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.
The future of airborne infantry?
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.

Is this the future for rapid reaction forces?

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. 


  1. Agree with the thrust of your Argument Sir H. I think the time for a joined up Army / RN commando formation is long overdue and should be at the top of the review list for SDSR 2015.


    1. They are jointed up the ConDem govt created Joint Forces Command

  2. You are wrong, half of the info on the British Army is still missing from the Army 2020 plan.

    And there is a gap with D Squadron HCR no longer in the picture. The Royal Marines have armoured Support. Why must 16 AA lack it?

    Cuts are great?

  3. “The Army 2020 ORBAT is an internal document drawn up by experts based on the tasks required of the Army.” – I knew experts would be in here somewhere – which branch of Woolworths did they get their crystal balls from?

    “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.” – MOD has gone very quiet lately on the question of the 30k reservists I wonder what happened there?

    “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.” – These sound like weasel words – lol.

    “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” – I have no self-interest in, nor do many of the people who write and protest about these cuts. Our only concern is the defence of the United Kingdom and as our “Dear Leaders” don’t seem to know what our defence policy is then the whole thing becomes a “buggers muddle”

    “If you want to have a globally deployable military these days, then you need to accept this comes at a very large cost” – Exactly! – you get what you pay for – If you don’t have the aircraft then the parachutist can’t jump out of them – so you get rid of the parachutist instead of purchasing the aircraft.

    And so life goes on as we slowly sink below the horizon of reality.

    1. yes Sir H seems to agree with ever defence move that is made under this government.

      To use his argument, there hasn't been a carrier war since WWII, let's cancel the carriers then!

    2. Hi anonymous - I'm wondering if you are the same 'chap who runs a twitter page that you've blocked me from following despite slagging me off on it, and also a webblog that attacks this site too. The constant sniping, poor language and desire to attack seems pretty standard for that poster.

  4. @Sir Humphrey
    The Telegraph is well known for publishing inaccurate and sensationalist articles on defence issues, but if they annoy you so much instead of just posting a piece on your blog about it, why don't you email the defence correspondent who wrote the article and raise the points made in your piece?
    Surprisingly it does sometimes work, I emailed a well known US defence site a while back after they posted an idiotic piece on the Falkland's defence equation, and they edited the article to include the points I had made and they have not published anything on that subject since! It can be a bit like whack-a-mole, but it's worth doing, because if they continue to write nonsense at least you know they are doing it deliberately and not from ignorance.
    You would probably be wasting your time with the Telegraph though, as they have a long track record.

    1. HI Anonymous, I've long realised that the idea of accuracy in Defence Reporting is unlikely to happen. Too many editors have clear ideas about how to spin a story in favour of a wider agenda, and the story 'routine reorganisation of British Army' is unlikely to get column space. Unless its doom and gloom it won't be published - remonstrating is a complete waste of time!

    2. It is sometime accurate unlike your rumours.

    3. @Sir H,
      The tabloids of course and even the so-called quality press are probably a waste of time.
      However some aviation or navy mags are just as bad with their bias towards one service or the other.
      (Just to be clear I am the Anonymous who posted on the 25th 21:22, not the above comment)


  5. Hi Sir H. Not sure I agree with you here. One of the interesting things about Army 2020 is the number of half-strength infantry units (20 out of 31 battalions are 'adaptive') created. For those who don't know, companies in adaptive battalions will be only 2 platoons and they will be light on support weapons for example. They will need extensive backfilling and training before they can be used, which is OK if you have the time to do that. The army has therefore weakened its rapid response units (12 infantry battalions in 3 brigades in 2008 to only 5 battalions in 2 brigades today) to create these half strength units.

    To my mind this is a big risk, because what happens if you suddenly and quickly need more substantial light forces (the Falklands conflict required the deployment of 8 infantry battalions for example)? We will either not have the capability or we are suddenly going to have to pair unfamiliar units together - I know the army can do it but the risk does rise....

    The above text I know concentrated on infantry units but the same can be argued across the board with artillery or logistics units for example. Another way Army 2020 could have done it was to reduce the numbers of units but strengthen those that remained so that if another Falklands arose, we would be better prepared. So for example reduce the number of infantry battalions to 23 with all of them at something closer to WFE.

    1. They will be apparently backed up by the Reserve units they are paired up with.

      The Adaptable Force is a broken force with no clear indication which two units are multi-role. Those in 7 are rotated to Cyprus most of the time and there are non Scottish units in 51 and Scottish unit in 38 Irish!

    2. As a former soldier (Italian Army), I cannot help but be concerned about the adaptable force infantry battalions. Common cap badges between active and reserve components can and do help, but true unit cohesion takes much time and shared effort. Forget about shipping a random light infantry battalion to a war zone or peacekeeping operation overnight. Which is fine if you have a crystall ball to foresee the future with. Who could've foreseen the Fslklands war in late 1981, oroperatoons in Afghanistan in early 2001?

      This leads us to another issue:lack of building blocks will make it far harder to organize the "Brigade ++" deployments seen in Afghanistan. The British Army will have less ability to organize a Brigade + deployment, sustain it for a while and later on replace it with a Brigade or Brigade- unit. There will be too few assets to go around. Still, the UK will still own more deployable assets than any other European country, which is worrying. The West is not done with contingency operations, or worse.

    3. Hi there,
      I agree there is a natural concern that the adaptive force has less in the ORBAT than the reaction force. But, if we accept that Falklands style contingencies are exceptionally unlikely, and the premise that there is only a finite force level that can be supported (roughly brigade level), then we look to time as the main driver. The time required to rustle up reinforcements to the adaptive force is going to sit nicely in line with the roulement time - e.g. force goes in early, you spend 6-12 months using reaction force, then rely on adaptive force at 12 months plus to go in as follow on. This is plenty of time to generate and work up a force, when in reality there is little likelihood of any Brigade sized deployments of this nature for many years to come - the desire to do so just isn't there any more.

    4. It is still an empty force.

      Exactly which defence reform dont you agree with?

    5. I hear what you are saying Sir H, but the reaction forces you are talking about are heavy weight formations which have a very different role from the Para's and Marines. What happens if you need more than 5 rapid reaction battalions immediately - you aren't going to get 12 months to generate your force.

      I actually can't think of another army that uses the reactive/adaptive model - maybe the Germans in the Cold War but that's it. Every other force I can think of; US, French, Italians, Spanish, Dutch, Canadians, Australians, Germans etc prefer to have fewer units at full strength. We don't necessarily have to do what everyone else does of course, but it is easy to see that other armies don't have the issues we will have if coherent, trained units are immediately required.

    6. Hi anonymous

      Thanks for your comment - while I appreciate your point about 5 rapid reaction forces being deployed, lets look again at the SDSR assumptions. They clearly work to a 30,000 'best effort' across all three services. Thats the reality of our maximum deployment nowadays and can only be done if we stop all other deployments, and is done at significant risk to regeneration.

      The UK took a concious decision to reduce what it could sustainably deploy for major efforts after the SDSR, continuing a process begun in the SDR. So, in reality the chances of the UK being able to support more than 5 forces immediately is close to zero - but then again this still represents a more potent deployable force than any other nation outside the US.
      So, its easy to say 'what if we need more' but I'd argue that we have no ability to deploy more anyway - this is in essence a reality measure.

      Also, don't forget the wider supporting elements are going to be stretched by a major deployment - sticking an ARG or airlift into a theatre is going to be a major drag on regeneration for other efforts - so even if the troops existed, the other equipment and assets may not.

      Finally, lets be realistic about when the UK has had to do back to back force generation at such levels in the last 50 years or so - arguably this hasn't been an issue and while we should never be cocky, we should plan on assumption its highly unlikely to occur without wider global situation changing significantly too.

  6. As we remember the advent of the First World war, we should reflect that the glorious military success of the 19th century was no match for the new realities of the 20th century and we had to adapt very quickly. Likewise the new revised and flexible forces which saw success in the Second World War proved less appropriate for the problems of Afghanistan.
    It's not just the money, it's the colour of the enemy and trying to retaliate against the unknown is fruitless by definition. The only constant is opposition to change. Any change, and it is a safe bet to assert that change is bad. There's a lot of mileage in that, but no sales of newspapers occur because of good news. Those successes will be small, but frequent, and ultimately accomplish the sort of change which is beneficial.
    The other newspaper article which caught my eye the other day (Daily Mail 24th May!!), concerned an Admiral Lister complaining about lack of money causing the Navy to fail on operations. I don't know whether he went on to describe how the Navy was going to tackle these problems or was just bemoaning his lot. If the latter, he shouldn't be an Admiral.
    He was an Engineer too, which saddened me in particular.

    1. Hi Derek,
      Thanks for your comment.
      The Admiral Lister article is interesting - my sense was that it was a wider article on challenges of support for a professional publication, not a cheap shot at Govt policy, but I'd need to look at it in more depth before I could comment.

  7. Whilst i agree Army 2020 has little need or room for an over-sized 16th Air Assault Brigade of 8,000 people with all the bells and whistles it has up until now enjoyed i still worry about such a drastic reduction in size and capability. The rule of 3 for generating a cycle of high-readiness-training-recovery is one that most other formations still seem to follow, so how can only 2 parachute battalions deliver the same levels of availability?

    Id be far happier with the overall plan if it included bringing 1 Para back into the fold to provide 3 maneuver formations.

    I think their is a future for the Parachute Regiment but it's one that has to increasingly shed itself of the airborne image and instead focus on what it has actually become which is essentially a high-quality, highly reactive 'kick in the door' capability.

    1. 1 PARA is unfortunately needed for the SFSG. I wouln't trust the RAF Regiment to handle that role.

      Yes 16 AA is puny compared to the Royal Marines (which may have seen cuts too). 3 Commando boasts 3 Battalions, another intel/support unit, Engineer battalion, artillery and assault units.

    2. Why can't another infantry battalion be made into the SFSG so that 1 PARA can be reformed as the 3rd 16 AA formation?

      The adaptable force will have plenty of battalions under it's command, any one of which could be used for the role. It can be done, it just won't be through a combination of service politics and a lack of commitment when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is in terms of matching intent with the money and manpower needed to implement it.

      The post Herrick armed forces are supposed to be all about conducting small, sharp engagements with a light footprint and an emphasis on expeditionary 'strategic raiding' capabilities. So surely from the Army's point of view 16 AA should be at the top of it's list of priorities?

    3. 1 PARA is the closest to UKSF so they match perfectly well for the SFSG role.

  8. "but the reality is that an Army of 100,000 is unaffordable given current personnel costs and something has to give."

    I'm afraid much of your argument here, and elsewhere, is diluted because, like MoD, you refuse to address the huge waste that continues to be the norm. For example, Nimrod MRA4. That one example was around £4-5 Billion. Why should Army, RN or RAF numbers "have to give" because of the incompetence of Ministers and senior staffs? I'd rather get rid of those who wasted the money, promote those who don't; and then consider what the real budget looks like before making deeper cuts. The cuts we see now are a knee-jerk reaction whose main aim is to conceal failures.

    As for "cap badge mafia", there is no doubt it exists and, in my experience, 16AAB has actually suffered more directly than many. In late 2003 a key element was deployed with essential kit loaned from one company, and other kit gifted by another. The GOC later called the former "the system of choice in AFG" at a press briefing, only to be pulled to one side by an aide and told, err, we haven't actually bought it boss, some Arty staff officers refused to sanction it for 16AAB, so some civvy did the business and begged it off the company on long term (free) loan".

    Always two sides the story.

    1. This is just the usual magical thinking. Sacking a few politicians, senior officers and civil servants isn’t going to bring a single pound of that that £4-5 billion back.

    2. Hi Anonymous
      The problem with saying 'sack people' is that it doesnt really solve the root problem that an army of 100,000 on current salary scales and planned defence budgets is simply not affordable.
      The UK military is very well paid, but that comes at an enormous price, and arguably results in choices being made between equipment force structure, or unit structure - do you keep sufficient personnel to equip a Ship, or do you equip an Armoured Regiment?
      Both the RN and the RAF are lean organisations, but the Army has managed to avoid the worst of the cuts for many years due to TELIC and HERRICK. The reality now though is that with a clear political decision taken that a force of roughly 8000 troops overseas is the most likely enduring effort, the affordability of more troops and equipment than required is called into question.

      Finally, on the issue of 'incompetent senior staffs' - its a classic 'blame game, but the challenges associated with it owe much to an overheated equipment programme filled with a lack of realism, the need to bring together multiple programmes at the same time and the reluctance to make cuts to actually cancel projects at a political level. The truth was that there was a £38bn black hole, that the EP was unaffordable and that when combined with the likely salary costs, something had to give.

      As for the 16AA example of 'borrowed kit', I could equally point to the emergence of a UOR system which was incredibly responsive to the needs of the units deployed - it was very rare to see requests being rejected unless they were clearly not urgent or operationally specific.

    3. UOR's are fine but add more to the woes of the Treasury-Defence battle over the budget. Simply accepting all cuts is not the way to go.

      How about a balance of nuclear-conventional firepower/strength.

  9. 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.

    That isn't "less but more capable". That's just "less". Also, if we've managed to go from (50-odd * 4) old turboprop engines to (20-odd * 4) modern ones and get lower serviceability, we may as well give up.

    1. Exactly. How much less is enough to face the uncertain? We keep enough nuclear weapons for the uncertain but not enough conventional forces for the uncertain?

  10. 16 Air Assault Bde has always been a bit of an odd duck - I suspect that when the decision was made to do away with 5 Airborne Bde and 24 AIRMOBILE Bde, the larger-than-average 16 Air Asslt Bde was a compromise to avoid removing a complete brigade. The changes now arguably finish what happened in the late 90s - two specialised brigades drop down to just one. 16 Air Asslt Bde's biggest strength has been that it's a formation held and trained at higher readiness on average than others. Some of the more specialised kit - Land Rover WMIKs, for example - have been proliferating out into the light infantry and the commandos since the deployment to Sierra Leone, and I suspect some of the activities 16 Air Asslt Bde have been doing will be swept up into the new Light Cav formations.

    There's no escaping the fact that the political decision has been made - the Army will reduce in scope and size, and manpower in the regulars will go as a result. Only a change in the political decision will change that - assuming that the money can be found to fund it - and I don't see much appetite to cut money from other departments to fund the MOD. I can only imagine how much worse the screaming would've been if the MOD hadn't been protected from the higher level of cuts other departments have taken.

  11. If we really need to, can we not just move regular infantry companies into the deploying battalions until such time as the reserve infantry battalions reach full strength?

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