The British Army is in chaos. It is embarking on its third restructure in just over ten years, it lacks essential capabilities in long-range fires and air defence, it has lost its Warrior IFV and there are significant problems bringing its new Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle into service.
Review and review again
The Conservative government’s latest Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published in March 2021 – its third major defence review since entering office in 2010 – will cut the size of the British Army further from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025 and is only upgrading two-thirds of its Challenger 2 MBTs to Challenger 3 standard.
An army paper entitled ‘Future Soldier’, published just after the IR, provided some initial sight of plans for a major reorganisation and a revamped structure centred on new Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs). This is yet another major change following the previous ones set out in the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSRs). The British Army seems to be in a state of perpetual transition, attempting to embark on one set of reforms before the goalposts are moved.
Following each of these reviews, the army undertook a large-scale reorganisation whilst having its size and capability trimmed. Meanwhile, senior leadership in the army, MoD and government seem to be lacking any strategic direction about the role they want the British Army to perform. This is largely because of the absence of any serious national grand strategy for the UK military, or the country’s place in the world.
The 2010 SDSR was primarily a cost-cutting exercise, but its ‘Army 2020’ reforms planned to focus its high-readiness rapid reaction force around three Armoured Infantry Brigades (AIBs) in its 3rd Division equipped for high-intensity combat. The following 2015 SDSR attempted to repair the damage of the 2010 cuts, but under its ‘Army 2020 Refine’ policy, it changed the 3rd Division’s structure to form two heavy tracked AIBs and two new medium-weight armoured ‘Strike Brigades’ out of the three earlier AIBs. This was to be achieved by 2025.
But the new US-style BCT structure means that the Strike Brigades are out of vogue before they were even in. Now, the army’s 3rd Division will be centred on two new Heavy BCTs (HBCTs) and a Deep Recce Strike BCT. Its 1st Division will have two Light BCTs (LBCTs) and a new 1st Aviation Manoeuvre Brigade. The army’s rapid response force would be centred on the 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Aviation Brigade alongside a Combat Aviation Brigade. The 6th Division will have a Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) and there will also be a Special Operations Brigade that will include a new Ranger Regiment.
- Senior leadership in the army, MoD and government seem to be lacking any strategic direction about the role they want the British Army to perform.
- The 3rd Division will be the only heavy division of any major NATO army to have fewer than three manoeuvre brigades.
- The loss of 380 upgraded Warrior vehicles that were to be delivered under WCSP has deprived the army of its IFV.
- If the Ajax programme is cancelled, then the problems for the British Army become very serious.
- Without the Warrior IFV and the loss or delay of Ajax, it means the new British Army BCTs will not be able to perform the roles required of them.
- It is not just the heavy armoured vehicles that have issues.
However, the details released so far are limited. If the BCTs follow the US example, then they will have their own assets for logistics and combat support, making them much more self-sustainable. But it is not yet clear what these will include, whether there will be a separate artillery brigade and further information about the combat support services that include engineers, logisticians, signals and medics has yet to be disclosed as they are being downsized. Furthermore, there are still decisions to be made about the role and make-up of the Army Reserve – usually a sensitive political issue.
Additional work to put some flesh on these bones is being completed under the army’s Project Embankment and is awaiting confirmation at the political level. Therefore, any public announcement is likely in the November 2021 timeframe after the UK’s political party conference season.
Stretched too thin
In ‘Future Soldier’, Chief of the General Staff, Gen Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, stated: ‘The army will be leaner, lighter, faster to respond, and more effectively matched to current and future threats.’ He added that the 3rd Division would be ‘at the heart’ of its warfighting capability and ‘built around a modernised nucleus of Ajax, Boxer, Challenger 3, AH-64E [Apache] and long-range precision fires with associated surveillance assets’.
The problem is that the nucleus Carleton-Smith refers to is far from ready or as capable as it once was. As part of the IR reforms, only 148 Challenger 2 MBTs (two-thirds of the existing inventory of 227) will receive the upgrade to Challenger 3 standard and the remainder will be retired. The original 227 would have been enough for three regiments of MBTs plus a training regiment, but that is no longer possible. Meanwhile, the Boxer APCs have yet to begin deliveries.
Speaking in a podcast with Shephard just after the publication of the IR Command Paper, Ben Barry, senior land fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, stated: ‘The plain fact is that the ground manoeuvre power of the 3rd Division goes down by one-third. Because whereas it was planned to deploy with three brigades, it now plans to deploy with two. And there’s an inconvenient truth that that’s going to make it less capable. It will be the only heavy division of any major NATO army to have fewer than three manoeuvre brigades.’
Furthermore, questions have to be asked about how the 3rd Division’s HBCTs will fight without the Warrior IFV and what will happen should the Ajax programme experience significant delays or fail to deliver. The cancellation of the Warrior Capability and Sustainment Programme (WCSP) upgrade was expected in some quarters following years of delays and cost increases. However, the final decision was seemingly taken at the last minute, throwing the British Army’s plans into disarray.
The loss of 380 upgraded Warrior vehicles that were to be delivered under WCSP has deprived the army of its IFV, an essential part of its new HBCTs that are needed to support the Challenger 3 MBT in armoured manoeuvres. Without one, the army faces a tactical problem as it will not be able to engage peer armoured forces in close quarters – this is a big loss.
According to Barry, ‘the focus is going to change to how they fight to the deep battle rather than the close fight. And the British Army has to design a different way to address this without Warrior and use other assets better in terms of Apache, Challenger, Ajax and Boxer, as well as utilise more deep fire effects.’ A replacement IFV could be found, but this would require new funds and a new programme.
Stopped in its tracks
Issues with the Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle emerged just a couple of months after the IR, effectively pulling the rug out from under defence planners. The contents of a government Infrastructure and Projects Authority report were leaked on social media in June that detailed serious systemic problems with the introduction of Ajax that had emerged during army trials where noise in operator headsets and excessive vibrations had injured test personnel.
As a modern digitised and networked vehicle, Ajax was expected to be the core tracked armoured platform in the army’s former Strike Brigade concept but is now a central component of its HBCTs and Deep Recce Strike BCT, providing essential ISR information.
Subsequently, at the end of June, the Ajax project failed to achieve its IOC and the future of the entire programme is now in serious doubt. The UK defence minister, Ben Wallace, has told Parliament that the government is committed to bringing Ajax into service but admits that it might not be by the 2025 timeframe expected. Remedial efforts are under way.
A July hearing of Parliament’s defence select committee on the Ajax programme could be described as embarrassing in the extent of the denial of responsibility and obfuscation from the political, official, military and corporate leadership. Apparently, no one knew anything about any of this until the last minute, it all comes as a massive surprise to them, and everyone is jolly well trying as hard as they can to fix it. This kind of behaviour goes a long way to explaining the malaise in the UK defence sector overall.
If it cannot be fixed and Ajax is cancelled, then the problems for the British Army become very serious. Without armoured reconnaissance, it will not have a persistent forward armoured ground-based ISR capability. This will restrict armoured manoeuvre if the battle formations do not know what lies ahead. It leaves the army reliant on the existing Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) – (CVR(T)), which is a 50-year-old design and obsolete.
Barry emphasised that armoured reconnaissance is an essential capability: ‘It makes it easier for you to do the right thing with your forces because finding the enemy is a classic function of combat. If you haven’t got adequate manned reconnaissance as an army, you’re significantly less effective.’
He added: ‘There’s no shortage of other vehicles [that] could be purchased to fill the scout/reconnaissance role. How quickly they can be bought is another thing.’ Alternative solutions to Ajax include using airborne and unmanned ISR assets that are neither protected nor persistent, but this may be the only option until the situation is resolved.
Without the Warrior IFV and the loss or delay of Ajax, it means the new British Army BCTs will not be able to perform the roles required of them. The structure will be there, but the assets to perform key functions and deliver vital capabilities will be absent, in effect a paper tiger.
But it is not just the heavy armoured vehicles that have issues. The Multi-Role Vehicle – Protected (MRV-P) programme that is supposed to deliver light mobility to the HBCTs and LBCTs was not mentioned in the IR and Command Paper. The options are being reviewed, but MRV-P could find itself completely recast.
If in the future the army will focus instead on the deep battle, it will need to deliver long-range fires platforms that can provide a capability to neutralise enemy formations at distance. However, Nick Drummond, a consultant and advisor to German armoured vehicle manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, told Shephard that the UK’s artillery capability is ‘woefully behind the curve’.
A new 155mm gun for the HBCTs to replace the AS90 and a replacement for the 105mm towed light gun are needed – the latter either a vehicle-mounted system or a 120mm mortar. About £800 million ($1.1 billion) will be spent over the next ten years on a new Mobile Fires System for close support.
Furthermore, Drummond highlighted the need for a long-range precision fires system. An upgrade programme for the UK’s M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) was announced in March. This will allow the M270 to fire both the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System – Extended Range (GMLRS-ER) as well as the US Army’s new Precision Strike Missile (PrSM).
A spokesperson from the UK MoD told Shephard: ‘By 2026, all of our 44 M270 MLRS launchers and 4x Repair and Recovery Vehicles will have been upgraded.’ GMLRS-ER, which has a range of 150km, more than doubles the existing 70km range of the MLRS and will be in service with the Royal Artillery by 2025. The Command Paper stated that £250 million will be spent on GMLRS over ten years. PrSM will replace the US Army’s MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System from 2024 and has a range of 499km, but it is not clear if the UK will buy PrSM at this stage.
In terms of other munitions, Drummond said that a new antitank weapon will be needed to replace the existing Javelin system when it goes out of service in 2025, and ‘the most important munition of all’ is the need to acquire a loitering munition ‘that we can distribute widely amongst all brigade types’.
The other area in need of urgent attention is air defence. The British Army has not had any long-range air defence capability since it retired its Thunderbird surface-to-air missile in the late 1970s. It currently has only one proper medium air defence regiment, which is set to be equipped with the Land Ceptor/Sky Sabre system that should enter service this year, but only in small numbers. There are only 49 Starstreak High Velocity Missile Very Short-Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) systems mounted on the CVR(T) Stormer platforms that need modernising. This is barely enough to protect a single brigade, never mind larger mobile formations or other military facilities.
The Command Paper has vaguely committed to ‘new air defences’, but its ‘Integrated Force 2030’ image shows only the silhouettes of the Stormer/Starstreak and the Land Ceptor systems in its Air Defence Regiments. There do not appear to be any plans for new or expanded mobile longer-range ground-based air defence systems which could be expected to cost billions. There is also a requirement for a mounted counter-UAS air defence cannon and the Command Paper does mention plans for a short-range counter-UAS system.
Meanwhile, the IR stated that the army’s rapid deployable force will centre on a new Global Response Force made up of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade/Air Manoeuvre BCT. There is also the new Ranger Regiment of 1,000 troops that will sit within the Special Operations Brigade that will be used for worldwide deployments.
However, there is a contradiction in the IR. On the one hand, it creates a Global Response Force formation, but on the other, it is retiring the RAF’s fleet of C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft. This means that the UK’s airlift capability is reduced, making the force much less responsive. The A400M transport aircraft and extended-range CH-47 Chinook helicopters will not be able to make up the difference in numbers, and they provide very different capabilities.
The new Ranger Regiment will be made up of four infantry battalions and initially seeded from the four existing Specialised Infantry Battalions (1 SCOTS, 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS and 4 RIFLES) and it will have to fit somewhere alongside the capability already provided by the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment in 16 Air Assault Brigade. The Combat Aviation Brigade is also expected to receive 50 modernised Apache helicopters that will increase its capability.
Within the 6th Division, the SFAB will also comprise 1,000 troops made up of four special infantry battalions. Speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare conference on 2 June, Maj Gen James Bowder, General Officer Commanding of the 6th Division, said it would be ‘optimised for operations to constrain competitors using unconventional activity’.
Bowder said that the SFAB ‘sits at the heart of the army’s expeditionary posture during the next decade’ and builds on the success of the specialised infantry that were created under the last review. He explained that SFAB ‘will hone a number of battalions to be optimised to build capacity and capability of partner forces and in extreme situations to fight alongside them’.
So as the army embarks on its latest journey towards another new structure, Barry said that it must take time to plan and complete the transition. ‘There are organisations, battalions and regiments that have to be moved, battalions and regiments whose roles change… The Defence Command Paper is very vague on actual deadlines apart from alluding to a joint force of 2030. But there will be an imperative on the army to get on with it because they want to realise the financial savings.’
With the constant redesigns, procurement failures and reductions in troops, armour, air defence and artillery capability over time, the British Army is probably in the worst condition it has been for a generation.
The army has serious organisational and equipment challenges to overcome, but they are not insurmountable.
Maybe this is to be expected as the service transitions from performing a COIN role as its primary mission back to a force fit to confront near-peer rivals. It has serious organisational and equipment challenges to overcome, but they are not insurmountable.
Traditionally, the army has been small in size and metaphorically used as a projectile fired by the RN to be deployed for strategic effect. It is not a continental army for fighting large-scale ground wars, and despite recent history, it should not be designed for this purpose – that role should be performed by the continental European states.
This logic dictates that the reduction in the size of its larger heavy armoured brigades is acceptable if not desirable, as long as the force gets all the other equipment it needs to become a modern army suited for high-intensity conflict with the ability to deploy rapidly and possessing the combat power to win the battles it is sent to fight.
With clear strategic goals and honesty about how it will achieve them, the British Army can become a capable and effective force to be reckoned with. However, looking at the progress of current programmes and delivery timetables, it is unlikely to achieve this within the decade.
Follow the author at @sweeneygov.