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.