|Is this the future for rapid reaction forces?|
Sunday, 25 May 2014
Jumping into the unknown - the future of 16 Air Assault Brigade
Another day, another depressing story about the decline of the UK Armed Forces into being just a ‘defence force’ (according to the rent-a-quote senior retired offer used), and this time the story is about the size of 16 Air Assault Brigade. The Daily Telegraph is running a story so exclusive and based on ‘internal briefing notes’ about the order of battle changes, that the documents can be found on the British Army website. (Story can be found HERE). The charge made is that there are major cuts coming to what is seen as the ‘premier’ formation of the British Army, and it will reduce in size from 8000 to 5000 troops over the next few years, as units, capability and troops are reduced in number. This is seen as a bad thing, and is apparently a damning indictment of all that is wrong with the MOD today.
The truth of the matter is somewhat different – this change is perhaps better seen as a key part of the reforms under Army 2020 which will deliver a more balanced structure to the Army and reduce it by some 18000 troops at the same time. This is not an easy matter to achieve, and has been the source of a lot of controversy since announced. The full set of information on Army 2020 can be found at the Army Website
The nub of the plan is that in future the Army will have two very distinct components – the ‘Reaction Force’ and the ‘Adaptive Force’ – both of which play different roles. The Reaction Force will comprise a Divisional sized force, of 3 (UK) Div and three armoured infantry brigades and a separate air assault brigade (16 Air Assault). Both formations will be held at high levels of readiness to deploy units as the UK response to an event requiring military intervention. In the case of 16 Air Assault this provides a training cycle capable of providing a battle group sized force able to respond at short notice, with a second at slightly lower readiness.
The big change that is occurring is that the Brigade will lose around 3000 troops and support units, and rather than being a larger force comprising a conglomeration of infantry capbadges and support units, will instead be built around the Parachute Regiment at its core supported by two Regular AAC regiments and some supporting units. This decision makes sense for two main reasons – firstly there is a need to provide a more balanced set of brigades able to relieve and sustain each other. There is little point having a one off 8000 strong light infantry brigade able to deploy at short notice if there is nothing of an equivalent nature there to backfill it.
A key part of Army 2020 is the reorganisation to deliver an Army capable of supporting a brigade sized force on long term deployment, plus other interventions as required. These reforms mean that both 3 Div and 16AA can be the lead elements for such an intervention, but sufficient capability exists to replace them when appropriate. The deployed levels were laid down in the 2010 SDSR, and these changes are about structuring the Army to meet them. This is not a ‘defence cut’ as charged in the coverage, but instead a fairly sensible reorganisation to balance the force and ability to sustain it.
The second point is perhaps more pragmatic – there is little point in sustaining an ‘Air Assault’ Brigade if you lack the transport aircraft and helicopters to do so. One of the harsh realities facing HM Forces is that the future means less but more capable equipment – so the C130J fleet will be replaced by the A400M. The Lynx fleet is getting a lot smaller, and in the medium (10 year) term the Puma fleet is likely to have gone too. What this means is that the enablers to make a formation air based are much smaller in number now. The days when the UK had sufficient C130s available to do brigade sized lift are gone forever – there is relatively little point keeping a full brigades worth of supporting airborne elements if you are unable to move them by air. The future air transport fleet size is going to struggle to sustain more than a battalion sized lift anyway, given availability of airframes in future.
So this is perhaps best seen as a reality measure – an acceptance that there is a finite level of capability to support units like 16AA. While the UK remains exceptionally capable at being able to deploy its troops at a distance (arguably second only to the US), there is a limit of aircraft, helicopters and support services. Far better to structure your resources appropriately, than pretend there is more there. In truth the chances of the UK deploying 8000 plus personnel on a one off intervention operation is incredibly slim – particularly for the next few years during the recovery from HERRICK. At best any such deployment would be smaller in number anyway – it could be easily argued that a force of 5000 is a realism measure in itself, recognising the likelihood that 16AA would never have deployed as envisaged in its ORBAT.
Perhaps more depressingly though, the article highlights the ongoing difficulty of trying to bring about real and necessary change to Defence, and particularly the Army, without incurring the wrath of the ‘capbadge mafia’. It is not easy to go through a large downsizing, and many people have to leave – but the reality is that an Army of 100,000 is unaffordable given current personnel costs and something has to give. The Army 2020 structure provides a genuinely good chance to revamp the Army into a new model of both regular and reserve forces able to provide a similar level of capability to what has gone before. The problem is that many of these protests about loss of units or capbadges are driven by individuals putting self-interest ahead of the national interest. If the decision were taken to abandon plans to downsize the brigade to placate these interests, other units and formations would have to go through a similar process, and the Army would become inherently unbalanced – Army 2020 is about delivering an Army capable of sustaining long term operations, not one capable of putting an overly large Air Assault force on the ground for a few months and then being unable to backfill it without cannibalising other forces.
One of the lessons of HERRICK has arguably been that for all its size, there was an inability by the Army to deploy relatively small and coherent formations onto a fairly straightforward operation without drawing more broadly on other formations and taking risk on their readiness. One only has to look at the way each HERRICK rotation has had all manner of units bolted onto the deployment to realise that the current force structure was great for some jobs, but not ideal for the jobs it needs to do now. These changes are as much about setting the conditions to reduce this problem as they are about downsizing the Army as a whole.
The challenge facing the Army is to work out when to fight its battles on formations and manpower. Trying to blame others for cuts to its structures will not sit well – the Army 2020 ORBAT is an internal document drawn up by experts based on the tasks required of the Army. One senses a growing frustration from the other two services with the Army over the way that even the slightest change to manpower draws howls of protests and leaks onto the front pages of the papers, when both the RN and RAF have proportionately undergone far worse headcount reductions in the last 10 years with barely a whimper (both RN and RAF have had roughly a 25% cut to their manpower, compared to just 18% for the Army). Given the way that the Army struggled to sustain personnel on HERRICK without a lot of support from the RN and RAF, there is unlikely to be much sympathy from them for any argument which prevents much needed structural changes from happening.
There is a depressing tendency in some quarters to make out that every change to the Army is a threat to national security and that the UK Armed Forces are now some kind of ‘defence force’ or other saying. The reality is that even after these changes are implemented, the UK remains with one of the world’s most capable armed forces, able to deploy at a significant distance from home to achieve effect. There is little point in having an army of 150000 if there is no way to deploy it. Sadly the same people demanding bigger armies are usually the ones demanding the UK gets involved in problems a long way from home to resolve them – a difficult challenge if you cannot afford to do so.
If you want to have a globally deployable military these days, then you need to accept this comes at a very large cost, particularly in manpower, and this means difficult changes. The UK can no longer afford to sustain a very large global military – what it can do is sustain a reasonably sized but very capable force, which continues to punch well above its weight.
The final thought that Humphrey had is that those lobbying hard for the 16AA role to continue should consider carefully what they wish for. While there is no doubt that the Parachute Regiment has a long and proud history, the fact remains it has only carried out its designated operational role once in nearly 60 years (jumping at Suez). The more attention is paid on the capabilities of 16AA, the more a rationale person may ask why the UK persists in funding such a large capability (relatively speaking) when there is seemingly no chance of large formations jumping into action in future. The follow up question would surely be, why do we need an Air Assault brigade at all if the roles it has been used for have been the more traditional domain of light infantry?
The worry could be that as a defence review draws near, the need to sustain a reasonable sized parachute force could be questioned. A casual observer could easily ask what the UK gains from retaining this capability here, versus investing in other areas which could arguably be of more direct military relevance. If you consider the sort of operations the UK is likely to do, then the argument for a combined Parachute / Marine capability becomes stronger – why not merge the two forces for one light role intervention force and save considerably on the J4 chain needed to support the force? One should always be cautious when pushing a case publicly – the louder you shout about how important you are, the more your opponents will be willing to push back against the argument, and the implications could be very serious indeed if you lose the argument.