The British Army is expected to reveal more details about its future plans sometime “in the autumn”, which in theory means sometime soon. The internal work to define the way forward is known as Project EMBANKMENT and is meant to put meat on the bones of the Future Soldier announcement that came together with the Defence Command Paper.
The Army’s Future Soldier position at the time was articulated as follows:
• An additional £3bn will be invested in new Army equipment over the next ten years on top of the £20bn already planned.
[NOTE: we have to assume it is part of this money that has been used to announce the GMLRS upgrade and new munitions, at 250 million, and the Mobile Fires Platform, replacement for AS90 and part of the L118s, at “over” 800 million. Both these projects already existed before, but clearly they didn’t have any funding line before the Review. The 120 million investment in the RANGER regiment, the planned 2023 purchases of new mini UAVs to replace Desert Hawk III and of new C-UAS weapons; plus plans for CAMM ER to beef up ground based air defence are probably all funded from this pot. “Over” 200 million have also been promised to beef up Electronic Warfare capabilities.]
• By 2025 the Army will be 72,500 regular and 30,100 reserve personnel.
• There will be no loss of cap badges and no redundancies of Regular soldiers.
• The Army will continue to recruit in large numbers the diverse talent that it needs to maintain a competitive advantage now and in the future.
• 1 MERCIAN and 2 MERCIAN will be merged. In time they will form one of the new Boxer-mounted battalions in the new structure.
[NOTE: 1 MERCIAN was earlier planned to be a WARRIOR-mounted battalion. With WARRIOR going out of service and a lot of garage and barracks space, sometimes literally newly built, becoming available in Tidworth and Bulford, we have to assume earlier plans for BOXER battalions will be completely torn apart. There is little to no sense in putting BOXER in Catterick, as once planned, when Salisbury Plain is now “empty”.)
• A new Army Special Operations Brigade based around a new Ranger Regiment able to operate in high threat environments to train, advise and accompany partners. This will be initially seeded from the current Specialised Infantry Battalions: 1 SCOTS, 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS and 4 RIFLES.
• A new Security Force Assistance Brigade to complement the Army Special Operations Brigade, operating in lower threat environments, routinely deployed across the globe to develop the capacity of partners and allies.
[NOTE: effectively this means turning another 4 battalions into Specialised Infantry. One of them will probably be 3 GURKHA RIFLES, which was being built up as 5th of the Specialised units when the new Army plan appeared]
• 2 YORKS will become a new prototype warfighting and experimentation battalion. [This has now happened, with 2 YORKS, while based in Cyprus, busy testing new equipments including Dismounted Situational Awareness tablets; Robotic Platoon Vehicles and the new Assault Rifle In-line Low Light Sight, ARILLS]
|Clipped on in front of the Day sight, the ARILLS "fuses" thermal imagery and image intensification for maximum performance at night and in all low light conditions.|
• The Infantry will be reorganised into four Divisions of Infantry with a more balanced number of battalions and offering a wider range of infantry roles.
[Each infantry division will be aligned to one of the RANGER battalions and, presumably, one of the Specialised battalions as well. Each infantry division will probably get 1 mechanised battalion as well, so each division can offer a wide range of opportunities to new recruits]
• The Army will reorganise into Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), including permanently assigned supporting elements like artillery, engineers, electronic warfare, cyber and UAS.
• A very-high-readiness Global Response Force of 16 Air Assault Brigade and the newly formed 1st Aviation Brigade, which will be ready to respond from humanitarian relief through to crisis response and warfighting.
[The British armed forces have a formidable array of capabilities needed to build and sustain an excellent air mobile brigade: 8 C-17, 22 A-400M, 60 Chinook, 50 Apache helicopters, a new Medium Lift Helicopter to come, plus Wildcat. It’s a shame it took years to notice. The formation of the Aviation brigade was a much welcome step and further refinement of the combined capabilities of the two brigades would deliver a truly excellent tool. On the other hand, the loss of C-130J is regrettable, as it reduces the airlift capability. It’s very much contradictory to cut cargo aircraft while expanding the role of the air mobile force, but coherence in UK defence planning has never been a factor...]
• The Land Industrial Strategy will strengthen our partnerships with industry to unlock and rapidly exploit the potential of innovation and spiral development, delivering the kit we need when we need it, as part of the Army’s contribution to UK prosperity.
In terms of timelines, the Future Soldier briefing noted:
• The Army will use spring and early summer 2021 to refine and test the designs, capabilities and structure below BCT-level. It will plan carefully to maximise the potential of limited resources, particularly key equipment.
• This work will be presented to the Army Board in late June 21.
• The MOD Reserve Forces 30 review will be published in May 21.
• Detailed programming and balanced decisions about the optimum resourcing and sequencing of this institutional change will follow, enabling CGS to issue orders to the Army in early autumn.
In terms of Force Structure, the Future Soldier plan as published at the time of the Defence Command Paper was as unimaginative as they come. The "new" Army linearly fell from a planned 4 mechanized brigades (2 armoured, 2 STRIKE) to just 2 mechanized Brigade Combat Teams, ugly and inevitable hybrids pieced together with the surviving pieces of Armoured Bdes (Challenger 3) and STRIKE (AJAX, which was originally meant for Armour anyway; and BOXER).
1 Cavalry regiment with AJAX, 1 tank regiment, 2 infantry battalions on BOXER. If this plan will be confirmed, it couldn’t possibly be any more foregone than it already is. You lose WARRIOR, you end up here. That's literally it. I was writing about it back in February.
The only "innovation" at the time was the attempt to turn 1st Artillery Brigade into a 3rd manoeuvre bde by putting the 2 "orphaned" AJAX regiments into it, alongside GMLRS but without infantry. The Army calls this formation Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team. This is not new per se, but it's new to see it as an organic, permanent formation: the Deep Strike Recce BCT is, really, the comfortable choice that lets the British Army hang on a couple of Cavalry regiments otherwise at risk, while adopting a familiar, reassuring mix that was used in Op GRANBY in 1991, grouping 16/5 Lancers with 32 and 39 Heavy regts RA as Divisional Artillery Group. What is old is new again.
The other 2 manoeuvre brigades were inevitably downgraded to Light BCTs, with the assumption that one would be Lightly Mechanized thanks to the use of FOXHOUND. Apparently, even in the middle of this disaster, the Army remains uninterested in hanging on to MASTIFF and RIDGEBACK, and we really should ask ourselves why, especially since these vehicles have received a quick, painless, cheap but important mobility upgrade and have been sent to Mali where they have an important role.
At a macro level, the new organization is purely born out of despair and can’t have taken more than 5 minutes to design. Literally.
Where innovation is supposed to happen is at lower level, and we have to hope that the Army will be bold enough to truly change its ways, and go back to the drawing board in regard to the organization of the brigades.
The british BCT is described as a formation which
“will be structured to integrate capabilities at the lowest appropriate level with supporting capabilities routinely assigned including artillery, Un-crewed Aerial Systems, cyber, air defence, engineers, signals and logistic support. This will create more self-sufficient tactical units with the capacity to work with partners across government, allies and industry.”
The internal brief insists: “A Land force structured to integrate capabilities at the lowest appropriate level creating more self-sufficient points of presence”.
This is perfectly in tune with assumptions about the future that have been in Army thinking for several years now. The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 has notoriously listed the necessary attributes of the future force as:
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 own Conceptual Force 2035 doubles down on the same kind of design drivers. This study imagined 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 imagined that, from the then objective force of 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.
|Conceptual Force 2035's key points|
We can agree or disagree with the assumptions above, but there is no denying that, at a conceptual and doctrinal level, the scenario has been set. This is the future force that the Army thinks is needed in the future.
Now the real question is whether the Army has any appetite to reorganize its Force Structure accordingly, and let go of some old, deeply ingrained tribalism that has been allowed to put up all sorts of avoidable problems.
The examples that could be made when referring to that “tribalism” are many, at all levels, but my favourites are always the same because they perfectly illustrate the avoidable stupidity that permeates the British Army’s structure.
First example: when “battlegrouping”, Cavalry / Tank squadrons or demi-squadrons are mixed with companies of infantry. A battlegroup based on an Infantry Battalion comes with the very significant advantage of having a Fire Support Company with mortars, snipers and anti-tank platoons. A BG based on a tank formation does not get a Fire Support Coy, because Tank regiments don’t have them. The AJAX regiments organized as “Medium Armour” formations, mirroring Tank regiments, would also not have had one. The cavalry regiments have anti-tank capability in their Guided Weapons Troop, but normally have no mortars. One of the “innovations” that the Household Cavalry Regiment was (is?) pursuing as part of STRIKE and of its transition to AJAX, is the creation of a mortar troop.
This, for me, is tribalism. That in this age of warfare we are still looking at these baby steps is insanity.
The use of UAVs is also very stovepiped, with 32 Regiment Royal Artillery holding the Mini-UAS capability and parcelling it out upon battlegrouping. This frankly won’t do in the future. Capability must spread out across formations and go down the ladder of formation size; combined arms must be the norm, not the on-deployment mixing of today.
If the Army is to move in any way closer to its own Concept Force 2035 ambition, it needs to find the courage to gut its current, increasingly nonsensical structure, mix Infantry & Cavalry and redistribute capabilities with no deference to capbadges and outdated Corps separations, creating Permanent Combined Arms Battlegroups.
Such a radical reform is no longer avoidable, since the Army is trying to modernize in the context of a regular manpower cap moving down from a theoretical, never-achieved 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025.
The regular Army is going to be smaller, and positions will be lost, and units will need to change. In particular, the Infantry is bound to take a hit, simply because Combat Support and Combat Service Support formations have already been cut back so much that most of the Army’s brigades are make-believe formations comprising only infantry, with no artillery, communications, engineering or logistics.
1st Division's brigades, with the exception of one which gets some supports on rotation, are next to useless paper bags containing infantry battalions to parcel out in the never ending quest to rob Peter so that Paul can be outfitted in a decent way for deployment.
This has to change. The Army will continue to drown in its own chaos otherwise.
As the reveal date for Embankment draws nearer, the leaks to the press have begun, with the Daily Mail writing about incoming reductions to the Infantry, which is said to be destined to shrink from 16,500 to 11,000. Apparently, the Rifles regiment didn’t take well to the news and promptly leaked the internal memo to the press. Either the leaker or, more likely, the Daily Mail itself, have also immediately felt the need to point out that the plan will be “overseen by the new Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin. The evil Royal Navy is already out to get the Army’s scalp, seems to be the narrative that we will be force-fed over the coming months.
The fact that the Admiral is not yet in post, and that Embankment is the Army’s own plan formulated over the last several months is, naturally, a detail of no importance: never let facts get in the way of a good tale!
The reduction in the Infantry numbers is not and cannot possibly be a surprise to anyone who read the Defence Command Paper and Future Soldier brochure. Where did people think that the manpower reduction would hit? On the last few enablers left to ensure that the Army can scrape together 4 brigades somewhat deployable?
It was inevitably going to come to this.
And if the Army was to finally pursue its own imagined Future Combat Team, around 500 strong, it would again be inevitable that Infantry numbers would be further affected.
It was all always under our eyes.
The impact on the Infantry’s effectiveness is the only thing that isn’t yet clear. Some reductions will be pretty much automatic since mechanized battalions are larger than Light Role formations. As WARRIOR disappears and only 4 Mechanized battalions remain, a few hundred posts will disappear naturally. Several hundred more will vanish as 4 (or rather 3, assuming 3 GURKHA RIFLES carries on) battalions are cut down from 500/600 to 250-or so to form the new Security Force Assistance Brigade.
2 MERCIAN effectively disappears with the merging into 1 MERCIAN, accounting for several hundred more. And the rest will have to be shaved off with some other change to the structure of the remaining Battalions.
Unfortunately the Army has once more tied its hands up by insisting that no capbadge will be lost and that no other battalions will disband, so this inexorably means every remaining battalion will get smaller.
How, and with what “capability compensation”, is the only question that remains on the table.
Army 2020, in 2011, attempted to absorb the manpower cut by removing a Platoon from every Rifle Company in every Light Role battalion. This proved unworkable, so a whole Company was removed instead, with the assumption that the hole would be filled by a formed company of reservists from the paired Reserve battalion.
This arrangement on paper makes a lot of sense in what is supposed to be a fully integrated force of Regulars and Reservists, but unfortunately proved unworkable because the availability of reservists is, understandably, not very good and not very predictable.
The number of times the Reserve has been able to deploy a formed Company probably fits on the fingers of one hand. I can think of 4 PARA deploying one to the Falklands, and a case in Cyprus.
Day to day efficiency of the regular battalions was badly impaired, as was their ability to train. It became normal to put together companies of two battalions to make one, which obviously defeats the point of keeping so many tiny battalions in the first place.
Eventually, in 2015, the missing companies were rebuilt, redistributing the manpower obtained by inventing the Specialised Infantry battalions and downsizing them to just around 250 personnel.
But this time, manpower cannot just move around. It will be shed for good.
And there are just two ways in which this can happen:
- The Stupid, Capbadge-driven way: insist in holding on to Infantry battalions more or less as they are, and go back to the (failed) Army 2020 model. This is unfortunately highly likely to happen, if recent Army history is any indication.
- The Conceptual Force 2035 way: remove the artificial separations between Infantry, Cavalry, Armour, etcetera, and build up permanent, Combined Arms Battlegroups which will probably have the equivalent of just 2 Infantry companies, again, but will at least be designed from the ground up to include armour-support, UAVs, Robotic vehicles when they eventually happen, and beefed-up organic Fires.
The most common counter-argument deployed against Permanent battlegrouping is that, supposedly, maintaining the separation of roles enables each component to pursue excellence in its field, and battlegrouping only for deployment safeguards “flexibility”.
Personally, I think this is an extraordinarily weak argument. It could be countered in all sorts of ways, but i once again will go back to the example made earlier: keeping the specialties separated results in incomplete battlegroups simply because, to make one example, the Cavalry absurdly does not have mortars.
The separation only enables and sometimes mandates the proliferation of capability gaps that require ever more “robbing Peter to pay Paul”: a stupefying number of separate formations sending bits and pieces to one another to build something that actually works.
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. Certainly not in the context of a further shrinking Army.
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. There is absolutely no rational reason to claim that more self-sufficient formations wouldn’t be flexible and able to cooperate and re-ORBAT as necessary.
The Army insists that “the future battlefield will be different. It will be harder to hide and weapons will destroy with greater accuracy, range and precision. People will retain their centrality in the battle of wills, while robots and UAVs will increasingly reduce the number of people engaged in the front line. Legacy capabilities are becoming obsolete ever more rapidly”.
To counter that, the Army says it needs faster, agile, well integrated, combined arms formations able to aggregate and disaggregate across a vast battlefield.
If this is the assumption, act on it.
The attributes of the Future Combat Team 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 was never done in any meaningful way. Firepower has been dead last in the list of priorities so far, and that made 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. 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, with infantry battalions that could literally shed a rifle company soon.
|British Army armour leaving BATUS. The end of an era, happening largely behind curtains of shame-induced silence.|
Embankment is an opportunity for change. The reduction to regular manpower margins will be painful, there is no way to deny it will be. Trying to absorb the reduction while hanging on to 31 battalions will only make the pain worse and result in 31 ever more unusable formations.
It is time to be courageous, and end the tribalism and the excuses.
Change is desperately and urgently needed in equipment plans as well: AJAX and BOXER purchases as currently planned, in consequence of the disappearance of WARRIOR, no longer integrate each other. BOXER variants mix and equipment fit must change to lessen the devastating impact of losing WARRIOR. For a wider discussion about this aspect, see: http://ukarmedforcescommentary.blogspot.com/2021/06/the-good-bad-and-ugly-of-boxer-purchase.html
In the Global Response Force, investment is needed to ensure 16 Air Assault acquires organic vehicle mobility to complement the helicopter mobility. Light, Chinook-portable vehicles would enable the PARAs to manoeuvre quickly out of a landing zone, allowing the helicopter to drop troops off further away from a target and thus hopefully away from enemy air defences.
In terms of organisation, there is obvious scope for a greater integration of the all-important Chinook force into the Aviation Brigade. Since the Chinook is RAF-owned and operated, it is currently not an integral part of the brigade and, moreover, the Squadrons are not equipped with the same wealth of organic life support on the ground. At the moment, APACHE and Wildcat squadrons can operate on the battlefield in a way that Chinook cannot replicate, being more tied to well established airbases. This difference is unhelpful at best, and would need correcting.
There is also obvious scope for rationalising the current separated bits and pieces of ground support units: the current 7 REME, 132 Sqn Royal Logistic Corps, Tactical Supply Wing and Joint Helicopter Support Squadron could and should be re-organized to cut down duplication and maximize the number of complete task lines covering everything from ammunitioning, fueling, equipment maintenance and Landing Zone management.
It seems also obvious that 244 Signal Squadron, the one unit tasked with providing communications to the Joint Helicopter Command, really belongs organically into the Aviation Brigade.
They are not big changes, and in several cases they would probably generate efficiencies and savings, but they will require the cancellation of some redundant HQs and the removal of barriers between Army and RAF and between RLC, REME and Royal Signals.
The barrier between Royal Logistic Corps and REME might indeed be brought down more or less completely. There have been suggestions that the Army might be headed towards integrated Close Support Regiments, possibly including also the medical capability.
Defence already has one such integrated regiment, the Commando Logistic Regiment of 3 Commando Brigade, although this is admittedly a somewhat special case as the Royal Marines have the intimate support of ship-borne assets and stores.
However, the STRIKE Brigades were also going to have a CSS battalion obtained by merging a RLC formation with a REME one. There’s a possibility that this integration will now become a target army-wide. There are resistances, but such integration is the norm in multiple allied armies, including the US, and it’s increasingly difficult to claim the British Army cannot adapt.
Change will also be needed in wider strategy and purpose as Forward Basing is finally embraced beyond the persistent presence of Specialised Infantry Companies.
Lieutenant General Chris Tickell, Deputy CGS, revealed at DSEI what the Army is doing to increase its responsiveness in key regions of the world. The BATUS training area in Canada has been quietly “robbed” of its large, permanent fleet of armoured vehicles, which have been brought back from February this year. Some 112 vehicles between Challenger tanks, AS90 guns, Warriors and “T2” (Titan bridgelayers and Trojan AVRE of the Royal Engineers) have been moved out and are heading towards Sennelager, in Germany, which will act both as the de-facto main training area for the mechanized force, and a Forward Base which will be better able to project heavy forces towards Eastern Europe.
The Omani-British Joint Training Area near Duqm, which we have been promised will be “tripled in size” with additional investment, will become the other main training ground for british mechanized forces. Units will deploy to Oman for “Khanjer Oman” exercises and will remain for a few months, rather than just for the duration of the exercise. In so doing, they will become a Forward Based force to complement the afloat Littoral Response Group (South) that the Royal Navy and Marines will base at Duqm from 2023.
The BATUK training area in Kenya, similarly, will see light / air assault battlegroups spending 2-3 months at a time in the area, rather than weeks as currently happen for the “Askari Storm” exercises.
BATUS, de facto, is no more. Although it is not closing down entirely, its era appears to have ended, and it would have deserved a more dignified goodbye, but the Army, MOD and Government presumably don’t like admitting that there just aren’t enough armoured vehicles left to sustain a training fleet based in Canada.
Training fleets in Sennelager and Oman can be realistically “double-hatted” as rapidly deployable, forward based forces. An armoured battlegroup stuck in the Canadian prairie cannot. At the end of the day, this is the one explanation for the move.
|BATUS was notable for its absence in the graphics about Forward Presence. There was a reason for it, as has since become apparent.|
But given the premises, it is the right move, for once. I encourage the Army to insist on this path, and invest on it, and work closely together with the Royal Marines so that the Oman-based contingent is closely integrated with the LRG(S) and with its ships, that are the key element to enable the forward based force to move quickly across a theatre which is dominated by the sea.
What is still missing from the picture is an Army formation equipped and trained with the High North in mind. As the UK reinforces its strategic commitment to Norway and the wider Arctic, and makes the Littoral Response Group (North) one of the two main prongs of its international engagement strategy, there is obvious scope for the Army to provide a heavier force to back-up the afloat Royal Marines component.
It’s an obvious step to synchronize the Army with the Nation’s strategy.
But it will take courage.