Multi Role Brigades


The Strategic Defence and Security Review framed the future of the British Army in terms of the Multi-Role Brigade. This had been signalled from as long ago as 2008 and subsequently featured as part of the Future Army Structure and Future Army Structure (Next Steps) initiatives.

This original thinking envisaged 8 identical Brigades and 3 deployable Divisional HQ’s, each larger than a conventional Brigade and broadly configured for enduring operations like Iraq or Afghanistan.

In 2009 a report in Daily Telegraph;

He announced that the time between fighting on operations would be increased from two years to two-and-a-half years by re-ordering the Army’s brigade structure into larger units that could be sent away less often. In a speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, during which he addressed the issues of equipment, troop numbers and training, Gen Dannatt said: “Many families and marriages have unfortunately fallen victim to the relentless pace of operations. “A gap of one year between operational deployment is not unusual. Often soldiers are spending much of the year before deployment away from home in training and preparation. This is unacceptable.” It was a question of how much could be asked of soldiers, he said, adding: “We have seriously stretched our soldiers – both their good will and their families’.”

Clearly, the underlying thread was to ensure sustainability for a long operation or even continuous operations with each Brigade deploying for 6 months every 3 years.

From the existing brigade/divisional that defines the function of a Brigade as armoured, light role or mechanised the Multi Role Brigade will be homogenous. The final composition is not yet known and even well past the SDSR much of it was still under discussion, there have been reports that the final establishment of each brigade will be announced soon.

I find it rather silly to try and speculate which units will be disbanded or which ones will be where and what unit, the details will reveal themselves soon enough.

The SDSR described the MRB’s as

We will restructure the Army around five multi-role brigades, keeping one brigade at high readiness available for an intervention operation and four in support to provide the ability to sustain an enduring stabilisation operation. Key to the utility of these multi-role brigades is their “building block” structure, allowing greater choice in the size and composition of the force that might be deployed, without having to draw on other elements from the rest of the Army as has been the case in recent times. With suitable warning time, the brigades could be combined to generate a larger formation.

The multi-role brigades will include:

Reconnaissance forces to gain information even in high-threat situations;

Tanks, which continue to provide a unique combination of protection, mobility and firepower; and

Infantry operating from a range of protected vehicles.

The brigades will be self-supporting, having their own artillery, engineer, communications, intelligence, logistics and medical support. Territorial Army personnel will be fully integrated into the new structures, in both specialist roles and reinforcing combat units.

The basing review reported on the location of the 5 MRB’s

Army brigades currently stationed around Catterick and Salisbury will make up three of the five multi-role brigades. The other two MRBs will be based in the east of England, centred on Cottesmore, and in Scotland, centred on Kirknewton, south-west of Edinburgh. The MRB centred in Scotland will require a new training area, and positive discussions are being taken forward with the Scottish Government. Two major units and a formation headquarters will be based at Leuchars, increasing the number of posts there from 1,200 to more than 1,300. Consequently, the Typhoon force due to be built up there will instead be built up at RAF Lossiemouth. Other MRB units will be moved into Glencorse, Caledonia, Albemarle barracks and eventually Arbroath, as we intend over time to bring the bulk of the Royal Marines together in the south-west. We are also planning to place Army units in Kinloss in around 2014-15, continuing its long-term relationship with defence.

Taken together, this represents a significant increase in the defence footprint in Scotland of well over 2,000 posts. This is in line with the Scottish tradition of supporting our armed forces and is a recognition that these are United Kingdom forces under the Crown, protecting the citizens and interests of this United Kingdom. With the move to five multi-role brigades, we have concluded that 19 Light Brigade in Northern Ireland will be disbanded. Other units returning from Germany will move into the vacated bases and we remain committed to maintaining a permanent military garrison in Northern Ireland; 160 Wales Brigade will remain in Brecon.

In addition to the historic pattern of enduring operations the influencing factor in the MRB concept is that in those same operations a range of capabilities have been used, from heavy armour to light infantry including artillery, engineers and other enabling functions.

When these other capabilities have been used they have been pulled in from all over the Army, creating disruption and upsetting established rotation patterns.

So it is these three factors that have informed the creation of the Multi Role Brigade; sustainability within harmony guidelines, likely operations and reduction in disruption.

Iraq and Afghanistan have informed the Army structure, thinking and equipment for over a decade and the MRB is recognition that the future may well encompass an Afghanistan style enduring operation but also something that requires a more traditional combined arms manoeuvre approach.

Each Multi Role Brigade (MRB) will consist of 6,500 personnel and comprise a mixture of an armoured regiment, brigade reconnaissance regiment, armoured infantry battalion, mechanised infantry battalion, light role infantry battalion and a cast of supporting functions. The Combat Support functions such as artillery have also started the transformation process with RA Close Support Regiments, for example, likely to comprise both Light Gun and AS90.

From this article in Defense Update, on a similar Australian initiative.

Planning for the next phase of the Adaptive Army Campaign, the Army will form three new Multi-role Maneuver Brigades with the 1st, 3rd and 7th Brigades. Each brigade will be supported by two reserve brigades. Adapting to a mission dependent formation, each brigade will be able to generate 7-10 subunits. Under Plan BeerSheba ten battle group maneuver units will be formed to support this formation. The Multi-Role Maneuver Brigades will include infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, logistics and communications and will be fundamentally alike in structure, to enable sustained operations within a new 36-month Force Generation Cycle. The six Army Reserve Brigades currently operating under the 2 Division forming the Reserve Force will be more focused on stability operations. These units will be structurally aligned with their regular counterparts. Through the training cycles they will be involved in major exercises with their partnered Multi-role Maneuver Brigades.

I wonder if this is similar to what the British Army will actually end up looking like.

The SDSR based 5 MRB’s on a total Army number of 95,500, not 82,000.

The only way I can square the circle is by assuming that CSS will be sliced to the bone, the Territorial Army will play a considerably larger role than even the SDSR considered and what we consider a battalion or regiment will no longer look the same in FF2020.

Another possibility is merging some of the CSS functions to reduce the rank overhead, the Royal Support and Everything Else Corps remains a distinct possibility although this will provide a relatively small saving.

If the CSS functions are going to be sliced in order to preserve historic regiments and the illusion of numbers then this is nothing short of a re run of Options for Change and Frontline First, a reorganisation the Army has been rowing back from constantly since it happened. Afghanistan has shown that the British Army at the scale as configured for that theatre is not sustainable without extensive ‘partner’ support, i.e. US logistics and transport.

So beyond the ‘how are we going to do this’ question we might also ask if the concept of the MRB is sound anyway.

If you envisage a horizontal line that represents the span of possible operations, the MRB is designed to cover as much of that line as possible. At the margins are where the MRB will be either too heavy, too light or comprising not enough of capability x or y.

If the MRB’s does not cater for those margins then it is logical to assume that the deployed MRB will have to pull formed units and/or personnel  from non-deployed Brigades, thus throwing those carefully planned rotation schemes out of sync. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, we have been doing it for centuries, but it is a problem that the MRB was supposed to solve.

Of course the MRB may mean it is less of a problem than normal and that may be acceptable.

I have also not seen any mention of the enduring deployments of Brunei and Cyprus, where they fit into the grand plan, perhaps they will sit outside of the MRB.

It also takes the path of least resistance with 3 CDO and 16AAB, i.e. leaving them alone.

I am not sure if this is wise.

The Army has an image problem, its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to have fallen short and its leaders equally assumed to be politically astute but essentially spineless careerists with not a creative thought in their bodies.

The ability to change its own future is very limited.

Whilst the official line is that the MRB is the only game in town, General Nick Carter has been looking at alternatives and although details are sparse it seems they are getting a little traction. Underpinning this thinking is that the armed forces should not be configured for the most likely type of operation but one that presents the most danger to the UK or the most operationally challenging situation.

This, the armed forces in general, and Army in particular, must provide genuine options against things that cannot be foreseen or easily prepared for. They must therefore be configured for high intensity operations against competent enemies. Reading between the lines, he believes that the MRB is mediocre and does not provide enough combat power to do anything much at all, or offer sufficient deterrent or even much worth in a coalition.

In my previous posts on the Future of the British Army I have wondered the same thing about the MRB and suggested a return to the Heavy and Light formations, concentrating combat power, modularising the supporting functions rather than attaching them to formed brigades and concentrating the capability at a Divisional level.

General Carter also sees a greater forward role, mentoring, building local security and generally seeking to prevent rather than react with a more integrated approach with DFiD and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This concept seems to be forming around the idea of 4 brigades structured in heavy and medium formations with those being predominantly regular soldiers. The basic position is that the TA cannot be safely relied upon to provide infantry and armoured capabilities but CS and CSS could take a higher proportion of a reserve element although this is difficult to see with highly specialised trades.

Some thoughts and questions…

What roles are an increased reserve component going to fulfil and how exactly are they going to play a greater role without additional primary legislation. Not sure the new Engagement Model and Whole Force Concept have this question adequately addressed.

Could the Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Artillery merge, many of their roles in ISTAR seem to have a lot of crossover and with the likely reduced need for the Queen of the Battle to engage in monster counter battery and battlefield preparation activities their shift to ISTAR and fire support (artillery, air coordination etc) would not be a wholly bad thing.

Tour lengths, the MRB nails up the 6 month tour but as we have seen from Afghanistan in some cases this is too long and some, arguably too short. We need to retain flexibility rather than put uniform boundaries around everything.

To what degree do we go purple, a tri service electronics, communications and vehicle support command for example. Or is this far enough, the problem seems to have been presented as an Army rather than MoD problem. A look at the units deployed in Afghanistan will show that all three services have representation, not necessarily in their traditional roles.

Contractorisation, how much of the Royal Engineers, Royal Logistic Corps, Royal Signals and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers can we outsource to civilian contractors or hybrid units with retained reserves like the RAF’s FSTA aircraft fleet.

Can we extend the Whole Fleet Management concept to people for certain support functions?

These may save personnel but would have a significant impact on morale and unit cohesion so in a final analysis may not actually be worth it but it still leaves the problem behind.

Does an MRB have enough combat power and sustainability given it is likely the original 1-2 Light Role infantry battalions will likely be 1 and not 2?

Does the General Carter vision of mainly regular combat brigades (inf, armour) with non-organic CS/CSS that have a greater proportion of reserves and an increased concentration on conflict prevention appeal to anyone, I find it compelling?

One thing is for certain, creative thinking is needed because having the same but smaller is not really an option.

What is encouraging is that the latest generation of officers with experience of Iraq and Afghanistan know full well what the problem is and I have no doubt there is some creative thinking going on.

My fear is that the creative thinking and bold solutions will be stifled by political influence, careerism and vested interests.

Let’s hope not.

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