Welcome back 28 Engineer Regiment and British Army control of CBRN

1 April 2019 marks, no, not April Fools Day, but the re-formation of 28 Engineer Regiment (RE) which disbanded back in 2014. This reformation re-creates a Counter-Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment for the British Armed Forces, totally under British Army control. The unit used to command wide-wet river crossing squadrons in British Forces Germany.

History of CBRN capability in the British Armed Forces

The UK had some foresight in creating a unit to counter or at least detect CBRN agents. This was the result 1998 Strategic Defence Review, which foresaw such a need (see paragraph 35). The outcome was the Joint CBRN Regiment, which consisted of the then- 1st Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and as well as reserve elements from 2623 Squadron RAuxAF Regiment and the Royal Yeomanry. In 2010, with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government came the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which saw military unit cuts due to a inaccurate prediction of a peace dividend after the Afghanistan campaign. Those cuts saw the removal of the Joint CBRN Regiment and the Fuchs vehicles,  with all 11 of them slated for disposal, see also this answer in 2011. The 1st RTR would merge with its sister, the 2nd RTR, to form up a whole Challenger 2 Regiment. After some consideration, CBRN capability was retained at a smaller capability, from joint to purely under the RAF Regiment’s control. 27 Squadron RAF Regiment would join with 26 Squadron RAF Regiment (see this and this), and 2623 RAuxAF to maintain CBRN capability, with the Fuchs vehicles most definitely shelved.

Sniff, sniff. Then came the Arab Spring and then Syrian Civil War which saw Assad using chemical weapons on his own people and maybe the ISIS group. MPs questioned why the UK removed its essential CBRN capability in a debate. A couple years later, Falcon Squadron from the RTR was re-formed along side the other squadrons of the merged RTR. The squadron’s role was officially known as a ‘CBRN Area Survey and Reconnaissance Squadron’ and you can read all about it in this article. The Fuchs vehicles were recommissioned or regenerated at a price of £7,115,941 in 2015, with a simulator already ordered in 2014. The RTR official Facebook page later showed pictures of the vehicles in action, including a Husky and a unidentifiable vehicle – check out this picture, this picture and this one.

Ok, so Fuchs had returned and the RTR was proud of it. The RTR Association website used to have newsletters – its now updated and they are sadly gone – and one of them described the structure of Falcon Squadron:

CBRN Area Survey and Reconnaissance (AS&R) Capability
Falcon Squadron RTR provide defence’s CBRN Area Survey and Reconnaissance capability. Manned by the RTR they are under the command of 22 Engr Regt in Force Troops
Command. Falcon Squadron is equipped with two troops of four German Fuchs TPz vehicles. Each Fuchs is capable of chemical and radiological hazard detection and is crewed by four CBRN Specialists who are able to operate in CBRN hazard areas due to the vehicles

Ok, so the British Army restored its CBRN capability, and it would fall under 22 Engineer Regiment. Nevertheless, this was only a squadron or company-sized unit and the RAF regiment still held the bulk of CBRN capability. Fast forward to SDSR 2015, and if you look closely at the Joint Force 2025 graphics, you would realise the future RAF Regiment size would be slightly smaller. Yours truly guessed rightly and confirmed by a FOIA that the Army would fully take on the responsibility of CBRN. This was further confirmed in the Royal Engineers Association Management Committee minutes: 1) 23 February 2018 minutes stated the creation of “a Counter Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Regiment” by 2019 under the name and 2) this was also confirmed in the 29 January 2019 minutes.

Organisation and shape of things to come

Welcome back 28 RE and British Army Counter-CBRN! The first question that came to ‘wannabe military experts’ or ORBAT-crazy people (not me) was: What is the structure of this new regiment? Thankfully and quite willingly, the answer was revealed in this tweet:

64 HQ & Sp Squadron (C-CBRN)
42 Field Squadron (C-CBRN)
FALCON Squadron (C-CBRN)
77 Field Squadron (C-CBRN).

64 and 42 are former squadrons from the former 28 RE, Falcon we know where it’s from — will it get a number under its new parent regiment? 77 Squadron was from 35 RE which was a close support engineer regiment but under Army 2020 Refine, that regiment is now an Explosive Ordnance and Search (EOD&S) regiment. Beyond 28 RE, the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterbourne Gunner has shifted command from the RAF Regiment to the Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME) Group, further cementing the Army’s control of CBRN away from the RAF — you can see further tweets about the transfer here and here

This RAF to British Army control of Counter-CBRN and ‘new’ formation didn’t occur peacefully as Russia, mostly definitely through President Putin, released Novichok in Salisbury, nearly killing former GRU Colonel Sergei Skirpal and his daughter Yuulia and accidentally killing Dawn Sturgess and affecting Charlie Rowley. Falcon Squadron and the respective RAF regiments were in fact used in the cleaning up of Salisbury. So the British Armed Forces rightly restored its Counter-CBRN capability, but its adversaries are certainly moving at a faster pace.

So what next for 28 Engineer Regiment? For one, with the strained personnel shortfall in British Army recruitment, retention and training, the first challenge is whether there is really enough qualified – Counter-CBRN work is ‘rocket science’ – personnel to fully man each squadron as stated above. 28 RE, now sitting under 12 Force Support Engineer Group will not just have to deal with future CBRN attacks on British soil but help detect and clear paths for the Army’s single ‘warfighting’ division in any operation. The second most pressing challenge is which vehicle will replace the Fuchs vehicles, which are old and, via a FOIA, will likely go out of service (OSD) in 2019/2020. Oh yes, they did issue a Prior Information Notice in March 2019 to to upgrade 10 Fuchs and 1 simulator hoping to extend the OSD to 2024 or even 2027. A much newer vehicle would be rather welcoming. The Army is in the process of acquiring Ajax, Boxer and much later, the MRV-P Group 1 and Group 2 vehicles. MRV-P Group 1, which sadly or thankfully, will be the US-made Oshkosh L-ATV might be a possible choice, or even Boxer, in the same fashion as the US M1135 Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, Reconnaissance [Stryker] Vehicle. Or even something else. Personally, the personnel issue will be the most challenging part first. This discussion would require another post.

Anyway, welcome back 28 Engineer Regiment.

The Royal Tank Regiment: Back in the CBRN game

NB: An edited version was published here: http://www.defenceviewpoints.co.uk/defence-news/british-armys-cbrn-capability . I thank defenceviewpoints for publishing the article.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review mentioned a clear role for the/a Chemical, Biological, Radiation and Nuclear (CBRN) unit as part of the future high readiness force. Yet, on one of the lesser known impacts of this SDSR was that the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiation and Nuclear Regiment (not the best link, do search the archive yourselves) would cease to be a joint unit. Instead, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment would transfer all CBRN authority/work/equipment to the Royal Air Force, specifically the RAF Regiment’s 27 Squadron. This was formally announced by the Royal Tank Regiment on 05 August 2011 and in the 2011 CBRN newsletter.

Personally, there is nothing wrong with shifting the CBRN role from a joint Army-RAF unit to just a RAF unit (27 Squadron is actually backed up by a RAF Reserve Regiment, 2623 (East Anglian). Together, they make up the “Defence CBRN Wing”, or 20 Wing RAF Regiment.) After all, 1 RTR was slated to merge with 2 RTR under the Army 2020 plan. It could be argued that this transfer out removed the key vehicle for CBRN, Fuchs, as seen in this House of Commons Written Question by MP Angus Robertson (Robertson loves to ask a heck load of defence-related questions as compared to front bench shadow ministers!) That would mean despite having the CBRN Wing, the CBRN capability might be reduced–one wonders which vehicles the wing used/uses now. However, Fuchs or no Fuchs, CBRN wasn’t exactly removed from the British Armed Forces, as so idiotic blogger suggested.

Fast forward to 2013/2014. The Royal Tank Regiment became the full RTR in August 2014. But before then, the Colonel-in-Chief issued this statement about the RTR’s structure:

We have therefore decided that, upon amalgamation, the three armoured squadrons in the Royal Tank Regiment will be known as AJAX, BADGER, and CYCLOPS. Command and Reconnaissance Squadron will be known as DREADNAUGHT, and Headquarters Squadron will be known as EGYPT. Should there be a future CBRN Area Surveillance and Reconnaissance (AS&R) Squadron, it will be known as FALCON…Finally, I should take this opportunity to say something about the formation of the CBRN AS&R squadron. As I write this message, there is a strong possibility that the RTR will be invited to generate an additional squadron to meet this task, over and above our Type 56 Armoured Regiment role. But the Defence Board has not yet made a final decision, so the task may yet fail to materialise, or (less likely) could be given to some other unit to perform. I have been involved in a host of high levels discussions about this task, both as your Colonel Commandant and as a member of the Army Command Group. My position throughout has been that the Army and Defence need an AS&R capability, that the RTR has demonstrated the ability to provide it, and that we stand ready to do so again. My one proviso has been to say that it would not be sensible to double-hat this capability with that of an armoured sub-unit: it needs to be a squadron in its own right. Hopefully, we will know the outcome on this issue within the next few months.

(see the full news article.)

And then came another House of Commons Written Question, this time by MP Nicholas Soames. Minister Mark Francois replied with a hint:

Under the Army 2020 structure, the Royal Armoured Corps will be formed of 10 Regular Regiments made up of three Armoured Regiments, three Armoured Cavalry Regiments and three Light Cavalry Regiments with the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment continuing to support public duties and ceremonial commitments; four Reserve Regiments and one independent Regular squadron providing a Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Area, Survey and Reconnaissance capability.

(see the full parliamentary reply.)

And true enough to the above statements, the British Army news release (above) stated that the new RTR would consist of “three Main Battle Tank squadrons (AJAX, BADGER, CYCLOPS), a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Area Survey and Reconnaissance squadron (FALCON), a Command and Reconnaissance squadron (DREADNAUGHT) and a Support squadron (EGYPT).” So in effect, the CBRN role is back under the British Army’s control again.

Several questions still remain. First, will this squadron be joined back with the RAF CBRN Wing or remain separate? The news release states that the RTR will be under “part of 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade and 8 Engineer Brigade.” We know from the old Army 2020 orbat that the RTR will be under 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade. But the report stated “8 Engineer Brigade”, a Force Troops Command unit. Could FALCON squadron be under 8 Engineer Brigade, and which unit specifically? Second, what vehicle(s) will FALCON squadron use? A quick search reveals that actually the Fuchs vehicle is “back”, unlike what then Minister Peter Luff said. So could they be back on Fuchs? The Fuchs vehicle is ageing and will need a replacement. Perhaps a version of the SCOUT SV/PMRS? Third, and back to structures, how will FALCON squadron operate? Will it be part of the capacity building part of Army 2020? Will it remain under Land Command or come under Joint Forces Command? These questions still linger as we welcome the RTR back into the CBRN game.

Note: To correct the silly mainstream media reports, the British Army is NOT “reduced to a single tank regiment” (I dont want to hyperlink the media sites) Army 2020 plans (see my ORBAT or the British Army Orbat), states that there will be 3 Type 56 Challenger 2 Regiments–The Royal Tank Regiment (as above), the Queens Royal Hussars and the King’s Royal Hussars. These will be backed up by a single Yeomanry regiment (Army Reserve), the Royal Wessex Yeomanry. Understand this!