Sunday, September 11, 2022

Does Ukraine salvage STRIKE?


The quick exploitation of the gap that the Ukrainians have punched in a lightly-held section of the Kharkiv front and in general the successful use of wheeled AFVs has caused some legit discussion about whether the Ukrainian experience supports the British Army’s STRIKE concept.

This is a discussion to be had, although I’m not sure we have all of the necessary information yet, and might not have it for quite some time still.

What i think must be said, already now, is that we should be very careful in mixing “rapid movement of wheeled AFVs” with “STRIKE”, because we were told in no uncertain terms that the two things were quite different and well separated.

I think no one has any real doubt about the viability and usefulness of wheeled mechanized formations, and their ability to move quickly along roads. Wheeled Mechanized Brigades have existed in multiple countries for decades, and in general in the history of warfare infantry has followed tanks in wheeled trucks (or in half-tracks) for most of the time mechanization has been a thing.

Remember that tracked AFVs to carry infantry into battle appeared only late in World War II, and essentially went into operation only in the British and Canadian armies with the KANGAROOs, after all. Later, the Soviet union has had a multitude of Motor Rifle Brigades combining MBTs and wheeled BTRs of various marks. The British Army used to have significant wheeled armoured components, and in the Cold War it has SAXON to work as a literal battle taxi to bring troops forwards to reinforce BAOR. 

In short: tanks (as in, actual MBTs) + Wheels is not new, is not revolutionary and is, ultimately, not STRIKE.

If you think Ukraine in any way vindicates British Army STRIKE brigade you have first to prove Ukraine formations actually bear any resemblance to STRIKE. Because if what we are talking about is actually a mechanized phalanx  exploiting a breakthrough, that is not new, and is not STRIKE. How many examples could we list, from the fall of France in 1940 to the breakout from Normandy and beyond...?

The British Army did not say it was building a mechanized brigade and it did not copy any of the medium, all-wheeled brigade that have proliferated in various Armies all around the world. The British Army said it had come up with a new concept, a new way of fighting that exploited dispersion to “penetrate an Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2AD) “bubble” and begin its disintegration”. This is how Chief General Staff Sir Nick Carter sold the concept from the onset, and how it was experimented and engineered, as explained years later by Brigadier James Martin, commander of 1st Armoured Infantry Brigade/STRIKE experimentation group between November 2018 and july 2020.

If i had to find a direct counterpart to the STRIKE brigade, i would probably point to the original CENTAURO-centric brigades imagined by the Italian army in the late Cold War. CENTAURO, having anti-tank capability, was supposed to "race" along roads to meet an enemy penetration, and more specifically an amphibious assault by the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron on Italy's long and exposed coast. It had to contain the russians, successfully grappling with an heavier force for long enough for heavier allied formations to also arrive. 

STRIKE was described as a quick reaction tool that would self-deploy "from Catterick to Tallin" to contain a russian assault, so there is some similarity. But in practice, that's also as far as that similarity goes, because STRIKE then diverges in both concepts and execution.  


STRIKE as a concept

Being the commander of the very brigade that was due to become the first STRIKE formation, Brigadier James Martin ought to be the voice we should be listening to when trying to understand what sets STRIKE apart from a conventional mechanized brigade.

Brigadier James Martin speaks from minute 28.45

Speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2019, the brigadier was clear on Dispersion being the core of the whole project, and specifically said:

“fighting dispersed provides opportunity for decisive action that could otherwise be pretty difficult to come by. It allows for levels of infiltration, penetration and unpredictability that can decisively threaten a peer opponent Command & Control, his echelon forces and of course its logistic elements”.

There cannot be any doubt that what he summarizes as “dislocation at scale” is targeted at peer enemies and is supposed to allow the STRIKE sub-units to infiltrate the enemy front and threaten command posts, echelon and logistics in its rear.

In my rather less charitable way to describe it: the British Army expected STRIKE to go directly to Exploitation without having to achieve a Breakthrough.

He further specifies that experimentation has looked at brigade frontage of 82 to 100 km width, up to 100 km in depth

“beyond the traditional FEBA (forward edge of the battle area), if that concept still has relevance”

He then reaffirmed the bit about operational marches of 2.000 kms (the infamous “Catterick to Tallin” line that Carter had used all the way back in 2015) and tactical advances / investments along up to 12 different routes, with sub-unit dispersion “well beyond the confines of the kilometre grid square”

In other words, experimentation up to 2019 had supposedly proven the feasibility, and indeed the effectiveness of the idea as it was first conceived in 2015. How fortunate!

In more recent times there has been a sort of revisionism about STRIKE, led by a 2020 article from “STRIKE prophet” on, written pretty literally to respond to my criticisms. According to this new current, STRIKE is a perfectly sensible “screening and exploitation force”, built on past operations and proven, clear concepts.

I find it instructive that Brigadier James Martin talks about covering and exploiting only once in his address about STRIKE. He does so when addressing lethality, and saying that STRIKE only needs to be “competitive with, not necessarily superior” to an enemy heavier force. He goes on to add that in experimentation this was achieved by “consistently privileging anti-armour capabilities across the brigade in the forms of organic, mounted and dismounted ATGW in every Platoon and Troop as well as some CSS elements”. This, he went on saying, enabled the STRIKE brigade to “survive, operate and win as both a covering and exploitation force”.

Ukraine does indeed prove how much damage can be caused by having ample availability of mounted and dismounted ATGW capabilities, but then again I don’t think there ever was  a doubt about this particular point.   

I don’t have any doubt about the viability of what is still, in the end, a mechanized brigade to provide a screening / covering and an exploitation function, but if this was the point, there would be no need to call it “STRIKE” and pretend it was a new and revolutionary thing.

The British Army intended STRIKE to do things differently and achieve some extraordinary effects, as Brigadier Martin so aptly explained.

If mechanized brigades do well in Ukraine, that has next to zero relevance to STRIKE. I don’t think there ever was a doubt on the usefulness of mechanized brigades and indeed on the mobility of wheeled AFVs. But since it was called STRIKE because it was going to be something different, something more, it can only be considered validated if we observe something on the battlefield that rhymes with what makes STRIKE unique.

The breakthrough in Kharkiv does not look like a single brigade exploiting by dispersion on a 100 x 100 km battle area, sorry. It just does not.

STRIKE bde didn't have MBTs but AJAX. Is any of Ukraine's mech battlegroups deliberately trying to fight without MBTs but using IFVs in medium armour fashion?

STRIKE bde was supposed to have a 100 Km front. Is it happening in Ukraine?

STRIKE talked of exploitation without breakthrough, purely by dispersion/infiltration. Any evidence of anything similar proving feasible on the ground?

If none of STRIKE’s defining characteristics are to be observed, we cannot possibly see a validation of them in the ongoing operations.



STRIKE as executed

I repeatedly made the point that a concept is ultimately only as good as its execution, so we have to also consider what the STRIKE brigade actually looked like and the context in which they appeared.

STRIKE prophet and others go on to claim that STRIKE is supposedly platform-agnostic, but the reality is that the Army considered the replacement of MASTIFF (used in some of the experimentation, by the way) as absolutely indispensable. The procurement of the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (for which BOXER was eventually selected, as we know) was moved forwards from 2029 to 2023, and the STRIKE brigade IOC depended literally on BOXER becoming available.

As we know, each STRIKE brigade was going to have 2 Regiments of AJAX (removed from the armoured infantry brigades) and 2 infantry battalions mounted in BOXER APC. One of those AJAX regiments was going to be a “Medium Armour” formation tasked with providing tank-like support to the infantry, despite armament and protection being unchanged.

Future Soldier put an end to STRIKE brigades plans and with WARRIOR going out of service, BOXER is no longer heading to Catterick at all. WARRIOR's demise leaves plenty of empty garages around Bulford and Tidworth. 

All my doubts about STRIKE brigades stand, starting from the AJAX – BOXER mix, which would have had inexorable consequences for the ability of STRIKE brigades to conduct those long operational marches. 

It is telling that the British Army has converted 77 Oshkosh tanker tractors into “Medium Equipment Transporters” with trailers rated for 44 tons payloads. These would have been indispensable to carry AJAX (and at the same time not sufficient) during a STRIKE brigade operational march.

This is particularly ineffective because between AJAX and BOXER it is the former that has the sensors and the firepower that are meant to enable STRIKE to fight and be competitive with enemy heavy / heavier forces. It is AJAX that has the sensors to acquire targets and direct joint Fires.

In a workable STRIKE brigade, AJAX should have been wheeled and able to ride on into battle in the very vanguard. To return to my earlier comparison with the italian example from the 80s, AJAX was supposed to be STRIKE's very own CENTAURO. But while CENTAURO has MBT-like firepower with a  105 mm (and now 120 mm in CENTAURO 2) and is wheeled, AJAX has the firepower of a IFV and is tracked. 

AJAX was hammered into STRIKE for lack of alternatives, not because it was ever thought for anything resembling STRIKE's CONOPS. And allow to say me one thing: if you have to deal with METs, you might just as well deal with HETs (a bit bigger and with one extra axle, yes, but otherwise entirely comparable) and carry actual MBTs. Which, unsurprisingly, is what mechanized formations that include both tracks and wheels tend to do, all around the world, whether it’s a soviet / Russian Motor Rifle Brigade or a german armoured brigade or a French heavy brigade. 

Either you don't have tracks at all, to fully capitalize on the long range mobility of wheels, or those tracks tend to belong to MBTs. STRIKE's mix was very unique, and very sub-optimal. 

The operational debut of MET during IRON SURGE, the flash reinforcement of the battlegroup in Estonia following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You can appreciate how little practical difference there is, at the end of the day, between HETs and METs. Investment in more HETs and METs, but to quickly carry MBTs and WARRIORs respectively, would have made more of a difference for the British Army's ability to quickly move towards battle than adding a wheeled APC does. 

It was also extremely dubious whether Brigadier Martin’s point about availability of mounted and dismounted ATGW at all level was ever going to be realized. The Overwatch variant of AJAX (more accurately, technically a sub-variant of the ARES) was cancelled years ago now, and while Battle Group Organic Anti-Armour is now its own program, hopefully to result in ground-launched BRIMSTONEs, it is not yet anywhere near being in service.

A recent US authorization for the Foreign Military Sales of 513 lightweight JAVELIN Command and Launch Units also includes an unspecified number of electronic assemblies to enable the fitting of a single JAVELIN tube on the RS4/PROTECTOR remote weapon station used on ARES and BOXER, but apart from this there is no real evidence of any big investment in new mounted ATGW capabilities.

Variants and sub-variants breakdown of the BOXER Batch 1 order. It is assumed the "Recce/Fire Support Vehicle" was eventually going to get JAVELIN integrated on the RS4 RWS, but there is no definitive confirmation available in the open. Readers and Twitter followers will know that i think the British Army is wasting way too much money on BOXERs for ambulance and command posts roles, while mounting a ridiculously small number of infantry battalions in the new vehicle and missing firepower and key variants such as a recovery vehicle. I'd rather use cheaper vehicle bases in Support roles and reserve BOXER for the fighting roles at the front. This is, by the way, what happens in Germany, where FUCHS is used, or Italy where ORSO and LINCE cover all of the ambulance requirements and the vast majority of mobile command post needs. 

There is a very bitter irony in the fact that Brigadier Martin’s power point slide when he talked about lethality showed a german PUMA IFV firing a SPIKE anti-tank missile. AJAX does not possess that capability, obviously, so...

MIV programme personnel from the British Army at a Kongsberg event in Norway last April, getting a demonstration of the RS6 RWS, a step up from the RS4, which can employ the M230LF 30x113 mm cannon and JAVELIN 

In other words: even the one bit of the concept that was pretty unquestionably wise still does not have, to this day, a clear path to becoming an operational reality. It has been widely suggested that, now that BOXER is de facto replacing WARRIOR, a firepower boost will have to come, somehow, but there's still, even to this day, no evidence of a firm plan being in place. 

And beyond the viability of this bizarre brigade construct in itself, we should never fail to consider the impact that the sudden STRIKE brigade obsession had on the wider Army.

 Army 2020 (the 2011 plan centered on 3 armoured infantry brigades) was a plan mainly concerned with sustaining enough brigades to maintain a “1 in 5” cycle for enduring deployments (6 months deployed, 24 to rest, regenerate, train), and inevitably so since operation HERRICK was still Defence’s main effort. Even so, Army 2020 very much had “contingency” (state on state warfare, that is) in mind. Its heavy core of 3 capable armoured brigades was meant to preserve the Army’s warfighting know how. Army 2020 planning guidelines did include a Divisional "best effort", with 3 brigades, 2 of which armoured and 1 of which would be made up by elements of 16 Air Assault brigade and 3 Cdo brigade.

In other words, Army 2020 was meant to protect the Army’s ability to field a force pretty much equivalent to that generated for Operation TELIC in 2003, but from a smaller overall army. Accordingly, it was acknowledged that a Divisional deployment would only be possible with adequate warning and preparations, because supports were insufficient.

When in 2015 Army was given direction to accelerate regeneration of a warfighting, deployable Division because focus by then was squarely back on being able to provide NATO with a sizeable land component, a rational mind would have sought to improve the readiness of the existing armoured brigades while rebuilding as many of the missing supports as possible.  

It was, without a doubt, doable.

But the Army instead decided that the overwhelming priority to be funded was procurement of BOXER, not just to replace MASTIFF in the single mechanized infantry battalion that had been part of each Armd Inf Bde of Army 2020, but to build a whole new kind of fighting formation.

Under 2015’s “Army 2020 Refine”, the Division would have again been composed of 2 armoured brigades, with the 3rd one being a STRIKE brigade, leaving 16AA, 3Cdo and a light brigade from 1st Division for Rear Area security on top.

In practice, a force much heavier than had been generated for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, coming out of a smaller army. An army that didn’t really enjoy any growth from Army 2020 plans.

Army 2020 Refine and STRIKE were the ultimate "do more with less" madness, calling for a super demanding force generation cycle and the ability to deploy 100% of the armoured brigades in the ORBAT. And it was supposed to solve the difficulties that Army 2020 had in deploying 2 armd bdes from 3.  

It was, in other words, a fairy tale that Land HQ at Andover told itself.

By 2019 it was painfully evident that the Defence budget was again running hot and that the Army was in particularly dire straits ahead of the incoming Integrated Review, but in December BOXER was ordered, reconfirming it as Andover’s number 1 priority.

From that point onwards, the Army’s ability to fund upgrades to CHALLENGER 2 and WARRIOR, and in general its chances of hanging on to its current sizes and programs were, to put it mildly, tied to the chances of rolling nothing but sixes at every throw of the dice.

Thankfully, the Army rolled several sixes. Boris Johnson’s government put many billion pounds of investment into Defence and Land HQ got most of the increase and the largest allocation over the 10 years. Those were 2 sixes rolled. Getting the CHALLENGER 3 programme funded was another.

WARRIOR ended up not rolling its six, and in general the Army’s mess at that point was so big that the money was never going to be enough for everything.

The STRIKE brigades as once imagined have disappeared, and the Army is getting smaller, with Future Soldier leaving it dramatically short of actually deployable and meaningful brigades.

In all of this, what Ukraine probably proves once again is that replacing MASTIFF with MIV was never what was urgent. Fires, air defence, MBTs themselves and even the IFVs are decisive. Shape of the wheeled APC is secondary. Ukrainian mechanized infantry is making do with an unlikely dog’s breakfast of platforms, including, funnily enough, MASTIFF itself.

In the end, Future Soldier itself admits that the picking of priorities was disastrous. It finally puts the money into CR2 upgrades, artillery and air defence (hoping that plans continue to progress).

Warrior did end up being the sacrificial lamb and BOXER is now de facto THE vehicle the British Army’s future depends upon, but that was unavoidable after the December 2019 contract and the building of two assembly lines in the UK.

The only ray of true hope at the moment is (apart from the promises of a further defence budget boost) the coming of a Chief General Staff who has pretty clearly said that there is much to fix, and that he is prepared to change Future Soldier structures to (hopefully) deliver real combined arms formations and not pure lip service.

I’ve seen hints that the so called Operation MOBILISE might result in a first refinement of Army plans to be announced by the end of the year. I’m wishing it the best of luck, and I’m hoping rationality has returned to Andover, because it’s badly needed.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Everyone is recce, everyone is strike: an organisation for a small but tough British Army


As I’ve made hopefully clear on Twitter in several different occasions, I am convinced the Integrated Review was very good. The Defence Command Paper had a lot of good things about it too, although it is clear that some things would need more funding to truly get moving according to stated ambitions.

Future Soldier is the one document that is not just disappointing but flat out concerning. It is to be hoped that a “Refine” will come swiftly, because the plan feels like it was written by "2 guys" wanting fundamentally different things. Brigade Combat Teams and combined arms integration at lower levels on one side; preservation of increasingly artificial barriers and tribalism between Corps and Regiments and specialties on the other. The end result is an awkward compromise that fails to deliver “conventional”, solid brigades and equally fails in progressing new ways of operating.

The Army is “lucky” in that the events in Ukraine represent a perfect chance to save face and justify the changes without admitting that the problems were all there from the get go. 


Future Soldier fails to articulate a new concept for how to structure, field and employ force in the field.

The Army’s “Conceptual Force 2035”, which up to at least 2017 was looked at very seriously, imagined an army completely reconfigured to deliver 3 smaller but capable divisions made of lighter, faster, more deployable, largely independent battlegroups, with dispersion being the norm. Conceptual Force 2035 specified 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.


Apparently, Conceptual Force 2035 has since lost traction, and that actually saddens me, because at this point the army is in such miserable shape that it was arguably the one model it could follow to try and regain some effectiveness. On the other hand, 2035 was always way too close in time for many of the things imagined to actually happen. Robotic and Autonomous Systems, for example, are nowhere near as mature as needed for the full vision to take shape, and without pervasive use of ground combat uncrewed vehicles it’s easy to imagine that the main difficulties experienced in the simulations will have been infantry shortages and resupply problems.


Whatever vision takes shape next is anyway unlikely to stray too far away from Conceptual Force 2035 ideas, because rebuilding a large “conventional” force would require manpower and money that simply isn’t going to be there. While I am not expecting new IFVs to come into service anytime soon, the Fires "ingredients" that would be indispensable for CF35-like combat groups are in the plan, and there are promising signals that the number of BOXERs will continue to grow.

Ultimately, the Integrated Operating Concept 2025 has set out the following list of attributes for 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


Unless these attributes are quite drastically revised, the new concepts will necessarily have a lot in common with CF2035. I think the army need to accept this, because “mass” will never be there.

What we see in Ukraine is that not even the Russians are achieving the kind of mass needed to create a “traditional” continuous front. The British Army, with far less troops and material, won’t be able to create a front either, unless it’s ridiculously narrow.

Dispersion these days is unavoidable, not only to reduce vulnerability against enemy Fires, but also simply to cover ground.  


STRIKE was way too optimistic in imagining huge tactical advantages to be secured by a force which was going to have no particular mobility advantage on comparable formations and certainly no firepower advantage whatsoever. It imagined an enemy paralyzed by dispersed STRIKE elements advancing on multiple directions simultaneously, completely failing to appreciate that dispersed elements can very easily and quickly become isolated and very difficult to resupply. For years, STRIKE literally assumed that there would be no need for it to conduct bridging operations in the direct fire zone, which was one of the wildest, most absurd assumptions ever.


Ultimately, too much about STRIKE was just not credible, but dispersion is something we will have to deal with, by necessity if not by choice.

The challenge is defining a workable British Army organization that maximizes the survivability, lethality and usefulness of its small force.

Some starting assumptions:


-          Long range Fires are arguably the only way to “close the gaps” between dispersed force elements and ensure that small deployed contingents have disproportionate effect.


-          The ability of Fires to truly “close the gaps” depends on their responsiveness and on the ability to provide targeting from a multitude of sources all across the manoeuvre force.


-          For the foreseeable future at least, the tank remains a fundamental  capability. Its survivability, combined with the high number of “stored kills” can hardly be replaced by volleys of missiles. It is reasonable to assume that in the future tanks might shed weight as piling up passive protection simply becomes counter-productive and we might see Robotic / Autonomous vehicles taking up more of the MBT role, but until technology matures we have to make good use of what is available and works.


-          Air defence must be much more widely distributed, otherwise all sorts of threats will have an easy time targeting troops in the field.


-          Recce by stealth is increasingly unlikely to be feasible. Land manoeuvre can be observed by a multitude of drones, space, air and ground based sensors, and the widespread availability of all sorts of communication systems make it pretty much impossible to imagine small armoured vehicles sneaking unobserved on the enemy.


That recce by stealth is no longer feasible is something the British Army, just like other armies worldwide, has de facto accepted quite some time ago. Recently, the Royal Dragoon Guards have provided some welcome clarity on how the Cavalry regiments are attempting to confront the combination of the AJAX disaster, the CRV(T) imminent retirement and further manpower reductions. The latter has the inexorable consequence of leading from a 4 Sabre Squadrons structure down to 3.


SCIMITAR is going to be replaced by WARRIOR, which has already seen some use with the cavalry since at least 2018 as an AJAX surrogate. But of course, since there are nowhere near enough working WARRIORs, they are concentrated in just ONE Sabre squadron, albeit enlarged to 5 Troops. Interestingly, WARRIOR cavalry will, in field, mix with CHALLENGER, with the RDG forging a close relationship with the Queen’s Royal Hussars.

This is the only logical consequence of accepting recce by stealth is (mostly) dead, and follows examples from other parts of the world. Notably, the US Army has re-introduced a company of M1 tanks into its cavalry squadrons, and also grouped the Styker MGS and ATGW into the reconnaissance squadron of the Stryker BCTs, until it decided to remove the MGS from service.

In Italy, to give another example, CENTAURO/CENTAURO 2 support FRECCIA in the Cavalry regiments doing reconnaissance for the brigades.

In truth, there’s no need to wander the world at all: the UK’s original FRES SV plan notoriously included a true medium armour variant with 120 mm smoothbore cannon, which would have accompanied the SCOUT.

There really is nothing new in all of this: it is just another sad and self-destructive circle that the British Army has walked.

It really is sobering that, after 30 years and billions of expenditure, the Army’s future is a team of CHALLENGER and WARRIOR. When one looks back at WARRIOR demonstrators for the recce cavalry role, and at high-tech experiments such as VERDI, and thinks about all that followed, it’s impossible not to get emotional.  


The Guided Weapons/Javelin Troop is enlarged into Sabre Sqn mounted in "variety of armoured vehicles", which presumably means anything from JACKAL to Mastiff to have some mobility. The Squadron will de facto fight dismounted and in close liaison with the infantry (in the case of the RDG, specifically alongside 5 RIFLES), employing JAVELIN, NLAW and LASM / ASM.

There has been no increased allocation of JAVELIN. Of course, one bitterly adds.


The final Sabre Squadron groups the Sniper troop, Surveillance Tp, Assault (pioneer) Tp and C2 Tp. This seems to build upon work Household Cavalry’s B Squadron has been doing for the last several years, ahead of what was supposed to be the first conversion in the Army from CRV(T) to AJAX, and the assumption of their role within STRIKE.

Adding snipers is, apparently, a major revolution that took a long time. In 2020 B Sqn HCR formed an Anti-Tank Troop and had worked for a while to “try” and form a Mortar Troop as well. Sadly, this seems to have been way too ambitious a revolution, and there is no sign of mortars in the new cavalry structure.


In general, the new Cavalry organisation is all about forming combined arms groups in the field, but without adopting it in the barracks. And once again I ask: why? Why can’t the British Army make that final step and try to give itself a structure which is more in line to how it actually expects to fight?

The main reason not to do it, the logistic complication of having regiments home-based far from each other, is gone, with the heavy forces all centered upon Bulford, Tidworth and Warminster.


Structures must change because the current ones are simply not fit for purpose and they unnecessarily complicate future planning, training and operations by maintaining artificial separations in roles and capabilities.



An organisation for dispersed, heavy hitting forces

The Reconnaissance Strike Group imagined and championed by retired US Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor remains, in my opinion, the most promising force structure to face the current challenges of land warfare.

It is, obviously, presented at “American scale”, so with numbers that the British Army could never match, but  conceptually it is a valid framework that is centered on manoevre forces capable of dispersed, mobile, operations across a wide area in presence of capable enemy forces. It is meant to survive and fight in the modern battle space where ISR and EW are pervasive and Fires are a constant threat.


-          This new battle space demands self-contained independent battle groups; formations that operate on land the way the Navy’s ships operate at sea: within the range of their organic ISR and STRIKE capabilities.


-          RSG suppresses or destroys enemy air defense and missile assets-RSG is effective when immediate responsiveness is required, in complex terrain or in poor visibility.


There is no separation between Manoeuvre and Reconnaissance forces in the RSG. The entire force is about recce and manoeuvre. It uses 4 battalion battlegroups to jointly Find, Target and Manoeuvre, and has a Fires battalion at its core.

As the expectation is to operate dispersed, the RSG is deliberately conceptualized as a sort of mobile fortress in which the battalions surround and protect the Fires element, feeding it targets to destroy.


The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 guidance, the Conceptual Force 2035 assumptions and the equipment programmes underway are all very attuned to an RSG-inspired force structure for the main combat formations.

The new USMC Littoral Regiment has its own lesson to give, in how it produces a self-contained manoeuvre formation with its own “Anti-Air Battalion” (which is actually a more multi-role unit than the name suggests, delivering also air control and Forward Arming and Refueling Points for the supporting aviation element) and Sustainment Battalion.


The RSG as imagined for american use is a huge formation which contains a number of armoured vehicles an UK formation wouldn't possibly match, just like the US Armored Cavalry Regiment of the 1990s was comparable to an entire british Division, but the concepts are what matter

Imagine the British Brigade Combat Team as a formation of 4 Combined Arms Regiments arranged around a Fires formation. Each Regiment would have a Manoeuvre Battalion with Infantry mounted in BOXERs and, in the “Heavy” variant, cavalry squadrons with CHALLENGER 3.

One of the roles of the Manoeuvre battalion would be to Find targets and direct Fires. The current Tactical Group Batteries of the Royal Artillery, and indeed Surveillance and Target Acquisition sensors, including SERPENS counter-battery radars and the new portable battlefield surveillance radar, would be pushed directly into these units.


AJAX is really a thorn. Obviously, if it survives and enters service it will have to be used, both alongside Challenger in mixed Recce-Strike Squadrons within the manoeuvre battalion (heavy) and without tank in (medium) configuration. But in truth, if I could have one wish granted, it would be to make AJAX vanish and get back the money to fund the upgrade of more CHALLENGERs and the procurement of more and better armed BOXERs.

A possible template for the Cavalry squadron could come from the old US Armored Cavalry Regiment, in which troops combined Scout platoons on BRADLEY with tank Troops with M1. Each Troop had 8+1 ABRAMS and 12+1 BRADLEY, and this could be a possible mix to practice with WARRIOR and then with AJAX if it really comes.


Alongside the Manoeuvre formation there would a Combat Support Battalion delivering Pioneer and engineer capabilities as well as organic Fires. The kind of reach imagined by Conceptual Force 2035 could easily be achieved by adopting 120 mm mortars carried in BOXERs, and BRIMSTONE-based MountedClose Combat Overwatch (MCCO).

There would also need to be a SHORAD troop, initially equipped of course with STARSTREAK/LMM, on STORMER self-propelled launchers wherever possible.


There would then be a Sustainment Battalion combining REME and Logistic elements.


The Fires Battalion at the center of the Brigade would ideally revert to the mixed format of Artillery regiments in Army 2020, so with a GMLRS Battery in addition to the AS90 (and then Mobile Fires Platforms) batteries. This would give the BCT the ability to strike out to at least 150 km with GMLRS ER. The Precision Strike Missile would ideally be held at Division level in another GMLRS regiment, able to strike out to well over 500 km, with strategic relevance that will increase in the coming years as spiral development of the missile delivers a seeker for striking mobile targets, from Air Defence units to warships at sea, to ranges of 700 km and beyond.

To hopefully reduce costs, the Division’s GMLRS regiment would use a truck base, with the M270 launchers given to the Brigades. In the US, work has started on a Palletized Field Artillery System which is a 2-pod GMLRS launcher that can be used stand-alone or carried on a EPLS-type truck, or even on the deck of a ship. Germany hopes to soon add a truck-based, GMLRS compatible, 2-pod launcher, so there are options for the UK to procure more rocket launchers, with wheeled mobility and beyond, without going anywhere near HIMARS that comes with a single pod due to C-130 volume and weight constraint considerations.


The proposed "early entry" vanguard element of a RSG is arguably not that far away, Robotic and Autonomous Systems aside, from what the Conceptual Force 2035's Future Combat Team aspired to be.

At brigade level would also sit an Air Defence battery with SKY SABRE, with CAMM ER missiles planned to be available from 2026.


A Division of 4 BCTs in this “Heavy” configuration would be a good start. Hopefully a second Division could then follow, in a “medium” configuration without the CR3s.

At Division level, remaining Light forces, either air mobile or mounted in vehicles (if you expect to operate dispersed and over a wide area, moving on foot just won't give you the tempo you need) would be chiefly tasked with ensuring supplies to get to the BCTs across theatre. Ensuring the safety of the supply flow is going to be an absolutely key task, and Ukraine only goes to prove this. 

The "operational reserve" that Future Soldier is supposed to create should have this as its primary mission: each Division should have a Reserve brigade which, while undoubtedly light for lack of enough vehicles and heavy gear, will have to possess credible protected mobility to literally plug holes in the flexible, shapeless front and ensure supplies get through. 

The Vanguard Light Brigade in Army 2020 Refine, and arguably the whole of what remained of 1st Division, had a rear area security role in a major operation, in which they would operate to secure the rear of 3rd Division. This requirement is also recognized by the new WAYPOINT 2028 organisation of the US Army, most evidently in the presence of the Force Protection brigade in the Penetration Division. 

The British Army will have to ensure this key role is adequately covered. Expanding the fighting role of the Royal Military Police, in a way similar to what the US Army does with its own MPs is possibly part of the answer. The Reserve should be part of the Answer, too.  

Forget about even trying to procure a new tracked IFV, focusing instead on BOXER coming with the appropriate variants and firepower, so for example the already mentioned 120 mm mortar.

In early May, Rheinmetall published a periodical accounting report outlining potential deals that must legally be communicated, and it notably includes a 3rd Lot BOXER order for the UK, numbering c 400 vehicles. If this does indeed happen, it would push the UK purchase above the 1,000 threshold (523 in the 1st Lot ordered in late 2019; 2nd Lot of 100 added in April), and there’s a lot of good things that can be done with a thousand high end vehicles if you are laser-focused on maximizing combat capability.

My recommendation is always the same: Ambulance and Command Post and other supporting roles mostly do not need, or do not really benefit from being on a precious BOXER base. That is exactly what Multi Role Vehicle Protected should exist for. That’s how France, using Griffon alongside VBCI, and Italy using ORSO alongside FRECCIA, are maximizing the combat output of their 8x8 fleets.


The Patria 6x6 is being adopted by Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Sweden as Common Armoured Vehicle System. It is an example of a good, cheap candidate to be the perfect supporting vehicle to BOXER in a multitude of roles. 

Ideally, I repeat, I would also forget about AJAX, if there really is the chance to claw back the money, and the Treasury is willing to let the MOD invest in advance. There is no overstating how helpful it would be to get more than 5 billion pounds to invest on programmes that are actually in step with the Army’s conditions.

Friday, February 25, 2022

An internal struggle?


In the last while I’ve been hard at work on a long article, destined to the leading Italian defence-themed publication, which tries to explain the intricacies of Future Soldier to a non UK audience.

It’s not an easy job, especially with how intricate some uselessly convoluted layers of command are, and because of the whole story of how Army 2020 and Army 2020 Refine came before.

Trying to explain this last decade plus of British Army turmoil has reinforced in me the belief that the British Army is fundamentally at war with itself. I can’t prove this conclusively from the outside, but the observation of these years has led me to believe that there are at least two factions (probably more) pulling the Army in different directions.

Purely for making my task easier, I will refer to the factions as “Traditionalists” and “Innovators”. I’m not exactly in a position to say which faction might be closer to the Truth, so neither term should be read as necessarily positive or negative.

What matters is that, from the outside, it is pretty much impossible for me to look at what happened to the British Army in these years without thinking that a radically different line of thought has gained the upper hand sometime between end 2014 and 2015.

The STRIKE Brigades, which I will immediately say i continue to think did not make real sense in the form imagined and described, were a major departure from the thinking that had generated Army 2020.

Army 2020 Refine turned the Army’s priorities on its head: in Army 2020 the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle was only supposed to arrive around 2029, to replace MASTIFF. It would have equipped a single infantry battalion within each armoured infantry brigade, serving much the same purpose of the german JAGERS. Germany uses its BOXERs, at least for now, precisely in that way: one JAGER battalion riding in BOXER APCs, serving as reinforcement for 2 battalions of PANZERGRENADIERS in PUMA IFVs.

Traditional. Well understood.

Behind the scenes, the “Innovators” came up with Conceptual Force 2035. I don’t know exactly when the study started, nor what its current status is: the British Army isn’t a transparent organisation. But the last time I heard officers explain the concept (in 2017), it called for the Army to be completely reorganized into Future Combat Teams described as “small, light and fast”, permanently combined arms in nature, built to the Rule of 4 (with Assault, Covering, Echelon and Reserve forces), flatter in hierarchy, with more distributed Command & Control and more Indirect and Precision Fires rather than “tanks”.

Conceptual Force 2035 summarized by the British Army Review

In greater detail, the Future Combat Team was ultimately described as a formation of around 500 people in total, but at least as capable as a more traditional, 1250-strong armoured battlegroup. It would have, indicatively, a single, 4-platoons infantry company, with an armoured Sqn in support, plus assault pioneers and integral Combat Service and Combat Service Support.

In order to perform in a comparable way to the larger, “traditional” BG, the Future Combat Team would add “around 90” robotic and autonomous vehicles (surface and air) to its “around” 50 vehicles.

The Future Combat Team would get its survivability more through dispersion and rapidity of action and movement than from physical armour. In order to push the enemy at a greater tempo and more in deep, the FCT would use robotic vehicles to “push reconnaissance to the point of destruction”. Greater Anti-Tank Guided Weapons coverage and greater availability of organic Fires were meant to ensure firepower without having to lug heavy and logistically-intensive MBTs around.

Future Combat Teams as imagined would be able to move “2000 km from a Surface Port of Debarkation (SPOD)” in order to get into battle and would be self-sustainable for at least 5-7 days of operations (transit included).

The Future Combat Team would have organic sensors and Fires to be able to “sense and engage” at ranges of at least 15 kilometers, and “understand” out to 30 km.

The Future Combat Teams would manoeuvre largely independently of each other, but would still be grouped into Brigade Combat Teams. The Brigade layer of command would have the purpose of ensuring Cyber and Electro Magnetic Effects (CEMA), ISTAR, Information Manoeuvre and “medium” artillery to support its FCTs with. Brigade Combat Teams would, on their part, also be independent in their operations, indeed fielding enough CS and CSS to operate for extended periods with little to no support from the parent Division, or to provide mutual support to other BCTs.

The Division’s role would mostly be to provide longer-range Fires and support (CEMA, ISTAR, IM etcetera).

Conceptual Force 2035 and the apparition of the STRIKE brigades were clearly connected. STRIKE was a first step moved in the direction imagined by the “Innovators”, although one that came with enormous risks attached and which, in my opinion, chose its priorities in the wrong order and with the wrong timing. 

STRIKE’s overwhelming priority was indisputably the purchase of a 8x8 MIV, at pretty much any cost to the rest of the Army. It completely turned the original Army 2020 on its head by bringing MIV forwards to 2023, leaping ahead of the modernisation of Armoured Cavalry (2025), MBTs (2025) and Armoured Infantry (2026). This not only put the fate of heavy armour in obvious jeopardy, but complicated an already complex budget situation and meant that the key improvements to the Artillery and other key enablers were left to live only on paper. Money simply wasn’t there to proceed with those projects which, with pretty much no exception, all date back to many years before Future Soldier.

That brings us to today, and to an army which is once again shrinking. The Armour has indeed suffered, as was to be expected: CHALLENGER 3 lives on, but WARRIOR has been sacrificed.

According to the NAO’s assessment of the post-Review Equipment Plan, however, a budget of 2.5 billion pounds will be made available in the next few years to uplift the BOXER purchase to at least around 750 vehicles. This means two things: the Army will actually be spending more money than it would have cost to update WARRIOR; and it will receive pretty much 1 BOXER for every lost WARRIOR (245 turreted vehicles were expected).

That tells to me that the loss of WARRIOR is more of a choice than a cut. The choice of an Army that made BOXER its number 1 priority all the way back in 2015 and which on rejoining the OCCAR BOXER team reserved for itself options for a total of 1.500 vehicles.

Maybe I’m getting into conspiracy theorist territory, but I think the faction of the “innovators” very much wanted things to go as they have. The sensation is that they firmly believe BOXER is the perfect vehicle for the Future Combat Team concept, and they are doing everything they can to secure its advent. If 2025 really comes with money to try and define an FV432 replacement with, expect more BOXERs to be ordered!

Future Soldier’s other winner is the Artillery, which sees money finally going its way. I honestly think not a single one of the artillery programs on the way are genuinely “new”. Almost all of them are only the latest evolution and name-change of projects that were already on the list back in 2010, if not earlier, under the unfortunate Indirect Fire Precision Attack mega-programme. The new Precision Strike Missile, for example, is literally the replacement of ATACMS, which the Royal Artillery has wanted for all this time and pursued, without success, with the Large Long Range Rocket programme. 

All that Future Soldier does is direct money their way.

And if you think about it, the upgrades to GMLRS, the Land Precision Strike requirement for a tactical missile reaching out to 60 – 80 km and, at a lower level, the Battlegroup Organic Anti-Armour project are key ingredients for the Future Combat Team vision.

Speaking of the latter programme alone: the priority is the Mounted Close Combat Overwatch, a new capability that wants to threaten enemy armour at ranges of 10 and more kilometres and which includes concepts for container-based vertical launchers holding as many as 50 BRIMSTONE missiles. In an Army that has so far resisted, with ludicrous reasoning and incredible stubbornness, even the idea of putting a couple of ATGWs on the turret of IFVs or of AJAX!

Mounted Close Combat Overwatch is perfectly attuned with the Future Combat Team idea, just as BOXER is arguably well in tune with the kind of mobility and sustainability the new formations should have.

I don’t know if it is just my hope speaking, but if you look at Future Soldier through the lens of Conceptual Force 2035, you can actually see a thread of coherence in many choices, including the adoption of the Brigade Combat Team moniker and the narrative about greater all-arms integration at lower levels of command.

Looking through this particular lens, I’m tempted to say that Future Soldier is the result of a compromise between the faction of Tradition and the faction of Innovation: the equipment programme is in many ways shaped by the Innovators, but the structures, despite the appearance of the BCT title, remain very, very conservative. CHALLENGER 3 itself starts to look like a stopgap, a temporary and partial solution to the firepower requirement that in the long term, for the “Innovators” at least, probably includes no MBT at all. Or at least not an MBT in the shapes and weight classes we see today.

And AJAX... well, AJAX exists. Only because it was ordered before the “Innovators” could prevent it, if I have to guess, and because nobody has yet worked up the courage to cancel it because there is no certainty money would be available to replace it.

There is grandeur in this view of Future Soldier, to borrow a phrase from Charles Darwin. There is the comfort of thinking that the plan has not been written out of pure despair on the back of a paper napkin during a lunch in the mess at Andover. If one focuses purely on the structure of the “BCTs” and on the “Deep Recce Strike BCT”, that is the scene one is left imagining.

Looking at the equipment choices with Conceptual Force 2035 at hand, there seems instead to be an underlying logic, hidden under thick layers of compromise.

I don’t know if the Future Combat Team is the right solution to build a British Army that is relevant for the future despite its small sizes. I think the idea is bold and has many merits, and is, at least in theory, well suited for the UK. I don’t believe the lack of mass can ever truly be compensated, but it makes sense for a small army to be more “insurgent”, slippery and able to strike at long range. Even the most powerful countries in the world currently have little to no answer to long range missile strikes, so focusing on Fires is a way for a small army to inflict disproportionate pain to an adversary.

I think the “Innovators”, assuming they really exist in the way I imagine, have a good point. Not necessarily Truth, but a good proposal. Just yesterday, on Wavell Room, an interesting article was posted which certainly belongs in the “Innovator” field and that rhymes with Conceptual Force 2035 in many ways. It is part of the reason why I’ve decided to write this short piece.

Just as I’ve been and remain among the most ferocious and outspoken critics of the STRIKE brigades for the way the whole story was handled, I will say that I’m a supporter, in principle, of Conceptual Force 2035. And I’ve been for years, as my old articles prove. This might appear contradictory, but I don’t think it is.

If done right, focusing not just on the right capabilities but on the right distribution of them into permanent combined arms formations, CF2035 approaches could definitely ensure the British Army packs a heavy punch despite its diminutive frame.

The problem is that the Army has spent the decade stuck in a dangerous no man’s land between a “traditional” force and the “innovative” one. It is mutilating itself through its inability to take a definitive decision and stick to it. The violence with which the ship was turned in 2015 has ultimately resulted in the army becoming even smaller, and still Future Soldier fails to conclusively pick one side, with the result that it fields neither a decent, traditional heavy division nor an innovative, integrated, permanently combined-arms collection of agile “super-BGs”. If the Army doesn’t get out of the no man’s land quickly, it will end up grinding itself to pieces, Review after Review.

Imagine, if you will, an Army that had the maturity to pick one direction, and stick with it. The Armee de Terre did, and its SCORPION programme is the result. Is it a perfect system for all wars? No, but they are nonetheless in a situation orders of magnitude better than the British Army’s. And they haven’t burned billions with zero return.

Imagine, if you will, an Army that had selected its path before ordering AJAX, and had worked with coherence ever since...  Whatever the decision taken, it would be in far better shape today.