Strike: From Concept to Force
Main Image Credit A prototype of an Ajax armoured fighting vehicle on show in Wales, March 2016. Courtesy of Richard Watt/MoD/Wikimedia.
This Occasional Paper provides an independent assessment of non-discretionary capabilities to enable the British Army's Strike concept to achieve its mission. It explores which vulnerabilities can be mitigated, advantages exploited by the development of training and tactics, and the likely limitations of the concept.
Military concepts are largely aspirational; they describe how a military wants to fight in the future and should, therefore, set the goals to be realised through procurement and training. The translation from concept to extant force rarely follows a smooth linear progression. This is certainly the case with the British Army’s Strike concept. The idea for a rapidly deployable, mobile force was inspired by France’s 2013 intervention in Mali. However, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent NATO summit, led the UK government to commit to a major procurement programme for Ajax armoured vehicles before its role in the force had been clearly determined. The subsequent 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review then announced the creation of Strike Brigades as a core part of Army 2020 Refine, before the details of the Strike concept had been fully worked out.
Rather than make subsequent announcements, the British Army has been undertaking a detailed process of experimentation to inform how these brigades will be structured, and how they will fight. The lack of public detail about the brigades following their announcement has led to much confusion in the public discourse surrounding Strike. The army will soon need to commit to procurement decisions, however, to transition Strike from concept to force. In a fiscally constrained environment those decisions involve difficult trade-offs.
This paper is an attempt to conduct an independent assessment of the missions that a Strike Brigade may plausibly be expected to undertake, the capability and training requirements for the force to fulfil its missions, and the systems and platforms available that meet these requirements. The paper hopes to provide an independent evidence base to inform policymakers examining the army’s procurement plans to deliver the Strike Brigade. This paper is not a study of the merits of the Strike concept as a purely theoretical force. It does not, for instance, re-tread the well-worn debates over Ajax’s suitability for the concept. With two regiments in 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade already receiving the vehicle, the useful question is how Ajax can be integrated into the force. Nor is this study a comparison of Strike with other potential formations. It is a narrow study of the non-discretionary requirements to make the Strike Brigade a viable force in fulfilling a set of identified missions.
The key conclusions are:
- All Strike missions depend upon the brigade being able to undertake an extended road march of up to 2,000 km. This operational reach is critical to the force’s utility. This means that the core of the force must be built around platforms that can self-deploy. The mechanised infantry vehicle (MIV) therefore represents the core of the brigade. Ajax vehicles will need to be moved on heavy equipment transporters or modified light equipment transporters. Many combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) functions should be mounted on military trucks to reduce the number of platforms, and therefore the burden on the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in maintaining vehicles in the field.
- The brigade cannot depend on support from aviation or air assets in any Eastern European scenario due to Russian air defence systems. Furthermore, being dependent on fires from Allied formations severely limits the brigade’s utility, as it becomes a burden on Allied forces with a wide set of targets of their own. Given the weight restrictions imposed by the brigade’s mobility requirements, the force will have limited protection, and must compensate by being sufficiently lethal.
- The most dangerous threats to the brigade are massed enemy armour, massed fires, and enemy air attack. In the face of massed enemy artillery, the brigade will need to be able to fight dispersed. Against massed armour, the brigade will need to be able to call down effective indirect fires. Most 155-mm artillery solutions are not compatible with the brigade’s mobility requirements and given the risk of operational penetration of dispersed sub-units, would be difficult to protect. Brigade-level wheeled multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) therefore appear to be a much more credible capability. Against smaller concentrations of armour, brigade sub-units will need readily available anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), calculated at 108 launchers across the mechanised infantry battlegroups. In a contested airspace organic brigade-level air defence is critical, such as that afforded by the national advanced surface-to-air missile systems with evolved SeaSparrow missiles.
- MLRS will need to be reserved for concentrated targets. Each sub-unit will therefore need to have sufficient lethality to attrit company-sized enemy groups, supported by armour and aviation. This leads to each mechanised infantry company containing three combat teams* comprised of eight vehicles:
- A command MIV with a heavy machine gun (HMG) remote weapon station (RWS)
- A MIV with a 25-mm Gau-22 or BK-27 RWS
- Two MIVs with HMG RWS
- Two MIVs with turreted 40-mm cased telescoped cannons and twin ATGMs
- A MIV with 120-mm mortar
- An engineering MIV with dozer blade and HMG
- Four Javelin teams among the combat team’s dismounts.
It was concluded that Ajax should not be mixed into mechanised infantry combat teams for three reasons:
- This would not make the best use of Ajax’s sensor suite.
- Ajax is not capable of peer-to-peer recovery and cannot be recovered by MIV. Therefore, its inclusion into mechanised infantry combat teams could lead to the team being fixed and would create too great a CSS burden on the brigade.
- As Ajax needs to be deployed by alternative means, it cannot be guaranteed to arrive with the MIVs.
Ajax may be better employed in three ways. One Ajax regiment should conduct formation recce, establishing listening posts in advance of the brigade to ascertain the adversary’s axes of advance and to direct strikes on high-value targets with the EXACTOR missile system and/or MLRS. The second regiment should form a medium-armour reserve to bring concentrated lethality to reinforce success, or to evade enemy axes of advance and thereby strike advancing enemy CS and CSS elements.
The need to operate and manoeuvre in a dispersed manner leads to a demand for robust command-and-control infrastructure, both in terms of equipment and procedures, to maintain coordination in the face of sophisticated and sustained interference in the electromagnetic spectrum. It was concluded that the need to communicate to fight when dispersed means that it will be very difficult for the brigade to eliminate its electronic signature, and that the brigade should work to employ robust deception by emitting false positives to avoid being targeted by signature.
The brigade cannot avoid coming under fire, and therefore must have adequate protection. MIV will need STANAG Level 4 protection at a minimum. Given the volume of 30-mm cannon fire available to Russian forces, this would ideally be raised to STANAG 6, especially on MIV’s exposed drive module. However, this should not be done if it compromises the mobility which is central to the Strike concept. Active protection systems, however, appear to be a non-discretionary requirement given the proliferation of highly effective ATGMs.
Crucially, Strike Brigades will depend upon the ability of their personnel to fight dispersed, use initiative to exploit opportunities created by dislocating the enemy, and sustain operations. Troops will need to be competent to maintain their vehicles in the field. They will also need to be mentally prepared for a battlefield in which they lack air supremacy and will struggle to rapidly evacuate casualties. To succeed, Strike troops will need an appropriate ethos and mindset.
The above should not be considered a rigid blueprint for the brigade. However, it should be considered representative of the levels of organic lethality necessary to make a Strike Brigade a credible force. Force structures that neglect, or outsource, critical capabilities highlighted above should be looked upon with scepticism.
* Although combat team usually refers to a squadron/company-sized formation with attached elements, in this paper it refers to troop/platoon groups, because of the command-and-control implications of dispersed movement.
Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare
Professor Justin Bronk
Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology