Experimental Stabilisation Manoeuvre Brigades

40 Cdo Royal Marines in Sangin, Afghanistan with Sharpshooter Rifle

Stabilisation and Humanitarian Response are likely to remain core functions for HMG and NATO in the near future.  While developing a successful stabilisation strategy proved elusive in the counter-insurgency environments of Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been very successful where the majority of the population were more permissive of international intervention – Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kosovo are good examples – Libya and Mali may also be regarded as qualified successes.

This paper takes some of the lessons learned during recent stabilisation operations and proposes a new concept of operations and an experimental stabilisation manoeuvre brigade to develop these ideas within the British Army and NATO.


The key conundrum faced by stabilisation planners is how to construct an environment largely permissive to intervention.

Obviously this is as much a political as military or stabilisation task. In Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kosovo and Libya the preconditions for successful stabilisation were largely met before intervention took place – the overwhelming desire of the majority of the population was to welcome foreign intervention to prevent further bloodshed.  In Iraq and Afghanistan intervention was primarily driven by external factors, and permission for intervention needed to be sought after the fact – and proved very difficult to achieve.

In the context of the Islamic revival the presence of high-profile non-Islamic  (and particularly western) foreign forces is deeply problematic, and can easily provide oxygen for extremist groups to reconfigure domestic strife into a war against a foreign invader (as occurred in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan). Moderates in Islamic countries are therefore wary of a high-profile western ‘boots on the ground’ presence which they are conscious could weaken their cause in the longer term, and play into the hands of Islamist Jihadis (Libya is the prime example of this approach).

Two key strategic lessons fall out of this analysis:

  • In broadly permissive environments stabilisation has a very good chance of succeeding, even in the face of insurgency (examples include Malaya, Bosnia and Sierra Leone);
  • In non-permissive or Islamic environments, the presence of large numbers of foreign or non-Islamic forces may serve the interests of insurgents or jihadi Islamists, creating the conditions for a popular anti-western insurgency (French and US interventions in Vietnam and both Soviet and NATO interventions in Afghanistan are instructive).

At the operational and tactical levels the use of sophisticated insurgency techniques, especially IEDS, has also made force protection very important – a factor that can dangerously compromise a mission’s ability to engage constructively with the population, and deflect force commanders from the mission objective which is ultimately about winning popular consent.

Current stabilisation doctrine is probably more suited to meeting the challenge in broadly permissive environments with stabilisation work focussed on bringing peripheral areas that have been under insurgent control back into the fold.

Nevertheless, there are significant issues around continuity of command that need to be addressed in enduring situations.

Time for a New Approach?

A new approach is necessary in non-permissive or Islamic environments.  Building upon the lessons of Afghanistan it would seem that three key factors should underpin a stabilisation mission in these types of environment:

  • Range – the requirement to minimise the observable footprint of foreign forces, and ensure that force protection requirements are manageable and sustainable, requires as much direct engagement as possible to be undertaken at range, preferably from over the theatre horizon.
  • Stealth – where intervention at range is not feasible, a reduction in the profile of intervention forces is paramount both to deny insurgents the oxygen of popular support by enabling them to reshape their cause as a “war against foreign forces” (as occurred in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan), and to use stealth as an alternative approach to meet force protection requirements.
  • Footprint – related to these two factors is the requirement to minimise the in-theatre logistical footprint of intervention forces, which is particularly vulnerable to asymmetric warfare and requires heavy (and often unsustainable) investment in force protection in non-permissive environments.

A number of new technologies and techniques need to be synthesised into an approach that is founded upon these principals to allow new and more effective methods of outmanoeuvring insurgents in contested stabilisation environments.

Range.  Range can be achieved through a number of methods.  In the air through the deployment of either very long ranged (intercontinental) land-based platforms, especially unmanned surveillance and weapons delivery systems, at sea through the use of offshore basing (CV and LPH) for air assets (Fast Jet, Helicopter and UAS) and submarines and surface ships for launching land attack cruise missiles, and on land by launching short-sharp air assault or amphibious interventions from offshore naval assets or nearby (but out of theatre) land bases (as have occurred in Somalia, for example).  This requires a force mix of intercontinental ranged land-based air assets, naval carrier and amphibious task forces, and brigade-sized expeditionary air assault and amphibious raiding forces, with appropriate lift.

Stealth. While intervention at range can have considerable rapid – and game changing – effects, with little or no requirement for additional heavy investment in force protection or development of an in-theatre logistical footprint, it is of necessity temporary in nature and cannot ‘take and hold ground’ for extended periods.  Where more enduring presence is required to shape the battlespace stealth offers a workable alternative.  How can stealth be achieved in theatre? Primarily by shifting the emphasis away from foreign forces and towards local forces, focussing foreign capacity in training, leading and supporting those forces, such that they are competent and effective.  This process was important in Afghanistan and Vietnam; however it was not core strategy from the outset, and in general a task assigned to less capable units within western forces.  The exception is Special Forces, which have evolved techniques to build and support irregular forces to a high level of professionalism.  The principal problem with HMG approach to capacity building is that there are no specialised units (apart from SF) with well-developed expertise in what is often considered a secondary and somewhat menial task. A specialised stabilisation force will require a new type of unit specifically crafted to build, mentor, lead and support competent local forces – both military and police.

Logistics Footprint.  Large in-theatre logistical set-ups are wasteful of resources and vulnerable to asymmetric attack.  The objective is to minimise the requirement for long overland resupply routes and large non-reusable in-theatre facilities that are expensive to develop and operate and defend such as Camp Bastion. This is partially achieved through over the horizon capabilities and the stealthy approaches outlined above, nevertheless any deployed force will require in-theatre logistical support. Emphasis upon maritime logistics capability (RFA), supported by helicopters and amphibious transportation is one useful approach, as is the development of a network of potential resupply bases in secure neighbouring countries in contested regions (Gulf, Near East, East and West Africa, Mediterranean, SE Asia).  The ability to resupply smaller and more easily defended in-theatre forward operating bases from these remote facilities needs to be investigated as an alternative to developing large-scale in-country establishments.

Stabilisation Operations: Concept

Stabilisation operations have been theorized for some time now.  The basic principles have been expanded by the likes of David Kilcullen into a considerable body of literature. The principal stabilisation task is to outmanoeuvre elusive insurgent forces to gain control of the complex human terrain that demarks the stabilisation battlefield.  As with all forms of effective warfare, this requires excellent intelligence and command and control, and the ability to deploy a range of different types of arms simultaneously at the weakest points in the enemies defence.

To illustrate this I will draw an analogy with Blitzkrieg warfare – the revolution in warfighting of the 1930s.   Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was invented to avoid the drawn-out attritional battles that had characterised warfare in World War One. Its purpose was to win the battle decisively and quickly by deploying new technologies of real-time communications and mobility – radios, aircraft, tanks, trucks – to enable a mobile force to rapidly outflank and encircle a much larger traditional footslogging infantry and artillery army, cut its lines of communication and withdrawal and then destroy it in detail.

At this juncture we need a new form of “blitzkrieg” to avoid the drawn out and indecisive stabilisation battles of Iraq and Afghanistan. This new form of war fighting needs to capable of rapidly outmanoeuvring insurgent forces for control of the human terrain, isolating them from popular support so that they can be destroyed in detail.

In comparison with UK or NATO forces, insurgents have both strengths and weaknesses – their strengths can be summarised as:

  1. Proximity Insurgent forces are drawn from and sustained by host populations, foreign forces can never hope to attain this level of proximity to the human objective;
  2. Fragility civilian structures and “normal life” are very fragile conditions – very small amounts of force applied strategically can disrupt these patterns and allow insurgents to gain control over large population groups;
  3. Grievance insurgents rely upon a narrative of grievance which is very carefully constructed to chime with the understandings of the target population group, it is very difficult for foreign forces to develop these nuanced understandings quickly;
  4. Time insurgent victories are not generally defined by military prowess, but rather by endurance on the battlefield.  Insurgencies require relatively low levels of logistical support and can be sustained for many generations if popular support is maintained.  These types of timeframes are unsustainable by foreign forces.

And their weaknesses as:

  1. Immobility while insurgent groups can be networked into wider national or international movements, the actual units deployed are usually confined to the areas from where they derive their support. Mobility between groups is often limited by this constraint, and local issues often create tensions between allied groups. Foreign forces have much greater mobility and ability to combine and concentrate force against these smaller groups.
  2. Brutality while it is easy for insurgents to disrupt the fragile patterns of everyday life, the brutality required to sustain these disruptions can significantly impact upon their popular appeal
  3. Delivery international forces in partnership with host governments have the capacity to deliver effective responses to grievances much more capably than insurgents – that this is often not done plays into the hands of insurgents. Conversely when insurgents are allowed to administer areas, the population often loses faith in their ability to govern. Put simply, insurgents are normally better in opposition than in government.
  4. Slowness of Response while a popular insurgency can endure for many generations, insurgencies take time to build capacity and gain a foothold, especially in areas that were previously calm. Foreign forces can generate effective force much more rapidly.

In order to minimise the advantages of insurgents over UK forces, and to target insurgent weaknesses a concept is proposed that targets the insurgencies lack of mobility, brutality and inability to deliver governance and slowness to respond to concerted action by:

Initially isolating the insurgency from other stable areas;

  • Through a combination of political and military action breaking up the insurgency into smaller constituent groups and degrading the insurgent leaderships and popular support.
  • Creating strongly stabilised zones along the perimeters of these insurgent held areas, with an emphasis upon improving security, justice and dispute resolution, economic activity and public service delivery.
  • Building effective local forces to occupy and administer insurgent held areas as and when support for insurgents diminishes
  • Only occupying insurgent held areas once popular support has begun to diminish.

Stabilisation weaknesses are addressed by:

  • using local forces as far as possible to increase proximity;
  • focussing stabilisation operations in areas along the perimeter of insurgent held areas where normal life can be re-established;
  • ensuring that grievances perpetrated by host governments are understood in advance and set as the political conditions for success prior to intervention and are fully addressed, at minimum, along the borders of the isolated insurgent areas and only expanding full stabilisation operations into new areas as support for insurgency collapses;
  • By ensuring that formed foreign forces are held in reserve and only deployed for short-duration and rapid response operations and as mentoring and advisory teams.

The Approach

Secure the borders of the unstable area: Initial deployments should be set to isolate the insurgency from the rest of the nation and break the insurgency up into component groups, forming a secure perimeter around the insurgent affected region and separating the insurgency itself into smaller localised groups.

Isolate the insurgency from external support: Along these perimeters support for government can be bolstered through stabilisation actions, while insurgent supply routes are cut through actions to control access along these new internal ‘borders’. Cross border support also needs to be addressed at this early time period, either through agreements with neighbouring countries or through effective border controls. In areas where insurgents are already entrenched they can be allowed to retain control up to a point where disaffection with their rule emerges, as brutality and poor administration by insurgents will play to the counter-insurgency agenda.  Force should be manoeuvred to cut off these areas from outside support, break them into constituent units and isolate them from the benefits of government as far as possible to increase disaffection. Only once support for these groups is judged to be declining should stabilisation operations in these areas be mounted.

Degrade insurgent internal cohesion and command and control. Political and military manoeuvres to isolate localised groups and create fissures within insurgent command structures – to a point where popular support is diminishing – should be employed in advance of military or stabilisation actions to occupy territory: these can include operations against leaderships, and political actions to set rival groups against one another, and the use of local communications channels and media to widely disseminate information about these disputes.

Build national capacity to respond to instability. During the initial period of isolating and degrading the insurgency work should be focussed to build up local forces and capabilities to a point where they are able to extend government control into insurgent held territory. The temptation to use intervention forces for this task should be resisted. These forces should be initially deployed along the perimeters of insurgent held areas to help secure the borderlands.

Occupy insurgent held territory.  Military action to take and hold territory should follow once the insurgency has been isolated and degraded through political and military manoeuvres. Stabilisation and military forces should be primarily national (an 80/20 national/international split is about right). Foreign military formed units should be based over the horizon and used only for quick impact operations to secure territory and ongoing raiding operations; otherwise they should be embedded into national units as advisers and mentors.

Consolidate support in newly taken areas. Stabilisation will be successful where enough forces are concentrated to deliver immediate impact, which is rapidly followed-up by improvements to governance and service delivery. The key issue is to sustain normal life, therefore security for everyday activities such as keeping markets and schools open and ensuring people have access to their normal livelihoods are essential. To achieve these effects with limited forces, stabilisation operations should be sequential rather than trying to address the entire region affected by instability at once – stabilisation force should be concentrated in those districts where support for insurgency is low, or where insurgent control is resulting in population disaffection.

Sustain popular support for the counter-insurgents.  In some instances the objects of grievance maybe elements within host governments or their supporter groups. These issues need to be understood early on, and political conditions set for engagement that, where required, results in changes to government personnel and policy.  The sustain function is for local forces mentored by foreign forces. No foreign forces should be employed in this role.

Experimental Stabilisation Manoeuvre Brigade

As with all alternative approaches, there is a tension within UK and NATO military forces between the requirement to sustain conventional war-fighting capabilities, and to train for and develop stabilisation and counter-insurgency operations and tactics.  The new army 2020 structure, with reaction and adaptable brigades configured for different tasks, offers the potential to evolve specialised manoeuvre units designed for stabilisation operations. In the same way that space was given for experimentation with mobile divisions under the leadership of forward thinking (and often maverick) officers in the 1930s, UK should consider allowing at least one adaptable brigade to experiment with new structures for stabilisation operations. A key lesson here is that the experimental mobile divisions evolved into the armoured and mechanised divisions that now lie at the core of every modern army.

Experimentation and training with “stabilisation manoeuvre brigades” (SMB) may well help develop the forces of the future and if the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are to be learned, is urgently required. The following organisation structure is a very rough and ready attempt to formulate what such a brigade may look like, and the types of capabilities commanders may need to draw upon to deliver a comprehensive approach. The critical difference between this formation and current arrangements (which see kinetic and non- kinetic elements thrown together at the last minute and often under separate command structures: FCO, DFID, Military, UN etc.) is that all of the force elements – kinetic and non-kinetic – are permanently brigaded together under common command and control, and have the time to jointly develop new operational and tactical doctrine and to exercise and develop common operating procedures in advance of deployment.  The structure is also designed to generate brigade sized local forces as the main force, with UK force elements either used as a rapid reaction reserve or as critical enablers.  The brigade could be built upon current experience with the Military Stabilisation Support Group and the joint MOD/FCO/DFID UK Stabilisation Unit, as well as operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and also have the capacity to contract and coordinate other non-kinetic support services, as required (through private sector, IO or NGO agencies).

Given the need to learn how to do stabilisation effectively in non-permissive environments, the emphasis should be on experimentation through exercise to enable the brigade structure to evolve as new doctrine is developed.  The brigade could be either a national or transnational (NATO) construct, although a national brigade might be more useful initially as it would allow for better C3i and thus greater freedom for experimentation.

The purpose of the SMB is to generate the following forces:

A joint UK/local forces 2* HQ structure, with the ability to understand the context and deliver core supporting capabilities

An over-the-horizon UK forces intervention reserve comprising a mixed battalion-sized battlegroup with armoured cavalry, protected mobility, air assault and amphibious assault capabilities, which can be strengthened with assets drawn from force troops (artillery, logistics etc.) as well as aviation and SF as needed.

A specialist battalion sized unit designed to generate and mentor and support a main force of effective a national security forces comprising:

  • brigade sized army manoeuvre formation, configured for COIN operations with a mix of light infantry and protected mobility
  • A battalion sized “gendarmerie” type paramilitary police formation, configured for COIN operations
  • Civil police, Border Security and Coastguard services, as required
  • Courts, judiciary, alternative dispute resolution and human rights capacity to manage the security terrain
  • Bolt on UK supplied and operated critical enablers (UAS, Logistics, Aviation, SF)
  • A specialist battalion sized support unit designed to  ensure the civilian administration is able to manage population needs in a stabilisation environment, comprising:
    • District level administration mentors, including communications and media
    • Mentoring for civilian emergency services: SAR, fire and rescue, A&E health and humanitarian EOD services
    • Engineering support to maintain and improve critical infrastructure, agricultural and livelihoods infrastructure and public services
    • Logistics support for UK mentoring forces
    • Capacity to contract and coordinate IO and NGO stabilisation programmes.

These units will then provide the force elements available to deliver stabilisation.  UK forces for rapid short-term deployments to deliver specific kinetic effects, UK mentored local forces to secure territory and maintain rule of law, and UK mentored local administration and non-kinetic programmes to address grievances and sustain popular support for the intervention.


Annex: Example Table of Organisation and Equipment

C3i: Headquarters

  • 2* HQ
  • Stabilisation Command Group
  • ISTAR and Human Terrain Group
  • Cyber, Psyops and Media Support Group
  • Signals Company

Reserve:  UK Battlegroup (can be deployed from range “over the theatre horizon”)

  • Composite Light Infantry Battalion Battlegroup (1 x Light Armoured Recce Squadron, 1 Protected Mobility Infantry Coy, 1 x Amphibious Assault (boat) Infantry Coy  1 x Air Assault Infantry Coy)
  • Attached Force Troops, Aviation and SF, as required

Strike Force: COIN Capability Enhancement Group

  • Brigade HQ Mentoring Package
  • Specialist HQ Mentoring Teams:  a) ISTAR  b) Security Sector Reform
  • Training Cadres:  Staff Officer Training Cadre, Junior Officer Training Cadre, NCO Training Cadre
  • 9 Infantry Company Mentoring Platoons (6 x Light, 3 x Protected Mobility)
  • 3 x Police Training Mentoring Platoons (1 x MP, 2 x Gendarmerie)
  • 3 x Security Support Mentoring Platoons (Intelligence and Investigations Support Platoon,  Law and Order Support Platoon  [Civil Police Team, Border Security and Coastguard Team, Community Security Team], Justice and Dispute Resolution Platoon  [Courts and Judiciary Team, Alternative Dispute Resolution Team, Human Rights Team]
  • 3 Battalion HQ Mentoring Platoons
  • 3 Signals Mentoring Platoons (1 x HQ/Operational, 1 x Tactical, 1 x Force Protection)
  • 3 Engineer Mentoring Platoons (1 x Combat, 1 x Field, 1 x EOD)
  • 3 Logistics Mentoring Platoons (1x Life Support, 1 x Supply, 1 x Transport, Repair and Recovery)
  • 3 Medical Mentoring Platoons (1 x Field Hospital, 1 x Combat Medicine, 1 x Ambulance)
  • 3 Weapons Support Platoons (Mortar, Artillery/ATGM, Close Recce)
  • Bolt-on UAS Package
  • Bolt-on Close Support Logistics Package
  • Bolt-on Aviation or Aviation Mentoring Package
  • Bolt-on SF Package (operates with irregular local forces)


Support Force: Stabilisation Capability Enhancement Group

  • Local Administration Support Package including a Communications & Media Team
  • Training Cadres: District Administration, Civil Police, Fire and Rescue Services
  • Humanitarian Support Company (Fire and Rescue Team, Medical Support Team, Demining/EOD Team)
  • Stabilisation Engineering Company (Critical Infrastructure Team, Public Service Infrastructure Team, Agriculture and Livelihoods Team,)
  • Stabilisation Logistics Company (Signals Team, Force Protection and Life Support Team, Transport and Humanitarian Logistics Team, Administration, Finance and Procurement  Team)
  • Contracted and coordinated private sector, government, IO and NGO capabilities as required



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