Foss Unglossed on key UK equipment replacements
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This special DSEI Opinion Newsletter is presented in partnership with Otokar
Foss Unglossed:
What does the British Army know that other NATO nations don’t?
By Chris F Foss
The recent decision by the UK to replace its tracked Warrior infantry fighting vehicle with the wheeled Boxer goes against the grain of almost every major army in NATO, where the trend is to go with a mix of tracked and wheeled IFVs.

The UK had expected to extend the life of the Warrior IFV under the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme, for which Lockheed Martin UK was the prime contractor.
The WCSP would have fielded a platform with enhanced firepower with its new turret armed with a 40mm cannon and advanced suite of ammunition, a higher level of protection due to its modular armour package and an electronic architecture to allow for easier future upgrades.

However, the MoD cancelled WCSP earlier this year, and the Boxer MRAV initially earmarked for only the two Strike Brigades will now also be issued to the two battalions of the Heavy Brigade Combat Team currently equipped with the Warrior IFV.

These battalions will also get the Challenger 2 main battle tank upgraded to the Challenger 3 configuration under the leadership of RBSL.

The other key element of the HBCT is the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle which is the lead member of this family of vehicles due to replace the remaining members of the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) family.

Ajax, whose future is also in doubt, is armed with the same 40 mm cannon and would be issued to the reconnaissance regiments of the HBCT as well as to elements of Challenger 3 and Boxer regiments.

This unusual decision of the British Army again raises the age-old advantages/disadvantages of wheeled or tracked armoured fighting vehicles.

While well-armed and well-protected MBTs are always tracked, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether other accompanying platforms, such as armoured personnel carriers or IFVs, should be tracked or wheeled.

Both have their advantages, but when being deployed over long distances, wheeled platforms have distinct advantages over their tracked counterparts as they can rapidly self-deploy.

Nevertheless, as one close observer of the British Army’s decisions recently told me, "tracked IFVs clearly have higher levels of armour, mobility and firepower over their wheeled counterparts".

Wheeled platforms also have lower life cycle costs, which are very important to countries with a smaller defence budget or, like the UK, who are feeling the pressure of an overly ambitious equipment programme.

Some countries, including France and South Africa, have moved to having their entire fleet of AFVs wheeled apart from their MBTs and associated support vehicles.

Both France and South Africa have deployed their wheeled AFVs over long distances for combat operations in a short timeframe, which could not have been matched by a tracked vehicle.

While wheeled 4x4 and 6x6 vehicles have limited cross-country mobility, 8x8 vehicles do have the cross-country mobility to keep up with MBTs. However, the tradeoff is that they have higher ground pressure and usually lack the same level of protection as their tracked counterparts.

As a result, most of the key players have tracked IFVs to work with their MBTs. In recent years these have been provided with higher levels of protection and firepower – the opposite of the British Army’s plans!

The Russian Army has always deployed a mix of tracked and wheeled IFVs, with the former including the BMP-1/BMP-2/BMP-3 - the last being the most well-armed IFV in the world.
In addition to being deployed by the Russian Army, significant quantities of BMP-3 IFVs have been exported, and it has formed the basis for a complete family of vehicles.

For many years the US Army was firmly in the tracked camp with 6,452 Bradley IFVs and variants being built, with the last of these rolling off the San Jose production line in 1995.
The US Army subsequently formed the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams. The baseline Stryker was the wheeled M1126 Infantry Carrier Vehicle armed with a RWS typically armed with a stabilised 12.7mm MG.

Yet when I was talking to a Stryker crew member not so long ago, althoug he was full of praise for the ability of the vehicle to be rapidly deployed over long distances, he still noted that compared to a platform fitted with a conventional two-person turret, it was easy to become disorientated.

With a few exceptions, such as France, most members of NATO, and others, such as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland, have also opted for a mix of tracked and wheeled AFVs, which is probably the right balance.

The German Army, for example, deploys the tracked Puma IFV with a remote control turret armed with a 30 mm cannon and co-axial MG. A pod of two ATGW is now being added, enabling high-value targets to be engaged well beyond the range of the 30 mm cannon.

In addition, Germany still deploys the tracked Marder 1 IFV, which is again being upgraded as the baseline vehicle entered service as far back as 1971.

The debate over tracked and wheeled vehicles may never be fully answered.
But one does wonder whether by opting to move almost entirely to a wheeled fleet, the UK is making a decision that will work for the British Army in the long term. The vehicles coming into service today will be the backbone of the force for the next couple of generations of soldiers so it pays to take the time to make sure the mix is right.

I'd love to hear what you think about this newsletter series. Let me know by sending me an email here!

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