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A leaner, meaner force

Posted by Richard Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"Bush seeks leaner, meaner US force", proclaims the Indianapolis Star, one of many newspapers to report on Bush's plans to return up to 70,000 soldiers to the US. But nowhere in the acres of coverage have I seen any real understanding of the underlying principles on which this redeployment is based.

Perhaps the closest is our own Times which, in its editorial, "On manoeuvres", makes some interesting points.

In particular, it homes in on the "revolutionary impact" of new technologies on force projection, which is argues has rendered America's fixed overseas configurations "increasingly anachronistic".

Rightly, it then identifies America's repositioning of its forces as "part of the much deeper transformation on which Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has been insisting", relying on smaller, highly mobile, and relatively lightly armoured forces instead of the massive divisions of yore.

It agrees that there is a "strong case for maximising technological advantage - in communication, command and control, firepower and force projection - by improving military response times and cost-effectiveness” and notes that, "in preparation for these realignments, the US has invested massively - Europeans, please note - in strategic airlift".

These changes will enable the US to replace fixed bases with transport hubs and small "forward operating" bases, through which forces can pass to combat zones. "Bringing troops home may cut maintenance and could, by simplifying family life, improve military morale and troop retention", the Times writes, "but these are ancillary benefits. The key gain is intended to be greater mobility. The watchwords are 'agile' and 'flexible'."

Without saying so in exact words, what the Times is describing is the US Future Combat System (FCS). But the technology involved is not so much rendering America's fixed overseas configurations "increasingly anachronistic", as the Times would have it, as making it unnecessary. It is also set to revolutionise not only the mechanics but the politics of warfare, the latter having profound implications for the UK, the EU and world stability. But, in order to understand the political implications, it is also necessary to get to grips with the technology of FCS – or at least the principles behind it.

As regular readers of this Blog will already know, the heart of FCS is a family of medium-weight, air-transportable armoured vehicles – but vehicles with a difference. As a formation, they will be equipped with the most advanced electronics and weapons that $92 billion can buy, and each unit will be part of a network that can collect information and share it virtually instantaneously, in constant communication and wholly integrated with the other components of the war machine, including navigation and communication satellites, unmanned spy-planes and even autonomous, land-based spy robots.

Quite how revolutionary this system will be is hard to imagine when, at the moment, it only exists on paper. But for the determination of the Americans to make it happen, much of it would remain firmly in the realms of science fiction.

Also revolutionary is the principle on which the system is based. In any modern warfare, the core of force projection is the tank, the design of which reflects a compromise between three elements: armoured protection, speed and mobility, and firepower. Obviously, the heavier the armour, the better the protection, but there is a limit to what can be achieved without sacrificing mobility and firepower. Equally, firepower can be increased, but at the cost of the other two elements, and likewise speed and mobility.

With FCS, however, all this changes: the heavy armour is dispensed with, along with the heavy weaponry. Instead, the vehicles are optimised for speed and mobility. The protection is no longer needed because, with its array of sensors and integrated intelligence systems, a formation can detect the enemy long before it closes to lethal range. With its communications equipment, and the electronically integrated intelligence, it possesses "exceptional situational awareness" and can command vast firepower from fleets of aircraft and stand-off missiles. It can even call on long range artillery which can deploy "smart" munitions which, once fired, can loiter over the battlefield until it detects a worthwhile target and home in on it.

Thus, enemy forces are detected and destroyed long before they become a threat, which leaves the FCS force merely to occupy territory, take possession and mop up.

So much for battlefield operations, but there is more. The "force projection" of this system is so great that much smaller formations can be deployed, to the same or greater effect as the larger, traditional units. Instead of the division – of between 10-15,000 men (and women) – the workhorse of this new army becomes the brigade, numbering as few as 2-3000 personnel, with 900 vehicles. Fewer vehicles, fewer personnel and – with "smart" munitions and force projection – reduced ammunition expenditure, drastically reduces the logistics train and makes the force that much more manageable. Such is the attention to detail that emphasis is even being put on fuel economy, to reduce still further the support requirements.

All of this means that for the first time in history, a fully-equipped, autonomous military force, is truly air-portable. There is no need for shipping or overseas bases – other than for advanced logistics detachments. The whole force can be kept in the US and deployed when and where necessary, using the fleet of 120 superb C-17s. Each of these giant transport aircraft can carry up to three FCS vehicles and their complements of troops, with a global reach. Not for nothing are they called Globemasters.

That is the point. It is no longer necessary for the US to station sizeable formations of troops abroad, in order to project its power. Within days of a decision, one or more of FCS brigade can be anywhere in the world, ready to fight.

But there is another point – and perhaps the more important one for the UK and its relationship with the EU. With his army safely tucked up at home, no longer is a US President committed to intervene just because his troops are in-theatre at the time of an incident. Each and every decision to deploy troops is a new decision, carried out in the full glare of domestic opinion and under the scrutiny of Congress. Therefore, while the physical ability to deploy troops might be easier, politically it might become more difficult.

That is the one to watch. If the EU insists on competing with the US, or frustrating its strategic objectives – and the UK is pulled along in its wake – when our interests are threatened and we need real help of the sort our European "partners" are unable to provide, a future president may decide that, having brought the troops home, they might as well stay there.

The Future Combat System, therefore, presents the UK with an interesting - and potentialy dangerous - situation.

On the one hand, we can take comfort from the fact that, even though most US troops will be stationed in their home bases, their global reach and speed of reaction means that they can still intervene rapidly and effectively anywhere in the world. On the other, if we continue down the line of political integration with the EU – and support its nascent anti-Americanism – we might find that our current ally has become a "former ally", asking itself why it should want to help out.