Written by Adrian Hill
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This article was first published in Briefings for Brexit. We republish it with their kind permission.
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.
[To be continued with Part IV tomorrow]