Developing a coherent AFV strategy to support Army 2020
An Army Cut to the Bone
Until 1989, the capabilities of Britain’s Armed Forces were almost entirely focused on the threat posed by Soviet Union and its satellite states. When the Cold War ended in 1990, the Conservative Government’s defence white paper “Options for Change”(1) set out to halve the size of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) leading to various regiments being either disbanded or amalgamated. The prevailing view was that 120,000 soldiers represented the optimum size for Britain’s peacetime army. No sooner was the ink dry than the UK deployed 50,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to take part in Operation Desert Storm.
When a Labour Government came to power in 1997, a Strategic Defence Review (SDR)(1) review was conducted. This led to the establishment of two deployable divisions with one based in the UK and the other in Germany. This created three armoured brigades, three mechanised brigades and one air mobile brigade. The Territorial Army was cut from 56,000 to 42,000 and the total number of tank regiments was reduced from 8 to 6.
In 2003, a Defence white paper, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”, responded to the new threat of global terrorism.(1) Further cuts were made to armoured and artillery regiments, resulting in the loss of 84 Challenger 2 tanks and 48 AS90 155mm SP guns. It also introduced new super infantry regiments with multiple battalions (including the Rifles and the Royal Regiment of Scotland).
The next major defence review was the Coalition Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010.(2) With the UK caught in the grip of the global financial crisis, this was inevitably a deficit-driven cost-cutting exercise rather than a considered attempt to reconfigure our armed forces around reconfigured defence priorities. Since the Army is the most manpower-intensive of the three services, it fared the worst, with troop numbers cut by 30% from 120,000 to just 82,000 – the lowest level since 1820.
A controversial component of the Army 2020 plan was the return of the British Forces in Germany to the UK. The majority of the Army’s front line units had been based near the border between East and West Germany since the end of World War 2. Had Warsaw Pact forces ever invaded Europe, the Army was well positioned to provide an immediate response. When the Cold War ended in 1989, British Army units remained in Germany. In deciding to bring them back to the UK, the Government’s logic was: if the Soviet Union no longer poses a significant threat, why do we still need so many troops stationed there? Such logic is persuasive – but only if the threat has genuinely receded. The problem of bringing so many units back to the UK was knowing where to put them. Thanks to previous governments selling-off MoD properties, the UK no longer has sufficient military bases to accommodate ex-BAOR troops. It seems absurd that the size of the Army should be dictated by the availability of accommodation rather than by the requirement to fulfil a prioritised range of well-defined commitments.
By 2020, the Army will have only 30 regular infantry battalions and 9 regular cavalry regiments, with only 3 regiments equipped with Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks. As pointed out elsewhere, the Army now has more horses (501) than tanks (227).(3) Although there are plans to augment the Regular Army with 30,000 Army Reserve troops, to provide an additional 13 infantry battalions plus 4 extra cavalry regiments, recruiting the required numbers has so far proved challenging. The Regular Army and the Army Reserve are together intended to provide 43 infantry battalions and 11 cavalry regiments. The total number of troops that could be called upon in an emergency will be 112,000, which is still well below the pre-2010 SDSR figure of 120,000 regular troops.
The Army 2020 reorganisation plan divides the Army into two forces: the Reaction Force and the Adaptable Force:
- The Reaction Force will be comprised of three brigades that were formerly British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) units and have now returned to the UK. The component regiments will be equipped with tanks and other tracked armour, but their vehicles are heavy (most weigh more than 30 tonnes) and old (many are more than 30 years old). Since the RAF has only eight C-17 transport aircraft capable of carrying vehicles heavier than 30 tonnes, the Reaction Force cannot deploy rapidly by air. Even deploying it within the UK and Europe would be problematic because tracked formations rely on wheeled transporters to travel long distances.
- The rest of the Army, some 18 infantry battalions and 3 cavalry regiments, will be lumped together within a single structure called the Adaptable Force. These units are not organised within proper combat brigades, because the Army does not have sufficient tanks and other heavy weapons to support them. Only 6 infantry battalions within the Adaptable Force are equipped with armoured vehicles.(4) The remaining 12 battalions have no protected mobility at all. Although units of the Adaptable Force could be deployed rapidly by air, they lack firepower and protection. In essence, the Adaptable Force is little more than a pool of reinforcements for the Reaction Force.
The serious threat posed by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) means that all Army vehicles now need a minimum level of protection. With only 15 infantry battalions out of a total of 30 equipped with vehicles that provide proper armour protection, half of the Army’s strength could not be deployed without exposing it to unacceptable levels of risk.
While the 2010 SDSR represents the most serious reduction in the Army’s capabilities, no defence review since 1989 has properly considered how the Army should be re-equipped. At least 2,000 Army frontline AFVs were acquired more than 30 years ago, including the Reaction Force’s Warrior MICVs, CVR(T)s and FV432 APCs. Even Challenger 2, which was acquired in 1998, needs to be upgraded to maintain its effectiveness.
Recent defence reviews have introduced a new expression into the military vernacular: the capability holiday. This is a recognition that certain equipment needs to be replaced, but postponing procurement until such time as we can afford it. Apart from the risk of being unable to counter a significant enemy threat that might materialise while the capability is absent, capability holidays have two other significant disadvantages. One is that when the capability is rebuilt, often the cost is much greater than it would have been had been retained at a basic level. Second, when our armed forces are seen to have survived without a key capability for a long period of time, it is easy to assume that they never needed in the first place; so it isn’t replaced at all and the capability is lost completely. While the UK still has the capability to design and build combat aircraft and ships, we have lost the ability to build tanks and AFVs.
While successive governments have rightly asked: how many tanks does the Army need? No one has thought to ask an essential supplementary question: if we need fewer tanks than before, is this because we need something else instead? Ultimately, the UK’s defence budget must balance the requirement to build and sustain a credible force with what we can realistically afford. If this means a reduced role for Britain on the global political stage, so be it. What is not acceptable is to go on asking our forces to do more and more with less and less. Needless to say, as the latest rounds of cuts begin to bite, Army morale is at a low ebb with many senior officers expressing serious concerns about whether it remains fit for purpose.(5)
Army 2020 Structure – The Reaction Force(4)
16 Air Assault Brigade*
*(1 PARA re-roled as dedicated Special Forces Support Group)
Army 2020 Structure – The Adaptable Force
1st (United Kingdom Division)
Source: Combat Capability for the Future, UK MoD, November 2013.
Implications of a Reduced Force
A weaker Army in a more dangerous world?
The so-called “peace dividend” resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union seems like a distant memory. Indeed, Putin’s annexation of the Crimea has reignited Cold War tensions that were thought to be dead and buried. Iran’s nuclear weapons programme continues unabated. Despite the decade-long global war on terror, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Boko Haram have yet to be defeated. The Arab Spring has brought civil unrest and instability more than peace and democracy.
New threats are emerging, such as China’s defence build-up, which Admiral Mike McMullen, US Joint Chief of Staff, described as being “completely out of step with territorial defence.” Failing states in Africa are turning the region into a hotbed of political unrest, making it breeding ground extremist groups. Wikileaks recently published a memo from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the US Embassy in Buenos Aries, which suggested that Argentina might use oil exploration in the waters around the Falklands to reassert territorial claims over the Islands. After the 2010 SDSR, Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, controversially stated that if Argentina invaded the Falklands, the UK would not have the resources to retake them.
Since 1990, the world has become much less stable and more uncertain. For all these reasons, there is a pressing need to review the assumptions behind the 2010 SDSR in terms of what our most important defence commitments need to be and what they infer in terms of the Army’s roles, capabilities, structure, manpower, weapons and equipment.
The Four Pillars of UK Defence Policy
In trying to anticipate the most likely future deployment types so that the Army can be equipped appropriately, we need to consider how its needs have evolved in the light of recent experience. For instance, does Afghanistan define a new AFV paradigm or is it merely a one-off deployment that does not reflect a wider spectrum of threats? We cannot be blinkered by the past, but nor can we afford to be prepared for every future possibility. The equipment we acquire must align our defence commitments with our budget. But, equally, it must balance the need for focused best-in-class equipment with the flexibility to perform a variety of mission types.
Before we can begin to consider a revised requirement for new armoured vehicles, we must to identify and prioritise the national interests and assets we most wish to protect and align them with potential threats. Since the creation of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the formation of NATO after World War 2, there have been four pillars of UK defence policy. Listed in order of priority, they are:
Domestic Defence of UK borders and national infrastructure.
Irrespective of any external risks, there is an indisputable need to need to defend ourselves from any direct action that might threaten our liberty, prosperity, democracy, indeed, our way of life. This makes protecting our infrastructure and securing our borders the number one priority governing UK defence policy. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need prioritises basic human needs: food, water, shelter, warmth and so on, to provide an ideal start point to list UK domestic assets that need protection:
- Energy generation and distribution facilities (electricity, gas, and fuel supplies)
- Food supply (including agricultural and land resources)
- Water supply (including treatment and waste disposal)
- Transport infrastructure (roads, ports, airports, railways and public transport
- Telecommunications (including command and control networks)
Any of these essential assets could be threatened internally, e.g. attacks by home-grown terrorist organisations, but also externally, e.g. attacks against the UK initiated by a foreign power. As an island, the most likely form of direct attack against the UK was traditionally seen as an invasion by sea or air. Today, it could be an attack that prevented food, fuel and vital supplies from reaching us. A dirty bomb could create panic. Our natural resources could be expropriated, e.g. oil and gas reserves, or other essential assets could be seized to paralyse our economy. While physical assets need protecting, we tend to think of potential conflicts only in terms of seizing territory (land appropriation) and direct military response (attrition of the enemy’s capability to wage war). Beyond any existential threats that may exist, there are less obvious, indirect threats that seek to destabilise our way of life, dilute our culture, or impose a different system of values upon us.
They can be far more subtle in appearance, but no less lethal in effect. Home-grown terrorism is an obvious example. Sustained terrorist attacks against passenger aircraft, for example, could force us to close our airports, creating a blockade. When a wider definition of potential threats is considered, the roles of our national police and intelligence services have justifiably assumed a much greater importance. As far as the Army itself is concerned, it must perform a wider range of tasks. It needs be highly flexible and able to deploy rapidly within the UK
Protection of British and Commonwealth interests abroad.
We need to be able to protect British people and assets in overseas countries, e.g. Oil company employees and depots in the Middle East. Commonwealth members, with whom we have mutually dependent trade agreements, might request our help to overcome a coup d’état or to expel an invader. Such scenarios imply an ability to deploy forces over long distances and to sustain them in theatre for long periods.
The fulfilment of treaty obligations including NATO and the European Union.
This is honouring the mutual commitment to our allies, where an attack against one nation is regarded as an attack against all. NATO was originally created to protect the West against the Warsaw Pact threat. As recent events in the Ukraine suggest, NATO still has a role play. Moreover, Muscle flexing between the USA and China may create a new Cold War stand-off. Over time, NATO and the UN may merge into a single entity where the world community will protect other nations from attacks by rogue states. In the meantime, Britain’s membership of the EU implies the responsibility to protect our European neighbours in the event of an attack. Such obligations imply an ability to rapidly deploy substantial forces over long distances.
Support of the United Nations: the global police force / peacekeeper role.
This is the role we performed in Kosovo, Bosnia and, more recently, in Afghanistan. It may include the restoration of legitimate democratic government; helping nations build and manage their own police and national security capabilities; protecting the civil population in a political vacuum; and ensuring the effective distribution of aid after a natural disaster, especially when law and order have broken down. Though the UK is increasingly reluctant to play the role of global policeman, we would certainly deploy forces if doing so was in our national interests. This role increasingly includes counter insurgency operations against terrorist organisations, action against organised crime gangs and anti-piracy in international waters. Again, it implies an ability to deploy forces quickly over long distances.
To meet our commitments, UK defence expenditure between 1945 and 1985 never fell below 5% of GDP. When the last Labour Government came to power in 1997, it fell below 3% and has now dropped to just 2.2%.(6) The present Government plans to reduce the defence budget further to just 2% of GDP by 2020.
Although the UK economy is beginning to recover from the global financial crisis, an ongoing requirement to reduce the deficit will maintain a downward pressure on all government spending for some years to come. Moreover, cutting the size of the Army appears to be less of a vote loser than cutting welfare payments. This means that reversing recent defence cuts, let alone achieving a larger defence budget, is likely to be a battle in itself.
The Three Block War concept developed by US Marine Corps General, Charles Krulak,(7) which envisaged the need for highly flexible forces able to switch easily between three core operational roles, has led to most NATO forces including the UK to divide potential deployment types into low, medium and high intensity operations. Dividing our four principal defence commitments into low, medium and high intensity conflict types gives us 12 basic threat scenarios. We can prioritise each one according to how probable the threat is and how serious it would be in terms of its political, military, and economic impact.
In general, lower intensity threats are more more likely, but would have less impact on the UK, while high intensity threats are less likely, but would have a greater impact on the UK. The challenge is to equip our forces to counter a broad range of threats across the most likely scenarios without compromising their ability to deal with a less probable but potentially much more serious major conflict.
We can further categorise likely future deployment types according to their proximity to UK shores and how fast our speed of response might need to be. Low intensity, low impact threats, closer to home would depend less on strategic mobility than high intensity, high impact threats, a long way away from the UK. Obviously, light protected units would be able to deploy further, faster than heavy tank regiments. However, even for long distance domestic deployments within the UK, it is difficult for tracked vehicles to travel distances of more than 100 kilometres within a 24 hours period. This makes them dependent on a fleet of wheeled tank transporters. Although the RAF will soon acquire a fleet of 22 Airbus A400 Atlas strategic transport aircraft to replace the C-130 fleet, the Atlas can only carry a payload of 30 tonnes, which means that our larger AFVs would still need to deploy by sea.
The three most likely deployment types
Based on low, medium and high intensity operations, the British Army is presently organised to fulfil three primary roles. These are:
The first two roles are the most likely deployment types, but although a major war is unlikely, the impact would be so serious that we need to be prepared for such an eventuality.
A necessary evolution in force structure
In the spring of 1999, the situation in Kosovo led the UN to sanction the use of force against Serbia. To support the air campaign, the US Army attempted to deploy Task Force Hawk some 800 miles from its base in Germany to Tirana in Albania. Comprised of tracked M1A1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, the component units were unable to travel such a distance independently. Instead, it was intended to airlift them, but the war finished before the Task Force could fully deploy. Madelaine Albright, the then US Ambassador to the UN, said: “What’s the point of having the world’s best military if you don’t get to use them?”(8)
Congress questioned the strategic relevance of the US Army and the embarrassment this incident caused led to the US Army to establish a rapidly deployment medium armour capability. In the UK, the previous Labour Government identified the same requirement, but any intent to create a flexible force structure was frustrated by the economic meltdown of 2008. When the Coalition Government came to power, one of the original stated goals of the 2010 SDSR was to establish a new force structure that would allow a brigade-size formation to be deployed anywhere in the world and for it to be supported in theatre indefinitely. To deliver this capability, the Army said it needed a minimum of 5 or 6 multi-role brigades.The reality of the Army 2020 plan is that it will not deliver the proposed multi-role force structure. The Reaction Force will be comprised of only 3 traditional heavy armour brigades, which cannot deploy rapidly. The Adaptable Force lacks the tanks and heavy weapons it needs to be an effective expeditionary force and would be extremely vulnerable if it faced a well-equipped enemy.
The UK Parliament’s rejection of UK military intervention in Syria, shows that our appetite for deployments that do not directly contribute to UK security is waning. However, bitter experience has taught us that it is often better to get involved before a minor indirect threat far from home becomes a major direct one on our doorstep. Recent history shows that it is extremely difficult to predict likely future deployment scenarios, but the need to deploy troops internationally has been a major factor in virtually every conflict the UK has been involved in since the end of World War 2.
In any event, low, medium and high intensity conflict types imply a logical three-tier structure of light, medium and heavy force structure for the Army. Most NATO armies have now adopted this structure. Prior to 2006, the UK had a two-tier structure heavy armour units mounted in tanks and MICVs and “zero armour” units mounted in Land-Rovers and 4-tonne trucks. Although, the Army now has a light armour units mounted in vehicles like Foxhound and Jackal, we lack the same capabilities that many of our allies have had for some time. With the bulk of the British Army soon to be based back in the UK, we urgently need to address the need for greater strategic mobility.
[tab title=”Light Protected Mobility”]
Weight less than 10 tonnes so that it can be underslung beneath a Chinook helicopter
[tab title=”Medium Armour”]
Weight less than 30 tonnes so that it can be transported by Airbus A400 Atlas
[tab title=”Heavy Armour”]
Weight less than 77 tonnes so that it can be transported by Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
There are two common rebuttals to any call for increased defence spending. One is the role of technology to level the playing field, providing superior weapons capable of overmatching superior numbers. The second is that our nuclear capability remains an effective deterrent which reduces the need for large peacetime conventional forces.
The double-edged sword of technology
When it comes to building effective future capabilities, technology can genuinely be a force multiplier that makes potential enemies’ weapon systems redundant overnight. Though it can deliver increased firepower, better protection, improved communications and simplified logistics, the obvious risk associated with radical innovation is that new equipment may not work as advertised when the shooting starts. The need for battlefield reliability rightfully makes our armed forces conservative. While ordinary people change their computers, cars and phones on an almost yearly basis, the Army has many weapons and vehicles that are more than 30 years old. Of course, if our existing assets are fully amortised, acquiring new equipment when it is urgently needed should not be an issue. The problem is that when we rush to get what we need quickly, it may result in a wrong choice. Some people would suggest that, even when time is not of the essence, the UK still gets procurement wrong, especially vehicle procurement.
A further concern is the exponential cost increase that comes with successive generations of kit. Advanced attack helicopters may be highly desirable, but if you can only afford a handful and this reduces the available budget for other essential equipment, buying them may leave you less capable rather than more so. Even when technology delivers a step-change in offensive capability, it can lull you into a false sense of security: the mistaken belief that a reduced number of sophisticated new ships, aircraft or tanks can effectively substitute a much larger previous quantity of more basic items.
New technology tends to be expensive, but sometimes it can save money. Drones, for example, which have shown their suitability for both surveillance and attack roles, are proving to be cheaper to operate than traditional manned combat aircraft. Since they don’t have pilots, the risk of casualties and political fallout these produce can also be avoided. It may only be a matter of time before autonomous naval and land systems complement UAVs. Electronic systems and cyber warfare have had a huge impact on modern combat. Israel’s commitment to neutralising Iran’s nuclear programme represents a fundamentally different means of prosecuting an offensive campaign. The Stuxnet computer virus caused Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control so that they destroyed themselves. Such an approach is less costly than a conventional attack, but no less effective. A cyber attack against the UK could paralyse our banking systems, telecommunications networks and the ability of UK firms to conduct business, so investing in counter systems is essential. Whether we choose or are forced to acquire new military technology, this inevitably leaves less money to sustain legacy systems. This requires us to make tough choices, but also smart choices.
Nuclear weapons leave no further scope for Britain’s conventional forces to be reduced
Britain’s nuclear deterrent is a good example of how technology has justifiably enabled us to reduce the size of our conventional peacetime forces. Various debates about whether the UK should retain its nuclear capability are unequivocal in suggesting that if we abandoned Trident, it would be necessary to have much larger and more expensive conventional forces to ensure our security.(9) The problem is that no one can say with any degree of certainty what the optimum size of our conventional armed forces should be. Moreover, if the cost of replacing Trident, which we will soon need to do, is allocated from the Defence budget instead of the Treasury budget, the estimated £20-30 billion cost – even if it is spread over a decade, would represent a 9-10% cut in the average annual Defence budget. Whatever we decide to do, in a post-Cold War world where we retain a nuclear capability and have already substantially reduced our conventional forces,there is little scope for further cuts.
is worth noting that nuclear weapons have curtailed the time period during which international tensions build and reach crisis point. Hitler became an acute problem over 10 years, which gave us time to re-arm. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 unfolded in a matter of months. More recently, North Korea became belligerent in a matter of weeks. Traditionally, we have retained smaller peace time establishments due to the belief that a period of political manoeuvring before war becomes inevitable would give us time to recruit, re-train and re-equip our forces. At the height of the Cold War, the Army had more 150,000 troops. But, with an anticipated reduction to just 82,000 regular troops by 2020, should a serious situation develop, we might not have sufficient time to reinforce a conventional capability before needing to use a nuclear one. Even when nuclear weapons give us the upper hand against an enemy that does not possess them, their indiscriminate use is unlikely to be tolerated by the international community, so adequate conventional forces are still needed. For instance, the UK would not have contemplated using nuclear weapons against Argentina when it invaded the Falkland Islands.
But without sufficient conventional forces to retake them, we would have been forced to concede them. This would have weakened the worldwide perception of the UK and left us vulnerable to other territorial claims.
In 1990, with the Cold War over and the situation in Northern Ireland was winding down, the UK determined that the optimum peacetime size of the Army was two deployable divisions or 6-7 brigades. In order to deliver that, it needed approximately 120,000 soldiers or about 38-40 battalions. Today, we live in much more uncertain times, but have an Army of 82,000 with just one deployable division or 3-4 brigades.
The Army needs more manpower, a more flexible structure, and the ability to deploy rapidly long distances by air. It needs a greater mix of capabilities, including a Medium Armour resources. Above all, it needs to be equipped to fight the next war, not the last one.