By Steve Maguire

Captain Steve Maguire, is a serving British Army infantry officer with direct experience of both Air Assault and Mechanised Infantry roles.  He’s also served on the staff of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (Land) and at UK Army Headquarters. In this guest article, which was also published in the British Army Review, Steve challenges the assumption that the 2* divisional level of command is best suited to future operations arguing that the division should be considered a tactical headquarters with more limited objectives.

A line of Challenger 2's fire as part of the Royal Welsh Battle Group during Exercise Prairie Lightning.
A line of Challenger 2’s taking parti in Exercise Prairie Storm 3 at the British Army Training Area Suffield (BATUS), Alberta Canada. (Image: UK MoD)

War is often described as having three levels; the strategic (the political), the operational (theatre level), and the tactical (the close fight).  Each has a level of command and resources to achieve differing requirements. Operational art is defined as the directing and sequencing tactical actions towards a strategic aim.  Field Marshall Viscount Slim was convinced that the division was the organisation to do this.  The division, he argued, is ‘the smallest formation that is a complete orchestra of war’. The ‘full orchestra’ refers to an organisation capable of integrating combined arms (infantry, armour, engineers, artillery, signals, logistics, etc.) and executing operations.  In more modern thinking, a former British Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, adds that a 2* headquarters has the right level of command and control wisdom to conduct the ‘orchestra’ because of the additional training and the experience of both its staff and its Commander.[1]  Critically, the division is seen as the first formation that can be employed to achieve an operational effect.  Traditional doctrine suggests that a division will fight in the deep battle, resource the close fight and protect the rear of their operations.  British doctrine wishes to reset the division as the lowest level in which operational ‘art’ can be practised and at which the Army will deploy. General Carter, stresses the ‘importance’ of the division but also calls for a reset in our understanding of what this means for hard power.[2]  The argument that the division is the first level of operational art is becoming set in British thinking.

The division should not be expected to conduct the ‘full orchestra’ of war.  Like any military organisation, the battlespace it should consider is bounded by the range of its weapons and, in the modern division’s case, this is not beyond the scope of the tactical fight. British doctrine should follow a hybrid of the Soviet ‘tactical deep battle’ as a stepping stone between the close battle and the corps deep, therefore there is a case for a British corps with three smaller divisions.   The proposals in this article offer a structure for a more flexible close battle with a greater focus on fighting the corps deep and therefore orchestrating a theatre level effect.  All of the suggestions here can be met within current resource and equipment programmes with only modest increases for supporting arms required.  There are two assumptions to this argument. Firstly, the use of the division as designed in Joint Force 2025as a base line structure and secondly focussing on the policy aim of a force capable of high intensity war fighting.[3]

Over the course of the last 100 years the expectations of the divisional level of command have changed significantly.  The idea that a division is the ‘full orchestra’ of operational impact has not always been firm in British military thinking.  The emphasis of training in the First World War was at the division level as a tactical formation, the smallest formation which was considered effective.[4] During the Second World War, divisional headquarters routinely only planned tactical activity for the following day.  The Second World War division was faster at planning, and therefore executing, than today but arguably had a limited 24-hour tactical horizon.  This tempo sometimes came at the cost of poor planning and mission failure with leaders who did not have time to plan effectively.[5]  The modern division can plan longer and more complex operations incorporating more assets but will take 36-48 hours to do so.  This is significantly longer than the division of 70 years ago and slows operational tempo.  Modern divisions also contain more vehicles and people meaning operations may take much longer to execute.  The change in the role of the division over time is natural evolution, but one which is not necessarily helpful in understanding levels of warfare.  The idea that the division has now become the currency of operational art has little evidence behind it.  The only real evidence seems to be quotes such as Slim’s and not a serious study of how we wish to employ military force.  The modern division is not in the operational space simply because it takes longer to plan or because we wish it to be so.

Describing ‘integrated action’, the UK capstone doctrine, ADP Land Operations, calls for commanders to integrate all ‘relevant levers to impart effects’ as the core of integrated military activity.[6] Here we have a clear statement of intent but one which means little to a division given the limited capabilities available and its focus on the tactical combat battle. Some of the levers required for operational success are not relevant to a close battle organisation slowing the tempo of war-fighting.  New units such as the specialist infantry battalions, who aim to partner with local forces and not engage in direct combat operations, or the capabilities required to conduct information and cyber operations, or managing political relations all detract from achieving tempo  tactical planning and execution.[7]  Recognising this, the Chief of the General Staff called for a greater understanding of how to ‘command and control’ these levers.[8]  However, in manoeuvre warfare, unless a division is static, it is unlikely to develop the human relationships and capabilities required to have a credible integrated effect within the sphere of operational art.  The division’s battle space is limited by the physical ground it can control and once it manoeuvres away progress is lost.  It has no guaranteed air power, which in any case is commanded elsewhere.  Indeed, the 24-hour modern world means tactical actions are often too late and it is more important to ‘link’ effects coherently.[9]  Operational command, then, is not well suited to a divisional headquarters which finds its focus trapped between co-ordinating tactical actions and deciding the next steps in the heat of battle.  Integrated action is best achieved by a headquarters with a broader and more stable outlook and a greater emphasis on fighting the deep battle than a modern division is resourced for.  These factors suggest that the division is actually a tactical formation.  Smaller divisions, with a slimmed down area of responsibility, would speed planning and generate tempo enabling a more coherent close battle.  A Corps headquarters with a wider responsibility and stability is required to sequence tactical actions to best exploit integrated action.  This requires the Army to reform and re-balance layers of command itself to achieve success in the future.

The second aspect to consider is how to maximise success in combat. Jim Storr’s research into warfare identified that success is more likely with increased flexibility and tempo. ‘The bigger a force, the less mobile it is’ and therefore smaller sequenced actions are faster and more effective than slower deliberate ones.[10]  When analysing combat over 1942-1944, Storr concluded that divisions routinely only used a third of their combat power.  During the first Gulf War, he identifies that brigades had combat force equal to a battle group that weren’t committed during most deliberate engagements. The Joint Force 2025design is for one large division probably deployed inside a multinational corps.  This is inherently inefficient and does not maximise combat power nor increase flexibility. Indeed, a British Army think tank concluded that the current divisional design could be defeated in a day.[11] Storr’s research suggests that divisions can be smaller with limited impact on their military output if their activity is sequenced by a higher headquarters.  With less resource a division is more effective but less suited to operational planning and must focus on fighting the close battle.  Tempo is generated by smaller formations seeking surprise not larger, albeit more powerful, formations that are more vulnerable to enemy action.

A doctrinal alternative is the Soviet concept of the ‘tactical deep battle’.[12] There is a sense across the British Army that thought and doctrine is already restricted by a ‘rigid set’ of mental hoops that mean resources are dispersed and not concentrated for effect.  The implication is that militaries are incapable of thinking outside of traditional formations.[13] The Joint Force 2025plan for a three-brigade division suggests this is true.  The resources available in 2025 do not adequately allow a division to have significant effect in the operational deep when focussed on immediate tactical objectives.  Divisions are fixed to the ground they occupy and the range of their guns.  Non-lethal effects will routinely take longer to achieve impact requiring more time and command stability than a manoeuverists fighting formation can offer.  The doctrine of ‘tactical deep battle’ is a hybrid between the traditional western concept of close, deep, rear, adding a new space between the close and the deep. The deep should be considered as larger, operational goals with fewer links to the close battle.  ‘Tactical deep’ acknowledges that a division is simply not large enough to achieve a credible operational effect other than the defeat of a close enemy.  It also conceptually frees capabilities such as information manoeuvre and cyber to focus on operational-strategic impact away from the immediate close battle. This is a more appropriate analysis of the equipment and capabilities that will be available to Joint Force 2025. It fits the ‘joint action’ model foreseen by the Ministry of Defence as a better model of future command.[14] Especially considering the increasingly complex battle spaces that we seek to operate in.  Strike brigades will find and enable armoured infantry brigades to fix and strike an opponent.  Divisions must focus on excelling at fire and manoeuvre and enabling other effects but not necessarily commanding them.  Accepting that the division is best placed to achieve effect within the range of its vehicles, in the tactical deep, means we must accept the need for a corps to orchestrate theatre level effect; and create operational-strategic effect by utilising the capability areas illustrated in figure one.  We must limit our outlook for the division to realistic ends, ways, and means and not apportion it more responsibility or capability than can be efficiently utilise or is already commanded elsewhere.

Screenshot 2018-11-09 at 10.44.05

The British Army is capable of task organising to form a deployable corps. By 2025 the British Army will have two types of combat brigades; armoured infantry brigades based on Challenger 2 and Warrior and Strike brigades based on Ajax and a new mechanised infantry vehicle.  Armoured infantry brigades will have three capable battle groups but lack dedicated reconnaissance assets to find an opponent, meaning this becomes a divisional responsibility.[15]  The lack of organic reconnaissance assets is mitigated by Strike brigades that will utilise the new Ajax ‘medium’ vehicles and are optimised for operations at reach. Strike brigades lack armour and firepower and therefore cannot fix or defeat a capable opponent undermining the doctrinal model of FIND/FIX/STRIKE/EXPLOIT.  One British officer’s analysis of the concept points out that Strike brigades will enable ‘divisional manoeuvre’ through enhanced mobility and the ability to find the enemy enhancing operational awareness.[16] Yet Strike brigades will be largely dependent on others for their protection undermining their utility in supporting to armoured manoeuvre.  The two types of brigades will complement each other but create a greater need to synchronise their individual strengths to maximise effect this will require a higher headquarters with a greater the capacity to do it.  Critically, mixing the two concepts will add time to planning and complexity to the execution of an operation reducing the chance of operational effectiveness.  It would be better to task Strike Brigades together into a Strike Division focussed on the find in the deep battle and an armoured infantry division focussed on fixing and striking an opponent.

Figure two outlines the proposed structure for a British Army Corps.  It utilises the same troops as before but in a different and more efficient organisation.  It adds significant depth to the current division and maximises the capabilities available. The proposed model is not without gaps and requires more thought to balance capability coherently.  The 3* Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Headquarters could take command.  It could equally be a reformed and deployable Headquarters Field Army, which is currently responsible for doctrine and training amongst other things.  The chosen headquarters would need a radical over-haul of staffing and the Army does not require both.  Likewise, there are questions about sustaining this force. It is likely that there will need to be some investment in logistics and engineering assets but this has been the case since the defence review of 2010. A lack of long range ‘deep’ and precision fires is also an area of significant concern.  There would be no need to deploy the corps together to achieve a coherent effect but an understanding that the sum is greater than the individual parts.  Force cohesion, however, will be formed by training together before deployment and this should be the peacetime structure of the British Army’s deployable elements.

This essay has argued that the division should be considered a tactical formation.  Future divisions should be smaller.  This will increase the tempo of operations and the change of tactical success on the battlefield.  With small changes to the current task organisation the British Army could deploy two highly mobile and flexible divisions under a Corps HQ, able to subsume another division from an ally.  This would enhance the best of the two types of combat formation and enable a corps 3* to truly focus on developing operational design and achieving operational aims.

Figure 2 – British Corp Structure

  • Deep battle, 1x Strike Division: 2x Strike brigades + 1x light brigade (2x light role battle groups), technical intelligence assets: MAMBA, ASP, UAS. Manoeuvre support engineering.
  • Close battle. 1x Armoured Infantry Division: 2x armoured infantry brigades (3x battle groups), 1x light brigades (2x Light Role Battle Group). Division troops (1x armoured battle group, formation recce BG, engr, guns, ISR), technical intelligence assets.
  • Rear battle. 1x Light Division:x5 light brigades (of 2x battle groups). Firm base provision.
  • Corps Troops:16 (Air Assault) Brigade, Joint Helicopter Force, 77 Brigade, Special Infantry Battalions (x4 units) Predator, Watchkeeper, EW, cyber, political & cultural, special forces


[1]General Sir Nicholas Carter, ‘Opening Address to the Royal United Services Land Warfare Conference 2016, 28 June 2016. Transcript accessed 05 November 2018

[2]General Sir Nicholas Carter, ‘Speech to Royal United Services Land Warfare Conference 2017, 28 June 2017. Transcript accessed 14 November 2017

[3]United Kingdom House of Commons Defence Select Committee, ‘SDSR 2015 and the Army’, April 2017.  Accessed 14 November 2017

[4]Christopher Pugsley, ‘We have been here before’, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst Occasional Paper No.9’.

[5]Anthony King, ‘Why did the 51st Highland Division Fail?’, British Journal of Military History, Vol. 4, No.1.

[6]United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, ‘Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations’, DATE.

[7]General Sir Nicholas Carter, evidence to the United Kingdom Defence Select Committee.  Accessed 14 November 2017

[8]General Sir Nick Carter, ‘The Future of the British Army’. Speech at Chatham House 17 February 2017. Transcript accessed 14 November 2017

[9]Lieutenant Colonel Steve Cornell, ‘The Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As Any Other Abstraction’, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Winter 2016, pages 11-13.

[10]Jim Storr, The Human Face of War, (London, United Kingdom, MPG Books 2009).

[11]Michael Peak, ‘Russia could defeat the British Army ‘in an afternoon’’, The National Interest, 25 February 2017. Accessed 14 November 2017 

[12]Charles Pickar, ‘Tactical Deep Battle: The Missing Link’, Army Command and General Staff College School of Advanced Military Studies, 16 December 1991.  Accessed 15 November 2017

[13]See e.g. ‘Fairbairn’, ‘Plan to Fail’, The Wavell Room, ‘Tom’, ‘Is The British Army Paralysed by Risk’, The Wavell Room, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Cornell, ‘The Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As Any Other Abstraction’, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Winter 2016, pages 11-13.

[14]Ministry of Defence Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre’ Joint Concept Note 1/17 Future Force Concept’,

[15]‘Steve’, ‘The Divisional Paradox’, Wavell Room,

[16]‘Steve’, ‘Strike as an ISR Enabler’, Wavell Room.,