It would be the easiest thing in the world to write a post that demanded more, more people, more money and more equipment but as painful as shrinkage is, it is simply unavoidable. Having watched a medal ceremony on the TV tonight it brought home how the Army, like the other services, are not really about what calibre rifle, how many missiles your destroyer can fire or how fast your jet fighter can fly, but about people, people with families.
The Army is of course personnel heavy, it is the largest service but on the flip side, it has much lower cost equipment so whilst the ‘currency’ of the Royal Navy is ships, the currency of the Army is battalions or brigades.
It would be equally easy to think that this series is some race to the bottom, a cutters agenda with no thought for the future but I tend to think in terms of realism.
I simply do not believe in jam tomorrow, or hoping that the next government will suddenly decide to prioritise the armed forces over health or education. The MoD has been held over a barrel by successive governments for far too long, reducing budgets yet not allowed any semblance of strategic realism.
Not only is it forced into hopeless optimism it is often criticised for doing so.
Yet despite these external factors the MoD and services are equally guilty of optimism and must carry their fair share. FRES is the poster child for an equipment project that has suffered so much because of an underlying optimism and fickleness, following military fashion, in this case the RMA/FCS powerpoint fest. FRES was to equip the medium weight formations that were to form the backbone of the Army structure. Since then it has traversed the sunny slopes of Future Army Structure and now Future Army Structure (Next Steps) or the Multi Role Brigade. When first mooted FAS(NS) was for 3 deployable divisional HQ’s and 8 identical brigades, reality has of course overtaken this and now it seems 5 brigades is the latest aspiration but unless the pixies deliver a pot of cash to the door of the CDS’s office it remains an aspiration.
The Army knows full well that post Afghanistan it will be in receipt of a peace dividend, the same ‘peace dividend’ that it and the other services has been unwillingly receiving for decades. In the interminable internal struggles that seem to pervade the UK’s defence planning the Army is putting its future in the assumption that enduring low to medium intensity deployments will be the norm and therefore the 5x MRB plus 16AAB is a line which it cannot fall beneath, the other services will simply have to live with the remaining crumbs. THe 5 brigade structure copes with enduring overseas deployments and other deployed duties whilst maintaining the separated service harmony provisions.
Looking at recent history it is hard to disagree with this prediction and in the absence of any meaningful strategic guidance from government it is simply the most sensible way forward
Unfortunately the MRB concept, whilst eminently sensible in some respects, fails badly in others. Because it is designed to support enduring deployments at a low to medium intensity if the operation demands a higher intensity it starts to unravel.
It seems to be driven as much by deployment intervals or administrative neatness than combat effectiveness.
In the previous post on tasks and their underlying strategy I hopefully set out what might be considered a realistic, if admittedly depressingly modest, future. This is simply a reaction to the need for change, both in organisational composition, financial realism and a more cooperative approach to the use of violence!
I know it might sound a ‘bit yoghurt knitting can we all just be friends now’ but I do genuinely believe that the best strategy for the UK involves a reappraisal of the utility of preventative soft power, intelligence, diplomacy, building regional security, early intervention and a realisation that the armed forces might not actually always be the best solution for serving the needs of the UK. Would I be happy with a smaller armed forces in return for investment in energy, food and water resilience, no, but I recognise it might actually be the sane thing to do.
This means a realignment of resources, which means a different Army.
Thoughts on Violence
There seems to have recently been a trend away from the application of overwhelming force, graduated responses that focus on minimising risk and cost but this is counterproductive, if we make the decision to intervene it should be on the basis of applying this overwhelming force at speed, delivering a debilitating blow in one. This goes against the MRB concept to some extent which is light on firepower. The stumbling block is self evidently the enablers, getting where you want to go being constrained by transport and logistics capacity.
This is normally addressed by adapting your force to the level of transport available, the Royal Marines and 16 Air Assault Brigade being light role exactly because we don’t have the means to deliver anything but a lightly armed force!
So if you want speed you travel light and if you want heavy to travel slow.
Unfortunately this limits combat effectiveness and leaves a yawning gap in the middle. The simple answer is to improve your means of transport but there are obvious practical limits and the FRES equipped medium weight concept basically foundered on this simple limitation.
Whilst I am not advocating a return to the medium weight concept I do see a need for a dramatically improved logistic capability. The British Army, by a combination of unavailability of transport, the cost of maintaining heavy forces, a prediction that the future isn’t heavy and a desire to maintain infantry numbers is moving to a lighter armed force by default.
The Battle of Doctrines Past, Present and Future
Before we can even begin to look at structures there has to be an underlying strategy and resultant doctrine and this is where things can get hideously complicated because the academic and military theorists make entire careers out of calling tomatoes tomatoes if you catch my drift.
There are more military theories than you can shake a stick at, 4/5th Generation Warfare, revolution in military affairs, network centric, the non linear battlespace, human centric, COIN, special forces led, the comprehensive approach and effects based operations.
We can be forgiven for thinking that following the latest fashionable military theory provides a stimulus for constant change, constant study and a constant need for new equipment to meet the latest fashion i.e. keeping up with the Jones’s and showing how fiendishly clever you are.
If we look at history, were things fundamentally different in Oman or Aden that they are in Afghanistan, haven’t we always actually practised doing things for effect?
Is the tail wagging the dog here?
I ask this because when we strip away these theories the fundamentals remain, as they always have throughout the ages of armed conflict; appreciating terrain, knowing your enemy, knowing your objectives, knowing your capabilities, manoeuvring to achieve effect, clearly understood responsibilities, basic competence, trust, unit cohesion, discipline and applying decisive violence at the right moment etc etc
i.e a collection of common sense attributes that have been taught and learned for centuries.
A lot of these alternative theories seem to have stemmed from the worldwide media fuelled revulsion at the ‘Highway of Death’ in 1991, subsequent moral outrage at the use land mines, flamethrowers, cluster munitions, thermobaric weapons and god forbid, any small arms round that is actually designed to maximise tissue damage.
We must not lose sight of the advantages of not entering into even fights with our enemy.
In the earlier post in comments, we discussed the likelihood of a Slim or Hobart type figure appearing in the future and a US General, William DePuy, was mentioned. An interesting name drop because it is DePuy who wrote a number of excellent works on having a balanced approach, not forgetting the basics and understanding that in the end, it is attrition, not manoeuvre that defeats the enemy.
That is, killing them.
His paper, Towards a Balanced Doctrine, is well worth a read and still relevant;
Attrition is such an “ugly” doctrine that it claims no known or announced adherents, even though most wars finally have been resolved on that basis. Certainly it is permissible to be against attrition so long as the critic does not spread his anathema over the whole idea of fighting; not only fighting, but hard, bloody fighting, should that be necessary.
Victory in such combat has classically gone to the commander who concentrates (and applies) superior combat power at the point and time of decision.
The industrialised destruction of Iraqi insurgents by special forces contrasted with the so called COIN approach of softly softly elsewhere and it would seem that combat operations in Afghanistan have recently moved to a more violent, attrition approach where the objective is quite simply to kill the Taleban as fast as possible. Some complain that this approach eliminates those who we might negotiate with and hardens resolve so the ultimate success of the ‘kill em all’ approach remains to be seen but if there is no one left to negotiate with your job is done, surely?
The manoeuvre v attrition positions are two sides of the same coin, in some situations one or the other will be the most appropriate, sitting neatly in the middle is the non combat but seemingly enduring requirements that make discussion so difficult.
This leads me to the conclusion that we need to maximise combat power in our formations, units and sub units, not spread it thinly and whilst it is accepted that with a reduction in numbers forced by a reducing budget, a corresponding reduction in overall strength is unfortunate but accepted.
i.e. a more powerful but smaller force.
The second conclusion is that we need to stand aside from modern military fashion and get back to the basics, put transformational doctrines in their context and stop talking about the warfighter (please)
Finally, whilst recognising the academic debate about the nature of conflict accept that they are just as likely to be as varied as they are now.
Above all, flexibility and agility of approach are the key elements of success.
I might have over used the David v Goliath metaphor but it still remains valid. Rather than a lumbering, fitted for but not with spear and underfed Goliath, we should be moving to a hard as coffin nails David.
The Multi Role Brigade is Goliath.
As most readers will know, my depressing fiscal reality is a constant theme in the Future Of series, it takes the position that there is no jam tomorrow and if we want more capability x or system y, we have to move the levers within their existing constraints. I very rarely attempt costing because that is impossible without detailed knowledge of information that is both commercially and militarily confidential so only broad brush assumptions can be made.
If I want to improve one area and provide funding for the ‘capability plus’ and forward presence concepts the money has to come from within the existing budget, saving for larger buy to save or one off adjustment charges which might be viewed as one off transformational costs.
To generate my ‘cash kitty’ the main area for savings are quite simply personnel numbers and to achieve meaningful reduction needs two things
First is a reduction in overall numbers, this is where the majority of savings can be made, perhaps obviously.
Second is an increase in efficiency achieved as we discussed previously by altering the ratio of unit and sub units, reducing the number of senior ranks, increasing civilian and contractor use, not allowing expensively trained specialists to other jobs and generally streamlining the manner in which the Army’s does its thing.
Light role, the concept of light role infantry would seem to be more difficult to justify except for rapid reaction units whose operational existence is predicated on either rapid intervention or specialist units in particular terrain like mountains or jungles. The need for protected mobility and to enable operations to be conducted in a larger area means that vehicular or and/or helicopter transport is essential for most. However, history demonstrates that light infantry tends to have enduring utility and the opposing view, that they are vulnerable because of how they commute to work is too equipment centric to base your entire approach on.
Adaptable infantry, we need to adapt the mode of transport to the type of operation, not the type of unit. In some operations a tracked armoured vehicle is desirable and in others, something more akin to the Mastiff or Bronco makes more sense. The dividing lines between light role and mechanised infantry have been blurred over time but armoured infantry remains a specialism. The area of operations that a given force size can dominate will depend on many factors but smaller units spread over a larger area might be possible in one scenario and completely impossible in another, this influences the enablers like logistics, artillery and engineering support. Because of resource constraints we might also take a critical view of infantry soldiers carrying out HQ tasks, driving vehicles or even providing offensive support fires, As in the example above, where RTR drivers and Broncos provide an on demand transport service for the infantry, delivering them close to their objective, carrying out resupply and covering fire, might be a model of efficiency for the future.
The regimental system works against this flexible and adaptable approach, although an infantry battalion may have at attached REME light aid detachment you will still find infantry soldiers, with many hundreds of thousands of pounds specialist training under their belts, driving stores vehicles, operating signals equipment in the command post, manning unit stores or doing regimental police duties.
We know that future conflicts will be carried out in often confused settings where high intensity combat may be immediately followed with something more akin to policing, closely followed again by high intensity combat. That is not to say that long term peacekeeping operations should be the norm but a simple recognition that variation is normal. To cope with this variation, infantry soldiers need more training and more time to do that training that is important over and above the basics.
This a bit of a generalisation but the underlying desire is to see infantry soldiers only doing infantry tasks, unburdened by secondary activities. These secondary activities should be carried out by others.
Tanks and armour, people have been predicting the end of the tank for decades but whilst its form and function might have changed and the constant cat and mouse game of measure and countermeasure played out, their combination of mobility, firepower and protection has remained essential. The old myth about tanks being vulnerable, and therefore useless, in urban situations is only partially true. When integrated into a modern combined arms set-up they can be extremely effective, as shown by the IDF and USMC in Iraq. There is also a continual debate about the role of armoured infantry transport with decisions on tracks v wheels, APC v MICV and the position of the MRAP/PPV in tomorrow’s conflicts. A lot of these arguments are akin to dancing on the head of a pin but important nevertheless.
Building blocks or Nailed Up, moving away from the traditional armoured/mechanised/light model, where units are characterised by their equipment, towards a single organisation type i.e. the MRB might be extended by having additional force modules or building blocks comprising extra armour or engineers for example. Thus, whilst the MRB might be fine for some operations, where additional armour is called for, it could be provided by simply bolting on an armoured building block, there is some merit to this solution.
One of the postulated problems with the MRB is the sheer span of equipment and roles, this causes significant training and support issues, bloating the maintenance and repair function for example, I tend this think this is a little over exaggerated but still worth considering. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, there probably isn’t a right or wrong answer but at some point a decision has to be made. Personally, I am not enamoured with the MRB, it is too much of a compromise, based on rotational convenience and because of the span of equipment, will not likely save anything in the back office.
Because of this rigid structure we tacitly accept inefficiency; it’s the way we have always done it and therefore cannot possibly be wrong.
A completely modular approach, where the constituent building blocks including infantry, command and control, signals, engineering, logistics, artillery, vehicles and all the other building blocks are assembled depending on the mission might be radical but if we manage the underlying processes correctly, may just be possible.
An Army of Lego
Doing a simple, top down structure is pretty easy, let’s just have 2 armoured and 4 mechanised brigades, no real change and no underlying analysis but hey, where would be the fun in that?
In any proposal on Army structure we must start with the fundamental building blocks and ask where the centre of mass is; platoon or company, brigade or battalion, division or battle groups?
The US modular Brigade Combat Team has an interesting approach with three variations; the infantry, heavy and Stryker. The Infantry version has 2 light infantry battalions, a cavalry squadron plus associated support and artillery. The Heavy version has 2 combined arms battalions, a cavalry squadron plus associated artillery and support. The Stryker version has 3 ‘motorised’ infantry battalions, a cavalry squadron and associated artillery and support functions. The USMC organisation is equally as interesting and one could spend a month just looking at Israeli, Norwegian, German or French variations.
The common theme to each of these is that they each meet the needs of their respective countries; one is in no way superior to the other, just different ways of doing things.
The British Army (excepting 16AAB and the RM) comprises of 3 basic Brigade types, light role, mechanised and armoured although there are variations between even the same type of brigade, 7th and 20th differ in that the latter has a light role infantry battalion instead of an armoured infantry battalion in the 7th for example.
It is a bit of a myth that the British Army infantry is ‘heavy’ and driving around in cold war relics, even discounting the 5 battalions in 16AAB and 3CDO, light role battalions account for well over two thirds of the total. But of the remaining, the majority are armoured with only 2 mechanised battalions.
The medium weight brigade concept, centred on FRES, has evolved into the Multi Role Brigade discussed above. The MRB is very similar to the current mechanised brigades which have a mixed bag of 1 each of, armour, armoured infantry, mechanised infantry, light role infantry and formation reconnaissance.
The normal brigade structure has all manner of supporting units and capabilities closely tied in an enduring relationship. This allows the whole formation to train together, rotate into theatre together and fight together as a single unit; crucially it provides a day to day familiarity that translates into combat.
Despite these fixed formations one of the great strengths of the British Army is its ability to generate temporary, mission specific, groupings. Look at any operation for the last several decades and you will see a mix of units and sub units.
Could we formalise this approach so that infantry battalions form the basic fighting unit that are combined with enabling and supporting building blocks to form ad hoc formations that match exactly the mission at hand, instead of square pegs in round holes we have the opposite (no, that’s not square holes and round pegs!)
The means of transport would also sit outside the infantry battalion structure, crewed by specialist drivers and other crew from the Royal Armoured Corps. This is how Mastiffs and Broncos are being used in Afghanistan and the specialist knowledge they bring to bear has also demonstrated many advantages, this is also how the Israeli Army works as well the armoured branch operate the vehicles that the infantry are carried in. The same infantry battalion may in one operation use an armoured personnel carrier, another operation a helicopter and another, a protected patrol vehicle.
Above the battalion level, there would be a series of modular command capabilities that could scale up and slot into battle group, brigade and even divisional HQ’s. Depending on the nature and terrain of the operation the deployed unit might be heavy with logistics or light on engineering for example.
Each of these bespoke formations would need some time to assemble and get up to speed but in the context of larger deployments being preceded by political manoeuvrings or preparatory air operations, Libya for example, there would be time to prepare. Where time before a deployment was short, the traditional formed brigade structure of the high readiness units would remain, 16AAB and 3CDO (I will be doing a separate post on these) being the two obvious examples.
The traditional formed Brigade and Regimental HQ’s would therefore largely disappear, to be replaced by a number of scalable and deployable HQ units, dedicated solely to the task of command. To cope with wartime attrition, these HQ’s would be duplicated. For peacetime administration and local training each battalion would be managed by consolidated regional administrative HQ’s and a single training and development command function.
The deployable HQ units would have no peacetime administrative role and would concentrate on the art of operational command to the exclusion of all other duties.
Both the deployable and regional HQ’s would be multi cap badge, an important feature.
We already have single battalion regiments and there is no doubt in the value of the regimental system but it can also act like a millstone around our necks, the aim with this system would be to retain the best and ditch the worst.
This is not quite a proposal for the creation of a Corps of Infantry but it is not far off.
The combat support and combat service support functions would be structured in a similar manner but some of them are much more tied into their equipment than the infantry, where the infantry should really be vehicle agnostic (if vehicles are simply to get them as close as possible to the objective) armoured combat engineers for example, need specific vehicles and the concept of bridging in an armoured field squadron (assault bridging) is very different to that of a non armoured field squadron.
I will come on to battalion and below structures in another post but by cutting out the middle layers and sweeping aside much of the duplication involved with regimental and brigade HQ’s there is no reason a reasonable sized force could not be retained within the constraints of a reduction on overall numbers.
What about armour?
They might be cold war relics in some people eyes but there worth is enduring, however, the role of the tank will likely change as it always has. The role of the armoured infantry is generally to provide support to the tanks, destroying ATGW teams for example and this specialism is worth looking at. Although I make the case that mechanised and light role infantry are largely interchangeable I am not sure this is the case for armoured infantry.
Perhaps it would be a sensible middle ground to retain the armoured formations as formed brigades and go down the modular road for the rest.
Nuts and Bolts
The British Army currently has 36 infantry battalions, 5 armoured regiments and 5 Formation Reconnaissance Regiments plus associated combat support and combat service support elements.
The TD vision for the Army is as follows
16AAB and 3CDO retained as the high readiness, theatre entry force, each comprising 4 battalion sized units rotating into the high readiness role in sequence.
2 Armoured Brigades but changed configuration, rather than the triangular I would like to see them square, 2 armoured regiments and 2 armoured infantry battalions, concentrating not spreading their strength. Specialist armoured combat support and combat service support units would change to meet the new configuration and the formation reconnaissance force would also remain. If the armoured brigade were required to deploy it would be advisable to reinforce them with additional infantry from the modular battalions or non deploying armoured brigade if possible. There will also be some equipment changes detailed in a subsequent post.
9 modular infantry battalions, able to operate equally in a light or mechanised role.
2 specialist jungle infantry battalions, I see Africa as a key strategic landscape in the medium to long term and we should not lose this specialist skill, expanding our capacity in fact. The Gurkhas already provide one of these battalions.
2 specialist arctic and mountain infantry battalions, again, the Polar regions are likely to be of long term strategic interest and whilst this role is currently fulfilled by 3CDO RM I have other plans for them so this specialism would transfer to the Army.
A range of plugin combat support and combat service support capabilities including 2 formation reconnaissance regiments
This would result in a reduction of 1 armoured regiment, 1 formation reconnaissance regiment, 13 infantry battalions and their associated combat support and combat service support
This is a significant reduction with many risks but it allows a reprioritisation of resources elsewhere and more closely matches with the strategic choices highlighted in previous posts.
The Future of the British Army Series…