Related RUSI articles
Subscribe to Newsbrief
Annual subscription, including home delivery, to RUSI Newsbrief for £50 (members)/£65 (non-members)

Click here to subscribe

The Age of Gloom? Implications for Key NATO Armies

RUSI Newsbrief, 24 Jun 2013 By Ben Barry

In the US and NATO countries the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have eroded confidence in the utility of land forces. Some influential US commentators now suggest that the US ‘pivot’ to Asia means that air, maritime, amphibious and special forces capabilities are of greater utility and less risk than land forces. In the UK, the statements of some politicians, officials and commentators suggest they consider Afghanistan and Iraq to have been so problematic that in most foreseeable scenarios British boots on the ground will not be required.

Yet many actors continue to use force on land, not least insurgents in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In parts of Brazil and Mexico, organised crime and narcotic gangs have overmatched police, requiring extensive military support. More UN peacekeepers are deployed on land than ever; and there is no shortage of flashpoints that could result in a land war, including the Korean Peninsula and India’s borders with Pakistan and China. This has triggered capability enhancements to the South Korean and Indian armies. Meanwhile, Brazil, Russia, India, China and the Gulf states are converting part of their growing prosperity into improved land-warfare capabilities.

So what are the key land-capability lessons of recent wars? In the West’s prevailing fiscal gloom and military caution, how are four major NATO armies – the US Army, the ground element of the US Marine Corps (USMC), and the British and French armies – changing?

The US-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the NATO attacks on Libyan regime forces in 2011, and the French operation in Mali all showed the vulnerability of conventional ground forces to an opponent with air superiority. Many of the war-fighting principles proven in the previous century still applied, including the use of combined arms tactics; the integration of infantry, armour, artillery and engineers; and the synergy achieved by integrating air power with land operations.

Regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan was followed by counter-insurgency campaigns where US, Coalition and NATO forces initially struggled to adapt. These two wars confirmed that the classic principles of insurgency and counter-insurgency apply. And that numbers count.

In the 2006 Lebanon War, Hizbullah combined irregular with regular capabilities. Israeli forces had a rude shock resulting from unrealistic expectations of what networked forces and precision weapons could achieve, and had insufficient training in combined arms and joint war-fighting. The hard lessons learned were applied by the Israel Defense Forces in subsequent conflicts with Hamas in Gaza.

All these wars showed that there is no substitute for well-trained and led forces with combat capability and a credible plan. But against opponents determined to resist, armies that were unable to fight, or whose governments were not prepared to allow them to fight, were of little utility.

Fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq was often as intense as that experienced in the Second World War. The unanticipated scale of the IED threat came as a strategic shock. At the same time, the unpopularity of these wars meant that, for the US and NATO, protecting the force became the priority, with a host of new equipment fielded, including new heavy protected patrol vehicles, such as the US MRAP.

Infantry proved essential to both counter-insurgency and urban operations. Considerable efforts were made to improve their effectiveness. But a decisive improvement was not seen, probably because the weight of additional protection quickly exhausted soldiers.

With their combination of firepower, mobility and protection, tanks and armoured vehicles also played a critical role in the attacks on Iraq and Georgia and in the Qadhafi regime’s initial attempts to defeat the Libyan rebels. Yet many Taliban, Iraqi and Libyan tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed by missiles and bombs delivered by aircraft and helicopters. In counter-insurgency, firepower from tanks and other armoured vehicles was invaluable, as was co-operation between armour and infantry. But most mobile protected firepower was supplied by armoured vehicles other than tanks. Continually increasing requirements for additional protection meant that armoured vehicles became heavier.

Efforts to reduce civilian casualties saw an ever-increasing use of precision firepower, including guided mortars, artillery and rockets. These depended on the improvement in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) achieved by expanding and decentralising intelligence capabilities and greatly increasing manned and unmanned airborne surveillance.

Furthermore, global defence spending is falling in real terms – by 1.5 per cent in 2011 and a further 2 per cent in 2012 – with the decline concentrated in the US and Europe. Spending is rising in Russia, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

US, NATO and European armies have to contend not only with such budget cuts, but also with the prevailing gloom, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, around the utility of force. It is ironic that this comes at a time when the improvements in capability resulting from these wars – particularly in ISTAR and precision weapons – offer options for waging war more effectively, with fewer civilian casualties and less collateral damage.

So accepting that armies cannot do what navies and air forces can, what are their roles? The US Army’s mission to ‘fight on land as part of an integrated joint force’ seems as good as any. Indeed, whilst the other two services can attack enemy land forces, only armies can defeat them. Land power secures ground and gives influence over populations in ways that air or sea power cannot. So armies that can root out enemies and achieve land control remain as valid a military and political tool as naval or air forces.

Armies in Afghanistan are currently optimised for counter-insurgency, depending on static bases, lavish contractor and logistical support, and unprecedented access to bandwidth and processing power. As they withdraw from Afghanistan, the capability to perform the full spectrum of roles required by their countries’ defence policies will need to be reconstituted, raising difficult questions about the affordability of equipment and the increasing expense of quality people, which is subject to similar inflationary pressure. In addition, many of the advanced conventional weapons these armies had previously hoped to buy, such as the US Army’s Future Combat System, have been cancelled or delayed.

While US, UK and French land forces are shrinking, all seek to retain a core combined arms combat capability and the robust culture and leadership essential to sustain fighting spirit. They plan to maintain the advances made in combined arms capability over the last decade, such as precision artillery, attack helicopters and air/land integration. And they are institutionalising the progress made in ISTAR, including the use of tactical surveillance drones and dedicated ISTAR formations such as the US Army Battlefield Surveillance Brigades, the French Intel Brigade and the new British ISTAR Brigade.  

The US Army will retain three different types of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs): heavy BCTs with tracked armoured vehicles; Stryker BCTs using Stryker wheeled armoured personnel carriers (APCs); and infantry BCTs, which will all retain their airborne and air assault divisions. And while there will be fewer BCTs, these will be larger, with a third manoeuvre battalion. The USMC amphibious capability, a mixture of light and medium capability, will also remain.

The French and British, meanwhile, have significantly reduced their operational ambitions, including the size of forces to be deployed overseas. The British Army, as a result, is undergoing its most radical re-organisation for fifty years, including a 20 per cent reduction in regular manpower. A ‘Reaction Force’ will have a division of three heavy armoured infantry brigades with a mixture of tanks and armoured infantry. The Air Assault Brigade will retain its mixture of parachute battalions and attack helicopters, although its ground element will shrink, as will the army’s contribution to the Royal Navy’s amphibious force. At the same time, a mixed regular-reserve ‘Adaptable Force’ division of infantry brigades will be able to generate up to two, largely regular, combined arms light brigades for an enduring stabilisation operation. Concurrently, the French government’s Livre Blanc sees the French Army reducing from eight to seven its all arms brigades (two heavy, three medium and two light), meaning that the British and French land components will be of roughly equivalent size, albeit with a different mix of brigade capabilities.

As well as airborne and amphibious ‘early entry’ formations, all three nations will also retain heavy armoured brigades. These will be capable of hard fighting against both conventional and ‘hybrid’ enemies, and of undertaking the toughest of peace-enforcement missions. The US and French forces will also retain substantial medium forces based on wheeled armour. The British will not have similar brigades, although the Adaptable Force will have some infantry in Foxhound light protected vehicles and ‘light cavalry’ in Jackal mine-protected scout vehicles.

All three countries also plan to modernise their aging armoured vehicle fleets. The US Marine Corps seeks new amphibious armoured vehicles and wheeled APCs. The US Army needs to modernise its Abrams tanks and Stryker APCs and replace M113 utility vehicles with an Armoured Multipurpose Vehicle. A new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) is to replace the Bradley fighting vehicles. At an estimated cost of $29 billion, the GCV is the largest and most expensive armoured-vehicle programme in NATO.

Future British capability depends on a £5 billion armoured-vehicle modernisation programme. As well as new armoured Scout and utility vehicles, the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle and Challenger tank are to be upgraded. The French are fielding the VBCI wheeled infantry fighting vehicle and developing new wheeled APCs and cavalry vehicles.

Yet these plans, as well as the broader future capability of these armies, depend on budgets being sustained. Whilst the Livre Blanc sought to sustain current French defence spending, increasing equipment and personnel costs have required reductions in force structure. And the current prospects for the French economy are not encouraging. Given the White House and Congress’s difficulty in agreeing a way out of sequestration and the British government’s continued struggle to contain public spending, the sustained funding of planned UK and US land capability may also be at risk.

The British Treasury has, however, agreed to a limited growth of equipment and support as well as pay budgets. Yet these increases could squeeze out operating costs. This is important because the ranks of the British Army are now full of battle-hardened soldiers and officers proven on operations. Retaining these people and their hard-won experience will require, above all, that the excitement and challenge of fighting in Afghanistan is replaced by tough, realistic training in modern combined arms warfare. This will be expensive, in terms of fuel, ammunition and simulation technology. But activity costs have not been ring-fenced and increased spending on equipment and personnel threatens to impact spending on training.

These pressures may also be felt in the US and France. So the greatest challenge for these armies could well be that of retaining the combat-proven talent needed for the future, as well as recruiting sufficient numbers of fit and adventurous young men and women.

Brigadier (Rtd) Ben Barry OBE
Senior Fellow Land Warfare, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

This article is based on the 14 May 2013 IISS London event, ‘Hard Fighting, Hard Times, Hard Choices: Strategic Challenges Facing Modern Armies’, <>.

An analysis of the British Army’s plans can be found in the January 2013 IISS Strategic Comment, ‘Redesigned British Army: Smaller, with More Reserves’, <>.

Details of global defence budgets and their trajectory are taken from ‘IISS Military Balance 2013’.

Further Analysis: Land Forces, Military Personnel, Armed Forces, UK Defence, UK, Europe, France, United States, Americas

RUSI Annual Report
RUSI crest 2
Access the 2012-2013 Annual Report for the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
RUSI Library of Military History
Library Home Card
A unique collection of national historical and cultural importance.
New Benefits
Membership badge
A greater range of membership packages announced
Podcast badge
Follow RUSI through Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds