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Reform of The Thin Khaki Line

british military uniform
Written by Adrian Hill

Not for a second would one presume to tell our generals how to fight. I will maintain – after experience of large wars – that small battalions with three low strength companies are wholly inadequate to cope with the strains and stresses of daily combat against a dangerous and experienced military power. We must think again: about using reserves properly, constantly renewing technology, and preparing for the unexpected.

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Why does our country need an Army that can destroy any foe in any terrain and climate? Because such a versatile army probably won’t have to fight a war, or at least, not for very long. One finds this principle among the records of the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty of ancient China. The Romans explained it with five words – Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you wish peace, prepare for war. Today we use a single rather dry word – deterrence.

Until the early 1960s we had National Service. While good for disciplining the nation’s male youth, its huge training burden devoured the Army. Today we face a similar watershed. British governments got away with several crises because the Armed Forces still had the strength in depth demanded by NATO for the Cold War. That redundancy provided the numbers to cope with the NATO Central Front, Northern Ireland and Confrontation with Indonesia – and later the South Atlantic War – all at the same time.

Since then Tony Blair went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan while his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, continued with peacetime funding of the Armed Forces. Further drastic cuts were inflicted by the governments that followed – who threw more jobs at our forces when those they already faced were unsustainable.

Where Next?

For all the money spent on satellites and spies, despite the recent craze for nerds and weirdoes, few great crises are forecast. Where’s the next? We don’t know. What other known knowns are there?

Before the wall came down West Germany provided a dozen strong armoured and mechanised infantry divisions with two thousand tanks supported by a large air force to help defend NATO’s central front. According to Der Spiegel nowadays barely a few dozen tanks are roadworthy. One can be forgiven for concluding Angela Merkel has quietly disarmed. Perhaps she can explain who will defend Europe – Germany can’t – has she done a private deal with Putin…has she asked France?

The new occupant of the White House must come to terms with this increasingly changed and volatile continent. Eurozone countries bound to Germany are indirectly commercially linked with Russia and China – Germany looks to Russia for its gas and China to replace its exports to the UK. Massive direct investment from France and Germany helps Russia diversify an economy focussed on extracting natural raw materials – and Putin’s government to stay in power. The EU led by Germany has just signed an investment agreement with China.

Against this unsettled and fluid background does this EU takeover bid for the command role in Europe make NATO obsolete? We don’t know but the alliance’s future looks open to question? David Lidington, ardent former Europe Minister, along with former senior British diplomats and even some senior officers already promotes the idea that we should employ defence and NATO as our main channel back into European councils.

The Americans conclude that in a smaller army the divisions must become more versatile, able to cope with all kinds of hostile forces, able to do this anywhere in every climate. Pharaoh’s chariots drowned while pursuing Moses who was on foot. I would add become more strategically mobile as well. Such a common sense strategy demands that we constantly improve our ability to train soldiers in all manner of climates and ground. Demands that we think smaller tanks and swarms of drones backed by lots of air mobiity.

And also demands that we restore naval and air forces capable of supporting them globally against first class powers and if needs, just like the Cold War, sustain our strength for decades. Better armed deterrence than mutual extermination.

All of which demands the diplomatic and intelligence assets to know what is going on – preferably before the muck hits the fan.

Those Big Battalions

For most of the last century British infantry battalions were about 1000 strong reflecting a tried and tested structure from two world wars and garrison service in many lands throughout the Commonwealth and Empire. The same formula that brought the infantry through the advance, retreat and advance in August 1914 served just as well nearly 40 years later when similar huge pendulum swings were also followed by trench stalemate right across the Korean peninsular. After the Korean War infantry doctrine focussed largely on the NATO Central Front and supporting the Royal Armoured Corps in countering the threat from Group Soviet Forces Germany. Anyone who saw the Green Jackets demonstration infantry platoon give their firepower demonstration in 1959 remembers the din and impact shocks to this day. Yet our infantry battalions also performed low intensity duties in many places. Several were flown to support the civil power on the island of Cyprus during Christmas 1963 – two still serve there nearly sixty years later as part of the UN peace-keeping force. Many infantry battalions served in the Far East where we provided a brigade for the SEATO Alliance, nine-thousand infantry served in the jungle every day for three years protecting Brunei and modern Malaysia from Indonesia. Not so long ago we garrisoned Hong Kong.

With four rifle companies of four platoons each forty strong and plenty of support weapons – these were powerful formations able to take and inflict punishment. In April 1951 eight hundred men of the Gloucestershire Regiment held a hill for three days, repeatedly driving off attacks by elements of the 63rd Chinese Army – a heroic feat that allowed the rest of 29 Commonwealth Brigade and flanking UN Forces to withdraw behind the Imjin River. What’s more the Glosters fought with the old bolt action Lee Enfield rifles. Before the battle the Chinese 63rd Army consisted of 27,000 men in three divisions and 29 Brigade was about 4000 strong with four battalions ( one was Belgian ) plus armour and artillery. The brigade lost over 1000 men – mostly captured on Gloster Hill – but the 63rd Chinese Army suffered 10,000 killed before they were pulled from the line.

Outside the Box

Raising enough soldiers for dangerous times requires mental reversal of the last seventy years. Despite stalwart performances from Army Volunteer Reserve soldiers as individuals or formed companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the leadership of the Army still looks upon the AVR as second class citizens. The scandal over slashing training for the AVR to divert £ 20 millions towards regular recruit training remains damning evidence that recent senior leadership seems no wiser than its predecessors. The present CDS, a general, has suspended naval reserve training to save £ 7 millions! Generals must learn to change before the Army will change. So long as senior officers look upon Army Volunteer Reserve soldiers as last resort single replacements – instead of a volunteer reserve that provides a pool of formed units ready for combat, the rest of the Army will not change either.

Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, touched on this during a recent RUSI web event, when talking about recruiting and the future Army. I hope he will go further; the regular Army should become the core of a much larger volunteer reserve. Our professional soldiers of the future should concentrate on command and leadership, strategy and logistics, also specialist duties such as helicopter pilots and main battle tank crews, the jobs which require intensive training. Yes, we need a professional ‘ go anywhere at no warning ’ force or fire brigade as we called it sixty years ago. Equally we need command, logistic and training structures to expand into a much larger army in an emergency thereby opening the way for a national effort on defence. That also gives us the golden key – an ability to train other people’s armies in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Around half our professionals must be ready to carry out ‘ go anywhere at no warning ’ military operations – tasks performed as standing formations such as 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade. These formations, with combat ready AVR formed units added, could provide strategically and tactically agile small divisions. There is a tried and battle tested model.

Airborne soldiers joked in 1943 that if you wanted to find the old pre-war peacetime Army, start at Bulford Camp beside Salisbury Plain. The air landing brigade was the strong point and heavy punch of the airborne division, its strength being almost equal to that of the division’s two parachute brigades combined. Its infantry battalions were the “most heavily armed in the British Army.” Each air landing battalion had an establishment of 1034 men, serving in four rifle companies, a support company and a headquarters company. Straight away we have Liddell-Hart’s thumb and four fingers. A rifle company had four rifle platoons, the support company had six: two anti-tank platoons with four guns in each, two mortar platoons with twelve mortars between them, and two Vickers machine gun platoons with four of the big calibre guns in each platoon. The headquarters company had signals, assault pioneer, transport and administration platoons.

Regular formations normally spend weeks on intensive training before venturing into a combat zone. There used to be a Northern Ireland village like a film set on the shingle beach near Hythe. The best pool of potential volunteer reserve soldiers is the Army itself and one idea raised by Ben Wallace is to allow personnel to move from full-time to part-time or the reverse. When I was a Para sapper the TA was regarded by the Regular Army as its best recruiter. Even the parachute instructors at RAF Abingdon put in a good word for the regular army! Only the government can create the conditions which would allow employers to release young people for intensive training when an emergency deployment becomes probable. Operational deployments require full time training and preparation before an Army Volunteer Rerserve soldier or formed unit becomes battle ready. On the other hand, troops are required for garrison duties in places such as the Falkland Islands, places where one must stay alert. Such exposed garrison tasks could provide AVR formations with experience and operational training. Through a gradual though planned change of emphasis the present line formations, in other words the majority, should convert to become AVR. This would allow the Army to cope with long haul campaigns and build in some redundancy without an enormous increase to its manpower costs.

Selection and Training

Ideally AVR recruit soldiers ought to complete the same basic training as regulars before acceptance by their voluntary reserve unit. Young people employed by business and industry who are keen to serve part-time, moreover willing to reach that professional level of training and fitness, need the government to make it contractually and financially possible. To give an idea of what’s involved at present AVR candidates must complete a twelve day infantry course before they may volunteer for airborne forces selection. During a period of twelve weeks they next must spend six weekends bringing their fitness and stamina up to the level required for selection tests that take place over four days. Compare this with regular army volunteers who spend six weeks completing basic training, another eight weeks preparing for selection tests that last a further week. Regulars are fitter and better prepared so the reserve volunteers need much more determination to pass selection. Those who are successful go on to parachute training – three weeks for a regular, two weeks for a reservist. As one can see, our volunteer reservists must do a great amount of preparatory fitness training – far more than any regular recruit does in their own time – before they begin six weekends of fitness training. I confess to avoiding such obvious clashes of interest – I volunteered while still a teenager at school though took the precaution of giving my occupation as student in case I was sent home! As a regular young officer in the Royal Engineers I spent a great deal of my spare time with the Army Physical Training Corps instructors playing basket ball and circuit training with weights – those were the days, I really was super fit!

Called up for active service, AVR formations still cost less than regulars. When not on operational tours, however, they cost only the sums required for a volunteer reserve formation – much less than regular soldiers – for they do not require housing and feeding, nor do their dependents, nor need MOD to provide schools for their offspring. An operational tour finished, AVR soldiers return to their homes, families, jobs and contribute to the nation’s wealth. The present AVR is 33,000 strong, its budget £ 350 millions a year. Leaving aside equipment, an AVR with a strength of 100,000 would require a budget of roughly £ 1 billion a year and one 200,000 strong, at least double that sum. As our target I think a professional core around 60,000 strong backed by an AVR around 100,000 strong is the attainable first stage zone we should be looking towards. At least that would bring us close to Liddell-Hart’s 165,000 strong army fielding six-and-a-half old style divisions re-organised as a dozen smaller strategically and tactically mobile ones.

Before this suggestion is ridiculed by armchair generals let me remind that two armies still employ this system with conscripts. I’ve had a bit to do with both. One fields nine strong brigades, each of eight infantry and armoured units of battalion size with reconnaissance, supporting artillery, engineers, signals and logistics and has far more tanks in working order than the German Army just up the road. The other fields no less than twenty-four armoured brigades, ten infantry brigades and two parachute brigades organised in over a dozen divisions. The first has not fought a war for more than 180 years but manages to keep its 200,000 troops fully trained with 4,000 regular officers and NCOs as an instructor corps. The second has fought three major wars and although vastly outnumbered by its opponents, never suffered a defeat. They have populations of 8 millions and 9 millions respectively. The first has a GDP almost double the second’s. They are Switzerland and Israel.

Volunteer reservists bring more than just themselves. They bring an attitude, an approach when tackling challenges and tasks. They bring their knowledge, experience and imagination. Suppose the retired doctors and hospital staff had been invited to organise themselves as a reserve reinforcement of the NHS. Would they have sent each other fifty question forms? No. Would they have created a mammoth bureaucracy? No. Would they have tackled the task centrally? No. Would they would have worked locally – because they all know each other and have worked together for years. Yes. Would they would asked the local NHS surgeries and hospitals how they could help. Yes. There might have been some form of national council but only so nobody doubled the effort and squared the error, to quote a late friend from Vietnam days, Sir Robert Thompson of Malaya fame.

Switching from all regulars to many more AVR formations requires a phased programme over several years. Changes in the Law will be needed but much has been done already because of the need for comparatively small numbers of AVR soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reduction in the regular pay roll would allow the Army once more to create large combat formations while affording a better funded equipment programme.


Such an expansion of combat and support formations would allow the Army to also restore lost capabilities. For a start corps and divisional headquarters should be restored and thereby the ability to mount large scale operations. The present six divisions on the order of battle would become real formations rather than administration headquarters bearing famous numbers and names. Major armoured formations of brigade size could once again join the battle line and preserve a hard won expertise. Common sense suggests that apart from its tank crews and helicopter air and ground crews, our new army should field largely AVR formations. Professional officers and soldiers at last would benefit from a proper career structure – at present we are close to melt down in all three armed services – and consequently far fewer experienced middle rank professional officers and NCOs would leave the colours. Nor would their families suffer repeated separations during far off and all too frequent operational tours.

An early priority and bonus is releasing the 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade from line duties and holding them as strategic and tactical reserves. Elite formations are loathed and envied by the rest of the Army. Generals complain how they grab the best officers and NCOs although invariably think of them first when despatching troops for the tougher jobs such as taming Helmand. That nearly always happens but it’s not always the way to employ such troops. Helmand probably needed two brigades plus the Airborne or the Commando Brigade as the original strike force and then reserve – commanded by a divisional headquarters. This force, of course, would have required many more helicopters; fortunately the latter arrived with a US Marine Corps brigade. Afghanistan operations at their peak level required three large brigades – one fighting, one training, one resting – for a single brigade in the combat zone. The training brigade would need to work up full time for three or four months so an AVR solution would provide three strong brigades for the cost of one-and-a-half professional brigades. In other words half price. Moreover, increased manpower allows a shift to much stronger battalions, thus a further move towards small divisions, formations capable of developing more than a single manoeuvre at a time.

Small divisions allow us to design formations around the operational task. For planning I think we should allow that apart from a headquarters such divisions would include a reconnaissance regiment, and depending on the operational task, at least four or five combat units – meaning armoured regiments or infantry battalions. The traditional ratio has merit – one armoured unit to four infantry units or vice versa. Basil Liddell-Hart was a protagonist of the thumb and fingers system – namely that an infantry battalion resembled the human hand, the support weapons company provides the thumb for the rifle companies’ four fingers. Likewise a brigade’s four infantry battalions were the fingers for the armoured regiment thumb. This argument was tested by the US Army many years ago with a Pentomic division where all units were broken down into five manoeuvre parts and formed into a small division of five battle groups. Later BAOR led by that brilliant mind, Frank Kitson, adopted a similar concept for the armoured division during the 1980s. Eventually conservatism won with a reversion to evenly hedged bets but modern communications make the five concept worth another look. Perhaps combinations of six or seven or eight manoeuvre units are easier to command because five units demands the most mental agility from the division commander?!

Speed and Firepower

Lightweight tanks that can put on a suit of armour are worthy of separate article. The British Scorpion tank was made partly from aluminium and its footprint less than an infantry soldier’s. Scorpions could cross boggy ground in the Falklands easier than paras and commandos. The Americans had a strategically mobile tank forty years ago. The idea was promoted by Ivan Barr and his AAI Corporation. The prototype was tested at the Carlisle proving ground and weighed 17 tons when fully armoured and armed with a multi-purpose 75mm gun. Today that small and speedy tank would travel with its own squadron of drones to hunt down bigger, tougher, heavier rivals. Such lightweight armour is able to leap frog from one continent to another with on board strategic transport aircraft. So long as its parent formation – brigade or division – has a proper and integral force of heavy lift choppers, lightweight armour can move across the battlefield at astonishing speed.

Moses would have bought lots.

Presently our brigades field a regiment of light guns with three batteries. Small divisions require a regiment of light guns with four or five batteries depending on the number of battle groups within each division. However, adding a regiment of medium guns places the division in the premier league, along with rockets or heavy guns if required. We give the division a much longer reach ( near enough 15 – 20 miles. ) and make it less dependent on helicopter gun-ships and strike fighters. In other words, the division has its own thumb for its armoured and infantry fingers. Remember that during the Cold War the Army had atomic weapons – heavy 8 inch guns could fire nuclear rounds and the Honest John rocket, range 17 miles, was another battlefield nuclear weapon. The US Airborne even had a man portable weapon – a rocket named Davy Crockett – with a range of 1 to 2.5 miles and a 20 kiloton warhead! Pull the string and run like hares?

Air defence is not important for Afghanistan but was for both Gulf Wars and paramount during the Falklands War. It could prove essential during a conflict with a third world country equipped with modern strike aircraft and drones. Should circumstances demand, we must be ready to add a whole air defence regiment to our small division.

Allowing for a whole engineer regiment gives our division the capacity to absorb and move several battalion sized units. 16 Air Assault Brigade has a whole engineer regiment, largely for supporting the aviation battalions – by rapid building of hard standings and blast pens. Providing electric power has become a major headache as electronics reach down to squad level. Moreover, for colonial warfare where reconstruction is pivotal, there is no such thing as too many sappers. To obtain the most from the Royal Engineers’ requires drastic changes of attitude and approach at the highest political level.

Signals and intelligence and battlefield management are all intricately linked these days and the question arises whether intelligence, political and language functions should combine within a reconnaissance regiment or within a signals regiment. These are the kind of structural questions which simply have not risen over the horizon in the MOD nor is there any sign of them in the reams of material churned out by every military magazine under the sun. The US Army has taken a small move in this direction with special troops battalions but even this falls far short of creating an entirely new form of multi-task signals, cyber and IT plus humint through political and language skills regiment.

Logistics, technical support and medical units again should be structured so that the assets can be adapted to operational tasks.

Over the last decade computer game makers have widened their market sector by branching out into military training programmes. Some now make command training games for teaching squad, platoon and company leadership with a variety of missions where the players’ troops and the enemy react through Artificial Intelligence. The hostiles can be changed from uniformed troops to irregulars in civilian clothes or a variety of mixtures of both. Battles are fought by day or night, rain and fog, snow or desert heat. This is all fine for saving money and the students enjoy the computer game training. However, thorough studies show that if you let AI take decisions on the battlefield, your casualties soon become horrendous. What’s more, human control results in far more casualties for your opponents. So bad news for nerds and weirdoes’; one doesn’t foresee AI taking over from young officers and NCOs for quite a while – not for nothing does David Omand, former Director of GCHQ describe AI as machine-thinking.

One can foresee AI making support weapons far more accurate, therefore more lethal, while at the same time, less greedy for ammunition. Drones are used by all sides in Syria. Not just for scouting and surveillance but as flying bombs. They are capable of searching a house and self-destructing if the drone finds hostile occupants. One foresees low flying drones – difficult to shoot down – scouting ahead while reporting to other drones flying high above the battlefield, further back from the contact zone or both. The controller drones would relay target information to mortar rounds while they’re still in flight to ensure direct hits on defensive positions or human targets and even control the radius of the kill zone’s blast and splinters. The same technology would serve anti-tank missiles and supporting artillery. Drones may also permit ground troops to deploy with surface launched versions of the Brimstone missile. Target information from higher flying drones could be fed into the missile before launch and during flight – which allows the Brimstone to attack moving targets with considerable precision. Brimstone weighs about one-hundred pounds so we’re probably talking about a battalion support weapon with its launcher mounted on a vehicle or large flying drone and once launched find itself passed to a platoon forward observer for guiding over its final stretch onto the target.

Fingers on Triggers

As for manpower numbers this suggests that to gain the maximum benefit from today’s constantly improving technology the platoon commander needs some well trained experts close at hand. I would suggest that the platoon Forward Observer requires an assistant who controls and monitors the drones. If the drones can over-ride the control of an airstrike by airborne fighters or helicopters, the FO might want to take over from his number two. Therefore it seems wiser to let the FO concentrate on manned flying machines while his assistant keeps control of the drones – bear in mind that other platoons and companies are going to have drones buzzing about. The FO and assistant will need to become experts in cyber warfare. Hostile drones will require jamming and friendly drones will need firewalls. As regards recruiting suitable manpower for this new form of warfare the Army needs to sell its adventurous way of life to lots of healthy young nerds. The training machine will make them smart, disciplined – though not too much – fit and toughen them up.

Platoon HQ begins to take shape. The platoon commander with the platoon sergeant and signaller – RTO in the US Army, the FO and his assistant form its command team. What about the support weapons? Certainly AI will impact on the choice of platoon direct fire weapons. Ideally, the platoon requires a single type of launcher capable of firing both dumb and smart rounds. By dumb rounds I mean rockets with cheap explosive war heads for destroying bunkers and simple strong points such as fortified houses. Smart rounds are those for knocking out AIVs and tanks though also replacements for rounds fired from mortars and grenade launchers. In other words, smart rounds that could replace the mortar bomb at long range and the air burst grenade at short range, both for attack and defence. Our platoon’s LMGs already are placed with the rifle sections.

At present the most well armed platoons on the planet serve with the US Marine Corps. Even so, their choice of direct fire weapons numbers no less than four possible rocket launchers and can require individual weapon crews up to three strong. That might raise the numbers in platoon HQ by another three and the addition of a medic ( corpsman ) would make four, bringing the total to nine. Complications with smart weapon launchers include battery life and different types of missiles requiring purpose designed sights. However, let us suppose that it becomes the norm for drones to feed hot data into the platoon’s launcher sights and control their smart rounds in flight. That would make possible engaging tanks without the need for a marksman to expose himself when taking aim by line of sight, nor firing from the same spot as the launcher. The support weapons squad would consist of a single direct fire weapon crew or two, possibly three crews directed by the FO and his assistant. At the same time all the platoon supporting fire weapons, including all mortars, rocket launchers and large calibre guns should be able to engage targets with old fashioned methods as well as via the latest technology, because all smart weapons depend on instant access to GPS. Before we advance to laser and micro-wave weapons, keep this thought in mind. One never knows, some bright spark might jam the satellites – my hunch, Galileo, instantly switched off.

This results in a much stronger infantry platoon for airmobile combat. The lack of riflemen in the modern US and UK squads is avoided. We’re much nearer the thirteen man squad that after a decade of fighting was found the ideal strength in Vietnam for airmobile warfare and sustained combat. Our platoon can take casualties without losing its tactical flexibility. The rifle sections have plenty of firepower with their LMGs though can call on direct fire weapons from the support weapons section. The platoon has a full strength of fifty with two direct fire crews, fifty-three if a third direct fire crew is added. However, if the rifle sections are reduced from thirteen to eleven men, thus a platoon strength of forty-four, the rifle sections are still capable of fire and movement. Reducing the rifle sections to nine may mean that you only need thirty-eight men for your platoon but a single fire fight could rob the rifle sections of their ability to carry out fire and movement. Stamina wins battles.

The Infantry Company

Larger platoons allow greater dispersal at company level on the battlefield. Not only does that demand highly improved communications but much greater leadership qualities among the junior leaders and young officers. Training of all ranks must cover such mundane skills as map reading and calculating mortar and artillery ranges the old-fashioned way, otherwise losing the wifi and gps from enemy cyber attack could stop our modern warriors in their tracks. That said, given that our mechanised infantry are going to become more and more vulnerable during modern IT warfare – Russian drones and artillery wiped out a Ukrainian armoured regiment – we should concentrate on combined arms teams of airmobile tanks, infantry and artillery. Dispersal followed by rapid concentration followed by smart dispersal demands that our infantry company operates like a mini-battalion.

Over the last few years there has been steady migration of infantry support weapons. Some have gone forward, others further back. As debated, the LMG seems firmly established as a squad or section weapon, while at platoon level the mortar has been almost abandoned for shorter range and arguably less effective grenade launchers. Direct fire weapons intended against tanks but just as effective against bunkers and strong points have also usurped the mortar. Gone are the days when young officer cadets used make platoon attacks with covering fire from two-inch ( 60mm ) mortars. Nowadays guided missiles can be found on the shoulders of a rifle squad while the mortars are held at company or battalion level. I remember during a week with the 82nd Airborne Division back in the early eighties being astonished by the Dragon guided ant-tank missile as a squad weapon. Even the modern Javelin missile is still quite a heavy and awkward load for a rifleman who has to keep up with his fellows over rough country.

Weapons for disabling tanks and destroying strong points are better placed with the platoon as a weapons squad – unless the intention is to engage at long range – 2,000 to 4,000 metres – when they should be regarded as company or battalion weapons. Likewise, mortars that have a calibre of 81mm or more are regarded as battalion weapons, not company, given that their range is about 5,500 metres. This is better reach than the old 4.2 inch mortar used in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam by the Americans, British and Commonwealth troops. If you placed your mortars under the control of four company commanders anyone of them can attack targets three or four miles away. As their range increased so the rank needed to command them rose. The fire plan would need a lot of radio chatter. Today, to control mortars, you have to command a battalion or at least its support company. Heaven knows who would command Davy Crockett’s string today – the CGS? At this point I hope it’s become obvious why the Five Eyes partners should all use the same GPS system to support each other’s forces, starting with accurate position reporting and friendly fire.

Hidden Benefits

Recruiting is costly. One CO of the Army recruit school told me that during a good year they screened over 70,000 applicants to find 14,000 suitable candidates for basic training as regular soldiers. I’m glad the Army can pick whom they want but sieving through the children of modern education in Britain is a demanding task. The quality of AVR recruits tends to be higher since most applicants are fairly well educated people with good jobs who want to satisfy a sense of adventure by doing something useful though completely different from their daily work. Many bring civilian skills and experience of considerable value to a modern army. The Swiss Army places IT specialists in its signals battalions and their command structure as a matter of common sense. Although it has not fought a war for 160 years the Swiss are clever people and take their army very seriously. Over recent years it has halved in size; but the Swiss Army still runs through a very few professionals organising 50 times their own number of conscript and part time officers, NCOs and soldiers. Our intelligence effort should employ AVR teams with the languages and analytical talents needed in the modern combat zone.

In times of high unemployment there is a tendency to recruit both regulars and reservists at the Job Centre but normally AVR recruiting holds up very well providing the government of the day is seen as supportive for the long haul. During the 1950s many former soldiers joined the TA and my hunch is that would happen today should we triple the volunteer reserves. Take one example. The Special Air Service was reformed after the war through raising a TA regiment based on the Artist’s Rifles in London. This regiment preserved the numbers 1 and 2 of the wartime SAS regiments as 21 SAS. During the Malayan Emergency enough volunteers from 21 SAS ( TA ) were willing to serve as a new regular unit called 22 SAS, the only time this has been done and the parent remains the AVR regiment. Later my old friend Colonel John Waddy raised 23 SAS ( TA ) – a new, third SAS regiment based around Birmingham.

Another example from those post war days was 44 Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Johnnie Frost of Arnhem fame. Throughout the brigade most officers and NCOs were veterans of Bruneval, North Africa, Sicily, D Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. One sapper in our Para Engineer Squadron was a former German paratrooper, a veteran of their airborne assault on Crete! He still wore his Luftwaffe Fallschirmjaeger belt. The brigade had pathfinders, four parachute battalions, a Para artillery regiment, a whole Para engineer regiment, signals squadron, logistics company and Para field ambulance. The sappers, 131 Parachute Engineer Regiment, had been part of 16 Airborne Division TA before its reduction to the single 44 Parachute Brigade TA. However, the regiment was so well established that it survived intact and at more than 1000 strong, many of us regular reservists, and became the largest unit drawing Para pay and annual bounty in the whole Army. In theory we supported the infantry but had the brigade been dropped in Denmark or Germany, the Parachute Regiment infantry might have found themselves supporting our sabotage forays. I think we all recognised that on the large canvass we were probably expendable!

All these units were recruited the length and breadth of the country – thus 10 Parachute Battalion represented London and the Home Counties,  12/13 Parachute Battalion were Yorkshire and Lancashire’s battalion while 15 Parachute Battalion were Scots and 17 Parachute Battalion were the Durham Light Infantry battalion. The gunners and sappers were recruited in the same way through batteries and squadrons with strong regional ties. Our headquarters was The Duke of York’s in Chelsea – nowadays sold by the government and turned into a largely deserted shopping mall. I would take it back through compulsory purchase.

Low Intensity Operations

Army planners have to forecast trouble spots while at the same time construct a new mix of fighting powers. Small intervention divisions should form a key part of this mix, particularly strong in engineer and reconstruction assets, intelligence, political, language and training assets. This strengthening should extend beyond division HQ and the reconnaissance regiment to the battalions where intelligence, political and language skills could be given a home in a new design reconnaissance company. When operations began in Helmand the arrival of 16 Air Assault Brigade could have been quickly followed by another brigade structured for modern ‘  low intensity warfare ‘ where insurgents and mercenaries nowadays often provide the hostiles. Such low intensity formations could also be designed to raise a much larger Afghan force – rather like the old Frontier Scouts, ultimately created for the local government – that fights alongside the expeditionary force so that gains of ground are consolidated and pacified.

To do this, however, requires that the Treasury ceases micro-management of the defence budget. Learn from those eighteenth century entrepreneurs and hand over more authority to commanders on the spot. For a start the commander on the spot should have enough funds to raise his own militia – scouts – possibly several thousand strong – and commission aid projects. Some of the latter should be taken away from civilians and handed back to the Royal Engineers by restoring the old work services branch. A rare few of us can still remember when two Sapper warrant officers would go off for a year and build a road in a highland part of Nepal or some other remote corner of the planet, managing the entire job, purchasing all the materials and hiring hundreds of local people.

The young Winston Churchill, aged 23 years, wrote a book about the fighting along the Durand Line a century back when the Raj decided to adopt a ‘ Forward Policy ‘ and moved into the tribal region between India and Afghanistan. The original plan was to control the passes such as the Khyber from a new line running from Kandahar through Jalalabad northwards on the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush Range. Opening moves were made by political officers who knew the tribes well and understood the personalities and politics. After two years, trade in the Swat Valley doubled. The losers, observed young Churchill, were the mullahs who saw their authority eroding over savage tribesmen engaged in permanent blood feuds, daily murdering each other and whose main asset was their women, by custom sold to the highest bidder. The Amir of Afghanistan also played political great games, seeking to strengthen his own position, if possible increase the Dane geld he pocketed from Delhi. The mullahs stirred up a great jihad against the infidels promising everything from the best celestial virgins to immunity from artillery shells. Thousands of tribesmen rallied to their banners. British outposts in the Swat valley were besieged. General Sir Bindon Blood and the Malakand Field Force hurried to their relief.

The old Indian Army formed brigades by building them around a single British battalion – adding three Indian battalions, cavalry, guns, supply and medical troops. In fact most local soldiers were about ten years older than their counterparts from the British Isles and thus far more experienced. Sir Bindon Blood first raised the siege of Fort Malakand, driving off large numbers of Pathans, then set about destroying their fortified villages and crops until the mullahs and local khans sued for peace. Churchill heard about the Malakand Campaign at Goodwood Race Course and set off at once – 7,000 miles by ship, train and horse – joining the force in time for its advance into the most hostile valley near the Afghan border. ( Dare I suggest steam power and the telegraph were almost greater revolutions than the jet aircraft and the world wide web. ) In those days it was not uncommon for officers to double as war correspondents and Churchill reported for the Daily Telegraph. Afterwards he turned his letters for the paper about his own combat experience, blended with all the accounts he heard, plus shrewd observations about the locals that stand the test of time, into a splendid book – which General David Petraeus kept handy on his bedside table.

As a young diplomat in my early twenties I was savvy enough to read the book and learn its lessons. One simple lesson was always drop by for a coffee with the CO of the Khyber Rifles when driving through the Khyber Pass and make clear you were going to see the Wali of Swat when approaching the Malakand Pass and that part of the North West Frontier Agency. There was a handy garage just beyond the turning off the Grand Trunk Road. Word travels fast among those mountains. While my left hand steered the car, my right kept busy returning friendly salutes from the local tribesmen.

US Special Forces have been quietly recruiting local militias. The only caveat I have is that such programmes should demand a commitment to keep Special Forces teams embedded with these militias for many years. Walk away too soon and you leave behind yet another group of bandits for hire by the highest bidder – Afghanistan recently had a president who accepted bags of cash from Iran’s envoys. Long haul involvement allows you time for weeding out the rotten apples, because there will be plenty. Talk about vetting Afghans is all very well. Until you’ve tried to establish the facts on the NW Frontier where most people cannot write their own names, birth certificates either don’t exist or are forged, where fake documents are a thriving industry, you have no idea how monumental a task any truth seeker faces. According to press reports this Special Forces programme was backed by a hefty $ 800 million budget and therefore the blessing of the Defence Secretary and the White House.

Why Strategic Intervention Forces Are so Important

Allied operations such as D Day and the huge wartime effort to create airborne forces and combined operations show the price paid when history goes wrong and tyrants rule on the planet. Far too much of the planet’s precious raw materials and energy are vulnerable to corrupt one party, one clique, and one person regimes. For the first time in two-hundred years the largest economy on the planet may not be a democracy.

While our democracies are engaged in a struggle for personal liberty until disregard for human rights at least becomes rare. Strong forces are not a favour to others but our own self-interest. Oppressed peoples cannot gain their human rights when the only help on offer is weasel words from lawyers turned politicians. We will not always find a compromise with our rivals. We have to manage conflicts. Sea power and air power are required and with sufficient strength and sustained political will, if necessary for years. Far better we maintain strong nuclear and conventional deterrence – look at the cost of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – than the alternatives of germ or nuclear warfare until mutual extinction.

The EU wants to set up an alternative to NATO. Let them, but make clear that a country cannot belong to both command structures. My hunch is that we are not going to fight tank and infantry battles on the Continent for the foreseeable future. My hunch is that Germany – or should I narrow that down to Angela Merkel and friends – want to create an EU command structure for European forces – with the ultimate aim of neutrality. Germany, effectively, has disarmed, so that France defends the EU with the Swedes in the Baltic and the Ukrainians on the Black Sea plus maybe the Turks although I wouldn’t count on them.

What would I do? Forget Tony Blair and winging liberals. Let’s deal with threats from the Continent on our terms, not keep an army in Germany for another forty-four years. Instead bring forward new technology weapons – rail guns and hypersonic flight, infra-red waves and lasers. Let’s hit any trouble causers, bully countries, from Britain and the sea with new technology strikes that deliver a modern version of Falaise Gap.

Why Is a National Effort on Defence so Important?

Britain enjoys a wonderful tradition of invention. Movies, radar, ASDIC, Spitfire, Merlin and jet engines, Mulberry Harbours, Pluto pipeline, the Fairy Delta first to beat a 1000 miles an hour, jump-jets, Concorde, Campbell’s speed boats, television, Tomo scanners, the world wide web and the Oxford vaccine only last year. Many inventions on this list only happened because we have a world class research base linked to our defence industries. The new fighter project, Tempest, will take our aircraft industry into the coming era when manned fighters may go into battle each with their own drone squadron as wingmen.

Britain suffers from a phenomenon whereby a visitor from Mars or Venus could be forgiven for presuming that large numbers of stupid people appear drawn towards a career in national or local politics. Other countries suffer from the same problem but somehow manage to create very efficient forms of damage control. Switzerland, where local government raises and spends most taxes, cleverly ensures that the ordinary people stay in local and national politics by giving the people authority over local and national decisions. There are too many lawyers but plenty of good businessmen enter politics. We don’t enjoy that luxury in the UK. Somehow we have to get that back – because wherever democracy flourishes, usually so do peace and prosperity.

The author is a former soldier and diplomat.

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Adrian Hill