Shift to medium weight forces
104. Delivering Security proposed the development
of a medium weight land capability, so that future land forces
would be able 'to deliver a decisive impact across the full spectrum
of operations'. Medium weight forces would 'increase our flexibility
in responding to crises' by providing 'a high level of deployability
(including by air) together with much greater levels of mobility
and protection than are currently available to light forces'.
105. The Army does not currently have a medium weight
capability and will not have until the proposed Future Rapid Effect
System (FRES) is introduced.
The generally quoted date for the introduction of the first FRES
vehicles has been 2009. In late May 2004, the Minister for Defence
Procurement said of the 2009 date, 'We think it is achievable,
otherwise we would not say it is'.
However that date has never represented full operational capability
for a medium weight force. FRES is intended to be family of vehicles
and the first introductions would be the simpler variants. In
October 2004, in the reply to our Defence Procurement report,
MoD drew a distinction between formally endorsed in-service dates
and internal planning assumptions 'which help guide project assessment
work'. Nonetheless, they went on, 'our planning assumption for
FRES remains to introduce early variants around the end of the
decade'. In January
2005, General Jackson told us that he doubted that FRES would
be available by 2010.
106. The MoD, however, is pressing ahead with reducing
the number of armoured brigades from three to two and creating
a new light brigade. This will produce a land force of two armoured
brigades, three mechanised brigades, a light brigade, an air assault
brigade and a commando brigade.
This decision was made:
not because we are in any way uncomfortable or
unhappy with this modern very successful main battle tank [ie
Challenger 2], it is because a judgment has been made, given the
strategic global environment in which we have to operate, that
it is important to have more medium-weight forces available, that
we cannot get to a crisis with main battle tanks as quickly as
we might like and that, therefore, a medium-weight capability,
an enhanced medium-weight capability, will be important in the
kind of conflicts that we have to deal with currently.
107. Until the medium weight capability which FRES
promises becomes available, the mechanised brigades will have
a reconnaissance role.
In our report, Defence White Paper 2003, we expressed surprise
that the Army was prepared to do away with then unspecified quantities
of heavy armoured forces when their replacement was little more
than a concept which had not even left the assessment phase.
In its reply the MoD stated that there was 'no operational reason'
why the re-roling of a heavy armoured brigade should be 'held
up pending the introduction of enhanced medium-weight capabilities,
such as FRES'.
108. The analyses of the international security environment
and the likely challenges to be faced by British Armed Forces
in both Delivering Security and in Future Capabilities
do lead logically to the conclusion that future operations will
draw less on heavy forces than had previously been expected. This
is partly because those operations are likely to be smaller in
scale than in the past, but also because they may be conducted
at shorter notice and at greater distance from the UK. As the
Secretary of State said, 'we cannot get to a crisis with main
battle tanks as quickly as we might like'. We also accept that
there are strong arguments for developing an effective medium
weight capability, which extend beyond its greater deployability.
Indeed we have repeatedly pressed MoD to ensure that every effort
is made to avoid further delays to the introduction of FRES.
109. Challenger 2 has proved itself to be an excellent
main battle tank. Recent operations, not least in Iraq, have also
clearly demonstrated that, for the foreseeable future, tanks will
continue to provide an irreplaceable capability. The United States
recently announced that their main battle tank, the Abrams, would
be in service until 2032. As General Jackson told us:
We have no doubt whatsoever that the Challenger
2 is with us for another generation, 25 years, a similar sort
of time frame. I have no doubt about that. The main battle tank
is still the beast that it is, and if technology one day can produce
the fire-power, mobility and protection of the main battle tank
but weighs 20 tonnes and it goes in the back of a Hercules, that
will be quite something; we are certainly not there yet. Until
then, the main battle tank without doubt has its place on the
Despite our support for FRES, we agree with this
analysis. We were therefore concerned that the MoD planned to
phase out seven Challenger 2 armoured squadrons by March 2007,
largely on the basis of the assessment of the future security
environment set out in Delivering Security which had concluded
that the future would see a similar pattern of operations to the
recent past. Our view was that, given the uncertain and changeable
nature of the global security environment, that conclusion was
110. In evidence the Secretary of State appeared
to go some way towards accepting this when he told us that he
was 'edging towards the idea of storage' rather than disposal
in respect of those Challengers.
He also made clear that although the number of Challenger squadrons
would be reduced from 25 to 18, only 40 of the total fleet of
385 tanks would be withdrawn from service because 'we will take
less risk with the remaining squadrons'.
We support this approach. The combination of the unpredictability
of future military operations and the proven value of the Challenger
2 would, in our view, make any decision to dispose permanently
of a significant number of them, before the introduction of an
effective and proven medium weight capability, foolhardy.
111. The decision to re-role the brigades over the
next two years, rather than as FRES becomes available, reflects
the MoD's assessment that we will not need to deploy a larger
force of heavy armour than that will allow. General Walker argued
that recent experience substantiated that assessment:
We only had two armoured regiments fully employed
in the Gulf in the last operation in the Gulf.
The force structure tables in Future Capabilities
suggest that MoD does not expect that heavy armour would ever
be deployed as part of a small scale operation, and that no more
than three squadrons would be deployed to an enduring medium scale
112. These assessments reflect the pattern of recent
operations, but they may under-estimate the flexibility and utility
of the main battle task. Certainly it takes time to deploy, but
once in theatre it has a presencewhether for deterrence
or coercionwhich no other land capability can match. There
are clearly financial advantages in moving to three medium brigades
ahead of the introduction of FRES. It may also be that the re-roling
will itself facilitate that introduction. But even on the most
optimistic estimate of FRES's delivery, there will be three years
between the re-roling and the introduction of the most basic FRES
vehicles. In the meantime the medium brigades will have an armoured
reconnaissance role. All three force structure tables (two smalls
and one medium, two mediums and one small and one large scale
operation) anticipate the deployment overall of fewer armoured
reconnaissance squadrons than armoured squadrons. We conclude
that the decision to re-role one armoured brigade to medium (and
the consequential re-roling of a medium brigade to light) is consistent
with the experience of recent operations and the assessment of
the future security environment in Delivering Security, but that
assessment also identified the requirement for a medium weight
capability. We are concerned that even the initial delivery of
the equipment to provide that medium weight capability (ie FRES)will
not take place for some years after the re-roling of the brigades.
113. In the meantime the mechanised brigades (including,
presumably, the re-roled armoured brigade) will have to operate
with existing equipment, much of which is approaching the end
of its planned life. Having to maintain that equipment in service
for longer than planned is likely both to be costly and to lead
to a gradual deterioration in operational capability. Over
time that may become an increasingly impracticable and expensive
option, in which case a replacement for those equipments would
have to be procured. As General Fulton told us during our Defence
there is a very clear choice to be made between
what I might call not-FRES and FRES. Not-FRES we could go out
into the market today and buy a light armoured vehicle, and there
are a number on the market.
The assessment phase needs to answer for me the
question can we have FRES in a timescale that is acceptable to
my end customer or have we got to spend money on not-FRES in the
intervening period, money that I would much rather invest in FRES?
114. The Army has made the acquisition of a medium
weight capability a key priority. Its delivery depends upon FRES.
But FRES depends on the successful incorporation of a number of
new technologies, which are largely, if not entirely, unproven
in the military context. If FRES encounters significant further
difficulties or delays the Army will have no choice but to acquire
new, currently available, vehicles to replace the existing out-dated
and increasingly unserviceable fleet.