissioning Type 23s could supply a number of systems (CAMM, most notably, but also 30mm guns, decoys and radars, from Artisan to the new Sharpeye navigation radars) for transfer, but that would negate entry in service of the first ship in 2023. HMS Argyll would necessarily need to bow out early and be stripped to enable the migration of the systems to the first Type 31.
In the long term, it seems the Navy will even have 3 precious Type 2087 sonar tails in excess, as 3 are being ordered for the first Type 26s exactly to avoid the need for early Type 23 decommissionings.
In theory, the Navy will have enough sonars, radars and guns for 16 frigates as a result.
As of now, it does not seem like the Type 31e programme is meant to take full advantage of this fact. Timelines negate the feasibility of the migration.

Considering that the Navy is effectively already one Type 23 down, due to manpower issues, I see no reason why the timelines could not and would not be adjusted to make the transfer possible. If such expensive equipment can be moved across, as is the plan for the later Type 26 units as well, the Type 31 will have a bit more of a chance to come together with some kind of capability. A temporary reduction to 12 or even 11 frigates is surely to be preferred over a reduction to 8 plus 5 “large OPVs”, surely…?  

The Medium Gun passage is particularly interesting. All designs proposed by industry include the 127mm MK45 Mod 4, as planned for the Type 26. This system, however, is a new buy and requires a significant amount of money. BAE might now be tempted to offer its Bofors MK110 in the 57 mm caliber. Others might include the Oto Melara 76mm, which in its Strales incarnation doubles up as a very capable CIWS thanks to radar-guided ammunition meant to explode in the path of incoming missiles.
The 76mm, in theory, would cover two requirements at once, that for a medium gun and that for a CIWS. It still comes with a non insignificant cost, however.

CAMM, one would think, will be one of the first things industry will try to maintain in the design, and this will probably generate wider discussions with the Navy about transfer of equipment from the Type 23s.
Merlin hangar should also, one hope, be high on the list of priorities, together with the EMF accommodation and extra spaces for boats and unmanned vehicles. ASW will sadly but unsurprisingly come dead last, despite the mission being back in full force on the international scene. 
The only hope is that designers will include enough space in the stern to enable the installation of a towed array… giving the navy a chance to later on install the extra 2087 tails.
All of these, however, remain just that: hopes.

Type 31e starts off as literally the most depressing list of requirements available worldwide. Bad news for the Royal Navy, and for the export hopes for this vessel. Hopes that I consider pretty laughable, since there is an overabundance of good corvette and light frigate designs, already well established, that a customer can select. Just why anyone would want to explore Type 31e territory when there are MEKO, Gowind, Belharra, PPA and South Korea, or Chinese, or Russian alternatives on the market which come with far greater capabilities and not necessarily greater prices? A depressingly incapable Type 31e is not going to export anywhere.


Literally everything now depends on what the british shipbuilding sector can come up with. “All you want, as long as it fits in 250 million”. The one bit of hope comes from the impressive RRS SirDavid Attenborough that Cammel Laird is building, in blocks, under the terms of a 200 million contract. The ship comes with impressive specifications and sits on the opposite end of the cost scale than the Type 26, at a hefty 1 billion pounds. We are left to hope that something good can still fit within a 250 million Type 31e.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Theory and practice of the Medium Weight Force



Do we even know what a “Medium Brigade” is?

It is not so easy to determine what a “medium brigade”, or “medium weight force” is. Depending on the factors that we wish to consider, the medium brigade can be wheeled but can also be tracked. The Russian airborne forces are extensively mechanized and enjoy enormous mounted firepower, which could well qualify them for the title of “medium” force, for example. If you judged Sherman-equipped tank regiments of the second world war by weight they would rank as “medium” compared to heavier german formations using the Panther or, even more so, the Tiger.
In theory, considering up-armoured Abrams and Challenger 2 coming at over 70 tons against the new Russian Armata T-14, which supposedly weights between 49 and 55 tons, you could argue with some legitimacy that the Armata family constitutes a medium force.
Even the US Army Future Combat System envisaged a medium weight force riding on tracks.

There is, however, a growing consensus on the “medium brigade” being a wheeled formation, combining a strategic mobility greater than heavy (tracked) units with a level of protected mobility not available to light forces.
The definition is still a bit vague. There can be several variations to the theme, and the range of weights goes, in general, from a minimum in the region of the 20 tons to a maximum of above 30.
Depending on their level of protection and firepower, these “medium forces” are more or less suited to “high-end” as well as “low-end” combat operations.

The increasing diffusion of 8x8 wheeled armoured vehicles in the NATO area has generated a belief that the 8x8, in the 30 tons (more or less) range, is the quintessential Medium AFV. However, there are significant exceptions, with the most evident being the French Army. The French, which have a distinguished story of wheeled AFV employment, are building their medium brigades mainly on 6x6 vehicles. The two Medium Brigades in the Au Contact force structure will field only one infantry battalion mounted in 8x8 VBCIs, with the rest of the brigade mounted in 6x6 Jaguar armoured scout cars and 6x6 VBMR Griffon. A smaller number of 4x4 VBMR will also be employed.

Germany does not field a pure “medium brigade” either, despite being an 8x8 user: its 8x8 Boxer-mounted battalions are part of heavy mechanized formations that include Leopard 2 tanks and tracked Puma IFVs.

Spain is reorganizing its army in Brigadas Organicas Polivalentes (multi-role brigades), four of which tracked and another four wheeled. The tracked brigades include Leopard 2 tanks, Pizarro tracked IFVs and M113 or 6x6 wheeled vehicles. The wheeled brigades have the itanian-made Centauro in place of MBTs and 6x6 wheeled APCs supplemented by RG-31 Nyala, MRAP vehicles purchased for operations abroad. The M113, the existing 6x6 and the MRAPs are due to be replaced in the coming years by variants of the new Vehiculo de Combate sobre Ruedas (VCR). The vehicle selected to be the base of the VCR in all its derivations is the Piranha V. Spain expects to purchase the CVR in three successive tranches (of 348, 365 and 285 vehicles) beginning in 2018. Several variants are already planned: IFV with 30mm gun turret; Cavalry variant for reconnaissance; Recovery; Engineer; Command post; Joint Fires Direction. Mortar carrier, ambulance and other sub-variants should follow beginning with the second tranche.

Italy has one Medium Brigade and is slowly equipping a second one. Purchases of the Freccia 8x8 are slowed down by the limited budget available.

The US Army fields the Stryker brigades, which were established as interim solution to the “medium weight force” requirement that should have eventually been fulfilled by FCS. The FCS programme ended up cancelled.

Poland fields the 12th and 17th mechanized brigades equipped with Rosomak 8x8.

Russia is a long-time user of 8x8 AFVs, but the Motor Rifle Brigades equipped with BTRs on wheels also include their own MBT element on tracks. The Russian army is working on a new 8x8 combat vehicle, the Bumerang, which once in full production will represent a marked improvement on the current BTRs.
The presence of MBTs within the brigade signals that these formations remain mechanized infantry first of all, with a clear “high intensity” role. They can exploit the mobility afforded by air-transportability and wheels to cover great distances in short timeframes. Their MBT element does not offer the same degree of deployability but the Russians, with their usual pragmatism, are forming powerful, permanent logistic units equipped with the multitude of Heavy Equipment Transporters needed to rapidly road-move heavy armour over great distances.

Smaller nations are investing in wheeled armor because it is cheaper than tracked formations. Belgium uses the 8x8 Piranha III and the 6x6 Pandur. Interestingly, they have announced earlier this year that they will replace their existing 8x8 with the new French Griffon, a 6x6. The Jaguar 6x6 armoured car will replace the Pandur.
Denmark has not abandoned all of its MBTs, but intends to replace its M113 APCs with wheeled, 8x8 AFVs and, like Spain, has selected the Piranha V for the role.
The Netherlands removed their MBTs from service only to regret it soon afterwards, and now operate a company of Leopard 2 tanks within a german battalion integrated in one of their mechanized brigades, itself part of a german division. The Netherlands maintain a fleet of tracked IFVs, of the CV90 type, and under a contract signed early this year for their upgrade will become the first NATO nation to field an Active Protection System. The Netherlands purchased the Boxer 8x8, but only in support variants, as a replacement for M113 variants: 36 Command posts, 52 Ambulance, 80 Engineering, 12 Repair, 12 cargo and 8 Driver training vehicles.

So, what constitutes a medium weight brigade? 
This key question remains without a definitive answer, but the overarching concept normally associated to this somewhat mythological creature seems to retrace the idea at the base of the failed US Future Combat System:

The FCS will comprise a key modular capability, with the strategic agility of light forces and the lethality, tactical mobility, and survivability of our heavy forces. FCS brigade combat teams will be the component of the modular Future Force most capable of implementing all aspects of [the U.S. Army’s future] operationalconcept, particularly intratheater operational maneuver. The FCS further encompasses a set of echnologies and capabilities that will spiral into the entire Army as they mature. Networked C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], precision munitions, and advanced fire control will also be key enablers.

When a healthy element of realism is added in to acknowledge that a 30 ton vehicle just can’t be as survivable as a 60 tons one; and some buzzwords are removed from the paragraph, I think the concept can be re-worded as follows:

The Medium Weight brigade is a formation light enough to be more strategically agile than heavy formations while possessing protection and firepower sufficient to overmatch adversaries at the low end of the capability spectrum and to effectively contrast near-peer and peer forces, including heavy elements, at least long enough to allow the follow-on deployment of heavier formations.

In general, the “strategic agility” requirement is now seen as dictating the use of wheels, as they enable long intra-theatre transfers without requiring trucks and semi-trailers.
It should also be noted that armies with a less “expeditionary” nature tend to select the 8x8 not so much because of dreams about global medium weight deployments, but because of the geography they have to deal with close to home, or other practical considerations. 
In France's case, the 8x8 is not meant to be a "medium" solution but the heavy one. The VBCI replaced tracked IFVs, and works mainly in the heavy brigades. Many other 8x8 users have products in the 20 tons range and purchased them as a "conventional" mechanized infantry solution, rather than pursuing any particular "expeditionary concept". 
Again, the Italian 1st generation medium brigades were born as a modern day follow-on to the armed trains that defended the long Adriatic coast in the first world war: they were meant as a counter-amphibious landing response force. 
The 8x8 is no revolution in the ways of warfare. It is just a useful tool. 


What does a Medium Brigade need?

Once we have accepted wheels as the basic requirement due to the mobility advantage they grant, we have to determine what kind of operation we want the medium weight force to tackle.
If the brigade is to be tasked with low-complexity operations, vehicles of less than 30 tons can suffice, and we might end up following the French on the VBMR Griffon’s path.
If we want the brigade to have greater usefulness, even against more dangerous foes, we’ll tent to go towards 30 tons or more in order to accommodate the protection required. Even this, though, is no law: Boxer, Freccia, Piranha V and VBCI are in the 30 or more tons range, but Stryker, Rosomak and others are closer to 20 despite being intended for high intensity fighting. As always, it is a matter of requirements first, and then of compromises.

We have talked about strategic agility, but what about tactical agility? What kind of off-road mobility is needed? If the requirement is demanding, a certain kind of vehicle becomes necessary, but if we are content to move on roads and tracks, vehicles such as the Mastiff are sufficient. The principal shortfall of the Mastiff is its awful off-road mobility, while any 8x8 chosen to become the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle is expected to have performances close to those of tracked platforms.

Does the vehicle need to be amphibious? This would enable a degree of littoral manoeuvre capability as well as ease the crossing of rivers during a fast-paced operation. The UK army no longer possess anything like the very impressive Alvis Stalwart truck, which could swim, so the capture of a bridge or a major bridging effort will always be needed to enable the prosecution of the operation, but it could be very beneficial to be able to bring the infantry on the other side before the engineers get to work. This is a concept familiar to Russia and China, while in the west it has never gained too much of a following. It would be nice to see a genuine “Land Strike” study taking another look at this kind of capability, especially considering that the Army itself has repeatedly determined in multiple Agile Warrior exercises that the future is littoral, as well as urbanized. As too often happens in modern times, the british armed forces reach a conclusion in their studies and then promptly ignore it when actually purchasing equipment.

Next, firepower. Direct and Indirect. What weapons does the vehicle need; what capabilities should the brigade have? Wheeled formations are meant to deploy rapidly and arrive on the battlefield quickly, but if they cannot overmatch their enemy once there, they won’t achieve much. The amount of firepower requested increases along with the capability that we expect the enemy to posses.
120mm mortars and 155mm howitzers seem to be the answer that everybody go for (with the exception of the British Army, ├ža va sans dire…), while direct fire does not always get the necessary attention. A system that deserves greater exploitation, in my opinion, is the SPIKE NLOS (Exactor, in british service) which can serve as highly deployable precision artillery as well as a formidable anti-tank instrument.

Logistics, engineer, Surveillance & Target Acquisition, Air Defence are all aspects which need to be defined according to the level of enemy capability that we want to contrast and defeat. In turn, the logistic train will shape mobility considerations; and firepower will determine logistic needs.
So, the dreaded question: what is the Strike Brigade for?



The Strike Brigade in CGS’s words

What kind of enemy is the Strike Brigade meant to grapple with? It is absolutely indispensable to clarify this point before we try to define what it needs to have. General Carter had this to say to the Commons’ Defence Committee during their inquiry in the future of the army after the SDSR 2015:

[…] we had learned between 2012 and 2015 that some things about Army 2020 needed refinement. First and foremost, we learned that the defence planning assumptions, which assumed that the most likely employment of the Army would be on an enduring operation overseas, managed on the basis of six months’ deployment and 24 months at home, were probably not the hardest or the most likely deployment of the Army in the future. Therefore, what would be more challenging and probably more relevant in today’s world was to invest in the Army’s ability to fight and then to reorganise from the ability to fight to do other things like, for example, the enduring operation that I described. That resonated with the realisation that the state-on-state threat was greater than perhaps would have been the case in 2012. Therefore, there was absolute sense in the Army being able to field a war-fighting division. One of the great outcomes from the SDSR, from my perspective as the head of the Army, was the ambition to deliver a war-fighting division, because, in a sense, the division is a bit like an aircraft carrier—it is where the full orchestra comes together. It is where all the capabilities that you need to compete in the state-on-state space happen. That full orchestra is an aspiration that I think is absolutely right for us to have at the moment, because it makes you a reference customer not only of your enemies, but of your allies. It means that you can sit at the table alongside the Americans and the French, who can field this capability, and you can use that as the basis for restructuring. The second thing that we deduced was that, given the state-on-state threat, the potential for our opponents to conduct what is called anti-area access denial and make it extremely difficult for our Air Force or Navy either to dominate the littoral or to dominate the air space meant that if land were capable of getting combat power at reach across land to those areas, that would provide policy makers with different options. From that, we derived the strike capability, which was a feature of the SDSR—and indeed, one of the headlines—but it does more than just provide that ability to reach over land at distances of up to 2,000 km; what it also does on what, I think, will be a larger battle space is provide us with the opportunity to disperse and concentrate very rapidly and thus dominate ground and population mass in a rather different way. That plays to one of the British Army’s great strengths, which is the quality of its junior leadership, because the vehicle that we are building this on—something called Ajax, which begins to enter service next year and will be made in southern Wales—is genuinely networked. It is genuinely mobile, and it has good firepower and good protection, and it will provide us with the capacity as an Army to do what I have just described. That is an exciting place to be.


Carter pushes the Strike Brigade as a counter-Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) tool. This is his “Joint Land Strike” concept and closely resembles the US Army’s own nascent doctrine, which would see land forces cracking the A2AD bubble in favor of air and sea power rather than having the latter opening the way for land ops. Note that the US Army is not thinking of cracking A2AD necessarily with Stryker, however. In fact, the Stryker is probably the element of the force that gets mentioned less frequently when talking about Multi Domain Battle



There are certainly situations in which this concept could be applicable and have value, but if A2AD is the worry of the day then it can only mean that the Strike Brigade is meant to face near-peer and peer enemies. It is very, very hard to imagine a low-tech enemy being able to mount an A2AD bubble able to restrict air force and navy operations, after all. Cracking an A2AD bubble means going against a very capable OPFOR.    

The strike idea is designed to meet two outputs. The first output is what I described earlier: being able to project land power in a self-deployable fashion over greater distances, up to, say, 2,000 km. The second thing that strike is designed to do is to be able to dominate a battle space that is increasingly larger and perhaps has more population on it, that is more complex and is also able to concentrate and disperse rapidly within that battle space. The capability is being built on [the Ajax vehicle]. […]It is being constructed in south Wales. They start to roll off the production line, not in south Wales, but initially in Europe, come next year. We are building the capability in a methodical and deliberate fashion over time, as this equipment rolls off the production line. Rather like we did in the 1930s, the idea is to test it to destruction and to experiment with it, in the same way we did with the mechanisation of force in the 1930s, so that we get the doctrine and the concept right at the forefront and so that we understand what the structure should look like. We test it and we veer and haul from it, so that, come 2021, we have an initial operating capability. I know that may sound a long way away, but that is the rate at which these vehicles are rolling off the production line.
[…] a regiment equipped with AJAX will have around 50 to 60 AJAX vehicles within it. Each of these brigades will have two.


Unfortunately, what has emerged since then about the structure and capabilities of the Strike Brigade make it almost impossible to imagine such a formation grappling with a Russian-supplied adversary. The Strike Brigade on 2 mechanized infantry battalions of lightly-armed wheeled APCs and 2 Ajax-mounted regiments is simply not credible. It lacks mass and firepower and there is every reason to believe that mixing tracks and wheels will impose limits on each other’s advantages. Ajax will need to be refueled more frequently, that’s definite. It will also never be as at ease as a wheeled platform in long road moves. No amount of wishful thinking will change the base truths.

There is also the great concern of Air Defence. The Army knows it is weak in this area (exceptionally so, in fact, compared to any other army) but there is no sign of any plan (even less any funding) for acquiring a capability beyond CAMM / Land Ceptor. While much, much capable than Rapier, Land Ceptor cannot possibly be considered a solution to the problem. In an A2AD scenario, air attacks and artillery bombardment including ballistic attacks will be the norm, not the exception. Dispersion and constant movement will help, but will introduce challenges of their own, and among those is the fact that a CAMM protective bubble is just too small.

Combined arms warfare has evolved significantly over the last three to five years. There is some “Back to the Future”-type stuff— electronic warfare, or air defence, for example—but the reality is that most Western armies used to feel that they owned the airspace, and I do not think that we can confidently say that we own the airspace. So our ability to operate in that much more demanding environment is the bit that the Army needs significantly to invest in and to train for. That is the bit that we are most vulnerable on at the moment.

Sir Nicholas Carter, speaking to the Defence Committee.

Russian forces and their “hybrid” descendents (such as the “rebel” battlegroups in Ukraine) can deliver crushing blows with their powerful artillery. This is another area of real concern:

During counter-insurgency we emphasised precision over the ability to neutralise and I suspect the mass of fires is something we need to reflect on. Air Defence is an area where we have an acknowledged weakness. I think if we were lucky we might get air parity and the Falklands in 1982 was instructive, where some one-third or our sentries and our machine guns were pointed upwards rather than outwards.


As the Division is meant to fight a near-peer or peer enemy, heavy armour continues to represent its core. In the words of the Chief:

[…] by 2025 I want to be able to field two manoeuvre brigades—armoured infantry brigades, as we call them—and, ideally, a strike brigade. I would like to have some manoeuvre support—as you know far better than I, basic infantry to be able to protect things and guard prisoners—and, of course, all the combat service support necessary to represent the full orchestra. […]You would not be able to replace the full division. You would probably be able to find a replacement divisional headquarters at readiness and you would probably be able to have a brigade there on an enduring basis, but if you had to go larger than that, it would be challenging.


The Army says that the Strike Brigade will “enable manoeuvre at the Divisional level”, but it is hard to say what this is supposed to mean in practice. Considering that forming the Strike Brigade means leaving the armoured infantry brigades without reconnaissance cavalry, the suspect is that, within the divisional construct, the Strike Brigade would be a glorified recce and screening asset, exploiting its mobility (assuming that the Ajax does not slow the whole formation down; and assuming the enemy does not contrast it effectively) to lead the way and secure relevant ground features.
Even this guess, however, opens up all sorts of doubts, again centered primarily on the lack of firepower. The Army says that the MIV will be an APC armed just with a RWS with weapons such as a .50 HMG. Ajax is armed with the 40mm CTA gun, so IFV-levels of firepower. ATGWs are not currently planned to be carried. The APC variant, the Ares, should eventually come in an “Overwatch” sub-variant (34 vehicles) , but it seems likely that this will only carry a Javelin dismount team. With some luck, it might also have a Javelin under-armour capability with a single missile added to the Protector RWS. It is a relatively inexpensive addition, after all. If we are very, very lucky, the Army will somehow find a way to fund the adoption of the Thales RapidRanger or a similar multi-missile turret. Very little is known about the status of sub-variants and mission fits at this stage. Thales did put forward its product as an option, but there is no way to say if the Army is giving any thought to it. It did however test a Javelin RWS launch from Spartan with Protector RWS.
Of the two Ajax regiments, one would be tasked with reconnaissance, and would thus be similar to the current Scimitar-mounted formations, while the other is described as a “Medium Armour” capability. In practice, it will be the mounted combat specialist, the “tank” within the Strike Brigade.
It might be that the army is thinking about a “Type 58” regiment with Ajax instead of Challenger 2, in fact. Such a structure would enable “square battlegroups” of 2 MIV-mounted infantry companies and 2 demi-squadrons of “tanks”, as happens in the armoured infantry brigades. In the heavy armour, the three 18-tanks squadrons of a Type 58 regiment can split into six demi-squadrons of 9 MBTs, which are attached to the six infantry companies coming from the Warrior-mounted battalions to form 4 square battlegroups (2 infantry coys, 2 tank demi-squadrons, 1 support weapons coy).
Of course, an Ajax and a MIV deliver the firepower of a Warrior. There is nothing on hand to actually replicate the punch delivered by Challenger 2.
Clearly, the whole thing is born out of confusion and lack of money: the Army wants to pursue wheels mobility after betting much of its budget on a tracked scout. It has the Ajax, and not enough money for enough MIVs, so it has to get... creative.
The “Type 58” solution is one possibility: the shape of the Ajax units is still being determined. The number of vehicles is also a constraint: 245 Ajax are on order, and of these 23 are in Joint Fires configuration, including (not yet detailed) extra equipment for the direction of artillery fire and air attacks, while are another 24 are “Ground Based Surveillance” sub-variants (carrying additional sensors, perhaps mast-mounted? Still unknown). The two sub-variants would likely go to the Recce regiments, while the 198 pure scouts in theory should also go to equip the recce platoons of the tank and armoured infantry units (8 Ajax per 6 platoons = 48 vehicles at a minimum).
The recce regiments normally have three squadrons of 12 scouts plus 4 apcs (today 12 Scimitar and 4 Spartan, tomorrow in theory 12 Ajax and 4 Ares), plus Ground Based Surveillance element and three Overwatch sections (which would get the Ares Overwatch vehicles).
The MIV-mounted infantry battalions seem to be heading for an establishment of 740 or 750 personnel in total. The MIV-mounted sections will count 8 dismounts, against 6 for the Warrior.


Historical examples of Land Strike

Depending on how you define “medium” forces, the historical cases of their employment can include a variable number of operations. A notable RAND study in the usefulness of medium armour includes the use of tracked vehicles, such as BMPs in Afghanistan with the soviets, or Sheridan light tanks and M113s used by American troops in operation Just Cause.

If we try to specifically look for historical precedents supporting the vision of the Medium Weight force as wheeled, highly mobile, maneuvering on a vast battlefield, the number of suitable events to be considered is drastically reduced.
There are, essentially, two past examples of wheeled task forces doing anything comparable to Carter’s description of Land Strike: the South African operations in the Bush War in Angola; and the French operations in Mali in early 2013. In many ways impressive, both operations are however scarcely representative of the likely british situation. In addition South Africa, despite impressive tactical triumphs in the field, eventually failed to achieve its objectives in the Bush War.

South African wheeled armour in Angola performed exactly the kind of long-range, dispersed, raiding manoeuvre that Carter imagines. They covered thousands of kilometers

South African manoeuvre elements had plenty of firepower at their disposal, a luxury that the Strike Brigade as currently envisaged will not share. In particular, the South Africans were very aggressive with their artillery: their excellent, long-range G5 howitzer was a key weapon, and during the course of the war they added the self-propelled G6. They also routinely had a rocket artillery battery in the group, plus mortars. Indirect fire was their most powerful weapon.
They also had good direct-fire options, however: Ratel 6x6 and Eland 4x4 come with a 90mm gun on top, which can make short work of fortified positions and which allowed some degree of success against enemy tanks. Their troop carriers came with rapid-fire 20mm guns and they had vehicles in support equipped with turreted, breech-loading 60mm mortars for intimate indirect fire support.
Their wheeled vehicles were much lighter than Ajax and MIV and were frequently airlifted into airports from which they could carry out their manoeuvres before being extracted to another location.
Despite brilliant successes in repeated operations deep within Angola, South African troops could not crush the enemy, which was supported and equipped by Cuba and by the Soviet Union. It also proved impossible, despite superiority in C4ISR, to avoid disadvantageous engagements against enemy heavy armour that had a clear edge over the light wheeled vehicles employed. Eventually, South Africa had to deploy its Olifant MBTs (a Centurion derivative), but even that was too little, too late.

French operations in Mali were far more modest in scale and in complexity. The enemy that the French faced was much weaker and infinitely less sophisticated. It had no MBTs, no air power, no advanced soviet weaponry and SAMs. France enjoyed complete control of the air and never encountered heavy mechanized forces.
Operation SERVAL encountered little to no IED threat, and in general the jihadi movements on the ground failed in negating the use of the very few roads (and even fewer bridges) to the French forces. The French, on their part, had the great merit of being aggressive and moving very quickly, keeping the enemy under pressure and using special forces and parachute or helicopter manoeuvre to seize bridges and airstrips ahead of the mechanized forces.
The speed of the French intervention, however, is not going to be easy for the British Army to ever replicate. The French were advantaged by having a very significant permanent presence in Africa which the British Army cannot (and probably should not) replicate. Much of the first wave of French troops was already in Africa when operation SERVAL was launched. We are not talking about training teams in Nigeria and small anti-poaching squads as the British Army currently has in Africa, but very significant bases and deployed forces, including combat vehicles, jets, cargos, helicopters.
At N’Djamena, in Chad, the French have permanent air force facilities, aircraft and the Joint Force Air Combat Comd (JFACC).  Special Operations forces with Gazelle helicopters were in Burkina Faso, and they were the very first to intervene in Mali, to block the movement of insurgents towards the capital (January 11, mere hours after the French help was publically requested, on January 10). The package relied on 4 Gazelle helicopters with HOT missiles and 20mm guns. The surprise action was successful, but not without cost: one Gazelle was hit, and the French suffered their first fatality on board of it.
At N’Djamena the French had initially 3 Mirage Ds, rapidly increased to 6, 6 transports (C-130, C-160) and 2 KC-135 tankers, immediately reinforced by 4 Rafale and another 2 tankers which arrived from Saint Dizier, striking targets in Mali along the way before joining the forward base. More aircraft followed going ahead. N’Djamena is not exactly close to Mali, as 2500 km separate it from Bamako, but it was a key enabler nonetheless, already operational and resourced.
France maintains a 1900-strong presence in Djibouti; had some 900 in Gabon; 360 in Senegal, had operation EPERVIER in Chad, LICORNE in Ivory Coast and troops in the Republique Centre Africaine. From all these African-based forces came much of the first wave, enabling a quick response.

The first waves of combat troops came from within Africa thanks to the extensive presence of french troops in various countries 
Air assets for the Mali operation were also, in part, already in Africa. 

AMX-10RC

The first significant mechanized force deployed by France, Battlegroup 1 (Groupement Tactiques Interarmes, GTIA in French), consisted of an infantry company on VAB vehicles, plus HQ element, from 21st Regiment Infanterie de Marine (21 Rima) and two platoons of ERC 90 armoured cars with 90mm gun, from the Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment that was forward located in Chad. This first force was airlifted into Mali and once there reinforced with a second infantry company airlifted directly from France and another ERC90-heavy company group that self-deployed over 1000 km from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast (two Troops of ERC90, one scout platoon and platoon from 3 RPIMa which was in Gabon and from there was airflifted to Abidjan).  
Notably, despite being wheeled, the ERC 90 were carried on trailers up to the Mali border. The universal truth remains that armoured vehicles will eventually break down, so the less road they have to make on their own, the better.
A second GTIA was deployed from France, packed into the amphibious ship Dixmunde. It was composed of 2 infantry companies on 8x8 VBCI from the 92nd Infantry Regiment, a squadron of 6x6 AMX 10RC from the 1 RiMa and one battery of 4 155mm CAESAR autocannons and 4 mortars 120mm from the 68 Regiment d’Artillerie d’Afrique. It left Toulon on January 21 and disembarked in the port of Dakar on the 28th, then moved on road into Mali, reaching Bamako on February 12.

Operation SERVAL was enabled by french units and bases in Africa; by the High Readiness pool of units in France and by the contributions of allies, particularly in the area of Strategic Air Transport. Most personnel and most of the supplies in the first five weeks of combat moved by air. Vehicles either drove into Mali from the various french bases in Africa or traveled by ship and by air. 



The Dixmunde, packed with vehicles bound for Mali. They were disembarked in Dakar and driven into Mali

The High Readiness pool of units back in France (GUEPARD NG) sent airborne troops to Abidjan: the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment left its base in Corsica on January 23. Eventually, these troops formed GTIA 4. Some 250 parachute troops from this formation executed a night parachute insertion on January 27 / 28 ahead of the advancing mechanized forces to block the exit routes around Timbuktu. They reported no contact with enemies, however. The town fell in French hands and the parachute engineers got to work on January 29 to open the local airport for use.

The French columns moved swiftly, and generally encountered little resistance. During January, the afflux of allied African troops (mainly from Chad and Niger) surpassed the number of French soldiers employed in the campaign. France airlifted significant numbers of African troops, but on January 28 allied contingents drove into Mali on their own.

Operation SERVAL was successful, but, unsurprisingly, not decisive. Long term stabilization had to follow, and when the combat phase was declared over, on  July 15, 2014, operation BARKHANE began. It continues to this day.

The french army under the Au Contact structure. Two divisions, each comprising one Heavy, one Mechanized and one Light / Specialized brigade. In red, the units mounted on VBCI. Note the heavy brigades on three VBCI infantry regiments and two Type 51 tank regiments. 9 Bde is the amphibious unit of the french armed forces. One of its infantry regiments uses the High Mobility Vehicle, aka the Viking in french service. The Viking is also used by the Mountain brigade. 

The relevance of Operation SERVAL to the future of the British Army is dubious. There are lessons to be learned about aggressiveness, rapid deployment, logistics and in other areas, but the operations in Mali do not seem to be a good reason to pursue the “Strike Brigade”. Carter occasionally mentioned the French ops in Mali as exemplary, and has cautioned that the army needs to be used, and that there is a danger in being too reluctant in putting boots on the ground. In general, the warning is absolutely valid, but I’m under the impression that the Strike concept is in no small measure an attempt by the army to be seen as more useable, in the literal hope of being involved in low-intensity conflicts. What the army said since the SDSR 2015 (not much, in truth) makes me suspect that they are literally dreaming of their own SERVAL moment.
But even for a SERVAL-like operation, the Strike Brigade as currently envisioned is questionable at best.


The tools

South African forces in Angola and French forces in Mali had significant firepower at their disposal. Good artillery (excellent, in the South African case) as well as very significant direct fire capability.
The British Army Strike Brigade, conversely, faces a dubious future in its artillery component: regiments with just two small batteries of L118 Light Guns at first and an ambition, who knows how financially realistic, to obtain a wheeled 155mm option later on.
The British Army is making a U-turn on earlier decisions to give a precision fires battery to each heavy close support artillery regiment. As a result, all GMLRS will be concentrated in three batteries of 26 RA, along with Exactor. This is a questionable decision at best.
GMLRS is a tracked vehicle, but arguably this is dead last on the list of problems to be solved. At least it is much lighter than Ajax and MIV. Tracks are already going to be a large part of the Strike Brigade, so the attachment of GMLRS doesn’t really introduce any new problem.
What the British Army needs is long range reach. The latest edition of the Equipment Programme mentions the Long Range Rocket System, which should be, in practice, the ATACMS or, since it is taking shape in the US, its successor, the Long Range Precision Fire missile. The presence of the programme name in the list is encouraging, but the Royal Artillery has had it in its list for a decade (as the Large Long Range Rocket) or more and it is not clear if it is any closer to obtaining it now than it was in 2010.
Land Precision Strike Capability should deliver long-range guided 155mm shells as well as course-correction fuzes to improve the CEP of normal 155mm shells. Again, this programme has been on life support for a decade. It is (was?) expected to begin delivering in 2018.
Another requirement can be easily identified, but it doesn’t even appear in the list yet: wide-area destruction. The removal from service of submunitions has turned the MLRS, once known as “grid-square removal system”, into the “70 Km sniper”, delivering a unitary warhead on a point target with high accuracy. The US Army is putting into service a new wide-area attack munition, the Alternative Warhead, that replaces submunitions with fletchettes presenting zero risk of residual unexploded ordnance. Procuring it should be a priority.
Exactor, finally, should be more widely used. It is a highly deployable system: the british army uses it from a small trailer that can be carried by helicopter, towed by vehicles, and operated remotely from a safe position. The missile system can however also be packed inside small, agile 4x4 armored vehicles such as the SandCat. With its 25 km reach, it can serve as a cheap precision fires alternative to air attacks. It is also, potentially, an anti-tank screen. The Royal Artillery brought into core as a solution to the need to effectively engaging moving armor, in fact, due to the cancellation of the submunitions-carrying SMART 155mm shell, which would have preserved the AS90’s usefulness against advancing armoured formations.
Exactor should be a brigade asset: PARAs and Commandos should use the trailer version, while the vehicular installation would be a great asset for mechanized brigades, both tracked and wheeled.
Finally, 120mm mortars should be the baseline for mechanized formations, even light ones: the market today offers several highly-mobile mortar solutions on 4x4 vehicles.


The Plasan SandCat with SPIKE NLOS has been purchased by South Korea for use in coastal defence against north korean intruders. It is an impressive system, combining mobility and firepower. Below, in a photo by ArmyRecognition, the SandCat with the SPEAR 120mm mortar. Solutions are already available to increase the firepower of not just medium but also light forces. 


The EXACTOR on trailer, remotely operated, could truly enhance the ability of light forces to fight in a contested and congested battlefield. 

Direct fire plans are in an even more worrying situation. The MIV seems to be heading on the APC path, with very little mounted direct fire capability. Ajax will be the main combat platform, and in its current shape it only comes with the 40mm CTA gun. The CTA is an impressive system, but against fortified positions, buildings and combat vehicles will never match the 90 and 105 mm guns that had such a part to play in Africa.

Direct fire is currently on a declining path even in France, curiously. The EBRC Jaguar, which will replace the AMX 10RC and the ERC90 with their large caliber guns, is going to be armed with the 40mm CTA. It will however also have a couple of MMP anti-tank missiles for launch under armour, unlike Ajax.
Nexter worked on a 120mm with low recoil force as a weapon for a novel wheeled combat vehicle, but so far the French army hasn’t committed to a platform equipped with it. Budget considerations once again flying in the face of operational experience.
The VBMR Griffon is heading for very light armament as well: for now the only weaponry expected is a RWS with a .50, but it is likely that other weapons will eventually emerge. In Mali, France employed the 20mm guns mounted on VABs and even brought further 20mm pieces out of storage to put them at the side door of Puma helicopters and on the back of trucks used to escort logistic convoys. One of the lessons of engagements against insurgents often equipped with 23mm ZSU guns and 14.5 heavy machine guns is that the .50 HMG is at a distinct disadvantage. French special forces have directed Nexter to the creation of a 25mm gun turret with “low profile” which they intend to embark on vehicles as small and light as their Sherpa trucks. It is hard to imagine the requirement for greater firepower not expanding to the VBMR.


France and Belgium are betting on the Jaguar (top) and Griffon (bottom pic)

Firepower was the first concern flagged by the US Army when the Stryker brigade was measured against the kind of threats, hybrid or otherwise, that could come from Eastern Europe. The Stryker is much lighter than VBCI and than the likely MIV platform (the british army is looking at 30+ tons solutions) because it was originally developed for air transport within C-130s, a requirement which imposed very stringent limitations. Operational experience has demonstrated that C-130 transportability is something of a pipe dream, while the need for greater protection is not. The IED threat drove the adoption of the Double-V Hull retrofit, which removes the C-130 transportability for good.
The possibility of being sent against the kind of firepower fielded by Russian or Russian-supplied land forces has driven the currently ongoing firepower update which sees half of the Strykers of the Europe-based 2nd Brigade Combat Team re-equipped with a remotely-operated turret with 30 gun. The other half of the Stryker APCs are getting an upgraded RWS integrating a Javelin launcher.
The Brigade also includes a fire support / anti-tank company equipped with the Mobile Gun System variant of the Stryker, with a 105mm cannon, and the TOW launcher variant.

The Italian medium brigade, employing Freccia and Centauro 8x8, are well armed with 25mm guns, 105mm cannons and SPIKE anti-tank missiles. They are the best armed medium weight formations in NATO, and the new Centauro 2, soon to enter low-rate initial production, will give them Abrams-like firepower with the 120/45 smoothbore cannon (the ballistic qualities match those of the 120/44 commonly used on MBTs including the Abrams and the Italian Ariete. The additional caliber compensates for the pepperpot muzzle brake). The Centauro 2 brings great anti-tank firepower but also, perhaps more importantly, highly flexible fire support for infantry manoeuvre. There was a time when the 120mm smoothbore wasn't the best system for this kind of role, but new multi-purpose ammunition such as the DM-11, introducing air-burst, wall-breaching and other selectable effects, have changed the scenario. 
The build-up of the medium brigades is progressing slowly as the funding is insufficient to purchase Freccia at the rate that would be necessary. There are also manpower problems that currently mean the number of dismounts is often 6 rather than 8, so the situation is not perfect, but at conceptual level, the medium regiment is a powerful force.
All Freccia IFVs have a 2-man turret with 25mm guns. Each rifle platoon comes with 4 Freccia, one of which carries a “manoeuvre support squad” with a 60mm mortar and a couple of MG42s for fire support. The other three should carry 8-men sections but as earlier said they tend to only have 6 these days.
Each infantry company has 3 platoons plus a manoeuvre support platoon with a sniper pair and an additional Freccia carrying 2 teams of dismounted ATGW launchers using the Spike Medium Range. Up to three 81mm mortars are attached.
This should be a temporary arrangement while plans are refined. The Manoeuvre Support element currently is understrenght compared to earlier theory which included a Surveillance and Target Acquisition element and another Freccia carrying ATGWs.
The manoeuvre support company has 4 Freccia carrying 120mm mortars and 4 Freccia AT. The latter adds two armoured box-launchers to the sides of the 25mm gun turret, containing SPIKE Long Range missiles.

Centauro 2: MBT-like firepower; advanced comms; IED jamming and V hull 

The Italian medium brigade has 3 infantry regiments on Freccia and a cavalry formation for reconnaissance and fire support, currently employing the Centauro with 105mm rifled gun. Each regiment has a squadron of sole Centauros and a couple of reconnaissance squadrons containing a platoon of Centauro plus lighter scout vehicles such as the Lince (Panther in british service).
The Centauro 2, 150 of which should eventually be procured, will replace its predecessor. Given the number and the fact that the Italian army wants a cavalry unit in every brigade, not just the medium ones, each regiment will probably only get one squadron, 12 plus 1 for the commander.
For the reconnaissance mission “proper”, the army intends to acquire two Freccia sub-variants: the FAR will carry mast-mounted and dismountable radar and EO/IR sensors plus Horus tube-launched UAVs contained in boxes at the sides of the turrent. The CLOSE will carry SPIKE missiles in the boxes and an unmanned ground vehicle in the back. Each regiment is expected to get 8 vehicles of either type. 
A Lince with JANUS mast-mounted sight and RWR is also a candidate system for cowering the lower end of the recce spectrum.


The Freccia CLOSE with UGV in deployment. The picture on top also shows the dismounted LYRA radar and a long range HORUS HD thermal imagery sensor. 
The FAR showing the HORUS UAV coming out of the box-launcher. 

The VTLM Lince 2 in command post variant. The flat antenna on top is the SOTM-X Satcom On The Move system. A Reconnaissance variant of the VTLM 2 is also on the cards. Both can be armed with a RWS. 

The brigade’s artillery regiment, for the near future, will be equipped with the FH70 towed 155mm howitzer.
Army and Navy hope to secure funding in the coming years to purchase the lighter, amphibious Iveco SuperAV 8x8 for the amphibious regiments, “Lagunari” and “San Marco”, currently mounted on AAV-7. That would make the amphibious force the de-facto third medium brigade. The SuperAV, pushed by BAE Systems, is also competing for the lucrative US Marines requirement for a wheeled vehicle as (partial) replacement for the AAV-7.



The SuperAV during amphibious trials and, on the bottom, the SuperAV fitted with remotely-operated 30mm gun turret 

Initially, the SuperAV is being evaluated in APC configuration, but it can be equipped with a remotely-operated turret with 30mm gun and still swim.

The French brigade will have CAESAR autocannons and 120mm mortars; two cavalry regiments on Jaguar, all armed with missiles in addition to the 40mm CTA; one heavy infantry regiment on VBCI with 25mm and two more infantry regiment on VBMR. Not only it will have more infantry regiments, it will count on much larger regiments. While the british army MIV battalions seem to be heading for 745 personnel, the French favor large formations on 5 combat companies plus fire support coy. A combat company in Au Contact includes 174 men, of which 19 in the HQ element, 40 in each of three platoons and 35 in a support platoon. The three sections within a platoon are all composed of 10 men: driver and turret operator stay in the vehicle (VBCI or VBMR), while the squad commander, a marksman and 6 soldiers dismount. The support section in each Platoon is equipped with anti-tank weapons including AT4CS and Eryx launchers.
The 35-strong support platoon at company level will have a couple of the new MMP anti-tank missile launchers and two 81mm mortars.
The manoeuvre support company will have 102 personnel including sniper pairs (with 12.7mm rifles), anti-tank platoon and one quasi-SOF element tasked with reconnaissance but also complex interventions such as hostage liberation. That adds up to 972 combat personnel, without considering the HQ and logistic elements of the regiment.

Poland has a lot of firepower in its Rosomak formations. They are supported by Dana wheeled self-propelled howitzers and they include batteries of 8 Rak vehicles, armed with turret-mounted, breech loading 120mm mortars. Most Rosomak are in IFV configuration, armed with 30mm guns. Some were purchased as APCs, but were later up-gunned with an unmanned turret with 30mm and SPIKE Long Range missiles.
A 105mm direct fire Rosomak development, the Wilk, has been developed but, as of this year, it is not funded for acquisition. The polish army is giving priority to full size MBTs at the moment, due to the Russian threat. A 120mm in Cockerill turret is also an option, should the Wilk return to the fore in the future.

Japan is also working on 8x8 combat vehicles. Faced with the menace of amphibious assaults on islands or along its coastline, it came to the same conclusion that led the Italians to develop the Centauro decades ago: a wheeled tank destroyer can race on road, slow down the enemy, and act as a screen for the heavy forces as they advance towards the battle.
Italy’s medium brigades are effectively born out of a need, recognized in the 70s, for a highly mobile type of brigade which could race along the eastern coast of Italy to react to an amphibious assault launched by the SOVMEDRON (Soviet Mediterranean Squadron). The Centauro was the solution, supported initially by the modest Puma 4x4 APC (mainly meant to carry specialized teams such as ATGW and air defence) and then by the slightly larger Puma 6x6.
Japan is developing the Type 16 Maneuver Combat Vehicle, a 105mm tank destroyer on wheels.

The british Strike Brigade compares badly to all of the above medium weight formations. They will have less of everything. They will be much heavier than Stryker brigades and than the medium formations employed by France, yet will have less firepower. They will also be half-tracked, and this is highly likely to at least partially negate that strategic agility and self-deploying capability that is the whole point of the medium force.
Using vehicles with such a great mass will also make it more complicated to move even small packages of armour by air. The US Army itself has pretty much abandoned the grandiose plans for air insertion of entire brigades of Strykers, but it can project a high readiness mechanized infantry company, including 3 MGS and 2 mortar carriers with the 120mm, with 15 C-17 loads. The Strike Brigade might require more sorties than that, and with the RAF’s limited number of cargo aircraft, this could rapidly kill off any real strategic agility for the formation.
France operations in Mali were also heavily dependent on air transport: in the first 5 weeks, the need to act rapidly meant that 61% of the loads moved by air. According to the French, 360 large aircraft, including everything from chartered Antonov 124s to US, Canadian and British C-17s; 50 passenger flights and 4 ships were used to carry 4500 men, their equipment, 5 Role 2 hospital posts and 19.000 tons of stores. The French also airlifted into Mali significant numbers of allied African troops. The ships, on the other hand, carried more than 600 vehicles, beginning with the heavy VBCIs.
Depending on the period considered, 75 to 90% of the strategic airlift came from Allies or chartered 124s (the latter sucked away dozens upon dozens of millions of euro). Heavier vehicles means more stores and more flights. The UK has a C-17 fleet of its own, but on the other hand has nowhere near the same level of forward-deployed forces that France enjoyed in the opening stages of the operation, meaning that the majority of the movements would be direct from the UK. Greater distances, greater challenges.

15 C-17 sorties are needed to deploy a Stryker company group with some direct and indirect fire support and minimum logistics. Unless the A400M can contribute in carrying the elements of the Strike Brigade into battle, the UK will not be able to deploy any significant air-delivered armour package, or at least not quickly. 

Another concern is the logistic tail, and more specifically its protection. In a contested environment, moving dispersed battlegroups across a wide battlefield means leaving behind unsafe areas that logistic convoys will most likely have to cross. Resupply by A400 via austere landing strips is part of the Strike Concept, but nobody in their sane mind can expect that it will somehow eliminate the logistic convoy. France has added security squadrons within its logistic regiments, giving them their organic escort. The Americans have their military police and convoy protection groups with M1117 armoured vehicles.
The british army would probably draw from the Light Cavalry and Light Infantry in the 6 “infantry brigades”. They are not good for much else anyway, as they are completely devoid of CS and CSS elements of their own. However, this will further complicate the process of putting together any kind of enduring presence for the stabilization phase.


Other concerns about the logistic tail are the enduring absence of a true replacement programme for DROPS. The EPLS is not available in sufficient numbers, and the army doesn’t consider it the right long-term solution, yet little progress is evident on the way to replacing the old trucks which technically went out of service in December 2014 but continue serving for lack of alternatives.
Light Equipment Transporters are also on the back burner; and the fleet of Oshkosh Tankers has a 2025 OSD. Probably will be extended; but in the same period the Heavy Equipment Transporter PFI will also come to an end (1 July 2024) and the army will have to find a solution for keeping the capability going.

Dealing with natural and man-made gaps is another concern. The Strike Brigade cannot expect all enemies to be as inept as jihadists in Mali that failed to negate to the French army any of the 5 bridges upon which the entire road infrastructure of the country depends. Army 2020 Refine includes more resources for 75 RE, which holds the M3 rigs for amphibious gap crossing, but an assault bridging solution is not readily available. This is another evident weak spot. Obviously, Titan cannot be the answer.
A small number of Rapidly Emplaced Bridging System (REBS) was procured for use in Afghanistan and should still be available, but being carried on a MAN SV 15 tonner they are too vulnerable to truly mount an assault operation. ABLE, which needs to be assembled to span wider gaps, is even more vulnerable, and Project TYRO, the life extension or replacement programme for the whole family of BR90 bridging, is not going to make it any less vulnerable, although it might replace the Unipower truck with MAN trucks for welcome logistical commonality.

Communications are also a concern. The Army and Joint Forces command are working on Project MORPHEUS to replace Bowman: the first contract "EvO - Evolve to Open", has been signed to get General Dynamics to work on migrating the Bowman BCIP 5.6 system towards an open, modular, MOD-owned architecture. This is meant to simplify future capability additions and detach software and hardware, opening more options for the replacement of current data-radio sets. The next phase is selecting a new battlefield management application. But much remains to be done, and the British Army is badly lagging in areas such as SATCOM On the Move, a key capability for more mobile, more dispersed operations with smaller, less vulnerable HQs. Fixing the Army’s ability to communicate and share data is more important than any 8x8.

From whichever angle you look at it, the Strike Brigade is unconvincing. Too heavy to be a South-African raiding force; too light in firepower to face any significantly equipped enemy. It does not appear to be a solution to any of the British Army’s problems and capability gaps. If anything, the current plan for the creation of the Strike brigades opens new holes and introduces new requirements that the army cannot resource.

The more i look at it, the more i get convinced that the true "Medium Force" concept is realized by having the ability to deploy armoured mobility and firepower quickly at the point of need. The 8x8 is just one way to do it. But having insufficient resources for building up a realistic force means that probably it is better to shift the attention on other solutions.