I have been reading recently about the British Army’s proposed Strike Brigades, perhaps best paraphrased as an attempt at recovering a medium weight capability which hopes to fill a big brother’s shoes against a background of Treasury driven financial penury.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
My main references have been the recent RUSI paper ‘Strike: From Concept to Force‘ by Watling and Bronk, two research fellows at the Institute with admirable academic credentials, and the other being Nicholas Drummond’s piece from over a year ago on the UK Land Power website.
There is neither the time nor space here to dissect either document forensically, but the references are below for those who might wish to read them in detail. I certainly learned a lot from both.
A quick bit of background; Strike Brigades morphed out of the 5 Multi-Role Brigades which were announced back in 2011.
Almost as soon as folk had got to grips with the idea, SDSR replaced them with the concept of Strike Brigades as part of what is politely called ‘Army 2020 Refine’.
This new postulation seems to have been born of two fathers; an attempt to claw back a medium weight capability in the light of Russian military resurgence and decades of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan; and an admiration for how quickly and effectively French forces deployed to counter the Mali insurrection in 2013-14.
The Strike Brigade requirement eventually called for and ability to:
• Self-deploy rapidly over a distance of up to 2,000 km to NATO’s borders
• Be able to defeat light forces on arrival
• Have the resilience to sustain combat effectiveness against irregular forces
• Have sufficient recce and surveillance capacity to monitor a wide front
• Have adequate SHORAD assets to protect itself against manned and unmanned aerial attack
• Be able to deter heavier forces using organic weapons systems
This is now, apparently, under development by the Strike Experimentation Group (SEG) which has a whiff of the kick-the-can-down-the-road consultations so beloved of governments in the UK. We don’t really know what we’re on about so let’s set up a study group to report back in a few years’ time. It’s all very reminiscent of the Experimental Mechanized Force of the late 1920s/early 1930s which foundered on the altar of conventional military group think. But not in Germany, of course. Messrs Guderian and von Manstein seemed to have taken notice.
On top of this doctrinal constipation, the army’s equipment update programme was already on a different course. The tortuous and seemingly endless attempts to replace CVR(T) eventually presented us with Ajax, which at 38 tonnes plus is essentially a bloated light tank and will probably be regarded as such by most militarily illiterate commentators.
At the same time, the army was humming and hawing for far too long over which MIV should equip the Strike Brigades to best enable self-deployment over long distances as previously noted. Having jumped in and out of various equipment programmes the MoD and British army eventually plumped for the German Boxer series of 8 wheeled MIVs.
I would summarise this sorry saga, perhaps slightly unfairly, as a fairly vague and wishful strategic and operational aspiration based on little or no doctrinal foundations, coupled with two deeply unimpressive and yet to be detailed equipment programmes with fundamental flaws. Doctrine seems to have followed equipment procurement, not the other way round as it should be. In other words, a classic British military lash-up, for want of a better description.
As for how Strike Brigades might operate, the RUSI paper suggests that being equipped with the Boxer MIV will allow rapid self-deployment by road and, where necessary, off-road. This, I think, is probably correct, although the chances of air interdiction disrupting this movement increases with the length of the deployment.
However, Ajax cannot claim the same road mobility and speed, and in case the wear and tear on tracks and suspension would be counterproductive. It requires, therefore, to be ferried into location by transporter, or HET (or MLET) as some might have it, aping the Americanisms as we seem to do increasingly in British military parlance. And, guess what? The British army hardly has sufficient transporters to move its ever decreasing number of MBTs let along the Strike Brigades’ Ajax. Answers to this conundrum on postcards to the MoD, please.
I have to say that one or two of their ideas on how a Strike Brigade might operate when in situ are problematic. The bald statement, taken no doubt from discussions around the SEG experiment, that “in the face of massed enemy artillery, the brigade will need to be able to fight dispersed” and will do so in small, autonomous “combat teams” which might comprise 8 or so vehicles overall, has a whiff of naivety about it.
My gut instinct here is that dispersed units lend themselves to being fixed and destroyed by more powerful formations, or possibly bypassed to be mopped up later. This would seem especially so if they would be operating in conditions where air supremacy is not guaranteed against a sophisticated peer enemy – which the Russians clearly would be. Disaggregated operations where forces only concentrate when needed is, I would suggest, a high risk strategy.
There must also be concerns about the logistic implications of the tracks/wheels mix. The disparity in deployment option has already been mentioned. As any military person will tell you, simplicity is key to success. Messrs Watling and Bronk’s additional suggested equipment mix within combat teams seems to exacerbate the problem. Too many equipment options across the board complicates matters to the detriment of operational capability in nearly every case. We have learned this lesson multiple times before.
In summary, everything I read and learn about Strike Brigades gives me the whiff of ‘designed by committee’. The doctrine for their employment, when it emerges from the SEG experiments, will be interesting. It appears it will be part driven by the need to shoehorn existing equipment orders into a different operational context, which is hardly ideal.
We have been here many times before in the British Army’s long history, and we should know better by now.