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Defence Command Paper Refresh – Every Soldier Counts

The UK Defence blogosphere is awash with articles about the forthcoming Defence Command Paper Refresh. Many consider the British Army’s priorities within the wider geopolitical implications of recent events and do an excellent job of stating a high-level case for change, but very few provide concrete details about exactly what needs to evolve and how. This article is therefore focused on the nuts and bolts of what the revised Future Soldier Guide needs to include and provides specific recommendations about how the Army needs to be restructured within Defence.

WHERE WE ARE

At its heart, the 2021 Defence Command Paper was about developing a grand strategy that would align the United Kingdom’s foreign policy with its defence policy. From a strategic perspective, there was a need for a reset that would make defence relevant and credible to deter or counter the range of threats we now face. From a financial perspective, there was a need to make defence more affordable and sustainable going forward. This required the UK to re-assess its place in the world, including recognition of the fact that, despite having significant global interests, we are not a superpower. Consequently, the challenge was to define a more realistic and achievable set of reduced defence commitments, to resource these properly, and to perform these to the highest standard.

The British Army’s component of the 2021 Defence Command Paper was the Future Soldier Guide, released in December 2021. This did not form part of the primary document because the Army’s initial proposition was rejected, so wasn’t ready for inclusion when the Defence Command Paper was published. Ultimately, the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper were used to justify a further round of cuts, which diminished their authority in establishing a new strategic vision. The reduction in Army headcount, the loss of more Challenger 2 MBTs, the cancellation of the Warrior IFV upgrade programme, the early retirement of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport fleet, the reduction in E7 Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft, and the deferral or cancellation of other key modernisation programmes are remembered more than the excellent statement of policy that the Integrated Review provided.

The Defence Command Paper correctly identified Russia as the primary threat while acknowledging China as a secondary challenge. With both potential adversaries possessing peer or near-peer forces, it seemed incongruous that the British Army was forced to deplete its heavy armour resources. However, the move towards lighter forces can be partly explained by an evolved geopolitical environment. Unlike the Cold War, where we faced the singular threat posed by the Soviet Union, we must now be prepared to counter a wider range of potential aggressors (see Figure 1). In addition to Russia and China, North Korea and Iran are both committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. Islamic extremist groups continue to pose a danger in Africa and the Middle East. There is also a sixth non-specific risk, the Black Swan event – a totally unexpected situation that erupts out of nowhere.

threats to the UK

Figure 1

During the Cold War, the bulk of the British Army was forward deployed to Germany, close to where it would have actually been used. In 1991, it was needed to fight a different conflict in the Persian Gulf. Deploying it was expensive and difficult, because it was never designed with operational mobility in mind. Even when you are prepared to respond to the most likely threat, having armed forces designed to perform a single task with units forward deployed to overseas bases is inefficient and risky. Adopting the same kind of strategy today creates the danger of having the wrong type of forces, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As a result, the over-riding requirement is to make the Army “expeditionary by design.”

In response to the above threats, the Army re-defined its roles as Protect, Constrain, Engage and War Fight. These are based on the continuum of conflict model, where states move from friendly cooperation, to competition, to confrontation, and then to a state of conflict. Unfortunately, the above four roles are not unambiguous, standalone concepts. They need to be translated so that non-military people can properly understand what they mean in terms of actual tasks the Army might be expected to perform.

In basic terms, the Army’s core roles and tasks include the following:

  1. Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA). This is helping local populations within the United Kingdom, British Overseas Territories, and Crown Dependencies respond to natural disasters. Usually, it does not require the use of force unless the rule of law is threatened by a particular situation.
  2. Training & Mentoring. This is supporting the forces of our allies and partner nations, enabling them to take responsibility for their own security. The British Army assumed such a role as we exited from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was designed to allow the security forces of these countries to become self-sufficient. This mission set was the inspiration behind the establishment of the Ranger Regiment and might have become a dead-end had the war in Ukraine not happened. In fact, the newly formed Ranger Regiment played an invaluable role in preparing the armed forces of Ukraine to defend themselves.
  3. Hybrid Warfare. This is the employment of information manoeuvre methods to control or influence political narratives that support our wider strategic objectives. It may require a proactive or reactive response to counter disinformation by potential adversaries. This mission set was used as the basis to establish 77th Brigade. In the light of reduced headcount and a constrained budget, we need to ask ourselves whether this role should not be a GCHQ mission set rather than an army one.
  4. Low-Intensity Security Force Assistance. This role is primarily concerned with peacekeeping. It includes training and mentoring but also accompanying a partner force on operations. It further encompasses counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism tasks. It describes a higher level of risk than training or mentoring, but the role tends to be bounded by low levels of political risk appetite and a lack of long-term commitment.
  5. Medium Intensity Limited War Fighting. This encompasses combat operations bounded by time, geography, military objectives, and risk appetite. It might include independent action by the UK against a near-peer to retake sovereign territory, e.g., the Falkland Islands, to restore legitimate government in the event of a coup or an operation to rescue British nationals threatened by events in a Crown Dependency or Commonwealth partner, e.g., civil war in Sierra Leone. It could include deployment as part of a United Nations force or as part of a NATO coalition.
  6. High-Intensity War Fighting at Scale. This is a major international conflict and encompasses an expeditionary deployment in response to NATO Article 5. This would most likely be conducted in partnership with our NATO allies. Our current enhanced forward presence in Estonia might require us to actively counter Russia should it decide to extend its territorial ambitions beyond Ukraine.

This range of roles and tasks, which are common to most NATO armies, has seen four primary force types emerge and these were used as the basis of the Future Soldier Guide (see figure 2):

Light forces – Deploys quickly but has less firepower and resilience

Heavy Forces – Has more firepower and resilience but deploys less quickly

Medium Forces – Has both firepower and resilience while deploying quickly, but has less speed than light forces, and less resilience than heavy forces

Specialised Forces – SF and specialist units able to conduct hybrid, proxy, and information warfare tasks

Figure 2

The aim of Future Soldier Guide was to create a new strategic blueprint for the Army. This divided it into three core elements: the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ, the Field Army, and Home Command. The Field Army consists of three primary combat divisions plus Field Army Troops, a grouping the Army’s supporting arms and services together. Despite appearances, only one division is actually deployable, 3rd (UK) Division (see Figure 3).

The highly credible Army 2020 plan developed by former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, was scrapped. Developed in 2016, this envisaged a future force with eight brigades. Like the current plan, only one division was actually deployable, but this was comprised of two heavy armoured infantry brigades and two medium strike brigades. The core force was supported by two light Infantry brigades, a security force assistance brigade, and an air assault brigade. The Army’s inability to deliver the Warrior IFV upgrade programme and the lack of budget to fund an alternative meant that the Army 2020 structure was not viable.

Figure 3

One question that the 2021 Future Soldier Guide tried to answer was whether the Army should be more focused on Euro-Atlantic challenges, reflecting the growing danger posed by Russia, or adopt a more global posture, acknowledging China’s ascent in the Indo-Pacific. The simple answer was both. An over-riding aspiration was therefore to make the Army usable at home and abroad. The new force structure included eight brigades as before, but the two medium and two heavy brigades were condensed into two hybrid armoured brigades (a mix of heavy and medium forces). A new deep reconnaissance strike brigade was added, plus a light mechanised brigade, an air assault brigade. The Army’s big idea was a special operations or Ranger brigade. This is supported by a security force assistance brigade, and a further light infantry brigade (see Figure 4). This amounts to seven different brigade types. Critics say the Army has been reduced to a collection of light infantry battalions, or worse, has become a gendarmerie. What is undeniable is that only four brigades have the combat support enablers needed to sustain them on operations. This means only half of the Field Army is actually usable at any one time.

Figure 4

The security force assistance brigade and army special operations brigade, each have four reduced-size battalions with 250 soldiers per unit, so are not proper brigades at all. Intended to perform a training and mentoring role, they are designed to be plugged-in to other brigades as required. The light infantry brigade has no supporting assets, so is undeployable. The deep reconnaissance strike brigade is a re-named 1st Artillery Brigade but has no organic infantry, no enablers, and will be a paper formation until Ajax delivers.

Whenever the Army has been required to reduce headcount, and this has now happened four times since the end of the Cold War,[1] it has tried to maintain the same number of units and regiments within the existing structure. To conform with the revised cap, it has had to reduce the number of personnel within the units that remain. Over time, this has created a hollowed-out organisation that lacks mass and resilience. Infantry battalions used to have 650-700 soldiers. Now they typically have 450-500 organised in two rifle companies instead of three, while eight out of 31 battalions have just 250 soldiers.

The Army has become dependent on the Army Reserve to provide the additional personnel it would need to deploy. Regular Army reliance on the Army Reserve to backfill shortages in frontline headcount means the Army Reserve cannot focus on its primary tasks, which include providing battlefield casualty replacements for deployed units, providing specialist personnel, and, if facilitating the rapid expansion of the Army as a whole.

In summarising the changes made since 2021, it is hard to view the current force design as anything other than a disastrous compromise forced upon the Army through the combined economic impact of the pandemic, Britain’s departure from the single market, and now the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. However, the situation we find ourselves in has inevitably created a more constrained budget environment. The Army had no alternative but to make the best of it.

WHERE WE NEED TO BE

Through some strange quirk of fate, soon after any major UK defence review, some event comes along and drives a coach and horses through the new plan. Within seven days of the Options for Change defence review being published in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The 1998 Defence White Paper was never implemented due to 9/11 and the Global War on Terror that followed. The Army’s Future Soldier Guide was published in November 2021, and then Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Thinking about the implications of the conflict in Ukraine, defence think tanks have been quick to point out that the Integrated Review was aligned with the threat posed by Russia. This means that any refresh needs be a course correction not a fundamental reinvention. Building on this narrative, feedback from Ukraine over the last 12 months has revealed few things we didn’t know already. However, it has emphasised a number of important factors which are worth reviewing.

The first and most important insight is that Artillery is still king of the battlefield, accounting for the largest percentage of total casualties on both sides. This suggests that the Army’s planned investment in tube and rocket artillery is essential, especially if we wish to prioritise the Deep Battle over the Close Battle (see below). The United Kingdom is already committed to a modernisation programme that will upgrade its M270 G/ MLRS rocket launchers so that they can fire new munition types, including the new US Precision Strike Missile with a 499 kilometre range. The question is whether we have enough, and whether we need a wheeled HIMARS / PULS type launcher to augment our tracked systems. We presently plan to acquire 60 M270A2 launchers. This is enough for two regular regiments with 24 each plus a training battery with 12. Ideally, a wheeled multi-launch rocket system would give us an expeditionary capability. The success that Ukraine has achieved with HIMARS probably makes this the Army’s most important capability deficiency.

Ukraine shows that the threat posed by artillery makes protected mobility a universal requirement. Light infantry moving around the battlefield in unprotected trucks and jeeps is no longer a viable approach. An increased investment in armoured vehicles is needed across all force types to ensure survivability. The British Army is acquiring the Boxer 8×8 multi-role armoured vehicle (MRAV). This is ideal for expeditionary warfare roles as it combines operational mobility (on-road speed) with tactical mobility (off-road performance).[2] Boxer also offers best-in-class protection while its modular design allows a wide variety of different weapons to be mounted on it through its exchangeable mission module concept. As good as Boxer promises to be, it will only equip four battalions.

At present, the United Kingdom has 31 infantry battalions. Of these, only 8 have protected mobility. We should aim to increase this. As much as the Army would like more Boxers (as well as a new tracked IFV), we simply lack sufficient budget to equip all battalions with such vehicles at this time. Instead, we should acquire additional MRAPs (such as Foxhound and Mastiff) to ensure that as many battalions as possible benefit from the protection they offer. Again, this is something the Army has already recognised with its Protected Mobility Pipeline (PMP) programme. This envisages the acquisition of five new platforms with varying degrees of mobility and protection to replace 14 existing ones. Essentially, PMP is an MRVP reset. Given the shortage of fresh cash at the moment, expanding the protected mobility fleet is something we expect to do over time rather than needing to do immediately.

Another artillery-related insight from Ukraine is that counter-battery fire arrives sooner, making towed artillery vulnerable if not obsolete. This is due to counter battery radars, but also to the increased presence of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). The Army needs to replace its AS90 howitzers which are in an appalling state. Ideally, it needs a longer-range 52-calibre fully automated 155 mm howitzer that’s able to shoot and scoot. This is something else for which there is a programme of record, the Mobile Fires Platform (MFP) programme.2 The L118 105 mm towed light gun also needs to be replaced and this too is being considered. An obvious question is whether a 120 mm mortar could replace the 105 mm howitzer? The Army also plans to renew its artillery hunting radar system (MAMBA) so that its own offensive counter-battery capabilities remain on-point. With an ongoing programme to address this area of need, again there is little the Army needs to do beyond current funded initiatives.

The really important insight from Ukraine – and one that our US allies are very keen for us to take on board – is that combined arms manoeuvre remains central to re-capturing lost ground. Having previously viewed heavy armour as a “sunset capability,” we now need to restore our capacity to fight the Close Battle. This requires us to upgrade an increased number of Challenger MBTs (220 instead of 148) and to purchase a new infantry fighting vehicle to replace Warrior (600). A new medium weight tracked platform would be the only significant additional expenditure needed to restore this capability. Although we are prioritising the First Battle over the Second Battle, we still need the shock-effect, combat power and resilience that only heavy armour can provide to seize and hold vital territory. We have to accept that this is not affordable at the moment, but there is no reason why we cannot acknowledge the need and lock-in the requirement, so that future budget setting can plan for it.

Much has been made of the fact that armoured vehicles operating without infantry support are vulnerable to ATGM. The huge tank losses suffered by the Russian Army in Ukraine were primarily attributable to tanks being used incorrectly. In the second phase of the conflict, where Russia used proper combined arms tactics, it was much more successful in capturing Ukraine territory, which it has now held for almost a year. The British Army needs to ensure that its own offensive manoeuvre warfare doctrine and tactics are aligned with the risk posed by anti-tank weapons. This requires us to re-think how armoured vehicles are used in urban areas, ensuring that tanks are protected by dismounted infantry, and by adding soft- and hard-kill active protection systems (APS). From a defensive perspective, we need to ensure that our own ATGMs are suitable to defeat the armoured vehicles of potential adversaries. Since Javelin and NLAW have performed so well in Ukraine, we have little to worry about in this department.

While heavy armour has a continuing role, especially when deliberate head-on assaults are the only option to dislodge firmly entrenched enemy forces, we will increasingly rely on artillery to degrade enemy forces in situ. This requires us to target enemy units with increased speed and precision. To this end, UAS have become indispensable for a wide range of ISTAR tasks. Though the UK possesses a variety of UAS, systems like Watchkeeper are expensive and vulnerable. We do not possess enough and cannot easily replace them. We need to invest in a larger number of small, low cost, attritable drones and quadcopters and use these more widely for intelligence gathering, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance tasks. Again, this is something the Army is already doing.

The ubiquity of UAS and loitering munitions requires vastly improved air defence capabilities.
This means the Army needs to invest in an increased number of medium and short-range air defence systems (MRAD & SHORAD) so that we have an integrated and layered system. Though we have the brilliant MBDA SkySabre system (which combines CAMM / CAMM ER  and the SAAB Giraffe AMB) we only have 24 launch sets. This is simply not enough. We are already planning to mount the Starstreak HVM SHORAD system on Boxer, but in addition to surface-to-air missiles, we need air defence cannons, as we cannot afford to shoot down $1,000 drones with $300,000 missiles. When HVM was originally mounted on Stormer, the Army acquired 108 vehicles. It certainly needs this number of replacement systems.

Ukraine has amply demonstrated the ubiquity of modern C4I systems in creating fully digitised communication networks. The ability to share information via voice and data across formations, up and down the chain of command, and with allies and partners, enhances situational awareness. This allows faster. more reliable decision-making, and results in more effective command and control. The seamless integration of sensors to effectors establishes rapid and lethal kill chains. The British Army already plans to acquire a new software-defined C4I system to replace Bowman. This is expected to be delivered as part of the LEtacCIS programme through the Morpheus sub-programme. To be clear, this programme is the biggest and most important ongoing Army modernisation initiative. A fully-network force will be the glue that holds all of our new capabilities together. Unfortunately, there are persistent rumours that the open-systems architecture version of BOWMAN, called EVO, is late and potentially undeliverable. Fixing this should obviously be the Army’s top priority.

Process automation, the use of Algorithmic Warfare (AW) techniques, harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to analyse information provided by SIGINT, EW and open source data, can provide deep insights about enemy dispositions and intent. This is obviously an important new area of warfare. The military equivalent of Google, Palantir, believes that the investment NATO armies including the UK are already making in AW, AI, and machine learning has the potential to deliver a decisive advantage.[3] An example of this was EW / cyber teams in Ukraine monitoring open-source mobile phone signals from enemy combatants. A concentration of enemy forces was identified, which was then pre-emptively targeted with long-range precision guided munitions. Technology like this can enable small but highly professional armies, which is exactly what the British Army has always been, to deliver an effect that belies their small size.

The important secondary point to make about new technology is that it’s great when it works, but disastrous when it fails. So legacy capabilities need to be retained to de-risk innovative new systems as they mature.

Last but by no means least, Ukraine has forced Russia to relearn an old lesson at great cost. This is the critical importance of logistics. Done right, efficient supply chains can be a force multiplier. But the failure to support of troops on the ground can have disastrous consequences and reverse any inherent advantage. As noted above, the British Army only has sufficient CS and CSS units to support four deployed brigades. There is a clear need to invest in an increased number of enablers. It is not unreasonable to suggest that six brigades should be immediately deployable. As much as we need to reinforce our own logistical capabilities, we need to develop tactics that enable us to target enemy resupply locations and routes.

Before the Russo-Ukraine conflict started, the British Army’s modernisation priorities were already set with five key initiatives:

  1. Long-range fires
  2. Air Defence
  3. UAS / Counter UAS
  4. Electronic Warfare / SIGINT
  5. Logistics

From what we have seen in Ukraine, the British Army was prescient and correct to prioritise these initiatives. While the conflict has revealed several capability gaps, there is very little the Army needs to do beyond current new equipment initiatives. One essential task is to replenish stocks of munitions gifted to Ukraine. This includes re-evaluating what level of war stocks we need to maintain. We are already doing this, but we also need improved supply chain management and resilience to ensure continuity of supply. This means incentivising industry partners so that production lines can be quickly ramped-up in an emergency.

Fundamentally, the Army’s revised strategy must align capability development with force design, and force design with doctrine, and doctrine with existential threats. Though former-CGS, General Sir Nick Carter, is given a hard time for Britain’s final exit from Afghanistan, he understood this. One thing he got right was the UK’s Integrated Operating Concept,[4] which underpins the Army’s Future Soldier Guide. Much of his thinking has been validated by recent operations in Ukraine and suggests that the evolution of British Army doctrine and modernisation efforts are more sophisticated than the Army’s senior leadership gets credit for.

The UK’s Integrated Operating Concept is a recognition that we need to fight differently. Governments tend to regard large peacetime armies as costly insurance policies. There is little appetite to maintain them beyond a critical mass of size and capabilities, but there are vastly differing opinions about what the optimal peacetime size of the Army should be. The optimal peacetime size of the Regular Army is probably 85,000-90,000 with an Army Reserve of 25,000-30,000. It may even grow back to 80,000 personnel in the future, which would be more consistent with the size of our European allies’ armies. But, for the moment, we have to accept that any increase in headcount is an unrealistic aspiration.

Traditionally, Britain has maintained a small peacetime army that was able to grow quickly in time of war and then contract again afterwards. Today, however, conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and ferocity. It means we go to war with the army we have not the one we hope we could assemble in 6 to 12 months. Advanced capabilities can certainly help the Army punch above its weight, but without critical mass at the commencement of hostilities it will be overwhelmed.

Leveraging technology as a source of competitive advantage, the UK’s Integrated Operating Concept places an emphasis on using long-range precision weapons (deep fires) to engage enemies at stand-off distances. In other words, artillery has become the primary means of degrading an adversary’s war fighting capability. If you can destroy the bulk of an enemy’s forces at reach by fighting what is called the Deep Battle, you will avoid the need to fight the more dangerous and lethal Close Battle, or at least it will be more anti-climactic.

Winning the Deep Battle is about using C4I networks to connect sensors (e.g., weapon sights, image intensifiers, thermal imagers, UAS, ground-based radar, and satellite systems etc.) to effectors (artillery, mortars, rockets, and guided missiles). Traditionally, artillery firepower facilitated armour and infantry manoeuvre. Instead, we are witnessing a transition where armour and infantry now provide a forward screen that enables artillery to do the destructive work. Ukrainian frontline forces have been successful in passing UAS targeting data to artillery units. This has enabled Russian forces to be engaged at ranges beyond their ability to return fire. Part of its attractiveness  is that it less costly in terms of human casualties.

Ukraine’s defence of Kyiv graphically demonstrated the importance of fighting the First Battle over the Second Battle. The First Battle is concerned with a pre-emptive response to counter aggression. It’s about getting there first, or denial by presence  It requires a force to deploy quickly enough to prevent territory from falling into enemy hands. If you are the defender, an attacking force typically needs a three-to-one superiority in numbers to succeed. If, instead, you lose ground and are forced to fight the second battle to regain it, it is you who will need a three-to-one advantage in numbers to prevail. Attacking to recover lost ground is always more difficult than defending it to prevent its loss in the first place. Ukraine adopted a first battle / deep battle approach and this is what enabled it to halt the initial Russian assault. For the British Army, fighting the first battle / deep battle is essential to compensate for having a smaller army.

Any desire to prioritise the First Battle / Deep Battle doesn’t mean we will not have to fight the Second Battle / Close Battle. The one certainty of war is uncertainty. It means you will be surprised and you will lose territory. Fighting the Second Battle / Close Battle is about re-taking lost ground. It requires you to manoeuvre to a position of advantage from which you can physically dispossess the enemy of the territory you wish to control. Fighting the Close Battle is an inherent part of fighting the Second Battle. Winning the First Battle makes the Second Battle less brutal, costly, and difficult, but we are unlikely to be able to avoid this phase of war. Closing with and defeating an enemy physically is still the most challenging part of land warfare. This is why combined arms manoeuvre (armour, infantry, artillery, and air power working in concert) is far from redundant, and why NATO armies, including the British Army, still need to be resourced to do it. Ukraine unequivocally tells us that the Army needs to be refocussed around high-intensity war fighting at scale versus peer adversaries.

When it comes to properly regenerating NATO forces, a prevailing view is that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict will be long over before any new capabilities ordered today are delivered, so any uplift in defence spending is pointless. This is a totally mistaken belief. Despite catastrophic losses, Russia is not yet a spent force. Despite 100,000 soldiers killed [5] and 10,000 vehicles destroyed,[6] it has used any pause in the tempo of fighting to re-group, re-arm and conduct renewed hostile action. Whether Russia is defeated or voluntarily withdraws, it is still wholly committed to conquering Ukraine. There are fears that any peace deal concluded at this stage would only allow the recapitalisation of Russia’s military capabilities, paving the way for another invasion in due course. There is talk of Putin stepping down or being forced out, but among ordinary Russians the only reason to replace him is because he has failed, not because his actions are morally reprehensible and unjustifiable under international law. So far, Putin seems to have consolidated his grip on power. Whether he retires voluntarily or is ousted, his inner circle is comprised of people like him, who share the same beliefs, the same values, and who would pursue the same objectives. Regardless of who leads the country, Russia is unlikely to relinquish its territorial expansion ambitions. This means it will remain a threat to European peace and security for the foreseeable future.

Since 2021, the global geopolitical environment has become more dangerous, volatile, and unpredictable. Russia believes it is fighting a proxy war against NATO. China is being more assertive and openly aggressive towards Taiwan, but also threatens UK interests in Africa and elsewhere. The risks posed by these and other potential adversaries require us to demonstrate strength not weakness. The goal of any increased investment in defence is to achieve a deterrent effect which convinces potential adversaries that the significant human and materiel cost of aggression is not worth it.

Overall, the situation in Ukraine implies that the British Army needs to greater mass and combat power. The Regular Army needs to be able to sustain operations long enough to allow the Army Reserve to drive the expansion of the Army as a whole, and/ or to buy negotiation time, so that nuclear weapons are not our only recourse. With a better-equipped, but smaller army, the Defence Command Paper refresh challenge is to reconfigure the Army so that it uses available headcount more efficiently. This means every soldier counts. Assuming a typical brigade has 4,000-5,000 personnel and a divisions has 20,000-25,000, even an Army of 72,500 should be capable of  generating more than a single war fighting division or four deployable brigades.

Strategically, operationally, and tactically, the British Army’s future strategy needs to balance a range of conflicting priorities. It needs to be able to fight close to home, in the Euro-Atlantic sphere, but also thousands of miles away, in the Indo-Pacific sphere. The Royal Navy and RAF are already able to play “home and away.” The challenge for the Army is to offer “utility through duality” by becoming more mobile and flexible through the mobile expeditionary capability it is establishing. At the same time, the resurgence of peer threats implies the need to conduct high intensity war fighting at scale. As noted above, light expeditionary forces deploy quickly but have limited combat power and resilience. Heavy manoeuvre forces deliver decisive combat power and resilience, but deploy more slowly. Deciding the correct balance between light, medium, and heavy forces is a hotly debated topic. For reasons of cost and strategic uncertainty, it seems the Army will err towards being light more than heavy.

HOW TO GET THERE

Using the same basic structure as the 2021 Future Soldier Guide, any 2023 adjustment must usefully reinforce the Army’s net capabilities within the current resource envelope. It should enable the Army to fight the First Battle / Deep Battle, but also the Second Battle / Deep Battle. This means that while additional capabilities in key areas are desirable, investment must balance relevance and credibility with affordability and sustainability. The revised force must also balance the potential advantages promised by technological innovation with reliable maturity of legacy capabilities.

A simple way to balance the many conflicting requirements described above is to reconfigure the future force structure around TWO DEPLOYABLE DIVISIONS. The difficulty is doing this within the current structure and headcount cap limitations. But it can be done and it should be done.

Conceptually, one division would be an EXPEDITIONARY force able to deploy independently and with a reduced logistical footprint. The other division would be a MANOEUVRE force with the necessary lethality and resilience to prevail against high-end adversaries. Within this structure, we should aim to generate the same number of brigades as we have today, but to ensure that more of these are deployable. To do this, each division would be supported by full complement of artillery, engineer, signals, logistics, REME, and medical enablers. Analysis of the overall number of unit types across the Army as a whole suggests that FIVE or SIX brigades could be immediately deployable, with TWO further brigades deployable when supported by Army Reserve units.

The 1st (UK) Division would become the “Expeditionary Force” with 7th and 4th light brigades converting to a medium mechanised role using Boxer. 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade becomes 11th Light Mechanised Infantry brigade with MRAP vehicles. The 3rd (UK) Division would become the “Manoeuvre Force” with 12th and 20th Armour Brigades reverting to a heavy armour role, using Challenger 3 and, in time, a new tracked IFV. The 1st Deep Strike Reconnaissance Brigade would revert to being 1st Artillery Brigade. A new infantry brigade is generated as a second light mechanised formation to replace 1st Deep Strike Reconnaissance Brigade. The 6th (UK) Division becomes a “Special Operations / Early Entry” force. 16 Air Assault Brigade moves to 6th (UK) Division and become a Tier 2 special operations brigade that complements the Army Special Operations Brigade. The Rangers remain unchanged but take-on the SFA role (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

One way to implement this concept is to devise a common divisional structure for both 1st (UK) Division and 3rd (UK) Division. An illustrative structure is provided below (see Figure 6). Based on analysis of the current number and mix of units that the British Army possesses, it is possible to generate two similar division, with 20,000 soldiers each. This is achievable within the headcount cap of 72,500 and leaves 32,500 troops available for other support tasks. The challenge is to redistribute personnel to where they contribute the most utility.

For any revised organisation to work, the re-allocation process will need hard choices to be made. Does it make sense to staff the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ, when we struggle to generate frontline combat units? Does it make sense to maintain so many other headquarters? Should Regular Army units be used to perform public duties when brigades that would otherwise be deployable lack CS and CSS enablers?

Having analysed the current structure of the Army, it is extremely top heavy with an extravagant focus on sprawling HQs. A two-division model can be delivered by pruning the number of command units, especially regional HQ, and by cutting the number of personnel within each. Therefore, it is proposed that the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ be axed. This will be anathema to various officers above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but the ARRC HQ is unlikely to ever be deployed, and sucks-up sufficient headcount for two brigades (5,000 soldiers) that might be better employed elsewhere. The extra headcount released by the loss of the ARRC HQ would allow two extra artillery regiments, and an extra RAC regiment to be generated  But much more important, it could allow every unit to have sufficient deployable headcount without relying on the Army Reserve.

Figure 6

This structure provides two immediately deployable armoured / mechanised brigades plus a third infantry brigade deployable with support from Army Reserve enablers. The component RAC units could be mounted in Challenger, Ajax, or a reconnaissance version of Boxer. Note additional Army Reserve RLC units.

In terms of additional capabilities, three principal systems are needed:

  1. A new tracked IFV to replace Warrior
  2. Additional G/MLRS rocket launchers
  3. Additional SkyRanger medium range air defence systems.

There is one further capability issue. Ajax. The lack of certainty about if and when it will be delivered means that the Army must develop a back-up plan. It would make sense for the expeditionary force to be all-wheeled, so substituting Ajax with a wheeled reconnaissance vehicle would be sensible. This could be achieved by acquiring the French Jaguar EBRC or a turreted Boxer CRV.

Of the above equipment types, the most significant extra cost is that of a new IFV. This would require 600 vehicles at a cost of £8 million each, or £4.8 billion. There are wide range of options to choose from, including CV90, Puma, or any of the US Army’s five OMFV contenders, A new reconnaissance vehicle would cost £8 million each and 400 would be needed, or £3.2 billion. Overall, an estimated extra £10 billion would be required over 10 years to fund this. With additional G/MLRS or Sky Sabre GBAD systems, the price of the launcher is marginal. The cost lies in the missiles and rockets they fire.

The revised plan would deliver a leaner, simpler, more focused Army that would look something like this (see Figure 7).

Figure 7

A breakdown of units by type (Figure 8) shows total personnel numbers can be contained within the headcount cap while each unit would have sufficient soldiers to be deployable without relying on the Army Reserve. This approach allows the Army Reserve to be used to generate the basis of a fourth division while also providing reserves for the 1st and 3rd divisions.

Figure 8

To conclude, this proposal is designed to stimulate discussion that makes the Army more usable and more valuable to UK defence, regardless of whether the detailed elements of this structure are realistic and deliverable (which they may not be due to constraints unknown to the author of this article). But what the Army cannot do is to go on tweaking the existing structure. It needs to make a bold correction that focuses on delivering frontline capability. With headcount reduced to 72,500, every soldier counts. We no longer have the luxury of being able to resource units that contribute marginal benefits. This means killing a few sacred cows. We must reconfigure the Army so that it delivers strategic capabilities to UK defence as a whole. Self-contained deployable brigades can potentially offer utility that corresponds with the Navy’s attack submarines or the RAF’s F-35 fleet. Whatever the 2023 Defence Command Paper refresh does, it is hoped that it sets a long-term strategy that the Army’s many supporters can get behind, even if everything proposed is not achievable in the short-term.

[1] 1990, Options for Change; 1998, Defence White Paper; 2010, SDSR; and 2021, Integrated Review / DCP.

[2] Full disclosure: the author is an advisor to one of the firms that makes Boxer, so is clearly biased in favour of it. The same firm is also submitting a variant of Boxer for the MFP requirement. For this reason, no specific recommendation about which artillery system should be acquired for MFP is made.

[3] See “Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine” by Dr. Jack Watling & Nick Reynolds, RUSI Special Report, 23 May 2023, which explores Russia’s adaptation to the impact of new technologies.

https://static.rusi.org/403-SR-Russian-Tactics-web-final.pdf

[4] UK Integrated Operating Concept, UK Ministry of Defence, August 2021

[5] Source: US Defence Intelligence Agency via Reuters (12 April 2023) See https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-war-already-with-up-354000-casualties-likely-drag-us-documents-2023-04-12/

[6] See Oryx, a Dutch open-source defence intelligence website. https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html

Nicholas Drummond
Defence Industry Consultant

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.

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