GUEST POST – Fixing UK Land Power
A guest post from ‘Monty’
This article is intended to be a high-level discussion of the issues and potential fixes that would address the manifold problems faced by the British Army. It isn’t a deep-dive supported by detailed budgeting, planning and implementation considerations. So I trust readers will judge it for what it is rather than what it should be. I hope that the concepts presented below will inspire other ideas that could transform UK land power capabilities and its deterrent effect.
A slow decline towards ‘block obsolescence’
In 1984, when I was a young platoon commander, there was a feeling of constantly being asked to do more with less. If a lack of resources was a problem then, the constraints placed on the Army today are in an entirely different league. In its heydey the British Army of the Rhine numbered more than 160,000 soldiers, it had four armoured divisions, including 12 MBT regiments and a full complement of supporting assets. It was a time when we had not forgotten the war-winning potential of artillery, so we had an extensive array of Royal Artillery regiments that were all properly resourced, including one equipped with the Lance tactical nuclear missile. Today, we can barely muster a single division and have only three regular MBT regiments. A reduction in headcount to 82,000 has seen a huge loss in combat ability as accumulated knowledge and experience have exited the service.
Since the Cold War ended in 1989, there has been a very little impetus to re-equip the British Army. I remember Think Defence in another article noting that when the FV430 series of AFVs came into service in the mid-1960s, the English Electric Lightning was the primary air defence asset. This was superseded by the Phantom, then the Tornado and, most recently, by the Typhoon. Despite four generations of combat aircraft passing through Royal Air Force hands, the FV430 has resolutely remained the only tracked APC in service with British land forces. Warrior was a half-hearted attempt to replace it, but the money to equip all armoured infantry formations with it was never made available. The so-called peace dividend resulting from the end of the Cold War halted any significant AFV platform investment after the last Warriors were delivered in the 1990s.
Since then, the combat capability of the British Army’s AFVs has slowly atrophied.
Challenger 2 and Warrior were brief flashes of promise. When they first arrived, they offered an excellent capability against peer enemies, but, unlike the Bundeswehr’s Leopard 2, were not constantly upgraded to ensure they remained relevant and potent. With the UK only deploying a full armoured division on two occasions since the end of WW2 (during each of the two Gulf Wars), the global financial crisis in 2008 provided a perfect catalyst to bring an obsolete Army back to the UK from Germany. Our few remaining armoured units were content to rust in peace. Indeed, if Liam Fox had had his way when he was UK defence Secretary, we would have retired all of our Challenger 2s.
Since 2002, deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have required us to practice counter-insurgency techniques supposedly honed over many post-war decades, particularly in Northern Ireland. Our failure to achieve significant or lasting resolution in Iraq or Afghanistan, and possibly in Ireland itself, are further reflections of the broken nature of British Land Power. The failure to build an Army capable of fulfilling multiple roles may have more to do with foreign policy and doctrine than equipment or manpower levels. That said, our failures to replace Snatch Land-Rovers quickly or to provide adequate body armour led to needless casualties. We also spent billions acquiring a multitude of different MRAP vehicles which proved to have little utility beyond our most recent operational deployments.
In a post-Afghanistan world, the Army now eagerly anticipates the arrival of Ajax, not because it somehow anticipated the new threat posed by Russia, but because at last, after many decades, it finally has a new AFV. For all its benefits, I can’t help feeling that the acquisition of Ajax is an act of pure nostalgia, akin to building a brand new steam locomotive in an age of electric trains. The last time the UK had a 40-tonne tank with a 40 mm gun was in 1942 when we had the Churchill. Perhaps a better analogy is that Ajax is similar to the type of tanks we bought just before World War 2. The Vickers medium and light tanks were hopelessly out-of-date when the BEF deployed to France in 1939. Despite valiant efforts, the BEF’s inability to manoeuvre in a way that delivered a concentrated effect forced it to conduct a haphazard rearguard action that ended in defeat at Dunkirk. I wonder whether the state of the Army today reflects a similar unpreparedness should we again face a serious and unexpected threat? Senior army officers who’ve finally seen Ajax in the metal after a 16-year gestation period are asking whether it is still the right platform. It seems too small to be a medium tank but too large to be a reconnaissance vehicle.
In Ajax’s defence, it is part of a larger modernisation effort and may yet have a valid place in a revitalised Army. When it comes to MBTs, the Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme is disappointing, because it seems to be no more than an obsolescence management exercise. There are no plans to upgrade its lethality, survivability or mobility. The UK’s rifled 120 mm gun is no longer as potent as Rheinmetall’s 120 mm L/55 smoothbore gun. Meanwhile, the Germans are developing a new 130 mm smoothbore, which will comprehensively overmatch all existing tank guns. Meanwhile, the Warrior CSP programme is another cut-price upgrade that seems to be an uneasy marriage of old hulls with new turrets. De-lamination issues with Warrior’s aluminium armour mean that we may not have enough hulls to upgrade the whole fleet to the new build standard. I believe there’s a strong case for a new MBT and tracked IFV.
As Think Defence’s extensive white paper on FRES shows, the UK still has no wheeled medium capability to complement its tracked heavy armour formations despite spending some £300 million over almost 20 years. Our artillery systems are also approaching the end of their useful lives. In short, the Army is faced with block obsolescence where a lack of investment over many years has completely degraded its capabilities.
The extraordinary lack of resources extends beyond equipment to training. Soldiers simply do not spend enough time shooting on ranges compared to 30 years ago. Military housing is another problem area and needs wholesale refurbishment. A major problem related to bringing the Army back to the UK from Germany, and which was also a factor in the decision to reduce troop numbers, was not having sufficient accommodation to house them. Who else decides the size of their army based on the number of available barracks?
Perhaps we were right to prioritise the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force above the Army. The benefits they bring to UK defence are immediately apparent. Both services have played an essential role over the last decade, whether it is Tornados bombing terrorist bases abroad, or Frigates conducting anti-piracy patrols on the high seas. Our aircraft and ships have proved to highly flexible and capable of performing a variety of mission types. In contrast tanks and tracked AFVs are less adaptable. It needs to be said that we are paying a high price for the F-35B and CVF. Both are first-class assets, but their massive price tags undoubtedly beg the question whether we could have acquired comparable capabilities by purchasing less expensive substitutes? Paying £7 billion for two ships and £120 million per aircraft for 148 F-35s could be described as profligate. It looks like we will need to purchase a less capable fleet of frigates to compensate for the extra billions we’ve spent on CVF. But, this is crying over spilt milk. If CVF and F-35 cannot be scrapped now, it doesn’t make sense to question them further – so long as they deliver everything promised of them.
It is easy to criticise the Army’s ability to procure new vehicles as being the reason why it is less capable than it should be, but the truth is the piecemeal allocation of the equipment budget and long development and manufacturing lead-times have totally hamstrung its ability to think big. For all of the above reasons, it is entirely appropriate and desirable to question what the Army does next.
We need to answer four essential questions:
- What are the key threats we are likely to face?
- What combat roles do these imply?
- What resources, including troop numbers, are needed to fulfil them?
- How do we achieve a balanced allocation of resources between the three services?
What are the key threats we are likely to face?
The Army’s primary role is to protect the UK against a direct land attack. While an invasion scenario is highly unlikely, the prospect of home-grown terrorism conducted by extremists with their own political or military agenda could require a response beyond any that our national Police forces could provide. We certainly cannot discount the need for home defence or the unexpected need to deploy British soldiers on British streets.
What seems more likely is the need to deploy UK forces within Europe or further afield in support of our treaty obligations. What Brexit means in terms of supporting our European neighbours is not yet clear, but should any EU member state that is not a member of NATO be invaded, e.g. Finland, it seems more than probable that the UK would step-in to support military action to defend our combined interests.
We face three primary peer or near-peer threats. It hardly needs to be reiterated that Russia is the most obvious hostile player. Putin appears to want to recreate the Former Soviet Union and remains a real and present danger. China is happily building its armed forces beyond any territorial defence needs. It is also running out of real estate. How would we respond if China started expropriating territory in Africa or elsewhere, such as Taiwan? Thirdly, there is Iran, which only this week was reported to be adding long range anti-aircraft assets to defend its nuclear facilities. Although Iran insists that it has halted the development of nuclear weapons, this may not be the case. Iran’s deep-rooted dislike of the West and Israel means that it cannot be ignored.
In terms of asymmetric threats, Islamic extremist terrorism is perhaps the most existential danger we face, but our reluctance to deploy “boots on the ground” in countries where terrorist groups originate questions the level of commitment and the political resolve we would bring to bear if called upon to support military action in the Middle East or closer to home.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it is possible that we may need to deploy in a policing, peacekeeping and aid distribution role, on behalf of the United Nations. If the situation in Syria deteriorated further, this might also require some kind of military response.
When it comes to predicting future conflict scenarios, we have a perfect record: we haven’t gotten it right once. If we cannot successfully anticipate specific threats, we need to focus on the type and nature of deployments we must be resourced and equipped to undertake.
What combat roles do these imply?
Since the creation of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the formation of NATO after World War 2, there have been four primary defence commitments that have defined UK policy. Although these have remained constant, in a climate of enduring budget austerity, the role of global policeman may have become unaffordable. This will require us to trim our aspirations so that we are resourced strictly to counter the most serious and likely threats.
The Four Pillars of UK Defence Policy
- Self-defence of the United Kingdom. We need to protect ourselves from any direct action that might threaten our liberty, prosperity, democracy, indeed, our way of life. Situations might include a direct enemy attack against the UK mainland or our economy. Historically, this was seen as an invasion by sea or air. Today, it could be an infrastructure attack that prevented food, fuel and vital supplies from reaching UK citizens. A cyber attack or dirty bomb could damage or disrupt water supply and Our natural resources could be expropriated, e.g. oil and gas reserves or other essential assets could be seized to paralyse our economy. Terrorist attacks could be made by UK nationals or from external groups entering the UK illegally. Sustained attacks against passenger aircraft, for example, could force us to close our airports, creating a blockade. From a Land Power perspective, these scenarios imply domestic forces that could 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 for land forces to deploy over long distances and a capacity 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. In one sense, this is the Doomsday scenario that might require an all-out deployment of regular forces before resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. From a land Power perspective, this scenario implies an ability to deploy substantial forces over long distances and sustain them in theatre indefinitely.
- Support of the United Nations: the global police force / peacekeeper role. The UK has performed this role 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. The role increasingly includes counter-insurgency operations against terrorist organisations, action against organised crime gangs and anti-piracy in international waters. It implies an ability to deploy moderate forces quickly, over long distances and often over long periods of time.
The Three Block War concept developed by US Marine Corps General, Charles Krulak, which envisaged a need for highly versatile forces able to switch easily between three core operational roles, has led to most NATO forces including the UK to divide deployment types into low, medium and high-intensity operations. Dividing our four principal defence commitments across the four primary pillars of commitment and by conflict intensity type 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. The primary roles we must equip ourselves to perform can be grouped as follows:
The need to deploy forces domestically within the UK for Home Defence is not likely to be problematic with forces based domestically, not least because the local population is likely to support whatever missions were deemed necessary. UK based battalions should be easily able to deploy within the United Kingdom, using a wide variety of transport types.
Problems arise with a need to deploy troops thousands of miles from the UK in an expeditionary role. This is important because, traditionally, we have always deployed forces abroad to counter threats before they become too large and unmanageable on our doorstep. It is possible that we might be called upon to deploy within Europe, e.g. to deter or repulse an attack against the Baltic states. Similarly, we might need to deploy to Africa to protect against large-scale incursions by Boku Haraam, Al-Shabaab or other similar terrorist organisations that could threaten UK interests in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere. A Middle East situation might arise that required us to deploy within this region, e.g. Turkey, Iran or Syria if the situations were to deteriorate unexpectedly. For these reasons, an adaptable and autonomous long-range expeditionary capability is highly desirable.
What resources, including troop numbers, are needed to fulfil them?
My fundamental belief is that the UK needs two deployable divisions, plus an air mobile brigade, a commando brigade and a pool of reserves. We certainly have the manpower to staff an army of this size, even with total headcount restricted to 82,000.
The current cap on manpower was based on having a readily deployable reserve of 30,000 soldiers that could be easily and quickly integrated into the regular army. In reality, this plan has not worked as well as anticipated. There is a shortfall in both regular and reserve troop numbers. We may be better off with a regular army of 100,000 and a reserve that can quickly grow into larger separate units in time of war. Historically, we’ve been able to afford a peacetime army of well-above 100,000 and this number may make sense again given the many non-core UK roles we still ask the Army to perform, including peacekeeping and humanitarian relief on behalf of the UN. No one is asking for a return to 150,000+ soldiers, simply a realistic total number of soldiers.
The revised Army 2020 structure is not yet finalised, but it appears that we will reduce the three heavy armour brigades of the Reaction Force structure previously proposed in 2010 to just two armoured brigades plus the two new medium weight strike brigades.
We need to maintain a heavy armoured division with a three-brigade structure envisaged by the original Army 2020 plan. Without it, we risk not having a division that is fully capable of taking-on peer or near-peer enemies or one that can fight in parallel with an allied formation.
The heavy armoured division would be equipped with MBTs, IFVs and self-propelled guns. It would also need anti-aircraft artillery, engineer, signals, logistics, and other supporting units. Large heavy armour units take time and resources to prepare and deploy. Typically, UK Armoured formations need a lead-time of about 6 weeks to deploy and this is usually by sea. In any future conflict, we are unlikely to have the luxury of waiting so long before committing combat-ready assets to the fight. Although we maintain an air mobile brigade at high readiness, this only has two battalions and no heavy support weapons.
A second deployable division that could be rapidly deployed in an expeditionary role would allow a more immediate high-impact response. A wheeled medium weight division could deploy by road over 1000 kilometres within 72 hours, based on US Stryker Brigade experience. Assuming it had sufficient offensive firepower to deliver a solid punch against an enemy, it would be a substantial force with significant reach and punch, as well as a formation that would give us time to prepare a more deliberate heavy armoured response.
Some observers may suggest that we can get round the need for a second deployable division if we stockpiled MBTs and IFVs in forward supply dumps. I do not believe we can afford to base units or equipment abroad because there is the inevitable risk of them being in the wrong place when we need them or being over-run or expropriated before we can access them.
In summary, the primary division should be a heavy armoured infantry division comprised of three brigades. Each brigade would have 1 x MBT regiment, 1 x Recce regiment and 3 x IFV battalions and be supported by 1 x artillery regiment. Each division would have dedicated engineer, signals, medical, UAV, and other supporting units attached to it.
I would prefer to have two tank regiments per brigade, instead of only 1 x MBT regiment plus 1 x Ajax Recce regiment. An ideal configuration could be achieved by reducing the total number of Ajax Recce variants and acquiring additional IFV versions of Ajax (ASCOD 2) to replace Warrior. This would ensure that all non-MBT regiments used the same platform.
The second deployable division should be a medium weight 8×8 wheeled mechanised infantry division. This would also be comprised of three brigades with each one having 1 x Cavalry regiment with an 8×8 fire support vehicle, 3 x mechanised infantry battalions in an 8×8 APC / IFV, plus 1 x artillery regiment with something like a 120 mm breech-loaded mortar.
Current manpower levels would allow an additional independent brigade with 4×4 light protected vehicles to be created while adding an additional battalion to the air mobile brigade.
In terms of weaponry, I would ensure that all UK MBTs had the L/55 120 mm smoothbore gun, which has become a de facto tank calibre across NATO, even if this meant acquiring Leopard 2A7 or Abrams M1A2 MBTs. I would junk the troublesome and unaffordable 40 mm CTAS cased-telescoped ammunition cannon used for Warrior and Ajax in favour of the 30 mm MK44 Bushmaster II cannon mounted in a remote turret, although at this stage of development, this would seem unlikely.
A new wheeled artillery system using a 155 mm gun should be purchased – something like Archer or Caesar 8×8.
There is an interesting debate on the relative merits of 120 mm breech-loaded mortars versus 105 mm guns; deployability, effects and cost.
To support the 50 x Apache attack helicopters and 50 x Chinook support helicopters we have already purchased, a purchase of 50-100 Blackhawk utility helicopters to replace Puma and older Lynx would provide a serious uplift in mobility and utility, perhaps arming Wildcat and/or Blackhawk, another uplift in firepower.
Perhaps even a purchase of 15-20 Reaper UAS for use by the Army to support land operations with UAVs directly allocated to each brigade to provide overwatch and fire support, although the issues with Watchkeeper and overall capacity may result in these being RAF operated.
All mechanised and armoured infantry vehicles would carry integrated externally-mounted Javelin launchers. I would also expedite the development of HVMs. A Mach 6 anti-tank missile with some kind of long-rod APFSDS penetrator that could reliably deliver kinetic effect beyond the range of any known tank’s own APFSDS rounds would be transformational.
Part of the rationale for retaining tank fleets is that heavily protected vehicles excel at line-of-sight engagements thanks to their survivability and the lethality of their direct fire weapons. However, if HVATGMs could be fired indirectly from a vehicle like MIV or MRV-P (as well as from strike aircraft, attack helicopters and UAVs) beyond the visual and actual range of the tank’s main armament, they would neutralise the fundamental advantages of heavy armour.
Anti-tank weapon development has always outpaced protective technology development. The APFSDS round fired by Rheinmetall’s L/55 120 mm smooth bore gun can defeat the frontal armour of any known tank at this time, including the Dorchester plates fitted our own Challenger 2, Leopard 2 and Abrams M1 tanks. The T-14 Armata may be better protected than these, which is why MBDA is developing new ATGMs and Rheinmetall a new 130 mm smooth bore gun.
We are reaching a point in AFV evolution where protection levels are increasing the weight of tanks to unacceptable levels. I doubt that we will ever see 100-tonne MBTs – because the mobility limitations of 62-tonne tanks are already significant. Moreover, the unit cost of a next generation tank is likely to be €10-12 million while the unit cost of a wheeled medium weight vehicle fitted with ATGM is €3 million. The economic case unequivocally supports the latter platform.
Adding additional protection to tanks will be pointless if they can still be defeated, so we need an alternative approach. We need to reinvent the traditional iron triangle of firepower, protection and mobility. If it is reasonable to describe the Apache as a tank analogue, it prioritises mobility and speed above protection and firepower. An 8×8 MIV fitted with ATGMs would also prioritise mobility over protection and firepower, the difference between the two is cost. This is why wheeled vehicles with ATGMs have been such an equaliser.
With more than 104,000 tanks in use across the globally and only 20,000 of these belonging to NATO, countering enemy tanks is likely to remain an essential requirement. Since well-protected tanks with kinetic anti-tank rounds excel at defeating other tanks, it may be some time before we see the last of the MBT.
The CONEMP for MIV is likely to mandate the avoidance of direct confrontations with tanks in favour of indirect engagements. However, when MIV units can effectively neutralise tank formations of equivalent size through indirect ATGM fire, the tank may well have reached the limit of its development potential. Instead of direct confrontations with other AFVs, wheeled vehicles will be able to outmanoeuvre them or counter them using UAVs and other air assets.
All this assumes air superiority. One element of the mix that has also taken a serious “capability holiday” is anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). We need sufficient anti-aircraft missile systems to be integrated and deployable with both heavy and medium armour divisions.
We also need cannons with ammunition that is capable of shooting down helicopters and drones.
In addition to the two primary divisions, we have sufficient manpower to create a third independent brigade that would essentially be a pool of reserves. These troops would be mounted in light protected patrol vehicles, such as Jackal and Foxhound. I envisage five battalions plus a single cavalry regiment. If a fire support version of Jackal or Foxhound could be developed mounting something like the 30 mm M230LF chain gun, this would provide a worthwhile fire support element.
The above structure provides 23 infantry battalions with protected mobility. Indeed, the only battalions with protected vehicles would be the three air assault battalions and the five permanently committed forces battalions.
Finally, I would return 1 Para to the Air Assault Brigade and establish a separate Ranger Regiment as a dedicated Special Forces Support Group (SFSG).
How do we achieve a balanced allocation of resources between the three services?
We cannot extend the Army’s capabilities at the expense of the Royal Navy and RAF. Instead, the UK needs to recognise the need to increase defence spending in the short-term to plug the capability gaps created by austerity measures. We previously cut our forces to the bone in order for the economy to recover. Now that it has partly done so, we simply cannot afford to say: we survived without X or Y or Z, so we no longer need them. The 2010 Defence Review was a gamble. Just because we got away with it once doesn’t mean we should roll the dice again.
I should also mention that I am a firm believer in retaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. However, bringing the cost of the Trident Successor into the main defence budget instead of keeping it as part of the treasury budget was a misleading tactic designed to disguise the true extent of the cuts imposed on all three forces, and especially the Army.
The most serious capability gap is the block obsolescence of the British Army’s AFV fleet. The piece-meal acquisition of different vehicles over time for individual deployments has resulted in an unsustainable variety of different platforms. Most were acquired hurriedly, at high cost and with little long-term utility beyond the missions they were required to fulfil. We need a carefully planned and implemented AFV strategy to underpin the Army’s ability to manoeuvre.
It is a reality of modern warfare that anti-vehicle mines (including IEDs) are here to stay. The concept of a Forward Edge of the Battlefield Area (FEBA) has become an anachronism. Consequently, we need protected mobility at every level.
We presently have Foxhound and Jackal as light protected 4×4 platforms. They are both excellent vehicles. We intend to acquire a third 4×4 platform, MRV-P, when we also already have Husky, Pinzgauer and Land-Rovers. I believe that all 4×4 vehicles should be based on a single common platform. That could easily be Foxhound or Jackal.
We need new MBTS and tracked IFVs. I favour Leopard 2 and ASCOD 2.
We need a multi-role medium weight wheeled 8×8 platform. I favour the Patria AMV.
We need new anti-tank missiles.
We need new artillery systems. Something like the Patria AMV with NEMO 120 mm mortar would be excellent.
We need new communications platforms. Morpheus is coming and it should be excellent.
We need to use UAVs more widely and to integrate them into brigade formations. We have already planned to buy more MQ-9 Reapers from General Atomics.
We need still need more helicopters if we want a credible air assault brigade. Puma is ancient. Wildcat is too small. NH-90 has problems. Blackhawk is proven, works well and is inexpensive.
The fact that we don’t have these resources today is because successive governments decided not to spend what is required to deliver them. Today, however, we go to war with what we have, not with what we would ideally want. If we don’t rebuild and reinvest in UK Land Power, we risk not being able to deploy at all or until after we have acquired what is needed to do the job – but that could be too late.
We have learned many times in the past that prevention is better than cure: deterrent is always preferable to having to use direct force. So let’s hope our politicians recognise the pressing need to re-equip our ground forces.