Contributor: Rob has 6 years of hands on light role infantry leadership experience.

The announcement of Army 2020 Refine in December 2016[1] brought a marked change in the British Army’s organisation of the infantry, with the planned reorganisation of four infantry battalions to become ‘Specialised Infantry.’[2] When looked at in isolation, this change to the infantry structure doesn’t suggest a necessity to remove light role infantry. However, when you consider that the Future Operating Environment (FOE) 2035 predicts that future conflict will be characterised by an increased tempo, in an increasingly interconnected, congested and cluttered strategic environment[3], a deduction you could draw is that there is no longer a place for light role infantry. This article will focus on recent examples of conflict which suggest that the use of light role infantry is no longer a viable option for the British Army. It will also evaluate the deductions triggered by the advent of Specialised Infantry battalions, which supports my own view that the concept of light role infantry is an outdated one.

Recent operations: have we ever been truly ‘light role’?

The simple answer to this question is no. Recent large scale British land force operational deployments have relied on vehicle platforms to increase not only tactical mobility and reach, but also provide an integral capability within the combat forces and their supporting elements. This was demonstrated by the employment of Warrior vehicles and their associated armoured infantry during Op TELIC,[4] and the Urgent Operational Requirement purchase of the Mastiff and other protected mobility platforms for Op HERRICK.[5] Current operational deployments on Ops SHADER and TORAL have both seen light mechanised infantry deployed in Husky and Foxhound vehicles.[6]

The widespread use of integrated vehicle platforms within an infantry unit presents a number of significant advantages over the traditional dismounted light role equivalent. They enable increased firepower, manoeuvrability, protection and sustainment across a larger operational area. They contribute to increased tempo and allow greater inherent flexibility, as well providing organic means to concentrate or disperse forces as desired. Vehicles provide a mobile platform for crew-served weapon systems and increased ammunition carriage; the firepower that such systems can inflict and sustain is far greater than light role infantry. The manoeuvrability of combat elements to arrive at speed, gain surprise and seize initiative as well as generate mass, can also be increased as vehicles allow mounted infantry to travel at greater speed and cover more ground than their light role peers. Importantly the vehicles are organic to the unit. There is no reliance on aviation to be prioritised, fit to fly and weather suitable. Vehicles also serve as integral casualty evacuation and resupply platforms, which has become more important following the transition away from Afghanistan and Iraq where dedicated aviation platforms were assigned to such a role. The current expectation for contingency operations is that casualties will be moved by ground forces, and that units will facilitate resupply of water, food and ammunition.

FOE 2035 suggests that the tempo of combat will increase in the future,[7] meaning that the utility of vehicles will also increase. This does not necessitate the removal of dismounted infantry; dismounted infantry are needed to clear ground and their ability to cover different terrain in a variety of weather conditions is unquestionable. Nevertheless, the optimal use of infantry battalions in the future is from a mounted platform, whether this be mechanised, protected mobility or armoured, with the capacity to dismount and clear ground on foot, thus increasing the ground manoeuvre brigade’s projection and range.

The impact of Army 2020 Refine 

The release of Army 2020 Refine in 2016[8] saw a significant change in the direction of the infantry. The reorganising of four light role battalions as Specialised Infantry signalled the start of a substantial shift in how the British Army might be employed in future conflict. Specialised Infantry battalions have a great deal to offer; manpower light but experience heavy, they are less costly than a conventional battalion and have a small footprint. They will provide a ‘light touch’ in terms of UK ‘boots on the ground,’ whilst providing a force multiplier through building partner nations capabilities.[9] This reform could signal the start of the removal of light role infantry as a concept. Reorganising light role infantry as Specialised Infantry, capable of training indigenous partner forces, would mean partner forces can be used in the light role to clear ground, provide additional mass and complement our mounted infantry. This could bring a number of advantages, subject to the nature of operations and the wider context, but overall could enhance links with partner forces and allow relatively small intervention forces to deliver greater effect.

Specialised Infantry can be deployed into a country and region before any crisis or conflict escalates. If it has already, they are a low key but meaningful response. They can build partner capability through upstream capacity building by training, advising, assisting and accompanying the partner nation’s land forces. Whilst improving the partner nation’s military skills, they also develop understanding, feed situational awareness and guide any following intervention force. Retaining the Specialised Infantry in theatre allows the partner nations’ land forces to work in coordination with any British manoeuvre units who arrive as part of an intervention force. Specialised Infantry therefore become not only trainers but also liaison and coordination elements, including for the targeting and delivering of fires. This would clearly have implications at the operational level, with combined formations potentially wrestling with issues ranging from Rules of Engagement to logistical support.

So why do we still have light role infantry?

The greatest advantage of light role infantry is their relatively low cost (certainly when considering vehicle procurement and support) and their ability to deploy rapidly. If operations are being conducted in complex natural terrain, such as jungle and mountains, then light role infantry is seen as essential due to the inability of vehicles to manoeuvre across such terrain. Such environments however do not harbour large populations. If, as FOE 2035 suggests, future conflict is most likely to be fought in urban or littoral terrain[10] the use of vehicle platforms supported by dismounted infantry will be essential. Mechanised or armoured infantry are still capable of operating as dismounts; they can create mass or be employed as light infantry in complex terrain.

Light role infantry and their supporting combat elements still have some if limited utility in certain circumstances. Far better though if we grow in our partnered or some allied nations, a competent light role capability that can effectively partner with British battle groups. Then there would be no need for the British Army to retain a light infantry role capability within the Regular infantry. The British infantry could instead focus on growing the mechanised and armoured infantry capabilities whilst having the capability to train light role units and formations from other nations. The only place in the British Army’s ORBAT for light infantry is the Army Reserve. It is unlikely that the Reserve infantry could be trained and equipped in either the armoured or mechanised role; achieving a proficient standard of collective training would require a significant investment in pre-deployment training, if facilities were available. In the event of a large scale or enduring deployment, the mobilised Reserve infantry could provide British land forces with a light role capability and additional mass.

The future

The future needs of the British Army’s infantry appear straight forward. Recent ‘light role’ deployments have inevitably relied on vehicles. With a predicted increase in the tempo of future operations, an increased mechanised and armoured infantry capability seems unescapable. Whilst this has obvious financial implications, these can be partially moderated by the reorganisation of light role infantry battalions into Specialised Infantry. This would allow the British Army the capability to deploy forward to train, assist and accompany during partner force generation before the intervening forces of British armoured or mechanised battlegroups arrive. This would lead to improvements in partner force proficiency, which would facilitate their employment with British mechanised and armoured battlegroups to clear ground. The impact of this streamlining of infantry capability will however only have the greatest effect if the remaining Regular light role infantry battalions are converted to mechanised, armoured or Specialised Infantry battalions to support this model.

[1] Oral evidence: SDSR 2015 and the Army, HC 108. Hansard. Retrieved 17 December 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Future Operating Environment 2035. Strategic Trends Programme. First Edition. Crown Copyright 08/15.

[4] Connel, Richard Brook. Dusty Warriors: Modern Soldiers at War: Review article (2006). Australian Defence Force Journal. No 174, 2007: 107-110.

[5] Farrell, Theo. Improving in War: Military Adaptation and the British in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2006-2009. Journal of Strategic Studies. Vol 33, 2010, Issue 4.

[6] Gritton, Eugene C.; Davis, Paul K.; Steeb, Randall; Matsumura, John. Ground Forces for a Rapidly Employable Joint Task Force First-Week Capabilities for Short-Warning Conflicts. Rand National Defence Research Institute.

[7] Future Operating Environment 2035. Crown Copyright 08/15.

[8] Oral evidence: SDSR 2015 and the Army, HC 108. Hansard. Retrieved 17 December 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Future Operating Environment 2035. Crown Copyright 08/15.

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A 2 YORKS Foxhound, Light Protection Patrol Vehicle
Image courtesy of MOD/Crown Copyright

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19 Comments on "There is no longer a place for light role infantry in the British Army"

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Good luck fighting another Falklands conflict without LRI. In the future we could well be fighting on terrain that no vehicle can traverse, and we would have no choice but to utilise LRI. I appreciate what FOE 2035 is suggesting, but we can’t rely on it ad finitum.

Great article, very interesting perspective on LI morphing to “Specialist”. Although I would answer the question “why do we still have light role infantry” with a simple answer that we have been unable to afford to convert them into anything else ! 4 Specialist Infantry “mini-battalions” seems enough to take on what our US colleagues would probably label a “Special Forces” (not Special Ops) role of training and support. I am not sure why the previous plan of using the UOR kit taken into core fleets, such as using Foxhound to “mechanise” Light Role units into Light Protected Mobility units… Read more »
Nick from London

Forgive my ignorance are PARA and COMMANDO included within the term Light Role Infantry or are they suis generis.


Typically by Light Role we’re talking about non-PARA and RM infantry units, not quipped with a platform at Sect/Pl level.

Nicholas Drummond
It is hard to argue with any of the points made by this excellent article. A few observations about vehicles. Today, the dismounted soldier’s weight burden has become unacceptable. In Afghanistan, combat loads were frequently 70% of body weight for male soldiers and often above 100% for female soldiers. You can fight or be a pack animal, but not both. A vital role performed by infantry vehicles is that of a “mother ship” that carries the section or platoon’s kit and supports it in the field, as well as transporting it around the battle space. When it comes to vehicles,… Read more »
The Ginge
Whilst I fully agree with general thrust of the argument and bow to the greater knowledge a number of points come to mind. 1. To create 4 or 5 specialist engagement battalions, how many light infantry battalions do you need to generate those that take raw recruits privates to create good Sargent’s and Corporals. Or lieutenants to produce officers ? The fact is you need 10 or more Light Infantry battalions to provide the training pipeline for those specialists. They just don’t sign up on day one ready. 2. Fully agree that “light” infantry are a thing of the past.… Read more »
I think the author gravely overestimates the amount of dismounted mass that AI can generate in the urban space – a total of 4-5 dismounts per vehicle means a Coy Gp can often be consumed by 1 building. This was a constant headache during the Urban Warrior trials a few years ago. See also the manner in which Russian Motor Rifle Bns were disaggregated and defeated in detail in Grozny – perhaps the most graphic depiction of what the FOE35 environment alludes to. Much current urban ops rhetoric, with its emphasis on networked C2 evokes Israeli dismounted drills in Nablus… Read more »

This. The great advantage of light role infantry is that from a LR company you actually get a company’s worth of bayonets on the ground. Particularly given current obsession with mega-cities, it would be an odd decision to remove LR; quite a lot of bang for very little buck.

You present an interesting argument, which has some valid observations although I don’t agree with all your conclusions. As many have already commented, I feel light role forces – and not just the infantry element (my main critiscism is that you haven’t addressed the CS or CSS impact of your proposal) – still have utility. But don’t just take my word for it….while his article is addressing the current NSCR, Mark Galeotti makes a number of notable points about the utility of our light role forces and their capacity for rapid intervention: ‘if deterring the Russians is a major concern,… Read more »
So Karl, David and Matt – how do these Light Role battalions get to the urban environment in which you foresee them operating in one piece in their Landrovers and soft skinned trucks ? Even air bursting mortars are going to reduce them to combat ineffective, never mind heavier tube artillery or rocket launchers? As noted elsewhere even a Bushmaster can carry a full section, provide protection from small arms fire and shrapnel while acting as “mother ship” carrying kit. While infantry might be a key unit in the urban fight, so is armour – look at the US experiences… Read more »

An interesting article that would benefit from further analysis of a) recent conflicts in which light forces have deployed with minimal footprint into hybrid/A2AD environments and delivered significant operational effect b) the critical role LI plays in providing rear and wide area security within a non-linear battle-space (and the very different role envisaged for Spec Inf) c) the growing demand signal for UK resilience tasks d) more fundamentally, the enduring nature of conflict which will always involve closing with the enemy in complex terrain inaccessible to vehicles.

A key issue that has been missed, in no small part due to ‘fighting the last war’ is defence. Armour and AI are ideal for CLEAR and SEIZE operations but for any momentum to be maintained DLI need to be used for the HOLD to allow these units to move onto the next task. Given the abundance of aggressive Russian fires seen in the UKR and Baltic States, if we were to deploy the only real solution would be to dig in deep. Combined with a well-resourced anti-tank matrix, large areas can be secured, but only with the dismounted mass… Read more »
So as per the authors suggestion, if a number of Light Role infantry battalions converted to “Mechanised” on Mastiff, or even “Light Mechanised” on MRV-P, how does having their own integral protected mobility capability prevent them from digging in deep or doing any of the roles you mention ? A Mech or PM battalion can have the same “mass” of manpower as a Light Role battalion if we want it to and organize appropriately. All of our battalions of whatever type are smaller than those of many of our allies, so the mass argument is a separate one in and… Read more »
John Elmer

We need to keep this role to stay flexible on the battlefield.To much reliability on veichles to do the job causes other issues.the more worrying issue at the moment the recruiting proccess takes far to long and retention enough said.

It’s far easier to take soldiers out of the back of a vehicle and ask them to fight light than the other way round. Some time ago the square brigade had two warrior BGs and a SAXON BG. The latter was used to for those tasks where dismounted infantry are invaluable – securing routes, defence, PW handling and OBUA with the other BGs manoeuvered round them. I suspect at times they were under employed but when required they were there. Getting them out of their vehs was not challenging, party because the veh were not designed to fight from inside… Read more »
This article is obviously penned by yet another author attempting to justify the removal from the British Army of 5000 troops in order to guarantee the delivery of more costly items, AJAX comes to mind!! The next large -scale involvement in any warfare by the British Army is anybodys guess but should it happen to be in Estonia for example then we all know what force is going to roll up at the border, and they will not be saying” please can we come in” I dont know where the equivalent of Dunkirk is on the Estonian coast but I… Read more »
I know the author of this article. He would be surprised at your estimation of his agenda. He is a LR Recce Pl Comd. There is certainly no agenda to justify the cutting of troops or the uplift of armoured vehicles. A shame that the tone of the article has been missed! Troops deploying to Estonia or any other locations are deployed in PM, Light Mech or Armour. Whilst theee is still huge appetite for light role warfighting, I can’t see a situation whereby troops walk to battle in a future war. We need a way of moving light role… Read more »
I have to disagree with the conclusion drawn that no recent war has been “truly light infantry” or that there would be no requirement for light infantry in a future conflict. It seams to me that the author has focused almost exclusively within the parameters of a UK centric context of recent military endeavors. The Israeli / Hezbollah war of 2006 saw Hezbollah use an almost exclusively light role force and Israeli armoured forces were substantially in-prepared and in-trained in being able to dismount and fight in close terrain or subterranean systems. The same can be said for Russian forces… Read more »
An interesting piece, but will mounting every infantry unit, actually create more problems and not less? The British Army, like the US Army, seems to be trapped in a mentality, infantry must be either fully mounted or fully leg. Both appear to forget the tactical concept of “Flexibility”. Infantry units deploying around the world, are deploying only partially mounted. Whether in mountains, or jungle, arctic or urban, half the infantry companies are out on foot patrolling or defending bases. Separate from their vehicles, section mates crewing vehicles, totally disrupting units. Infantry units may also be expected to be moved by… Read more »