Recently I assessed both some of the lessons that could be taken from the Chilcot enquiry into the UK's contribution to the Iraq campaign, and also some of the lessons that have come out of the fighting in Ukraine. During the process of this it occurred to me that British land forces as currently structured seem ill prepared to meet some of the challenges raised, such as some of the logistic issues raised by Chilcot and certainly some of the emerging challenges that have appeared in Ukraine. A leaked British army report would seem to agree with that position.
The trouble is what to do about it? Today I'm going to dip my toe into waters that I normally try and avoid, that of the so-called "fantasy fleets/fantasy orbats" etc, and look at a possible restructuring of the British Army to meet these new challenges. But in order to do this with any kind of sanity and an intention to produce something that is at least workable in reality - in broad terms if not in detail - then it needs to be somewhat grounded and adhere to a few basic rules.
The first rule is not to assume a budget uplift of any kind. It's a waste of time. The second is to try and keep in view the reality of modern procurement. While it might be tempting to ditch most of the current armoured vehicle fleet and replace them with CV90 variants etc, that suggestion is unrealistic and a similar waste of time. The third and final challenge is to try and adhere to the current political and army strategy. That alone should be quite easy because they don't really seem to have one beyond "be ready to fight".
One of the main issues with the current army structure appears to be that it's split into two separate armies, one for the hard early fighting and one designed more for stabilisation and enduring operations. It also rather assumes that the immediate solution to a problem will either be a small contingent from the Parachute Regiment, or else an armoured battle group, scaling up to an armoured brigade or division. It just doesn't seem to have that much flexibility built into it.
So the starting point is to take a leaf out of the books of the RAF and RN by moving away from the idea of large formations on paper that are structured to fight together and instead move towards an approach of producing Force Elements At Readiness (FEAR. Or FE@R if you're one of those 'transformation management' type twats). Essentially a force that is designed to deliver sub-components that can then be plugged into a bigger formation as and when needed. For example when the government says that the RAF has sent x number of Typhoons to take part in an operation, frequently they've come from an array of different squadrons as opposed to all from the same one. That's roughly where we're headed with this.
The next problem is to do a bit of jiggery pokery (for those not aware, that's a technical British term meaning "move things about in a semi-coordinated manner") to make everything fit, especially to accommodate some capabilities which are currently missing. I'd advise anyone reading this who has a minor heart attack at some points when they see that such and such unit has been removed and start worrying about cuts to keep reading onwards, because they might find that a) that unit reappears later in a different form or b) the numbers are accounted for elsewhere, even if the cap badge has changed.
Let's look at that basic building block idea first, try and clarify things a little.
The idea is to break the entire force up into its respective specialities such as armour, armoured infantry etc, then form a number of three battalion brigades in each area. Cycling each year, one battalion is resting/refitting, one is working up ready for potential deployment, and the third is kept at readiness/sent on deployment. If all goes according to plan then at any one time the army would have a number of battalion sized units to call on, and if needed to could grab the next battalion in the rotation as well, accelerating its annual training funding to bring it up to readiness as quickly as possible.
In a sense some chunks of the army are already set this way, so the actual amount of jiggery pokery isn't as much as you'd think. Probably the single biggest change is reducing the expectation of what would be deployed for a divisional assignment. The current UK expectation is built around sending two "square" brigades, with four major fighting units in each. One of the prime lessons from Chilcot is that the UK might not actually be best placed to support such a force, along with all its ancillary elements, in the field. Compared with the force sent to Iraq back in 1990/91, which was essentially two "triangle" brigades, with three main combat components in each, plus added extras.
My thinking at the minute is that the UK would be better scaling back to this kind of effort, especially as a future campaign is likely to require a larger amount of ancillary units for support (which we'll get into later) and may not have the capacity to sustain eight major combat units in the field going forward. Before anyone bemoans whether such a force would be sufficiently strong, you only need to remind yourself of the point that this was the divisional structure used for the first gulf war where British forces performed exceptionally well.
And on that note we might as well run them down some of the "elements" in this FEAR approach, to get a better idea of what we're talking about here;
Stays basically as is now, with three regiments on rotation. The only real change is one of expectations. Instead of each being assigned to a fixed brigade, they would instead form their own (largely administrative) Armoured Recce Brigade containing the three units, and could be called upon if necessary to support a more infantry orientated force.
Again, kind of stays the same but kind of changes. Three regiments equipped with Challenger on rotation forming their own separate brigade. Most likely to be called upon to work with armoured infantry, but under the FEAR system would be free to be deployed alongside any other element as needed.
Currently six battalions worth spread across three different brigades. The six battalions would be retained, but now forming two brigades of three battalions, each designed to generate a lead battalion as well as one working up, which could be accelerated forwards if needed the same as everyone else. If this is starting to make sense now then everything else will make a lot more sense too.
Heavy Protected Mobility
Currently three battalions, operating the Mastiff Protected Patrol Vehicle (PPV), spread across three brigades. Would consolidate into one brigade of the three battalions, ready to generate at least one - and possibly two if required - battalions of heavy protected infantry to meet immediate operational requirements.
Light Protected Mobility
Currently six battalions equipped with Foxhound, dispersed across four brigades of the adaptable force. Would be consolidated down into two dedicated brigades, from which each could generate one battalion at higher readiness with another working up. Like the armoured recce brigades then there would be two battalions total at readiness, with another two that could be accelerated forward if necessary.
I just want to pause at this point to review, so we can all get an idea of how the army could go about generating a division under this system. It could hypothetically from this set up so far include an armoured regiment, two armoured infantry battalions, a heavy protected battalion and two light protected battalions. Or, by drawing forward the battalions in work up, it could end up with two heavy protected battalions and four light protected. Got it? Good...
This is where the first heart attack moment might come for some. Because the proposal is to shift the three current regiments out of this role. Fear not, or nought as the case may be, as they'll be back in a minute. The problem that I'm trying to solve at this point comes with 16 Air Assault Brigade. The lead airborne task force idea has its merits, but seems unlikely to really be tested any time soon. The UK also lacks a really clear role for an air mobile brigade, not least because it probably lacks sufficient assets to make such a brigade work in practice. You could base one for example in the Baltics as a local air mobile reserve, but then that requires a strategy beyond the governments current "just generate a force for stuff" approach.
It strikes me then that we could get more use out of 16 Air Assault brigade in the current strategic (and I use that term loosely) context, by combining their parachute skills with the light recce role. Equipped with Jackal, the Parachute Regiment would re-role to this task, along with maintaining its currency in parachute deployment just in case. The only tough part is how to get two battalions to cover a three battalion task?
There's three options as I see it. One is to bring 1 PARA back from the Special Forces Support Group and stand up a new battalion in its place, perhaps an all arms unit. Two is to just raise an additional battalion for the Parachute Regiment, brand spanking new, and thus unlikely. Third is to simply form three light recce units out of the two current battalions, given that cavalry type unit scales are generally smaller than infantry ones, so replacing the number of men in three cavalry regiments with two infantry battalions should be a lot easier than it might otherwise seem. Which option is chosen is of minor real concern to me. Fill your boots arguing over that one says I.
Remember we just put aside the three light cav regiments? Well, this is why. One of the lessons that is being (re)learned in Ukraine is the need for a mobile anti-tank force. One that can either sit behind friendly lines and act as a backstop against enemy armoured breakthroughs, or that can accompany a friendly armoured breakthrough and provide it with the ability to meet enemy armoured counter-thrusts without having to divert the main tank units away from their objectives. We've also seen in Ukraine that such units, if armed with direct fire guns, can be used to provide close support to infantry on the offensive by suppressing enemy fire positions.
The logical option then would be to look at something like a modern IFV with a 120mm gun option. And as luck would have it the ASCOD platform that will form the base of the armies new FRES concept just happens to come with a number of 105mm or 120mm DF turret options. At the minute there are no plans to purchase such a variant, but I think we can find the money with a bit of jiggery pokery later.
Under current plans the army has one artillery brigade, encompassing both light and heavy elements. Under this plan I'd like to see them shifted to form two separate brigades. One would be light artillery focused and designed to rotate three regiments equipped with the 105mm light gun. The second brigade would be a mobile artillery brigade, containing three regiments each split 50/50 between 155mm self-propelled guns (currently AS-90) and MLRS. This split, driving up the number of MLRS, is again driven by the lessons coming out of Ukraine where the sheer amount of firepower that can be laid down by a rocket based system is proving highly advantageous.
I would not advocate going back to cluster munitions, but it is becoming apparent that rocket based systems are increasingly the future of heavy artillery due to the versatility that is present in the launcher, which can fire rapid barrages for surprise and maximum initial destruction, sustained shots for suppression, guided weapons for precision (and in some cases extended range), and with a bit of conversion can even be used for things like housing tactical scale cruise missiles.
It also poses an interesting opportunity for those looking at this article with a view of thrift. In Ukraine the anti-tank role has been taken up by 122mm self-propelled artillery systems. So if the UK were to fill out the mobile artillery brigade with all rocket systems, then that would free up the AS-90 systems to take on the anti-tank/infantry support role, saving the need for buying a DF version of ASCOD. Again, that's something for people to argue among themselves, especially as AS-90 is getting a little long in the tooth itself.
Under Army 2020 plans the army will contain about 14 light infantry battalions, spread across a myriad of adaptable brigades, Cyprus, Brunei, and public duties. While everyone bemoans the current size of the army, I do think it is a stretch to justify that number of light infantry units. When you consider that a light protected mobility battalion for example is basically just some light infantry riding in mine resistant trucks, I do wonder why the light infantry is kept at its current levels. Can we justify in the current economic and strategic climate keeping 14 battalions of light "line" infantry?
With a heavy heart I don't think it's practical any longer. Cyprus, Brunei and public duties consumes five battalions which can rotate with pretty much any full infantry battalion from across the force. That leaves nine remaining in a dedicated, deployable role as light infantry, and I really can't see the rationale for sustaining them at the level. As we're gonna need cash elsewhere later, I'm opting for a reduction to just one brigade, rotating three light infantry battalions.
One of the reasons I need money in this proposal is to fill the gap for anti-air, specifically an expansion to a full brigade dedicated to the task, designed as elsewhere to produce an entire RA regiment ready for deployment. This is in light of the threat posed by two scenarios; the possibility that UK forces will find themselves deployed somewhere with no or only intermittent air coverage, and more importantly, the threat of drones.
While the UK currently operates missile based systems for air defence, due (eventually) to be replaced by the land based version of CAMM, it would seem there is a requirement developing for a mobile, rapid fire, cannon based system, something that could tackle drones in a cost effective (or at least more cost efficient) manner than using missiles to down things like converted civilian drones.
It's also worth considering that such systems have found alternate uses. It seems almost every conflict in the modern era is accompanied by the sight of Toyota pick up trucks mounting twin cannons designed for air defence, but being employed in the ground support/suppression role. Many nations have also found that the presence of a rapid firing 20-30mm system with a high degree of elevation can be very handy in an urban environment with lots of high rise buildings, when traditional vehicle mounted direct fire systems struggle to achieve sufficient elevation to provide adequate fire support. Some are even looking into the use of such systems to degrade incoming artillery and mortar attacks (note: degrade, not stop).
Here's where things get tricky, because neither Warrior nor ASCOD/FRES supports an anti-air system. So in order to pick one up, it means going out and finding either a system off the shelf (which the MoD probably can't bring itself to do), or more likely some kind of gold plated, super bespoke system that costs three times as much as everyone elses. Insert your favourite here.
This one is a bit tricky. The UK already has two regular regiments for supporting drones, a regiment for signals monitoring and jamming, and a regiment assigned to the counter-battery role with radars. The goal here is to create two brigades, one with three regiments from ISTAR and one with three regiments for EW. The question is what do you count as ISTAR and what do you classify as electronic warfare?
One of the lessons coming out of Ukraine, one of the things everyone is getting very worried about, is just how far Russian EW technology has progressed. Rumours abound of jammed GPS, jammed radios, fires being directed accurately onto counter-battery weapons etc. Not only does the UK need to catch up, but it also has to define the boundaries between what is considered offensive and what is defensive, and where these sit.
To examine the problem, consider what happens if you tap into an enemies radio net for example. Then you have a choice; listen passively and record the data, using it to inform planning as well as providing location data of the transmitter, or, jam the signal or otherwise attempt to interrupt the communications, such as with false messages, thereby denying its use to the enemy for a while, but also alerting them to your operation.
Now as ISTAR is generally considered somewhat passive, more about collection, while EW implies aggressive attack, where do you put the various pieces? Signals intelligence starts passive, but if you're jamming then it becomes a form of electronic attack. So is it ISTAR? Is it EW? Or is it just kept as "signals", as its own little thing capable of being offensive or defensive, either within or separate from a conventional signals support unit?
That's why I've bundled these three together here. I'm not especially concerned with the detail. That's for others to argue about. I just want to get across the point that the UK should be taking this evolving threat posed by the electronic environment more seriously. It should have a significant dedicated base of troops assigned to it and should be considered as vital to future operations as the need for artillery and medical support. It might even end up as multiple brigades (still adhering to this "rule of 3") covering different aspects of ISTAR/EW.
Like the combat units, logistics/medical/engineers etc can be broken down into a series of three unit brigades covering areas like Close Support, Theatre Logistics, medical, armoured support etc, continuing the principle of using rotation to provide force elements ready for deployment where ever needed, in support of a combined force. There really is no major change here, aside from the formality of putting the various specialities into their own brigades.
I suspect this would end up being called a civilian affairs brigade or something. Basically a brigade, probably heavy with reserves, whose job it would be to retain, develop and put into practice the lessons of prior COIN operations. They would deploy experts with any UK deployment and advise commanders on how to avoid some of the pitfalls that led to problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to head off problems before they become problems. They would play an important role in managing enduring deployments, providing a pool of expert knowledge in COIN, both past experiences and current approaches. It would also serve in peace time as a sort of pool for managing COIN practice as a competency, in the same way the Royal Marines preserve the knowledge and currency of amphibious warfare.
The topic of reservists is a touchy one, with a lot of strong opinions on all sides. It's not something that can really be engaged in any sufficient depth here. Just one thing that has occurred to me and that is the possibility of the army looking again at what it expects from the reserves. The RN and RAF tend to look at reservists as augments to very defined roles, especially roles where a civilian can bring their non-military skills directly into play. Both organisations also seem to not ask too much of their reservists, like expecting them to come in off the street and fly a Typhoon or manage the command centre of a ship.
I wonder then if the army should perhaps lay off the reliance on reservists in things such as major combat roles. I know the government is keen, because they're tight fisted bar stewards who want to save every penny they can while still providing themselves with something they can spin positively. It makes me wonder as well whether the army would be better served coming up with a more defined planned for reservists, such as not expecting to call them up unless they're really needed as opposed to routinely pulling them away from their civilian lives just to fill spaces, and giving units like reserve infantry a clearer role as formed units of auxiliaries, such as prisoner handling, protecting supply convoys, HQ protection and the like.
Again going back to the lessons of Ukraine we've learnt that lighter vehicles are far less survivable in the modern environment what with the increasing lethality of modern anti-tank weapons. As such, in future the UK should be aiming to deploy vehicles like Warrior and Challenger into warzones with an appropriate level of armour as a standard, and not just as a last minute "oh piss, we better dig that stuff out of storage". If we have systems that can adequately protect armoured vehicles against the bulk of the threats they might face then the UK shouldn't think twice about issuing such equipment.
Which in turn leads me to one of the lessons of Chilcot, which as good as said "the army wasn't prepared to actually go somewhere and fight". It is a ridiculous state of affairs to send soldiers to war without sufficient levels of basic equipment such as ammunition and boots. The army (indeed the services in general) need to get away from the civilian commercial mentality of "just enough, just in time". The mantra in stores holding should be "More than enough, and a little bit extra margin just to be sure".
Future Armour Replacement
While Challenger is sufficient for now, it is going a little long in the tooth. Warrior will also ultimately need replacing. Going back to that lesson from Ukraine one more time about the need for heavy, survivable vehicles, it might be worth taking a leaf right out of the current Russian thinking and look a future replacement for Challenger that would form the base vehicle for a number of variants, not just a tank. This would include an APC/IFV, possibly an air defence variant, usual stuff like bridging vehicles and recovery vehicles, and whatever else is deemed necessary for fighting modern armoured warfare.