A guest post by Jed C. that explores how we can enhance the Army’s capabilities while reconciling a shrinking budget with a “Maritime First” view of UK Defence.

Contents

01 – Need for short-term savings and to prioritise the Royal Navy
02 – Reconfiguring the Army within current constraints
03 – Concept of a UK Reconnaissance Strike Group (RSG)
04 – Summary

01 – Need for short-term savings and to prioritise the Royal Navy

With the impending threat of a “defence adjustments” which is MoD-speak for a fresh round of cuts, it may be useful to consider a practical way forward for UK Land Power, so that we emerge from them with only a slightly smaller, but better equipped army.

In an increasingly unstable world, the defence and security budget needs a long-term view so that the budget and investment in key capabilities grow as our needs evolve. We should set the defence budget for the next 5 years, in law if necessary. In the short-term, however, it appears that we do need to make savings; but we need to avoid false economies and recognise that there are a few things we cannot cut. So, let’s address the elephant in the room early, I take a “maritime first” view of UK defence and security strategy. This means I would reduce the RAF and Army headcount to increase the number of sailors in the Royal Navy, so that it can fully crew the ships it has – all of them, including many “mothballed” vessels. However, I would also hand-over River Class patrol vessels to the RFA allowing Merchant Navy manning, to act as a “Coast Guard”.

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Royal Marines Amphibious capability needs to be retained.

Respected blogger and commentator, “Think Defence,” has demanded a “grown-up” debate on the fate of the Royal Navy’s Amphibious capability and possible cuts to the Royal Marines. Many people seem to agree that 3 Commando Brigade is an elite, highly-trained and capable force, so cutting it would be senseless act. It might be preferable to cut three regular infantry battalions instead and then to transfer the three battalion-size “Commandos” of 3 Brigade Royal Marines to the Army. Making the Royal Marines part of the Army would be anathema to some, but Fleet protection, Landing Craft squadrons etc. would remain part of the Navy and its budget. Ultimately, if this split is the only way to retain a highly specialist and world class capability, so be it.

As for the Amphibious vessels, it is worth noting that, according to a report released in October 2017, the last time atmospheric CO2 was this high, the world was on average 2o C warmer, and the sea level was 10m higher than it is today. If the hurricane season we have just had is indicative of climate change, and likely to be repeated, perhaps most of us would agree that the DfID international aid budget could justifiably be used to pay for the Royal Navy’s amphibious capability, due to the dual-use potential they offer. We need the RN to be fully manned, to avoid cuts to RM numbers, and to retain our amphibious ships. This being the case, what would we need to give up instead? I would quite happily surrender the F-35 and maintain the carriers as the world’s largest helicopter carriers. Secondly, and I know this would not be popular with many readers, but I question the real value of CASD and the new SSBNs.

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Could more fully-loaded Typhoons be a better option than the F-35B?

For the RAF, I would also give up the idea of the F-35. It just does not make sense when you analyse the benefit versus the costs. Instead, we should acquire more Typhoons with all the bells and whistles, buy a UCAV, such as Taranis, and then start experimenting with manned/ unmanned pairing. We should also cut the E3 Sentry AWACS while either the US or NATO allies might still buy them to shore up their existing fleets.  We should also consider axing the Red Arrows – because this will really focus public attention on the defence debate

02 – Reconfiguring the Army within current constraints

Given the above savings as a “strategic context,” we can progress to the substance of this piece; how do we regenerate the Army so that it can fulfil its roles and requirements, so that we can recruit sufficient personnel and so that morale is restored?

Think Defence has written extensively on the debacle that has been our doctrine development, strategic direction and procurement nightmares in the form of medium capabilities, wheeled and tracked, from MRAV to FRES etc. However, let’s just take stock of where we are now:

  • An under-funded project to upgrade a very small number of MBTs, which will no doubt turn out to be more expensive than planned
  • A project to upgrade less than half of our existing number of Infantry Fighting Vehicles (Warrior) with a new turret, and other bits and bobs. The programme is over budget and behind schedule
  • FV432 series vehicles that are older than my Dad, well, almost, but they are old…..
  • An order for a “medium weight” tracked recce “tank” family (FRES Scout) that was designed to fight for information as part of an armoured brigade in a mechanized or armoured division, which now appears destined to provide fire support to wheeled mechanized infantry brigades
  • A small number of lightly armed scout helicopters (Wildcat), a reasonable amount of attack helicopters (Apache AH-64E), and a good amount of medium support helicopters (Chinook CH-47)
  • An armoured vehicle fleet that includes dozens of UOR types taken into core
  • An un-funded project (?) for a wheeled MIV – Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (8×8 APC)
  • An un-funded (?) project for two types of MRVP – Multi-Role Vehicle Protected (4×4 and 6×6)
  • Vastly reduced artillery capabilities – short-barrelled AS90 155 SPG and 105mm Light gun, no MLRS rocket launcher to replace the original bomblet dispensing “grid square removers” and no gun or rocket delivered precision rounds or anti-armour top attack rounds
  • Woefully inadequate organic, integrated air defence

Does that seem bad enough and accurate to everyone? There are other deficiencies too. Less equipment centric, but no less indictable. Let’s not forget the bizarre doctrine that mixes wheels and tracks in new the “Strike Brigade” concept and “Special Purpose” infantry battalions, which are really no more than under-strength units.

So, given this context, what can we do to move forward, especially as Her Majesty’s Government is keen to identify further savings? I would suggest that we have to figure out a better way to use what we have, what we have on order, and not to further paint ourselves into some kind of doctrinal corner or create some other unworkable fudge, based on what it the budget allows us to do, rather than being guided by what we genuinely need to achieve strategically.

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Will Challenger 2 LEP cost too much to deliver too little? Are MBTs redundant anyway, because they’ll never deploy in time to make a difference?

Part of the problem is that we cut by salami-slicing and not by dropping capabilities, even if they no longer make much sense. For example, we have projects to upgrade vastly reduced numbers of Challenger 2 MBTs and Warrior IFVs, but is the reality that these capabilities may no longer be relevant to our overall defence priorities. Heavy armour ideally needs to be positioned near its area of operational deployment. Long road marches on low loaders are vulnerable to attack before heavy tracked units reach their deployment area. So, let me be a little contentious and paint a picture of what we can do, with what we have, without the ridiculous proposition of a Strike Brigade that mixes wheeled APC’s with tracked “medium armour” while only having a 40mm cannon.

03 – Concept of a UK Reconnaissance Strike Group (RSG)

In his recent article, our Italian friend Gabriele, detailed US Army doctrinal experiments and the idea of the Reconnaissance Strike Group and the derivate Reconnaissance Security Strike Group. In many ways the UK’s new Ajax combat reconnaissance vehicle (CRV) family is the ideal platform to create a UK RSG. It is highly mobile, well protected and has the potent new 40mmm CTAI cannon. My proposal is that given the large number of Ajax variants already on order, we could:

  • Adjust the type and quantity of variants already ordered
  • Add a number of additional variants
  • Cancel Challenger 2 LEP & Warrior CSP upgrade programmes – removing them from the inventory would also eliminate further support costs
  • Use the CR2 and WCSP budgets to fund additional Ajax vehicle purchase.

A UK RSG type formation, or Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, could be based in Southern Poland (outside of missile range from the Kaliningrad enclave). It would be a major part of the UK’s contribution to NATO collective defence. It would substitute British Forces Germany (BFG) with British Forces Poland (BFP) while being a valid response to the strategic / tactical conundrum of having medium / heavy tracked vehicles close to where they are needed. With a perceived Russian threat to the Baltic states leading to the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups in Poland and each of the Baltic states, including the UK led multi-national battle group in Estonia, this could be a credible long-term initiative that would enhance the UK’s long-term commitment to NATO.

 

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Ajax variants

I envisage a UK version of the RSG/RSSG as having four Ajax-equipped Armoured Reconnaissance Regiments, or Recce-Strike Regiments (RSR) as the main element, supported by Armoured Infantry Battalions, Armoured Combat Engineer Regiment, Royal Artillery regiments, Signals Regiment and combat service and support units as required.

The existing order numbers for Ajax family variants are detailed in this post by Think Defence. There would be enough 40mm CTA cannon-armed variants to form the back bone of the four RSR’s with 3 of these being the RSG/ARB in Poland, and one in the UK as a training regiment.

Each RSR would have:

  • HQ Squadron – 4 Athena C2,
  • 3 x Sabre Squadrons – 14 Ajax Scout and 2 Athena C2 vehicles in each
  • ISR Squadron – 6 Ajax Joint Fire Control, 6 Ajax Ground Based Surveillance, 6 Ares APC with Desert Hawk UAV teams
  • Support Squadron – 6 Argus Engineer Recce, 6 Atlas armoured recovery, 6 Apollo armoured repair

With three RSR’s in Poland, on a one-in-three duty cycle, one would be on training, one on advanced training/ high readiness, and one would be the high readiness regiment, providing three company-sized recce battle groups, a mini-RSSG in effect. With enough warning, the idea would be to field the whole brigade as a full-on RSSG as part of a Polish division.

There would be enough Argus, Atlas and Apollo, plus Terrier and Trojan vehicles for a well equipped Armoured Combat Engineer regiment to support the RSR’s.

MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) Vehicles at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan
British Army GMLRS launcher

Of course, the “strike” part of the US RSG / RSSG concepts are heavy “fires”, provided by large numbers of organic 120mm mortars and MLRS. We could certainly maximize our remaining MLRS launchers into an 18-launcher regiment, with 3 batteries of 6 launchers on the one-in-three readiness cycle. A 120mm mortar version of Ares would be great, but we don’t have those on order, but what we do have is our short barrelled 155mm AS90 self propelled guns. A large close support regiment with 32 guns could provide 3 batteries of 12, again on a one-in-three duty cycle, with a troop of 4 supporting the battle group. Finally, a similar close air defence capability would be provided by regiment equipped with StarStreak on Stormer.

 

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GD Ares protected mobility version of Scout SV. It could form the basis of an IFV.

So what is missing? To have a single family of armoured vehicles providing commonality benefits, we really need a proper anti-armour over-watch version of the Ares, plus an armoured ambulance version. Most important, I would like to see us invest in an APC version of Ares to equip 4 armoured infantry battalions, as this is the missing part of the RSG / ARB. Based on the same one-in-three duty cycle in Poland, and with one training regiment in the UK, each would supply an armoured infantry company to the recce battle group, providing close infantry support. To keep costs down, I would make these RWS armed APC’s rather than 40mm CTA armed IFV’s. The key question is, would funds diverted from not upgrading 380 Warriors pay for an extra 150-ish Ares? Of course, being totally strapped for cash means we might configure this as one large battalion with four rifle companies, plus a training company. This too would operate on a one-in-three rotation, providing an armoured infantry platoon to support of each Saber squadron battle group. Less than ideal, but it allows us to operate within budgetary constraints.

The lack of anti-armour capability would initially have to be addressed by half of the Ajax versions having the RWS with Javelin fitted. However, I would like to see the development of something akin to the old Alvis Striker variant of CVR(T) with a raising / pop up launcher for the new MMP ATGW.

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Alvis Striker, with box launcher for Swingfire ATGW.

 

Javelin on a Konsberg Protector RWS as fitted to both Ares and on the turret of Ajax variants.

There are other forms of indirect fire anti-armour capability we can invest in of course. We could use some of the M270 chassis used for the MLRS and mount the new US Army Multi-Mission Launcher (MML) which puts 12 cells on a MLRS derived frame. So, 12 Brimstone in MMW autonomous guidance mode fired from maybe as far as 20 miles out, would be highly effective at spoiling an enemy armour formation’s day, multiply that by 4 launchers in a troop and it seems a very cost-effective way to deal with enemy armour at range, especially in a contested anti-air environment, where Apaches and Typhoons may not be able to roam at will.

 

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US Army MML launcher.

Of course, if you really want direct fire, then an APFSDS round still appears to be a more challenging proposition for active defence systems to intercept than an ATGM, so perhaps the Challenger 2 upgrade program funds could be used instead to put a turret on the Ajax chassis – COTS options exist, like the CMI Defence XC8 with a 120mm high velocity smooth bore gun. This would be no MBT replacement, but would in fact be more of a mobile anti-tank gun. The same turret could be used on a direct fire MIV variant for greater commonality. An active defence system like the IBD – Rheinmetall Active Defence System would be a good idea for a vehicle with this level of passive armour.

ASCOD 2 DF
Ajax (ASCOD 2) direct fire variant with CMI 120mm smoothbore turret. 

04 – Summary

The main questions remain funding ones. Would dropping an MBT from our inventory and saving the upgrade programme costs, plus cutting the Warrior upgrade program save enough to buy additional Ares APC’s to fill out a full RSG type Armoured Recce Brigade?

 

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Polish Rosomak variant of Patria AMV with CMI turret.

Would we still have enough money to equip three brigades, each with three infantry battalions plus a cavalry regiment with an 8×8 MIV? The turrets we have already contracted for with Lockheed for Warrior could be used with MIV, so that would not be wasted money. We still need a wheeled 155mm SPG, HIMARS and wheeled SHORAD solution for fully capable mechanised infantry brigades, plus wheeled combat engineer plant.

However, taking the very capable Ajax family, concentrating all vehicles together with existing assets like MLRS, AS90, Terrier and Trojan to have a medium weight tracked capability based close to where it would be needed makes sense. It would allow the UK to fulfil our commitment to the collective defence of the NATO alliance, would be more sensible than the mixed tracks and wheels Strike Brigade concept. Of course, I realize getting out of the heavy MBT game would be a blow to some people, but while a dozen or more regiments of Chieftain, Challenger and then Challenger 2 made sense when we had an entire Corps in continental Europe, does it make sense to retain this capability given our budgetary constraints and our defence priorities? An RSG based in Poland could be part of a Polish division with Leopard 2’s, and it could even have a regiment of PT91 Twardy attached under Opcon. At around 45 tonnes, is closer in weight to the Ajax family of vehicles with similar mobility support needs.

The rest of the Army’s fighting power would reside in the three mechanised infantry brigades equipped with an 8×8 MIV, and with light formations, including  16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade, which amounts to six  combat brigades in total, comparable to what France or Italy have. Such a structure seems modest and realistic.  Also it should not be too expensive to acquire?

Jed C.