Change Comes to the US and UK Land Forces
The Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) was the project name for a class of medium weight armoured vehicles that were intended to replace a number of legacy British Army vehicles such as CVR(T) Scimitar and FV432.
Given we are about halfway through, perhaps a recap and review is a good thing.
Reflections on the period before FRES
In the immediate post-war period, the British Army, the research & development establishments and industry introduced a medium weight capability centred on the Saladin and Saracen. Together with the Ferret armoured car and other light vehicles, this capability was used extensively in the various conflicts characterised by the ‘retreat from Empire’.
A significant feature of these vehicles was a high degree of commonality across variants and standardisation in components like engines and weapons, born both from the wartime experience and post-war financial reality.
Their replacements, CVR(T) and FV432, recognised the growing importance of the threat from the Warsaw Pact and the need to defend western Europe in a combat environment that would likely involve chemical and nuclear weapons.
Both also utilised the same approach to commonality across multiple variants.
Meanwhile, the security situation in Northern Ireland in the seventies gave Saracen a new lease of life and the subject of ‘protected mobility’ against the RPG and IED threats started to loom large. At the same time, and in a very different conflict, mine protected vehicles in southern Africa were starting to rapidly evolve.
CVR(T) reflected a concept of operations that emphasised mobility at both a strategic and tactical level with emerging concepts such as long-range overwatch with anti-tank guided missiles and the RARDEN cannon that was specifically for the anti-APC role.
Although CVR(W) was withdrawn in the early nineties, both FV432 and CVR(T) have endured, they are still in service and will be for some time. CVR(T) was also a significant export success.
Towards the end of the seventies, new concepts emerged for combined arms manoeuvre as a result of a recognition that a wholly defensive approach to an advancing Warsaw Pact force was a quick way to nuclear war. Warrior and the Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicle concept was the result of this thinking, spurred on by the emergence of the BMP-1.
A new industrial approach from the Conservative government in the early eighties, with privatisation and a general reduction in defence budgets going hand in hand.
The 1982 Falklands Conflict proved the value of light armour, again.
The nineties ushered in huge political, societal and technological changes.
A revolution in microelectronics had provided military planners with a tantalising glimpse into the future, and an appreciation of the realities of a post-Cold War political environment.
The Gulf War did two things with respect to Army vehicles, it proved the value of the legacy fleet, and, exposed the deficiencies of the legacy fleet. CVR(T), Warrior and even FV432 performed well in the Gulf, validating the decisions made by requirements setters, designers and manufacturers.
Peace dividend budget reductions were being realised, limiting the ability of planners to implement the lessons they had learned or to make provision for an uncertain future. Reductions in Warrior quantities meant the FV432 would have to stay in service in secondary roles, alongside Warrior.
Improvements were needed though CVR(T) and FV432 could not last forever, however redoubtable they were. The FFLAV study had a broad scope and after this, the British Army narrowed its focus and settled on two programmes, TRACER and MRAV to replace CVR(T) and FV432 respectively.
In the background, the establishments and successors continued to innovate, VERDI and ACAVP specifically were especially ambitious.
With a series of ongoing incremental improvements to the legacy fleet ongoing, TRACER and MRAV both explored industrial partnerships and international development programmes. The end of the Cold War led to significant industry consolidation and international collaboration was seen all across NATO as the only way to proceed, armoured vehicles being no different to ships, missiles or combat aircraft in this regards.
Whilst TRACER might have been too ambitious, the underlying concepts were sound, as were those of MRAV. Both had a great deal of UK time, expertise, operational analysis, and taxpayers cash invested in them.
Despite TRACER and MRAV starting after the end of the Cold War they were still seen as belonging to that era and if they were on shaky ground before, for various reasons, operations in the Balkans towards the end of the nineties sealed their fate.
In its search for a replacement for CVR(T), FV432 and Saxon, the UK had chewed through an alphabet of programme acronyms (FLAV, FFLAV, MRAV, TRACER), many years, and millions of Pounds (about 190 at last count), all whilst failing to deliver a single vehicle to Tommy Atkins.
As a result, the legacy fleet continued to be deployed on operations, mostly to good effect it must be said. Their underlying design principles had proven to be sound, their engineering likewise, and through a series of incremental improvements kept relevant to contemporary operating environments. No doubt though, they were beginning to show their age and every failed attempt at replacement compounded the problem.
And this is where the story of FRES, the Medium Weight Capability and Strike Brigades really starts.
Reflections on Operations in the Balkans
Arguably, the UK and USA drew very different lessons from their deployment in the Balkans but the US lessons would prove to be more influential.
In respect of vehicles, the UK learned three things from UNPROFOR and IFOR/SFOR:
- CVR(T) was able to be very quickly deployed and enjoyed significant tactical mobility which compensated for its lack of protection, especially when operating as a combined arms team,
- Warrior had an imposing presence, excellent protection (especially with its new applique panels) and high levels of reliability,
- Protection against mines was of increasing importance, although it might be argued this thinking was confined to specialised tasks such as casualty evacuation and route proving.
KFOR delivered the same lessons but the initial deployment was also a masterclass in airborne insertion of a light force reinforced with light armour i.e. CVR(T)
So if the Balkans taught the UK anything, it was that the overall concepts underlying their armour fleet were sound, despite them getting long in the tooth and needing replacement and being used in a context that was the opposite of what they were designed for.
For the USA, things were very different.
Despite the Gulf War and UNPROFOR showing the continued relevance of traditional heavyweight armoured forces, the US experience, first with IFOR and the Sava River crossing and second, Task Force Hawk, made them look flat-footed, flabby and lacking in any kind of strategic or logistical agility.
This only added fuel to the USAF v US Army fire that had been simmering since the Gulf War.
Meanwhile, the USAF and USN were getting into their precision effects stride, the US Army knew it had to do better or get left behind in the battle for relevance, and with that relevance, funding
The US Army knew it had to do something or face a rout in the post-Cold War era peace dividend.
‘Transformation’ was in the wind.
Experience in the Balkans was not THE single driver for US Army transformation but it was certainly important.
The conclusions drawn were, if you want to have an effect, you have to be there.
Waiting at a river or building up a force of 5,000 personnel for 24 helicopters was not compatible with being there.
There are a couple of key quotes from important personnel from the period that reflected on Task Force Hawk, am going to simply repeat them here.
Lt Col Ralph Peters
Major General James Dubik:
This is the most interesting statement, the objective force was about deployability, being there.
When General Sullivan took up the position of US Army Chief of Staff (ACS) in summer 1991, he recognised significant change was imminent and that change would be at an unprecedented pace. In a letter to the Army titled ‘Maintaining Continuity While Accommodating Change’, he described three significant changes that the US Army could not ignore.
- Changes in the political environment
- A reduction in defence spending
- Changes in the nature of war, increasing technology for example
His book about the period between 1991 and 1995, Hope is Not a Method, is well worth a read.
He was not alone in this opinion.
Changes in the political environment…
Also in summer 1991, the US published a new National Military Strategy. This postulated that the post-Cold War threat landscape would require US forces to intervene in multiple simultaneous regional crises at a scale and intensity lower than its post-WWII planning had catered for. No longer would it have to fight Russia, it would be engaged across many fronts as post-Cold War stability collapsed.
Reduction in spending…
From the mid-eighties Reagan era high of approximately 6%, by the Gulf War, spending had fallen to 4.6% of GDP with more cuts likely to follow. Butter was winning and it would continue winning until after 9/11 when the taps were turned back on.
Changes in the nature of war…
4 days after Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait, the Saudi King (Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud) agreed to US intervention in defence of Saudi Arabia. Forces deployed quickly to Saudi Arabia included two squadrons of F-15’s with AWACS, two carrier battle groups and the ready brigade of 82nd Airborne Division. 82nd Airborne, facing 3 Iraqi divisions, armed only with light weapons. Desert Shield, as it became known, was a rapid build-up and in the next two months that sole brigade was joined by the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division, an air assault division, two heavy divisions and an armoured cavalry regiment. Supporting these were the full range of combat support and logistics functions. In November, the intent to liberate Kuwait was clear and the relentless build-up of forces continued until it comprised several US heavy divisions and a British armoured division, with additional forces from France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and others.
The rest is history.
In the months that followed cessation of hostilities, a thorough analysis was carried out by all parties, looking for lessons to learn.
The US concluded that its inability to do anything without a massive build-up of combat and logistic power was a significant gap. Their forces were either too light or too heavy with nothing in between. 82nd Airborne got there fast but they were terribly vulnerable and a meaningful build-up of heavy armoured forces took two months at maximum effort. Experience in the Balkans later in the decade with the Sava River crossing and Task Force Hawk simply underscored this. A smaller (cheaper) Army was being told it needed to adapt to the changing political reality of multiple regional interventions whilst maintaining combat superiority and readiness could do no other than to transform.
A smaller yet more capable and agile Army was the desired endpoint.
But how could it transform?
The undisputed media stars of the Gulf War were those grainy images of laser-guided bombs destroying targets in Iraq. No matter the reality of ground warfare and the enduring usefulness of heavy weapons, the future was clear; smart weapons and communication networks. The technology used, although much less well used than many thinks, had clear potential to enable the required transformation.
The transformation would be enabled by technology.
And so a number of programmes and studies began to coalesce around the transformational theme, the revolution in military affairs, Joint Vision 2010, Force XXI and Army After Next.
Underpinning them all was a recognition of the power of networking, information dominance, modern sensors and the desirability to intervene rapidly with enough force to be decisive, thus preventing the need for hugely expensive deployments at large scale.
What is interesting from a US perspective in this period is a difference between thinking and doing in response to the perceived deployment and logistics failures of the early to mid-nineties.
The thinkers were redesigning the Army from the top down, the ‘doers’ were;
- Buying more RORO shipping, from 17 in 1990 to 36 in 1994.
- Investing half a billion dollars in infrastructure improvements at Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Stewart, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss.
- Significantly increasing budgets for deployment exercises for existing forces
- Dispersing 8 brigade sets of pre-positioned equipment to Qatar, Europe, South Korea and afloat such that it could deploy a heavy division in the Gulf region very quickly
- Investing in logistics tracking and movement capabilities
Clearly, there was disagreement and hedging against transformation not delivering on the promises.
Regardless of the transformation vision envisaged by the Future Combat System (FCS), the US Army and other forces were by the end of the nineties hugely more agile and deployable than they were at the beginning of the decade.
General Eric Shinseki (Chief of Staff of the US Army between June 1999 and June 2003) was a vocal enthusiast of transformation. As soon as he took up his position he ordered a detailed review of the Army’s future requirements. It was also obvious that the US Army was fighting an intense budget war in Washington, the USAF was riding a wave of change coming after its star performances in the Gulf War and the Balkans. The Army knew full well it needed something big or it would find itself on the road to irrelevance, or perhaps more importantly, budget irrelevance.
The USAF lost no opportunity to remind the US Army about the embarrassment of Task Force Hawk either.
Transformation proponents characterised the US Army as either ‘too fat to fly or too light to fight’, a phrase that would be repeated endlessly through the period.
And so was born the Future Combat System (FCS).
FCS had the goal of deploying a combat brigade anywhere globally in 96 hours, a division in 120 hours, and five divisions in 30 days. In addition, those deployed forces would possess a step change in lethality, connectivity, responsiveness and logistics footprint reduction. The Future Combat System was a breathtakingly ambitious programme that would accept nothing less than revolution. New technology, new organisation, new doctrine and a new training regime; every part of the US Army’s approach to fighting and winning was to be ‘transformed’
Its $200 billion price tag was equally ambitious.
It would be wrong to characterise FCS as the brainchild of one man but instead, it was the culmination of thinking over many years from many organisations and many people.
What would be its undoing, however, was that every single (bar one) scenario used to inform the requirement was based on high-intensity state on state conflict, nothing like Iraq and Afghanistan operations that would characterise the following decade. There was also the widespread assumption that rapidly deployed forces would always have the political cover to enable that rapid response, and that combat would be decisive, extended deployment over years was not seen as likely.
This was the ‘go fast, go hard, go home’ mantra, another endlessly repeated phrase.
As the programme matured the vehicle requirements were built around the central requirement of inter-theatre lift by C-17 and Intra-theatre lift by C-130. This meant the vehicle weight and dimension envelope would be dictated by an aircraft that had been in service for decades.
Possibly, it’s biggest mistake.
Not only was FCS broad in its span it was also aggressive in its timelines, in that typical US style, the US Army set about its business of transformation with almost religious zeal. An interim force was to in place in two years (2002) and the objective force, the end state, was planned to be in place by 2008.
Because Congress did not allocate any extra money for FCS, the Army needed to find the funds from within.
Many programmes were cancelled, both new developments like FSCS/TRACER and programmes that would modernise the legacy, heavyweight force. By the end of 2000, General Dynamics had been contracted to provide vehicles for the Interim Force, a version of the Canadian Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) III.
This interim force would become known as the Initial Brigade Combat Team (IBCT)
As the programme progressed through these initial years the C-130 transportability requirement was the only one not open for trade-off and so the impossible task of shrinking a 70 tonne M1 into a 20-tonne Future Combat Vehicle began.
The fundamental need for speed dictated travel by air and this meant travel by C-130.
In order for the vehicles to be survivable and able to fly C-130 class, active protection systems would need to play a large role. FCS imagined survivability as an onion skin and defined a hierarchy of technologies to achieve that, underpinning this was a ubiquitous, high bandwidth low latency network.
To see how FCS grew into what could conservatively be called ‘a bit of a monster’ one only needed to note the fact it needed its own book of acronyms, weighing in at a mere 75 pages long.
FCS was not without significant resistance within the US Army but the momentum was with the ‘transformationistas’, those voicing concerns about the pesky laws of physics were quickly sidelined.
And then this happened.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks against the US mainland in 2001, the US Army proposed a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Yet it was a CIA plan for Special Forces combined with a powerful air component that was chosen.
The Army was in danger of becoming a dinosaur.
That these Special Forces were largely US Army was irrelevant, the perception was the big fat Army was incapable of deploying in response to such a powerful strategic shock. Compounding the problem was the perception that it was US Marines that were first into action around Kandahar. Again, this was not actually the case, initial operations were conducted mostly by the Rangers and 101st Airborne but it was the follow-on 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit that appeared to be at the forefront.
Marines, in a landlocked country, the outrage!
Then came Operation Anaconda, again, where was big Army?
Donald Rumsfeld was originally aligned with the US Army transformation efforts but relations broke down, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003.
Right or wrong, this had a significant impact on the US Army FCS programme.
It would be most unfair to characterise the British transformation journey during the same period as slavish forelock tugging US Army aping because there were significant differences.
The fact remains though, the direction of travel was the same.
In the nineties that transformation journey started with the term digitisation, essentially, taking advantage of advances in microelectronics.
As the nineties concluded the main challenges for the UK were largely the same as those experienced US forces, namely;
- A change in the post-Cold War political landscape and expectations of being able to intervene in regional crisis, reinforced by the 1998 Strategic Defence Review and the ‘Force for Good’ foreign policy of the Tony Blair Labour Government,
- Reductions in the defence vote, from between 5% and 5.5% of GDP in the early eighties to around 3% by the mid-nineties, with further reductions envisaged,
- Changes in the nature of war informed and influenced by technology.
Where the UK differed to some degree from the US was its experience with out of the area/expeditionary operations, since 1945 the Army had been continually deployed overseas on a range of operations. The nineties also saw the bruising Front Line First and Options for Change reviews that saw Army personnel reduced by 25% and with SDR 98, an additional set of civil resilience and humanitarian relief demands. The Falklands conflict in 1982 underscored the requirement for greater cooperation and coordination between the services and operations in the Balkans merely confirmed that need. The success of British operations in the Gulf in 1991 served to confirm new equipment like Warrior, MLRS and Challenger Main Battle Tanks would still constitute the core of heavyweight combat power but this success hid a number of emerging structural, command and technology cracks.
Despite the creation of Permanent Joint Force Headquarters in 1994, operations in the Balkans showed yet again, difficulties with coordination across the services. Joint, expeditionary and the 1998 SDR went hand in hand.
SDR also ushered in a great deal of change in the MoD back office.
Following the 1998 SDR and Smart Procurement initiative, the MoD created a single Equipment Capability Customer (ECC) called Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability), a 3* joint post. Underneath, were four capability portfolios, each with a single manager; strategic deployment, strike, manoeuvre and information superiority. Spread across these four portfolios were fifteen individual 1* Directors of Equipment Capability (DEC).
The Joint Capabilities Board was chaired by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) with the four Capability Managers, the Director General (Equipment) and Director General (Research and Development). Director of Equipment Capability Ground Manoeuvre (DEC(GM)) would normally take the lead on requirements setting after consulting with various stakeholders. Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) then delivers the requirement to the user. The Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) was responsible for equipment capability but did not sit on the Defence Procurement Agency Equipment Approval Committee.
The language might have been different as were much of the outputs, but fundamentally, the defence reform broad brush was the same on both sides of the Atlantic.
FRES was no different to many other projects that had to deal with the constantly shifting sands of acquisition reform, smart procurement, integrated project teams, the move from the Defence Procurement Agency to Defence Equipment and Support and the removal of the development establishments.
An important pillar of Post-Cold War British Defence thinking has been to be able to stand side by side with the USA. Nothing wrong with this of course but it does drive behaviours and for FRES, following US defence transformation was fundamental.
Whilst the UK was keen on the US Network Connected Warfare concept it adopted a much more cautious approach, Network Enabled Capability (NEC), reflecting the British focus on technology as an enabler, not a replacement for speed, surprise and superior fighting capabilities.
It is widely thought that the UK also insisted on C-130 limits but in these early stages there was a recognition that the A400M was probably going to be ordered and so it was recognised that A400M would be the minimum requirement, C-130 being desirable. In May 2003, the partner nations signed the development and production agreement for A400M, Atlas was on his way.
C-130 limits and their attendant complications would come later in the FRES programme.
Although General Dannatt had been instrumental in getting MRAV and TRACER cancelled in favour of FRES, in his autobiography he made the point about getting something into service quickly.
We were not aiming for a highly technical solution, merely something that could meet most of our requirements in a timely fashion.
This sentiment was echoed by the Chief of the General Staff, General Michael Walker who was quoted in the book ‘Transforming Military Power Since the Cold War’ about what the requirement was;
A big armoured box, stick an engine in it, a set of tracks or wheels, and upgrade it as and when we needed
The Army, despite cancelling MRAV, itself a big armoured box, wanted a big armoured box.
This is where the story gets interesting because reading between the lines it seems there was some disagreement about who was in the FRES driving seat, no pun intended.
In 2002, Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) and Royal Marine Major General Rob Fulton, Director of Equipment Capability (Information Superiority). It was Major General Fulton that coined the phrase NEC and produced the NEC plan in 2002, it being endorsed by the Joint Capability Board the same year.
In the same period, the Effects Based Approach to Operations (EBAO) would also be a significant influence on FRES. EBO was another US theory (USAF more accurately and mainly focused on targeting) that would be developed further in the UK, this time by the Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre at Shrivenham, another result of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. In 2002, the Director General JDCC was Air Vice Marshal Ian McNichol
Would it be fair to say that joint effects based transformation were being solely driven by the RAF and RN, probably not, but they were very influential and this overall theme would, in turn, influence the Army and its vehicle choices?
Whilst recognising the similarities between FCS and FRES it is equally important to take note of the differences.
FCS envisaged the network being at the heart of the system, FRES envisaged the network as an enabler. FCS was looking at replacing the concept of the main battle tank, FRES recognised the role of heavy forces.
Similar problems often drive different people to find similar solutions.
The three fundamental changes were the same for both the US Army and British Army and although the ambition of the two desired end states was different, FCS and FRES were very much in the same ballpark.
Events, as they so often do, would intervene.
British Army Medium Weight Capability – Table of Contents
What this document is, sources and acknowledgements, and what this document is not
Saladin and Saracen enter service, early work on their replacement commences and completes. The FV432 enters service, and the BMP-1 does likewise, work on Warrior gains pace.
CVR(T) and CVR(W) enter service, and the rapid deployment concept cuts its teeth with the C-130
CVR(T) continues to be developed and sees action in in the Falkland Islands and Warrior enters service. Oh, and Saxon.
A decade of major change; the end of the Cold War, operations in the Gulf and the Balkans. The microprocessor and communications revolution. VERDI, FFLAV, WASAD and the rise of the acronym in defence. ASCOD, CV90 and others developed. Protected mobility becomes a requirement, again, and finally, interesting materials development make an appearance in the defence vehicle world.
Three vehicle development projects that would have importance to the ongoing story of developing a medium weight capability.
Important milestones in the development of medium weight capabilities, a trip across the Sava and WWIII averted at an airport.
The Future Combat System, the UK follows suit, FRES and being a force for good.
2001 to 2004, TRACER and MRAV continue but the new kid on the block called FRES is starting to take over whilst the shadow of Iraq falls on the project.
Between 2005 and 2007 the Army experienced significant change. FRES picked up speed but operations in Iraq overshadowed the medium weight concept.
2008 to 2009, it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the needs of operations with the desire to transform and bring FRES to fruition at the same time.
2010 to 2011, putting the embarrassment of FRES UV behind it, the Army switches to FRES SV, a replacement for CVR(T)
2012 to 2014, as an end to the Afghanistan deployment drew near, Scout continued and attention turned to Warrior.
2015 to 2017, a new medium weight capability vision emerges, and this requires a new vehicle, the Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV), but before that, Multi Role Vehicle (MRV).
A few thoughts and opinions.
Weights, measures, variants and roles
A revolution in medium calibre weapons, but can we afford it?
The essential glue that binds the increasing quantity of vehicle electronics