Sunday, May 9, 2021

Combined Arms Regiments on the way to the Future Combat Team

I’ve already written a first piece about the (limited) options available to the Army for the future in light of the cut of the whole WARRIOR fleet, but it’s time to go a bit more in detail about the topic. The reason to return on this topic is the fact that we have basically been told in no uncertain terms that there is no additional purchase of BOXERs on the way, and that out to at least 2030, AJAX and BOXER in the current numbers and shapes are all there is to work with.

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


Have smaller and faster capabilities to avoid detection

Trade reduced physical protection for increased mobility

Rely more heavily on low-observable and stealth technologies

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

Include a mix of crewed, uncrewed and autonomous platforms

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

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

Be markedly less dependent on fossil fuels

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Future Combat Team

2035 is not that far away, especially in terms of defence procurement timelines. The current BOXER procurement effort will end in 2030, for example (having been accelerated, as we know: it was 2032 until a short while back). It is not clear if the Integrated Review has actually done anything to accelerate the Mobile Fires Platform program to replace AS90, which had once aimed at 2026 but then had IOC moved to 2029. For all the hints dropped so far, the Review has not changed the 2029 target. CHALLENGER 3 itself starts going operational only in 2027, and so on.

The Conceptual Force 2035 is not a far flung future: is the immediate future that is being slowly built right now. The glacial pace of Defence procurement means that this decade plus equals to a virtual “tomorrow”.

We have to face one painful reality: BOXER and AJAX are what the Army must work with. Before 2030 there is little to no possibility of seeing any major addition, such as a second batch of BOXERs being ordered.  

Trying to reconcile the equipment available and the current army structure with the above described aims is thus the most urgent undertaking facing the Army.

The STRIKE brigade is dead, but many of the underlying concepts live. This is not a bad thing in itself: the British Army is small and does need to try and fight in a different, more “insurgent” way. So long as it doesn’t lie to itself about what is achievable, and the means it would take to fight in that different way, the drive for innovation is commendable.

My readers know that I’ve opposed the STRIKE brigades relentlessly over the years. I did it because, the more the project “progressed”, the clearer it became that it did not deliver a formation that matched the idea. Moreover, it was clear that it would bring about disaster in an already overheated modernization plan. And sadly, the cancellation of WCSP followed, as was entirely predictable.

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

I also do not agree with the Army’s latest apparent pretention that it can just decide to “fight the deep” with less care for the “close”. It started with STRIKE itself, of course: depending on the day and on who you talked to, STRIKE sounded exactly like a force pushing deep into a disorganized enemy rear line, but without an earlier phase of combat to punch a breach in the enemy’s positions. And as I’ve written many, many times, I just don’t see how you could do that: having BOXER riding on wheels is definitely not enough to think that, however fluid the battlespace might be, your battlegroups can just infiltrate unseen and always pick their targets at leisure in an imaginary rear area where you get to target A2AD platforms without the enemy picking you apart.

However dispersed notional Russian battlegroups might be in a region, after all, they have access to such amounts of artillery that they will have a much easier time closing up “gaps” than the British Army in trying to exploit them. Not to mention that most, if not all peers and near peers have wheeled formations of their own, invariably more heavily armed by far, which can at least match, if not exceed, any perceived mobility advantage given by BOXER.

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

I have not changed my mind: ideally, tracks go with tracks and wheels go with wheels, so that each formation can maximize its best characteristics. I’ve always criticized the STRIKE brigade’s half-track nature, and I continue to think it is a mistake.

Yet I’m about to call for the permanent, organic mixing of AJAX and BOXER.

I do it purely because I don’t think there is a better alternative possible with what the Army has and will have in the future. If there is no chance to get any significant new purchase of combat vehicles of either kind before 2030 at the earliest, then I don’t think there is a way to keep AJAX and BOXER apart, because taken in isolation they are both inadequate.

One could envisage an effort to maintain separate tracked, heavy formations, but not without tweaking and probably expanding the AJAX order. If AJAX was an IFV, it could replace Warrior. But AJAX has no room to carry infantry and there is no real way to change this fact. The structure of the vehicle and the vast turret ring (specified in part because there once was to also be a Medium Armour variant with 120mm smoothbore gun) prevent any conversion to an IFV. It is also probably next to impossible to pursue a “rewriting” of the contract that de-scopes some of the AJAX to make room for a new IFV variant, which General Dynamics is ready to offer and has tried (and failed) to sell to Australia.

However, the ARES APC already on order could easily be delivered with internal arrangements for carrying 7-8 dismounts. If more ARES were ordered and configured accordingly, it would be possible to create Combined Arms Battlegroups by mixing AJAX and ARES. Such BGs of AJAX and ARES carrying infantry could become a prototype for the Future Combat Team of 2035, adopting the Rule of 4 and beginning to develop true “Find, Fix and Strike” mechanisms by adding in organic Indirect Fires.

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

FRES SV could have been a true engine of evolution for the armoured component, but that ship has now sailed and the Army has jumped into the wheels camp 

But sadly every evidence at the moment suggest that this is not going to happen.

And even if that option was to materialize, it would be very difficult to create wheel-only battlegroups out of the current BOXER purchase because plenty of key variants are not included (above all, nobody seems to have thought about what happens with the mortars, for example). The Army has quickly killed off any hope that a significant change might be on the cards. While heavier weapons on some of the APCs are likely (alleluia!), we have been told in no uncertain terms that there will be no big turret and cannon retrofit.

The BOXER battalion will in other words continue to lack the means to support the infantry fight directly onto the target; and will also lack the superior sensors and communications fitted to the AJAX. While it is to be hoped that MORPHEUS and LeTacCIS will upgrade army comms and make it much easier to coordinate indirect fires from just about any combat vehicle, the BOXER battalion will continue to have limited capabilities in this sense.

I can’t imagine BOXER fighting “on its own”, organized in battalions of extremely lightly armed APCs. The resulting formation is way too weak, and BOXER takes the place of WARRIOR but does not replace it, as the Army insists it can’t be an equivalent IFV.

As for the tracked counterpart, the AJAX “cavalry” regiment with little to no dismounts is not a credible formation, in my mind. We have to face the truth: AJAX has been purchased as a like for like CRV(T) replacement, only much larger and heavier. ARES is just a supersized SPARTAN, with the same number of dismounts. The regiments have been planning to essentially keep the Sabre squadron structure unchanged, with a tiny number of dismounts in ARES/SPARTAN APCs supporting the Troops of AJAX/SCIMITAR. For all the talk of innovation, the AJAX project is one of the most conservative ones in history.

The difference with what the US Army is doing, to make just one example, is stark: the cavalry variant of the BRADLEY, the M3 with only 2 dismounts, has been progressively abandoned and the Squadrons are moving to the 6-36 model with 6 BRADLEY IFVs each with 6 dismounts in the back.

AJAX looks even more retrograde if compared with plans for Italian cavalry formations combining a squadron of CENTAURO 2 8x8 tank destroyers with 120/44 supported by a combination of FRECCIA 8x8 in Far and Close variants, the first equipped with battlefield surveillance radar and optics for use dismounted or on telescopic mast, the latter with UGV and SPIKE anti-tank missiles.

The STRIKE designers had already realized that, given the characteristics of the two purchases, AJAX and BOXER would have to operate together. Sadly, while this remains suboptimal in many ways, it remains in my opinion true. Neither of the two fleets can go far on its own.

Where I diverge from the Army on this point is on the belief that, once we have accepted this is the reality, we should not insist in keeping the units apart during “peacetime”. Especially since, as we have been told in no uncertain terms in the Review, there no longer is a peacetime. We are in the age of constant competition: if we accept this is true, then we need to adapt.

The increasingly artificial separation of “cavalry” and “infantry” in the British Army causes all sorts of historical limitations that really have no reason to exist. During the whole STRIKE brigade experience, to make but one example, it was tacitly understood that the Battlegroup to be formed on the base of the single Cavalry regiment on AJAX would have no Support company with mortars, snipers etcetera. Why? Because it is not needed? No, of course not. Because infantry battalions have those things; cavalry doesn’t.

The Household Cavalry regiment, truth be told, has been laboring for several years now to “experiment” with an added Sniper troop and, incredible innovation, a mortar troop that it was “trying” to stand up back in 2019. Reading of these “groundbreaking” innovation measures, year after year, has been frankly incredibly depressing. It gives a sense of an army that really, really struggled to move on past deeply ingrained but often utterly stupid habits.

I can already hear the many voices that will insist that we keep the infantry battalion and cavalry regiment well separated, and rely on battlegrouping to mix the pieces together only “in time of need”. But I personally insist on saying that this practice is no longer acceptable, as it seems to only ever perpetuate bad army habits and tribalism between capbadges.

I don’t see a single genuinely good reason why we should continue to keep separate formations that will never deploy on operations without being broken apart and reassembled in combined arms battlegroups.

All too often, when looking back to operations, the post-action analysis contains the passage “the units in the battlegroup had only been together for a short time and didn’t know each other enough”, or similar remarks. Lieutenant M. Dewis, on TANK 2020 (volume 102, No 801) makes a series of recommendations to try and save the Regimental system while enabling the creation of effective Combined Arms Teams.

He stops short of advocating for permanent overarching formations, but he underlines the need for broader, more stable affiliations and more cross-training. At the same time he can’t help but note that Battlegroup level training is expensive and an increasingly rare commodity at a time in which it is more desperately needed than ever. It’s all good to insist on social networking and “forming and storming” by “intruding” in each other’s low level training events as much as possible, and simulation and tabletop wargames obviously help, but I don’t think half-measures are adequate.

The Army’s Conceptual Force 2035 is clear in its working assumption that the future is the combined arms Future Combat Team. It is time for the Army to move in that direction in a serious way, if it believes its own innovative thinking.


Combined Arms Regiment: the stepping stone to the Future Combat Team

The main physical problem to overcome in creating a permanent Combined Arms Regiment is the fact that AJAX and BOXER will not be based in the same place.

Or will they…? BOXER was heading to Catterick until WARRIOR was supposed to carry on, but now I’m finding it hard to imagine that the plan won’t change. I’m expecting the WARRIOR barracks in and around Salisbury plain to become the BOXER barracks under the new plans.

If I’m right, the number one problem disappears as BOXER ends up living next door to the AJAX.

The rest is primarily a matter of Regimental tribalism and career management.

Does the Regiment need to vanish to allow the formation of the permanent Combined Arms Team? The US Army experience suggests that it is not necessary, as the Regiment could still connect together elements that are parceled out into the Combined Arms Teams.

Indeed, such parceled elements are smaller than a current, formed regiment/battalion, but not by too terribly much. There should be plenty of options to preserve career options, if not to improve them. The geographical proximity in basing should also alleviate any perceived damage to regimental unit and ethos.

The Combined Arms Regiment I propose bear resemblance to the Combined Arms Battalion of the US Army of a few years back, and are essentially permanent Square battlegroups, immediately familiar to the British Army as well. 2 Squadrons of AJAX supporting 2 infantry companies in BOXERs, with a third AJAX squadron for reconnaissance and screening (borne out of what would have once been the Recce platoons of WARRIOR battalions) and a Fire Support Company.

Since then, the US Army has taken the, debatable, decision to go from Square to Triangular organization in no small part in order to move one company of M1 MBTs into the Brigade’s cavalry Squadron, to beef up its ability to fight for information.

In practice, the Combined Arms Regiment would be composed by 2 closely integrated and aligned “battalions”, one of infantry, one of cavalry. Each battalion could maintain its ties to its own Regimental system, but on the battlefield it would of course be the CAR that would be in control.

JAVELIN missiles would be pushed down to the companies, with at least some of the BOXERs also equipped with the single launcher on the RS4 PROTECTOR RWS. Apparently some 50 such up-armed RWSs are planned, and their number might increase.

About 50% of the BOXER APCs should come equipped with the Grenade Machine Gun, and in Germany they have developed a system that couples the RWS with GMG to a Spexer 2000 3D Mk III AESA radar. Using air-bursting grenades, this combination is able to provide anti-UAV defence, and the British Army should urgently adopt it. It is a very basic solution, pretty limited, but it is at least a first step in the right direction and one that can be brought online with minimal expenditure and impact on the BOXER procurement.

The AESA radar, coupled with the GMG with airburst grenades, offers some protection from incoming drones / loitering munitions 

The Army hopes to “improve” firepower on some of the BOXERs in as-yet undecided ways. The adoption of the M230LF light 30x113 mm gun might be an option; if we are really lucky they will consider going with a Moog modular turret that would open up possibilities to boost not just anti-surface capability, but anti-air as well. The STRYKER for Manoeuvre SHORAD, the “MARAUDER” for the US Army, is an example of what can be achieved with such systems.

The Support Company will ensure that each CAR has its own mortars, snipers, UAVs / UGVs in good time, and missile Overwatch. With JAVELIN pushed forth into the infantry companies, the current anti-tank platoons would instead operate the Mounted Close Combat Overwatch capability which is to come from the Battlegroup Organic Anti-Armour programme.

To ensure the group has access to better organic Indirect Fire capability, the aim would be to acquire a turreted 120mm mortar as well, keeping pace with what is by now a standard pick for mechanized formations.

Like in the STRIKE brigades, the task for AJAX would be in no small part to intimately support the infantry. An IFV without ability to carry infantry, by all means. Its sensor suite, in addition, would have to be exploited to the max to ensure that Indirect Fires, organic and non-organic, can timely be brought to bear.

The “Cavalry battalion” would thus have up to 3 Squadrons, 2 of which aligned with the infantry companies and another “free” to scout ahead and provide screening and targeting.

The “infantry battalion” would have responsibility for the 2 infantry companies and the Support Company.

It should be possible, without acquiring any additional BOXER or AJAX, to form at least 6 such CARs. Not “cavalry”, not “infantry”. Permanent, combined arms BGs that will have to deliver that mix of “Find, Fix and Strike” capability by progressively integrating more indirect fire options, and the ability to target them from, if not any soldier, certainly from pretty much any squad and combat vehicle.

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

Short Range Air Defence will also need to move forwards to become an organic component of the dispersed battlegroups, because UAVs are going to be everywhere. The SHORAD platform, ideally, must become a more multi-purpose system. Equipment-wise, STORMER HVM already is a multi-purpose system since LMM MARTLET missiles would be plenty good against surface targets as well, but there does not seem to be any real willingness to exploit this possibility. It is no good to claim that air defence is too complex and specialized and must remain stovepiped within specialist formations: if there is one thing we must squeeze out of digital technology and potentially AI is the ability to spread out “complex” mission capabilities across a wider user base. Otherwise there will never be enough to truly pursue dispersion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combined Arms Regiments are needed to truly drive on this revolution within the Army, by unifying the efforts and ensuring historical, unreasonable divisions are effectively removed.