Future Army Policy: A Personal Perspective

May 31, 2016

I have been thinking about the future direction of policy with regard to the Armed Forces and in particular the Army. I am not going touch more than lightly upon the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce as I feel these fall too greatly outside my own areas of knowledge.

My starting point is a comparison of broad numbers. The Regular Army numbers 156,940  with 75,110 reserve personnel for a total of 232,050 at present. This number however conceals the very weak cutting edge of the Army.

In military parlance, the military strength of the Army, also known as “bayonet strength”, is carried in the fighting units. These would be primarily the infantry and armoured regiments, of which the Army has 18 infantry and 14 armoured regiments. Each “regiment” in the British Army is in fact a battalion, so I will be using “battalion” in place of regiment for simplicity.

Sounds reasonable? Well, partially. Normally a wartime division is organised around three brigades, each made up of three to four battalions. This would on the basis of thirty two combat battalions mean two divisions of nine or twelve battalions with a brigade or two to spare.

Sounds reasonable still? In the Cold War, Britain could field four divisions, three of which were armoured (meaning the division had a heavy allocation of main battle tanks) and one infantry division. So on a peacetime establishment, we can still field about half the same field force, though this assumes the whole Army is mobilised.

This is where the first weakness become apparent. The Army has just four tank battalions and a total Challenger 2 strength of 227 vehicles. Not all all of these would be concentrated in the armoured battalions. There are others based with the training battalion of the Armoured Corps. Oh yes, and there are NO replacements for Challenger 2. Each tank destroyed in action is lost permanently.

So, the Army could field two brigades with two armoured battalions each, making one partially armoured division. But doesn’t the Army have 14 armoured battalions?

Yes. But one is actually the training battalion at Bovington. The rest are a mixture of armoured cavalry and light recon battalions. Only the armoured cavalry actually have armoured fighting vehicles, the rest are equipped with Land Rovers, Jackals and the like are not intended for heavy combat.

So, the combat strength of the Army is infantry heavy. This is not such a problem if we only expect to conduct peace-keeping or counter-insurgency combat operations. However, we have seen a resurgence of Russian military aggression since 2014 together with threats to NATO allies in the Baltic states and the Russian Army, though not without its own problems remains a much more tank heavy force (2,562 with 12,000+ in reserve).

While the Russian Army is still largely a conscript force and retains much of the same cultural problems which plagued the Soviet Army (officer-dependent leadership as NCOs are largely non-professional) lowering the combat value of much of the Russian Army units, Russia has deep reserves to draw upon and as noted above much greater armoured strength of numbers.

Open war with Russia remains unlikely, however the danger of open war has been rapidly increasing with Russian aggression. We cannot afford to discount the possibility of a Russian invasion of the Baltic nations or even Poland. This would bring our NATO commitment into play. I’ll discuss possible scenarios later but suffice it here to say that a scenario which sees either Russian occupation of NATO territory or which requires heavy garrisons to deter Russian attacks, would stretch the Army to its limits.

With a battalion constituting 550-750 men, anyone familiar with military history of war between two technologically equivalent foes knows that combat strength rapidly leeches during intensive military operations. Assuming 18 x 750 men, the infantry strength of the Army is 13,500.

Now, engage in a thought experiment. Russia has invaded and occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Polish Army is mobilised and being reinforced by NATO battle-groups from the other member-states.

Do not imagine that NATO could negotiate an end to the war. The purpose of NATO is to deter aggression and the Russian Army would have to be expelled by force. A NATO counter-offensive would have to attack from a line Olsztyn – Cizycko – Suwalki north-eastwards to retake Riga, seal the eastern border as well as securing Narva to retake Tallinn. This would constitute an offensive-drive of 500 km, against at least equal Russian numbers.

Assume the operation is successful but incurs repeated heavy combat for British Army units. The British infantry force (assuming total mobilisation) could take 50-75% casualties from all causes by the time the Baltic states are retaken. This would mean infantry casualties in the order of 6,750 to 10,125 men. The latter figure would mean that the entire Army’s infantry strength, the core of the fighting capability of the entire Army would have been mauled. Entire battalions could be reduced from 6-700 men to less than 100.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Intensive combat operations in WW2, Korea and Vietnam all saw casualties in this order.

But remember the Russian preponderance in tank numbers? Let us first count the number of first-rate MBTs in NATO armies.

The British Army has 227 Challenger 2s. The German Army has a current MBT strength of 250 with plans to add another 100 or so Leopard 2 MBTs. The Dutch Army really doesn’t have any MBTs (having borrowed 18 from the German Army). The Belgian Army has none. The Danish Army has 57 Leopard 2. The French Army has 200 Le Clerc MBTs with another 200 in storage.The Italian Army has 200 Ariete MBTs. The Polish Army has 250 Leopard 2s with another 750 T-72 variants, which will not be counted here. We can also add the US Army’s 1,200 M1 Abrams (there are about 6-7,000 older models in storage), so assuming the US Army deploys the bulk of its armoured brigades to Europe, the NATO total field force would be 2,484 MBTs, assuming no stored tanks are mobilised.

But again, we have to make allowances. Not all the European MBT force would be deployed to Poland. Tanks would have to be brought up to operational readiness, which would be a major headache for the German Army, given its low current state of readiness and which may be an issue for all member-states with the possible exception of the USA.

Also, tanks will have to be left behind both to furnish a pool of replacements and to train replacement crews. So, assuming 10% of the European tank force is left out of battle, the NATO army group is left with 2,200+ first-rate MBTs, though it should be noted that approximately 100 of the Polish Leopard 2 fleet are the old A4 model.

We may also have to allow for deployments to other sectors of NATO territory. Removing another 10% leaves a field force of about 2,000 first-rate MBTs. Still good, given that much of the Russian tank force is older Soviet model MBTs, though again these would not be the poor quality rubbish fobbed off on the Iraqis. The late 1980s models of Soviet tanks were much better armed and armoured than NATO expected when the Cold War ended and the Russians have been quietly upgrading their tank fleet.

Remember that there are no Challenger 2 replacements. The British Army would have to either reopen production, if possible or seek foreign-built replacements. I do not know how many tanks Krass-Maffei, the German manufacturer of the Leopard 2 is capable of building per year, but my estimate based upon Leopard 2 deliveries in the 1980s is about 100 per year in peacetime conditions.

The scenario also assumes that either the Russian objective is occupation and a dug-in line of defence along the Polish border. It does not assume a continued Russian offensive into Poland proper. It also assumes that Russian intentions could be detected sufficiently in advance to mobilise and prepare NATO forces, not to defend the Baltic states but to reinforce Poland.

Air superiority is a questionable assumption, given NATO dependence upon the USAF. At best, I believe we would have limited air superiority and may have to conduct a counter-offensive under conditions of air-parity, which would place a great burden upon air-defence systems and units, while accepting the risk not just to combat units on march routes but the vital supply convoys of trucks rolling after the armoured spearheads.

Another question is that of ammunition supply. The British tank fleet has a finite supply of Challenger 2 main-gun rounds as the British factory which manufactured this ammunition has long been closed. Once the ammunition supply has been fired off, it’s gone.

The above assumptions may apply to a degree or in different ways to the Russians. We don’t know the state of Russian logistics, so both sides could be hampered by the absence of wartime economies.

The point is that the British Army with two divisions, one of which is armoured, would be able to give NATO a full-strength effort only once. After that, either the British government would have to consider peace-terms or full-mobilisation of the economy and the manpower-pool which would cause great disruption to the country.

The same is true of all NATO countries, except, perhaps the USA.

Given the Russian ability now to deploy in a matter of less than six weeks forces up to 100,000 men on a state-border, we have to give real thought to turning the Army from a neglected child to a real combat force capable of sustaining an initial period of hard-fighting of up to six months before reserve or new formations can be mobilised, trained and deployed.

The first priority is aim to double the combat strength of the Army. Infantry are relatively easy to train. The same is true of the logistical arm but the armoured force must be expanded from four battalions to sixteen, enough to give two armoured divisions a full-weight of 232 MBTs each in four battalions. All no more than one quarter of the combat battalions can be reserve units, given these will take time to train to efficiency and to recall once war is imminent.

The new armoured divisions will need to be supplemented by infantry-divisions. If war is to take place in the East, there will be a premium upon infantry in heavily forested areas as well as to hold lines of communication. Armoured units should not be tied up in this role.

If there are two regular armoured divisions with two reserve divisions, then there should be the same number of regular infantry divisions but with four reserve infantry divisions. This entails expanding the tank fleet from 204 in four battalions to 928 in sixteen battalions with another 100 for training and another 100 or so for replacement.

The infantry arm would expand from a theoretical 13,500 in 18 battalions to 24 armoured infantry battalions (two per armoured brigade) and a further 54 infantry battalions (three per infantry brigade). This would be an armoured infantry force of 18,000 and an infantry force of 40,500. The infantry arm would total 58,500 men, 22,500 in the regular Army, 36,000 in the Army Reserves.

This calls for a massively expanded budget, just for the Army. The defence budget would have to also accommodate similar expansions and re-equipments in the Navy and Airforce. It would also call for a reform of the MoD, which is long overdue, to return control to the Forces themselves and not the Civil Service.

It would also call, I believe, for the development of a pool of trained manpower in the population. This means we will have to reintroduce a form of national service to reduce the budget and manpower burden on the regular Army. I propose that of the four regular divisions, one armoured and one infantry division be largely manned by national servicemen, leaving two divisions available for immediate overseas deployment.

The Reserve Divisions would manned by those who have completed their national service. Assuming 30,000 young (mostly) young men pass through national service with the Army per year, if these are placed in the Reserves as a part of a national service legislative arrangement for approximately four years after completing a three year national service arrangement, the Army would be amply provided with manpower both active and reserve and in the prime of physical fitness.

If the national service element provides enough young men with a taste for army life, then the Regular Army can be sustained at two full divisions plus the core of the two divisions manned by national servicemen.

Industrial policy will have to subordinated to equipping the Army for war-preparation. This means that we need national defence industries to produce MBTs, AFVs of all types, weapons from rifles to artillery to guided munitions. Above all we need to ensure that we have enough munitions to sustain two divisions in an overseas deployment and a sufficient stock to equip and sustain two more. The Reserve divisions can be supplied out of stepped up war-time production.

NATO states will have to coordinate industrial and procurement policies. Years ago, I wrote about the mess of NATO organisation and defence procurement cooperation. NATO needs radical harmonisation of equipment. I fear for any NATO force in the field given the bewildering variety of spare parts needed for vehicles, the different radio systems and even the different field rations.

Addendum: the Royal Airforce uses the Brimstone air-to-surface missile. Each one costs an average of £135,000 (£100,000 – £175,000 depending if development costs etc are included), which means that a Leopard 2 MBT costing £4,000,000 would be the same as 29 Brimstone missiles. I think a tank is a complementary investment.

This will seem appalling to modern, educated minds but in statecraft, we must face appalling possibilities. The worst of these is war. The only remedy is preparation.

Si vis pacem, para bellum


October 24, 2010

Is Karzai planning to bring the Taliban (and their Pakistani backers) into government in Afghanistan again? The old warlords of the Northern Alliance are preparing to arm to meet this eventuality, yet NATO soldiers are fighting and dying (mainly) in the south in order to push the Taliban back over the border. If Karzai engineers a re-entry for the Taliban into Afghanistan, then the political floor will vanish beneath NATO’s feet and the ISAF mandate could end abruptly.

Entry of the Taliban into the Afghan government will be an disaster only mitigated by an uncertain limit on the degree of Taliban expansion and infiltration. Already moderately secure in their heartlands of the North West Territories, in spite of a half-hearted Pakistani Army attempt to pacify the region and US remote strikes at the networks there, the Taliban will then have enormous manpower resources and be able to rebuild a terrorist, military and political infrastructure.
Pakistan will be competing with the government of Afghanistan to be the first to fall to the psychopaths of Islamism, while any concern over especially women’s rights in the Taliban controlled areas will be utterly futile. A government in which the Taliban participate will result in one of two outcomes: either Afghanistan beings to look like a Sunni version of Iran with the armed forces and police controlled and remoulded as Islamic forces, or the Taliban will retain their militia and hardcore professionals and simply wait to overthrow the government and seize control.

In the event of Taliban entry into government and with no action taken to support the Northern Alliance, the spread of al Qaeda groups into central Russia and the satellite states would accelerate and bring further instability. With the Northern Alliance threatening to rearm its militias in response to this prospect, what course of action could the NATO coalition take in order to either: prevent the Karzai plot from coming to fruition, or if that fails, organise, arm and support the Northern Alliance while working to turn it into a reliable ally. But overall, this prospect remains a very dangerous one which could wreck the last nine years of work.

Russia itself is hampering operations in Afghanistan, the likely drive behind this is a fear of US influence and the Russian government’s own attempts at suppressing democracy within Russia proper and in the border states. This leaves Pakistan as an unreliable base of support in the region, given its temporising and treacherous politicians and generals and its fanatical proxy-war with India. Yet, the insurgency is in the south of Afghanistan, leaving the ISAF logistical base to be critically vulnerable.

If the mission in Afghanistan is to be rescued then a new front is needed and a new ally. Here I believe that India could provide the manpower, political willpower and economic strength to invade and subjugate the North West provinces of Pakistan. This is a radical option but I fear the situation is starting to approach a crisis which will provoke the need to seek radical options. Another would be retreat from Afghanistan but the consequences of this are too horrible to comprehend. As with Iraq in 2006, retreat would only seed the ground for further insurgencies and terrorist cells to spring into being and would, as above earlier, allow the creation of a vast area of hardcore Islamist rule from which terrorist attacks would multiply. Add into this the danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons and we being to comprehend the dangers of failure here.

If Michael Yon is wrong and we are not able to sufficiently defeat the Taliban in the next two years, then to protect the West, radical changes in policy will have to be contemplated.

A new future for Europe and the US.

November 24, 2007

OK, today’s post.
NATO homogenisation.

The UN is finished. As a source of moral and legal authority, the United Nations has become a sick joke to anyone educated within the philosophical tradition of the West. It has indulged in anti-Semitic tirades, co-ordinated cover-ups of genocide and demonstrated the hatred of the bulk of its members for the West.
The West should therefore seek to resolve upon a new alliance based on the best principles of NATO and the European Union. By proclaiming the principle of mutual defence, whereby an attack (economic, military or electronic) on one member state is regarded by the alliance as an attack upon all and to be responded to with the combined military strength of all. By proclaiming that the legal principles include free trade, human rights and democracy as incumbent upon each member state to honour. By these principled positions, the alliance of the West can finally begin to look to one another as friends and allies, and not remain in the chimerical pursuit of lost empires in the guise of “influence”.
I believe that this new alliance, to be named the Western Alliance, will honour the memories of the founders of defence against aggressive totalitarianism and against the evils of hunger, national chauvinism and anti-democratic politics.

The first step must be to remake NATO into a truly effective military alliance. During the Cold War, only the USA and perhaps Britain, Germany and France actually kept to the bargain of spending 3 percent of GDP on defence. Apparent to all observers was the gap in capability between even the first rank of allies and the United States. The smaller nations gradually abandoned the notion of defence independence and bought their hardware from the big four. Apparent to observers from the late 1980s to the present day is the gap in hardware between the French armed forces and the other three.
Fitful attempts have been made throughout the history of NATO to homogenise equipment: the FH-70 gun-howitzer, the Tornado strike and air superiority fighter, and most successfully the unified ammunition calibres. Less successful have been the MBT-70, the notion of interoperability (the ability of national forces to co-ordinate and work together), coupled with the persistent attempts by the French governments and other mildly anti-American governments to present some form of united front against ‘the great empire’.
What has been apparent to sceptical observers since the 1970s and to many more since the conduct of NATO ISAF operations in Afghanistan has been the incompatibility of much equipment and the unresolved questions of the national “caveats”. German troops are limited to self-defence and moderate policing (with one of the largest armies in Europe. French troops for reasons of pride refuse to engage in combat (with the honourable exceptions of their special forces). Dutch troops will do so and have a proportionately large deployment but require government permission to fight.
The first part of this “hexenkessel” that must change is the writing into the NATO treaty of a clause committing the member states to undertake to provide troops without reserve or legal restraint (the caveats). The member states must also agree to commit to a single legally enabled military command that within a specific mission must have full legal authority over all military, political and humanitarian aspects.
The next and perhaps easier step is to undertake two steps with the same motion. The first of these is the harmonisation of military structures: the army of Estonia amounts to (on its own terms) an infantry brigade. The Italian Army is slightly larger than the British but undertakes far less missions. It should be obvious that the NATO forces are in effect dispersed, incompatible to a very large degree and in certain respects, ineffective. The first step of organisational harmonisation would bring those forces together on an established footing: in 1985, the German Brigade consisted of four battalions, but its armoured forces held a ratio of 3-1 either panzergrenadiers or panzers. By contrast the British brigades consisted of an equal ratio in four battalions. This meant that the two forces could not co-operate effectively, impairing operational efficiency at the price of fixed operating sectors. The harmonisation should establish four-battalion brigades of an equal footing, leading to balanced formations. Also, the international units should be organised into unified divisions, including co-ordinated plans for the call-up of reserves into those formations.
The second step within this motion is the harmonisation, even pooling, of defence budgets and the harmonisation of equipment. Let us take the example of battle tanks: there are any number of MBTs in use in the European militaries. The US Army and Marines (which for the purposes of this discussion, I have labelled European) operate the M1 Abrams, the British the Challenger 2, the French the Leclerc, the Germans, Dutch, Danish, Finns, Canadians, Austrians, Greeks, Norwegians, Poles, Portuguse, Spanish and Swiss armies all operate various versions of the Leopard 2. The eastern nations still operate Soviet model tanks alongside newer western models.
Frankly, this situation is bizarre. These forces cannot operate alongside one another since even the Leopard 2 nations operate different versions, some nearly thirty years old and received second hand! Such an army (if NATO can be so called) would need different sorts of ammunition, spare parts, often fuel and operate according to different requirements! Some nations still have Leopard 1’s designed in the 1960s!
So in all fields, national pride must be set apart, defence industries co-ordinated and single operating models of each type chosen to ensure a single supply of ammunition, spare parts, fuel and to thereby achieve real operational efficiency. Of course this would probably take twenty or thirty years but given that in the case of the Typhoon II (Eurofighter) it would be phased out by then, we in the West could be operating a single type of air superiority fighter, the possibilities for co-ordinated standards of training, single type replacement parts and industrial simplification would lend the West a real edge into the 21st Century.

What would be the political outcome for the West? Western armed forces, harmonised and unified could then project within the alliance, military force potentially to shape the world in a better, more progressive direction, present to the growing Russian threat in the East a real conventional deterrent against blackmail or force and finally, to truly grasp the ability to project force to prevent future Chinese imperial ambition. In sum, the true unification of the aims of NATO and the EU and the progressive West.