By Gabriele Molinelli

(Gabriele Molinelli who runs and who has followed the UK’s efforts to develop a Strike Brigade Capability compares and contrasts British Army Strike with the US Army’s emerging vision. This provides a useful description of what Strike is meant to be conceptually, but also looks at the issues that potentially prevent it from being all it can be.) 

Stryker in Syria
US Stryker vehicles deployed in Syria 2017.

Contrasting the British and American Approach to Strike

The British Army is betting its future on its new Strike Brigades. These will be medium-weight forces that combine the Ajax tracked AFV with wheeled APCs to be purchased under the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (MIV) programme. The Army has not communicated the doctrine or objectives that underpin the Strike concept, but the little that has been said has major implications. Fundamentally, Strike Brigades are envisaged as self-deployable, road-mobile formations capable of executing expeditionary operations abroad where operational areas stretch across great distances. The French operation SERVAL in Mali is cited as a text book example, where battle groups moved rapidly across country to hit insurgents before they could achieve their objectives. A key success factor was the ability of wheeled mechanized formations, some of which were already forward-based in Africa while others were deployed via sea and air, to move many hundreds of kilometres on land to enter and dominate the combat zone.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Strike Brigade will serve as a “Divisional Manoeuvre Enabler,” securing flanks, scouting ahead of heavy armoured battlegroups and attacking enemy “weak spots” through manoeuvre over long distances. According to the Chief General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, the Strike Brigade is envisaged as a means of counteracting enemy attempts to create Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) bubbles. Prior to 2010, the UK was moving towards a Brigade-centric structure, but was asked by the US to focus its resources around a deployable divisional structure, to ensure that it could continue to contribute formations with a comprehensive array of supporting arms.

Puma IFV with 30mm Rheinmetall Lance turret

A2AD strategies established by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, reflect decades of underinvestment in combined arms manoeuvre by NATO and other Western armies. The A2AD threat has also inspired the USA’s new Multi Domain Battle concept. Although the US Army’s existing Armoured Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs) are highly capable, they lack a full array of capabilities. Therefore, the US Army is considering what the ideal “Army formation of the future” should be. It wants to devise a new type of brigade to perform Multi-Domain Battle roles, and has set up an experimental Multi Domain Task Force to determine the attributes of the new formation. This is a compact formation of about 1500 personnel and combines elements from all corps, including infantry, armour, fires, aviation and signals.

Although comprehensive experimentation is needed to define the optimum structure, there seems to be consensus on the need for smaller, highly capable, and self-contained formations that posses a full and organic multi-domain capability. In the meantime, six specific areas of improvement have been identified: combat vehicles, precision fires, air defence, soldier lethality, electronic warfare and network-centric command and control. Improvements to current armoured vehicles are the short-term solution and are exemplified by the latest modifications to Abrams, Bradley and Paladin. As a matter of urgency, Stryker brigades, beginning with the formation based in Europe, are being given a substantial uplift in firepower with adoption of Javelin under-armour capability for half of the vehicles and unmanned gun turrets with 30mm cannons for the other half. The need for a new generation combat vehicle is clear; as is the need for increased mobility and firepower within infantry formations at the light end of the spectrum.

The closest the US Army has previously got to the multi-role, multi-effect formation imagined for the Multi Domain Battle is the former Armoured Cavalry Regiment (ACR), which was a combined arms formation comprised of heavy armour and organic artillery supported by a dedicated aviation element. Unsurprisingly, a modernized and improved ACR is being promoted as an ideal solution for today’s challenges, under the acronym “Reconnaissance and Security Strike Group” (RSSG). The RSSG approach is supported by high calibre army reformers (who are also ACR veterans) such as Doug MacGregor and H.R. McMaster.

Swedish CV90 with twin AMOS 120mm mortar system

While the British Army is carrying out its own “Strike Experimentation,” an alarming lack of UK Defence resources raises concerns about what, if anything, will actually be done to respond to the recommendations of desktop simulations and field exercises. Moreover, the British Army has already decided where it wants to invest its cash and is now contractually committed to Ajax. When Ajax was first conceived it was intended to be the reconnaissance element of the armoured infantry brigades. It is now intended to be used in a different role, as if it were a medium tank. This worries many senior officers. It is worth reminding that until recently the FRES Specialist Vehicle, before it was renamed Ajax, was to include a “Direct Fire” variant which would have been armed with a 120mm smoothbore cannon. Ajax’s common hull was specifically designed to have a large turret ring to facilitate the development of a large gun version, which General Dynamics is now proposing, under the name “Griffin,” for the US Army Mobile Protected Firepower requirement. The MPF requirement is in effect the need for a Light to Medium tank, which will be used to provide direct fire support to light infantry and, possibly, air assault formations. Both armies appreciate the need for Direct Fire support to the infantry, which is also an obvious consequence of future scenarios where air support cannot be counted upon, but the British Army, being short of cash, is trying to respond by suddenly changing the role of Ajax.

The other element of the UK’s new Strike Brigades is the acquisition of a wheeled infantry carrier vehicle family. Called Mechanised infantry Vehicle (MIV) this programme appears to be more or less “frozen.”  This will be a 30-tonne 8×8 vehicle, although the exact type has yet to be selected. It is currently expected to mount just a 12.7mm HMG in a remoted weapon station despite Experimentation findings recommending a proper turret, mounting something like that 30mm cannon that is now being fitted to SBCT Strykers in Europe.

ARTEC Boxer 8×8 is a candidate vehicle for the UK MIV requirement.

The Strike Brigade is currently expected to field two infantry battalions on MIV and 2 regiments of cavalry on Ajax, with one tasked as “Medium Armour” support to the infantry and the other tasked with reconnaissance. The British Army has had to accept a wide range of cuts to its force structure elsewhere to enable the Strike project to progress, and this includes losing one of just three remaining regular MBT regiments. Until recently, the Royal Lancers, already a reconnaissance cavalry formation, were due to be the first unit to convert to Ajax, but now it is planned that this honour will instead fall on the King’s Royal Hussars, which will lose their Challenger 2 MBTs. This will happen by 2019, well before the Strike Experimentation is complete, and this creates further concerns about the extent to which the fact-based findings of it will actually influence the final doctrine, structure and equipment.

In general, the US Army seems to be tackling the problem more methodically, carrying out a much more objective experimentation to determine the ideal shape of new land combat units while fixing individual capability problems first. The currently preferred force structure seems to be highly capable, full-spectrum formation, even though there are critics who say that the current ABCT is already overloaded with too many responsibilities.

The British Army has little momentum (and even less money) for fixing individual problems and has initiated an Experimentation which appears to be starting from a conclusion rather than a hypothesis, with the aim of trying to validate the plan already crafted rather than fully define something new. The Strike Brigade as currently envisioned will have capabilities far inferior to those of an ACR or RSSG and seems to be seen, at least in complex scenarios, as merely a component of a larger, division-level package. The British Army in this appears to be agreeing with US critics, who do not want to overload brigade-level formations.

It is worth noting that potential adversaries, who have inspired modernization efforts, such as Russia, unequivocally do not believe that brigade commands are overloaded with responsibilities. This was explained in detail by Igor Sutyagin at the RUSI Land Warfare conference earlier this year. Russian brigades are resourced with a vast array of Electronic Warfare capabilities, a SOF element and more Fires than a British division. The Russians have concluded that having broad organic capabilities and commanders well versed in their use, reducing their dependency on higher commands, is a battle winning capability.

In devising a new force structure to meet this challenge, both US and UK must take note of this new Russian doctrine. Russia wants operationally independent brigades to ensure that commanders can carry out their plans quickly. High level political decisions might still be centralized and slow, so the Russians are trying to ensure that all formations in the field compensate that with their ops tempo. During the Cold War the West knew it could exploit the slowness of a Red Army inexorably forced to pass all actions through Stavka oversight. Is the West now at risk of being the player slowed down by the need to pass through Stavka for very decision? Excessively dependence on the higher levels of command, coupled with the constraints introduced by political oversight, public opinion concerns and the media battle, puts the western formations in a position of constant disadvantage.

It was the capability of the ACRs to successfully engage even the most capable enemy formations and the independence and aggressiveness of its commanders that brought about successes such as the battle of 73 Easting. McMaster knows it all too well, having been at the centre of it.

Reconnaissance and Security Strike Group and Strike Brigade

There are at least two variations of RSSG being suggested for adoption. One is more closely related to the old ACR, because it would be built up with Abrams MBTs and Bradley IFVs, while the second variant, pushed by Colonel McGregor, is more innovative and daring because it is predicated on a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) developed from the German Puma IFV – which, ironically, is not that different from the UK’s Ajax.

Both variations of the RSSG remain predicated on the same basic concept, which is also the biggest element of discontinuity with the old ACR: combined arms teams of armour, bringing to bear maximum protected mobility and firepower, would fight dispersed, semi-independently and at long range while supported by a powerful central ISR and Fires construct. The ACR of old would often get augmented with Deep Fire capabilities but never had them as organic component.

To literally combat Fires with Fires, the RSSG comes with organic long-range GMLRS. The US Army is tackling individual Fires weaknesses with a number of programmes: Precision Fires will deliver new missiles to replace ATACMS, doubling the amount of ready to fire rounds per launcher and offering a reach of between 300 and 500 km. The Alternative Warhead programme, meanwhile, is restoring a wide area attack capability to GMLRS after the demise of earlier sub-munition-based rockets due to UXO concerns and impact on civilians.

General Dynamics “Griffin” Direct Fire vehicle with 120mm smoothbore on Ajax platform.

The integral aviation element of the first model is reinforced compared to the already very substantial resources that used to be available to the ACR, and a major addition is represented by UAVs.

In McGregor’s proposal, the number and types of manned helicopters are curtailed severely, but firepower is provided by a large battery of Loitering Munitions, which make up for the loss of Apache attack helicopters while putting far less strain on the logistic element.

Another obvious difference between the two models is that McGregor proposes a regiment based on four armoured manoeuvre battalions, as he imagines the RSSG fighting isolated and surrounded in a complex, congested and contested battlespace with no real rear echelon. The four battalions move and fight in an imaginary box with sides of 60 to 80 km, with their ISR and Fires support in the middle.

Both variations are proposed as self-contained “all arms, all effects” formations able to Jointly find, target and manoeuvre to annihilate the enemy, acting as vanguard and enablers for follow on formations.

McGregor’s RSSG is “medium weight” and “single-type” in order to deploy with maximum firepower for minimum footprint. It is meant to weigh less, require less sustainment, be deployed more rapidly and easily. Arguably, McGregor’s RSSG is the one that most resembles the concept behind the British Strike Brigade. The principal resemblance is in terms of weight and deployability ambitions: the British brigade will use Ajax (and MIV), which are comparable in terms of footprint to the Puma.  Yet, at the same time, the differences are substantial, especially in terms of firepower.

McGregor does away with self-propelled howitzers: instead of having Paladin in support of the armoured manoeuvre units he imagines a Puma hull fitted with AMOS turret with twin automated 120mm mortars.

Puma obviously replaces Bradley, but also replaces Abrams: he imagines a Puma derivative fitted with an unmanned turret armed with a 120mm smoothbore cannon or, ideally, the new 130mm in development by Rheinmetall.  A Puma variant would also provide low level air defence and anti-UAS / C-RAM protection thanks to the SkyRanger turret with 35mm gun.

In both variants, the RSSG comes with firepower that is many orders of magnitude superior to that of UK Strike Brigade. It has organic deep strike Fires and ISR. It has organic air defence. It is also entirely tracked and does not imagine dispersion “in up to 60 points of presence” and over “up to 2000 km” like the Strike Brigade optimistically does.

Logistically, the RSSG comes with a far greater level of commonality thanks to its “Puma for everything” approach. In some ways, McGregor’s RSSG is a return to FRES and FCS and their families of common-hull tracked vehicles.

The RSSG, in both proposals, appear more rationally thought out than the Strike Brigade. They have an answer to the problems identified by the Army. They have the overwhelming firepower to manoeuvre through peer and near-peer opposition. They have organic Fires, including Deep Strike, to at least respond in kind, if not overmatch, to the traditionally impressive array of artillery support available to Russian commanders. It has organic air defence to protect itself from drones, armed and unarmed. In McGregor’s proposal, the use of a single base hull for most of the brigade’s combat elements has obvious benefits on the logistic footprint.

The Strike Brigade, conversely, seem to have lost itself along the way while trying to decide if it is a medium weight brigade for Mali scenarios or a divisional enabler for high intensity warfare. Half of it is wheeled for long, independent road moves, but with little to no mounted firepower. The other half is tracked and has the excellent 40mm CTA gun, but, to this day, no mounted ATGWs or heavy smoothbore cannons to contrast enemy armour. There is no sign of organic air defence to contrast at least the threat of UAVs.

The artillery contingent is going to have just two batteries of L118 Light Guns and two batteries of JTACs and Joint Fires directors: this makes sense for the “Mali half” of tasks, where air superiority is assured; but is totally unsuited to near peer scenarios where air parity is the best that can be hoped for and the enemy is known to have a massive overmatch in terms of artillery.

Security of logistics is still very much an open question. Despite this and many more questionable characteristics, the Strike Brigade sets for itself objectives far more ambitious than those imagined even for the far better resourced RSSG.

While the British Army is aware of at least some of the gaps, there is no clear path to a funded solution. For example, the Royal Artillery has a programme for a “Long range rocket system” which has finally appeared within the Equipment Programme document, 2016 edition, but this is not particularly reassuring when we think that ATACMS was on the list already a decade ago. “Land precision strike capability”, which should involve precision shells for the 155mm howitzer, as well as course correction fuses for standard shells, is also in the document, but it too is a requirement at least 10 years old.  Many more examples could be made. Soothsayer, for new EW systems, was cancelled and its full replacement is yet to be seen; COBRA left service and all that remains to identify enemy firing positions is a literal handful of short-range MAMBA radars. The Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle, desperately needed to replace the many variants of FV432 in armoured formations, has been pushed to the right once more in the 2016 budget cycle.

Given the constraints, is MIV and the Strike Brigades in general, a sensible use of money? The US Army is fixing individual capability gaps while it experiments and thinks about how to band the various elements together afterwards. The British Army, short of funding as it is, should probably do the same rather than trying to find a justification for a brigade structure that someone has already decided, without a clear reason to believe it will work.

Looking at the numbers, the sad reality is that the British “warfighting division” would actually more closely resemble a single ACR or RSSG (option one). This is the reality the army has to face: perhaps RSSG “Option One” can actually be the workable basis for the British Army’s solution to modern high intensity warfare, using mostly equipment that is already available and leaving the limited budget available to fill the largest capability gaps.

A “Mali” type deployment could arguably be achieved with Mastiff and Foxhound plus Ajax in support, where necessary. However, it is the high-intensity scenario, which seems less likely to materialise, that should drive the Army’s plans, because it is the only one that most reflects current existential threats.