By Nicholas Drummond

The British Army’s Strike Concept is one of the cornerstones of its regeneration plan. Very little has been officially announced, but it is possible to build a picture from the snippets of information that have been released.

Boxer-Afghanistan

Contents

01  Army 2025 Plan

02  Strike Brigade concept

03  Ajax and Boxer

04  Equipment concerns 

01  Army 2025 Plan

It is no secret that the Army has suffered the most from cuts made to UK Armed Forces since 2010. It’s 5,000 troops short of the headcount cap, recruitment is unable to keep-up with an exodus of experienced soldiers, and its combat vehicle fleet is approaching a cliff-edge of block obsolescence. Meanwhile, it remains committed to operational deployments in Estonia, Afghanistan and elsewhere that further suck resources and manpower.

The good news is that Gavin Williamson, Britain’s new Minister of Defence, understands the issues and is committed to getting additional defence funding from the Treasury. With General Sir Nick Carter promoted to CDS, General Mark Carleton-Smith as CGS and Lt General Patrick Sanders as Commander Field Army, the Army has rarely had such a strong leadership line-up. All are conscious of the need for renewal. 

By 2020, the Army’s equipment plan will have begun a process of regeneration. We will start to see big changes to the Army’s structure and equipment that will transform its combat capability. The 3rd (UK) Division will have two Armoured Infantry brigades. Each is expected to have a single Challenger 2 MBT armoured regiment, plus two Warrior IFV armoured infantry battalions. It is planned to upgrade both Challenger and Warrior, although the increased costs of the latter may have put the programme in jeopardy. (Should Warrior CSP be axed for any reason, there are plenty of alternative IFV solutions including the Ajax IFV variant, the Hagglunds CV90, Rheinmetall Lynx, or even an 8×8 wheeled option.)

Battle Groups within each Armoured Infantry brigade will be supported by an AS90 155mm artillery regiment, an armoured engineer regiment and a signals squadron. The Challenger 2 Life-Extension Programme is underway. While it would be good if it could include a new turret with the Rheinmetall L/55 120mm smoothbore, the existing rifled gun is still a potent weapon. With the upgraded Warrior mounting the 40mm CT cannon, armoured infantry units will have significantly greater firepower than ever before. Having seen the 40mm CT turrets developed by Lockheed Martin, both are remarkable in terms of ergonomics, managing the cognitive burden, comfort and protection. Their best feature is that they isolate the crew from the ammunition, reducing the risk of fire should the vehicle be penetrated. Overall, both Challenger and Warrior programmes represent a clever and careful application of limited funds. 

The 3rd (UK) Division’s two Armoured Infantry brigades will be complemented by two new Strike brigades. Each is expected to have two Ajax CRV armoured reconnaissance / direct fire support regiments, plus two Boxer mechanised infantry battalions. Each brigade will be supported by a L118 105mm towed light gun artillery regiment, an engineer regiment, and a signals squadron. Ajax CRVs will also mount the same 40mm CT cannon fitted to Warrior. While Strike units will lack the punch of 120mm tank guns, they will make-up for it with mobility. 

Divisional capabilities will include air defence (Stormer / Starstreak HVM and Sky Sabre / CAMM Land Ceptor), GMLRS, STA and UAS assets. This structure gives 3rd (UK) Division four brigades. With the addition of 16 Air Assault Brigade supported by Apache attack helicopters, the Army will have a total of five deployable brigades with each having  4,000-5,000 soldiers. 

It is possible that the Army will revert to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review plan that envisioned two deployable divisions plus the Air Assault Brigade. This would give the Army a total of seven deployable brigades, i.e. three AI, three Strike and one air assault. While it remains to be seen if additional funding will enable this, the structure currently emerging will do much to reverse the Army’s decline.  

02  Strike Brigade Concept

The British Army Strike concept is a new and largely untested tactical doctrine. Although it incorporates many of the operating principles that underpin the US Army’s medium weight forces, there has been only limited formal communication that defines the UK approach. Various buzzwords, such as “an enabler of divisional manoeuvre” are used to describe our thinking, but they do not yet provide an overarching explanation of how Strike works in practice. This is hardly surprising, because the doctrine is not yet fully formed. In the absence of concrete fact, there has been much conjecture about what Strike will be or needs to be. This has resulted in misunderstanding, misinformation and confusion. Making matters worse, when Strike is objectively analysed, inevitably there are questions and concerns that need to be addressed.

The primary misconception is that many serving soldiers do not understand how capable wheeled armoured vehicles have become off-road. Between 1998 and 2002, when the US Army first adopted GD’s wheeled LAV III to replace its fleet of ancient M113 APCs in mechanised infantry brigades, many people believed that 8×8 platforms were only adopted because they were less expensive than legacy tracked vehicles. This view ignored the extraordinary success the USMC had achieved with the LAV-25 in Panama, Grenada, Operation Desert Storm, and during other deployments between 1982 and 1998. It provided an unprecedented combination of on-road and off-road mobility. Indeed, the MOWAG LAV-25 was chosen over the Alvis CVR(T) Scimitar and Spartan.

Initially, 1st generation 8×8 vehicles had low power to weight ratios, one- or two-axle steering, and crude torsion bar suspensions, which gave them only limited off-road mobility. Today, the latest 3rd generation platforms have higher power-to-weight ratios, three-axle steering, fully independent, all-round, double wishbone suspensions, hydro pneumatic struts, and advanced tyres, to deliver a step-change in cross-country performance.

The evolution of 8×8 vehicles based on combat experience in Afghanistan has seen their survivability increase. Vehicles like Boxer, Patria AMV, Piranha 5 and VBCI are all as well if not better protected than most legacy tracked IFVs. Their speed and agility, off-road and on- road, has improved despite weight growth to more than 30 tonnes.

In the UK, few soldiers have any experience of medium weight wheeled armour. With only a limited comprehension of the “go anywhere, do anything” benefits that 8×8 vehicles offer, their beliefs have been shaped by negative experiences with inferior wheeled vehicles such as the AT105 Saxon, Snatch Land-Rover, Mastiff MRAP, and Panther command vehicle. Once the UK has MIV in service and its utility is experienced first-hand, all concerns should evaporate.

So what is Strike?

Given the range of threats we face today: a new Cold War stand-off with Russia; continuing instability the Middle East; a belligerent Iran sponsoring terrorism; the mess that is Syria; and the rise of Islamic extremism in Africa, UK tactical doctrine reflects the belief that we need to go out to counter threats at distance, before they turn-up on our doorstep. If the capability of modern armies is measured by their deployability, then the British Army needs to become inherently more mobile than it is today. With this in mind, Strike encompasses the following requirements: 

  • The need to project power at distance (up to 2,000 km). 
  • The need for units to deploy rapidly and independently with a reduced logistical footprint.
  • The acquisition of a new class of 8×8 wheeled armoured vehicle:
    • Combines good-off road performance with on-road speed
    • Offers Operational and Tactical mobility
    • Provides infantry battalions with high levels of protection
    • Improved mission flexibility 
    • Can be transported by air (e.g. A400M) when necessary.
  • Strike will be an enabler of divisional manoeuvre, which means brigades are likely to act as a screening force that delay and harass an enemy while heavy armour is deployed. 
  • Strike facilitates information manoeuvre, which means it harnesses the potential of digital communications and battlefield management systems, to ensure that enemy units are pre-emptively outflanked. 
  • Wheeled vehicles have lower acquisition and support costs than equivalent tracked vehicles.
  • Strike enables potent all arms formations to be generated easily and quickly.
  • Strike does not replace heavy tracked armour, but reduces our dependancy on it.
  • Strike brigades will allow Armoured Infantry Brigades the time they need to be deploy.
  • Strike Brigades will facilitate the use of airborne forces by being able to support air assault operations more quickly than tracked armour.

03  Ajax and Boxer

The two vehicle types that will equip the Strike Brigades are the General Dynamics Ajax and ARTEC Boxer. Both have been a long time coming. 

Ajax deliveries commence this year. A total of 589 vehicles will be acquired of which 245 will be turreted reconnaissance variants, 124 Athena command variants, 93 Ares protected mobility variants, 49 Argus engineer reconnaissance variants, 38 Atlas recovery variants and 50 Apollo repair variants. Each reconnaissance regiment is expected to get 42-44 turreted Ajax vehicles, while each armour infantry reconnaissance platoon should have 6-8. 

IMG_2515
Ajax Reconnaissance Vehicle with CT 40 mm cannon. (Image: WO2 Barnes)

Ajax has exceptionally high levels of protection for its category, but with an 800 bhp engine, mobility remains excellent. While Ajax has grown in size and weight relative to the CVR(T) Scimitar and Spartan vehicles it replaces, contemporary threats suggest that there was no alternative to provide the degree of protection that is now deemed necessary. Early feedback suggests that the Army is delighted with the capabilities that Ajax provides.

Just before Easter 2018, it was announced that the UK would be rejoining the ARTEC Boxer programme. The MoD has avoided a competition for MIV which would have further delayed its entry into service. Instead, it was guided by its own data and the Australian Army’s recent competition for its CRV requirement, which Boxer won. Although the decision was controversial (the MoD is buying multiple equipment types without competing the contracts, including Apache Block E, Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Oshkosh Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), and the F-35B JSF), it appears that the MoD has negotiated a very attractive price plus UK manufacture for Boxer. Boxer is expected to arrive from 2021 with IOC in 2023.

Boxer IFV
ARTEC Boxer (shown here with 30 mm Lance turret)

There can be no doubt that Boxer is highly capable. It is one of the best protected 8×8 platforms. During the Bundeswehr’s deployment to Afghanistan, the Boxer proved highly resistant to IEDs and no soldier deployed in one was killed. Uniquely, Boxer adopts a mission module approach that allows the entire rear crew compartment to be removed and replaced. This enables a wide range of modules to be developed and swapped as the mission dictates. Initially, it seems that the UK will acquire five different mission modules for its Boxer fleet:

  • Infantry Carrier Vehicle
  • Command Vehicle
  • Mortar Vehicle
  • Ambulance Vehicle
  • Repair Vehicle
  • Recovery Vehicle

Mission modules for all of these versions, except the mortar variant, have already been engineered. It is hoped that the UK will bite the bullet and opt for a 120 mm mortar both for its MIV and Warrior battalions. 

Boxer variants.001US feedback from its Stryker Brigades suggests that the 12.7mm HMG is not sufficiently powerful weapon for their M1126 Infantry Carrier Vehicles. Consequently, the UK is considering the 30x113mm M230LF chain gun from the Apache helicopter as a possible light cannon alternative. This can be mounted in a remote weapon station so would offer significantly upgraded firepower for not much extra money. If a coaxially mounted Javelin ATGM launcher and 7.62mm machine gun can also be fitted, then UK Strike Brigades will be a big step-up from previous wheeled MRAP and LPPV vehicles.  

What is interesting about the Boxer acquisition plan is that the UK has opted for an upgraded driveline which increases maximum gross vehicle weight to 38.5 tonnes. This ensures future growth potential across all variants. In particular, it allows flexibility to purchase the 155mm RCH howitzer artillery module. Its L/52 calibre howitzer offers increased range relative to the AS90’s L/39 calibre gun. It is also has an automated loading system with modular charges, is operated by a crew of just two – driver and gun operator – and can change firing positions much more rapidly than other wheeled or towed artillery systems, like Caesar or Archer. With 30 rounds stored in its turret, the Boxer RCH needs a dedicated ammunition carrier vehicle to support it (and perhaps additional crew to provide reversionary skills). It is also worth noting that the same howitzer also fits on Ajax’s ASCOD 2 platform, allowing the same gun to be used by the Armoured Infantry brigades on a tracked platform – something that might be essential for a winter deployment to the snowy climes of Northern Europe.

Boxer Artillery 155 RCH
Boxer RCH 155mm self-propelled gun.. With a fully automated FCS and loading system it only needs a crew of two. (Image: Rheinmetall)

The irony of purchasing Boxer now is that if we had stuck with the MRAV programme instead of leaving in 2003, MIV would have entered service as early as 2010 instead of after 2020. Had we been able to deploy Boxer to Afghanistan, perhaps British lives would have been saved. 

04  Equipment concerns

While Ajax and Boxer are both class-leading combat vehicles, there is one aspect of their acquisition that’s controversial. This is mixing them together – wheels and tracks – in the same combat formation. 

Boxer will have no trouble keeping-up with Ajax; however, Ajax will struggle to keep-up with Boxer, especially on long distance road deployments. Driving tracked vehicles extensively on metalled roads is not recommended. Tracks get hot and expand, which risks one being thrown, especially when executing tight turns. They also wear out faster and may damage road surfacing without suitable protective pads. Tracked vehicles need precautionary maintenance to ensure their reliability. They cannot travel at high speeds, and need to halt every 300 km to check track tension, oil and lubricant levels, and general wear and tear. This means that Boxer and other wheeled vehicles will only be travel as fast as Ajax can, which may be crucial when time is of the essence. In contrast, Boxer, like the thousands of articulated heavy trucks that ply Europe’s highways, coving up to 100,000 kilometres a year, will be equally at home on motorways as it will be traversing the rolling steppes. 

Strike Brigades won’t be supported by Challenger 2 regiments. Without Heavy Equipment Transporters (HET) MBTs are unlikely to deploy quickly enough to make a difference. If Ajax cannot deploy rapidly either, then MIV battalions will be vulnerable to tanks and cannon-equipped AFVs. So, this raises the question of whether the UK needs to consider some form of wheeled direct fire vehicle or mobile gun system to support mechanised infantry units?

Italy, Japan, and China have successfully adopted 8×8 platforms that mount either 105mm or 120mm tank guns. France used the 6×6 AMX 10RC’s 105 mm gun to great effect in Mali. Speed of response and massive firepower ensure total overmatch versus insurgent forces. In terms of countering peer or near-peer enemies, mobile gun systems with low levels of protection rely on first-round hits. For this reason they are better used defensively rather than offensively, such as ambushing enemy tank formations. Head-on assaults against dug-in MBTs are likely to end badly; however, if tanks cannot deploy quickly enough to influence the outcome of a battle, we may be better off with 8×8 mobile guns systems, rather than having nothing.

Italy, Japan, and China have successfully adopted 8×8 platforms that mount either 105mm or 120mm tank guns. France used the 6×6 AMX 10RC’s 105 mm gun to great effect in Mali. Speed of response and massive firepower ensure total overmatch versus insurgent forces. In terms of countering peer or near-peer enemies, mobile gun systems with low levels of protection rely on first-round hits. For this reason they are better used defensively rather than offensively, such as ambushing enemy tank formations. Head-on assaults against dug-in MBTs are likely to end badly; however, if tanks cannot deploy quickly enough to influence the outcome of a battle, we may be better off with 8×8 mobile guns systems, rather than having nothing.

Ultimately, UK Strike Brigades with two Boxer mechanised infantry battalions, plus two Boxer CT40 reconnaissance regiments, supported by a Boxer RCH 155mm artillery regiment, would be formidable.

The US M1128 Stryker 105mm mobile gun system has not been a success. The US Army is presently considering whether to improve it via a redesigned system or to adopt an alternative. In the interim, it has adopted the 30mm MK44 Bushmaster II cannon in an unmanned turret mounted to Stryker vehicles deployed to Europe.

France is replacing the AMX 10RC with the Jaguar EBRC 6×6 wheeled reconnaissance vehicle. With Jaguar, Griffon and the 8×8 VBCI, the French L’Armée de Terre is very much committed to a wheeled future. Like Ajax, the Jaguar reconnaissance vehicle mounts the 40mm CT cannon, but additionally gets twin MMP ATGMs. These compensate for the lack of a 105mm/ 120mm gun.

IMG_2544.jpg
The Nexter Jaguar EBRD reconnaissance vehicle. Like Ajax, it is equipped with he CT40 cannon. It also has twin MMP ATGM missiles. (Image: Nexter)

The need for a direct fire support vehicle capable of keeping pace with infantry units in Boxer means that the UK should consider a reconnaissance variant of Boxer. Lockheed Martin has already completed much of the engineering work necessary to fit the Warrior turret with CT40 cannon to a Boxer mission module, so it should be an easy additional variant to bring into service. The Boxer CRV selected by Australia, which is equipped with a 30mm cannon and twin ATGMs, hints at the potential of a 40mm CT-cannon equipped UK equivalent.  

Boxer CT40 2
Boxer with 40mm CT cannon turret. UK Strike Brigades undoubtedly need such a vehicle and adding to the list of required variants should be a top priority.  (Image: Lockheed Martin UK)

Ultimately, UK Strike Brigades with two Boxer mechanised infantry battalions, plus two Boxer CT40 reconnaissance regiments, supported by a Boxer RCH 155mm artillery regiment, would be credible, formidable and affordable.

For even greater combat capability, we may wish to consider developing additional Boxer variants including: 

  • Boxer GMLRS (using the US Army’s HIMARS missile pod)
  • Boxer SHORAD (using Stomer / Starsteak HVM missile turret)
  • Boxer LRATGM (using Exactor / Spike ER/ NLOS)
  • Boxer STA (using Giraffe 4a radar mounted on a dedicated mission module)

It is not unreasonable to propose additional Boxer variants. In equipping Mechanised Infantry battalions, this vehicle is a replacement for the 60-year old FV432. In its day, the FV430 series fulfilled a wide variety of roles and Boxer has already shown itself to be capable of doing he same.

If Strike Brigades become all-wheeled, what happens to Ajax? 

Ajax could and should be used to equip the Armoured Infantry Brigades. All that would need to be done is to adopt the Ajax IFV version and reconfigure the number of other variants being bought. You would need, six regiments / battalions instead of five. The additional Ajax IFVs could be funded by cancelling Warrior CSP. This approach has the added benefit of reducing the core fleet of combat vehicles to just five types: Challenger, Ajax, Boxer, MRVP (JLTV) and MRVP (Bushmaster).

Ajax IFV
Ajax IFV (Image: General Dynamics UK Ltd.)

Summary

At its heart, the Strike Brigade concept will provide the British Army with an agile, autonomous and adaptable force. Units will be able simply to “get in and go.” When they arrive, they will have sufficient firepower to defeat all other non-MBT AFVs. Together with revitalised armoured infantry brigades, Strike units represent a fundamental and far-reaching modernisation of the British Army. This is well overdue as there has been no major investment in UK land warfare capabilities since Challenger 2 and AS90 came into service more than a generation ago. Basic Ajax and Boxer variants weigh less than 37 tonnes, so both are air transportable by A400M* or C-17A. Although we are unlikely to deploy a whole brigade by air, having the ability to deploy a squadron or regiment could make a crucial difference during the initial stages of a deployment. 

Those who remain skeptical about the potential effectiveness of Strike should remember that when the US Army first proposed its own medium weight brigades, these too were criticised. Some 16 years later, Stryker Brigades are an integral part of the US Army and have more than proved themselves in combat during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. There should be no doubt that Britain’s Strike Brigades will do the same. 

*Ajax needs to remove its appliqué side armour to bring its weight down to below 37 tonnes.