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Brigade Combat Teams

The Integrated Review Command Paper announced a move from brigades to brigade combat teams (BCTs).  This change offers an opportunity for self-sufficient formations able to meet operational demands against the full spectrum of ‘operate’ tasks (those  below the threshold of war) and warfighting by drawing on dedicated logistics and combat support units.  This article will discuss how the BCT will offer options to ‘operate’ as defined by the Integrated Operating Concept context (An alternative view on the IOpC) and separately, though possibly by extension, consider whether a BCT could offer a shrinking Army options to plan and cohere ‘operational level’ activity.

Why the brigade combat team?

In recent history, the formation the UK has most frequently deployed on operations has been the brigade. Whilst operational context has been a driver for this choice, the British Army’s small size means that the brigade, or even battlegroup, has been the usable unit of currency.  Examples of brigades deployed in isolation include 4th Armoured Brigade in Bosnia, 5th Airborne Brigade in Kosovo, a 1* Joint Task Force Sierra Leone, successive brigades and 1* HQs in Afghanistan or 104th Logistic Brigade in support of Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic.  Whilst there are nuances in context a UK division has deployed only twice in this period.

Despite this trend, there is limited acceptance across UK Defence that a brigade can, or should, deploy and operate in isolation.  Having privileged the division since the 2015 defence review under the premise that it provides a capability where “the full orchestra of war comes together”, UK Defence seems to have forgotten that the brigade can provide a pretty impressive brass band.1 The answer isn’t always a warfighting division.

Is a BCT meaningful?

To some ‘BCT’ will just be another three letter abbreviation or buzzword to learn.  It is right that we question if a BCT will be meaningfully different and useful in comparison to our current use (or misuse) of brigades.  BCTs offer an economy of scale through which the British Army can both concentrate force across the range of ‘operate’ activities (protect, engage, constrain as defined in the Integrated Operating Concept).  And perhaps, with the right augmentation, provide a gearing at the operational level to buy-out the gap between 3* HQs and the tactical activities of battlegroups.

For a force of 72,000 people, the commitment of a division is a strategic undertaking and one that cannot be sustained beyond one rotation.  A brigade, meanwhile, could be deployed for short periods without consuming the whole army.  This makes brigades usable and therefor offers a broader range of options to the government for operational activity.  The caveat being that an enduring operation requiring follow on brigades would quickly consume the Army’s five deployable brigades.

The Army’s aspiration is for BCTs to be “structured to integrate capabilities at the lowest appropriate level, with supporting capabilities routinely assigned, including artillery, un-crewed aerial systems, cyber, air defence, engineers, signals and logistic support”. The aspiration is to “create more self-sufficient tactical units with the capacity to work with partners across government, or with allies and industry”.2  This is alongside formation ground mounted reconnaissance regiment and 3-4 manoeuvre units under command.

A Royal Anglian Regiment soldier deployed on Op CABRIT firing a Heavy Machine Gun. Photo: MOD.

This is a significant change from the current brigade structure which is predominantly an aggregate of battlegroup combat power.  At present a brigade only expects to be able to use the same artillery assets as its battlegroups and merely acts as a gearing to ensure battlegroup actions are synchronised to achieve effects.  The addition of these assets seeks to address how some of the British Army’s greatest strengths and capabilities such as rocket artillery, ISR capabilities, national technical means, and aviation, which have doctrinally previously been reserved for the divisional level for warfighting, might be employed by 1* organisations.  This will allow BCTs to look beyond the geographically ‘close’ fight to which the brigade has traditionally been constrained. This allows the BCT to amplify effect by concentrating forces at the point of relevance.

The operational level brigade combat team

The Integrated Review provides very specific tasks to the British Army’s two divisional HQs.  3 (UK) Division will be a “a warfighting division, optimised to fight a peer adversary in a NATO context”.  1 (UK) Division will have a deployable role “capable of operating independently or as part of multilateral deployments…offer[ing] NATO the agility to command operations on its flanks”.  That the divisions have been given such specific tasks means that a gap is left as to who in the land domain will provide the operational level gearing for operations below the threshold of warfighting.  This gap could be particularly acute if these ‘operate’ tasks occur beyond Europe.  It begs the question as to how operational level campaign planning will be conducted in such theatres.

There may be a preference for this to be conducted within 3* HQs such as the Land Operations Command or Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ).  Reserving command at this level would be at the cost of decentralised and mission command; recently UK thinking has highlighted 3* to 1* gearing as lacking the operational C2 needed.3  A new method of C2 is required to link the 3* to the 1* if a 2* C2 node is not available.

Given these factors the Army needs to cautiously toe the line between understanding what it is to ‘operate’ and what the operational level entails.  It is worth questioning if a BCT could (or should) straddle the tactical and operational levels of command.

Operate vs the operational level

Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations defines the operational level of command as, “the level at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theatres or areas of operations.  The operational level provides the gearing between the strategic and tactical levels.  Joint campaigns and operations are constructed and directed at the operational level to fulfil national, alliance or coalition strategy”.4

The application of these ‘levels’, however, is one of context.  In a sufficiently vast conflict, the division could be considered a purely tactical formation.  At the other end of this scale, it would be difficult to argue that General Richards wasn’t operating at the operational level as a 1* in Sierra Leone.  In his book Taking Command5 he talks at length as to how he tied together broader strategic themes from government, sometimes at odds with direction from PJHQ.  He also details how he crafted a campaign plan to ensure that he employed his task force in decisive tactical actions that linked all of these things together.  One of General Dannatts’ lessons from his time commanding 4th Armoured Brigade in Bosnia was that, “strategic objectives set out by governments must be linked to tactical activity on the ground by soldiers and aid workers through a properly worked out operational-level plan – a campaign plan – drawn up the appropriately training and empowered theatre commander”.6

Training at the Faculty of Nursing in Freetown for both British and Sierra Leonean medics. Photo: MOD.

In this context, both General Dannatt and General Richards demonstrated, whether they intended to or not, that a brigade can straddle the operational and tactical levels of command.  That their 1* HQs cohered these activities in 1992 and 2000 respectively, and given commitment required to deploy a division discussed above, it seems likely that British BCT commanders can be called upon to do this again.

Brigades are not simply groupings of administrative convenience. They are tactical-level manoeuvre organisations which exist to anticipate and solve problems and identify and exploit opportunities for their superiors and subordinates by actively facilitating the relationship between them… They add value primarily by amplifying effect and generating efficiency. They do this by amplifying effect and generating efficiency. They do this by bringing foresight, imagination, simplification and effective coordination to the mission, thus ensuring that the total effect of Divisionally-assigned force is always greater than the sum of their parts.”

Armoured infantry Brigade Commander, 2021

Practical issues

The greatest issue in asking BCTs to operate at the operational level would be that of staff capacity.  The only options to manage greater demand are to either to increase the size of the staff, increase the training/quality of the staff, or to devolve some more responsibilities to subordinates (transferring the problem to battlegroups).  A BCT HQ would undoubtedly need to be reinforced with staff to reflect the additional work normally reserved for the division.  The challenge is doing so without the BCT HQ becoming too fat to think.7

A ‘plug and play’ approach might be appropriate with a distinct deployable Joint Air Ground-Integration Centre or Information Manoeuvre Group command posts able to bolt on the BCT when required.  Alternatively, the relative staff paucity of the BCT could be mitigated by giving programmed operations greater planning time than that currently expected in high-intensity warfighting, and thus the smaller BCT HQ staff could conduct operational level planning or campaign design.

Lastly, despite the recent historic trends which reflect multiple and increasing brigade deployments, UK defence has not conceptually accepted that a BCT could fight in isolation.  This is the critical argument and viewing the BCT through the lens of the UK’s warfighting division is a fallacy.  It is almost certain that BCTs will deploy on both planned and contingency operations as the single deployed UK sovereign C2 capability.  Further, whilst being careful not to learn the wrong lessons from Task Force Helmand, we must also acknowledge that the BCT HQ could provide C2 for NATO and allied nations who wish to plug in with a smaller commitment.

Operate the brigade combat team!

Having considered how the BCT could offer operational level command, it’s also worth looking at how the BCT could be used to achieve distinctly separate ‘operate’ effects (not to be confused with the operational level).  The scale of BCTs, and the number of them available to Defence, means that they are not the ‘one shot’ asset that the division is.  They can therefore be used across the spectrum of ‘operate’ (protect, engage constrain) activities.  And it by deploying the full BCTs for these operations that the Army can ‘clout’ rather than ‘dribble’ when achieving sub-threshold effects.

Given constraints in training areas, workforce, and financial resource, and against a backdrop of wishing to conduct as much activity as possible to achieve strategic communications effect,8 the Global Hub concept offers a basis through which to make best use of the BCT in the ‘operate’ context. We could see a heavy BCT deployed to Germany9 or Poland with its tactical command posts and a battlegroup co-located (engage), a unit deployed in Estonia (protect) and another in Ukraine (constrain).  What about a Light BCT conducting similar activities across the Sahel on Op BARKHANE with the French, or supporting the African Union in the Horn of Africa, or from a QE Class carrier in the Pacific?  The point here is that rather than deploying hundreds of small missions, the BCT offers a mechanism to concentrate force against ‘operate’ tasks.


Less a high-end NATO Article 5 conflict necessitating the deployment of the warfighting division, the Integrated Review frames the BCT as the building block around which the British Army could (or should) build its’ future ‘fighting’ commitments.  For the British Army, this is an economy of scale.  Whilst we all recognise that not every conflict demands a UK division, there is little acceptance that a UK BCT could fight in isolation.  And less still any imagination which sees BCTs as the gearing through which we will protect, engage and constrain abroad.  The change required is one of mindset. Defence needs to reconsider Slim’s assertion that the division “is the smallest formation that is a complete orchestra of war”.  Whilst perhaps not a complete orchestra,10 British brigades have proved they can manage pretty credible brass bands.  The brigade combat team could offer even more.  But to do so we must recognise that it is the lowest level at which we meaningfully deploy, and thereafter the whole force can adjust its’ sights accordingly.

Generic cartoon selfie
Tom Onion

Major Tom Onion is an officer in the Mercian Regiment. He has deployed on operations in Afghanistan, served as an instructor at the Infantry Battle School and has experience working in operations teams for both brigade and divisional headquarters.


  1. The Chief of the General Staff, General Carter paraphrasing Field Marshall Slim in 2017 ‘SDSR and the Army’
  2. Future Soldier | The British Army (mod.uk) accessed 28 Sep 21
  3. Steve Maguire, NATO’s VJTF(L), Small Wars Journal, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/nato’s-very-high-readiness-joint-task-force-land-2017-an-analysis accessed 20 October 2021
  4. LWC, ‘ADM – Land Operations’, AS 71940, British Army, 2017. P2-6 para 2-12
  5. Richards, D (2014), “Taking Command”, Headline: London.
  6. Dannatt, R (2010) “Leading from the front”, Corgi Books: London. p230
  7. Steve Maguire,  Too Fat to Think, Wavell Room, http://wavellroom.com/2019/10/09/too-fat-to-think-disruptive-thought-military/
  8. Kingsbury, Ollie, Maximise Speed of Response, Wavell Room, http://wavellroom.com/2021/09/27/maximise-speed-of-response
  9. A British armoured brigade in Germany – imagine that.
  10. Some more interesting ideas on this can be found here: Operational Effect: The Argument for a British Corps – UK Land Power

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