2020 Vision: The Year Past and the Year Ahead for UK Defence

By Nicholas Drummond

This article looks at UK Defence highlights of the past year and key topics that the new Government will need to address next year. Looking ahead, 2020 will be especially important because a new Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) is planned. This will set an agenda not only for the next 12 months, but the next five years. 


Overall, 2019 has been an average year for Defence, not a stellar one. At its beginning, many of us hoped that Brexit would be sorted by 31 March, paving the way for Parliament to focus on other areas of Government, including Defence, leading to an uplift in the budget. This is something that many commentators believed was necessary, not to address a growing number of threats, but simply to meet the existing commitments decided upon by the 2010 and 2015 SDSRs. On the threshold of 2020, we are still in the same position as were this time last year, albeit with a new Prime Minister. Defence has received a modest uplift, although this was only to meet the shortfall caused by awarding service personnel a pay rise and addressing issues related to the new Dreadnought-Class of nuclear missile submarines.

Screenshot 2019-12-26 at 17.43.37

One consistent theme of 2019 was that the world has become more dangerous and volatile. Despite warnings from the Armed Forces’ senior leadership, there has been little political acknowledgement of the increased risks we face, nor any kind of response to address deficiencies within our armed forces. Worse still, the need for the Government to build a war chest to pay for Brexit means that the Defence budget may again be raided. So, by way of introduction, the year in review was uninspiring but the outlook for the year ahead seems no better, if not bleaker.

The 2020 Challenge – Restoring what was lost in 2010

When deep cuts were made in 2010, those of us who worked in Defence were horrified by their severity. It was military illiteracy on a grand scale.

We believed that the many reductions had to be a temporary measure, not a new norm. This was because the 2010 SDSR was a deficit-cutting exercise designed to balance the budget, not an objective assessment of the resources needed to counter existential threats. A decade later, the UK’s armed forces are still struggling to work within a diminished resource envelope. The Armed Forces are not asking for to go beyond what we had before, but simply for the resources to do properly what has already been agreed. If we could recover lost ground to revert to the pre-2010 structure, this would be a massive win. 

The prospect of turning back the clock to pre-2010 is extremely unlikely. The Government’s pre-emptive criticism of the armed forces’s management of current resources is an indication that it may cut further rather than re-grow, at least in the short-term. Wishing to avoid being too pessimistic, the most likely 2020 scenario seems a delay of further investment, rather than further cuts. Why give the Navy money for more warships when it can’t crew the ones it already has? Why acquire more combat aircraft for the RAF when it can’t train enough pilots to fly existing aircraft? It’s the same story for the Army wanting more armoured vehicles when overall strength is still well below the headcount cap of 82,000. Delay may be a necessary evil in the short-term, but it cannot be credible a five-year strategic plan. 

The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, recently said that Britain needs to “cut its cloth according to its ambition.” This literally means that the armed forces need to be resourced in-line with their key roles, which no one would disagree with. What he actually meant was that our defence ambitions must match our budget. The reality is that any country’s defence budget must balance the need to counter the most likely and dangerous threats with what it can afford. For Britain, like Germany, France and our other European neighbours, It’s a balancing act. It’s like deciding what level of car insurance you want: fully comprehensive or just third-party, fire and theft.

The need for a new UK “Grand Strategy”

No credible Strategic Defence & Security Review can be developed without first analysing the underlying geopolitical situation and using this as a basis to identify our ongoing Defence needs and priorities. To develop a Grand Strategy we need to answer four simple questions:

  1. What are the most likely and serious threats we face?
  2. How should we structure and resource the armed forces to respond to the above threats in terms of roles, tasks, size, organisation and capabilities?
  3. How do we balance our most critical Defence needs and priorities with what is realistic and affordable?
  4. How do the above elements translate into personnel, equipment, training and sustainment requirements?

These questions go straight to Ben Wallace’s comments about “cutting our cloth according to our ambition.” 

While there are several over-arching priorities, such as the nuclear deterrent, protecting UK air space, and anti-submarine capabilities to protect UK waters, we fulfil a number of less vital commitments that suck-up finite resources. These include having overseas bases that expand our spheres of influence, but have no direct benefit. There are also the sacred cows such as military bands and public duties. If we cannot afford to do everything, then we need to prioritise the most essential tasks. Would it makes sense to prioritise the Navy and Royal Air Force and have only a token Army? The problem is that when you lose a capability, it invariably takes years to rebuild it. So, before we start cutting the budget further or increasing it, the 2020 SDSR must be rooted in a credible defence strategy, not a political or economic juggling act that only serves other Government interests. 

An affordable strategy versus a credible strategy

What is affordability anyway? Some people would argue that we already spend too much on Defence. I would counter that we spend much more on the NHS and other public services. We spend what we do on Health, not because it is affordable or unaffordable, but because it is what the electorate demands. It is the price of being elected. In contrast, the limited discussion about Defence during the 2019 General Election campaign suggests that there are few votes in it, so the Government is obliged only to spend what it feels is necessary. It can defend any budget it sets on grounds of affordability, but let’s be clear, affordability is an arbitrary concept. The only way to generate a larger budget is to make Defence a higher political priority. If the UK had a viable opposition party, this might happen. Instead this role falls upon Defence commentators to provide an objective analysis of the global environment and what is needed to counter potential challenges. In the meantime, the significant Commons majority achieved by Boris Johnson to accomplish Brexit means he can do almost what it likes across other areas of Government. 

So are we spending enough? 

America has been unequivocal in stating that the increased number of threats means that all NATO members must honour the 2% of GDP commitment to defence spending. Very few EU nations are actually doing this. With China an increased threat in Asia and Donald Trump an unknown quantity, we cannot automatically assume that the USA will come to our aid this side of the pond. Europe needs to be able to stand alone. Britain is already spending 2% of GDP on defence, but without America is this enough? The requirement to spend more may apply to our neighbours more than to us, but, ultimately, defence isn’t about spending a random percentage of GDP, it is what you actually get for the money spent. The Netherlands, for example, spent US$ 10.5 billion in 2018. This does not buy much in terms of high-end capabilities. With America’s defence priorities increasingly focused in Asia, responsibility falls on Britain to play a bigger role in Europe. 

The glass is half full, not half empty

So far, Britain is doing an excellent job. It has among the most potent and effective defence forces of any nation. The glass is definitely half full, not half empty. Our emerging mix of capabilities recognises that we can best protect UK interests by deploying expeditionary forces to meet threats at distance rather than waiting for them to turn-up on our doorstep. The way in which we’re implementing this vision across Land, Sea and Air domains is an example for our European neighbours. We’re also moving into the Cyber and Information Domains to develop strategies to engage potential adversaries below the threshold. Our innovation shows our European neighbours, to whom we remain totally committed, that independent of EU membership, we can still be a reliable partner and ally. Being prepared to contribute to Europe’s safety and security can only help to build bridges post-Brexit. There’s a good reason to do this and this is because our own security is indivisible with that of our European neighbours.

Despite the current level of UK defence expenditure, we still have a number of notable gaps that need to be addressed. In particular, the British Army needs renewal so that it is effective across multiple deployment types and not just across traditional Cold War 2.0 scenarios. The Army needs to invest further in cyber, electronic warfare and “grey zone” capabilities. It must also acquire C4I systems that improve how it communicates securely and reliably over distance. We need to develop AI, autonomous underwater and ground systems and aerial drones. But, before doing these things, it also needs to get the basics right. We must invest in “hard power” that enables us to physically destroy an enemy’s capacity to wage war. This means equipment which provides an appropriate mix of firepower, protection and mobility. We need new artillery systems, better protected mobility, and a force that is flexible across multiple deployment types. In fact, the problem isn’t that we have no plans to do these things, but that the money to implement them (the much vaunted £184 billion Equipment Plan) has been made available so slowly.

Behind Government bluster complaining that the MoD is inefficient and wasteful, we have to hope that Ben Wallace and his team realise that Defence needs more money to reverse the damage done in 2010, even if the Government cannot fund it now. For 2020, the Government’s strategy appears to be focused around making the MoD leaner, more efficient and more accountable. This means another year of not much happening beyond pre-existing plans. In particular, there is no scope to lift headcount caps. And this is the key to getting UK Armed Forces back on track. 

The Highlights of 2019

The last 12 months have seen work continue on the four new Dreadnought nuclear missile submarines. A fix is being implemented for the Type 45 destroyer’s propulsion system. Type 26 Frigate work has begun (albeit at a glacial pace). And, the Type 31 Light Frigate has been approved for production. The sixth and seventh Astute Class attack submarines have been delayed by causes that have not been explained, but all seven boats are expected to be delivered by 2026. Overall, the Navy is in good shape and getting better. 

Dreadnought-Class SSBN (Image: Bae Systems)

Although we enjoyed the glorious sight of two 65,000 tonne carriers in Portsmouth, these ships have been singled-out as examples of excess. Plenty has been written on this topic, but the bottom line is that we need carrier strike to protect the Atlantic fleet, as well as to project power overseas, and, in case we need to support the deployment of land forces by sea. The extra cost was due to delays to the programme, not because the ships themselves were ruinously expensive. Indeed, compared to the US Navy’s new Ford Class super carriers, at $14 billion each, the British carriers at £6.5 billion for two seem like a bargain.  

By the time you read this, our 20th F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter should have been delivered. The first P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft has arrived and, after a 10-year “capability holiday,” we will shortly be back in the business of hunting submarines using fixed wing aircraft. It’s also been a good year for the A400M Atlas. A gearbox fix has been developed for the engine and this will dramatically improve fleet availability. The A400M can also now drop sticks of paratroopers as well as air-drop cargo. With almost double the payload of the C-130 Hercules, the A400M is steadily positioning itself as a vital strategic tool. 

After 20 years of waiting, the Army has finally signed a deal to purchase a medium wheeled armour capability in Boxer. This will transform the Army and make it expeditionary in a way it never has been before. With tracked armour, there has been no decision on Challenger 2 LEP or Warrior CSP. Many voices within both the MoD and the Army suggest that neither programme is now sufficient given an increased number of threats. The Army is considering a proposal by Bae Systems / Rheinmetall (RBSL) to fit a new turret to Challenger 2 with a 120 mm smoothbore. A second initiative, the Heavy Armour Automotive Improvement Programme (HAAIP), will add a new power pack to improve mobility. The worry is that the number of changes to Challenger 2 are so significant that the LEP has become a new tank programme. The risks and costs associated with such a complex series of upgrades could delay the revised MBT’s entry into service without guaranteeing a successful outcome. The same is true for Warrior. 

Delivery of the new Ajax reconnaissance vehicle family has also been very slow. Rumours abound of cracked hulls and broken suspensions, because the chassis cannot support the extra weight of armour added to the platform. GDLS will need to have a better 2020. The Multi-Role Protected Vehicle Programme (MRVP) continues, but still no decision has been made concerning Package 1 and Package 2 preferred options. 

Infrastructure modernisation has been an issue ever since we decided to bring the Army home from Germany. Not only do we need to update existing facilities, particularly accommodation, we must also build new barracks to house returning  units. Refurbished infrastructure requirements apply to all three services. Training facilities are important too. Indoor synthetic training and simulation systems have the potential to save money while increasing the skills of personnel who use them. If the Army is acquiring lots of shiny new vehicles, it will also need garage space and servicing bays to store and maintain them. The basing plan is a less visible activity, but progress has been made during the year across the property portfolio. Newly refurbished facilities have a positive impact on morale and this directly affects retention. 

Interestingly, we are seeing the Navy move to a model where all warships will have multiple crews (nuclear missile submarines already have this) enabling vessels to spend more time deployed at sea. The operational readiness cycle, whereby we have one unit deployed / on high readiness, one unit working-up; and a third unit resting and refitting after a deployment, works very well. But, it is something that relies on adequate headcount to make it work properly. This initiative is also important it will do much to enhance lifestyle, another lever of retention.

Recruitment has improved in 2019, especially for the Army. Although retention has slipped somewhat, the outflow is running at 6.8%, which, according to the Army is close to its historical norm of 6.4%, a figure maintained since the “Options for Change” SDSR in 1990. Above all, the CGS, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, has made improving the Army’s offer a priority for 2019 and we have already started to see efforts made under his leadership bear fruit.  

First RAF P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (Image: UK Ministry of Defence)

The need to lift the headcount cap

A deployable division requires around 35,000 soldiers. With a headcount cap of 82,000, the Army should in theory be able to generate two deployable divisions or six brigades, plus a Special Forces group. A major barrier to force generation is that so many many Combat Support (CS) and Combat Service Support (CSS) assets were axed in 2010. Restoring Army total headcount to 90,000-100,000, would allow us to comfortably deploy two divisions. This is not profligate or ambitious, but something that many nations with smaller budgets accomplish with ease, despite spending less overall. It was also something we planned to do in 1998, a time when we were not involved in any major conflict and did not face the same number of threats we do today. 

The Royal Navy needs more personnel too. Increasing total headcount from 29,000 to 35,000 would make a big difference to crewing surface combatants. The RAF would also benefit from a similar increase in personnel numbers. 

Beyond equipment plans already in place, what else do we need to acquire? It would do much to enhance the Royal Navy if the Type 31 purchase could be extended to 8 or 10 ships. Additionally, 3-4 low-cost diesel electric submarines, like the German 212 AIP boats, would make-up for only having 7 Astute boats. 

Given the cost of the F-35B, it isn’t clear whether the UK will acquire the full total of 138 aircraft envisaged when the programme began. If we only purchase 100 and only have 160 Typhoon FGR4s, this raises the question of whether the UK has sufficient combat aircraft to protect UK skies against a concerted attack. If the F-35B isn’t viable in terms of cost, then we must look at an alternative. 

It would be helpful if the Army could acquire 1,800 Boxer 8×8 vehicles instead of 523 as this would enable us to retire the ancient FV432. It may also need to reconsider its MBT and IFV plans. 

Apart from the above initiatives, which would add £20-£30 billion to equipment plan over 10 years, UK Armed Forces don’t need to go on an equipment spending spree. The big issue is personnel. 

The question of reserve forces also needs to be addressed. Relying on part-time personnel to field readily deployable frontline units doesn’t work. We must re-think this. The Army Reserve should be re-configured so that it allows the the Army to grow rapidly in time of national emergency. Historically, this is what it always existed to do. 

If much of what I describe sounds familiar, it is because so little has changed over the last decade. The Armed Forces have existed in a cash-starved state of suspended animation. In 2010, we cut the Armed Forces for non-strategic reasons. Perhaps the global financial crisis justified this, but Brexit does not. 

If the 2020 SDSR results in a robust defence strategy that achieves universal buy-in among senior leaders, it will be a success. If it is only a cost-cutting exercise that bears no relation to potential threats, it will be a dismal failure. If a revised strategy is right and defines a credible long-term vision, it won’t matter that we cannot afford to do everything immediately. 


  1. Wonderful article! did you consider making a point on the RAF access to aircraft? there’s rotation and then there’s a lack of aircraft. something must be done to balance numbers of aircraft to personnel number. (maybe a close support fighter? maybe a synergy with royal mail to the british isles?)
    In my opinion procurement is in a shambles, as a enthusiastic engineer the procurement system has little to no logic to it… despite being run and made by engineers.
    A series of standarised areas for the british army. tracks, wheels and the like. lowers cost, allows increase of vehicle numbers and lowers your logistical problems. Would help remove some of the problems with a future MBT and/or IFV. I think an AS90 replacement will be first, this is mostly due to range and current effectiveness.
    Also the fact that we don’t make much money from international weapons sales as a nation. all our rivals (the other 5 permanent UN security council members) do this.


  2. Not sure I follow the logic that says 82,000 headcount should be enough to field 2 Divisions but we need to increase it to 90,000? Surely you’re not fighting shy of the cap badge mafia…? Lifetime cost of trained people is our bigget cost driver and No 10 is quite right to demand effective usage of this resource.

    The last two SDSR have fudged the issue of the Light Infantry Cap Badges. Any UK land forces proposal surely has to inlcude direct cuts to the under equipped, under supported, and un-deployable light infantry force to fund RA, RE, and Logs for the deployable brigades. If the figleaf of re-roleing certain infantry regiments into those trades under their existing regalia needs to be adopted then so be it. Howls of anguish will follow but its clearly the right thing to do and has been for a decade.

    And the strategic question of whether we can afford the capital and mass to sustain both wheels and tracks needs to be addressed head on. Within the currrent capital envelope we can probably afford to equip 3 Brigades with new or refurbished equipment. To form a coherent Division this single deployable force should be predominantly EITHER wheels OR tracks.

    ( If we seriously do want 2 Divisions, 6 Brigades, and are preapred to make the hard light infantry decsions to get there, then we need to invest in BOTH Wheels AND Tracks BUT we would need to expand the capital envelope to get there. )

    If we do manage to defend the 82,000 headcount, duck the cap badge issue again, and stick with just 4 Deployable brigades then it probably needs to be 3 of one kind and 1 of the other. I’d plump for a wheeled Division based in the UK and able to drive to the Baltics, and a single Brigde of tracks, generating just a forward battle group as part of the EFP, pre positioned as it were. Out limited number of HET would allow us to send a mere stiffening on rapid re-inforcement, so why keep more on Salisbury Plain than we can reaslistically send?

    Personally my crystal ball is showing a 65,000 man Army fielding one Division of 3 Brigades, still fudged between tracks and wheels: call me cynical if you like. But the best way to avoid that fate is to come up with actual coherent answers that addresses both the Infantry/CS(S) imbalance and the Wheels/Tracks conundra.


    1. Peter – the “ill equipped light infantry” conundrum is sort of being addressed by 5 “Specialist Infantry Battalions” – to do the forward deployed training work we, and some tasks we cannot seem to politically get rid of. Do we need to keep a Battalion in Brunei? Would it be cheaper to let the Sultan hire his own Gurkhas and we provide some officer and SNCO’s on loan billets? Do we really need to keep 2 full Battalions in Cyprus? Where else do we have pockets of infantry deployed, and how do we get HMG to rein in their profligate desire to meddle / support allies?

      I have already suggested the Ajax fleet should form a Armoured Recce Brigade, one Regiment of which should replace the Cav Squadron is a contribution to EFP multi-national force in Poland, so I agree with that.

      Could we examine moving ceremonial taskings to some kind of reserve / full time reserve setup? Fully trained infantry are expensive and we could have smart looking square bashing at a fraction of the cost if we could think some of the unthinkable.


  3. The Challenger LEP sounds great the only concern I have is the tiny fleet that will emerge when completed. One possible solution may be smaller changes and channel our next MBT resources with the American’s on the all-new M1 replacement. Such a plan would hinge on the US allowing the UK the kind of deal we witnessed with F35. One key factor of a joint programme, would be the opportunity to be involved in a project that could run into thousands of vehicles globally? The UK could possibly field 500 -800 hulls and benefit from the unmanned version that would require fewer personnel?

    The nonsense that the UK doesn’t require MBT’s in any meaningful numbers should be put to bed once and for all. A participation agreement on M1X would make more sense than co-operation on a smaller European venture? The likelihood of joint US and UK military operations in the future cannot be ruled out, and commonality, with the M1X, would be a logical strategy.


  4. Logically the only way to acheive viable numbers of a new tracked hull in the UK would be to use the same base vehicle for the MBT and the IFV. The Israei design with the engine forward is one way to achieve this. A diesel-electric design with destributed motors also improves layout flexibility.

    In absolute terms any future tracked UK land force is going to be of boutique size. Logically we do need to join with either the US or the Franco-German programme. In the short term, and having defined the scale of the future tracked force, we could do much worse than to invest in Leopard 2A7 and Puma, which are both in service at mass scale with numerous contries and a bigger industrial base behind them than we will ever be able to give Warrior and Challenger. The political figleaf of UK assembly by RBSL will no doubt be offered.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 3-4 diesel electric subs would be a welcome uplift. With the RN moving to a forward basing strategy what are peoples thoughts on forward basing a couple of these in Singapore?


  6. The nuclear enterprise in the UK is on a sustainability knife edge as it is. Quite apart from being war winning weapons in their own right, the SSN are industrially essential to sustain the skills of SSBN design.

    The biggest argument against buying a UK built SSK class is that it would gap nuclear reactor design and building at a time we cannot afford to do so.

    If we bought them from German yards without touching the Barrow programme it would perhaps obviate that. But in a NATO context why would we? Our European allies have plenty already.

    If we do have money to invest sub surface then it should go on innovative capabilities such as long endurance unmanned vehicles, including key technologies such as underwater comms and non spoofable or interruptible navigation aids . These would both bolster our capabilities in home waters, and bring unique capabilities to the NATO mix.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You talk about a 35,000 strong division however BAOR had 55,000 troops split into 3 – 4 divisions or roughly 13,500 to 18,000 per division. Do you think a 35,000 division is too big, e.g. the 35,000 should be split into two smaller divisions within a small corps? Or is this just a matter of nomenclature?

    Also you don’t really mention UK-France cooperation. What do you think the future holds here?


    1. The old divisional structure we had in BAOR was imperfect in many ways as it lacked the depth we take for granted today. Remember that a large part of the Army would have come from the UK to reinforce BAOR.

      As the Army becomes ever more expeditionary, the need to resupply it at distance has created an additional CSS requirement. A Brigade will typically have around 4,000-5,000 personnel (depending on whether it has three or four manoeuvre elements) so 35,000 for a division is about right, especially when you add extra artillery, including air defence, UAVs, long-range precision missiles and counter battery radars. You also need bridging, other engineer assets, signals, medical and transport units. It’s like assembling an orchestra.

      Increasingly, individual brigades are becoming more potent making them the primary unit of military currency. The assumed structure of contemporary multi-role brigade is three infantry battalions (IFV/ ICV), a cavalry (MBT/ MGS) regiment, an artillery regiment (SPH), engineer regiment, signals squadron, logistics regiment, logistics transport regiment, REME regiment, and a medical regiment.


  8. We need to use the army head count we have in a more efficient way before increasing numbers. My priorities for 2020 would be:
    1. Improve retention
    2. Only have combat brigades which have the structure, units and kit to deploy and do their primary job – no more brigades without the enabling units (e.g. signals, engineers, artillery)?
    3. Decide what the best use of the reserve is, and then give them the training and kit to do it
    4. Standardised fleets and kit.
    5. Copy the success of the rifles regiment and merge the other infantry regiments into large multi battalion regiments.
    6. 2 deplorable divisions and a deplorable corps HQ.
    7. Have the kit to find and destroy the bad guys at long range.
    8. Have the kit to provide a corps sized bubble of protection against the bad guys long range weapons
    9. Invest in stockpiles of essential supplies and the means to get it where it’s needed.
    10. Lots of good training


  9. Great article as always, however I would disagree with point 1 on the grand strategy. As it shouldn’t just be about threats & particularly threats to the uk only. We need to be thinking strategically and recognise that armed forces still play a part in the nation’s standing & success in the world, both in acting in our interests, as well as working in a coalition for their’s ours or both . For example if we want to trade more with Australia, Taiwan etc. We need to demonstrate tangible commitment to that area. Again in Africa we need to look where we can base and stop the Chinese growing influence etc. These types of actions are those that should be strategically managed with the international development fund so support is built up for UK plc in areas where we need it. We need to be looking forward what we want to be as a nation and not just trying to maintain the status quo. Post brexit we need to look at where it makes sense to co-ordinate with other allies where we have close ties, such as the US, Australia, Oman and where we can make new allies.

    Sometimes the best defence is offence not necessarily in a great overt way but by overseas bases etc. The RN get this as you can see demonstrated by the planned Far East base the current Middle East base and the deployment of Queen Elizabeth CSG in 2021. The army & airforce need to join suit and politicians need to recognise the uncomfortable truth that even in the modern world hard power still has a part to play in national success.

    Number 2 should be threats to the UK and securing of the country, NATO will always be the cornerstone of this, but it cannot be right that we haven’t any integrated med/high-level SAM capability to defend UK airspace. Low level attack was almost dismissed in Gulf War 1 yet almost all systems fielded until now in the form of Sky Sabre were focused on low level threats. It cannot be right either that we are considering only fielding 150 CH2, when we have already seen in WW2 how a blitzkrieg saw the enemy on the coast within a short time period. Looking again at WW2 the V1 & V2 threat has grown into today’s cruise and ballistic missiles – are we really comfortable in our capabilities in defending these threats? Yes we have trident and MAD, but both complex scenarios & the ability to nullify the enemy’s offence, mean really we took this seriously.

    Bearing this in mind we also need to recognise that assets cannot be in 2 places at once and that the use of expensive assets required for global deployment at home is not necessarily the best way to setup. For example SSKs have the ability to be quieter than SSNs & SSNs are significantly more expensive they also last for a long time. We have suffered loss of skills heavily due to a gap in submarine acquisition if we had SSKs such as the upholder class ordering a couple of these in the interim would have retained some of the skills & probably cost less that the massive hike in astute cost. Similarly a 3-4 Leander type frigates or al khareef vessels would be sufficient for home waters. Having assets for home waters may also help with retention and recruitment for those who want to serve, but may not want to see the world & spend long periods away from family. Similarly something like the Gripen would be cheaper to run and effective for home defence missions.

    I think we also need to recognise that the army is and likely be the most important expeditionary arm of the forces. Why? Because you can send as many ships and planes to visit countries but the putting of boots on the ground demonstrates the ultimate commitment you’re now prepared for your citizens to face the same fate as the country you’re supporting. Added to this is we are an island and therefore the army has little tasks in country. It’s therefore more effective being deployed & keeping threats at bay, the army needs to recognise, as it has to a certain extent with the strike brigades, that deploy ability is now key and the only really effective and sustainable way to deploy is by sea.
    Obviously lengths of deployments have to balanced against the costs, practical, political elements of semi-permanent/long term basing on a large scale such as Germany.
    I hope and logically think that the Royal Marines should move to ships company’s & to LSS. The army should look to have a strike brigade that is deployable using the current LPDs, LSDs and RoRos with appropriate training. As getting there quickly is also important, I would also like to see 16th air assault strengthened with more dedicated air transportable assets so already have had partial development such as stormer 30, LIMARS, LIMARS(G), LRV400/600. Jackal, coyote with modules such as AUDS and mortar systems. This would give it more resilience whilst awaiting follow on forces. It would be interesting to see the thoughts on how much of strike could/would deploy via air to further strengthen.
    Air transport is another area for me that is insufficient and will be for the future demands of forward basing, supporting the RN and it’s more flexible vessels/approach and being able to deploy a strengthened air assault brigade. To me 8 plus a400m should be on the list and AAR option for helicopters added this would help chinooks, merlins self-deploy.
    One final point is that the SDSR should also examine the true financial & development contribution that defence requirements/equipment makes and could make with better support to the UK economy.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think the army needs to entertain wholesale restructuring to get ahead of the continual cuts, as well as observing the basic rule of housekeeping, spend less than you earn, save the rest.

    My step one would be six large rifle regiments of three battalions to form the core of brigade combat teams for King’s and Queen’s Divisions, each based on a catchment area of about ten million. This helpfully largely corresponds both to the regions and to the ancient kingdoms, a Northumbrian regiment comprising Yorks/Lancs largely fits the bill, the Mercian regiment fits perfectly if you look at the population of the East and West Midlands, as would Wessex, Anglia and Kent using London as a general pool. Scotland. Wales and Ireland also have a combined population of 10m.
    During the recruitment crisis, people were largely in agreement that small regiments were untenable but that a corps of infantry was a step too far, the above would seem to be a middle ground offering a degree of future proofing, if for instance a Northumbrian regiment also took the historical title of the 5th it would take its antecedents with it on formation but battalions could simply become the 1st, 2nd or 3rd of the 5th should the need occur in the future to cast the net a little wider and with no further need for reorganization.

    My step two would be rationalising estates, divisional basing and selling everything that has no useful or historical attachment; we could put King’s Division, Queen’s Division and The Household Division on Otterburn, Catterick and Salisbury Plain training areas, it is inevitable we will find our way there in some form, let’s go there now.
    Each division could train its own soldiers, thus providing another level of identity to sit above regiment.
    Embracing divisional basing, tasking and identity also serves recruitment and retention as it allows soldiers to plan long term, buy houses and create homes and creates physical and emotional support structures for their families.
    If we centralise we make more efficient use of our resources, we offer better accommodation, better recreational facilities, better training, better medical, we can also look at how we make more efficient use of our reserves, a divisional motor pool could largely be manned by REME reservists for example.

    To be topical I’d observe that the Marines, Para’s and Gurkha’s would probably represent the best light infantry division in the world (as well as meeting the requirements for a mooted light strike division) and I’d add that given their recruitment the latter two could probably handle a buff to commando.

    The brief version would be: take everything we’ve done right and put it into a modular US structure of twelve (including 3CDO) self supporting brigades, but on a smaller footprint.
    Across the four administrative divisions, taking brigades from the top allows for a sustained deployable UK division of two infantry, one armoured and one commando brigade or a BEF of two divisions.


    1. You could add Duke of Lancaster’s, RRF and Royal Irish make a “Fusiliers” division and add Royal Welsh to the King’s Division. With existing Specialised battalions and garrison commitments it‘d be fairly balanced as below. Something like Beersheba x 2 or 2 Canadian style divisions – which might be appropriate if the UK’s moving in a CANZUK direction. .

      Northern Division

      Scots = 3 x Multirole Brigade + 1 Specialised
      Fusiliers* = 3 x Multirole Brigade + 1 Specialised
      Kings* = 3 x Multirole Brigade + 2 Cyprus

      Southern Division

      Rifles = 3 x Multirole Brigade + 1 Specialised + 1 Commando
      Queens* = 3 x Multirole Brigade + 1 Specialised
      Guards = 3 x Multirole Brigade + 2 London

      Air Assault Brigade

      Paras = 2 x Air Assault Brigade + 1 SFSG
      Gurkhas = 1 x Air Assault Brigade + 1 Brunei + 1 Specialised

      *Multi-regiment Infantry Divisions
      Queens = PWRR + Anglians (4)
      Kings = Royal Welsh, Yorkshire, Mercian (5)
      Fusiliers = Royal Irish, Fusiliers, Lancaster’s (4)


      1. The intention was actually in response to a question by someone on the army rumour service, why not just offer rifles, guards or paras?
        The success of the rifles is kind of a cheat imho because you’re offering an 18 year old boy the option of telling his friends he’s joined The Rifles or say, The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, might as well call it Task Force Alpha.
        Specialised infantry was a response to the manning crisis to give purpose to understrength battalions, despite its good work I’d argue its effect is actually detrimental on the UK side because it’s soaking up opportunities other units would relish and leaving them sitting on their hands.
        The Scots are basically over represented due to the army’s cap badge issues, the political difficulty of addressing them and its success in filling its units (though I had a chat with ex 2Para this summer who had some very unpleasant things to say about the quality of one battalion); but they are going to take disproportionate casualties as a result and we’re going to find ourselves in a political pickle one day anyway.
        I actually see opportunity in the recent recruitment difficulties to trim battalion numbers to the point where we can create a stable inflow/outflow of high quality recruits and address mechanisation and integrated support, so 18 rifle battalions, 3 para, 3 Gurkha and 6 Guards (five and the one they’re hiding). As above twelve brigades across four divisions would see four brigades reverted to light infantry on low readiness for roulement, ceremonial and ‘specialised’ tasks.


    2. A very interesting suggestion Captain Nemo. I have my own suggestion, which work permitting I am trying to get written up for Nicholas. He already has two drafts from me which are both responses to the RUSI paper on Fires (or our lack thereof) and build on my other articles on Strike etc. The third article will focus on re-structuring and I will be getting quite radical 🙂


      1. I shall look forward to those.

        As well as just defending its organization on principle, I think the army secretly enjoys making it look like alchemy, kind of the Scotty/Kirk relationship.

        I’m hoping you address reserves; I wonder if I could remind you of something you said in the comments on the ‘common size and structure’ article.
        “I don’t think any future peer to peer (or near peer) conflict will allow us to stand up reserve units as reinforcements, we will go with what we have, they will fight”
        It does kind of beg the question of what we’re paying for and why.
        I gave the example somewhere above that perhaps REME could efficiently man a divisional motor pool, could that be expanded across the board so we perhaps use reservists as we use contractors in the larger peacetime support picture.
        Could we also assign our regular support regiments to create twelve self sufficient brigades and then build a reserve support structure around that to provide a theatre capability? In the case of logistics for example, if the regular regiments were assigned to bring the brigades into being, could their twinned reserves be assigned to division, stage hands, if you will, to the regulars starring role.

        Hope you have a good new year.


    3. On your third division if you’re trying to cut down on family dislocation and generate deployable units on a steady rotation would it might make sense to meet the two battalion residential commitments in London, Cyprus and Northern Ireland with 3 x 3 battalion Infantry BCTs. Then each can provide a ready battlegroup for defence liaison etc on a normal 1 in 3 cycle. That gives you a deployable Infantry Brigade to go with your ready Strike and Armoured Brigades so you’ve got your theoretically deployable division.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Somewhat perversely I’d see the low readiness brigade in a division spending the most time away from home. As its vehicles enter the motor pool it would revert to light infantry, this would ensure that when the brigade moves up the list its vehicles are just out of refit and also provides an immediate reserve pool for the brigades in medium and high readiness.
        Across the notional four divisions that would give 11 light infantry battalions to cover roulement, ceremonial and ‘specialised’ tasks.
        On the ceremonials, is it really a job for two battalions and do they have to be guards regiments (I know, yes by definition), could you sell Hyde Park and put the Household Cavalry at Wellington too? Could you spread it across the wider UK and Commonwealth forces on a more routine basis and shorten the commitment? A month or two in London could actually come to be seen as a bit of a jolly, you might only do it the once.


  11. A great article, Nicholas, one which is truly thought-provokng. A little disturbing, though, isn’t it, that Ajax is having so many teething problems “Rumours abound of cracked hulls and broken suspensions, because the chassis cannot support the extra weight of armour added to the platform”. Or are they more than teething problems perhaps? Will they prove resolvable?

    However, I just wanted to agree in particular with one point made by Simon.

    @ Simon m

    “I think we also need to recognize that the army is and likely be the most important expeditionary arm of the forces. Why? Because you can send as many ships and planes to visit countries but the putting of boots on the ground demonstrates the ultimate commitment you’re now prepared for your citizens to face the same fate as the country you’re supporting.”

    I think that you have it right, Simon, and I cannot understand why such an assertion is not made more frequently in military discussions. Putting boots on the ground is what ultimately shows commitment. It is certainly not my intention to stir up internecine strife between the different branches of our Armed Forces and they normally combine brilliantly on operations. However, wherever we have sent expeditionary forces over recent decades, it is the Army which has borne brunt of the actual fighting. Whether it has been the Falklands campaign, the First Gulf War, the Second Gulf War or the smaller actions such as the one in Sierra Leone a few years back, it is ground troops which have proved to be vitally necessary.

    All the more pity therefore that it s the Army which has seemed to suffer most cuts in recent years. We need a force of at least another 20,000 and one equipped with all the new equipment promised.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mike W

    Why would anyone in HMG be prepared to raise the headcount unless or until the Army can show how it is maximising the value of its existing 82,000 ORABAT into deployable formations?

    Preparadness to rebalance the ratio of rifle units vs support units, and an open debate about the utility of tracks vs wheels on envisaged tasking surely both need to be tackled first?

    Just asking for 20,000 more on top of the existing and “all the new equipment” isn’t credible and will only bring down further cuts.


    1. @Peter Elliott

      Sorry, Peter, only just got to this.

      “Why would anyone in HMG be prepared to raise the headcount unless or until the Army can show how it is maximising the value of its existing 82,000 ORBAT into deployable formations?”

      Well, yes, in one way this is a valid point. Of course, the Army must show willing in terms of terms of making every effort to rebalance the ratio of rifle units to combat support unit. That is rational. However, to say that “Just asking for 20,000 more on top of the existing and “all the new equipment” isn’t credible and will only bring down further cuts.” is certainly not logical.

      Why on earth should such a policy bring further cuts? If Army chiefs can consistently and unrelentingly make the case that the Army is short of both personnel and equipment, then that is surely one way to prevent cuts, not cause them. Look at the Royal Navy’s policy of pressure on HMG. It has resulted not only in the construction of the two new carriers but in their manning as well; in the saving of the two LPDs; the introduction of the Astute subs and the Type 26s too. I could go on. The take the RAF. They have pressed their case very effectively and the result is that they have procured some first-rate aircraft: Voyager, Poseidon, Wedgetail, F35, etc.

      So the two policies must be pursued in tandem. Strikes me that the nearest way to bring about cuts is not to resist them. They must be fought by service chiefs with every power at their command.

      And scrapping certain infantry cap badges and units and introducing more CS and CSS units will not be nearly as easy as it sounds. It takes years to train a highly skilled military engineer or medic. What happens during that transformational period? Infantry personnel do not simply become adequate support troops by magic overnight.

      Rather like your idea of how the way to achieve viable numbers of a new tracked hull in the UK would be to use the same base vehicle for the MBT and the IFV. Perhaps such a base vehicle could be used for a SP gun as well?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. – I’d say because 20,000 is just an arbitrary number, there’s no scientific rational to just asking for more (though I understand it has always been the way) when you can’t demonstrate efficient use of what you’ve got.
        Why does the army need a deployable division? Because it’s part of an alliance and the division is a unit of currency HMG must show it is willing to pay. Why does it need two? What specifically can it do with two that it can’t do with one and wouldn’t need three for? That’s what the treasury would want to know.
        – The navy got it’s carriers because it had a government with a sympathetic ear, but even there it had a rational business case, it needed two to guarantee the one for a baseline capability. The LPD’s are still in doubt I would say and the SSN’s and frigates are overdue replacements and in reduced numbers.
        – RAF has the benefit of being seen as the modern way of war and seems to run very good procurement, but Voyager was kind of an off the books number costing a fortune for planes we don’t own, Poseidon is an overdue gapped capability arguably only made possible by Putin naked aggression, Wedgetail’s the result of a historical lack of upgrades to AWAC’s (but a nice decisive purchase) and then there’s the two squadrons of F35; there’s kind of the same degree of desperation across all three services, the army’s just not making its case or decisions very well.
        Reducing infantry and increasing support makes what we do have usable and the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step I’d say that the most critical shortfall would seem to be logistics, which isn’t a thousand miles from infantry work, offer them six months salary to swap cap badges and see what happens.
        We also have a shortage of modern artillery and yet we an entire regiment flying eight active watchkeeper (sometimes underwater) and another one who’s job it is to throw planes by hand, that in particular is worthy of a Python sketch.


  13. Another question if I may. If in SDSR 20 you could make a maximum of one addition, counterbalanced by one deletion or reduction, to each of the 4 front line commands then what would these 4 additions and 4 deletions/ reductions be?

    Finally, if you could could make one MoD wide policy or strategy change then what would it be?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The SoS has set each of the service chiefs a key task. I suspect they will need to show good strong real and physically measurable progress on their task in order to keep their job.
    The review may well set out aims and plans but I doubt it will allocate any extra resources until the services show real achieved progress on improved VFM


  15. …and, purely rhetorically, it would be interesting to understand what unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), and AI, might be able to do in the future, say 2030 – 40. Might one for example be able to rapidly deliver a light task force to a trouble spot which is then rapidly reinforced by air transportable UGVs (perhaps to formation level) with the ability not just to deliver logistics, but potentially carry out recce, defend against heavy armour, perform indirect fire and perhaps even take ground etc? The absence of people in UGVs might mean that their armour, and thus weight and logistic needs, could be far less making then more quickly deploy-able? If you could do all that (big IF) then, combining a UGV formation with a Strike brigade would you need an eventual replacement for heavy armour? Moreover if you bought an automated factory to build these might you be in a good position to suddenly generate combat mass at relatively short notice? All very speculative I know.


  16. It is my honest belief that 2/3 of our problems start at the planning stage of this army (procurement system).

    How do you solve logistical issues? Planning + Standarisation, and knowledge of what other departments are building. You can’t evolve secondary uses for weapons systems after the fact. It just becomes a bodge job. See: trying to put 155mm on a ship as a good example, you have to do it at the planning stage.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-defence/about/procurement#how-we-procure (Not a constant logical framework, no that would be sane! Adopt the contract shotgun approach and hope things stick, and you wonder why Engineers just go and design for the american’s, and hope we adopt them through NATO standarisation)

    This is open to the Public domain…. This: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/accelerator-funded-contracts/accelerator-funded-contracts-1-april-2018-to-31-march-2019 Alot of this projects are on going or in the first stage of procurement [enemies don’t need to hack you, when your giving the information out for FREE]

    And lastly: We need cash, and for some reason selling weapons overseas is off the table? I would tell you to copy the americans, the chinese, the russians, but no. They all learned that from the British Empire, (how do you unlearn good army planning? politicians and Cuts, which has caused more unnecessary spending).


    1. There are lots of historic criticisms about the procurement system. The question I would pose is whether there is any evidence that the UK’s is any worse than any other major industrialised nation? In English speaking countries we have a culture of adversarial public scrutiny of how tax payers’ money is spent which does not necessarily exist in other European countries. The fact that the press pick up on a what might be some justifiable criticisms does not mean that they are necessarily representative of the vast bulk of defence and wider government procurement. One needs to reflect on whether UK defence procurement is truly uniquely poor, in spite of all the reforms over the decades, or whether military requirements definition (or perhaps prediction), financing, research and development, derisking, manufacture and fielding are uniquely difficult problems.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Let us begin the lengthy discussion on this topic.
        Lets go over all the reasons why we went with this system, DEBT. we had loads of it, we also based this choice on another series of assumptions: chief among which was we would still have multiple arms manufacturers in the UK, if we hadn’t sold, traded or watch them get amalgamated into BAE. assumption 2: the uk gives a crap about weapons and national power. im sorry when your entire doctrinal approach is to wait for the enemy and respond. you might put yourself in the position of always playing catchup. problem 3 the uk government is not at all clued in to weapon sales and Money in that comes from them, the Greatest example of which was, the recognition of israel, we could have voted as neutral on the subject. but nooo. we had to vote yes as a solidarity with our american ally, Magically, all our weapon contracts in our face went to the russians and the americans, and we got to watch the cold war grow to increasing pace! £2M of contracts spread across 4 buying nations was lost that day, not to mention the ensuing months.

        The choice to change it was based on a series of criticisms by Churchill, about the speed of the procurement system, rather than look into processing things faster. he handed it off to someone in the industry. a man who decided that his own, and friends wallets where more important than the war effort. Go look up WW2 UK tank production as a fine example of this in motion, the RAF’s engineers told him to sod off and standarised great planes, so did the navy. GO back and update the system from 1939. and finally where are the checks and balances? where is the understanding of national resources? Every other system makes NO assumptions. in the uk its a one way street, sell you a contract and fingers crossed it comes out OK. what about redundant research? did you know that the UK has conducted more research on things it already knows about, and thus spent more money in that area by percentage than most other nations. kinda hard to argue with that “prevents debt” arguement. What about the armour schools? in other nations they are taught as full year courses in fearce competition. here.. 10 day course.

        Lastly: how do you intend to defend our island with security weaknesses of: the channel tunnel, the SS richard mongomery, drones looking into bases (https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/15/photography-drone-hms-queen-elizabeth/), telling people the location of your factories…. ARE YOU ASKING TO BE STRATEGICALLY BOMBED? or are you saying there’s no point with satellites. how pathetic defeatist have we become if that’s the attitude? im sorry. but i find it hard to care, when they are finding all the ways to destroy this country from the inside out.

        History keeps providing examples of this system failing. maybe you should leave this system there.
        This is a recent MOD request https://www.gov.uk/government/news/innovation-sought-to-integrate-advanced-materials-onto-military-platforms?utm_source=d270998a-aac6-44eb-ae8e-221c68967638&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=govuk-notifications&utm_content=immediate They useless!


  17. This article had no idea a virus of biblical proportions was about to hit the World, so to some extent the plans for 2020 may not be so clear? We have no idea the length of time the UK Government will have to underwrite the nation’s salaries and businesses, but one truth is clear, the costs will be huge. Whilst World interest rates are on the floor it will be easier to extend the UK debt to see it through the worst, however, once that period is over a stampede by government departments to protect their budgets will ensue. In such circumstances, I fear the MOD will be drowned out and will be instructed to create emergency plans to ease the military burden on the exchequer?

    An emergency budget can not be ruled out, possibly in the Autumn,
    where the chancellor will attempt to create a road map for the next two-three years. What will be revealed may not make easy reading and especially for high-cost projects? Civil engineering programmes such as HS2 may still go ahead but other promised monies may need to be withheld? The COVID-19 will rewrite the Conservative manifesto, as the financial burden of both recovery and completing Brexit begins to grind down opportunities. An increase in taxes could be proposed for a period of recovery, and a dramatic strategy for the NHS will act as a sponge on other government budgets. I do hope the UK forces are not hit too hard, but the signs are bleak on so many fronts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s