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More range or more Rangers – the fight for the future of the British Army.

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In 2015 the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, stated that the British Army had ‘bent [itself] significantly out of shape from 2007 onwards to be able to deal with the challenge that we were confronted with in Helmand’. Adding that its people, its skills, its equipment, and how it operates had been adapted to such an extent during the counter-insurgency campaigns that elements may no longer be relevant.1 As the British Army and, more broadly, the Ministry of Defence work through the implications of the third strategic restructure inside a decade, it is clear that the British Army is struggling to find its role and with that its relevance.  Today, there is a paradox at the centre of the British Army: does it want to be ‘useful’ providing options across the military spectrum for our politicians, or does it want to be ‘ready’, being able to fight and win when required? It has, after more than a decade of trying, demonstrated that it cannot be both.

What do we want the Army to do?

The British Army states that it exists for four reasons: to protect the UK, to prevent conflict, to deal with disaster, and to fight the nation’s enemies.2 Whilst these outputs have stayed constant for decades, views on how an Army might achieve them have not.  Produced in 2011, following the outcomes of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (and working within substantial financial constraints), Army 2020 was the British Army’s plan to make itself both more useful and more ready. It reorganised the Army’s structure by focusing on sustaining an enduring brigade level operation.  Fast forward five years and, once again, the MOD decided that changes were needed.  The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, under the context of the rise of Islamic State and the 2014 invasion of Crimea, sought to reorganise the Army. This time the focus was on a Divisional level of operations.

This round of changes, nattily named Army 2020 Refine suggesting a continuum rather than the complete re-hash that it was, sought to make the Army both more ‘useful’ (generating light, agile, and more ‘lethal’ forces under the guise of an expeditionary-minded 1ST UK Division) and more ‘ready’ (focussing on the Armoured formation of 3RD UK Division which sought to generate ‘the full spectrum’ of warfighting capability at appropriate readiness scales).  What was consistent through these restructuring initiatives was that decisions were being made not only within significant financial constraints but also with little to no evidential decision-making actually occurring. As confirmed by the UK’s National Security Council, ‘no definitive evidence of an active experimentation programme in the development and implementation of Army 2020’ had been provided. Indeed, the House of Commons Defence Committee noted that the MOD ‘need[ed] to justify how the conclusion was reached that the Army 2020 plan of 82,000 Regulars and 30,000 Reserves represented the best way of countering these threats’.3

Context

2021 was an abysmal year for the British Army.  The cessation of operations in Afghanistan closed the page on a long, bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful period of British military history, leaving ramifications for Afghanistan that will echo for generations.  In many ways the catastrophic implosion of Afghanistan has forced the Army, the MOD, and the UK public to talk openly about its failings.  It is frustrating, but perhaps not surprising, that both the MOD and the Government are resisting calls for a Chilcot-style enquiry.  Two decades of operational failure and a nation in tatters should, at the very least, justify a demand for a formal enquiry so that lessons can be learnt, that the ‘truth’ about what happened can be identified, so that we can apply the lessons identified and move forward appropriately.

A steady drumbeat of fraudulent activity and failures of values and standards demonstrated by British Army officers has driven a further divide between its senior leadership and its soldiers.  General Carter’s comments about Afghanistan, calling the Taliban ‘country boys’ and questioning if they were the enemy, have demonstrated the tone-deafness and hubris of the Army’s leadership. This endemic failure is not in isolation either. Programmes identified as fundamental to the British Army’s future, such as the Ajax armoured vehicle programme, have flopped due to decades of poor decisions generating substantial scepticism and further mistrust. There is a growing clamour for accountability. The British Army cannot continue to fail at almost all of its outputs (less for homeland crisis response) and expect no one to ask why. Within this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the British Army has been dealt a difficult set of cards from the Integrated Review. The soon-to-be-selected new Chief of the General Staff will face significant challenges.

The Integrated Review, whilst having many positives, has made decisions about the British Army without any supporting evidence. The British Army will, once again, become smaller with its ability to war fight being pinned to a technological solution that does not yet exist.  Whilst having a mixed robotic and human force in the future may become reality, one needs only to look at how technology has failed to deliver in the realm of autonomous cars to see how challenging generating technological solutions can be.4 It is within the foregoing context that the Future Soldier programme is starting from a very low base: confidence is low, soldiers are frustrated, and the chasm between political comments and the coal face of military activity is arguably starker than it has been for generations.

The Future Soldier programme is the latest incarnation of the British Army’s quest to gain increased relevance. Future Soldier has the ambition of building a ‘modern, world-class Army that is more agile, more integrated and more expeditionary – ready for the next challenge, not the last’.5 It is easy to be critical; it is full of the ‘platitudes of change’ that has permeated Defence-speak for the past decade. What Future Soldier does do, however, is regenerate the debate about ‘useful’ forces and ‘ready’ forces, fundamentally asking the questions about what we want the British Army to do.

A ‘useful’ Army

 One of the cornerstones of the Future Soldier programme is the Army Special Operations Brigade concept, with the new Ranger Regiment at its centre. Whilst the British Army has tried hard to demonstrate that there is some heritage in this idea, there are some substantial questions about what these units will do.  There are also questions about if they would ever be allowed to conduct their alluded-to full range of operations.  This unit is claimed to offer politicians the ‘option of switching from training and assisting to accompanying and fighting alongside our global partners’; however, it is hard to look past this being a rehash of a previous idea introduced as the Specialised Infantry of Army 2020 fame. Equally, the programme does not explain how it is truly different from the swelling pool of ‘useful’ and ‘special’ units being generated across the MOD, including the equally ambitious Future Commando Force concept.

Whilst the Chief of the General Staff has claimed that this new regiment will match ‘brainpower with firepower’, it remains unclear whether the Ranger Regiment will inspire the political support needed to deliver on the ambitious claim that they will be completing accompanied missions across the globe. As RUSI’s Jack Watling articulates, this fundamentally comes down to a political-risk appetite.6 Accompanied missions – the idea that one not only trains but also fights alongside a specified nation’s forces – are challenging, require a significant amount of specialist resources, to which most of the UK does not have access, and, most importantly, require political permissions and support, which can never be guaranteed.7 Additionally, ‘boots on the ground’ which is exactly what accompanied missions are have received an almost allergic reaction in parts of Whitehall in recent years, mostly because the risk of death and injury is substantially increased.  Even if one believes that the British Army can – given time – generate this capability, this leaves a substantial political-shaped question mark over this force’s utility.

The Army Special Operations Brigade is an additional gamble, but it is a gamble that the Army has had to take. In its quest to demonstrate utility, the Army has had no choice but to develop a concept, not necessarily based on any sound academic, historical, or demonstrable examples of success.  Along with the US, which continues to resource this concept significantly,8 the British Army has been partaking in ‘building partner capacity’ operations for decades. Indeed, the language surrounding the Ranger Regiment’s outputs bears a striking resemblance to what was once called Joint Force 2025, as articulated in the UK’s Defence Engagement Strategy released in 2016. Recently, the UK’s own building partner capacity operations have occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine – all with questionable value and success. It is not clear if this would have changed with the very limited partnered operation capability that is being offered by this new concept.9 Recent academic works have gone as far to say that partner building capacity operations have ‘failed dismally’. 10 The verdict is still out on whether this attempt to generate capability and usefulness will be a success. Generating a force capability where function follows form is rarely recommended, but the utility this offers during a period of ‘constant competition’ might allow the British Army to generate activity and options for politicians.

 A ‘ready’ Army

 The British Army has, for the first time in decades, struck away from the notion of having a ‘full spectrum capability’, that being the idea of having a little bit of everything in the military toolbox. 11 Whilst the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have made the hard decisions in the past to take capability ‘holidays’ – most notably with the RAF’s maritime surveillance capability and the RN’s aircraft carriers – the Army has decided, or been told, to cancel a capability that it not only had relied upon in the past decade but one in which it had also invested heavily.  The resultant decision to cancel the Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle is one that, whilst making some financial sense noting delays and risings cost, is illogical when framed within the wider Future Soldier construct.

Within the next five years, the British Army will be the only NATO Army without armoured infantry in its toolbox.12 The Army has publicly commented that it is ‘under no illusions’ that its wheeled vehicle replacement, Boxer, will not be able to directly replace Armoured Infantry. However, it has rather woollily stated that it will need to ‘design’ a different way of fighting’ to make use of them. The Defence Command Plan stated that Boxer will ‘deliver soldiers around the battlefield, travelling long distances quickly, cross country, and in the most austere and hostile environments’. 13 This is a mistruth.  Boxer is a credible piece of equipment with operational pedigree, but even with a concerted media campaign lauding Boxers’ utility, it does not alter the facts that when one needs tracks on a vehicle, only tracks will do.

The mobility of vehicles is of course a trade-off, and the wheels-versus-tracks debate has rolled on for years. In some instances, it makes sense.  The Royal Artillery – one of the Army’s ‘winners’ from the Integrated Review – is seeking to replace its tracked 155mm self-propelled gun. For what is required from a self-propelled artillery system on a 21st century battlefield, a wheeled vehicle is logical and potentially more useful. In contrast, an armoured infantry fighting vehicle is designed with one purpose in mind: to protect infantry up until the point of disembarkation where it offers suppressive fire support to gain a footing onto an enemy position.  Trying to do this in a vehicle which is always going to struggle in the softest and wettest conditions – because physics does not change, no matter how good the sales pitch – will cause alarm to our allies and more so our soldiers who have to use this kit.

Some may recall the British Army’s Strike concept, which spoke of dispersed deployments, at range, with an ability to concentrate at critical junctures. Met with confusion by some, it was sold as a new way of fighting and was a key aspect of Army 2020 Refine. Unsurprisingly, having not been able to solve many of the critical viability requirements, such as logistical support, and with its key equipment type Ajax being less than ready, it has been shelved as a concept. This is another example of what happens when you make a decision without available evidence.

The ‘new’ concept, and one that appears to be gaining significant traction at the heart of the 3rd UK Division is the Deep Reconnaissance Strike concept.  In its simplest structure it seeks to prioritise the deep battle by linking sensors from reconnaissance vehicles to drones, and directly linking them to a newly invigorated fires capability based on existing long-range rockets and traditional artillery.  In many ways, it is a carbon copy of the Russian Recce Fires Complex.  Evidence from conflicts in Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and from campaigns throughout the Middle East have demonstrated the utility of organisations of this nature. The big question mark for the Army is its ability to deliver on the key equipment programmes needed to make this concept work. With concerns surrounding Ajax’s future and many of the fires capabilities not due for another ten years, it will be some time before the British Army sees this capability deliver outside of the simulated world.

The British Army’s most challenging role remains to fight and win. Indeed, Future Soldier has reinforced that ‘the ability to conduct high-end warfighting remains the core of the British Army’. The hardest fights are always likely to be against states or state-backed opponents. Since historically threat perception has driven responses and resources, the decisions made in this Integrated Review should be seen as a public statement that the Army is currently unable to do this.  Some have argued that the British Army will not be able to ‘field a force for high-intensity combat for the best part of a decade’, but one could argue that this review goes further.14 The capability cuts, along with poor understanding of the Army’s new warfighting concept, sends a significant message: not only is the British Army not ‘ready’ today for its most arduous task, but, in a decade when some of the ideas ‘might’ materialise, it will only be ready for ‘certain’ tasks. This is a message that reduces the credibility of the British Army and one that, once its full implications are understood, will be greeted with glee and distain from adversaries and allies alike.

 A very British Army paradox

The British Army is running headlong into a self-generated paradox. Fundamental to this is that it does not really know what it wants to be, and, once combined with its historic unwillingness to stick to any idea or concept for more than five years whilst trying to do everything asked of it, it is being systematically taken apart by the political Whitehall machine. Without irony, the British Army has called its approach an ‘iterative strategy’,15 but a strategy that veers and hauls is anything but ‘iterative’. Within the British Army, there is no agreed concept on how it might fight in a future war. Nor is there a clear and concise narrative about how it might get there. This is the crux of the issue and one that sees the British Army on a steady decline in its numbers, its capability, and its ability to deliver on the revolving door of its stated objectives.

Recent claims that NATO is ‘brain dead’ can be directly extrapolated to the British Army.16 Without a clear vision of the future, the Army is always going to lose out to the political nature of the UK’s Defence and Security reviews. As articulated by the Australian former High Commissioner to UK, Alexander Downer, ‘A poor government just manages events. A strategic plan, though, requires careful planning and thought’.17 In five years’ time, there will be another review, and if the British Army still does not have an agreed concept of what it does and how it does it, it will lose out – again.

This paradox began when Army 2020 was designed. The Army’s plan, and its equipment plan in particularly, remain too expensive.18 Future Solider, once the gloss is taken away, has simple doubled down on this approach. The Army is taking another gamble here.  Similar to that which the Royal Navy took with developing and funding its Carrier Strike Group, the Army is hoping that it can demonstrate utility and relevancy with the hope that further funding will come in due course. This, could be, a very expensive gamble.

Some of these issues lie with the system itself. The MOD ‘Centre’ acts ‘more like a referee than a shepherd’, to the detriment of all the UK’s defence key outputs.19 Furthermore, the Army hinders its own ability to generate a credible strategy. The Army’s Strategy Team (based in Army HQ, Andover) is a small team with limited capacity and, come defence review time, is forced to generate offers of what the Army can do and pitch those offers into the Centre. Forced to think and plan ‘strategically’ on a short timescale and with limited resource, the Strategy Team has no choice but to work in secret ‘compartments’. These reactive constrictions stifle debate, stop critique, and constrain the depth and quality of ideas. This approach does not help us break away from the ‘dishonest conversations’ that Defence is accused of having.20 Thus, when a ‘strategy’ is subsequently released, the presentation comes as much as a surprise to the Army as it does to the nation. We can and must do better than this.

What’s next?

To conclude, it is not clear if the UK is capable of a truly strategic Defence Review. Arguably, the structures in Whitehall and the political processes are simply not set up to operate that way.21 The key takeaway for the Army, following a bruising Integrated Review, is that it must be better at generating and managing its vision in line with these constraints.

By contrast, much can be learnt from the Royal Navy. The Carrier Strike Group (CSG), which under its new guise has just completed its first six-month deployment, is a successful albeit imperfect example of this in motion. This is not to say that the CSG capability is free from controversy or criticism. One does not have to look far to find cries of ‘white elephants’ and concerns that future weapons will make the CSG more vulnerable or irrelevant.22

What it does demonstrate, however, is that a clear vision, prioritised by the Royal Navy and ruthlessly reinforced within a central narrative, has delivered a world-reaching capability – it was a gamble which has most definitely paid off. It may not be a perfect capability, but it offers a sound basis for the future and one that can be developed. It is also a capability that has now generated its self-fulfilling narrative, as seen by the recent Defence Select Committee report: ‘We’re going to need a bigger Navy’.  Come the next Integrated Review, this will be seen as a massive win for the Royal Navy.

The British Army is walking a tightrope of indecision and has reached an inflection point. The next five years must be spent adding meat to the bones of the Future Soldier plan. Rightly or wrongly, Future Soldier is the direction of travel the Army must work to; it cannot repeat another decade of indecision and illogical thinking without sound strategic direction. One must hope that the British Army has the opportunity to work out what it IS and what it wants to DO before ‘opportunity’ comes knocking.

James Burton

Nom de plume. Fanboy of the real James Burton, author of the Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard - played by Cary Elwes in HBO's 1998 production The Pentagon Wars. 

Footnotes

  1. The Future of the British Army: How the Army Must Change to Serve Britain in a Volatile World. Chatham House transcript from General Sir Nicholas Carter KCB CBE DSO ADC.
  2. British Army website. What we do – We are always ready to serve. https://www.army.mod.uk/what-we-do/ Accessed 2 Jan 2022
  3. House of Commons Defence Committee.  Future Army 2020. Ninth Report of Session 2013–14. Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes and oral evidence.  https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmdfence/576/576.pdf 
  4. Why we still don’t have self-driving cars on the roads in 2021. https://theconversation.com/why-we-still-dont-have-self-driving-cars-on-the-roads-in-2021-162646 
  5. British Army Future Soldier Guide. Accessed 31 Dec 21. https://www.army.mod.uk/media/15057/adr010310-futuresoldierguide_30nov.pdf 
  6. RUSI Commentary, ‘The British Army Restructures for Persistent Deployment’, 25 Nov 21, Dr Jack Watling, Accessed 29 Dec 21. https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/british-army-restructures-persistent-deployment
  7. Major (Ret’d) Andrew Fox, MATCHING BRAINPOWER WITH FIREPOWER – THE BRITISH ARMY’S NEW RANGER REGIMENT. UK Land Power, 14 Dec 21. Accessed 15 Dec 21.  https://uklandpower.com/2021/12/14/matching-brainpower-with-firepower-the-british-armys-new-ranger-regiment/
  8. MWI PODCAST: WHEN SECURITY FORCE ASSISTANCE WORKS—AND WHEN IT DOESN’T. John Amble, 16/12/21. Accessed on 29 Dec 21 – https://mwi.usma.edu/when-security-force-assistance-works-and-when-it-doesnt/ 
  9. Antony King, Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century, Sep 21, pg 167.
  10. RUSI Whitehall Paper 99, Necessary Heresies. Challenging the Narratives Distorting Contemporary UK Defence. Justin Bronk and Jack Watling 2021, pg100.
  11. Jonathon Shaw, ‘Britain in a Perilous World’, London, Haus publication, 2014. Pg.2.
  12. Strategic Comments, ‘Global Britain’: implications for UK military strategy and capability’, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Volume 27 Comment 28 September 2021.
  13. RUSI Commentary, ‘The British Army Restructures for Persistent Deployment’, 25 Nov 21, Dr Jack Watling, Accessed 29 Dec 21. https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/british-army-restructures-persistent-deployment.
  14. RUSI Commentary, ‘The British Army Restructures for Persistent Deployment’, 25 Nov 21, Dr Jack Watling, Accessed 29 Dec 21. https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/british-army-restructures-persistent-deployment.
  15. Maj General Chris Tickell, Keeping the Competitive Advantage, British Army Review – 175, Summer 2019, pg7.
  16. The Economist, Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead’, 7 Nov 2019 – https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/11/07/emmanuel-macron-warns-europe-nato-is-becoming-brain-dead?gclsrc=aw.ds&gclid=Cj0KCQiAq7COBhC2ARIsANsPATHLQcwtQNmNzItjfNHs6MNQOauiLgeGvBBdMwvUAMUNRZ1S_TcRRDsaAmz0EALw_wcB 
  17.  Centre for Defence Studies. The Integrated Review in context: A Strategy fir for the 2020ss? July 2021. Pg 59 
  18. National Audit Office. The Equipment Plan 2020-2030.Accessed 8 Jan 22 –  https://www.nao.org.uk/report/equipment-plan-2020-2030/ 
  19. RUSI Commentary, ‘The British Army Restructures for Persistent Deployment’, 25 Nov 21, Dr Jack Watling, Accessed 29 Dec 21. https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/british-army-restructures-persistent-deployment 
  20. RUSI, Western Way of War podcast, Episode 77: So What Did We Learn, if Anything? https://rusi.org/podcasts/western-way-of-war/episode-77-so-what-did-we-learn-if-anything
  21. Jonathon Shaw, ‘Britain in a Perilous World’, London, Haus publication, 2014. Pg.3.
  22. The Economist, Aircraft-carriers are big, expensive, vulnerable—and popular, Nov 14th 2019 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2019/11/14/aircraft-carriers-are-big-expensive-vulnerable-and-popular 

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