Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Reviews, whether they are spending, defence or in the current case, integrated foreign, security and defence, are opportunities for radical thought. They are times to set an agenda and gain advantage. Now is the time for the British Army to take that advantage; to demonstrate its willingness to embrace the national aspirations, and national prosperity, post-BREXIT and post-COVID.
Time now then for the General Staff to comprehend the political tide, understand the national mood and to show leadership in the defence part of the Integrated Review. The British Army remains a vital part of the national story and it can contribute to levelling up and prosperity in the immediate future. As the armed forces are bound to shrink with the decline in available cash, the British Army is well-placed to adapt to the new reality by taking its own radical steps. It will not demean the soldiers if there is progressive thinking.
Over the last 20 years, the fighting strength of the British Army has decreased but its effectiveness has not lessened in the eyes of friends or potential adversaries. With fewer soldiers in the ranks, there is surplus equipment which can be used to the benefit of the nation. This is not a simple selling-off of surplus trucks and the older armoured vehicle fleet, but the wise use of the resource which has been handed down to the General Staff and on which it should capitalise. Surplus kit of every description abounds in stores up and down the country. There is world-class expertise in every unit.
One way to capitalise on the surplus is a forward basing strategy. This would entail moving equipment to an Allied nation in, say, the Baltics or the Gulf, and plugging into training facilities. This would allow British troops to train with allies and the allies themselves to benefit from having direct links with the British Army. It would help keep ‘fleets in being.’
Funding will always be a major consideration but by maximising the host nation support, yet keeping ownership of the assets, this would be coherent with Government thinking on Allied Capability enhancement. It would mean that smaller allies have access to British thinking on, say, armoured warfare, and the UK government would have a conventional deterrent forward for use, if needed, in times of tension.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ with forward basing. There is a menu of options depending on the appetite of the hosts and availability of the equipment. In one country or region, there would be a need for a mixed armoured battlegroup to be based and train there; in another, it might be reconnaissance focussed, or artillery focussed battlegroup. The key is flexibility and the need to fit the defence requirement, national security requirement and foreign policy objectives together in a coherent way. That’s defence engagement and diplomacy as a role for the British Army. NATO has already a coined a term for it: eFP standing for ‘enhanced Force Presence’. Forward basing shows political will and should suit the ‘burden sharing’ agenda in the White House too.
Exports are key feature of the prosperity agenda. Simply put, by levelling up through employment, in areas which are desperate for jobs, and earn foreign investment for the national prosperity agenda, exports provide jobs and tax revenue. The British Army’s sister service, the Royal Air Force has shown its willingness to contribute to aerospace exports during the last two decades thereby enhancing its own capabilities and improving its stock with No 10.
For example, supporting the sales of Typhoon jets and the associated training and support, including British-made weapons, has been a major success in making the industrial sector the country’s most important industrial foreign currency earner. One success story is the joint Qatar-UK squadron which trained in Britain to initial operating capability and then deployed to the Gulf to achieve full operating capability.
Several countries are now in the market for an enhanced mobility armoured vehicle, such as Boxer which is being manufactured at Telford for the British Army and has already been delivered across NATO in Germany, the Netherlands and Lithuania as well as being selected by Australia. There is a good potential export market to bring in funds and, by increasing production, help with the government’s levelling up agenda in Telford, Washington and Stockport. Others may be interested in the new turret being developed for the Challenger 2 main battle tank and which can fit other tanks where it is the armament which needs updating, not the automotive or chassis.
For the British Army, working together with allies and exports are real opportunities. For example, releasing some its first production Boxer vehicles and creating joint units to gain the initial operating capability for export customers. What’s the advantage to the General Staff? On several levels this works well – politically with No. 10 & the Treasury, diplomatically with our key partners and allies, and it would benefit the British Army with training opportunities. Deferring the production payments with an export order would also help the Equipment Programme which, for the British Army, is running hot in 2023-25. What’s not to like? Innovation at the heart of the British Army? It is not just technological innovation but a way of thinking – for Defence, for Prosperity and for the Nation.
Paul Beaver is a former Editor-in-Chief of Jane’s Defence Weekly, a retired Colonel (Reserves) and was a specialist advisor to the Defence Committee of the House of Commons for nearly 15 years. His views expressed here are his own.