By Nicholas Drummond
This is an updated version of an article published on the Wavell Room blog in January 2020. (Header image: UK Ministry of Defence)
02. The problem of deployability
03. Origins of the Medium Weight force
04. Britain’s long journey to acquire a Strike capability
05. Emerging Strike concept
06. Force structure and composition
07. Can Strike brigades prevail against peer adversaries?
The aim of this discussion is to provide a clear and unambiguous description of what Strike is, how it works and why it is important. So far, there has been only limited UK communication that articulates the British Army’s intended approach. This is because the concept is still a work-in-progress, but also because much of the doctrine and its tactical application need to remain confidential.
Before attempting to describe what Strike is, it may be helpful to say what it is not, to avoid confusion and correct misconceptions. Strike certainly encompasses a medium weight capability, but is not defined by its vehicles, personnel, and equipment. At its core, Strike is not a formation type. It is a way of fighting.
What makes Strike credible is not the weapons mounted on infantry and cavalry vehicles, but the responsiveness of brigades as a whole, thanks to enablers such as C4I systems, ISTAR sensors, engineers, logistics, REME and medical assets. Even so, Strike will not be a toothless animal. Brigades will have potent organic fire support, including a large number of ATGM launchers. They will also deploy with substantial divisional artillery assets including deep fires and ground-based air defence systems.
Criticism of Strike is based on two objections. One is that infantry lack organic firepower, because Boxer will only be fitted with a 12.7 mm HMG in a remote weapon station. The other is that mixing wheels and tracks is sub-optimal. There is a high risk of Ajax not being able to keep pace with Boxer on long road deployments, which means it not achieve its fundamental purpose: to provide organic fire support. These concerns are valid, but do not invalidate the Strike concept. In time, a turreted Boxer reconnaissance variant with a 30 or 40 mm cannon will almost certainly be added to the mix. A wheeled mobile gun system with a 105 or 120 mm gun could also be included. As far as Ajax is concerned, the UK’s fleet of 90+ Heavy Equipment Transporters (HETs) will be sufficient to move reconnaissance regiments wherever needed. The Army is also evaluating composite rubber track solutions. Banded tracks, which have a service life of 8,000+ kilometres, are transforming tracked vehicle performance through increased road speed, fuel economy, and reliability, while reducing reduce noise, vibration, and crew fatigue. Any perceived concerns about Strike capabilities reflect a short-term lack of resource, Long-term, the brigades will have everything they need to be fully credible. But from the start, when an initial operating capability (IOC) is declared in 2023, Strike Brigades will enable the Army to do things it has never been able to do before.
Ultimately, Strike is a response to evolving threats and a more complex future operating environment. Strike is the means through which the Army will remain flexible and competitive across a wide range of scenarios, including against peer adversaries. Strike is how the Army moves beyond the enhanced forward presence model that has guided its doctrine, structure and equipment since 1945.
02. The problem of deployability
Have you noticed how straightforward it is to deploy a Navy frigate or Air Force jet? During the 2019 stand-off in the Strait of Hormuz British warships were hurriedly dispatched to deter Iranian aggression. As soon as the operation was sanctioned, crews were mustered, ships were provisioned, and away they went. HMS Montrose and HMS Duncan ensured the safe passage of UK merchant vessels. When the crisis died down, they sailed home. It was a case of job done. Similarly in 2018, when the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria, the RAF sent Tornado jets to destroy weapon storage facilities. Within hours the mission was planned, executed and completed. Again, job done.
If only deploying the British Army was as easy. When Britain sends ground forces to a trouble spot, it’s like assembling an orchestra. Regardless of the mission, they need to be sustained by an extensive array of combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) elements making land operations complex and expensive. Just look at the recent UK deployment to Afghanistan. Camp Bastion in Helmand Province covered 32 km2, an area larger than Reading, while air operations made it the UK’s fifth busiest airport. Counter insurgency operations are not a quick fix either. British Troops were officially deployed from June 2002 until December 2014, but, at the time of writing, a small contingent still remains in theatre.
The significant human and economic cost of ground forces deployments means the underlying strategic objectives need to be extremely worthwhile and achievable. It’s why governments have become reluctant to fight “discretionary wars,” where we choose to get involved instead of only fighting wars that are vital for national security. When a response becomes necessary, we increasingly utilise smaller groups of Special Forces or Specialised Infantry battalions to perform surgical strikes or mentor local forces from behind the scenes, rather than sending extensive brigade-size forces. But what happens when we need to think big, not necessarily to fight, but simply to deter aggression? If the effort required to project power is too great, we may postpone action until it is too late, at which point a much more significant and costly intervention will be required.
Some people would argue that if using boots on the ground is so problematic, why not rely on the Navy and Air Force instead? But we forget at our peril that all conflict is ultimately resolved on the ground, so while ships and aircraft can degrade an enemy’s capability to wage war, they cannot seize and hold vital territory. While the results achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan are difficult to quantify, two previous deployments stand-out as text book interventions: the Balkans in 1999 and Sierra Leone 2000. With a civil war taking place in both regions, the British Army’s contribution to internal security helped to restore power to democratically-elected governments, disarmed insurgent forces and restored peace and stability to these regions. The success of these limited interventions reminds us that land force operations can be a relevant and effective tool of Government foreign policy.
While recent deployments have mostly involved low-intensity peace support operations, or medium intensity counter-insurgency campaigns against terrorist organisations, the threats we face have evolved. Islamic extremist terrorism remains a problem at home and abroad, but Russia’s annexation of Ukraine territory and its build-up of forces adjacent to the Baltic States have reignited former Cold War tensions. China is expanding its armed forces well beyond any territorial defence needs. Iran continues to sponsor terrorism, as well as posing a direct threat to its Middle East neighbours. Consequently, there is an increased risk of Britain needing to fight a major high-intensity conflict against a peer adversary and at a time when we have not invested significantly in high-end land warfare capabilities since 1998, when Challenger 2 first entered service.
The problem with heavy forces is that they cannot move quickly. The problem with light forces is that they lack the lethality and resilience to take-on peer adversaries. For this reason, during the Cold War, the UK pre-positioned heavy armour and artillery units in forward bases in Germany to counter a potential Soviet attack. Notwithstanding its deterrent effect, a Corps-sized UK force that remained largely unused for the best part of 65 years was not an efficient use of limited resources. Ironically, having decided to bring the Rhine Army home, it became necessary to provide an enhanced forward presence in the Baltic States. The effort required to deploy troops 1,500 kilometres meant we were only able to generate a single armoured infantry battle group rather than an entire brigade.
As things stand, if the UK wants to deploy ground forces it has two choices:
- Send a heavy armour force that is lethal and resilient in combat, but takes time and effort to deploy
- Send a light infantry force that deploys quickly, but has less in the way of lethality and staying power
If only we could rapidly deploy a more substantial mobile force.
03. Origins of the Medium Weight Capability
Faced with the same dilemma in 1999, the US Army was unable to deploy an armoured task force fast enough to make a meaningful contribution to the situation in Kosovo before it was resolved.1 The US Army’s Chief of Staff at the time, General Eric Shinseki, described the US Army as being either “too fat to fly or too light to fight.” Referring to its mix of heavy armour and unprotected HMMWV (Humvees), he believed that there had to be something in between these two extremes. Thus, a new concept was born, the “Medium Weight” force, which offered increased mobility, but without sacrificing protection or firepower.
The blueprint for Shinseki’s vision was found in the United States Marine Corps’ reconnaissance battalions. These used the LAV-25, a 13-tonne 8×8 wheeled armoured vehicle, which had been acquired in the early 1980s. Chosen in preference to the UK’s CVR(T) family, it was intended to give the USMC an expeditionary capability. LAV-25s first saw action in Panama in 1989 where they proved invaluable in supporting dismounted units before M2 Bradley IFVs arrived in theatre. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a single USMC LAV-25 battalion was able to hold-off an entire Iraqi armoured division equipped with BMPs and T-72s.2 Shinseki’s new “Objective Force” was built around a revised LAV platform, the LAV III or Stryker. This offered improved protection and an increased carrying capacity. Growing in weight to 17-18 tonnes, the M1126 Stryker became the basis of a new class of armoured vehicle and a new type of formation called a “Stryker Brigade.” Infantry carrier vehicles were supported by a range of additional variants including reconnaissance, anti-tank, mortar and artillery platforms to create a capable yet adaptable mobile force.
The first operational use of a Stryker Brigade was in Iraq between 2003 and 2004. A complete brigade sailed directly from the USA to Kuwait. Upon arrival, it deployed as a single unit moving 900 kilometres in a single bound with everything needed to support operations for 72 hours. What was notably absent from the column was the usual logistics tail that accompanied armoured formations. En route to its initial area of responsibility, the Brigade was re-tasked to a trouble spot, Samarra. The unexpected arrival of such a large armoured force wrong-footed insurgent forces and meant that the situation was stabilised with surprising speed and efficiency. The Brigade then proceeded to relieve the US 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, its original task. Upon arrival, it found that a force a third of the size of a light infantry division could dominate the same area of ground with less effort. Over a 12-month period, Stryker vehicles covered an average of 32,000 kilometres each with units achieving readiness levels of 96%. Post-operational analysis suggested that the Stryker Brigade concept was nothing short of revolutionary in the impact it achieved.
The performance of the US Stryker Brigade in Iraq inspired other NATO armies to acquire a similar capability. Polish forces deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 used the Patria AMV. This was a better protected vehicle than the LAV III and mounted a 30 mm cannon, giving it significantly greater firepower. By this time, addressing the threat posed by mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had become paramount. A further evolution in vehicle design resulted in higher levels of blast and kinetic protection. The German-Dutch Boxer and French VBCI raised the performance bar higher. With GVW increased above 32 tonnes, both platforms are directly comparable to tracked IFVs. Germany’s employment of Boxer in Afghanistan in 2011 was an unqualified success. No Bundeswehr soldier riding in one was killed or injured. The French Army’s deployment to Mali in 2013 was another textbook intervention in Africa. A VBCI formation travelled 2,400 kilometres in 3 days, survived 450 RPG and 11 major IED attacks without casualties or unrepairable damage, and vehicles remained mobile even with three flat tyres. These advantages enabled French troops to stabilise a potentially explosive situation in a matter of weeks.
04. Britain’s long journey to acquire a Strike capability
Around the same time that the US Army was developing its Stryker concept, the British Army was a planning its own Medium Weight capability via the Future Family of Light Armoured Vehicles (FFLAV) programme and later the Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) programme, which ultimately produced Boxer. After misguidedly exiting MRAV, a third initiative, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) was proposed. All three projects were mired by indecision and a lack of resources, especially after the global financial crisis of 2008, but at their core they sought to make the Army more deployable in a post-Cold War world. With Britain heavily involved with fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the urgent need to procure MRAP vehicles sucked-up much of the budget allocated for the purchase of future combat vehicles. Despite the cancellation of both MRAV and FRES, the Army still recognised the need for a fundamental transformation, but it was not until 2016 that modernisation once again became a priority. The delay worked in our favour as many of the UK’s previous medium weight beliefs had now been refined by the experience of other armies.
As the British Army starts to become expeditionary by design, the ubiquity of wheeled combat vehicles is seen as being increasingly relevant to the way we will need to fight in future, including operations in denied and dangerous environments. Potential adversaries have established multiple layers of stand-off that seek to prevent us from closing with and destroying them. These Anti-Access/ Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies have made getting to the fight as challenging as the fight itself.
The evolved nature of modern warfare means that traditional heavy armour risks not deploying fast enough to contribute a decisive effect. This does not mean that tanks, tracked artillery and infantry fighting vehicles are redundant; their resilience and firepower still have an important role to play. But 70-tonne main battle tanks are impractical. The reality is that all armour, tracked or wheeled, will need to weigh less, not only to get where needed, but to move around the battlespace.
05. Emerging Strike concept
So, what is the emerging UK Strike concept? The requirement is to field a medium weight capability that combines the mobility of light forces with the lethality and survivability of heavy forces, but it now encompasses full spectrum utility across low, medium and high intensity scenarios. There are four core characteristics of Strike:
- Rapid Reaction
- Operating Dispersed
- Integrated Effect
- Reduced logistical footprint
Rapid Reaction is the ability of Strike Brigade to deliver a decisive effect at distances of up to 2,000 kilometres. It is about getting there first and fast. The ability to react quickly is defined by three elements: Agility, Autonomy and Reach. Agility is a unit’s speed of movement across all terrain types, including operational mobility (moving from the theatre entry point to the area of combat operations / moving out-of-contact), and tactical mobility (moving around the area of combat operations / moving in-contact). It’s about on road speed and off-road performance. Autonomy is the capacity of a formation to self-deploy and operate as an independent force. Reach is the ability to penetrate deep within denied and dangerous environments to achieve the desired operational goals.
Rapid Reaction incorporates the concept of “preemptive manoeuvre.” This is the land warfare equivalent of an ice hockey player skating to where puck is going to be, not where it is. This is an entire formation responding in unison to an evolving tactical picture, moving in a coordinated fashion, with every unit connected to what is happening in real time. This kind of joined-up operating model relies on good C4I capabilities, but with them it can achieve a “force multiplier effect” that out-thinks, outflanks and over-matches a larger enemy force. It’s like moving a knight in chess to cover the squares around a king. Just occupying a certain position acts as a deterrent because it offers multiple attack options.
The second key characteristic is Operating Dispersed. This encompasses the separation and re-concentration of Strike units to aid manoeuvre and to avoid being targeted by the enemy. When Strike formations operate well forward, e.g. to conduct search and destroy missions, they will infiltrate in small de-centralised packets. Size will depend on the task at hand, but will seldom be larger than company or squadron groups. This is because larger formations tend to become a focus for artillery and air attack. Groups of 14-16 vehicles will manoeuvre into a position that allows accompanying assets, such as missile and rocket artillery, to neutralise enemy assets. Operating dispersed is essential for resilience, but also to prevent congestion, especially in built-up areas. A fully digitised and networked Strike force can easily and quickly be concentrated or re-focused to achieve a “Schwerpunct” effect. Overall, Strike brigades can be expected to cover a frontage of 100 kilometres and a depth of 100 km.
The third characteristic is Integrated Effect. This is how joint force capabilities such as air assets, joint fires and other multi-domain resources are combined with Strike to achieve a concentrated effect. It means that Strike Brigades will not be solely reliant on their own organic fire support capabilities. They will be supported by divisional fires, e.g. 155 mm artillery, MLRS, deep strike missiles, long-range precision effects, GBAD systems; by air assets, e.g. Apache AH-64 and F-35B combat aircraft; and even by naval assets, e.g. aircraft carriers and submarine-launched land attack missiles. Strike brigades can also call upon cyber and EW units or task special forces.
By acting as a forward screen, Strike units will provide enhanced security for the main force, delivering information and intelligence. Working in conjunction with Armoured Infantry, mechanised infantry Strike units will enable divisional manoeuvre. Even when Strike Brigades are operating independently from other UK formations, they will seldom be alone. They will usually be part of a larger coalition. When deploying with allies, we will rely on neighbouring units to provide support and they in-turn will rely on us.
The fourth characteristic is a Reduced Logistical Footprint. For Strike Brigades to be effective, reducing the effort required to sustain them in the field is essential. In this respect, wheeled vehicles are more efficient, more reliable and less expensive to operate than tracked ones. They consume less fuel and can travel longer distances faster. Using a common modular platform like Boxer will reduce maintenance requirements and consume fewer spare parts. In particular, units will travel with sufficient ammunition, fuel, rations, batteries and water, so that they can operate for up to 7 days between resupply.
Another aspect of a reduced logistical footprint will be streamlined support processes. This may include autonomous convoys for last-mile delivery, resupply by air, and the clever packaging of materiel to speed-up collection and distribution. Real-time automated data collection that monitors fuel consumption, ammunition usage and so on, will allow needs to be predicted aiding logistical planning.
The essence of contemporary US Stryker and UK Strike doctrine can be found in American Civil War history. Confederate General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, attributed his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by consistently “arriving first with largest number of troops.” When dispersed units can travel long distances independently, manoeuvre into a position of advantage, and then quickly regroup to assault an objective, it delivers a critical mass of force at the right moment that denies the enemy any opportunity to respond until it is too late.
What is new about Strike is that the combination of benefits it brings allows commanders to shape the battlespace proactively. One example of Strike Brigade utility is countering A2/AD barriers. Ground-based air defence bubbles, e.g. Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, are designed to prevent NATO forces from gaining air superiority. In response, Strike units might conduct surprise infiltrations deep into enemy territory to find and neutralise them. Another example is using Strike Brigades to seize and hold vital ground in coup de main operations. Airborne or Air Assault forces can be used in conjunction with Strike Brigades. A parachute drop to gain control of bridges, airfields, or supply dumps can be rapidly reinforced by wheeled units moving along ground routes to link-up. It’s what we tried to do at Arnhem, but couldn’t because tracked formations couldn’t move fast enough. We can also use Strike Brigades as a deterrent. Instead of using an Armoured Infantry Brigade to maintain an enhanced forward presence, when tensions ramp-up or preparatory movement is spotted, a Strike Brigade will deploy. The aspiration is for an entire formation to travel from the United Kingdom to, for example, the Baltic States within 2-3 days. In case this sounds unrealistic, US Stryker Brigade have already proven that this is entirely possible, through operational missions and exercises.
Strike Brigades will be inherently flexible. They are designed to execute multiple mission types with vehicles that require minimal reconfiguration. Charles Krulak, a USMC general, developed the concept of the three block war. This posited that ground forces should expect to perform a variety of roles wherever deployed. One moment they might be required to distribute aid, the next to perform low-level counter-insurgency roles, and, thirdly, to conduct high intensity operations against a peer enemy, all within a three-block radius. It places an emphasis on low-level leadership and adaptable force structures. With units operating dispersed inside enemy-held territory, junior NCOs will be required to take command decisions that directly influence the success of the mission. But it is the key characteristics of Strike that will most enable multi-role operations.
As armies across NATO build their Medium Weight capabilities, potential adversaries are doing the same. China has been particularly active developing a range of 8×8 vehicles, including the ZBL-09 Snow Leopard IFV and ZTL-09 105 mm Fire Support Vehicle, which it intends to produce in large quantities. Russia is supplementing its BTR-70 and BTR-80 mechanised fleets with the new VPK-7829 Boomerang 8×8 family. The sheer ubiquity of 8×8 platforms convinces some analysts that medium weight armour will eventually render traditional heavy tracked armour obsolete. For the moment, the sheer number of MBTs that remain in service – the IISSS Military Balance 2019 estimates that there are 70,000 MBTs globally – means we need to maintain existing tank numbers to counter them. In the long-term, however, it seems likely that medium weight wheeled forces will offer more options across more scenarios than legacy heavy tracked platforms.
06. Force structure and composition
Strike Brigades are expected to be comprised of two mechanised infantry battalions equipped with Boxer plus a reconnaissance regiment equipped with Ajax. Each brigade will be supported by an artillery regiment providing indirect fires. They should also have an air defence battery attached, plus ISTAR elements, including UAVs, and counter-battery radars. An Engineer regiment will provide obstacle clearance and gap crossing support. Strike brigades will have dedicated Logistics, REME and Medical regiments. Mechanised Infantry battalions will each have about 150 vehicles, including 100 Boxer MIVs. In total, strike brigades are expected to have close to 900 vehicles and 5,000 personnel.
For Strike to work, it will be dependent on four key enablers:
- C4I systems which offer increased range, security and fidelity of communication, allowing information to be shared via voice and data up, down and across the chain of command
- ISTAR sensors, including optics, radar, laser range finders, acoustic direction finders and other modern technology that allows the enemy to be located
- Wheeled combat vehicles, including 4×4, 6×6 and 8×8 platforms, which combine on-road and off-road mobility
- Long-range missiles and artillery systems, including rockets, missiles and smart artillery munitions, non-line of sight ATGMs and ground-based air defence systems.
The above enablers will make Strike a “system of systems.” While many people attach importance to wheeled combat vehicles, perhaps the most crucial element is network-enabled C4I systems. Highly connected units on the ground relying on multiple advanced sensor types will be able to share information across the Brigade. Commanders will be able to make better informed decisions and implement them more quickly. The Battle of France in 1940 is analogous to the advantages provided by modern C4I systems. The German Army’s light Panzer units were equipped with radios whereas French Army Char B1 tank units, which were more heavily armed and better protected, relied on flag signallers and carrier pigeons. Faster, more reliable communications enabled the Wehrmacht to rapidly bypass the French defensive line and penetrate deep into their rear area. This cut-off their supply routes and forced a withdrawal. Network-enabled contemporary Strike units will have a better ability to communicate and share information allowing them to respond rapidly and in-concert, making the underlying tactical doctrine as transformational as “Blitzkrieg” tactics were during WW2.
The LEtacSys / Morpheus C4I system that will replace Bowman will from the outset be designed for high fidelity and low latency. It will be easier to integrate into the digital electronic architecture of new vehicles. It will provide combat net radios with a longer range, increased security, reduced power consumption and a smaller physical footprint. Integrated mobile data networks and satellite communication systems will give the Army more reliable voice communication and data-sharing capabilities. An integrated battlefield management system (BMS) will enable the positions of each sub-unit within a brigade to be shared in real-time. This will enhance command and control as well as providing an evolving view of the battlespace. LEtacCIS / Morpheus is a funded programme on-track to deliver from 2023.
UAVs like Protector and Watchkeeper working closely with Strike Brigade signals units will ensure that information is fed to all units on a continual basis. Smaller quadcopter drones with longer loiter times and high fidelity sensors will augment the battle picture. Radar systems, laser range finders, fire control systems and other optics will be enhanced by AI. This will ensure enemy threats are identified more reliably and faster than human operators can do alone.
At the heart of UK Strike Brigades will be the 8×8 platform we tried to acquired 20 years ago, the ARTEC Boxer. This third-generation vehicle rebalances the iron triangle in favour of mobility, but without sacrificing protection. Its unique mission module design allows the vehicle to be re-roled within 60 minutes. It can mount a wide variety of weapons. Above all, it acts as the “mother ship” for a full infantry section of 8-10 soldiers. When fielded, the British Army will never have had more a flexible or better protected infantry carrier.
The Ajax reconnaissance vehicle is a worthy replacement for the obsolete CVR(T) family. While Ajax might be better employed in the Armoured Infantry Brigades, operating alongside Challenger 2 and Warrior, its 40 mm cased-telescoped ammunition cannon will provide significant direct fire support. No other cannon in service can neutralise the BMP-3+ at 1,000 metres. While Ajax will rely on Heavy Equipment Transporters (HET) for long road deployments, once in theatre mobility will not be an issue. In any event, using Boxer and Ajax together will not the uneasy compromise that many perceive it to be.
Strike Brigade units will also get the Multi-Role Vehicle Protected (MRVP). This will be a family of vehicles including the Oshkosh JLTV, as a Command & Liaison Vehicle (CLV) and Tactical Support Vehicle (TSV); and, either the Thales Bushmaster or GDELS Eagle, as a Battlefield Ambulance (BFA) and Troop Carrying Vehicle (TCV). These platforms will ensure that infantry will have a much higher degree of protected mobility. Logistically, units on the ground will be supported by the Army’s fleet of MAN trucks. Available in 4×4, 6×6 and 8×8 configurations, these offer exceptional utility and have proved to be the logistical backbone of the Army.
In terms of fire support, it needs to be emphasised that Strike units will have a significant number of ATGMs at their disposal. NLAW and Javelin will be carried at platoon-level. All Boxer section vehicles will have the capability to mount and fire Javelin from under armour. Javelin’s top attack capability is extremely difficult to counter, even with the latest APS systems. Additionally, Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) missiles will be available to support forward-deployed brigades. The Army already has Exactor (Spike NLOS) and is evaluating ground-launched Brimstone.
The Army intends to acquire a new mobile fires platform with a 155 mm L/52 calibre howitzer firing new ammunition types. This will offer a 70-kilometre range. Additionally, systems like the Lockheed Martin HIMARS with G/MLRS rockets and, potentially, the new Deep Strike missile, with a 499 km range, will augment existing capabilities in this area. The mix of offensive firepower at a Strike brigade’s disposal will enable it to destroy a large number of point targets simultaneously or to delete entire grid squares.
With most of the above equipment types already on the Army’s shopping list, UK Strike Brigades are well on the way to achieving General Sir Nick Carter’s Strike 2016 vision. There are three missing pieces of the jigsaw:
- Organic Direct Fire. Introducing with a turreted Boxer reconnaissance vehicle or infantry fighting vehicle would immediately augment the lethality of Strike brigades. Mounting a 30 or 40 mm cannon plus ATGM would enable such a platform to engage multiple target types, including MBTs and IFVs. Additionally, mounting the 30×113 mm M230LF chain gun in place of the 12.7 mm HMG would combine the range and accuracy of the HMG with the explosive effect of a 40×53 mm grenade launcher. Fitting this to the Kongsberg Protector RWS with Javelin integration would not be significantly more expensive, but would do much to support infantry when advancing on foot to seize an objective, especially as new ammunition types enter service.
- Organic indirect fire. Infantry battalions need 120 mm mortars mounted on a dedicated Boxer variant, because dismounted 81 mm mortars will be out-distanced by fast moving rifle company vehicles as they advance. Something like the Patria NEMO turreted 120 mm mortar system would be ideal. NEMO has an indirect range of 10-12 kilometres. It also has a direct-fire capability which is ideal for bunker-busting.
- Ground-based air defence systems (GBAD). The drone threat is such that the Army needs to rethink ground-based air defence. The new Sky Sabre system is superb. This combines the Land Ceptor / CAMM missile with Giraffe AMB radar. The problem is we have too few launchers. Similarly the Starstreak HVM is a great short range system, but can we afford to shoot down €1,000 drones with €100,000 missiles? Instead, we need a cannon-based 35-40 mm anti-aircraft system, again mounted on Boxer. The Thales RapidFire system with a 40 mm CT cannon would give us commonality with Ajax 40 mm CT cannons. Alternatively, Rheinmetall / Oerlikon’s 35 mm Revolver air defence cannon with AHEAD ammunition has an unrivalled airburst capability.
07. Can Strike brigades prevail against peer adversaries?
As Ajax and Boxer start to re-equip the British Army, the burning question is how effective will Strike Brigades be versus a peer enemy, especially one equipped with T-90 MBTs and BMP-3 IFVs? Modern 8×8 vehicles are well protected, but don’t offer the same level of protection as an MBT. The 40 mm CT cannon will defeat IFVs and older MBTs, but not the frontal armour of T-72 or T-90. This means we will rely on ATGMs like Javelin. There may be case to acquire a 105 mm or 120 mm mobile gun system. These are essentially wheeled MBTs, except that they lack protection. If a Centauro 2 mobile gun system engages a Russian T-90 MBT, it had better destroy it with a first-round kill, because if it doesn’t, it will almost certainly be obliterated when the tank returns fire.
If 8x8s cannot survive against MBTs, how can they possible make them redundant? Part of the answer lies in the belief that 8×8 units should never be directly set against tank forces. Ensuring that wheeled units are not surprised is about effective ISTAR – obtaining prior knowledge of enemy dispositions that gives you an information advantage, allowing you to choose when and where you will fight. Behind this lies a reliance on new technology and the idea that future battlefield encounters will be decided by sensors as much as weapons. An increased focus on fielding third generation sensors, e.g. FLIR gun sights, will allow friendly forces to locate, engage and defeat enemy forces before they can do likewise. In case this view seems naive, it is exactly what the German Wehrmacht did in WW2 with the Sturmgeshütz III assault gun. Originally designed to support dismounted infantry, it proved adept at tank destruction in defence. This is because its optics were superior to those of the Panzer III and Russian T-34, allowing StuG III crews to engage the enemy before they themselves were located. For the moment, it may be a stretch to suggest that the tank is obsolete. An Australian Army general recently said: “Tanks are like dinner jackets, you don’t need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do.”6 For example, when defending a crossroads or other key position that offers generous fields of fire, an MBT can be extremely hard to dislodge.
Across many anticipated scenarios, Strike Brigade Joint Fire Controllers (JFCs) will reconnoitre enemy positions using drones and satellites and then feed enemy coordinates to artillery located well back. A variety of missile and tube artillery systems will then be used to neutralise enemy forces prior to the attacking Strike force closing on its objective. This reflects another doctrinal concept: “defeating at distance,” which is analogous to the RAF using Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) or long-range cruise missiles. We should expect Strike Brigades to use Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) missiles. Whatever the system, the goal is destroy the enemy beyond the distance they are able to return fire.
In defence, drone reconnaissance or forward OPs will enable a phased response to an attacking enemy. At 100 km, Long-Range Precision Strike Missiles will be used to deplete concentrations enemy armour. At 50-70 km, MLRS and 155 mm artillery will be used. At 30-40 km, BLOS ATGMs comes into play. At 8-10 km, organic 120 mm mortars and LR ATGM will open fire. Then, at 3-5 km ATGM like Javelin / MMP will pick-off the remnants. Ideally, an enemy should seldom close to within 1-2 km of a Medium Weight force’s defensive position. If they do, dug-in dismounted infantry will use hand-held ATGMs, like NLAW, plus vehicle cannons and small arms to defeat whatever is left.
Independently of armoured vehicle developments, we’re seeing an evolution in the technical capabilities of artillery systems. These are gaining increased range, improved accuracy and greater lethality. Feedback from Ukrainian forces engaged by Russian artillery should leave us in no doubt about the ability of modern artillery to degrade heavy armour. Even if it doesn’t achieve an outright kill, it will often achieve a mobility kill or neutralise a tank’s main armament by knocking-out its optics.
If an enemy bunches its forces, they will immediately become a target. And vice-versa. With potential adversaries investing in quantity as well as quality of artillery, the ability to move quickly around the battlespace is fundamental to the survival of all combatants. Effective fire and manoeuvre remains a core tactical skill. What Strike changes is that instead of this being a low-level unit activity, it will increasingly be executed at brigade- and divisional-level.
To summarise, UK Strike Brigades will allow the Army to deploy agile, lethal and connected ground forces with relative ease. This is transformational. They will be self-contained, responsive and have reduced logistical support needs. Strike units will be interoperable with our NATO allies, but also with our own heavy armour and light role infantry units. Strike Brigades will ensure that infantry mass is delivered wherever needed, and we should remember that dismounted infantry are the decisive element in the close battle. Strike changes the risk calculus for operational deployments. It means we will be able to do things we couldn’t do before, like deploying troops in protected vehicles where previously we were only able to deploy them in unprotected Land-Rovers and trucks. Potential adversaries will no longer be able to defeat them using small arms, RPGs and basic IEDs.
The Strike concept is a future direction of travel, not only for the British Army, but for NATO. The French L’Armée de Terre’s Scorpion programme reveals similar modernisation efforts. Tracked IFVs have been replaced by the 8×8 VBCI. Mechanised formations will get three new wheeled vehicles, the 6×6 Griffon VBMR infantry carrier, the 6×6 Jaguar EBRC reconnaissance vehicle, and the 4×4 Serval VBMR-L. The only remaining tracked platform will be the Leclerc MBT.
As much as wheeled vehicles provide new deployment options, tracked vehicles will still be needed to fight across the most extreme terrains, such as Northern Europe in winter, where snow, ice, and soft soil create challenging off-road conditions. So it is not a question of wheels versus tracks, but an enduring need for both.
In the final analysis, Strike represents the most radical modernisation of the British Army since 1945. It is a new approach to fighting and leverages new doctrinal approaches, new technologies and new organisational structures. At a time where absolute numbers of troops remain limited, Strike will allow us to do more with less. Above all, it will make the Army more deployable and thus more usable. The thinking behind Strike is still a work in progress, but given the baptism of fire it has received via the US Army and French Army operations in Iraq and Africa, we can be confident that it will mature into winning formula.
1. Source: Operation Joint Guardian – The US Army in Kosovo, Jeffrey Clarke, Chief of Military History, US Army
2. Source: LAV-25, The US Marine Corps Light Armoured Vehicle, James D’Angina, Osprey Publishing, 2011
3. Source: From Transformation to Combat, The First Stryker Brigade at War, Mark Reardon and Jeffrey Charlston, US Army publication, 2007
4. Sources: French Army briefing Shivenham Close Combat Symposium, July 2016; Lessons from France’s Operation Serval in Mali, Major-General Olivier Tramond; France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Force, by the RAND Corporation, Michael Shirkin)
5. Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War.” Marines Magazine, January 1999
6. Major General Katherine Toohey, Head of Land Capability for the Australian Army, speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference, June 2019