Friday, 4 May 2018

Boxer for the UK

In the intervening era since I last did a post many glaciers have retreated and subsequently returned (then retreated again). In the same time span the UK has finally opted to go with Boxer to fill its requirement for an 8x8 wheeled IFV to fit out the new fangled strike brigades.

Why Boxer? Good question, the answer to which is likely quite irrelevant given that the amount of different 8x8 IFVs in service around the world means that there is probably little to actually choose between them, at least until you get down into some very nitty, gritty details. Why an 8x8 at all, and what actually is a strike brigade? These are - I think - far more interesting questions than which specific piece of kit fulfils the role.

And the answer to those two questions is; no idea and no idea. The army still hasn't articulated (publicly) what exactly a strike brigade is supposed to do beyond justifying the purchase of a new and shiny platform. I wish I was joking. So far there doesn't even seem to be a solid rationale for the strike brigade. Nobody - not even people you'd normally expect to be "in the know" - seems to know. There have been some vague comments about the French experience in Mali and the fact that everyone else seems to have them so why don't we, but tther than that not much of any substance.

The first question though (actually the second question, but... nevermind) is the one that I in particular have a difficult time answering; why an 8x8 at all? Let's dip into the history of the armoured personnel carrier briefly to try and obtain some context.

In the wake of the first world war and the terrible carnage it wrought, military thinkers began planning ahead. Naval thinkers started to look at weapons like the aircraft carrier for its feasibility as a reconnaissance and strike asset. People like Giulio Douhet went a bit mad and started talking about dropping poisoned gas onto civilians from aeroplanes. And land power advocates began assessing the "tank" and its future as a deadlock breaking, trench over-running machine of war.

People like Heinz Guderian, who came to the conclusion that tanks needed four things to really work to their full potential:

1) Properly selected terrain, the flatter, firmer and more open the better,
2) Operational surprise, to shock the enemy and overcome him quickly,
3) Concentration of the tank forces, to achieve a bold and powerful thrust,
4) A broad front offensive utilising infantry, to stop the enemy concentrating reserves against the main armoured thrust,

But most importantly of all he identified that armour needed to be used in concert with other arms to achieve the desired effect, advocating a division structure that included infantry, artillery, engineers, air defence, communications etc all in one combined force.

Well, I say he identified it, but in reality most armies had figured out the basic lessons of the war long before Guderian's book Achtung Panzer! was even written. Guderian gets brownie points essentially for recognising from an early stage the final (and more desirable) form that the armoured division would take and for then writing it down.

The predominant lesson everyone had recognised was that tanks needed close infantry support. Without it the tanks would simply roar ahead and disappear off over the hills and far away... then promptly run out of fuel and ammunition, break down, get isolated and swamped by artillery firing in the direct fire role or by infantry assaulting the tanks at close quarters, and all the while unable to actually hold a piece of cleared terrain, or in many cases like woods, to even enter it in the first place.

As spectacular as they were at running over barbed wire and trenches, at deflecting bullets and artillery fragments alike, and at blowing up machine gun nests with their mobile cannons, tanks were fundamentally a bit rubbish at achieving any kind of lasting military objective. Their foot bound counterparts simply could not cover the same terrain and obstacles, under the same heavy fire, at the same speed. Thus, the half track was born.

Early half tracks were basically just commercial trucks but with the rear wheels removed and replaced with a set of tracks. As time passed they became a little more advanced, being custom built for the role with much better protection and in many cases with track brakes to aid steering, but fundamentally the principle remained the same throughout; a vehicle that could cross all manner of rough terrain at the same speed (or nearly) as the tanks they were supporting, while providing protection to the troops inside against machine gun and rifle fire, as well as fragments from mortar and artillery rounds.

That was all that was really expected of the half track and it did this job decently enough. The main deficiency of such vehicles was a lack of overhead protection, making them vulnerable to direct hits from above, air bursting fragmentation weapons, plunging machine gun and/or rifle fire, strafing runs by aircraft and from grenades or molotov cocktails being thrown into the vehicle. As such the next innovation in armoured infantry mobility was the addition of a roof, which increased protection at the expense of added weight, poorer situational awareness and the ability to fire from the vehicle. The more enterprising/mad types also lost the ability to disembark over the sides in the assault. 

The first of those expenses was unavoidable, but the second and third were solved respectively by the addition of command hatches in the roof and firing ports in the side, features which didn't make it on to all APCs. Then someone realised that there was a much more pressing problem.

The battlefields of the future, by which of course we mainly mean "Germany", were destined (at least it was believed) to become radioactive wastelands at a very early stage in the next world war. The potential use of chemical and even biological weapons was also a consideration, so house prices in 1950s Germany must have been a sight to behold to first time buyers.

The major problem this caused for APCs is that while they could happily be sealed and pressurised to keep such nastiness out (theoretically at least...), that also pretty much precluded the use of hatches or gun ports, even the hatch at the back used to get in and out. Or in other words the infantry inside were essentially trapped in their own vehicle, with no means to actually fight if needed. Thus was born the Infantry Fighting Vehicle. 

In essence just an APC, but now with a turret sporting a medium calibre gun to let you shoot at other vehicles, infantry and - if you were feeling optimistic - enemy helicopters.

The Soviets added one final innovation. While the tracked BMP-1 was a decent solution to providing support for tanks on the move, it was quite expensive to build in large numbers and required the equivalent of a tank transporter to move any great distance without breaking down or at least needing extensive maintenance, which wasn't ideal for a state the size of the USSR and with the kind of budget they were operating on, hence the 8-wheeled IFV was born.

Cheaper to mass produce than a BMP and with the ability to self deploy over some considerable distances, the BTR-60 was a compromise between cost and performance. It was intended solely for the purpose of adding mobility to otherwise foot bound infantry formations. The job of keeping up with the tanks in the armoured divisions would be left to the BMP, a recognition of the limited off road mobility of a wheeled vehicle design, even one with 8 wheels. Just for reference the BTR-60 weighed 10 tons; the Boxer IFV weighs over three times that when set up for combat.

And here is where we arrive back at the present and I find myself asking again, why an 8x8? No matter how much people bang on about deflating tires and fancy suspensions, Boxer simply will not be able to match the off road mobility of a Challenger tank. When the sun is shining and the ground is firm and dry, maybe. If the terrain remains mostly smooth then perhaps. But what if it encounters weather like we've had in recent days, where a typical months worth of rain falls in just a few days and the fields and tracks rapidly become a boggy nightmare? What if the preferred path of the attack happens to take the division... wait, this is the UK... the brigade over some uneven terrain, even just simple drainage ditches around a field, that the tanks can traverse with ease but the Boxer struggles with?

As far as I'm concerned this categorically rules out Boxer for being used to support armour, which leaves it in the BTR-60/Stryker category of being used solely to provide protected mobility to infantry formations that previously lacked such. Presumably this is the rationale behind the strike brigade? An infantry brigade that can deploy itself under armour and bring a bit of extra punch?

To which I point to Foxhound and Mastiff and question whether or not we already have a protected mobility capability. Indeed, are not the battalions equipped with those vehicles literally called Light/Heavy Protected Mobility Infantry? Granted, neither of them sports a turret mounted automatic cannon overhead and neither of them has (I hope) ambitions of entering any cross country derbys anytime soon, but fundamentally they are capable of moving infantry from point A to point B rapidly, while under armour.

On the bright side though, at least we're not planning to mix our shiny new APCs with any tracked vehicles, thus completely negating most of the deployability benefits by having to rely on tracked reconnaissance assets... sorry what?... ah, ffs.

It's certain that Boxer provides an upgrade over walking. It's also certain that Boxer provides an upgrade over Foxhound or Mastiff in the protection, (tactical) mobility and firepower stakes, but is that rely worth the expense? At a time when the army is offering people some quite juicy bounties to bring them back into uniform and when it can't even realistically deploy the armoured division which supposedly makes it a "reference customer" as the new CDS once put it, why is it pouring money down this new plughole?

The whole point of bringing vehicles purchased for Afghanistan into the core equipment program was to avoid further costly purchases and to get some added value out of what would otherwise have been some relatively expensive and short lived assets. This new purchase plan seems to blow all that sensible planning out of the water, and worst of all it doesn't seem to be plugging any kind of coherently defined gap. Right now it looks an awful lot like "well, everyone else has them, so we want some too!"

I don't doubt that Boxer does what it does very well. The issue is whether what Boxer does is what we need? Do we really have a glaring hole in what is already quite a financially stretched army for an armoured, cannon totting truck? What does a strike brigade do if it runs into armoured opposition beyond just running away? And if it isn't in any danger of running into any armoured opposition, why do we need such a gucci capability as Boxer? What scenario sits in that happy middle ground where Foxhound and Mastiff are insufficient, but Warrior is either overkill or too slow to deploy? 

I can think of some. I already mentioned the Mali scenario that the French faced, where the extra firepower of something like VBCI (which would have been my preferred choice if we were going to do this whole 8x8 thing) came in quite handy for the French, but wasn't really a battle winner as such (a lot of the vehicles sent were the more mundane 4 wheeled VAB). Do we really need to spend such significant sums, in such constrained times no less, purely for the benefit of maybe having to fight a few milita men? 

I'm not convinced.