A compact and agile exploitation brigade

German post-WW2 literature written by German WW2 veteran officers* concluded that the optimum for a mechanised force would be a 1:1 ratio between tank and infantry battalions, with tank battalions being square designs (four tank companies) and infantry battalions being triangular (three infantry companies + maybe a heavy weapons company).

I'll use this as basic recipe to sketch a possible super-compact yet powerful-enough brigade for exploitation (incl. raid), delaying action and counterattack roles - a small tank brigade. Americans might call it a Cavalry Brigade.

So far the table of organisation is:

HQ unit (~60 personnel including signallers and attached military police, divided into administrative component on soft wheeled vehicles and command element in action with protected wheeled offroad vehicles)

Tank Battalion (four AFV companies and a support company including tracked protected recovery and bridgelaying vehicles)

Infantry Battalion (three infantry companies and a support company)

I will assume that most of the breakthrough effort would be done by other forces, thus the brigade would have but a small obstacle-breaching ability. It does face logistical challenges in action, as it would be de facto cut off during a raid.

This adds a

Support Battalion (medical 'patch up' lorries, heavy dedicated tanker lorries, munitions carrier lorries, electronic warfare, sensors, few engineers, 'first aid' for vehicles with wreckers that have a powerful crane & spare parts)

I do not assume that a full-size vehicle repair workshop should be organic. It would be left behind during a tank raid mission anyway, so it can be left at divisional or corps level.

There's an interesting detail that is not commonly used: The munitions carriers of the Support Bn should have a dual role; they should be usable as personnel carriers after the munitions were withdrawn, complete with fresh air, toilet, windows, heating, folding benches and fresh water supply. It's important that this cargo/passenger compartment is lockable from outside (without a key), for the passengers might be prisoners of war.

AFV with Cockerill XC-8 turret (105 mm version, 42° max. elevation)

The structure does so far show armour and infantry, where's the third component of the classic combined arms triad, the artillery (indirect fires including mortars)? That's in those battalions as well. The support company of the Infantry Bn can easily have a couple mortars (as German Panzergrenadier battalions had for decades) and the tanks used in the Tank Bn can be dual role tanks; tank turrets with 42° maximum elevation can be used for indirect fires out to more than 15 km distance if the fire control, position- and northfinding and the munition suit this role. The high explosive (HE) cartridges can be semi-fixed; the shell can be removed from the case, so the quantity of propellant modules in the case can be changed. This allows different muzzle velocities including low muzzle velocities needed for arched trajectories. An alternative would be to use drag rings as often used with rockets of multiple rocket launchers to reduce the usually awfully long minimum range of multiple rocket launchers. A drag ring attachment (or a trajectory correcting fuze with deployable drag elements) would not bend the trajectory as much as a minimised propellant strength would do, but it might offer a variable trajectory with a fixed cartridge.

This allows for fires similar to howitzers; the tank gun becomes a tank gun-howitzer. The armour companies don't stick together, so there's always at least one company with nominally 9...12 tank gun-howitzers in position to assist another with indirect HE fires. An infantry fighting vehicle as base vehicle would feature a front engine and a rear door for easy munitions resupply (ready munitions only in the turret bustle for safety reasons). This means the indirect fires could be done with a continuous munitions supply from outside. One munitions supply vehicle could simultaneously supply three tanks via slides with HE cartridges. Thus it makes sense to have tank platoons of three tanks each in this structure. The fourth vehicle of the platoon would be the well-protected tracked support vehicle with HE munitions, three slides, a recovery winch, a full-width mine plough (suitable for clearing a path from most mine types for other vehicles or helping to fixate the vehicle during winch use), a 360° machinegun and a (tethered) observation drone system (thus a crew of two or three if no tank crewmember helps with the munitions transfers).

A few mortars in the Support Coy of the Infantry Bn would permit high angle fires at very short minimum distances, and would be very suitable for (IR) illumination, HE, incendiary and (multispectral) smoke fires.

Small side remark; modern continuous band tracks make the vehicle much less noisy, enabling more surprise effects and reducing crew fatigue that's caused by noise and vibrations.

Air defence; high elevation tank guns can take down easy exposed targets (drones & helicopters) with HE shells and electronic time fusing (also great to engage troops in visible trenches). Other air defences would be remotely controlled weapon stations with machineguns and ManPADS.

This begs the question of air search (alerting) radars; rotating track&search on-the-move radars should do the trick. This radar should be mounted on an elevating mast for stationary operation from behind a building. Even a raiding force is standing more than moving, after all.

Czech Snezka artillery / ground surveillance radar system
The very same radar could be used to detect vehicle movements on the ground and artillery shell splashes (at least with point detonation or delay fuse settings). It might also be used for select radio frequency jamming missions within its own radar band. There may also be air threat data by air force assets (such as AWACS) be downloaded via air force radio datalinks.

Radars alone don't suffice as electronic warfare components. More wideband receivers (direction finders) can be of great use to locate radiating opposing forces. Directional RF jammers against drones are inevitable for the period of transition till drone are autonomous. Tanks, infantry sections and other small units may have such jammers. Radio frequency direction finding vehicles would be with the Support Battalion to triangulate threats and inform a few assault-supporting jammers that add to confusion of opposing forces in contact by briefly jamming their radio communications. These jammers should be active on the move, as they may easily be triangulated and thus become subjected to fires.

Anti-tank work would be done by the tanks (direct and rarely indirect fires), by fibre-optic guided missiles/loitering munitions (in Infantry Bn Support Coy), by infantry (dimensioned against weaker protection than MBT level to limit the burden) and in worst case by 'all arms' anti-tank work (by the support troops with unguided portable AT weapons and munitions).

The size of such a force could be kept small for maximum agility and a humanly doable leadership challenge in action. I suppose the whole formation could stay smaller than 1,500 troops** with more than four personnel per vehicle***, particularly if one mostly avoids low and medium capacity vehicles (less than 10 tons of payload, save for a few cars available to military police as well as two per Bde staff, Bn staff and Coy leadership each).

The mobility should be two-tiered; combat vehicles (including APCs for infantry of at least two companies) and their immediate support vehicles (including the mortar carriers) should be very offroad-capable, all others should be offroad-capable enough for bad unpaved roads, for driving around a cratered road and deep wading up to 120 cm depth.

All vehicles that join an exploitation mission / a raid should at least have basic protection (vertical armour protecting against PKM steel core bullets at 100 m and equivalent fragmentation protection) and pneumatic tyres are unacceptable in my opinion. Airless tires and continuous composite bandtracks would be my choice.

A mostly unsolved challenge of this and real world TO&Es is the evacuation of wounded troops, wounded prisoners and civilians during a raid. Airlift (usually by helicopter) may be much too dangerous even at night and movement by ground much too dangerous when the formation is raiding or racing ahead as part of a pincer movement. These protected persons could not be cared for very well by the formation, especially the badly wounded would suffer. Emergency surgeries ('patching up'), painkillers, disinfection, bandaging, infusions, food&drinks and shelter from weather would be possible and not much more.

Another restriction is that this structure would not offer much in terms of civil-military relationship specialists or military intelligence processing capacity.

- - - - -

This TO&E sketch keeps such a (small) brigade agile, and exploits a much-increased versatility of the tank component.

This force has much more tanks available than a Russian BTG of about half its size had; 36...48 tanks rather than typically 10...12. The Russian BTG proved to be too light on tanks for manoeuvre warfare, as its BMPs were too poorly protected and equipped for much aggressive action. A mere dozen combat vehicles able to shrug off at least some ATGM hits was not enough for locally overwhelming presence with flanking attack ability. The Russian MBTs (usually some of the few are not operational at any given time) often fought in platoon strength or less.

Their protection should be rated between Russian MBT and Russian BMP IFVs, though it could be better than either if at least an anti-HEAT hard kill active protection system (such as the lightened Iron Fist version) was used. The costs of such an APS can be reduced by using a single rotating radar antenna instead of four fixed ones (2 rpm should be still good enough to intercept with 0.75 sec delay = enough against ATGMs at 150+ to 500+ m depending on type).

Heavy MBTs would be desirable for pitched battles against well-equipped and battle-ready opposition, but this formation would primarily fight against much less battle-ready opposition and should avoid battles against battle-ready combat troops of battalion size and more.**** It should thus rarely face 125 mm tank guns against which none of its vehicles would be protected (which doesn't mean that they'd lose a fight with a 125 mm tank gun-armed MBT!). The exceptions of intentionally fighting battle-ready combat troops should be the infiltration breakthrough and the exfiltration breakthrough, in both cases friendly forces would greatly support the breakthrough including necessary obstacle breaching and larger calibre artillery fires for the breakthrough fires plan. *****

An arsenal of 36...48 gun-howitzers and 6...8 120 mm mortars offers more indirect fire support than any BTG had, too. You wouldn't have all gun-howitzers in both direct and indirect fire roles at the same time, but that's a manageable restriction, as tanks are supposed to be very rarely in line of sight contact (direct fire role) with opposing forces.

Summary table of organisation:

  • HQ Coy
    • combat command element
    • administrative element
  • Tank Bn
    • 4 Armour Coys (total 36...48 tank-howitzers and 9...16 support vehicles)
    • Support Coy (incl. assault bridgelaying, tracked recovery)
  • Infantry Bn
    • 3 Infantry Coys (with APCs)
    • Support Coy (incl. 6...8 self-propelled mortars and FOGM launchers******)
  • Support Bn 
    • recovery&repair (simple repairs only)
    • medical
    • EW&radar
    • fuel supply
    • (V)ShoRAD
    • munition supply & POW transport
    • few engineers (demolition & some EOD)
    • field kitchen and fresh water supply (for all personnel, in trailers, stays in safe areas)

A small army could use this template and make it more versatile by adding an otherwise independent light infantry battalion. Such a reinforced brigade wouldn't be a Tank Bde or 'Cavalry' Bde any more; it would usually be considered to be a Mechanised Infantry Brigade due to the imbalance in favour of infantry. The mindsets would not necessarily fit together well, and the reinforced brigade would be a rather poor line formation due to its short artillery range, but it might make sense in a small army. A very small army of only one such brigade and a  light infantry battalion would need to add a vehicle repair workshop (this one may be all trailers) capable of changing tank turrets and tank guns, though.

A German WW2 veteran officer described a Panzerdivision (tank or armoured division) as a weapon more akin to a rapier than a broadsword. It has to be used with care and accuracy rather than expecting success by brute force, and its purpose is the attack. This did in part inspire this sketch of a small (very agile) brigade that's not optimised for tank battles, major breaching operations or independent breakthrough through prepared defences.



*: An example is F.M.v.Senger-Etterlin, "Die Panzergrenadiere", 1961 and another example (for 1:1 ratio) is Eike Middeldorff, "Handbuch der Taktik", 1957.

**: A brigade has about 1,500...5,500 personnel. The Tank Bn would have 250...300 personnel. Infantry Bn would have about 400...500 personnel.

***: A normal ratio in the U.S.Army is four personnel per vehicle, I deviate by using higher capacity vehicles.

****: It could still defeat them through surprise (speed, flank or rear attack, ambush, pincer attacks) or qualitative superiority.

*****: A reduction of tanks' weight from by more than 1/3 means (from the typical 60+ tons of Leopard 2A6M, M1A2 Abrams, Challenger series) approx. a reduction of fuel consumption by more than 1/3, further increased by enabling continuous composite bandtracks for a total fuel consumption reduction exceeding 1/2.

******: Fibre-optic guided missiles, examples E-FOGM, Polyphem, RALAS. Such missiles are less suitable for cycling over a target area in search of a target than loitering munitions, but the fibre-optic datalink is more trustworthy than a high bandwidth radio datalink.



  1. Are you suggesting a new vehicle, medium armoured tank howitzers? Would it be possible to rearrange such vehicles into units that attack entrenched positions? What would be required?

    1. Breakthrough is a solved tactical problem since 1917.
      A good army could break through Russian or Ukrainian frontlines using WW2 artillery and infantry weapons.
      It's about how you do it (with enough massed resources), not much of a hardware problem.

      You would seek knoeledge about known and possible positions, treat them accordingly with arty for minutes, then rush forward in waves with appropriate mine countermeasures and smoke+suppressive fires.
      A fine Western brigade would advance in two hours like the Russian army did in six months.
      An exploitation force should not do much in a breakthrough phase to stay fresh, fully supplied and in good order.

    2. Fine, an exploitation force shouldn't do other things, but sometimes all you have is a hammer, so you must nail all problems. Per your description, I assume that an exploitation brigade can also be misused to create a breakthru.
      So it boils down to that you suggest for tanks to have less armour and higher elevation. I'm not much versed in modern warfare. Why do tanks currently have such thick skin and how does it affect their utility by reducing range, speed, and munitions carried?

    3. I'm so "surprised" a German finds the Leopard I to be the most adequate tank design of all.

    4. A XC8 120 mm turret with Iron Fist Light, some light ERA and Soucy composite Bandtracks would still turn a Leopard1 hull into a good tank for the 2020's, but we can do much better nowadays.

      Leopard 1's powerpack is lagging behind state of the art by three generations and certain to not produce enough electrical power on its own.

      Leopard 1 was not 100% true to WW2 lessons; it would have been so with the 120 mm L11 gun, VEESS and a lot more (and bullet-protected) smoke dischargers.

  2. Given what we're seeing in Ukraine, it feels like new organizational designs should start by considering how to incorporate drones and loitering munitions to the maximal extent and how to deal with enemies who have similar numbers of them.

    Just attaching a drone to a company or battalion isn't enough. Inexpensive, munition-equipped FPV drones can be pushed down to the squad level and supplant grenade launchers, light AT weapons and mortars. The Ukrainians have attached PG-7 warheads and RKG-3 grenades to cheap racing drones to make potent and inexpensive anti-armor and anti-personnel weapons. Perhaps we could do the same with M72 LAW, AT4, Carl Gustav or Pzf3 warheads?

    Vehicles should incorporate anti-drone weapons. The 30mm autocannon with airburst rounds coupled with an enhanced-APS radar might work for IFVs or specialized vehicles like MADIS. I suspect IED jammers will work against many commercially-derived drones. EW systems to alert friendlies about the presence and direction of drone radio signals should be widely available. We might need something even smaller to deal with FPV drones. Perhaps APS systems can be adapted. Automatic shotgun on a light RWS mount perhaps? Dust off OCSW with 25mm airburst?

    Drone and FPV operators will need to be incorporated into the organizational structure.

    These types of changes will be important for all units, but for cavalry-oriented units most of all, given their screening & recc missions.


  3. The bureaucratically easy response to strong aerial scouting is increasing artillery range which results in more rockets.

    I saw an American proposal for necking out a 120mm tank round to 157mm NLOS shells and placing anti-drone lasers on every tank. Conceivably the gold-plated answer to drones is a drastic decrease in tube artillery and compensation by consolidating tanks and self-propelled artillery into a single vehicle.

  4. https://www.defence-st.com/home/band-tracks.html

    Q.Any reason for the continuous "band tracks" rather than the segmented ones ?

    1. https://www.tanknology.co.uk/post/__crt

  5. In the interim, before hypothetical Tank-Howizers are developed, how about using HE shells on regular 120mm? That does leave a very prominent gap in air defence in the interim though.
    I am sceptical about the lack of an organic Forward Observer/Recon Company.
    I fear some would want to leave an infantry company or two to cover the logistic battalion. On that note what this formation really needs some local light infantry to be effective- being buddied up with a battalion or two of Border Guards or National Guards for FOB defence, local knowledge and consolidation. Without it, the infantry are completely run off their feet. I doubt that a three company battalion could assault more than a half dozen positions before falling to exhaustion.
    I guess on the defence, this brigade would operate as a corps asset for artillery support/counterattack? Maybe redesignate it to "Regiment" to reduce the chances commanders will use it inappropriately without supports for normal brigade tasks.
    Barrel wear and vibrations reducing the accuracy of the main guns could be a real issue if the Tank/Howitzers battalion was suddenly switched from Artillery role to Exploitation.
    Out of interest, where would these go in a hypothetical conflict? Would they be rushed forward to beef up the Polish 13 and 16 Mech divisions if conflict broke out or would they be held back to be part of a larger German Corps?

    1. Such formations could be used as delaying force right at the start of hostilities, recover behind the 'lines' when the main forces are in contact and do breakthrough exploitation and pursuit tasks. Almost all tasks in not too wet and not too uneven terrain would be fine for these formations save for holding a line for long (valuable vehicles too much exposed in that).

      The infantry of this formation would not have to be committed to many battles against combat-ready opposition. Most contacts would be against forces that are not ready for such a fight.

    2. The problem, IMO is that with less than 9 brigades in the Baltic states and 6-8 in North East Poland and 5~ on the border in Scandinavia I can't imagine a Nato commander wishing to risk a nominal tenth of his manoeuvre forces in a risky encounter battle. The job here is similar to that of a Cold War US armoured cavalry brigade with only an Armoured Battalion+, one misstep could lead to encirclement and annihilation. If your "Budget Brigades" can arrive in time to create a frontline then this force would be very useful.
      For Russia as well, this sort of brigade would be very useful. Ideally paired with a Spetznaz and Marine or Airborne brigade, if fully manned, it would have been the ideal sort of unit to make up the dash to Kiev/Odessa and end the war in one blow.

    3. Timidity in defence is self-defeating. 'Schlagen aus der Nachhand' makes a lot of sense. Counterattacks against something else than the hardened tip of the spear can throw an invasion plan into logistical disarray.

  6. Thanks for the reply! While recovering would artillery support and LOC protection be the main role? Was part of the inspiration for this brigade the Ukrainians at the battle of Kharkiv?
    The problem IMO is with an average of 6~ brigades each based locally in Scandinavia, Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Turkey I can't see a local commander risking a large amount of his force early in the engagement. It will be tough for this brigade to do the role of a US Cold War Armoured Cavalry regiment with the frontline strength of an Armoured Battalion+ and no significant armed recce units. I think any NATO commander would prefer a "budget brigade" at the beginning of a conflict.
    Ironically I think this manpower light formation would be much more useful to a Russian commander, ideally paired with a Spetznaz Brigade and tasked with breaking through to an airborne or amphibious landing. The utility of a few such units on the dash to Kiev/Odessa is very apparent. With a few heavy brigades to crack any tough opposition and some Rosgvardia brigades for the flanks/rear you'd have a good force to paralyse a defensive effort.

    1. This brigade wouldn't have much range for its support assets, so it may or may not be used as support while held in reserve.

      I worked (theoretically) on a much smaller sized combined arms concept that was more comparable to historical light cavalry, LRDG, Black Prince - but under the assumption that there would be no continuous front-line. I still think that assumption made/makes sense for first two days of alliance defence against surprise attack.
      This agile brigade concept is rather a scale-up from that, with an infusion of the mentioned German WW2 veteran officer insights.

      There's little reason why the aggressor should have a monopoly on deep rapid attacks during the first days of war. The soft underbelly of attacking columns is a tempting target and airpower may not yet be able to strike it (until air defences are worn down).