By Nicholas Drummond

British Army Infantry Battalions are a hodgepodge of different unit sizes and structures. This articles argues that it would create a more flexible and potent force as well as making it easier to re-role battalions if a universal, multi-role structure was developed.

Contents 

01 – Introduction
02 – Infantry Platoons built around 36 soldiers
03 – Fire Support Company structure
04 – Battalion HQ and HQ Company structure
05 – Weapon requirements
06 – Vehicle requirements
07 – Personnel summary

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British Army Infantry Battle Group in Estonia. (Image: UK MoD)

01 – Introduction

With a smaller army limited to just 82,000 soldiers, the organisational structure and number of personnel within individual units starts to become very important. The British Army has 32 regular infantry battalions, but six different battalion types. These are:

  • Armoured Infantry battalions -732 personnel
  • Mechanised Infantry battalions -709 personnel
  • Light Infantry battalions – 560 personnel
  • Air Assault Infantry battalions – 662 personnel
  • Specialised Infantry Battalions – 267 personnel
  • Public Duties Infantry Battalions – 560 personnel

At one end of the spectrum, Armoured infantry battalions are well-resourced with 732 soldiers, while Specialised Infantry battalions have just 267, but this is for training and mentoring, not a primary combat role. Many regiments of all types are operating well below their headcount caps, meaning that very few battalions operate with the same number of soldiers. 

Different structures are all very well, but if we needed to deploy a substantial size force in a hurry, there is a risk that we might fail to achieve critical mass. When it comes to ground combat, infantry mass matters. Therefore, there may be a case to standardise all infantry battalions around a common structure with an identical headcount for each. With this in mind, the objective of this discussion is to consider what a universal battalion size ought to be.

A second issue is the now universal threat of IEDs, which means that all deployed infantry units need some form of protected mobility. Ideally infantry should be carried in tracked IFVs or wheeled MIVs, but even light PMVs are preferable to MAN trucks and Land-Rovers that offer no protection. It is a genuine concern that the British Army lacks sufficient protected vehicles.

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Only 8 out of 32 UK infantry battalions have organic protected mobility.

Ensuring that infantry units can be accommodated by their vehicles can also be a challenge. Again, organisational structure is important.

02 – Infantry Platoons built around 36 soldiers

The central idea in proposing a universal battalion structure is to build it around platoons of 1 + 35 soldiers. Total battalion headcount can be determined by considering how many soldiers are needed within each component unit type. The basic building block of military capability is the infantry section. Therefore, this exercise will commence by considering how platoons and rifle sections should be organised and how this determines overall rifle company size and structure.

In the 1980s, BAOR armoured infantry units mounted in the FV432 APC routinely had 10-soldier sections. Light Role battalions had 8-soldier sections. In Northern Ireland, infantry platoons were often divided into multiples of 12 soldiers. Thinking about the need to operate from IFVs, Mechanised infantry vehicles (MIVs), from helicopters, and on foot, the first proposal is to standardise all Infantry Rifle Platoons around a common size that provides some degree of flexibility. In this respect, the number 36 is important, because it allows a range of groupings: 

3 x Rifle Sections with 10 soldiers each plus a Platoon HQ of 6 soldiers = 36 total

Or 

3 x Rifle Sections of 9 soldiers each plus a Platoon HQ of 9 soldiers = 36 total

Or

2 x Rifle Sections of 12 soldiers each plus a Platoon HQ of 12 soldiers = 36 total

Option A allows the platoon to be divided equally between four combat vehicles. It would be no problem to fit 9 soldiers in a Warrior IFV, Boxer MIV or Bushmaster PMV. This option also ensures that each section within a platoon has a dedicated vehicle driver and gunner. It also gives Platoon HQ additional firepower that can be allocated to individual sections as required. Nominally, an extra GPMG and DMR are proposed, but a light mortar or multi-role 40 mm AGL could be carried instead. 

 

screenshot 2019-01-29 at 15.42.00This structure also reflects the fact that most NATO IFVs accommodate a total of 9 soldiers, e.g. a crew of three (driver, gunner and commander) plus six dismounts. While the UK’s Warrior previously accommodated three crew plus seven dismounts, after has been upgraded, the need to stow 40mm cased-telescoped cannon ammunition is expected to reduce dismounted section carrying capacity to six. So Rifle Sections of 9 soldiers would work well.

Option B creates three sections of 10 soldiers plus a smaller Platoon HQ of 6 soldiers. This option maximises dismounted mass. Equally, it can be used for vehicles that have a larger carrying capacity than IFVs, e.g. Boxer and Bushmaster. It is also suitable for Light Role battalions operating on foot.

 

screenshot 2019-01-29 at 15.42.15Option C Platoon divides the platoon into three groups (or multiples) of 12 soldiers. This structure is ideal for counter insurgency operations where there is a focus on foot patrols and other dismounted operations. This structure was used during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland for many years and proved to be extremely effective.

screenshot 2019-01-29 at 15.42.29Platoons divided into multiples may opt for a different weapons mix, e.g. more machine guns. This structure is also suitable for Air Assault infantry operating in helicopters. The Puma HC2 support helicopter, for example, carries 12 personnel, while a CH-47 Chinook can carry an entire platoon. 

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Boeing CH-47 Chinook support helicopter (Image: UK MoD)

With the 1 + 35 structure, platoons can change their configurations with relative ease. Also, knowing that, whatever the role or the mission, you have 36 soldiers at your disposal is reassuring, because it the efficacy and potency of the platoon becomes a known quantity. When you constantly need to juggle different group sizes, there’s a risk of not knowing whether you have enough “boots on the ground” to complete allocated tasks.

Three platoons of 36 soldiers would need to be supported by a Company HQ comprised of the Company Commander, Company 2IC, CSM, CQMS, two storemen, two clerks, two radio operators, four drivers, and two runners. This adds-up to 2 officers +14 other ranks. This proposal is in-line with what rifle companies already have. 

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The Universal Battalion structure avoids the need for a fourth fire support platoon in each rifle company.  Extra firepower is provided by organic vehicle weapons including the more potent 12.7 mm HMG and 40 mm GMG (which are similar in capability to tripod-mounted SF role GPMGs).  This structure also avoids the extra manpower requirement furnished by the Army Reserve. This allows AR battalions to be focused on reinforcement.

03 – Fire Support Company structures

UK Infantry battalions have a Fire Support Company with five elements. These are:

  • Mortar platoon
  • Anti-tank platoon
  • Reconnaissance Platoon
  • Assault Pioneer Platoon
  • Sniper Platoon

The Mortar Platoon typically operates 8 or 9 mortars each with a crew of 4 plus a Mortar Fire Controller for each detachment of 2 mortars. This creates a requirement for 1 officer + 44 other ranks.

The Reconnaissance Platoon usually operates 6 vehicles, with each crewed by four soldiers, or 8 vehicles, with each crewed by 3 soldiers. Either way, this creates a requirement for 1 officer + 23 other ranks. 

The Anti-tank Platoon typically has 6-8 Javelin ATGM launchers, with each one operated by two soldiers. With each Javelin vehicle requiring a driver and commander, this creates a headcount requirement of 1 officer + 31 other ranks. 

The Sniper platoon usually consists of eight sniper pairs or 16 other ranks. 

The Assault Pioneer Platoon is usually comprised of 19 other ranks. 

The Fire Support Company HQ structure is the same as a rifle company, except that it will have 1 officer + 15 other ranks.

04 – Battalion HQ and HQ Company

Battalion HQ will usually be comprised of 6 officers + 10 other ranks. It will include the Commanding Officer, 2IC, Adjutant, Operations Officer, Intelligence Officer, and Training Officer. Other ranks will include the RSM, Drill Sergeant, Chief Clerk, plus 7 additional clerks / drivers.

HQ Company is comprised of five supporting elements. These are:

  • Communications Platoon
  • Medical Platoon (Regimental Aid Post)
  • Quartermaster’s Platoon
  • Logistics Platoon
  • REME detachment

The Communications Platoon (formerly the Signals Platoon) is primarily designed to support Battalion HQ by providing C4I services and radio operators. It usually consists of 1 officer + 27 other ranks. 

The Medical Platoon (which establishes a Regimental Aid Post when deployed) will be comprised of 1 medical officer + 19 other ranks. It will have 6 ambulances, each crewed by 3 personnel, although this may be increased to 8 or 9 for high intensity operations, creating a total headcount requirement of 1 medical officer + 25 other ranks.

The Quartermaster’s Platoon will be comprised of support staff whose job it is to manage and distribute material and other resources to each of the rifle companies. A nominal structure of 1 + 35 soldiers is proposed. 

A Logistics Platoon (formerly the Motor Transport Platoon) will be responsible for operating resupply and replenishment trucks. Personnel will primarily be drivers. A nominal structure of 1 officer + 19 other ranks is proposed. 

Finally, a REME Detachment will provide repair and recovery services for all Battalion Armoured Vehicles. The size of this sub-unit must be sufficient to support the tracked vehicles of Armoured Infantry battalions, so a Detachment structure of 1 officer + 37 other ranks is proposed. This will also be sufficient to sustain Mechanised Infantry Battalions and Light Role Protected Mobility Battalions.  Light Role Battalions are likely to need fewer mechanics, so there is room for downward adjustment.

Company HQ will be extremely lean with just one officer and five other ranks. 

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05 – Weapon Requirements

The basic platoon structure of the Universal Battalion assumes that individual riflemen within sections will be equipped with the 5.56 mm L85A3 assault rifle (SA80) including two soldiers with 40 mm UGLs. In addition, each section now has an organic 7.62 mm L7A2 GPMG gunner plus a designated marksman with the 7.62 mm L129A1 Sharpshooter rifle. In Platoon HQs that have 9 soldiers, the same structure would be adopted, providing an additional machine gun and designated marksman rifle. This allows each platoon to have a total of four GPMGs and 4 DMRs. Various members of the platoon will also carry a 9 mm Glock 17 pistol.  As noted above, there is no reason why other weapon types and combinations could not also be used. 

With the US Army planning to adopt a new 6.8 mm High Velocity Armoured Piercing Ammunition (HVAP), the rest of NATO may follow its lead. This would see infantry platoons switch from two calibres (5.56 mm and 7.62 mm) to a single one (6.8 mm) for rifles, machine guns and DMRs. Radio operators, medics and anti-tank weapon operators would carry assault rifles with shorter barrels for reduced weight and increased convenience. 

Currently, infantry companies have a fourth fire support platoon equipped with 7.62 mm L7A2 GPMGs. With this weapon now returned to individual sections, in lieu of the 5.56 mm L110A2 LMG, there is arguably no need for a separate machine gun platoon, especially as platoon vehicles will have a mix of 12.7 mm HMGs and 40 mm GMGs.

One concern about the existing structure is that the third rifle platoon in each infantry company is furnished by the Army Reserve. Unfortunately, it is only attached if a battalion deploys and may not train often enough with the battalion to which it is allocated to achieve the desired level of integration. Returning to three standard rifle platoons with organic GPMGs, avoiding the need for a fourth fire support platoon, streamlines the overall battalion structure and reduces the administrative burden of bringing soldiers from Army Reserve units.

Weapons like the 12.7 mm HMG and 40 mm high velocity grenade machine gun are primarily vehicle-mounted systems. They are not man-portable, so will usually only accompany a platoon when mounted on MIV, MRVP, MWMIK (Jackal) or other vehicles. Platoons moving around the battlefield in MIVs may additionally get the 30 mm M230LF chain gun (the same light cannon used in the Apache attack helicopter). Troops in IFVs will additionally benefit from 40 mm CT40 cannons and 7.62 mm chain guns for support. Certainly turret-mounted 30 mm or 40 mm cannons are preferred. For dismounted infantry, the US Army is looking at .338 (8.59 mm) medium weight machine guns to provide increased firepower and range. Almost as potent as 12.7 mm HMGs, .338 MMGs are man-portable, so could help to increase overall platoon lethality, especially when operating dismounted. 

There is a case for a light mortar to be carried by each Platoon HQ. Indeed, one was carried until the 51 mm was prematurely retired (because the ammunition went out of production). It offered HE, WP, smoke and illuminating bomb types. Such a capability is definitely still needed and there is a strong case to re-instate the 51 mm exactly as it was. Some would argue that the 40 mm low velocity grenade is a substitute for 51 mm mortars, but maximum range is 300-400 metres not 700-800 metres. Some armies are looking at 40 mm medium velocity grenades to reach-out to 800 metres. Fired from multi-shot launchers, these can reliably deliver HE at distance. However, there is no escaping from the fact that a 40 mm grenade packs much less HE than a 51 mm mortar bomb. If it isn’t possible to reintroduce 51 mm, then a lightweight 60 mm mortar could be an option. The UK bought the 60 mm Hirtenburger mortar as a UOR weapon, but, in standard form, it proved to be too heavy and needed too much ammunition to get on target.  It has also been suggested that rifle companies should acquire 81 mm mortars. This is an interesting idea, but would impose an increased weight and logistical burden on rifle companies. The battalion-level system we have used since WW2, with mortars organised in a separate platoon, still seems to work well. Mortar platoons with 8 or 9 x 81 mm tubes has been proven on many occasions to be sufficient.

As far as anti-tank weapons are concerned, these tend to be issued according to the threat faced. Individual sections may carry between one and four NLAW disposable ATGMs. Often these will be stored in vehicles until needed. SAAB has produced a lightweight version of the Carl Gustav 84 mm recoilless anti-tank weapon. It offers a range of new ammunition natures from anti-tank rounds to bunker-busting HE. It may be worth returning such weapons to infantry sections or having at least one in Platoon HQ. Many armies are adding Javelin mounts to their 12.7 mm remote weapon stations. The UK is likely to do the same, but only a limited number of vehicles will get it – presumably Anti-tank and Reconnaissance platoons. 

Anti-tank platoons usually have 6-8 dismounted Javelin ATGM launchers. Those in IFVs or MIVs will have an RWS with a Javelin attachment so that it can be fired under armour. This is vital.  The ideal solution is to have a 30 mm cannon turret with twin ATGM boxes.

Sniper platoons use the .338 L115A3 rifle. This is an excellent weapon. Operating in pairs, the No.2 will have a L129A1 DMR.

06 – Vehicle requirements

The overall structure defined by sub-unit organisation reflects the fact that protected mobility is now needed more widely. With IFVs, MIVs and MRVPs, the British Army will have a range of vehicles that can each carry a full section or 9 soldiers. While Light Role battalions will primarily operate on foot, they will still need all-terrain vehicles that support them in the field. As we begin to look towards autonomous vehicles, REME support across all battalion types will become more important. With the Army embracing other new technologies, such as drones and loading carrying autonomous vehicles, having sufficient technical personnel to operate and maintain them suggests that having sufficient REME personnel is essential. 

It is estimated that a typical Armoured infantry or Mechanised Battalion will operate around 90 IFVs or MIVs and have an additional 60 support vehicles including MRVPs for command and liaison, MAN 4×4 trucks plus MAN 4×4 fuel trucks for resupply, and MAN Recovery vehicles. Infantry platoons will typically be divided between four vehicles as they are at present. 

07 – Personnel Summary

The structure outlined translates into an overall battalion size of 32 officers + 658 other ranks or 690 soldiers in total. This size of unit would do much to increase the deployability and resilience of UK infantry battalions, especially if we could field at least 18 out of 32 battalions with some form of organic protected mobility. 

  • Armoured Infantry Battalions – IFV (Warrior) – 6 battalions
  • Mechanised Infantry Battalions – MIV (Boxer) – 6 battalions
  • Light Protected Mobility Battalions – LPPV / MRVP (Foxhound / JLTV / Bushmaster) – 6 battalions

Ultimately, this discussion is about maximising “Boots on the ground.” It can best be achieved by ensuring that British infantry units are structured around ground combat roles that ensure responsiveness and efficiency, rather than being organised according to financial constraints. The US Marine Corps already adopts a similar approach to the one described here. It allows Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) to be generated quickly. With common ORBATs, marine battalions can quickly be prepared for the allocated mission.

By having so many different existing battalion structures, it is more difficult to asses overall manning levels. With a universal size, it is easy to see gaps and to fill them. When infantry commanders are able to plan around having 36 soldiers in all circumstances, this is bound to have a positive impact on training, tactics and procedures.