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The primary objective of the Integrated Review was to reconfigure UK defence commitments around a more realistic and achievable set of foreign policy goals. This was necessary to ensure proper alignment between the things that we must absolutely do to protect UK interests at home and abroad with what we can realistically afford to do within our budget. Within military circles, defence academia and the wider armed forces community, there was an overwhelming sense that we were trying to do too much with too little. Therefore, a starting assumption was that instead of trying to do everything badly, we should identify the most important priorities and resource them properly, enabling a reduced set of commitments to be performed to the highest possible standard.
A second driving force behind the Integrated Review is Britain’s need to reconsider its place in the world post-Brexit. The Government’s Global Britain agenda means we will look beyond Europe’s borders to trade more widely with Commonwealth and other international partners. This is not a rejection of Europe. It is about leveraging our renewed independence to unlock fresh opportunities internationally. We will obviously continue to trade with Europe, even if there is an inevitable increased cost of doing so, but our European neighbours remain vitalstrategic and economic partners.
Thirdly, there has only been one serious attempt to re-set our defence priorities since the end of the Cold War. This was the 1998 Defence Review 1 Unfortunately, 9/11 and the resulting deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan ensured that its plans were never properly implemented. A decade later, we had become embroiled in what were widely considered to be two unwinnable wars. To make matters worse, the global financial crisis of 2008 caused an economic meltdown. When David Cameron’s coalition government came to power it embarked on a strategy of radical economic austerity to balance the budget. Consequently, the 2010 Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR)was not about managing UK defence needs, but cutting the deficit.2
The Defence Budget was slashed by £7 billion. Personnel numbers were reduced by 20% and multiple equipment programmes were cut outright, reduced in scope or deferred. It was the most shocking reduction in UK military capability since the drawdown that occurred after second world war. The worst aspect of this was that there was no underlying strategy that made sense of what was left.
Fourthly, the economic impact of the Covid-19 is likely to be much more severe than the global financial crisis of 2008. While the consequences will not become apparent until the virus is fully under control, the level of Government borrowing has been significant. This will require austerity on a whole new level. Unavoidably, this means that the Integrated Review has had to be a cost-reduction exercise.
For all of the above reasons, there can be no doubt that a new strategic blueprint was well overdue. The resulting output is divided into two core publications. One is a primary strategic blueprint: “Global Britain in a competitive age.” 3 The second is a Defence Command Paper: “Defence in a competitive age,” 4 which explains how the defence and security components of the overall strategy will be implemented.
The consensus view is that high level strategy paper provides a stunning and comprehensive discussion of geopolitical and geoeconomic factors, the future operating environment to 2030, the threats we must address, and the resulting defence and foreign policy challenges. The sheer depth and breadth of the Review suggests a wider rather than reduced set of commitments. If the underlying goal was to make defence more affordable and sustainable going forward, it is ironic that the Review implicitly makes a strong case for spending more. It is therefore difficult to see it as anything other than a triumph of aspiration over affordability – just like so many previous defence reviews, but this should not diminish its impact in defining a superb strategic narrative.
The second publication: “Defence in a competitive age” is less successful. While it is full of strategic nuggets, these are obscured by a poor overall structure, a fruit salad of complex military terminology, and weak communication. Defence stakeholders were expecting the Defence Command Paper to provide detail on many issues that had been in a state of limbo since the Modernising Defence Programme was proposed in 2017. 5
The overarching strategy of the Integrated Review reflects “a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific while retaining a Euro-Atlantic focus.” Note the word tilt is used rather than pivot. This suggests a recognition of the need to engage east of Suez, but not a wholesale realignment towards Asia. China has overtaken Russia as the principal threat, but the word competitor is emphasised rather than adversary. While Russia is the second most significant threat, the review document suggests that the problem is not Russia’s people or culture, but rather its leader who has become increasingly reckless and disrespectful of international law in order as a means of retaining his grasp on power. Other major threats include North Korea, Iran and extremist terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa and at home. None of these are new, but reflect a resurgence of peer or near-peer competition. The underlying concern is that we face multiple threats rather than a singular one, underlining the fact that future conflicts are extremely hard to predict. Whereas we need to prepare for the most obvious challenges, we also need to meet unexpected dangers that leap unexpectedly out of nowhere. Ultimately, we live in a world that is more volatile and dangerous than it has been at any time over the last 50 years.
Perhaps the most important outcome of Britain’s future defence priorities is an ongoing commitment to our nuclear deterrent through the renewal of our Trident SLBM submarine fleet and also the missile system itself. This sends a clear message to potential aggressors that any attempt to undermine or attack UK interests would be costly and futile. With a commitment to increasing total warship tonnage by 50% by the early 2030s, the Royal Navy emerged from the Review in the strongest position of the three services. The Royal Air Force lost out by having some of its older aircraft retired early, but a firm commitment to investing in new capabilities, such as the Tempest FCAS and the LANCA combat drone, will maintain its edge.
Unlike the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, whose propositions demonstrated an enviable focus and clarity, the Army did not provide a convincing summary of the key tasks it exists to perform. Anyone asked to describe the Army’s role and mission set in an elevator pitch would be hard pressed, but perhaps this is because it does too many things rather than too few. The weaker perception created by the Army’s submission is primarily due to its strategy still being a work in progress. However, its apparent reorganisation seems to reflect budget constraints more than being an estimation of the type of conflicts it expects to fight in future. Part of the problem is that when the Army describes a vision built primarily around expeditionary light forces, these are immediately associated with operations in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, discretionary wars that achieve indeterminate success are seen as peripheral to UK security and wasteful. Moreover, if the high-level strategy has identified a resurgence of peer threats, then we need to invest in high-end capabilities not light forces. The Army also failed to persuade key audiences that an increased emphasis on cyber, EW and other innovative technologies are relevant and credible. Of course, harnessing the power of technology is vital in enabling the Army to punch above its weight, but so much of the innovation we aspire to field is not yet mature, which presents significant operational risks. Therefore, the Army’s strategy needed to be a bridge to this brave new world, but wasn’t.
Given severe resource constraints, the Army had to choose between a larger force modernised to a lesser degree, or a small force modernised more extensively. It chose the latter. Prior to the writing of the Defence Command Paper, there was already a perception that the Army 2025 plan had become unrealistic and unaffordable. As expected, the Army suffered most from Integrated Review rationalisations. The reduction in headcount from 82,000 to 72,500 is a blow, but not as great as the 20,000 soldiers it lost in 2010, and with current headcount at around 77,000, the effective reduction will be less pronounced. Although the new headcount cap will be achieved through soldiers exiting the service voluntarily rather than by making redundancies, it is hard to see a 12% cut in numbers as anything other than a serious loss of critical mass.
Russia has a standing army of 280,000 and China 975,000. Countering such large forces requires NATO armies to maximise their collective headcount so that we are not overmatched by sheer quantity. France has an Army of 114,000 and Italy one of 99,950, but Britain and Germany now lag significantly with armies of 72,500 and 61,000 respectively. 6 As has been said repeatedly: modern conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and ferocity, so you go to war with the Army you have, not the one you’d ideally like. And, if you are not in the right place, at the right time, with the sufficient mass, you lose quickly and decisively.
To make matters worse, it is rumoured that all infantry battalions will be reduced in headcount to 450 soldiers or fewer. This decision has apparently been driven by the desire to protect cap badges. If correct, reconfiguring the Army to preserve tradition and history is madness. Infantry battalions need mass above all else. If this requires a few sacred cows to be slaughtered, then it is the price of effective modernisation. The regimental system is undoubtedly one of the Army’s great strengths and any reduction in the number of cap badges, like pruning a rose, must be managed with care and sensitivity; however, the Army simply isn’t large enough to support 50 different regiments.
The Army’s future plans became a little clearer when it released a follow-up paper: “Future Soldier – Transforming the British Army.” 7 It still isn’t clear what the final organisation will look like, but an idea of the final structure is beginning to emerge. (See the draft organisational structure below.) The document suggested that the strategy is a work in progress, which partly explains why the Command Paper lacked detail and clarity. The full plan will be released when an ongoing workstream, Project Embankment, publishes its recommendations at the end of the summer.
What was announced is that all combat arms will now be organised around “Brigade Combat Teams.” This is a US Army term used to describe a combined arms brigade that deploy with its own combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) assets. The force will be divided into 3 (UK) Division with two Heavy Brigade Combat Teams (HBCTs) and a Deep Reconnaissance Brigade Combat Team (DRBCT), plus1 (UK) Division with two Light Brigade Combat Teams (LBCTs) and an Air Manoeuvre Brigade Combat Team (AMBCT). If this gives ultimately leads to the Army having two deployable divisions, or six deployable brigades, it will be a massive win.
It was further announced that individual combat brigades would have combined logistics and maintenance battalions as per the US model. So long as these are of a manageable size, they should enable the Army to generate more deployable forces that can be supported at reach. Again, the detail explaining how supporting arms, including engineers, signals, and medical units, would be incorporated into the BCT structure was missing. But, if this makes the Army more usable, then it is also a positive outcome.
In addition to the above, there will be a Combat Aviation Brigade Combat Team, and an ISR Brigade with the Special Forces group unchanged. It is not clear whether there will still be a separate artillery brigade, but this is assumed until we hear otherwise. Nor is it certain how many brigades in total will be deployable and what level of divisional support assets they will have. However, the emerging organisational structure already seems more coherent than the previous one, which featured too many ad hoc infantry battalions that would have deployed without armour or artillery support.
The Heavy Brigade Combat Team and Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team structures come across as cobbling together the kit we have, rather than being a considered effort to resource an optimised structure. Three identical HBCTs and three identical LBCTs would be preferable, not least because this creates more efficient force generation cycles, with one brigade deployed, one preparing to deploy, and the third resting and regrouping after a deployment.
There is plenty of evidence that UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, has been watching YouTube videos of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The sight of Armenian armoured vehicles being hammered by Azerbaijani loitering munitions will drive UK adoption of similar high tech weaponry. While this is welcome, it has also led to doubts about the ongoing viability of heavy armour. This is a false pathology. Naturally, we need to take advantage of the new targeting opportunities offered by loitering munitions. But correspondingly, we need to address the vulnerabilities they create for legacy systems. Reducing the total number of armoured vehicles mistakenly overlooks the capability they provide. History shows that units deploying in armoured vehicles suffer less casualties than those who deploy without protection. The most important lesson from Nagorno-Karabakh is that we need to invest in air defence systems that counter drones and loitering munitions.
The reduction in UK MBTs is therefore disappointing. The Army’s 227 Challenger 2 tanks was an ideal number that provided three regular regiments plus a training regiment. However, only 148 will be upgraded to the Challenger 3 standard. Worse still, the Warrior IFV upgrade programme was cancelled outright. This amounts to a net loss of 380 armoured vehicles and seriously undermines the Army’s ability to counter peer threats. At a time when we are reorienting our ground forces to fight high intensity conflicts versus peer adversaries, this seems counter-intuitive. This loss of capability disqualifies the UK for operating in partnership with the US Army for operations that require an Armoured Infantry component, such as the Gulf War of 1991 and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The decision to cut the Warrior CSP programme can be justified on grounds that it had been ongoing for more than decade without delivering. A production contract was meant to be placed in 2017, but reliability growth trials were still proceeding four years later. It is also worth noting that the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle programme has yet to deliver. As well as being five years late, there are still ongoing technical issues. Since Challenger 3 will only have a short service life, the reduction in numbers is partly being driven by a need to save money on both MBTs and IFVs in the short-term, with a longer-term aspiration to regenerate them when the budget allows. To a certain extent, a turreted Boxer could perform an IFV role, just as France’s 8×8 VBCI has replaced its AMX-10P tracked IFV. However, the Army has underlined an ongoing need for a tracked IFV, so we can only hope that the cancellation of Warrior is capability holiday rather than a total deletion.
Those responsible for the new structure have keenly stressed that the British Army no longer needs to counter a massed assault across Germany’s Fulda Gap, a scenario that previously defined the British Army of the Rhine’s doctrine and equipment. Instead, it is more likely that we will deploy forces to Africa, Asia or the Middle East, meaning that the Army needs to be “expeditionary by design.” While this is accepted, if we find ourselves needing to go toe-to-toe with a peer adversary, tanks and tracked IFVs will remain essential. Nothing else provides the level of all-terrain firepower, persistence and shock effect. Combined arms armoured brigades remain the most expensive unit of land warfare currency, but cost alone should not disqualify them being part of the future force. We certainly need lighter expeditionary forces that can be easily deployed and supported at reach, but an army of Foxhounds, Bushmasters and JLTVs will not have the firepower and resilience to prevail. The conclusion is that we need a mix of capabilities: heavy and light, but the new army structure, with Heavy and Light Brigade Combat Teams, will only deliver this to a limited extent.
In modernising the Army, we need place the right capability bets so that we are prepared for the most likely scenarios. This is easier said than done. Therefore, the future force needs to be flexible and easily reconfigurable. One advantage of the new Boxer 8×8 is that its mission module approach allows units to be designed around the task at hand. Put a turret module on, and it can perform an IFV role. Put an APC module on it, and it can perform a COIN role. The Defence Command paper suggests that there will be an increased investment in Boxer. Given that it provides high levels of protection, the ability to add an array of potent weapons and operational mobility, this is a welcome move. (Given the author’s close connection with KMW you would expect him to say this, but it also reflects his personal view.)
On the subject of Boxer, there was no mention of Strike doctrine in the Defence Command Paper. But there should be no doubt that this remains a major part of the Integrated Operating Concept. At the risk of repeating this statement ad nauseam, Strike is a way of fighting not a specific set of vehicles. The new structure suggests that the Army as whole is likely to become more modular and reconfigurable, so that it can perform different missions with equipment sets selected according to the threat, the mission, geography and terrain. This is excellent.
Fire and manoeuvre at brigade and divisional level is facilitated by armoured formations moving forward with artillery and missile systems providing support. During his speech to introduce the Defence Command Paper, the Secretary of State for Defence pointed-out that the reduction in headcount was necessary to fund new high tech weaponry. In particular, the Army will benefit from investment in new artillery, including an automated 155 mm mobile fires platform (to replace the defunct AS90 SPH), upgraded MLRS artillery (with the 150 km range G/MLRS-ER rockets and the 499 km US PrSM), new ISTAR assets, non-line of sight (NLOS) anti-tank guided weapons, and new air defence capabilities. These initiatives are much needed and highly anticipated.
An Army Special Operations Brigade will be established through the creation of a new “Ranger Regiment.” This will have 1,000 soldiers and will be seeded by four infantry battalions with the Yorkshire Regiment, Princess of Wale’s Royal Regiment, and Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment losing their second battalions. 4 Rifles will also be folded into the new organisation. The overall restructuring plan suggests that infantry will be reorganised around four separate divisions, but it is not yet clear how this will work. While the Ranger concept is interesting, it is hard to see how this unit will differ from the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment. Far better if 16 Air Assault Brigade had been re-positioned as an Army Special Operations Brigade or Ranger force without a name change. A new Security Force Assistance Brigade will incorporate four additional Specialised Infantry battalions, with each component battalion having a reduced complement of 250 soldiers. The problem with an increased number of special forces units, but reduced number of infantry units, is that the pool of talent from which SF recruit will be smaller.
With more Special Forces units, an ISR brigade and military intelligence units, the Army will be better equipped to compete in the “Grey Zone” below the threshold of conflict. Potential adversaries are already operating effectively in this space. With an increasingly blurred distinction between competition and conflict, the Defence Command Paper emphasises the need for the UK to be more active and assertive. However, if we start assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists or implant computer viruses that collapse the Russian banking system, we may erode our moral integrity, so such activities will need to be proportionate and well judged.
There was little substance on how equipment programmes would evolve, but it is expected that the Challenger 2 LEP will be accelerated. The Boxer acquisition may also be brought forward with additional quantities acquired. Ajax will continue, although it will be interesting to see what happens if new timelines are not met. As already noted, Warrior has been axed, but there was no mention of MRVP. Beyond the renewal of legacy capabilities, the Army envisages a hi-tech future with additional investment in autonomous systems, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data for the battlefield. At this stage, most of these aspirations will be implemented only by a limited number of experimental units. Although £24 billion of extra money has been allocated to defence, much of it will be used to ensure that existing plans are successfully implemented, rather than funding a further expansion in new capability areas.
Ultimately, the Army finds itself needing to renew a wide array of legacy capabilities while needing to embrace future technologies. It must do this in a constrained resource envelope when other domains, including Cyber and Space, are competing for its budget. There is also the issue that modernisation has been deferred so long that its needs to be more extensive than the budget now allows. The Army has not helped itself by changing its mind several times and by mismanaging delivery of important equipment programmes.
All things considered, the question that has to be asked, despite inevitable gaps, is whether defence is in better shape now than it was before the integrated Review? There can be no doubt that the 2021 Integrated Review is a quantum leap above its predecessors. All in all, it does an excellent job of providing a strategic blueprint that resets UK defence and security priorities. However, the Defence Command Paper is not yet a viable implementation plan. To judge its success, we will need to wait until Project Embankment publishes its recommendations in July. With the geopolitical environment evolving rapidly, there is a possibility that the Review will again be overtaken by events. So, regardless of the priorities set, we may need to adapt the plan before it is implemented and quite possibly in a different direction from the one we anticipated.
What can be said with certainty is that Britain has the fifth largest economy globally and is the second biggest spender within NATO, which means we make a serious contribution to global defence and security. This is backed-up by our nuclear deterrent and permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. While the UK may not be a superpower militarily, we are ranked third globally in terms of our soft power influence. 8 Many UK institutions contribute to this, including our education system, our legal system, and our system of government, which is truly democratic, open and accountable to the people it serves. We attract foreign investment, particularly in science and technology. The way in which we engage with international partners and competitors is always balanced and measured. Our culture and values make us a valued and respected member of the international order. So while we may not be superpower, we still wield considerable influence on the world stage. The UK’s armed forces remain an important and effective soft power tool to implement foreign and domestic policy. All three services are also capable of delivering a significant hard power effect, including the Army.
In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the British Army as a “contemptible little army.” Although it numbered only 250,000 soldiers compared to Germany’s 960,000, it was well-equipped, well-trained and highly professional, having learned many hard lessons during the Boer War. Despite its small size, it punched well above its weight. The contemporary British Army is also comparatively small, but equally well-trained, well-equipped and professional. Potential adversaries may still consider it to be contemptible, but, when all is said and done, it remains a force to be reckoned with.
Nicholas Drummond is a former British Army officer and now works as a strategic consultant serving the Defence Industry with clients in the EU and USA. Prior to establishing his own firm in 2002, he worked as Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company, London, where he specialised in marketing and related topics.
- 1998 Defence White Paper, House of Commons Library. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/rp98-91/
- 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, House of Commons Library. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn05743/
- Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy 2021, HM Government. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy
- Defence in a Competitive Age, 2021, HM Government. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/defence-in-a-competitive-age
- Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence Report, 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/931705/ModernisingDefenceProgramme_report_2018_FINAL.pdf
- Source: IISS, The Military Balance Yearbook, 2020
- Future Soldier – Transforming the British Army. UK MoD, March 2021. https://www.army.mod.uk/media/11826/20210322-army-future_soldier-publication-final.pdf
- Source: Global Soft Power Index, Brand Finance. https://brandfinance.com/press-releases/uk-ranked-3rd-in-world-for-soft-power-prowess