Matching Brainpower With Firepower – the British Army’s New Ranger Regiment 

 In Land, UK, Forces & Capabilities

By Major (Ret’d) Andrew Fox 

The creation of the UK’s new Ranger Regiment was billed as an exciting expansion of the British Army’s capabilities, but many viewed it as a cynical “smoke and mirrors” exercise designed to draw attention away from the fact that Army headcount is being cut further. In this article, former Parachute Regiment major, Andrew Fox, dissects the Ranger concept and considers what else it needs to be a worthwhile addition to the Army’s golf bag of specialist skills.   

Contents

01.  Introduction – The British Army’s changing emphasis
02.  The Ranger Regiment Concept
03.  Does the concept add value to the British Army’s offer?
04.  Expanding the Ranger Regiment’s offer

A Ranger Regiment signaller establishes communications. [Crown Copyright: Corporal Alex Morris]

01.  Introduction – The British Army’s changing emphasis

On 25 November 2021, the British Army announced its Future Soldier strategy. The challenge facing those responsible for developing the plan was to ensure that a shrinking army can still be an effective war fighting partner within the NATO Alliance. The resulting structure represents a fundamental shift in the Army’s posture, moving away from the 2015 SDSR armoured division as the Army’s core output, to a focus on cyber, technology and partnering by 2030. This includes “persistent engagement,” where the Army is spread more thinly, but more permanently around the world so that it can reach trouble hotspots more quickly. The idea behind this is to “thicken resilience” by identifying and countering threats at an early stage. It includes training and mentoring partner forces, but also crucially accompanying them on operations so they can deliver effects in support of their own, and more importantly, Britain’s strategic goals.

On an initial reading the Future Soldier guide contains a number of contradictions. It mentions a Warfighting Division explicitly, but also refers to Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) with resources traditionally assigned to a divisional HQ pushed down to a brigade level. This is a controversial development. The US Army converted to BCTs in the early 2000s and swiftly moved back to a divisional structure. One US Officer described the experience as follows:

“During Iraqi Freedom, we could not keep the US divisions organized as single formations. They became modular. We broke responsibility and authority within every Division; there was no intent, no task and purpose. Everything, every structure fell apart. It was horrific.” [1]

The American experience showed that divisional HQs were critical for operational coordination of the deep, close and rear battles, since BCT HQs were too understaffed to undertake such complex coordination in a modern operational context. This experience should serve as a salutary warning to the British Army’s new approach.

The UK’s Future Soldier strategy also places an emphasis on a “shift from the close battle to deep battle” with long range precision fires, aviation assets, electronic warfare and capacity building. With BCTs likely to be deployed singly within multinational divisions or corps, it will be challenging for British commanders to synchronise divisional effects, or “the complete orchestra of war,” with a BCT structure of just two armoured brigades plus a Deep Strike Reconnaissance BCT. This seems like a tacit admission that the British Army no longer intends to deliver effect at the divisional level. Instead, the BCT is seen as the prime UK contribution to forces commanded at the divisional level by a coalition, with only fires held at the British divisional level. It is worth noting that with the Ajax procurement debacle, and the removal of the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle, British armoured forces will have no tracked infantry or reconnaissance platform, and therefore no coherent armoured fighting ability. Any desire to create a credible and deployable armoured force must see alternatives to these vehicles types delivered as a priority, especially if the continued Estonian deployment is to be seen as any kind of credible operation.

02.  The Ranger Regiment Concept

The formation of a Ranger Regiment was the headline “good news” story for the British Army that came from the March 2021 Defence Command Paper. These units will take-on the mentoring role from UK Special Forces (UKSF) as part of the Army Special Operations Brigade designed to train, advise and accompany allies in order to build up local and regional capacity. This is a similar concept to one of the many roles of the US Army Special Forces groups – the “Green Berets”. 

The Ranger Regiment cap badge is a Peregrine Falcon, which was chosen because it is a bird of prey found globally and one that remains faithful to its partner.

The nomenclature is unhelpful and confusing. The US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment is part of Special Operations Command, which also includes 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta, the American equivalent of 22 SAS. The 75th Ranger Regiment focuses on direct action, including clandestine insertion, reconnaissance, airfield seizure, and similar tasks – not mentoring. The equivalent UK unit is the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), based in St. Athan, which provides specialist infantry and fire support, as well as counter-terrorism support, to the SAS and SBS. 

The US Green Berets’ role is far broader than just the mentoring remit of the UK Ranger Regiment. It includes unconventional warfare, sabotage, special reconnaissance and counter-insurgency, among other tasks. Green Berets and the 75th Rangers are sometimes referred to as “Tier Two” Special Operations Forces (SOF), with Delta being “Tier One”. These terms are not especially helpful; a unit is either SOF or it is not, and Tier Two units frequently deploy on missions alongside Tier One. Think Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia, where Delta and 75th Rangers deployed together; or Iraq, where UK SAS/ SBS and SFSG units deployed on mixed operations (Task Force Black and Task Force Maroon). 

UK Ranger Regiment battalions are not part of UKSF, despite the terms “Special Operations” and “Ranger” being firmly within the SOF sphere in American parlance. Ranger Regiment battalions will be part of an Army Special Operations Brigade (ASOB), whereas UKSF come under UK Strategic Command control. It is also important to state that British Rangers will primarily be positioned as a conventional capability for building capacity and accompanying foreign forces, rather than undertaking SOF roles like those of the 75th Rangers and the Green Berets’ Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs). The UK Ranger Regiment does not have an equivalent unit in US Army Special Forces, despite their proposed specialised uniforms, weapons and “Special Operations” moniker. 

Their equivalent counterparts are the US Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs): conventional units who mentor and accompany foreign forces. This is further complicated by the creation of a British SFAB, currently 11th Brigade, who will train but not accompany international partners, and the fact that SFSG conducted mentored strike operations with Afghan Special Forces during Operation Herrick. It is clear, though, why this “Special” obfuscation is needed. The Rangers will be taking on tasks that were previously the remit of Special Forces under “Support and Influence” doctrine. It is important in terms of prestige and credibility that the Rangers are not perceived as a significant downgrade to those they are mentoring.

03.  Does the concept add value to the British Army’s offer?

The pressing question is whether or not this concept is the correct strategic direction for the British Army. During his questioning by the House of Commons Liaison Committee in November 2021, the Prime Minister said: 

“We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass… are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in… in the FCAS – the future combat air system… and in cyber. This is how warfare in the future is going to be fought. We should be investing in our advanced early warning systems; that is where we need to be.” [2]

This gives an insight into the thinking that underpins the Integrated Review: armour is outdated; technology and cyber are the future. It is a classic misreading of the context of modern operations, especially considering the 2021 escalation in Ukraine, which at the time of writing sees significant armour massing at the Russo-Donbass border. Whilst contemporary warfare has seen great strides in technology, such as the use of drones and loitering munitions during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, new battlefield technologies have enhanced traditional capabilities rather than replacing them in the way proposed by the British Army’s Future Soldier strategy. 

There is no new paradigm for “warfare in the future.” The Azerbaijan-Armenia and Ukraine-Russia Donbass conflicts both resulted in drones destroying tanks, but against inadequate Short Range Air Defence systems. This enhancement to warfare has yet to be tested by or against a top-tier air defence system. In addition, both conflicts saw the seizing and holding of ground by armour and infantry as the decisive action in each situation. Cyber, equally, is an enhancement of battlefield capabilities, not a new way of conducting conflict. Cyber attacks are used to supplement and support conventional action; they do not replace it. Attacks on the ‘will of the people’ are not new. Caesar sent propaganda reports home from Gaul to win popular support. Clausewitz wrote about it in his Trinity. And, the strategic bombing of Germany during World War 2 was designed to attack the morale of the German people. Cyber and online influencing tactics are simply a contemporary approach to information warfare, winning the battle for people’s minds, which is as old as warfare itself.

The Prime Minister’s statement begs the question: what kind of operation does he think the RAF’s Future Combat Air System will support? Operation Ellamy in Libya decisively put to bed the idea that military campaigns can succeed using air power and fires alone. After decapitating the Gaddafi regime, the lack of any ground troops to stabilise the country saw it descend into anarchy, leading to a mass destabilisation across the region and creating a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. A further incoherence of British Army’s strategy is Operation Cabrit, the battlegroup level roulement deployment to Estonia. If armoured battles on the European landmass are a thing of the past, what value is there in parking a token British unit in Estonia to counter a foreign armoured threat that the rest of the Integrated Review seems to disregard entirely?

It is understandable that the British Army’s catastrophic failures of procurement and on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (debated extensively elsewhere) have damaged the British Army’s reputation in Whitehall. Even relatively low casualties in those campaigns have led to a reticence on the part of politicians to deploy land forces. It is therefore reasonable that the Future Soldier strategy seeks to devise increased utility for the British Army, despite a limited political appetite to use ground troops for combat operations. 

Here we see the influence of the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, a former Director Special Forces, who famously came under fire on the ground in Iraq whilst visiting deployed UKSF troops. British operations in Iraq and Syria involved strike action by SF teams, while mass was provided by a mentored Iraqi Army supported by air and fires from Western and Iranian forces. This is the model around which the Future Soldier strategy and Ranger concept are based. Ultimately, the Ranger Regiment model allows the British Army to outsource the ability to seize and hold ground. British Rangers and supporting units provide mentoring and fire support, whilst indigenous forces conduct the meat and potatoes of the fighting action. Whilst the Future Soldier vision as a whole is expensive, requiring £8.6 billion[3] of investment in new equipment, it will be far less costly in British lives and headlines.

04.  Expanding the Ranger Regiment’s offer

A criticism of the Ranger Regiment is that it is little more than another Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) when we already have one. The only real distinction is that Ranger Regiment battalions will be accompanying partners on operations, and this remains a significant elephant in the room. SFSG mentoring operations in Afghanistan, and those of the US Green Berets, were done only with significant Western fire support, ISR assets and ‘on call’ casualty evacuation to state-of-the-art medical facilities. Green Beret strike missions accompanying ANA Commando units were only done with an AC-130 Spectre gunship providing top cover: this was a go/ no-go criterion. Deploying small numbers of Western troops alongside domestic forces is a seriously risky business. The Green Berets suffered four fatalities in Niger when accompanying local forces and running into an ambush without the right support. Whether or not UK politicians or PJHQ will have the risk appetite for such combat missions is yet to be seen, and it raises the question whether or not these missions are really worth risking the death of British soldiers. A further issue is the maintenance of morale. On a 24-month operational readiness rotation, spending six months on tour in the same place every two years could become a significant factor that drains the motivation of these small units.

Adding additional tasks to their remit could help to flesh out the concept so that British Rangers become a more direct equivalent of the US Green Berets. Beyond its training, mentoring and accompanying role, there is a tacit suggestion that in time the Ranger Regiment will take-on additional tasks in a context where militaries worldwide are engaging in actions below the threshold of outright warfare. This is nothing new, but modern technology has given this kind of activity a whole new dimension. Such activities may include cyber attacks, EW warfare, and acts designed to destabilise governments. What distinguishes these activities from direct military action is that they seek to achieve long-term political goals rather than immediate results. Israel’s use of the Stuxnet virus to disable computer-controlled centrifuges used by Iran to enrich uranium for its nuclear weapons programme is a good example. Other initiatives included the assassinations of top nuclear scientists, which were not able to be directly attributed to Israel. With the finger of suspicion pointing only at Israel, such acts have the potential to ratchet-up tension between opposing states. While Israel and Iran are not officially at war, actions without plausible deniability risk unintended consequences. 

With Russia actively conducting this kind of aggressive activity in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, some kind of proportionate response may become appropriate. Given the clandestine nature of such activities, it is unlikely that any detailed information about British military activity in this sphere would ever be made public, but it sits firmly within the scope of deniable Special Forces roles, especially with the increased capacity given to the SAS/ SBS from having handed over mentoring tasks to the Rangers.

The language used to introduce the Ranger Regiment suggests that there is an aspiration for its component battalions to move beyond simple mentoring tasks. It is possible that wider Green Beret roles of unconventional warfare, direct military action, special reconnaissance and counterinsurgency could be added to the Ranger Regiment’s list of responsibilities as the concept matures. Whatever the scope, a wider set of tasks would give the Ranger Regiment increased utility that would enable the Army to expand its Special Operations offering. 

For this to happen, the Ranger Regiment would need to significantly upgrade its own selection process and weed out soldiers from the existing infantry battalions used to form it, who may fall short of the increasingly high standards expected of it. Some of the Rangers’ antecedent battalions struggled with significant discipline and retention issues, and these factors will need swift resolution as the Rangers seek to establish their credibility. Selection will be less about fitness and combat ability, even though these will be important, and more about intelligence, aptitude and specialist skills, the ability to speak different languages, and Information Operations, including tactical PSYOPS. 

This is very much a future aspiration, in the meantime however, the British Army is left with a focus on enabling capabilities such as cyber and deep fires, but an unfortunate, unprecedented and vastly reduced capacity to conduct conventional high-end operations. For all its benefits, the Ranger Regiment is no substitute for conventional mass. The British Army still needs to be able to field a credible armoured or mechanised division with sufficient firepower and resilience to dominate an area of operations, to seize and hold contested ground, and to be fully able to degrade an enemy’s capacity to conduct offensive operations. This is what will best allow the British Army to take its place beside other such divisions within the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) and other NATO formations. 

This lack of capability is the gaping hole in the British Army’s Future Soldier concept. Without reasonable mass, it cannot be a credible or dependable coalition partner. The unexpected speed and severity with which contemporary conflicts unfold means we go to war with the army we have, not the army we would ideally like. Given the time and resources needed to generate, train and deploy armoured formations, we cannot wait for a crisis to occur before committing additional resources. This may not happen until a political appetite to deploy British boots on the ground is rediscovered. Until then, light and special forces will have to hold the line. Thinly deployed around the world, they will be entirely reliant on local forces to step-up when the use of force becomes necessary. As good as Ranger Regiment battalions may be in time, there is a hard limit to what they will be able to achieve. 


[1] “Command: The 21st Century General”, Anthony King, p.30. 

[2] House of Commons Liaison Committee transcript, Q148.

[3] Ministry of Defence announcement, 25 November 2021:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/british-army-unveils-most-radical-transformation-in-decades

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