At ASPI’s Army Future Force Structure Conference the week before last, one theme was particularly recurrent: the ‘operating environment’ that the army is now working in is increasingly dangerous. In particular, we frequently heard that lethal weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and RPGs necessitated much higher levels of protection in the next generation of vehicles being procured under project LAND 400. After years of hard and dangerous work in Afghanistan and Iraq, this sounds hard to argue with. Especially if you think of those threats as part of the environment.
Therein lies the problem. If large IEDs and anti-armour RPGs are a permanent immutable character of the landscape like sand, hills, wind or rain, then they’re fundamentally inescapable, predictable and enduring, and we must withstand them. But in reality, they’re actually the tactics and technology of a determined enemy who we should be trying to defeat. If IEDs are part of the environment, rather than weapons of the enemy, you’re always going to favour protection over mobility and firepower. We’re basically saying it’s rainy outside, bring a raincoat. But we can’t fight the rain, or persuade it to desist, or cut of its supply, or remove it from its support base, or anything else we might hope to do to defeat insurgents or terrorists like the Taliban, IS or al Qaeda.
It’s sounds almost as though we’ve given up on winning, and hence resorted to tactics (and technology) of survival in a difficult environment, rather than victory over an enemy. Sadly, no amount of protection will ever be enough to ensure that we ‘survive the first hit’, as the objective was described last week. While rain and hail can be surprisingly heavy, we still have a comfortable upper-bound. Not so for IEDs, where a bigger bomb will always be possible—and ultimately lethal. Unlike sailing adventures or mountaineering, a survival narrative in warfare shouldn’t be enough on its own. It has to be part of a narrative that includes a possible victory. Allowing the enemy to blend into the environment conceptually as well as physically doesn’t help with that at all.
Lest I be drawn into accusing the Army of choosing big and heavy armoured vehicles on the basis of a defeatist ‘survival’ strategy, it’s worth pointing out another force at play in vehicle acquisitions. Several officers at the conference pointed out that much of our armoured vehicle fleet, particularly the M113, was designed over half a century ago. The other services have had several generations of ships and planes in this time, and the Army is increasingly desperate for anything that’s better than what they currently have. They’ve done the bulk of the operations, so why should they have the fewest capital upgrades? As one put it, the answer to any LAND 400 question is yes. Tracks? Yes. Wheels? Yes. 20 tonnes? Yes. 30 tonnes? Yes. 30mm cannon? Yes. 25mm cannon? Yes. No-one is willing to say no to anything for fear of appearing difficult to please, and winding up left for even longer with what they already have.
But that doesn’t diminish the probability that we’ll wind up with something sub-optimal. We’re still likely to end up with a vehicle optimised to withstand a specific common attack, and not optimised to win a campaign as a whole. Mobility has been sacrificed. Major General Gus McLachlan acknowledged that the new CRVs wouldn’t be ‘C130 transportable’, and wouldn’t be able to swim as the ASLAVs do.
Size is increasing too; one officer lamented to me that all the Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) choices on offer were bigger in profile (hence easier to target) than most of the Main Battle Tanks of WWII. He’d rather have a good chance that the first shot misses and return fire before the second comes than present an easy target and survive the hit. My feeling is that the environmentalisation of the threats has possibly trumped concerns like these. If the environment is rainy, you need a raincoat first. Other tools for the job come second.
Overall, the preponderance of the ‘survival’ narrative in a dangerous ‘environment’ is probably a good cause to question the nature of the tasks we ask the Army to perform. As was frequently repeated at the conference, the Army seeks to provide ‘options to government’. But shouldn’t those options always include victory? If we intend to put soldiers in harm’s way, they ought to be equipped to operate in their environment and defeat their enemy. Those two are different. If the enemy is now the same as the environment, we’re close to admitting we never intend to defeat them in the first place. Simply being present to endure the attacks of an enemy we aren’t willing or able to defeat isn’t an ‘option to government’ that the army should optimise its structure to provide.