Friends and Allies

As a means of comparing and contrasting, a look at our friends and allies comparable forces, a couple of essays from ‘Frenchie’ and ‘Jed’, both long-time contributors to Think Defence.

France – Operations in Africa Shaping a Force Design

In the early days of 2013, terrorist armed groups launched an offensive to the south of the Niger River loop. They then targeted the city of Sévaré and shortly the capital Bamako (200 km).

The UN Security Council agreed Resolution 2085 to restore the territorial sovereignty of Mali planned a deployment of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops called Mission Internationale de Soutien au Mali (MISMA). The force would be established through 2013 and supported by an EU mission.

An escalation and series of raids by the Islamist force meant this was no longer tenable and following a request from Mali, France stepped in with an immediate deployment of force.

Using movement, speed and surprise, the Operation Serval, in just three months (from 11th January to the end of April 2013), secured the northern part of Mali, from the Niger loop to the Algerian border, and reduced the terrorist armed group’s nuisance capacity.

Of the five Islamist leaders involved with the fighting, three were killed and two fled to other countries.

Operating Area Characteristics

The most notable feature of the environment in which Operation Serval was mounted was its size, double that of France.

Mali is a landlocked country with little airport capacity and a degraded road network with only five bridges and long distances between key locations (1,200km between Bamako and Gao for example). Of the five bridges, many were not in a particularly good material state and many of the airstrips, equally poor or degraded.

In the northern region, desert and scrubland are the predominant terrain and in the south, savannah and riverine wetlands.

Operation Serval

The operation was split broadly into two phases.

First was to secure Bamako and strike enemy rear areas. The first phase was also to prepare for MISMA.

With Bamako secured and MISMA starting to arrive, the second phase saw operations switch to the north of the country, the destruction of enemy forces and restoration of border integrity. A French spearhead column retook Gao and supported by a parachute landing that cleared the airport, Timbuktu was retaken soon after.

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By the middle of February, major manoeuvre operations had ceased with consolidation and security operations taking Serval to the July 2014 when it was replaced by a more wide ranging and expansive operation called Barkhane.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the key points, here

A more detailed analysis of Operation Serval has also been completed by RAND, click here to read.

Whilst enemy forces did not have heavy vehicles, extensive artillery resources and anti-aircraft missiles, they did have BTR armoured vehicles, the ubiquitous ‘technical’ and lots of 122mm rockets. Despite them being tough, experienced and agile fighters, in the end, they were no match for the combined air-land integrated forces deployed by France. Tiger and Gazelle helicopters, Rafale and Mirage fighters and unmanned aircraft destroyed fixed and mobile targets, creating space for the land component to manoeuvre.


In just five weeks, more than 4,500 troops and their equipment deployed, together with five field hospitals and 19,000 tonnes of freight, joining an already deployed smaller force.

61% of this freight volume was carried, USAF and others allies providing 75 percent of the airlift required and 30 percent of the aerial refuelling capability. Aircraft included including Canadian, U.S. and UK C-17s, and a variety of other aircraft supplied by Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and others. Chartered Antonov aircraft provided a significant proportion of the total airlift.

Heavier vehicles were deployed by sea and driven to Mali.

Operation Serval confirmed the very high level of equipment availability of the force. At the height of the operation, 1,448 units (including more than 450 armoured vehicles) were deployed. VBCI, the CAESAR gun and the Tiger helicopter were proven to be particularly suitable for combat in the theatre.

Wheeled combat vehicles travelled between 2,500km and 5,000km over challenging terrain.

Where enemy forces had destroyed bridges, French combat engineers replaced them with equipment bridges, the example below at the village of Tassiga, 150km south-east of Gao.

Despite the success, French logistical capabilities were stretched to their extreme limits, even with airlift extensively borrowed from allies. The troops that France rushed to Mali initially had with them only the essentials (in many cases, three days’ worth of food and nine litres of water), and the subsequent focus of logistical efforts remained on providing the bare essentials (food, water, fuel) as troops raced north and east.

The speed of the manoeuvre, deployment distances and the harshness of climate and terrain forced a number of hard choices. As explained by General Grégoire de Saint-Quentin, commander of operation, a balance was sought continuously between the tactical capability and logistics capacity to sustain it.

Water (10 litres per day per man), fuel and ammunition were the daily priorities but despite the initial logistical dimensioning and the rhythm of the manoeuvre, there was no break in either support or operational continuity.

In addition to long road marches to contact, extensive use was made of helicopter borne forces bounding ahead of the main force and in a number of cases, a parachute forces were used to secure key locations and airstrips.

Underpinning this logistical fragility was an acceptance of risk.

The total force reached roughly 3,400 by the end of January and 5,300 by the end of February. Of those, according to the French military, 1,500 were support personnel, or 28 percent of the overall force. Comparable American forces would probably require a larger logistical tail of approximately 40 percent, suggesting that the United States would have had to field a larger force overall.

Force Design

Operation Serval is often lauded as the new Gold Standard for limited interventions but we should not be surprised, French forces have been designed to do exactly this type of mission.

Able to aggregate and disaggregate, manoeuvre at speed, combine special-forces, air logistics and offensive air operations, the force did what it was designed to do.

It what is was designed to do but at risk, and in reality, only with significant support from allies.

Although it is difficult to compare the French and American armies, in their assessment of the French forces deployed to Mali compared to U.S. norms, U.S. experts believe that the Americans would have sent a larger force with a proportionately larger support element.

French requirements have therefore led them to adopt a force structure well suited for operations such as Serval.

They use relatively lightly armoured wheeled vehicles, which have smaller sustainment requirements compared with heavier, tracked vehicles. This was a good choice for Serval given that the French were operating at the extreme limit of their logistical capabilities.

The French assess that mobility is more important than protection, and they gamble that being able to move quickly provides more protection than heavier armour. French doctrine emphasises rapid coordinated movements calculated to maintain the operational initiative, precisely the kind of campaign the French conducted in Mali.

Waging war ‘on the cheap’ necessarily translates into risk, especially if one favours close combat, as the French officers above claim. In contrast to the U.S. Army, which can be described as a “belt and suspenders” institution, which often uses backup or redundant systems, the French army considers such amenities a luxury. Thus, it operated in Mali at or beyond the limits of its sustainment capabilities with a force structure, vehicles, and other elements carefully and optimistically calculated to be little more than sufficient: just enough troops, just enough force protection, just enough helicopters, just enough vehicles with just enough capabilities, and so forth.

This approach worked there and against a relatively limited enemy, but it might not work elsewhere against a more competent enemy.


The French army operates a vehicle fleet that is well suited for precisely the kinds of operations it conducted in Mali. France using relatively light, wheeled armoured vehicles that can be transported in C-130’s and C-160’s as well as driven long distances over poor quality roads and cross country.

While lacking the level of protection of main battle tanks and heavy infantry fighting vehicles such as the American Bradley, the wheeled armour units of the French army provide considerable firepower for their weight class, especially when compared with the U.S. Stryker. French infantry fighting vehicles VBCI are equipped with 25mm automatic guns, light tanks AMX-10RC have 105mm guns for a weight of 17 tonnes and ERC-90 have 90mm guns for a weight of 9 tonnes.

The level of protection will increase in the future, and do the weight of the future vehicles replacing the VAB (which weighs 16 tonnes), the AMX10RC and the ERC-90, will also rise. The armoured reconnaissance and combat vehicle EBRC “JAGUAR” will replace the AMX-10RC and ERC-90 within the decade and the multi-role armoured vehicle VBMR “GRIFFON” will replace the old VAB.

The VBCI, which entered in service recently has replaced the AMX10 P, which was a tracked infantry fighting vehicle of 14 tonnes. The VBCI has been deployed to Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Mali. The VBMR and the EBRC, which are due to enter service by 2020, are heavier than the vehicles they are intended to replace and offer greater protection, including add-on armour kits. The VBCI weighs in at 32 tonnes, and the VBMR and EBRC are expected to be 20 at 25 tonnes. French developers have focused on maintaining their predecessors’ mobility while enhancing their capabilities, primarily by means of technology-enabling networked warfare. The VBCI, VBMR, and EBRC ostensibly will exercise high degrees of situational awareness and fight in close coordination with networked dismounted infantry, other vehicles, artillery, and air support.

JAGUAR and GRIFFON are designed to simplify maintenance. They will be equipped with sensors placed on the main vehicle components, such as suspension, brake pads and gearboxes and which allow for “predictive maintenance”. They will also have standard civilian engines that are militarised, in particular to manage the different fuel types available in Africa and elsewhere.

In addition, 70% of the equipment is common for the two vehicles, including suspension, intercoms and acoustic fire detection.

The JAGUAR and GRIFFON will also be equipped with laser warning detectors, missile warning, radio and infrared jammers; It will be protected against mines and improvised explosive devices. The JAGUAR will be armed with a T-40 CTAS gun, its effects equivalent to a 90 / 105mm gun with a capacity to shoot 200 rounds per minute, as well as two anti-tank missile pods (MBDA MMP) and a 7.62mm machine gun.

Operation Barkhane and Future Operations

Unlike Serval, which can be thought of as nothing more than an emergency response to a localised crisis in Mali, Operation Barkhane aims to cover the entire Sahel-Saharan zone.

This operation is carried out in partnership with the five countries of the Sahel-Saharan zone (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad), members of the Sahel G5.

Its area of operations is the gigantic swathe of territory from the Atlantic coast of Mauritania to Chad’s border with Sudan, a vast area like Europe. It is currently the most important foreign operation of the French troops. Reflecting the strategic shift described above, Barkhane superseded not just Serval but also long-standing operations in Chad and Ivory Coast (Épervier and Licorne, respectively), as well as reorienting the entire French military establishment in West Africa for the purpose of fighting of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda.

Barkhane’s primary targets initially were the terrorist groups active in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger and the networks that span the region and stretch into Algeria and Libya, it has clear that at this stage the French intervention can be labelled as counterinsurgency due to the fact that it aimed at reducing the destabilizing Islamist groups’ influence which constrains the flow of goods and resources in the region.

Recently, France has included under Barkhane’s mandate its growing involvement in the conflict against Boko Haram, which has been spilling across borders in the Lake Chad region and has drawn in the staunch French allies Chad and Cameroon. Paris, in early March 2015, announced that it would reinforce Barkhane, which initially had about 3,000 soldiers, with additional troops specifically for the purpose of countering Boko Haram.

Since the beginning of Operation Barkhane, more than 400 terrorists have been put out of action or handed over to the authorities of the partner countries, 20 tons of weapons have been seized or destroyed, and 9 French soldiers have perished. Previously 10 died in Mali during Operation Serval.

France has deployed nearly 4,000 troops, most of them in Mali, mainly in Gao (1,700 soldiers), with detachments in Kidal and Tessalit (northeast). It also includes 8 Mirage 2000 based in Niamey and N’Djamena, 17 combat and manoeuvre helicopters, 5 Reaper reconnaissance drones, 6-10 transport aircraft, 300 logistics vehicles and 300 armoured vehicles.

Operation Barkhane also carried out 80 development projects and 34,000 consultations and free medical aids for the benefit of the populations, added the ministry. It is also a logistical challenge in a challenging environment for people and equipment, and generated 45,000 flight hours, 600,000 rations delivered and 30,000 tonnes of freight transported.

Of course, the French during Serval demonstrated their ability to operate effectively in the Sahel-Saharan zone and accomplish a lot with very little. They have a force structure geared for light and mobile operations, including light wheeled armoured vehicles well suited for the terrain (and relatively easy to transport by air) and an operating style that enables them rapidly to pull together and field autonomous.

But France not only has too few helicopters but also has no heavy-lift helicopters, such as CH-47s, in its inventory. A leading French military analyst and commentator, Colonel Michel Goya, questioned the value over the long term of leading such a “minimal mission” when so much more would be required to “win” in the Sahel-Saharan zone. Colonel Goya concluded his article by asking whether France, now that it finds itself on the front line in Africa, will “truly assume this burden” and give itself the means to succeed presumably by investing in its military and other capabilities so as to significantly boost the scale of its effort.

Now, more than a year after Goya’s analysis, it seems that, for a variety of policy reasons, Paris is making the best of the means at Barkhane’s disposal with the objective of holding the line.

Budgetary constraints and other strategic priorities such as Operation Sentinelle, the reinforced surveillance of the French territory following the Paris attacks of January 2015 make it unlikely that France can spare more forces to Mali, or even sustain Barkhane at the current level in the long term. Sentinelle effectively ties down nearly half of the troops available to France at any time, given its force generation cycle, and is placing such a strain on the French military that it might have to alter that cycle, with cascading effects on readiness and French operations elsewhere, including in the Sahel-Saharan zone.


Serval demonstrated that the French have optimised their force for their most likely operational geography and enemy. Mobility and supportability, delivered via wheeled vehicles with a very high degree of commonality, are prioritised over firepower and protection.

Using unmanned systems, attack helicopters and artillery/mortars contributes to the overall force capability but whether this construct would be so effective against a peer enemy, or an enemy equipped with even relatively old main battle tanks, is debatable.

It must also be noted that without significant ISR, airlift and inflight refuelling support from allies, France would have been unable to mount or sustain Serval, regardless of the logistical efficiency of the wheeled medium weight force.

Also worth noting, with A400M coming into service, the French will need less airlift support in the future.

Italy – Pragmatism and Quiet Innovation

As I have been helping our Think Defence with proof reading during the development of the Medium Weight Capability History I could not help in my mind to be constantly comparing and contrasting with the similar journey undertaken by other nations.

Although the one that might spring to many minds is the evolution of the French army, as described by ‘Frenchie’ above, the one that fascinates me more is that of Italy.

Comparisons with the British Army

End of the Cold War – Similar size: The Italian Army was of a similar size to the British Army at the end of the Cold War although they organized their 26 brigades directly under 3 Corps, without a divisional level to their structure. They were also equipped with relatively old kit, the M113 for example. A number of projects were in development to improve their capabilities such as replacing the Leopard 1 as their MBT.

Global War on Terror – Deployments: The Italians might not have deployed as many men, to as many theatres, as many times as the British Army but they have deployed and fought, and gathered many lessons learnt.

Budget and manpower cuts: Just as with the British Army, the Italian Army has suffered a number of manpower cuts so it is much smaller than it was at the end of the cold war and it has also suffered budget cuts that effected equipment programmes.

Post Cold War Reforms: The Italians have gone through the same types of peace-dividend/budget driven changes as their British counterparts.

Current similarity: The Italian Army is now slightly larger than its British counterpart. It is aiming for a full spectrum of capability with heavy tracked armoured brigades, medium wheeled mechanised brigades, light infantry brigades (Alpini) and a high readiness force based around Army and Navy marine infantry battalions and Army Parachute battalions. It flies Chinooks, NH90’s and its own home grown attack helicopter (Mangusta). Just as the British Army is host nation for the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, Italy supports a NATO Corps HQ for the southern region. The Italian Army also provides manpower support to state ceremonial functions – their version of the Guards regiments.

Industrial Capability: Italy’s military aviation and naval shipbuilding capabilities are similar to the UK. In the context of this article, most of the combat and support vehicles currently in production and use within the Italian Army are of Italian design, and built by Italian companies.

This brief comparison shows that in many ways, the Italian Army is broadly comparable in size, shape, form and function to the British Army. However, it should be noted that both during the Cold War and in the decade of hot wars since, the Italian expenditure on defence has been consistently well below the UK’s – both in percentage of GDP and in “real dollar” terms


The British Army Future Force 2025 will comprise two Armoured Infantry Brigades, two Strike Brigades, and six light role Infantry Brigades that will deliver overseas engagement and UK resilience tasks, from which a division can be formed using force troops and divisional HQ function.

Joining these will be two high readiness brigades (Commando and Air Assault) with supporting CS/CSS.

What then, is the Italian vision?

They are aiming for 9 Brigades under 3 Divisional HQ’s:

2x heavy brigades (ArieteGaribaldi) armed with, Centauro tank destroyersAriete tanksDardo infantry fighting vehicles and PzH2000 self-propelled artillery

2x medium brigades (AostaPinerolo) armed with Centauro tank destroyers, Freccia infantry fighting vehicles, and M109L self-propelled howitzers

4x light brigades (FolgoreJuliaTaurinenseSassari) armed with Centauro tank destroyers, Puma armoured personnel carriers and FH-70 towed artillery

1x air-assault brigade (Pozzuolo del Friuli Brigade) with Centauro’s, Pumas, A129 Mangusta attack and NH90 transport helicopters and FH-70 towed artillery

At first view this is quite an impressive ORBAT that compares well to the UK’s “Army 2020 Refine”, with 2 armoured, 2 medium and 1 air assault brigades containing the majority of the combat power, and the 4 light brigades being somewhat equivalent to the infantry brigades of the old concept of the Adaptable Force.

I will not dwell on the Air Assault Brigade, but will point out that it has a Cavalry Regiment with Centauro “tank destroyers” and Puma 4×4 light armoured vehicles, and 155mm artillery, so it’s a little “heavier” than its British equivalent.  Similarly we will skip the debate of whether the Ariete Mk1 is “as good” as the Challenger 2, or whether a Dardo IFV is as capable as an upgraded Warrior with 40mm CTA and other improvements. However I will point out that where the UK has always had tracked (CVR(T)) armoured reconnaissance, the Italian Cavalry units are based on the wheeled Centauro 8×8 with its 105mm gun, and the smaller Puma 4×4. So even the Italian heavy units have a mix of tracked and wheeled vehicles, but this is not necessarily a handicap to them based on their doctrine.

The Italian Medium Brigades

The two medium brigades do not have an identical order of battle as funding has limited the deployment rate of newer equipment, like Strike, they are very much work in progress.

The Aosta Brigade has a structure which many might consider a good model for UK Strike Brigades: A Cavalry Regiment with 8×8 Centauro and 3 Mechanised Infantry Battalions on the Freccia 8×8 IFV (based on the Centauro chassis and automotive components).

The standard 28 tonne IFV carries a full 8 man dismount section with a turreted 25mm auto-cannon and 7.62mm coax MG. The Anti-armour version adds 2 x Spike ATGW launchers, in armoured boxes, one either side of the standard turret. A 120mm mortar version has a hydraulically damped recoil system but fires up through the roof (not a turret mounted auto-mortar)

The first order for 253 Freccia was placed in 2006. A follow up order for another 381 was placed in 2014, including a new recovery variant, and 120 Freccia ISTAR versions for the Cavalry (recce) regiments.

The Pinerolo Brigade is different in that it has a regiment of Ariete tanks, and not Centauro based cavalry recce unit.

Note though they are only mostly wheeled – they rely on M109L tracked self-propelled howitzers, while the 4 light brigades have the towed (wheeled) FH70’s. Current budgetary issues with buying all the Freccia’s they want, as quickly as they want them, means there is no money or current program of record for a wheeled 155 SP gun to replace the M109L’s, but there are plenty of options if the Italians felt they needed to be all wheeled brigades.

Medium Cavalry – Italian Armoured Recce

The Centauro B1 is not a “tank destroyer” or “infantry support gun”, it is in fact a reconnaissance platform that equips cavalry units. Cavalry reconnaissance units are often tasked with flank screening, economy of force and rear-guard type tasking, as well as advancing in front of the main body of friendly forces to find the enemy. You can see how a 105mm gun with APDFS and HE rounds might be rather useful across this spectrum of missions. For lower profile reconnaissance these regiments have the much smaller Puma 4 x 4 (4 crew).

Over 340 Centauro’s where originally purchased, with around 300 in the operational fleet at its peak and they are not all going to be upgraded to the new MK2 version with a 120mm gun.



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However, the latest batch of Freccia includes 120 ISTAR variants aka “VBM Explorer”, so it looks like there will be a good mix of 120mm gun vehicles, and 25mm auto-cannon armed Explorer vehicles, which have the ability to launch a small HORUS UAV from a turret mounted box launcher and a small UGV from the rear ramp.

There will be two variants:

The Freccia E1 will carry out long-range reconnaissance tasks using the LYRA 10 radar developed by Finmeccanica-Selex ES, a thermal camera for targets detection, and two Horus micro UAV launchers for surveillance and targets acquisition. The LYRA 10 – a land surveillance radar providing high precision measurement of targets’ position – can detect and automatically classify small objects that move on the land surface at low speed.

The Freccia E2 will be deployed for short-range surveillance and targets acquisition, therefore it will be able to perform close up exploration. In addition to the Janus Full Format sensor provided by Selex ES (already present in the latest configurations of the HITFIST turret mounted on the VBM Freccia, and able to provide medium and long-range panoramic view in all weather conditions), the Freccia E2 will be equipped with the TRP-2 RISTA (Reconnassaince, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target-Acquisition) developed by OTO Melara, an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), and SPIKE anti-tank missiles.

Both these variants look very interesting.

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Other variants are also available.

Read more at the Iveco and Leonardo websites.


The Italians have always spent less on defence than the UK, and yet like so many other nations, they seem to get more bank for their buck (or Euroe). The Centauro B1 was designed in 1986, the year the Warrior was coming into service in the UK. It entered service in 1991 and was in production from 1991 to 2006, with some 490 being built for domestic and export use, at an averaged unit cost of 1.6 millionEuro each (that’s approx 1.4 million GBP each).

1991 was the year of the first Gulf war, and as the Centauro is a Cavalry reconnasaince wagon, lets note that fact that at that point we were stil using CVR(T), which at the point was approaching 20 years in service. 26 years later, we have not yet actually replaced the CVR(T), although we are about to.

However the Italians took the original design and used the chasis and drive chain, and designed a family of IVF’ variants, the Freccia entering service in 2006 (3 years before production Boxers joined the German army).

So in that 26 years, in effort to build our own equivalent to the Centauro / Freccia – a medium weight armoured reconasaince capability and familty of supporting vehicles, including an 8 x 8 wheeled APC, as detailed in the rest of the hstory series by Think Defence, we have had:

  • MRAV
  • FRES
  • MIV

Now the Italian forces have not had everything their own way due to budgetary pressures, they have not yet completed their procurement fo Freccia, and their wheeled Cavalry units, and medium brigades are not quite complete yet. However while we have squandered millions upon millions of pounds of tax payers money lurching from program to program, tracked and wheeled; they took a cold war design, built on it, and have a reconnasince capability in the VBM Explorer that looks as cutting edge as the Ajax Scout, if not moreso with its integral reconnasaince UAV and UGV.

We may end up with the best medium tracked armoured recce vehicle ever, but instead of using it in heavy, tracked armoured brigades where it was designed to be used alongside upgraded Challenger 2’s and Warriors, we are now planning to use to provide some small element of firepower to the so called “Strike Brigade” – a capability that is  “neither nowt nor summat” as we say in Yorkshire.

We will deploy them alongside the MIV, a lightly armed 8 x 8 APC. There will be no dedicated anti-armour variant of either vehicle, if we are lucky we might see an unprotected Javelin attached to an RWS.

There will be no ‘direct fire’ fire support vehicle, and if we are lucky our old 81mm mortars might fire through a roof hatch.

All these systems either in service with the Italians, or coming into service, are home grown.

If it was a football game it would be at least Italy 2 – UK 0.


Both of these examples show that medium weight forces can look very different depending on defence, political and industrial influences.

The French force has a long pedigree in Africa and has evolved to meet the specific requirements of that theatre, namely, poor infrastructure and large areas. The Italian medium weight force has also evolved to deal with the unusual geographic requirements of Italy but also has a high degree of utility on other theatres.

The Italian designs are also particularly innovative, the use of integral UAV and UGV for example.

Both emphasise logistical commonality and both are designed and built locally, no assembly of anyone else’s designs and no overseas partnerships.

France and Italy clearly value their sovereign design, build and support capability.


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