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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

Steve B

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 January 1, 1970 at 01:00


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 infantry battalions in Cyprus, Brunei and for public duties, such a force composition leaves an additional number of infantry battalions within the current Army headcount cap that could form the basis of a third division.

My view is that Strike Brigades are an ideal general purpose, rapid reaction force. In high intensity peer-to-peer scenarios, they would be well suited to Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2AD) roles; but I would hesitate to set them against regular heavy armour formations. Across all operating concepts, Strike units would be reliant on artillery support, including LR precision fires and mass area effect, but also on ATGWs.

In medium- and low-intensity operations, Strike Brigades would be agile, adaptable and autonomous formations ideal for power projection at distance. They would provide protected mobility without sacrificing off-road mobility.

For all their anticipated utility, Strike Brigades are still unproven in major peer-to-peer conflicts. By the same token, Heavy Armour is known quantity: it has previously worked very well, even if we aren’t sure whether it will have same degree of utility in future conflicts. Therefore, it makes sense to have both types.

One reason why traditional MBTs remain relevant is Active Protection Systems (APS). These can neutralise most ATGWs quite effectively, but are less good at stopping APFSDS kinetic energy penetrators. If you want to destroy enemy tanks, then you will need tanks fitted with 120 mm (or larger) guns. If this is true for Heavy Armour it is also true for Medium Armour. So I believe there is a strong case for the Strike Brigades to have cavalry regiments equipped with 8×8 wheeled tank destroyers mounting large guns.

Wheeled or tracked, the Head of Australian Land Forces recently said on Twitter that tanks / tank destroyers are like Black tie evening dress. You don’t need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do!!

The biggest problem affecting the creation of the British Army units I have outlined is a lack of armoured vehicles. Given that Challenger can trace its roots to the Centurion tank of 1945, while FV432 dates to the 1960s, CVR(T) to the1970s and Warrior to the 1980s, it is high time to invest in combat vehicles for the Army. This has become a hobby horse of mine and I wont be getting off it any time soon.

It also needs to be said that the brigade structure that sits beneath the divisional structure has become less focused. Brigades of all types ought to have: 1 x Cavalry regiment, 3 x Infantry battalions, 1 x Artillery regiment and 1 x Engineer regiment. A single tank regiment can support three infantry battalions, but needs at least 56 MBTs to do this. This is broadly similar to how US Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) are structured. If interoperability is so important, we should think about a common BCT structure within NATO.

Challenger 2 has served the British Army well. But it cannot be easily upgraded to mount the 120 mm smoothbore fitted so effectively to the M1A2 SEP4 Abrams and Leopard 2 A7. It may time to think about a new MBT.

Similarly, Warrior is old and clapped out. If warrior CSP isn’t viable because it is too expensive, then we should purchase an alternative immediately.

We’ve done a great job with Ajax. But we’ve turned an IFV into a Recce vehicle that cannot carry infantry. I believe we need to prioritise MBTs and convert much of the 587 Ajax we intend to buy into an IFV purchase.

The structure I’ve outlined requires 168 MBTs, 168 wheeled tank destroyers, 5180 tracked IFVs, 5180 MIVs, 56 Ajax recce vehicles, and 56 MIV recce wagons. We also need modern self-propelled tracked and wheeled artillery. By the same token Royal Engineers also need to keep pace with their respective formations.

If all this seems a lot, it is. But we should have done it 20 years ago. The longer we put it off, the more urgent it becomes and the more we need to spend. We wouldn’t ask the Royal Navy to use a submarine built in the 1960s, so why should they army have to use an APC that is approaching its 60th birthday?

Marcus April 11, 2017 at 15:36

“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 of the current British Army structure: Too much infantry that can not be used for anything.. Under 2020 Refine 1 UK Division will have less support. We’d be better off reducing the British Army to 1 Division and a couple of Infantry brigades, but make sure those infantry brigades can actually be deployed to a combat zone if needed.

This is all the unfortunate child of the political decision not to cut cap badges (who cares if the Army actually functions as long as it looks good right?)

Paul January 1, 1970 at 01:00

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 April 11, 2017 at 21:37

Fantastic, well thought out and excellently reasoned

Nicholas Drummond September 11, 2017 at 20:51

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. Russia poses a real and present danger to the Baltics as well as to other former Soviet Union states. Da’esh, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda and the Taliban remain undefeated. Islamic extremism is growing in Africa. And China is growing its forces beyond any territorial defence needs. In short, the ingredients of a perfect storm are quietly fermenting. I’ve never seen greater instability or unpredictability. For these reasons, I think it is ridiculous, if not irresponsible, that the peacetime strength of the Army has now been reduced to a single division. To make matters worse, and unlike our US counterparts, UK brigades don’t even have three infantry battalions. 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.

Tom January 1, 1970 at 01:00

“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 and focus on the Reserves as a deployment enabler of Regular forces at scale without changes in primary legislation means very little will happen unless it has full political backing of both sides, i.e conflict of necessity rather than of choice.

Marcus September 11, 2017 at 22:33

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 as deployable as 3 Division in fact. This could be done by consolidating the divisions 7 Infantry “Brigades” into 2-3 Brigades of Light and Mechanised Infantry, and converting the remaining Infantry battalions into Logistics, Artillery, Engineer, REME and Medical formations to support it. 3 Div remains in a 3 Armoured Infantry Brigade structure, 3 Cmd and 16 AA remain as is. Of course this would be politically inconvenient because cap badges would have to go… (to elaborate: Merge 11th and 4th Brigade and have 1 UK Div consist of the 4th, 7th and 51st Infantry brigades, each consisting of 3 Infantry battalions and a light cav regiment. The remaining 5 Infantry battalions in the division are essentially free manpower to support the force structure then, and at least allow the retaining of 102 log brigade, and possibly allow for enough manpower to stand up a further Artillery unit (so that it’s 1 per brigade).

There are other options to play around with as well…. could 3 Cmdo Brigade re-roll into the “Strike” niche for example? Maybe they could and maybe they couldn’t but it’s an interesting thought experiment.


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