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.


  1. Hi Gabriel, thanks for this short but incisive article. I wasn't at all aware of the Conceptual Force programme, and I agree that it makes for very interesting (and in the measure that it might survive for long enough to become a reality) reassuring concept for the future. I think events in the Ukraine are going to be changing a lot of people's minds about the relevance of traditional models of maneuvre warfare built around armoured infantry. The severe mauling the modestly armed Ukranians are inflicting on the cream of the Russian armed forces is, along with lessons from Armenia/Azerbaijan, a stark reminder that the battlefield is undergoing a massive transformation, and woe betide those caught fighting the previous type of warfare. For sure, the battle for Ukraine is far from over, and it is far from certain that the Ukrainians will be able to sustain the level of resistance demonstrated so far, but nonetheless, the ineffectiveness of the Russian warmachine to date is breath-taking (although I feel their inability to impose air superiority, rather than dominate the ground - the Ukranians, ferociously defending their homeland and not the inexperienced/inept force that the Russians faced in 2014, were never going to be a simple roll-over - is one of the most striking failings on the Russian side so far. And lets not get started on their intelligence assessment of the situation on the ground! In any case, I felt for a long time that the Army needs to adopt an agressive doctrine that seeks to exploit the weaknesses of classic armour (weight, deployability, concentration and logistics), which tries to change the paradigm of warfare (agility, range and volume of indirect fires), and which attempts to move away from the cognitive prisons of the traditional units of organisation. The RUSI paper on Strike was a turning point (thanks, Jack watling & co). So, I'm trying to contain my enthusiasm also. I guess a good measure of just how serious the Army is about this will be whether the political and military courage to ditch Ajax (and Challenger).
    Thanks again.

    1. I hope we won't take away the wrong lessons from Ukraine. Russia badly botched its assumptions and early plans, but that does not necessarily mean anything capability-wise.

      The British Army needs to pick one main direction of travel and needs to be more coherent in adapting not just its equipment but its structures to deliver to the concept.

      Ditching AJAX might make sense provided there are the conditions to immediately move money towards (presumably) more BOXERs and appropriate role-fits for them. CHALLENGER, i'd very much hold on to them and indeed upgrade the King's Royal Hussars too. Whatever next steps the transformation takes, the MBTs remain a key capability and a parachute. It'll be many more years before we can seriously consider delivering capability "in another way", so i'd very much like to avoid that one capability gap in the meanwhile.

    2. Please can we not take the wrong lessons (or perhaps draw lessons to fit the desired pre-existing narrative as the British Army so often does).
      While I agree that Ajax has turned out to be both a disaster in procurement terms but also the wrong vehicle for any conceivable future force, the same cannot be said of properly equipped armoured brigades. By that I mean armoured brigades equipped with vehicles that we can realistically source today / in the near future, not fantasy vehicles as the Army seems so prone to.
      Case in point - the Future Combat Team is a long term goal that we need to take a journey to, not something that we sell our soul for now when the technologies needed to enable it just don't exist..... Achievable now would be -
      Armoured Combat Teams (12) permanently made up of a squadron of MBTs and infantry companies and supports mounted on Boxer, together with affordable SP Artillery (I mean Archer) etc all permanently parceled out to that level.
      Infantry Combat Teams mean properly supported infantry fully supported.
      Recee Combat Teams mean an amalgamation of a Boxer and lighter mounted infantry.
      Div Artillery means two full Regiments of MLRS etc etc

      As an aside, one very clear learning from Ukraine to date is that you can't cut the tail to enable the teeth..... That means less infantry (sorry cap badge warriors) and more Logistics and Enablers for each and every Combat Team, Brigade and Division.....

    3. Taking USMC new littoral marine regiment as a prime example. Besides the HQ company, the three subordinate units are littoral combat team built around one infantry battalion and attached antiship missile battery, combat logistics battalion and lastly littoral anti air battalion but not in the traditional sense of pure air defense role. It provides supporting roles like air traffic control, ground mission support such as base setup and aircraft. Almost half of the entire organization is devoted to service and support role.

  2. You're right. So far in the Ukraine, airpower and logistics seem to have caused a disproportianate amount of pain for the Russians. RUSI has an excellent short article on the former (, and trying to sift through the many little threads of info that's actually coming out of the conflict regarding ground operations, I'm curiously reminded of passages from Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising and world war III by General John Hackett, where the carnage being done to units moving up to the front and logistics columns trying to resupply it are a major cause of difficulties for the Russians.

    This is my major beef about armour. Not that I doubt the effectiveness of a tank once it's close enough to engage, or their psychological effect on troops being overrun, but they have to get to the battlefront, and in a hotly contested environment, this in and of itself seems to be their greatest limiting factor. Not to mention that the Russians had already moved their armoured forces to marshalling points close to the border. For the British, unless the vehicles are based close to potential battlegrounds, I simply don't see how they could make themselves relevent within relevent timeframes.

    I read an amazing document issued by the US Army during the cold war on a hypothetical 5-day armoured counter penetration maneuvre aimed at breaking Russian initiative and forcing them to redirect resources away from their main thrust and avoid a potential flanking maneuvre. It was written from a logistician's perspective, and looked in detail at projected losses to combat units due to fighting/breakdown, and the various logistics vehicles and efforts that would be required to keep it going, and it was a very sobering read. Once time provides us with the necessary capacity to take a step back and analyse what has been happening in the Ukraine, however, I don't think the prospects for massive armoured formations as a viable future look very encouraging. And this for an army that, from the British perspective, has an almost endless supply of armoured vehicles. That is not a luxury that the Army will ever enjoy.

    However, I'm not at all knowledgeable in these areas, and the fight in Ukraine is far from over, and as you point out, MBTs are one of the few sources of firepower that the Army actually has in its hands until other solutions are found.

    These are going to be exciting times for analysts and anyone interested in military affaires, and tragic for the soldiers and civilians being toasted by this conflict. Thanks for the thought-provoking response.

  3. Future Combat Team is likely a result of Brits taking clue from French Army’s GTIA deployment in Mali. The French utilization of battalion or even company sized combined arms formations (GTIA and SGTIA) probably influences British Army thinking about the future. On paper the French has 6 combat brigades but they rarely fight in their entirety. Instead these brigades become force generators, providing necessary units that can be put together under short notice, ironically this is the French version of battle group. Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t work well for sustained high intensity warfare against peer or near peer opponents. The technology piece alone won’t solve it. Your peer enemy can possess the same sophisticated level of unmanned system/sensor/long range fire, they can disperse to avoid destruction too. On the other hand they will have quantitive edge and mass fires if necessary to conduct decisive maneuver.

    1. 'Future Combat Team is likely a result of Brits taking clue from French Army’s GTIA deployment in Mali' - err no, GTIA = all arms battlegroup pure and simple.

  4. It is, of course, a tad ironic that the British Army is moving towards integrated BCTs at exactly the same time that the US Army is moving away from those same formations, back to a Divisional structure.

    1. US army didn’t abandon BCT though. That’s a misconception. They are beefing up divisions while retaining combined arms brigades. If you pay close attention, the re-designed armored formations have new capabilities: robotic combat vehicle company, 4 platoons based armored assault companies replacing traditional 3 platoons based mech infantry companies, the addition of dedicated EM/EW platoon to brigade MI company, etc.

    2. hello Gabriel, no posts about the implications / lessons learned about the Ukraine war ?

  5. I think the 'implications' are at least as important as the 'lessons'. Everyone will have their own take on the lessons and how this applies to the UK's force structure. However the implications are potentially key going forward. It looks like Russia has already dramatically weaken itself military, politically and economically; and with sanctions this weakening will likely continue. However might one see this much weakened Russia being prone to lash out? If so then force structure may well have to adjust itself accordingly, and there's no reason to believe it would necessarily look like the traditional approach.

    1. No plan survives contact with the enemy. That's an old lesson often relearned. It applies to any new plan as much as to the traditional approach.

  6. Some interesting questions posed by the tragedy in Ukraine. Will the Russian army be so written down by its mauling there that UK and NATO should place even less emphasis on armour than at present and focus more on the medium/ light/ security assistance end of spectrum? Should more be invested in deep attack (e.g. deep recce strike capabilities) rather than close combat? Should JEF be further enhanced as a framework of choice for European countries?


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