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Have you noticed how easy it is to deploy a Royal Navy frigate or submarine? During the recent stand-off in the Strait of Hormuz British warships were hurriedly dispatched to deter Iranian aggression. As soon as the operation was sanctioned, crews were mustered, ships were provisioned, and away they went. HMS Montrose and HMS Duncan ensured the safe passage of UK merchant vessels. When the crisis died down, they returned home. It was a case of job done.
It’s the same when deploying the Royal Air Force. When the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria, Tornado combat aircraft were sent to strike weapon storage facilities. Within hours the mission was planned, executed and completed. Again, job done.
If only deploying the British Army was as easy.
When Britain sends ground forces to a trouble spot, we tend to conduct long-term efforts that require extensive resources to achieve limited objectives rather than short, sharp interventions. Traditional high-end war fighting against peer enemies remains something that we certainly need to be able to do, but more likely tasks involve peace support, including aid distribution, restoring law and order after natural disasters, supporting democratically-elected governments in the event of a coup, or fighting more protracted counter-insurgency campaigns against terrorist organisations.
The significant human and economic cost of such deployments and the investment needed over time to ensure our strategic goals are achieved, questions the validity of “discretionary wars,” where we choose to get involved rather than only fighting wars necessary for national survival. Repatriation ceremonies at RAF Brize Norton inevitably sap public support and thus political commitment for anything but vital interventions. This means we prefer to deploy smaller groups of Special Forces or Specialised Infantry to perform surgical strikes or to mentor local forces from behind the scenes, rather than larger brigade-size forces. However, British history has repeatedly underlined the need to send expeditionary forces to meet emerging threats at distance, before they turn-up fully formed on our doorstep. In any situation, ground forces need to be sustained by an extensive range of combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) assets making land operations complex and expensive. Just look at the recent UK deployment to Afghanistan. Camp Bastion in Helmand Province covered 32 km2, an area larger than Reading, while air operations made it the UK’s fifth busiest airport.
Deploying land forces is like assembling an orchestra. Some people would argue that if using boots on the ground is so problematic, why not rely on the Navy and Air Force instead? But we forget at our peril that all conflict is ultimately resolved on the ground, so while ships and aircraft can degrade an enemy’s capability to wage war, they cannot seize and hold vital territory. Moreover, if we look back to UK land forces deployments prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, two text book interventions, the Balkans in 1999 and Sierra Leone 2000, stand out. They remind us that short-term Army missions can be an extremely relevant and effective tool of Government foreign policy. With a civil war taking place in both regions, UK troops were deployed as part of UN missions to protect non-combatants and evacuate foreign citizens. The British Army’s contribution to internal security helped to restore the legitimacy of democratically-elected governments and to disarm insurgent forces. The success of both operations was in part due to having high-readiness light forces that were able respond quickly and decisively.
The problem with light forces is that they are not equipped to take-on peer adversaries. For this reason, during the Cold War, the UK maintained heavy armour in forward bases in Germany to counter a potential Soviet attack. Realising that we would never be able to deploy sufficient heavy metal quickly enough to mount an effective response, we pre-positioned such units as close as possible to their wartime deployment zones. Notwithstanding their deterrent effect, a Corps-sized force sat unused for more than 50 years. This was not the best use of limited UK resources.
Ironically, after deciding to bring the Rhine Army home, we found ourselves needing to deploy forces to the Baltic States. The same tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery now needed to travel 1,500 kilometres to Estonia. The effort required to deploy and maintain them in theatre meant that we were only able to generate a single armoured infantry battle group rather than an entire brigade. With cost a limiting factor, the UK’s enhanced forward presence in Estonia is a little more than a tripwire. Lacking the critical mass to prevail should Russia decide to invade, but needing to stay in situ indefinitely to achieve a vital deterrent effect, again this is an expensive and inefficient means of deterrence and ties-up forces that cannot be used elsewhere.
As things stand, if the UK wants to deploy ground forces it has two choices:
- Send a heavy armour force that takes time and effort to deploy, but will be more potent and resilient in combat
- Send light infantry force that can deploy quickly, but will have little in the way of lethality and staying power
If only we could rapidly deploy a more substantial mobile force.
Faced with the same dilemma in 1999, the US Army was unable to deploy an armoured task force fast enough to make a meaningful contribution to the situation in Kosovo before it was resolved1. The US Army’s Chief of Staff at the time, General Eric Shinseki, described the US Army as being either “too fat to fly or too light to fight.” He believed that there had to be something in between these two extremes. Thus, a new concept was born, the “Medium Weight” force, which offered increased mobility, but without sacrificing protection or firepower.
The blueprint for Shinseki’s vision was found in the United States Marine Corps’ reconnaissance battalions. These used the LAV-25, a 13-tonne 8×8 wheeled armoured vehicle which had been acquired in the 1980s (and chosen in preference to the UK’s CVR(T) family) to give the USMC an expeditionary capability. LAV-25s first saw action in Panama in 1989 where they proved invaluable in supporting dismounted units before M2 Bradley IFVs arrived in theatre. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a single USMC LAV-25 battalion was able to hold-off an entire Iraqi armoured division equipped with BMPs and T-72s2. Shinseki’s new “Objective Force” was built around a revised LAV platform, the LAV III. This offered improved protection and an increased carrying capacity. Growing in weight to 17-18 tonnes, the M1126 Stryker became the basis of a new class of vehicle and a new type of formation called “Stryker Brigades.” Infantry carriers were supported by 105 mm Mobile Gun System (MGS) vehicles, TOW anti-tank missile vehicles, 120 mm mortar vehicles, Command Vehicles, and 155 mm artillery and High Mobility Armoured Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to create a fully-capable mobile force.
The first operational use of a Stryker Brigade was in Iraq between 2003 and 2004. A complete brigade sailed directly from the USA to Kuwait. Upon arrival, it deployed as a single unit travelling 900 kilometres in a single bound with everything needed to support operations for 72 hours. What was notably absent from the column was the usual logistics tail that accompanied armoured formations. En route to its initial area of responsibility, the Brigade was re-tasked to a trouble spot, Samarra. The unexpected arrival of such a large force wrong-footed insurgent forces and meant that the situation was stabilised with surprising speed and efficiency. The Brigade then proceeded to relieve the US 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, its original task. Upon arrival, it found that a force a third of the size of a light infantry division could dominate the same area of ground with less effort. Over a 12-month period, Stryker vehicles covered an average of 32,000 kilometres with units achieving readiness levels of 96%. Post-operational analysis suggested that the Stryker Brigade concept was nothing short of revolutionary in the impact it achieved.3
The performance of the US Stryker Brigade in Iraq inspired other NATO armies to acquire a similar capability. Polish forces deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 used the Patria AMV. This was a better protected vehicle than the LAV III and mounted a 30 mm cannon, giving it significantly increased firepower. By this time, addressing the threat posed by mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had become paramount. A further evolution in vehicle design resulted in higher levels of blast and kinetic protection being fitted. The German-Dutch Boxer and French VBCI have now raised the performance bar even higher. With GVW increased above 32 tonnes, both platforms are directly comparable to tracked IFVs. Germany’s employment of Boxer vehicles in Afghanistan in 2011 was an unqualified success. No Bundeswehr soldier riding in a Boxer was killed or injured. The French Army’s deployment to Mali in 2013 was another textbook intervention in Africa. A wheeled formation traveled 2,700 kilometres in 7 days and stabilised a potentially explosive situation in a matter of weeks.4
Around the same time that the US Army was developing its Stryker concept, the British Army was a planning its own Medium Weight expeditionary capability via the Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) programme, which ultimately produced Boxer. After misguidedly exiting MRAV, a second initiative, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) was proposed. Both projects were mired by indecision and a lack of resources, especially after the global financial crisis of 2008. With Britain heavily involved fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the urgent need to procure MRAP vehicles sucked-up much of the budget allocated for the purchase of future combat vehicles. Despite the cancellation of both MRAV and FRES, the Army still recognised the need for a fundamental metamorphosis that would make it more deployable in a post-Cold War world. It was not until 2016 that Army modernisation once again became a priority. By this time, many of the UK’s previous Medium Weight aspirations had been refined by the operational experience of other armies.
Today, every NATO army – with the exception of the UK, has acquired a Medium Weight capability. In doing so, our allies have found that, for the first time, they can simply get in their vehicles, go anywhere and do anything. If generating land forces was previously like assembling an orchestra, the extent to which the process has now become easier will be music to the ears of military planners. As the Medium Weight phenomenon has become a mainstream approach to force generation, the advantages of wheeled platforms have evolved the “iron triangle” transforming it into a “capability matrix” with six core attributes:
- Mobility: This includes tactical mobility – off-road performance that allows wheeled vehicles to negotiate the same rough terrain as tracked vehicles; and, operational mobility – on-road performance, allowing wheeled units to self-deploy over long distances without relying on tank transporters
- Survivability: High levels of protection against kinetic and blast threats that is at least equal to that of comparable tracked IFVs
- Lethality: This is ability to mount cannons, mortars, and other weapons, up to and including low-recoil 120 mm guns
- Connectivity: This is a digital electronic architectures that integrates C4I systems to facilitate reliable communication via voice and data, ensuring information can be easily received and shared across formations
- Adaptability: This is built-in platform flexibility to perform different missions with minimal reconfiguration
- Supportability: This is factors that contribute to a reduced logistical support requirement, including lower fuel consumption, reduced operating costs, improved reliability, and reduced maintenance requirement.
Tracked platforms may still have a mobility edge when negotiating the most extreme terrains, but the advantages of wheeled vehicles, especially 8×8 platforms, in other areas tends to give them greater utility. For this reason, the term “Medium Weight” has given way to “Strike.” The fundamental concept is still about combining the mobility of light forces with the lethality and survivability of heavy forces, but now encompasses full spectrum utility across low, medium and high intensity deployment types.
The core elements of emerging Strike doctrine are Agility, Autonomy and Reach. Agility is defined by speed of movement across all terrain types. Autonomy is the ability to self-deploy as an independent force. And, Reach is the ability to project power at distance or the sum of agility and autonomy. At its heart, Strike provides an expeditionary capability that allows a rapid reaction across a variety of scenarios. An integral component is the concept of “preemptive manoeuvre.” This is the land warfare equivalent of an ice hockey player skating to where puck is going to be, not where it is. The ability of an entire formation to respond in unison to an evolving tactical picture, moving in a coordinated fashion, with every unit connected to what is happening in real time, can achieve a “force multiplier effect” that out-thinks, outflanks and over-matches a larger enemy force. An example of this is countering air defence bubbles designed to prevent NATO forces from gaining air superiority and other Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) methods.
Strike forces can be used to conduct surprise infiltrations deep into enemy territory to seize and hold key ground. As soon as a desired position is secured, infantry dig-in with ATGM to hold it against any assault. Should the position becomes untenable, units can rapidly withdraw, regroup and redeploy to a new line. In particular, Airborne or Air Assault units can now be used in conjunction with Strike units. A parachute drop to gain control of bridges, airfields, supply dumps or to cut the enemy’s line can be rapidly reinforced by wheeled units moving quickly along ground routes to link-up. It’s what we tried and failed to do at Arnhem.
The fourth doctrinal pillar is Rapid dispersal and concentration of forces. When Strike formations are used to conduct search and destroy missions behind enemy lines, they will move in de-centralised packets. Size will depend on the task at hand. They will manoeuvre into a position that allows accompanying assets, such as missile and rocket artillery, to neutralise enemy assets, e.g. S400 anti-aircraft systems. Operating dispersed is important to avoid artillery fire. Strike units can also be rapidly concentrated or re-focused to achieve a “Schwerpunct” effect. The essence of contemporary US Stryker and UK Strike doctrine can be found in the American Civil War. Confederate General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, attributed his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by consistently “arriving first with largest number of troops.”
The fifth doctrinal pillar is a Reduced Logistical Footprint. For a Strike Brigade to be effective, reducing the effort required to sustain it in the field is essential. In this respect, wheeled vehicles are more efficient, more reliable and easier to maintain than tracked ones. They consume less fuel and can travel long distances faster. Using a common platform and carrying sufficient supplies to last for 7 days also makes a difference.
Finally, the sixth doctrinal pillar is Flexibility. This is the capacity of Strike units to conduct multiple mission types with minimal reconfiguration. Charles Krulak, a former USMC general, developed the concept of the three block war5. This posited that deployed forces should expect to perform a variety of missions wherever deployed. One moment they might be required to distribute aid, next to perform low-leave counter-insurgency roles or to conduct high intensity operations against a peer enemy, all within a three-block radius. It places an emphasis on low-level leadership and adaptable forces.
As armies across NATO build their Medium Weight / Strike capabilities, potential adversaries are doing the same. China has been particularly active developing a full range of 8×8 variants. Russia is supplementing its BTR-70 and BTR-80 mechanised forces with the new Boomerang 8×8 family. The sheer ubiquity of 8×8 platforms convinces some analysts that Medium Weight / Strike forces will eventually render traditional tracked armour obsolete. For sure, Medium Weight forces offer more options across a variety of scenarios, but can they really be the basis of a fundamentally new operating model for land forces?
Modern 8×8 vehicles are well protected, but don’t offer the same level of protection as an MBT. If you put an 8×8 Centauro 2 tank destroyer up against a Russian T-90 MBT, it had better destroy it with a first-round kill, because if it doesn’t, it will almost certainly be obliterated by the tank when it returns fire. If 8x8s cannot survive against MBTs, how can they possible make them redundant? Part of the answer lies in the belief that 8×8 units should never be directly set against tank forces. Ensuring that wheeled units are not surprised is about effective ISTAR – obtaining prior knowledge of enemy dispositions so that you can choose when and where you will fight. Behind this lies a reliance on new technology and the idea that future battlefield encounters will be decided by sensors as much as weapons. An increased focus on fielding third generation sensors, e.g. FLIR gun sights, will allow friendly forces to locate, engage and defeat enemy forces before they can do likewise. In case this view seems naive, it is exactly what the German Wehrmacht did in WW2 with the Sturmgeshütz III assault gun. Originally designed to support dismounted infantry, it proved adept at tank destruction in defence. Its optics were superior to the Panzer III and Russian T-34 with crews able to engage the latter before they could do likewise. For the moment, it may be a stretch to suggest that the tank is obsolete; however, in many situations, tanks may not deploy quickly enough to contribute a decisive effect. An Australian Army general recently put it another way: “Tanks are like dinner jackets, you don’t need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do.”6
In contemporary set-piece attacks, Strike Brigade units will use drones to reconnoitre enemy positions and feed coordinates to artillery located well back. A variety of missile and tube artillery systems will then be used to neutralise enemy forces prior to the attacking force closing on its objective. This reflects another new doctrine, the concept of “defeating at distance,” which is analogous to the RAF using Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) or long-range cruise missiles. The goal is destroy the enemy beyond the distance they are able to return fire. Again, modern sensors such as the radar fitted to the F-35B Lighting II facilitate this, as it has a greater detection range than the systems of potential adversaries. We should expect Strike Brigades to use Non-LIne-of-Sight (NLOS) missiles.
In defence, drone reconnaissance or forward fire controllers will enable a phased response to an attacking enemy. At 100 km, Long-Range Precision Strike Missiles will be used to deplete advancing enemy armour. At 70 km, MLRS and 155 mm artillery will be used. At 40 km NLOS ATGMs comes into play. At 10 km, organic 120 mm mortars and LR ATGM will open fire. Then, at 5 km ATGM like Javelin / MMP will pick-off the remnants. Ideally, an enemy should seldom close to within 2-3 km of a Medium Weight force’s defensive position. If they do, dug-in dismounted infantry will use hand-held ATGMs, like NLAW, or their small arms to defeat whatever is left.
Quite independently from armoured fighting vehicle developments, we’re seeing an evolution in the technical capabilities of artillery systems. These are becoming more ubiquitous, more accurate and more lethal. If an enemy bunches its forces, they will immediately become a target. With potential adversaries investing in quantity as well as quality of artillery, the ability to move quickly around the battlefield is fundamental to the survival of all combatants. Effective fire and manoeuvre remains a core tactical skill. What Strike changes is that instead of this being a low-level unit activity, it will increasingly be executed at brigade- and divisional-level.
In summary, there are four key enablers of the Medium Weight / Strike Brigade concept:
- Combat vehicles, including 4×4, 6×6 and 8×8 platforms, which combine good on-road and off-road mobility
- C4I systems which offer increased range, security and fidelity allowing information to be shared via voice and data across the chain of command
- ISTAR systems, including optics, radar, laser range finders, acoustic direction finders and other modern technology that allows the enemy to be located
- Long-range missiles and artillery systems, including rockets, missiles and smart artillery munitions, non-line of sight ATGMs and ground-based air defence systems.
At the heart of UK Strike Brigades will be the 8×8 platform we tried to acquired 20 years ago, the ARTEC Boxer. This is a third-generation vehicle that rebalances the iron triangle in favour of mobility without sacrificing protection. Boxer’s unique mission module approach allows a vehicle to be re-roled within 20 minutes. It can mount a wide variety of cannons, mortars and missiles. Above all, it acts as the “mother ship” for a full infantry section of 8-10 soldiers. When fielded, the British Army will never have had more a flexible or better protected infantry carrier. Other mechanised infantry units will get MRV-P vehicles, the Oshkosh JLTV and, potentially, the Thales Bushmaster. Both will ensure that infantry will have a much higher degree of protected mobility. Units will be supported by the Army’s MAN truck fleet. Available in 4×4, 6×6 and 8×8 models, these offer exceptional utility and have proved to be the logistical backbone of the Army.
Brief mention should be made of Ajax, the Army’s new reconnaissance platform. While this will be a worthwhile replacement for the ageing CVR(T), it belongs in the Armoured Infantry Brigades, operating alongside Challenger 2 and Warrior. Much has been made of the foolishness of mixing wheels and tracks. While the Army is well aware that Ajax will not keep up with Boxer on long road deployments, it remains a necessary part of the Strike Brigades’ organisational structure, because without it they will lack organic firepower. Using Boxer and Ajax together is an uneasy compromise that is the result of inadequate funding. It won’t be ideal, but the Army will make it work.
The LEtacSys / Morpheus C4I system that will replace Bowman will from the outset be designed for easy integration with the digital electronic architecture of new Army vehicles. This will provide combat net radios with a longer range, increased security, reduced power consumption and a smaller physical footprint. Integrated mobile data networks and satellite communication systems will give the Army more reliable voice communication and data sharing capabilities. An integrated battlefield management system will enable the positions of each sub-unit within a brigade to be shared in real-time. This will enhance command and control as well as general responsiveness. LEtacCIS / Morpheus is a funded programme that is on track to deliver from 2023.
UAVs like Protector and Watchkeeper working closely with Strike Brigade signals units will ensure that information is fed to all units in real time, on a continual basis. Smaller quadcopter drones are expected to become more ubiquitous, providing multiple sources of data to augment the battle picture. Radar, laser range finders and vehicle optics will be enhanced by AI that will ensure enemy threats are identified more reliably and quickly than human operators.
The Army intends to acquire a new mobile fires platform with a 155 mm L/52 calibre howitzer firing new ammunition types. This will offer a 70 km range. It is also evaluating a long range precision fires missile. This could be something like a ground-launched Brimstone with a 40 km range or an improved version of Spike NLOS (Exactor). Additionally, it needs something like the Lockheed Martin HIMARS with G/MLRS rockets and potentially, the new Deep Strike missile, with a 499 km range, so that it can destroy specific point targets or delete entire grid squares.
With most of the above equipment types already on the Army’s shopping list, UK Strike Brigades are well on the way to achieving the General Sir Nick Carter’s Strike 2016 vision. There are three missing pieces of the jigsaw:
- Boxer infantry section vehicles will need a larger weapon than a 12.7 mm HMG. It would be useful if they could be supported by cavalry regiments equipped with Boxer reconnaissance variants mounting a 30 mm or 40 mm cannon plus ATGM, but, as a minimum requirement, something like the 30 mm M230LF chain gun from the Apache plus Javelin ATGM weapon station integration is needed. It would be even better if a Mobile Gun System, with a 120 mm gun, could be acquired.
- Infantry battalions need 120 mm mortars mounted on a dedicated Boxer variant, because the short-range 81 mm mortar risks being out-distanced by fast moving infantry as it advances. Something like the Thales or Patria turreted 120 mm mortar system would be ideal. This has a range of 10-12 kilometres, but also a direct-fire capability, which is ideal for bunker-busting.
- The drone threat is such that the Army needs to rethink its ground-based air defence. The new Land Ceptor / CAMM and Giraffe AMB system, Sky Sabre, is superb; we just don’t have enough of them. Similarly the Starstreak HVM is a good short range system. But we cannot afford to shoot down €1,000 drones with €100,000 missiles. Instead, we need a cannon-based 35-40 mm anti-aircraft system, again mounted on Boxer.
To conclude, UK Strike Brigades will allow the Army to deploy agile and potent ground forces with relative ease. This is transformational. It will obtain a far-reaching expeditionary capability with the flexibility to perform an extensive range of mission types. Strike units will be independent and self-contained fighting forces that need less logistical effort to support. They will be interoperable with our NATO allies, but also with our own heavy armour or air assault units. At their core, Strike Brigades will ensure that infantry mass is delivered when and where it is needed, and with sufficient lethality to achieve a decisive effect. The future direction of travel, not just for the UK, but for NATO, can be seen in the French L’Armée de Terre’s modernisation efforts. All tracked IFVs have been replaced by the 8×8 VBCI. Mechanised formations will get three new wheeled vehicles, the 6×6 Griffon VBMR infantry carrier, the 6×6 Jaguar EBRC reconnaissance vehicle, and the 4×4 VBMR-L Serval. The only remaining tracked platform will be the Leclerc MBT. In the short-term, tracked vehicles may still be needed to fight in Northern Europe in winter, where snow, ice, and soft soil create challenging off-road conditions. Long-term, however, it seems that all tracked platforms will evolve into wheeled ones. With new vehicles and new doctrine, Strike represents the most radical modernization of the British Army in 50 years. Most important of all, in an environment where headcount is limited, it will allow us to do more with less.
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.
- Source: Operation Joint Guardian – The US Army in Kosovo, Jeffrey Clarke, Chief of Military History, US Army
- Source: LAV-25, The US Marine Corps Light Armoured Vehicle, James D’Angina, Osprey Publishing, 2011
- Source: From Transformation to Combat, The First Stryker Brigade at War, Mark Reardon and Jeffrey Charlston, US Army publication, 2007
- Sources: French Army, Major-General Olivier Tramond, Lessons from France’s Operation Serval in Mali, France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Force, by the RAND Corporation, Michael Shirkin)
- Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War.” Marines Magazine, January 1999
- Major General Katherine Toohey, Head of Land Capability for the Australian Army, speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference, June 2019