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.