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Concepts and Doctrine Long Read Opinion

The Universal Infantry Battalion

With a smaller army limited to just 82,000 soldiers, the organisational structure of its component units and the number of personnel within individual sub-units starts to become very important. We are constantly reminded that conflicts are resolved on the ground and that infantry mass is vital in seizing and holding contested territory. If a battalion is under-resourced for any reason then its ability to complete its mission may well be compromised.

The British Army presently has 32 regular infantry battalions, but five different battalion types. These are:

  • Armoured Infantry battalions -732
  • Mechanised Infantry battalions -709
  • Air Assault Infantry battalions – 662
  • Light Infantry battalions – 560 1
  • Specialised Infantry Battalions – 267

At one end of the spectrum, Armoured Infantry battalions are well-resourced with 732 soldiers, while Specialised Infantry battalions have just 267, but this is for training and mentoring roles, rather than high-intensity combat. The disparity in numbers across different battalion types makes it difficult to monitor shortfalls in manpower and to fill gaps quickly. When it becomes necessary to re-role a battalion at short notice, there is a risk of not being able to deploy it with the required number soldiers it needs to complete the mission. Six different battalion types means that ORBATs are constantly in a state of flux, which makes human resource planning more complex than it needs to be. Many battalions of all types are currently operating below their headcount caps, with very few, if any, operating with the same number of personnel. Ultimately, having multiple battalion types is inefficient and an unmilitary approach to resource allocation and management. It makes the planning and implementation of sub-unit tasks more difficult and detracts from the infantry’s ability to perform its most important role: dominating ground. 

Does such a small army need so many different battalion sizes? A universal infantry battalion size and structure would simplify resource management, recruitment and accommodation planning. By helping to ensure that all battalions were correctly resourced, the allocation of responsibilities would be made easier. It would reduce situations where undermanned units become over-worked, impacting morale and retention, and would improve a battalion’s ability to plan around the natural turnover of personnel. This type of battalion has already been introduced in the USMC. Ultimately, a common battalion size would also allow gaps to be become much more visible so that filling shortfalls would assume a greater priority. 

Previously, battalion sizes were based on three roles:

  • Armoured infantry
  • Mechanised Infantry
  • Light Role Infantry 

With a universal need for protected mobility, the distinction between these three battalion types has diminished. In particular, mechanised infantry battalions are increasingly similar to armoured infantry battalions. The only distinction between them is that one uses wheeled vehicles while the other uses tracked. Even Light Role battalions have become more dependent on protected mobility. In all situations, transport is used to deliver dismounted mass to wherever it is needed.  Therefore, the above reasons may justify the standardisation of all infantry battalion types around a common size and structure or at least make a case to reduce the number of battalion types we presently have. With this in mind, the objective of this discussion is to consider what a universal battalion ought to look like. 

Infantry platoons built around 36 soldiers with sections of 9

The optimal maximum headcount for a universal battalion can best be determined by considering the number of personnel needed for each component sub-unit type. The basic building block of military capability is the Infantry Section. Therefore, this exercise will commence by considering the optimum size for a Rifle Section and how this defines the size and composition of Rifle Platoons and Companies.

In the 1980s, BAOR armoured infantry units mounted in the FV432 APC had 10-soldier sections. Light Role battalions had 8-soldier sections. In Northern Ireland, infantry platoons were often divided into multiples of 12 soldiers. Thinking about today’s need to operate from different vehicle types including infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), mechanised infantry vehicles (MIVs), Protected Mobility Vehicles (MRAPS, MRVP etc.), helicopters, and on foot, section sizes are likely to vary in size from 8 to 12 members. Typically, average platoon headcount are between 30 and 32 soldiers. 

A rifle section will usually be comprised of 8 soldiers, allowing it to be divided into two equal fire teams with four soldiers in each or into a rifle group of 6 and a gun group of 2 soldiers. Armoured Infantry sections operating in FV432 APCs or Warrior IFVs grew in size to 10 soldiers, allowing a driver and gunner to remain in the vehicle after the section including the commander had dismounted. With the need for increased protection, including blast-proof seating for 95th percentile troops, the capacity of modern IFVs has been reduced to nine, with typically six or seven soldiers dismounting. 

The number 36 is interesting, because it is a multiple of 3, 6, 9 and 12, which allows a flexible division of personnel between sections and platoon headquarters. 

Platoon structures based on a total headcount of 36 personnel allow three basic configurations:

  • 3 x Rifle Sections of 10 soldiers each plus a Platoon HQ of 6 soldiers = 36
  • 3 x Rifle Sections of 9 soldiers each plus a Platoon HQ of 9 soldiers = 36
  • 3 x Multiples of 12 soldiers each with three squads or “bricks” of 4 soldiers = 36

A Boxer 8×8 APC can carry up to 11 soldiers, but sections of 9 or 10 are expected to be used. This makes 9-soldier sections viable for both Armoured Infantry and Mechanised Infantry Roles. There is no reason why 9-soldier sections cannot also work for Light Role Battalions operating in a dismounted role. The US Army has long since standardised around 9-soldier infantry squads. 

Within an overall structure of 36 personnel, individual sections can be organised in a variety of ways:

Option A – Platoon of 36 divided into four groups of 9 soldiers 

Each section sub-divides into three groups of three, usually with two rifle groups and a gun group. Of the total, two or three soldiers will remain in whatever combat vehicle the section operates, allowing six or seven soldiers to dismount:

Section Organisation

  1. Section / Vehicle Commander – L85A3 AR (Corporal)
  2. Vehicle Driver – L85A3 AR – stays with vehicle
  3. Vehicle Gunner L85A3 AR (Lance-Corporal ) – stays with vehicle and commands it when Section Commander is dismounted
  4. Rifleman – L85A3 AR 
  5. Rifleman – L85A3 AR plus 40mm UGL
  6. Sharpshooter – L129A1 DMR
  7. Section 2IC – L85A3 AR (Lance- Corporal)
  8. Rifleman- L85A3 AR plus 40 mm UGL 6
  9. Light Machine Gunner – L7A2 GPMG

Platoon HQ acts as the command group but can also be a fourth section that contributes additional firepower. When the Platoon Commander is dismounted, the Platoon Sergeant may remain with the vehicle and command other mounted units. This allows 28 soldiers to operate dismounted out of a total of 36. 

Platoon HQ Organisation

  1. Platoon Commander / Vehicle Commander – L85A3 AR (2Lt / Lt)
  2. Vehicle Driver – L85A3 AR – stays with vehicle
  3. Vehicle Gunner L85A3 AR (Lance-Corporal) – stays with vehicle and commands it in when Platoon Commander is dismounted
  4. Platoon Sergeant – L85A3 AR (Sergeant)
  5. Radio Operator – L85A3 AR
  6. Medic – L85A3 AR
  7. Rifleman – L85A3 AR plus 40mm UGL
  8. Machine Gunner – L7A2 GPMG
  9. Sharpshooter – L129A1 DMR
The Universal Platoon

The above option divides a platoon equally between four vehicles. It is no problem to fit 9 soldiers in a Warrior or other modern IFV, Boxer 8×8 MIV or Bushmaster 4×4 PMV. This solution ensures that each sub-unit within a platoon has a dedicated vehicle driver and gunner. It could also provide an additional GPMG that can be allocated to individual sections as required.

Option B – Platoon of 36 divided into three groups of 10 soldiers plus a Platoon HQ of 6 soldiers

This option is suitable when operating vehicles that have a larger capacity than the Warrior IFV, e.g. Boxer and Bushmaster or for Light Role battalions operating on foot. It divides the section into two dismounted fire teams with 4 soldiers each or a rifle group of seven soldiers and a gun group of 3 soldiers. :

Section Organisation 

  1. Section / Vehicle Commander – L85A3 AR (Corporal)
  2. Vehicle Driver – L85A3 AR – stays with vehicle
  3. Vehicle Gunner L85A3 AR (Lance-Corporal ) – stays with vehicle and commands it in absence of Section Commander
  4. Rifleman – L85A3 AR
  5. Rifleman – L85A3 ARplus 40mm UGL 
  6. Sharpshooter – L129A1 DMR
  7.  Section 2IC – L85A3 AR (Lance- Corporal)
  8. Rifleman – L85A3 AR 
  9. Rifleman- L85A3 AR plus 40 mm UGL
  10. Machine Gunner – L7A2 GPMG

Platoon HQ Organisation

  1. Platoon Commander / Vehicle Commander – L85A3 AR (2Lt / Lt)
  2. Platoon Sergeant – L85A3 AR (Sergeant)
  3. Radio Operator – L85A3 AR
  4. Medic – L85A3 AR
  5. Vehicle Driver – L85A3 AR – stays with vehicle
  6. Vehicle Gunner L85A3 AR (Lance-Corporal) – stays with vehicle and commands it in absence of Platoon Commander

In addition to the Options A and B, a platoon size of 36 allows a third option, which is forming three multiples of 12 soldiers.

Option C – Platoon divided into three multiples of 12 soldiers

This option was used extensively during the British Army’s deployment in Northern Ireland and maximises dismounted infantry mass. Multiples of 12 can be divided into three “bricks” of four soldiers or two half-sections of 6 soldiers. 

Section organisation 

  1. Platoon Commander / Platoon Sergeant / Multiple Commander – L85A3 AR (Lt / Sgt / L/Cpl)
  2. Rifleman – L85A3 AR
  3. Rifleman – L85A3 AR 
  4. Rifleman – L85A3 AR plus 40 mm UGL
  5. Brick Commander – L85A3 AR 
  6. Rifleman – L85A3 AR
  7. Rifleman – L85A3 AR plus 40 mm UGL
  8. Sharpshooter – L129A1 DMR
  9. Brick Commander – L85A3 AR 
  10. Rifleman – L85A3 AR
  11. Rifleman – L85A3 AR
  12. Machine Gunner – L7A2 GPMG

This structure is ideal for counter insurgency operations where there is a focus on foot patrols in complex terrain. Also, it is suitable Air Assault infantry operating from helicopters. Modern support helicopters such as the UH-60 Blackhawk and UK Puma HC2, for example, carries up to 12 personnel, while a CH-47 Chinook can carry an entire platoon. 

Ultimately, creating platoons with a universal structure of 36 soldiers maximises organisational flexibility across different roles and missions and for units to be restructured easily and quickly. 

Three rifle platoons of 36 soldiers would sit within an overall Rifle Company structure supported by Company HQ elements. The proposed structure provides the Company Commander, Company 2IC, CSM, CQMS, two clerks, two radio operators, four drivers, and four additional soldiers for miscellaneous duties. This adds-up to 2 officers +14 other ranks. 

With many battalions operating in IFVs, MIVs and PMVs and with these vehicles equipped with organic 12.7mm HMGs, 40mm GMGs or 7.62mm GPMGs, the need for a separate fire support platoon is avoided. It also helps that 7.62mm machine guns have now been returned to individual infantry sections. This reduces overall Rifle Company headcount and a reliance on the Army Reserve to deploy a full battalion. 

Thus, Rifle Company total head count is 1+35, 1+35, 1+35 and 2+14 = 5+119 = 124

Fire Support Company structures

The Mortar Platoon typically operates 8 or 9 mortar tubes each with a crew of 4. Mortars are grouped into four detachments each with 2 tubes, or three detachments each with three tubes. Each detachment has a Mortar Fire Controller who travels with one of three rifle companies, while the Mortar Platoon Commander travels with the Battalion Commander. Assuming three detachments of three mortar tubes, This creates a requirement for 1 officer + 44 other ranks.

The Reconnaissance Platoon usually operates 6 vehicles with each one crewed by four soldiers or 8 vehicles with each one crewed by three soldiers. Either way, this creates a requirement for 1 officer + 23 other ranks. 

The Anti-tank Platoon typically has 8 ATGM launchers each operated by four soldiers each. This creates a headcount requirement of 1 officer + 31 other ranks. 

The Sniper platoon usually consists of eight sniper pairs or 16 other ranks. 

The Assault Pioneer Platoon is usually comprised of 19 other ranks. 

The Fire Support Company HQ structure is the same as a rifle company, except that it will have  an additional driver to resupply ammunition. This adds-up to 1 officer + 15 other ranks. 

Support Company total head count is 1+44, 1+23, 1+31, 16, 19, and 1+15 = 4+148 = 152

Battalion HQ and HQ Company

HQ Company is comprised of five supporting elements. The C4I Platoon (formerly the Signals Platoon) is primarily designed to support Battalion HQ by providing communication services and radio operators. A nominal structure of 1 officer + 27 other ranks is proposed, which is in line with existing signal signal platoon sizes.

The Regimental Aid Post will be comprised of 1 medical officer and 19 other ranks. It will have 6 ambulances, each crewed by 3 personnel, although this may be increased to 8 or 9 for high intensity operations.The Quartermaster’s Platoon will be comprised of support staff whose job it is to manage and distribute materiel and other resources to each of the rifle companies. A nominal structure of 1 + 35 soldiers is proposed. A Logistics Platoon (formerly the Motor Transport Platoon) will be responsible for operating resupply and replenishment trucks. Personnel will primarily be drivers. A nominal structure of 1 officer + 19 other ranks is proposed. Finally, a REME Detachment will provide repair and recovery services for all Battalions Armoured Vehicles. The size of this sub-unit must be sufficient to support the tracked vehicles of Armoured Infantry battalions, so a Detachment structure of 1 officer + 37 other ranks is proposed. This will be more than sufficient to sustain Mechanised Infantry Battalions and Light Role Protected Mobility Battalions too. In fact, Light Role Battalions may need fewer mechanics. 

HQ Company headquarters will include 2 officers and 15 other ranks. Adding everything together, creates a universal battalion with a total size of 32 officers and 668 other ranks, or 700 in total. Battalion HQ will usually be comprised of 6 officers + 10 other ranks. It will include the Commanding Officer, 2IC, Adjutant, Operations Officer, Intelligence Officer, and Training Officer. Other ranks will include the RSM, Drill Sergeant, Chief Clerk, plus 7 additional clerks / drivers.

The Universal Battalion

Weapon requirements

The basic platoon structure assumes that individual riflemen within sections will be equipped with the 5.56mm L85A3 assault rifle (SA80) including two soldiers equipped with 40 mm UGLs. In addition, each section now has an organic 7.62mm L7A2 GPMG gunner plus a sharpshooter with the 7.62mm L129A1 DMR. In Platoon HQs that have 9 soldiers instead of 6, the same structure would be adopted, providing an additional machine gunner and designated marksman. This allows each platoon to have a total of four GPMGs. Various members of the platoon will also carry a 9 mm Glock 17 pistol. 

With the US Army planning to adopt a new 6.8mm High Velocity Armoured Piercing Ammunition (HVAP), the rest of NATO may follow its lead. This would see infantry platoons switching from two calibres (5.56mm and 7.62mm) to a single one (6.8mm) for rifles, machine guns and DMRs. Radio operators, medics and anti-tank weapon operators would carry assault rifles with shorter barrels for reduced weight and increased convenience. 

Currently, infantry companies have a fourth fire support platoon equipped with 7.62mm L7A2 GPMGs. With this weapon now returned to individual sections, in lieu of the 5.56mm L110A2 LMG, there is arguably no need for a separate machine gun platoon. One concern about the existing structure is that the third rifle platoon in each infantry company is furnished by the Army Reserve. But, it is only attached if a battalion deploys and may not train often enough to achieve the desired level of integration. Returning to three standard rifle platoons avoids the need for a fourth platoon, streamlining the overall structure and reducing the administrative burden of bringing soldiers from Army Reserve units.

Weapons like the 12.7mm HMG and 40mm high velocity grenade machine gun are primarily vehicle-mounted systems. They are not man-portable, so will usually only accompany a platoon when mounted on MIV, MRVP, MWMIK (Jackal) or other vehicles. Platoons moving around the battlefield in MIVs may additionally get the 30mm M230LF chain gun (the same light cannon used in the Apache attack helicopter) as well as 12.7mm HMGs and 40mm GMGs. Troops in IFVs will benefit from 40mm CT40 cannons and 7.62mm chain guns for support. Certainly turret-mounted 30mm or 40mm cannons are preferred. The US Army is looking at .338 (8.59 mm) medium weight machine guns to provide increased firepower and range. Almost as potent as 12.7mm HMGs, 8.59mm/ .338 MMGs are man-portable, so could help to increase overall platoon lethality, especially when operating dismounted. 

There is a case for a light mortar to be carried by each Platoon HQ. In fact, a 51mm mortar was carried until it was prematurely retired. This offered HE, WP, smoke and illuminating rounds. Such a capability is definitely still needed and could be acquired by re-instating the 51mm exactly as it was. Some would argue that the 40mm low velocity grenade is a substitute for the 51mm mortar, but maximum range is 300-400 metres not 700-800 metres. Some armies are looking at 40mm medium velocity grenades to reach-out to 800 metres. Fired from multi-shot launchers, these can reliably deliver HE at distance. However, there is no escaping from the fact that a 40mm grenade packs much less HE than a 51mm mortar bomb. If it isn’t possible to reintroduce 51mm, then a lightweight 60mm mortar could be an option. The UK bought the 60mm Hirtenburger mortar as a UOR weapon, but it proved to be too heavy and needed too much ammunition to get on target.  It has also been suggested that rifle companies should acquire 81mm mortars. This is an interesting idea, but would impose an increased logistical burden. The battalion-level mortar system we have used since WW2, with mortars organised in a separate platoon seems to work well, so why change it?

As far as anti-tank weapons are concerned, these tend to be issued according to the threat faced. Individual rifle sections will carry between one and four NLAW disposable ATGMs. Often these will be stored in vehicles until needed. SAAB has produced a lightweight version of the Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless anti-tank weapon. It also offers a number of new ammunition natures from anti-tank rounds to bunker-busting HE. It may be worth returning such weapons to infantry sections or at least having them in Platoon HQ. Many armies are adding Javelin mounts to their vehicles’ 12.7mm remote weapon stations. The UK is likely to do the same, but only a limited number of vehicles will get it – presumably Anti-tank and Reconnaissance platoons. If all section vehicles are fitted with Javelin launchers, this potentially eliminates the need for an anti-tank platoon. 

Vehicle requirements

The overall structure defined by sub-unit organisation reflects the fact that protected mobility is now needed more widely. With IFVs, MIVs and MRVPs, the British Army will have a range of vehicles that can each carry a full section or 9 soldiers. While Light Role battalions will primarily operate on foot, they will still need all-terrain vehicles that support them in the field. As we begin to look towards autonomous vehicles, REME support across all battalion types will become more important. As the Army embraces other new technologies such as drones, having sufficient technical personnel to operate and maintain them makes a strong case for sufficient REME personnel numbers. 

It is estimated that a typical Armoured infantry or Mechanised Battalion will operate around 90 IFVs or MIVs and have an additional 60 support vehicles including MRVPs for command and liaison, MAN 4×4 trucks, MAN 4×4 fuel trucks, and MAN Recovery vehicles. Infantry platoons will typically be divided between four vehicles as they are at present. 

Battalion Summary

The proposed structure would do much to increase the deployability, effectiveness and resilience of UK infantry battalions. Using this total, we ought to be able to field at least 18 out of 32 battalions with some form of organic protected mobility. 

Structures
  • Armoured Infantry Battalions – IFV (Warrior) – 6 battalions
  • Mechanised Infantry Battalions – MIV (Boxer) – 6 battalions 
  • Light Protected Mobility Battalions – LPPV / MRVP (Foxhound / JLTV / Bushmaster) – 6 battalions
  • Air Assault / Light Role Battalions  – MWMIK (Jackal) / Truck (MAN 4×4 HX) – 14 battalions.

About the author

Nicholas Drummond

Defence Industry Consultant

Nicholas Drummond is a former British Army officer and now works as a strategic consultant serving the Defence Industry with clients in the EU and USA. Prior to establishing his own firm in 2002, he worked as Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company, London, where he specialised in marketing and related topics.

Footnotes

  1. These include Public Duty Battalions.

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