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The Divisional Paradox

At the 2017 Royal United Services Institute Land Warfare Conference the importance of the Division in modern operations was repeatedly highlighted.  The Chief of the General Staff (CGS) commented “the first thing I would stress… is the importance of the Division”.  Joint Force 2025 calls for a ‘war fighting Division optimised for high intensity combat operations’.  This marks a strategic shift for British defence policy which had become focussed on maintaining intervention forces.  The British Army has two divisions; 3rd (UK) Division is the war fighting ‘reactive force’ commanding Armoured Infantry Brigades with Challenger 2 and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles.  1st (UK) Division forms the ‘adaptive force’ for tasks such as defence engagement and commands Light Infantry Brigades.  The reforming of a warfighting Division is hand in hand with the wider Joint Force 2025 plan to project power and provide military options.

This article argues that the Division of 2025 is lighter and less capable of high intensity combat than the Division of today.  It makes three key points. Firstly, that current threats point to a future in which armour and firepower are increasingly important and that we should not abandon heavy armour.  Secondly, that the planned restructuring of Armoured Infantry Brigades is a significant cut in the Divisions warfighting capability.  Thirdly that Strike Brigades, whilst offering new strategies, are not focussed or equipped to deliver effect in high intensity combat operations.  This undermines the idea of a warfighting Division.  To be successful, the Division of 2025 needs additional heavy armour and anti-tank capabilities to overmatch likely adversaries and ensure its freedom of manoeuvre.  Only a genuine fighting Division will provide the options that the UK may require to counter future threats.

Likely scenarios for deployment are varied but pose significant problems for the Division of 2025.  Russian experience in Ukraine has shown that tanks from the 1970s are decisive in ground combat and across a modern battlefield.  Deterrence scenarios on NATO’s eastern flank largely centre on defending against a conventional armoured attack highlighting the need for credible anti-armour and manoeuvre.  Irregular adversaries, such as the Islamic State, are using armour (including modern main battle tanks) with great success showing that we must consider the threat in all theatres.  Looking at this these trends, future Divisions must put a force on the ground in sufficient size to both maintain credibility and ensure its own freedom of manoeuvre against adversaries who have significant capabilities to deny tactical freedom of manoeuvre. Whilst future trends are difficult to assess, armour and firepower will always remain decisive in combat.

The Division of 2025 will contain two Armoured Infantry Brigades, two Strike Brigades and a range of supporting assets including an additional Light Brigade from 1st (UK) Division.  This will be deployed within a wider force package including air and naval assets as part of Joint Force 2025.  The entire force gives a depth of capabilities from intelligence to strategic strike assets.  The detail of the reform hollows the capability of the warfighting Division for two reasons.

Firstly, the Armoured Infantry Brigades will be smaller, giving the Division reduced manoeuvre options.  The current Armoured Infantry Brigade contains five regular major units.  Armoured Infantry Brigades of 2025 will only contain three with recce and mechanised infantry removed.  The Division’s third Armoured Infantry Brigade will re-role as a Strike Brigade further reducing capability.  This reduces the warfighting capability of Armoured Infantry Brigades and shrinks the frontage they can expect to maintain.  It also significantly reduces the number of main battle tanks available to support manoeuvre.  The removal of recce units also makes the Brigades dependent on Division recce undermining a Brigades ability to plan and conduct its own tactical battle.  There are no Divisional recce forces in the 2025 plan meaning this capability is lost.  The Armoured Infantry Brigades of 2025 are smaller and less capable than those we have today.

Secondly, Strike Brigades are unlikely to be able to hold a ‘front line’ or engage in high intensity conflict to counter modern threats.  Strike Brigades, which will use the Ajax ‘medium’ armoured vehicles and a yet to be procured Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, are designed for operations at a reach of up to 2000km and this provides manoeuverist options.  The Ajax family of vehicles is impressive with connected intelligence and excellent all round protection.  With a new 40mm cannon and armoured piercing ammunition, Ajax is likely to be able to successfully engage armour up to T-72.  But this falls short of the capability it is replacing: Challenger 2 main battle tanks in Armoured Infantry Brigades.  Ironically, the Ajax vehicle Strike Brigades are based around, would be suitable for employment in Armoured Infantry Brigades.  Strike Brigades lack the heavy firepower currently available to Armoured Infantry (120mm gun v 40mm cannon) and do not have the firepower required to successfully overwhelm future adversaries.  It is not clear how, or if, the concept will fit into a Division plan for conventional high intensity conflict.  It is easy to see a scenario where the lighter nature of Strike means they cannot face opponents without considerable risk, resulting in reduced military options.

Options that could maintain the planned structure without hollowing the Division are:

  • Add an additional tank unit as Divisional troops. This would give a heavy option to either augment the Armoured Infantry Brigades or conduct operations on their own.
  • Develop anti-armour capabilities and develop specialist anti-tank units.
  • Up-gun Strike Brigades. US Marine Air Ground Task Forces have dedicated air and aviation support to mitigate their lack of armour.  Estonian Army sections each contain two anti-tank weapons.
  • Retain three Armoured Infantry Brigades.
  • Balance armoured infantry battlegroups with a support company to mitigate the loss of Brigade firepower elsewhere.

Joint Force 2025 is an impressive plan of military reform that will provide military options.  Inside that, the warfighting Division of 2025 is a paradox.  On one hand we talk of war fighting.  On the other we hollow the very capabilities needed to do it.  Despite the addition of new technology, the warfighting Division of 2025 is lighter and less capable than the Division of today.  The current design needs to be amended to reflect the nature of high intensity conflicts.


The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form

British Army

Steve has 8 years leadership experience with an infantry unit; he has also served on the staff of an Armoured Infantry Brigade

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Nicholas Drummond
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Nicholas Drummond

Steve, An interesting article. Thanks for taking the time to share your views. I believe the British Army needs a minimum of two deployable divisions to have a credible peacetime structure that can be rapidly expanded should the need ever arise. This really ought to be achievable under current headcount constraints. One needs to be a traditional Heavy Armour (tracked) Division with three Armoured Infantry Brigades; the other needs to be a Medium Weight (Wheeled) Division with three Strike Brigades. We additionally need an independent Air Assault Brigade, which essentially complements the Royal Marines’ amphibious capability. Allowing for permanently deployed… Read more »

Marcus
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Marcus

“The biggest problem affecting the creation of the British Army units I have outlined is a lack of armoured vehicles.” Incorrect. The biggest problem with your plan is the lack of supporting units. You might just about be able to create 3 divisions using the current headcount of infantry… but how are you going to deploy and supply them? The military would require more medical assets to support 1 div, 16 AA, 3 CMDO as well as your proposed second and third division. The same goes for Artillery, Engineers, Logistics, REME, the list goes on. This is the big sin… Read more »

Paul
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Paul

Steve, really interesting but as a layman I would want better to understand how you will fight in 2025 before supporting your capability solutions. US integrated elements, organic air strike capabilities, SoF support etc.

Ken Dallyn
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Ken Dallyn

Fantastic, well thought out and excellently reasoned

Nicholas Drummond
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Nicholas Drummond

I would not propose a British Army of two deployable divisions without equipping it with the additional supporting assets it needed to be effective. You talk of having two divisions as if this were totally unrealistic and unachievable. In the 1980s we had four deployable armoured divisions and an Artillery division just in Germany. Today, the global geopolitical situation reflects multiple risk factors: North Korea is playing Russian roulette with its nuclear ambitions. The Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and Iran) is a hot bed of unrest. Russia is conducting active hybrid / cyber warfare to destabilise Western democracies.… Read more »

David
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David

Good article. I agree, close the Officers mess tomorrow.

Tom
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Tom

“The wholesale reduction of capability shows that our political class has forgotten that a Government’s first duty is to protect the democracy that voted it into power.” That also indicates that the Military Class has perhaps overlooked that the Army is not the only way to protects one’s democracy and that the under investment and de-prioritising of Light/Dark Blue services over much of the last 2 decades is truely where strategic frailties have been allowed to develop. STRIKE is an effort to make land forces relevant within a European context, however looking at this through a Clauswitzian lens, the reliance… Read more »

Marcus
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Marcus

In the 1980’s we also had much more invested in the defence of this country. We can wish to have 4 divisions in Germany again, but the simple truth is with todays budet and the cost of the military today we can not afford (or more realisitcally the British Taxpayer is sadly unwilling to pay for) an army of that size. So the question becomes: What can we do with what we can afford? By the looks of it we can afford the equivalent of 2 deployable division. We have the manpower and the budget to make 1 UK Division… Read more »

Tom
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Tom

Some interesting thoughts, however 2 fundamental aspects overlooked: a, the legislative changes that were necessary to make FR2020 work. Looked at financially, the reservist offer gives the opportunity for an individual to gain a second income in proportionate return for their efforts/work at little or no risk to their main income. To make the increased FR2020 commitment work, employers would have had to give increased paid or unpaid leave to the individual and held their position for them when absent. The MOD got push back from the then Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – hence the toothless wonder that… Read more »

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