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Rebuilding the British Army

October 20th, 2016

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

The news that the personnel strength of the British Army had dropped below 80,000 for the first time in over two centuries came as little surprise to many military observers. Pay freezes, the end of UK combat operations in Afghanistan and an economy that – at least for the moment – appears to be growing steadily makes the Army an unattractive career option for many. In a similar vein, last month’s claim by retired Army General Sir Richard Barrons that the UK military was desperately ill-positioned to fight a major conventional war was hardly a revelation. The same point has been made by many, including, a few months prior, by retired Army General Sir Richard Shirreff in his fictional book 2017: War with Russia. Whilst the novel itself is not exactly up there with Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising or General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, its outlining of the current limitations of the British military are deeply disturbing – particularly given that they come from a former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The Human Security Centre has also sought to outline the challenges faced by the UK’s ground forces – most notably in our recent submission to the House of Commons Defence Committee’s inquiry into the Government’s strategy for the Army. But however much complaint the current situation elicits, it is only through a clear understanding of the requirements demanded of the British Army following last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR 2015), the challenges the force faces, and the possible solutions to those challenges, that a way ahead can be charted.

Following SDSR 2010 and the subsequent 2011 Three Month Exercise, the Army had five core taskings: completing combat operations in Afghanistan; shrinking the regular force to 82,000; restructuring to support a new operational model; growing the Army Reserve to 30,000; and withdrawing from Germany. By 2015, the former three tasks had been broadly completed, and major inroads made on the latter two. The deployable ground force that was left, however, was a husk of its former self. Post-SDSR 2010, the Army was expected to deliver a division whose combat formations would comprise of an armoured infantry brigade and a small air assault brigade, with the remainder of the force rounded out by whatever elements of 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines were available, or a brigade provided by an allied country. This force model is in itself probably an overly optimistic interpretation of what could be achieved: General Shirreff has himself stated that “the deployment of a brigade, let alone a division at credible readiness, would be a major challenge”.

The New Vision

For a brief period after SDSR 2015, it looked like the British Army might be about to enjoy a mini-renaissance. Whilst there was never any prospect of an increase in the 82,000 regular soldiers plus 30,000 Army Reserves stipulated in the Army 2020 plan, the additional financial resources and internal restructuring outlined by SDSR 2015 presented the prospect of a UK land force returning to a level of deployability not seen since prior to SDSR 2010. Now, the intention is for a Reaction Force division of three Army brigades – two armoured infantry and one ‘strike brigade’ – to be deployable, with elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade also potentially being available in support. Given the stated desire in SDSR 2015 to create an expeditionary force some 50,000 strong – up from the 30,000 of SDSR 2010 – it can be assumed that the Joint Force 2025 land component will comprise of around 40,000 personnel.

In theory, this will be accomplished by the Reaction Force keeping one of its two armoured infantry and one of its two strike brigades (together with elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade) at high readiness to deploy at all times. On top of this would be some sort of contingency for also mobilising the second armoured infantry brigade in a strategically meaningful – although presumably not rapid – timeframe. These efforts would be facilitated by the combat service support provided by Force Troop Command. The remaining six notional infantry brigades of the Adaptable Force will be used as a pool of the (reservist dependent) combat units that are not attached to the Reaction Force, and possibly to provide one or two deployable infantry brigades at extended notice.

How this will actually work in a real-world scenario is currently unclear. A year after SDSR 2015, the Army is still trying to translate the basic framework into a detailed plan under the Army 2020 Refine initiative – otherwise known as Project Marble Arch. However, even though it is conceivable that current numbers could be restructured to provide for a division-sized ground operation, a number of Adaptable Force units will have to undergo painful transformations to free up the personnel to support such an expeditionary force. In part, it is already clear that the recently announced halving in size of five infantry battalions and the retasking of them to support the training of foreign forces is being driven by the need to free up personnel for other roles. Although it has been speculated that those leaving these battalions will be, in the immediate, used to increase the strength of undermanned combat units, most sorely needed for Joint Force 2025’s ground force element to be a success are enhancements to the combat service and support units – most notably in the field of signals, engineering and logistics.

Those leading the post-SDSR 2015 transition do at least have the luxury of time: the capabilities outlined are not planned to be fully deliverable until 2025. But in a broader sense, even if it proves possible to drastically improve the mass, readiness and combat support of the deployable force, such internal reorganisation will do little to solve the other problems the Army faces – all of which will likely require significant new resources to resolve. Three of the most notable issues – all linked – are:

  • Poor rear area defence capabilities: all of the conflicts of the last thirty years have seen the British Army operate from broadly secure main operating bases. Both non-state and state actors are rapidly acquiring the capabilities to mount precision strikes against such facilities.
  • Dependence on air power: the British Army possesses only limited long-range offensive assets, and has grown reliant on the easy availability of air power to support its operations.
  • Capability shortfalls and gaps: numerous capabilities have been either reduced or eliminated entirely, as they were perceived as less of a priority in an era of peacekeeping and counterinsurgency.

These points were reflected in General Shirreff’s comments from last month, in which he stated that the Army “has grown used to operating from safe bases in the middle of its operating area, against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale”, and “Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort”. He also noted that key capabilities have been stripped out to save money.

Poor rear area defence capabilities

Examined individually, it is possible to see paths to mitigating these issues, but the resources that would be required – financial, human and material – will be challenging to make available.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghan have demonstrated, even opponents of limited ability can cause damage to main operating bases using indirect fire weapons. The need to defend Basra Air Station and other locations from mortar and rocket fire saw the solution of taking Phalanx close-in weapon systems from ships – which were originally designed to destroy anti-ship missiles – and mounting them on the back of trucks to shoot down incoming projectiles. In classic UK Ministry of Defence style, this capability was scrapped as soon as the war ended.

Future threats to bases of operations are likely to prove far more challenging than those faced in Iraq or Afghanistan: GPS systems and commercially available drones now make precision attacks possible for even moderately capable terrorist groups and insurgencies. Even very basic improvised weapons such as the Volcano weapon deployed by some rebel groups in Syria are lethal challenges. State-level actors, with options ranging from air strikes to ballistic and cruise missile attacks, present a threat the current British Army is broadly ill-equipped to handle.

At the most basic level, the retirement of the land-based Phalanx system has left the Army without an ability to shoot down incoming projectiles. Ideally, an Iron Dome-type system would be adapted by the Royal Artillery for such contingencies. The state of more conventional air defence provisions is even more woeful: General Shirreff’s claim that the Army only had sufficient assets to defend Whitehall actually under-sold the problem. Rapier and Starstreak – quite apart from only equipping one regular regiment each – are surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that are short-range and useless against targets flying at higher altitude. Ideally, the Army requires a SAM system along the lines of the Norwegian/National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), with shorter-range weapons acting as a backstop. The situation will be improved slightly with the replacement of the Rapier with the Common Anti-air Modular Missile (CAMM) from 2020, but limited systems numbers will still constrict the footprint of the area that can be properly protected. In general terms, the Army looks likely to have to continue to depend on the RAF or the UK’s allies for defence from aerial threats.

Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) is a pipe dream for the British Army. Although there is a strong case for saying that Britain will never engage an enemy equipped with such weapons without US support, there is an argument to be made for a pooled effort with other nations – perhaps similar to the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force – to alleviate some of the pressure on the US BMD force that is already in high demand in the Pacific. Even an off-the-shelf purchase of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would prove expensive, but an arrangement which saw the US partially fund a jointly operated system might prove tempting to accept for members of Congress seeking to protect defence contractors’ jobs.

Dependence on air power

Not only is the Army dependent on the RAF and allied forces for air defence, but recent decades have seen the UK’s ground forces grow increasingly reliant on air power to secure objectives. These arrangements were born of necessity and prudence. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, overstretched Army units often needed the force multiplication capability air power provided, and – risk of collateral damage permitting – there was little point in heroic charges into an enemy stronghold if a 2,000lb bomb could deal with the problem. But at the same time, the UK’s potential state-based adversaries are increasingly deploying Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities. These comprise not only of advanced SAMs – with the Russian S-300 and S-400 being the most notorious examples – but also cruise and ballistic missiles capable of striking the bases which house UK and allied aircraft. In any conflict in Eastern Europe, Russian ground forces would almost certainly be fighting under the protection of A2AD ‘bubbles’ that would prove complex to take down. The British Army must, to at least a limited extent, be able take care of itself.

The difficulty here is that the offensive strike power of the Army’s Royal Artillery has been badly hollowed out in recent decades. The shift from three ‘heavy’ armoured infantry brigades to two armoured infantry brigades and two ‘medium’ strike brigades may see heavy artillery units cut by a further one-third. In contrast, Russia’s use in Ukraine of advanced conventional and rocket artillery – not to mention a sophisticated electronic warfare capability – has demonstrated not only that such systems can still dominate the battlefield, but that the West has in many areas fallen behind. Even then, the need for a façade of deniability of involvement in Ukraine demanded that high-end equipment such as the Iskander missile be left at home by Russia.

Whilst a return to a large number of massed artillery formations is out of the question for the British Army, recent reports indicate that it does appear to be taking current inadequacies seriously. The ‘Strike 155’ programme is designed to secure a wheeled or towed 155mm heavy artillery capability for the strike brigades – a critical move if they are not to be stuck with the towed 105 mm L118 light gun. Front runners to equip the two regiments necessarily include the French CAESAR system. The two remaining armoured infantry brigades will both presumably retain the 155mm AS-90 tracked self-propelled system, although it is itself badly in need of an upgrade to improve its firing range.

Probably more important to the long-range striking power of the Army, however, is the future of its rocket artillery force. For over two decades the Royal Artillery fielded the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) as a saturation fire weapon, with a single volley of rockets being able to blanket an area of one square kilometre with submunitions. An international ban on such weapons and the requirement for long-range precision fire support in Afghanistan led to the MLRS being rerolled into a Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), which fires rockets with unitary warheads up to 70km. The twin needs are to both provide a lighter weight rocket system to the strike brigades and ensure that both it and the existing GMLRS have a capability more in line with potential adversaries. ‘Project Colgreve’ is designed to fulfil at least some of these requirements. For the strike brigades, the wheeled US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is the obvious choice. The trick, however, will be to ensure that both the GMLRS and potentially the HIMARS system can perform both long-range precision strikes and mass fire support. For the former, the currently in development Long-Range Precision Fires missile, which will give a range of 500km is the most suitable option. As regards the latter, ‘grid square removal’ operations – whereby everything in a given area is destroyed – without the hangover of cluster munitions could be enabled by the UK buying into the Alternative Warhead Programme.

Capability shortfalls and gaps

There can be no getting past the fact that certain capabilities, whilst still existing on paper, have been allowed to whither to the point that they would lack resilience in the event of a major conflict. Air defence and artillery systems are only two areas of weakness, and the path to remedy the present situation is likely to be long – partly because the course currently charted by SDSR 2015 may make some of the problems worse.

The downgrading of one armoured infantry brigade to a strike brigade is likely to see the British Army not only lose a third of its tracked artillery, but also the same proportion of its tanks. At present, the Army has only three regular armoured regiments, each with a notional wartime strength of 56 Challenger 2s. A cut back to two regiments would make actually fielding two – one for each armoured infantry regiment – little short of a miracle. Creeping obsolescence in the tank fleet is also a major issue: an invitation to tender has been issued for the upgrade of “up to” 227 vehicles. The pending cuts make this number unlikely, and pressure to keep costs down looks set to limit the scope of the upgrade – with the replacement of the 120mm main gun looking to be particularly ambitious. Whilst boosted by media hype and plagued by delays, Russia’s deployment of the T-14 tank and its apparent ability to protect itself from current generation anti-tank missiles raises some difficult questions about the West’s increasing dependence on such weapons in place of the high-velocity armour-piercing rounds that only a tank can carry. The British Army’s reliance on its Apache helicopter fleet – now to be recapitalised by the purchase of 50 AH-64E Guardian aircraft – to deliver much of its anti-tank capability is now increasingly questionable, particularly given the air defence environment in which such helicopters may find themselves operating.

A further capability shortfall that may emerge from SDSR 2015 is in armoured reconnaissance. Originally, the Army’s purchase of the Ajax family of vehicles was designed to replace the 1970s-vintage CVR (T) family in this role in the armoured infantry brigades. Now, it seems that the plan is to concentrate all Ajax vehicles in the strike brigades as the centre of their offensive power. This would leave a gaping capability gap in the armoured infantry regiments by either stripping them of their armoured reconnaissance element completely, or forcing some sort of improvised solution.

Linked to this is SDSR 2015’s stated intent to procure a wheeled 8×8 mechanised infantry vehicle for the strike brigades. The main variant is likely to indirectly replace the Afghanistan-era Mastiff and Ridgeback vehicles. Leading contenders are currently seen to be the French VCBI, US Stryker and the German/Dutch Boxer (reportedly the current favourite). However, by apparently limiting the vehicle’s armament to a 12.7 mm machine gun, the UK is making the same mistake as the US did with its original Stryker model – a mistake it is now attempting to rectify by back-fitting its fleet with 30mm cannon and anti-tank missiles. Indeed, the current plan for the strike brigades is that their heaviest direct fire weapon will be the 40mm cannon of the Ajax, meaning that they will lack any vehicle mounted anti-tank capability. Incredibly, this is not just a strike brigade issue, but also one for the entire British Army. Since the retirement of the Swingfire missile system in 2005, there have been no vehicle mounted anti-tank missiles available at all.

The above, of course, covers only the most high-profile deficits. Less attention grabbing, but equally important, are issues such as the replacement of the 1960s-era FV430 vehicle in the support role with the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle, which seems to be going nowhere fast. Additionally, the electronic warfare systems of the Army are tightly classified, but there is nothing to indicate that a genuine offensive capacity is being considered for development.


It goes without saying that all of these issues come down to money. It will not be possible to recruit sufficient personnel to sustain the Army at the required level – let alone expand the current force – without an attractive pay offer. The equipment budget is already tight for the limited set of programmes currently outlined, and falls far short of facilitating the necessary requirements defined above. The budget will now be further stretched in the wake of a collapse in the value of the pound following the UK’s vote to leave the EU.

If the division-scale quantity promised by SDSR 2015 proves impossible to marry with the necessary quality, there may be a need to reconsider priorities. The last thing the UK, US or NATO needs is a Britain that fields a numerically strong force that buckles under pressure. If that is all that can be delivered, a ‘brigade+’ deployable force that can achieve everything that it is tasked to do may be a preferable option – even if it does not look as attractive in the order of battle.

Image: MoD/Crown copyright 2015 (Link)

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.