By Nicholas Drummond
Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to have a deeper look at the Integrated Review and evaluate its implications for UK Defence. This article is divided into two sections. The first is a review of the core strategy document: “Global Britain in a competitive age.” This is the primary Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy blueprint. The second part is a review of the Defence Command paper: “Defence in a competitive age,” which essentially explains how the aspirations of the defence and security components of the IR strategy will be implemented. This is further divided into a discussion of each of three primary domains, Sea, Land and Air, plus a brief discussion of Cyber and Space. Since this is a land power blog, the Army is the focus of this commentary. Readers interested only the land power element of this discussion should feel free to skip to the Army paragraph below.
1. Global Britain in a competitive age
The primary objective of the integrated Review was to reconfigure UK defence commitments around a more realistic and achievable set of foreign policy goals. This was necessary to ensure proper alignment between the things that we must absolutely do to protect UK interests at home and abroad with what we can realistically afford to do within our budget. Within military circles, defence academia and the wider armed forces community, there was an overwhelming sense that we were trying to do too much with too little. Therefore, a starting assumption was that instead of trying to do everything badly, we should identify the most important priorities and resource them properly, enabling a reduced set of commitments to be performed to the highest possible standard. The Government recognised that this was a sensible if not essential approach and got behind it.
A second driving force behind the Integrated Review is Britain’s need to reconsider its place in the world post-Brexit. The Government’s Global Britain agenda means we will look beyond Europe’s borders to trade more widely with Commonwealth and other international partners. This is not a rejection of Europe. It is about leveraging our renewed independence to unlock new opportunities internationally. We will definitely continue to trade with Europe, even if there is an inevitable increased cost of doing so, but the review recognises that Europe remains a vital ally, strategic partner and friend.
Thirdly, there has only been one serious attempt to re-set our defence priorities since the end of the Cold War. This was the 1998 Defence Review. Unfortunately, 9/11 and the resulting deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan ensured that its plans were never properly implemented. A decade later, we had become embroiled in what were widely considered to be two unwinnable wars. To make matters worse, the global financial crisis of 2008 caused an economic meltdown. When David Cameron’s coalition government came to power it embarked on a strategy of radical economic austerity to balance the budget. Consequently, the 2010 Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) was not about managing UK defence needs, but cutting the deficit. The Defence Budget was slashed by £7 billion. Manpower was reduced by 20% and multiple equipment programmes were cut outright, reduced in scope or deferred. It was the most shocking reduction in UK military capability since the drawdown that occurred after second world war. The worst aspect of this was that there was no underlying strategy that made sense of what was left.
Fourthly, the economic impact of the Covid-19 is likely to be much more severe than the global financial crisis of 2008. While the consequences will not become apparent until the virus is fully under control, the level of Government borrowing has been significant. This will require austerity on a whole new level. Unavoidably, this means that the Integrated Review has had to be a cost-reduction exercise.
For all of the above reasons, there can be no doubt that a new strategic blueprint was well overdue. The result is a 111-page document, “Global Britain in a competitive age,” published on 16 March 2021. The first thing it provides is an overview of the national security and international environment to 2030. This highlights geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts, including China’s increased power and assertiveness. It notes the systemic competition between states and non-state actors, emphasising increased challenges to the established norms of the rules-based international order, and the fact that the distinction between peace and war has become blurred as authoritarian states resort to actions below the threshold of conflict to undermine democracy. It identifies rapid technological change, with scientific innovation and growing digitisation reshaping our societies, economies and relationships, as something that brings enormous benefits, but also that introduces further competitive challenges. Fourthly, the document lists transnational challenges, such as climate change, global health risks, international crime, the loss of biodiversity, and terrorism, as issues that require urgent action to ensure global resilience. Wrapped-up within this is the long-term geopolitical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, something that has completely changed our world since January 2020.
The high-level overview is used to construct an overall strategic framework that consists of four primary elements:
- Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology
- Shaping the open international order of the future
- Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas
- Building resilience at home and overseas
This is a framework that plays to Britain’s strengths as a nation. The document goes to considerable lengths to describe areas in which we punch above our weight. Britain has the fifth largest economy globally and is the second biggest spender within NATO, which means we make a serious contribution to global defence and security. We excel at scientific and technological innovation and are ranked fourth in the Global Innovation Index. We are a global leader in diplomacy and development. While the UK may not be a superpower militarily, we are ranked third in terms of our soft power influence. Many UK institutions contribute to this, including our education system, our legal system, and our system of government, which is truly democratic, open and accountable to the people it serves. We attract foreign investment, particularly in science and technology. The way in which we engage with international partners and competitors is always balanced and measured. Our culture and values make us a valued and respected member of the international order. So while we may not be superpower, we still wield considerable influence on the world stage.
As you would expect, the Integrated Review document explores the challenges we face in terms of state and non-state actors who represent risks and threats to our security, but equally, it identifies our key international partners and allies. Not surprisingly, China has overtaken Russia as the principal threat. This is attributable to its expanding influence and control in South East Asia, its “Belt & Road” initiatives in Africa and elsewhere, and intensifying competition for access and control of scarce natural resources. What is left unsaid, but is perhaps implicit within the Government’s overall evaluation, is the danger China now poses. It failed to provide timely warning of the dangers of the Coronavirus. It lacks transparency and refuses to cooperate with the global community in managing the pandemic’s impact. China’s manipulation of the situation to ensure it emerged sooner with a stronger economy is not how a global superpower should behave. Its failure to respect the Hong Kong handover agreement, its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and, most seriously of all, reports of genocide committed against Uyghur Muslims in North West China, are all hallmarks of an inevitable metamorphosis from partner to competitor. China’s authoritarian regime has never really been questioned until now. The review is careful to use the word competitor instead of potential adversary, but we should be in no doubt that China has become both.
In describing the threat posed by Russia, the review document succinctly implies that the problem is not Russia’s people or culture, but rather its autocratic leader who respects neither democracy nor the rule of international law. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukraine territory has alienated him. His response to sanctions is to actively undermine western democracies by all possible means. The use of weapons of mass destruction on UK soil illustrates an increasingly reckless regime. This makes Russia dangerous and unpredictable.
Coping with Russia or China in isolation would represent a major challenge, but together they exemplify a vastly more complex geopolitical environment. Closer ties between China and Russia are a further cause for concern. Other principal threats include North Korea, Iran and extremist terrorist groups. None of these are new, but they underline the fact that future conflicts are extremely hard to predict. Whereas we need to prepare for the most obvious challenges, we also need to meet unexpected dangers that leap unexpectedly out of nowhere. Avoiding conflict requires us to be proactive as well as responsive. This means that our defence posture must deter as well as being able to counter. Ultimately, we live in a world that is more volatile and dangerous than it has been at any time over the last 50 years.
Seeking to shape a future open international order requires the UK to form meaningful partnerships with our neighbours and longstanding allies. Not surprisingly, the document lists the United States as our most essential strategic ally. It also acknowledges the enduring importance of maintaining strong mutually beneficial relationships with our European neighbours, singling-out France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland as tier one partners. Second tier European partners include Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. There is recognition of the importance of the Five Eyes partnership between Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Further afield, in the Indo-Pacific region, key partners include Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. We also maintain strong historic links with Pakistan and India, with both countries playing an important role in containing Russia and China. Then there is the African continent with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, which remain an enduring focus for diplomatic efforts. In the Middle East, constructive relationships with Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE and Egypt remain paramount to avoid conflagration in the region. Distributed globally are the 54 members of the Commonwealth. This is not a complete list of international partners, but gives a flavour of massive diplomatic effort required to prosecute effective foreign policy.
The overarching strategy of the Integrated Review reflects “a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific while retaining a Euro-Atlantic focus.” Engaging effectively with international partners across the four strategic areas represents a huge political commitment, even before the defence and security component of this is considered. Note the word “tilt” is used rather than “pivot.” This suggests a recognition of the need to engage east of Suez, but not a wholesale realignment towards an enlarged permanent presence in Asia.
The foreign policy context drives the UK’s defence policy component of the document. The “Defending the UK and our people, at home and overseas” section has been divided into three high level commitments:
- Countering state threats: defence, disruption and deterrence. This includes defending the UK and our people at home and overseas; defence and deterrence through collective security; and countering state threats to our democracy, society and economy.
- Addressing conflict and instability. This involves the UK making an active contribution to conflict prevention and to prevent instability from creating power vacuums that allow security threats to proliferate.
- Homeland security and transnational security challenges. This includes countering radicalisation and terrorism; countering serious and organised crime; and strengthening global arms control, disarmament and counter-proliferation
These three strategic pillars reflect a policy of domestic physical defence of the United Kingdom, Overseas Territories and UK Dependencies, and the protection of UK interests abroad. They underline our commitment to the NATO alliance and operating in partnership with other member states. Further, they reflect an ongoing commitment to the United Nations and operating under the principals of International Law.
A core strategic tool remains Britain’s nuclear deterrent. An explicit statement of commitment to having a minimum, assured and credible capability in this area preserves Britain’s place as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. It is a commitment backed-up by the renewal of the Trident ballistic missile submarine fleet and by an upgrade to the missile system itself. This will allow us to increase the total number of nuclear warheads available for use from 180 to 260. In reality, the number of warheads possessed by the UK is unimportant so long as our multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) can reliably hit their designated targets. The new Dreadnought Class of SSBNs will be able to carry 12 Trident missiles. At the moment, it is not clear whether the current maximum of eight warheads per missile will be increased. If this is planned, then it would explain the UK’s intent to have a higher total number. What this announcement does do is send a clear message to China that anything it might do to trigger a major international conflict would end very badly for all parties if it led to a nuclear exchange. The threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), something which has kept the peace since the end of WW2, therefore provides an ongoing deterrent effect. The UK’s possession of nuclear weapons belies our relatively small size and limited economic power.
If nuclear weapons remain a weapon of last resort to counter peer adversaries, a corresponding capability is the regular and active employment of world-class national security and intelligence agencies. Britain’s resources in this area give us a tool that provides early warning of potential conflicts situations, as well as enabling us to pre-emptively counter terrorism and organised crime. This is increasingly dependent on technology for surveillance and information gathering. As we conduct our own “grey zone” initiatives, robust intelligence will enable timely and informed decision-making. Continued investment in this area supported by a trusted and well-established network of international relationships network reflect the fact that this is another area in which the UK excels.
Across the Integrated Review’s strategic framework, the UK is committed to building capabilities across all five domains:
The scope of the review document is comprehensiveness and offers a polished discussion of the critical areas of defence and security. In doing so, it provides the desired connection between foreign policy and defence. What is alarming is the sheer breadth and depth of challenges we face. Ultimately, the Review defines a set of commitments, or a “To do list” that are expanded in scope rather than contracted into more affordable and sustainable objectives. This means the Integrated Review is a triumph of ambition over affordability – just like every other defence review of the last century. However, this does not mean that it has failed to achieve a fundamental goal. Rather it reflects an uncomfortable truth that any desire for retrenchment or withdrawal from a wider global engagement has been overtaken by events and this has happened much faster than we might have imagined.
Funding the aspirations of the Integrated Review will be challenging. Whether or not we can afford to resource every priority to the level we need is likely to be impossible, but it could well mean that we expand our armed forces beyond the scope of current plans. Ultimately, the Integrated Review is an outstanding strategic blueprint that will inform not only what Britain does as a result of having produced it, but also the defence activities of our friends and allies. Finally, it is a clear statement of intent that should leave potential adversaries in no doubt that any attempt to undermine or attack UK interests will be made to be as difficult and costly as possible.
2. The Defence Command Paper
If the Integrated Review document provides a strategic foundation, the “Defence in a competitive age” white paper, published on 22 March 2021, explains how the UK’s Armed Forces will evolve in terms of roles, tasks, size, structure, composition, and capabilities to deliver the Integrated Review’s objectives.
This document was less good. After reading just a few paragraphs it is apparent that large parts of the document were changed at the last moment. It doesn’t flow. It doesn’t feel joined-up, even though it echoes many of the themes of the primary document. The structure is more clunky and difficult to navigate. Much of the language uses impenetrable technical military jargon. When it describes a “permanent and persistent global engagement,” that is “catalysed by a digital network” to provide a “network of global hubs,” and you see that the plan incorporates the same overseas bases that we’ve used for the past 50 years, the effect is diminished. It is almost as if the authors forgot who they were talking to. It is a poor piece of communication, which frustrates its intent and its impact. More than that, major gaps and an overall lack of detail show that the implementation strategy is still a work in progress.
The core theme is an expeditionary focus enabled by a series of “lily pad” forward bases that offer jumping-off points to deploy larger forces. This plan envisages major operations being conducted in partnership with allies and heavily reliant on information technology, including resilient C4I systems, and interoperable systems.
A. The Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is fundamental to Global Britain and to delivering an expeditionary forces wherever they are needed. It is also essential to protect UK approaches, the North Atlantic and key trade routes. So, it was right that it came of out of the review in a strong position. The cost of renewing the nuclear deterrent is likely to rise above £41 billion, not only because we are building new ballistic missile submarines, but also because we are upgrading the Trident D5 missiles that they fire. Carrier Strike is also resource intensive due to cost of the ships themselves and the F-35 aircraft they carry, but additionally because they require such a huge infrastructure to support them, including escort vessels for protection. Escorts that sail with the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) cannot be used for other tasks, so plans for a new Type 32 Frigate and Type 83 destroyer to boost total ship numbers are welcome.
With a national shipbuilding programme at the heart of the Royal Navy’s future strategy, it will have one of the most formidable fleets in NATO by 2035. This will include 4 ballistic missile submarines, 7 attack submarines, 2 aircraft carriers, 2 commando LHDs, 24 escorts including 6 destroyers (Type 45 to be superseded by the Type 83), 18 frigates (including 8 Type 26, 5 Type 31 and 5 Type 32, which together will replace the existing Type 23), 8 offshore patrol vessels, and assorted smaller patrol craft. The Royal Navy’s current fleet of Hunt-Class mine counter-measures vessels will be superseded by a new type of autonomous mine clearance system. While harnessing new technology to save cost, this option ignores the fact that MCM vessels can also perform general patrol duties when not used in their primary task. A new multi-role ocean surveillance ship will arrive by 2025 to protect key underwater communications infrastructure. Investment in new ships will be matched by investment in new weapons, including a new anti-shipping missile and enhanced air defence systems. The Royal Marines will complete their transformation to the Future Commando Force. This will include two “Littoral Response Groups,” with one in Northern Europe and the other in the Indian Ocean.
There are three chinks in the Royal Navy’s armour. One is whether it has sufficient anti-submarine frigates. Eight Type 26 frigates are planned in total, which is barely sufficient to cover North Atlantic roles. The second concern is whether seven attack submarines is enough. There can be no doubt that Astute Class nuclear attack submarines are among the best boats of their kind, but they can only be in one place at a time. The third issue is the total number of F-35B Lightning II combat aircraft to be purchased. This has presently been capped at 48. The review committed to growing the fleet beyond this number, but did not specify how many or when. Each carrier can carry up to 36 aircraft, so this suggests a fleet of 72, plus a training squadron of 12. Irrespective of RN needs, the RAF also needs a Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft to replace its own Harrier fleet that was retired early in 2010. A total purchase of 138 F-35Bs was anticipated, but with an acquisition cost still close to £100 million per aircraft and support costs that are more expensive than expected, we are unlikely to acquire more than 90 aircraft. Regardless of cost, the F-35 has fulfilled its promise. It is an extremely capable aircraft. Although we aim to acquire less expensive future aircraft that are more focused in the roles they perform, for the at least the next decade there is no serious alternative to the F-35.
B. The Royal Air Force
This brings us to the Royal Air Force which did not emerge from the review unscathed. The good news was reaffirmation of the Government’s commitment to the Tempest future combat aircraft, plus investment in a new remotely piloted aircraft system, the LANCA loyal wingman combat drone. The RAF’s ten Reaper RPAS will be replaced by 16 General Atomics MQ-9B Predator or Protector, as it will be called in UK service. We are unlikely to see the fruits of these development programmes before the mid 2030s.
The above initiatives were offset by a reduction in the Typhoon fleet of 24 aircraft through the premature retirement of Tranche 1 aircraft by 2025. This will leave a total of 107 aircraft to establish seven frontline squadrons and a training squadron. This means the RAF will have a total of 155 frontline combat aircraft. According to the IISS Military Balance yearbook, as recently as 2019, the RAF had 250 combat capable aircraft. So any decision to reduce the total number of F-35s ultimately purchased is likely to impact the RAF’s critical mass.
The RAF was forced to gap its maritime patrol aircraft capability for a decade after the Nimrod MRA4 was cancelled in 2010. However, the first of nine Boeing P-8A Poseidons is now entering service. It would be helpful if the total number could be increased to 12, but this is unaffordable at the moment. The RAF also intends to acquire the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft to replace the Boeing E-3D Sentry AWACS, but only three will be acquired not five or six. This seems barely credible, making this the one serious shortcoming of the Defence Command Paper outcomes.
The fleet of 14 Lockheed-Martin C-130J Hercules transport aircraft fleet will be retired early, by 2023, despite flying as many hours annually as the Airbus A400M and Boeing C-17A fleets. It is not clear what will replace the Hercules in the Special Forces role, even though the A400M is now parachute capable. With Global Britain adopting a more outward looking defence posture, culling the number of strategic transport aircraft that can support deployed forces globally seems shortsighted. The RAF is rightly concerned about whether 22 A400Ms and 8 C-17As are sufficient to meet our needs.
A further 36 Hawk T1 training aircraft will be retired and replaced by virtual training; however, the type will continue to be flown by the Red Arrows display team. Nine of the RAF’s older Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters will be retired, but the RAF is committed to maintaining this capability and intends to replace the entire fleet with the updated M-47F version. Given its overall contribution to defence, Chinook remains a high-value capability. The Puma fleet of 24 helicopters and several other disparate helicopter types will be replaced by a single new medium lift helicopter type.
While the above cuts have been balanced by investment in the new capabilities described above, plus the integration of new weapons onto the F-35B Lightning II, they amount to a net loss in RAF capability.
C. The British Army
As expected, the British Army has suffered most from Integrated Review rationalisations. Although the reduction in headcount from 82,000 to 72,500 was not as great as the 20,000 cut in 2010, and while the new cap will be achieved through soldiers exiting the service voluntarily rather than through redundancies, it is hard to see a 12% reduction in numbers as anything other than a serious loss of critical mass. To make matters worse, it is rumoured that all infantry battalions will be reduced in headcount to just 450 soldiers. If correct, this is utter madness. In comparison, Russia has a standing army of 280,000 and China 975,000. NATO armies need sufficient collective headcount to ensure they are not overwhelmed by a sheer weight of numbers. France has an Army of 114,000 and Italy one of 99,950, but Britain and Germany lag with armies of 72,500 and 61,000 respectively. (Source: IISS Military Balance yearbook 2020). As has been said repeatedly: modern conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and ferocity, so you go to war with the Army you have, not the one you’d ideally like. And, if you are not in the right place, at the right time, with the sufficient mass, you lose quickly and decisively.
Given severe resource constraints, the Army had to choose between a larger force modernised to a lesser degree, or a small force modernised more extensively. It chose the latter. Prior to the writing of the Defence Command Paper, there was already a perception that the Army 2025 plan had become undeliverable. Army modernisation envisioned two heavy armour tracked brigades, two medium strike brigades, an air assault brigade and various light role infantry brigades. Copying a US Army’s light, medium and heavy model, the plan aimed to establish a credible multi-role force capable of performing a range of mission types. By 2018, it was clear that the future plan was unrealistic and unaffordable.
The need to buy protected mobility vehicles for use in Iraq and Afghanistan had already hoovered-up much of the Army’s equipment budget. Meanwhile, a failure to manage the acquisition of new armoured vehicle types has reduced confidence in its ability to plan and implement its regeneration needs. Worse still, indeterminate success in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused many people to question what the Army is for. It is not clear that the Defence Command Paper has answered this, even though it emphasises an expeditionary focus with agile mobile forces.
There is plenty of evidence that UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, has been influenced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The sight of Armenian armoured vehicles being hammered in large numbers by Azerbaijani loitering munitions will drive UK investment in similar high tech weaponry. While this is welcome, it has also led to doubts about the ongoing viability of heavy armour. This is a false pathology. Naturally, we need to take advantage of the new targeting opportunities offered by loitering munitions. But correspondingly, we need to address the vulnerabilities they create for legacy systems. Reducing the total number of armoured vehicles overlooks the capability they provide. History shows that units deploying in armoured vehicles suffer less casualties than those who deploy without protection. The real lesson from Nagorno-Karabakh is the need to invest in air defence systems that counter drones and loitering munitions.
The reduction in UK MBTs is therefore disappointing. The Army’s 227 Challenger 2 tanks was an ideal number that provided three regular regiments plus a training regiment. However, only 148 will be upgraded to the Challenger 3 standard. Worse still, the Warrior IFV upgrade programme was cancelled outright. This amounts to a net loss of 380 armoured vehicles and seriously undermines the Army’s ability to counter peer threats. At a time when we are reorienting our ground forces to fight high intensity conflicts versus near-peers, this seems counter-intuitive. This loss of capability disqualifies the UK for operating in partnership with the USA for operations that require an Armoured Infantry component, such as the Gulf War of 1991 and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In defence of the decision to cut the Warrior CSP programme, it had been ongoing for more than decade without delivering. A production contract was meant to be placed in 2017, but reliability growth trials were still ongoing four years later. It is also worth noting that the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle programme has yet to deliver, despite being five years late and with ongoing technical issues. Similarly, Challenger 3 will only have a short service life, so better to save money on both MBTs and IFVs for now – but only if they are replaced by new vehicles subsequently. To a certain extent, a turreted Boxer could perform an IFV role, just as France’s 8×8 VBCI has replaced its tracked IFV. However, the Army has underlined an ongoing need for a tracked IFV, so we can only hope that the cancellation of Warrior is capability holiday rather than a total deletion.
Those responsible for the new structure have stressed the fact that the British Army no longer needs to be equipped to counter a massed assault across Germany’s Fulda Gap. This scenario previously defined the British Army of the Rhine’s doctrine and equipment, but is now redundant. Instead, it is more likely that we will deploy forces to Africa, Asia or the Middle East than Europe. Thus, the Army needs to be “expeditionary by design.” While this is accepted, if we find ourselves needing to go toe-to-toe with a peer adversary, tanks and tracked IFVs will remain essential. Nothing else provides the level of all-terrain firepower, resilience, persistence and shock effect. Combined arms armoured brigades remain the most expensive unit of land warfare currency, but cost alone should not disqualify them being part of the future force.
We certainly need lighter expeditionary forces that can be easily deployed and supported at reach, but an Army of Foxhounds, Bushmasters and JLTVs will not have the firepower and resilience to prevail. Therefore, we need a mix of capabilities: heavy and light. In essence, the new structure with Heavy and Light Brigade Combat Teams will deliver this but only to a limited extent.
In modernising the Army, we need place the right capability bets so that we are prepared for the most likely scenarios. This is easier said than done. Therefore, we need the future force to be easily reconfigurable. One advantage of the new Boxer 8×8 is that its mission module approach allows a force to be designed around the task at hand. Put a turret module on, and it can perform an IFV role. Put an APC module on it, and it can perform a COIN role. The Defence Command paper suggests that there will be an increased investment in Boxer. Given that it has high levels of protection, the ability to add an array of potent weapons and operational mobility, this is a welcome move. (Given the author’s close connection with KMW you would expect him to say this, but it also reflects his personal view.)
On the subject of Boxer, there was no mention of Strike doctrine in the Defence Command paper. But there should be no doubt that this remains a major part of the Integrated Operating Concept. At the risk of repeating this statement ad nauseam, strike is a way of fighting not a specific set of vehicles. The new structure suggests that the Army as whole is likely to become more modular and reconfigurable, so that it can perform different missions with equipment sets selected according to the threat, the mission, geography and terrain. This is excellent.
Fire and manoeuvre at brigade and divisional level is facilitated by armoured vehicles, but also by artillery and missile systems that deliver effect. During his speech to induce the Defence Command Paper, the Secretary of State for Defence pointed out that the reduction in headcount was necessary to fund new high tech weaponry. In particular, the Army will benefit from investment in new automated 155 mm mobile fires platform (to replace the defunct AS90 SPH), upgraded rocket artillery (longer range G/MLRS munitions), new ISTAR assets, non-line of sight (NLOS) anti-tank guided weapons, and new air defence capabilities. While these initiatives are much needed and highly anticipated, the paper was light on detail about which new systems were under consideration.
Infantry headcount will be reorganised around a new Special Operations Brigade with a new “Ranger Regiment” of 1,000 soldiers. This will be seeded by four infantry battalions with the Yorkshire Regiment, Princess of Wale’s Royal Regiment, and Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment all losing their second battalions. 4 Rifles will also be folded into the new organisation. It is possible that all regiments with a second battalion will lose it, including 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment. While the Ranger concept is interesting, it is hard to see how this unit will differ from the roles performed by the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment. Far better if 16 Air Assault Brigade had been re-positioned as an Army Special Operations Brigade or Ranger force without a name change.
A new Security Force Assistance Brigade will incorporate four additional Specialised Infantry battalions with 1,000 soldiers, the same total as the Ranger Regiment. Each component battalion will have 250 soldiers. The overall restructuring plan suggests that infantry will be reorganised around four separate divisions, but it is not yet clear how this will work. Again, a better approach might have been to give this role to the newly formed Ranger regiment and retain conventional infantry mass.
All combat arms will now be organised around “Brigade Combat Teams.” This is a US Army term used to describe combined arms brigades that deploy with their own combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) assets. The force will be divided into 3 (UK) Division with two Heavy Brigade Combat Teams (HBCTs) and a Deep Reconnaissance Brigade Combat Team (DRBCT), plus1 (UK) Division with two Light Brigade Combat Teams (LBCTs) and an Air Manoeuvre Brigade Combat Team (AMBCT). If this gives ultimately leads to the Army having two deployable divisions, or six deployable brigades, it will be a massive win.
It was further announced that individual combat brigades would have combined logistics and maintenance battalions as per the US model. So long as these are of a manageable size, they should enable the Army to generate more deployable forces that can be supported at reach. Again, the detail explaining how supporting arms, including engineers, signals, and medical units, would be incorporated into the BCT structure was missing. But, if this makes the Army more usable, then it is also a positive outcome.
In addition to the above, there will be a Combat Aviation Brigade Combat Team, and an ISR Brigade with the Special Forces group unchanged. It is not clear whether there will still be a separate artillery brigade, but this is assumed until we hear otherwise. Nor is it certain how many brigades in total will be deployable and what level of divisional support assets they will have. However, the emerging organisational structure already seems more coherent than the previous one, which featured too many ad hoc infantry battalions that would have deployed without armour or artillery support.
The Heavy Brigade Combat Team a Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team structures come across as cobbling together the kit we have, rather than being a considered effort to resource an optimised structure. Three identical HBCTs and three identical LBCTs would be preferable, not least because this creates more efficient force generation cycles, with one brigade deployed, one preparing to deploy, and the third resting and regrouping after a deployment.
There was also very little on how existing equipment programmes would change. The timing for Challenger 2 LEP has not yet been fixed, despite Rheinmetall prematurely announcing that it had been awarded a contract. The Boxer acquisition will be accelerated. Ajax will seemingly continue. Warrior has been axed. But there was no mention of MRVP.
Future Soldier – Transforming the British Army
Some missing detail relating to the Army, and provided above, was added subsequently when a third paper “Future Soldier – Transforming the British Army” was published. This acknowledged that full exposition of the future strategy was being worked on. Called project Embankment, this is expected to be published in the summer.
D. Cyber and Space
Cyber and Space have become important new warfare domains. Investment in Cyber will include developing an offensive electronic warfare (EW) capability and a more sophisticated digitised C4I network and communications infrastructure. This will be delivered by the ongoing LE TacCIS / Morpheus programme.
Beyond the renewal of legacy capabilities, the Army envisages a hi-tech future with additional investment in autonomous systems, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data for the battlefield. Leveraging the UK’s leadership in science and technology, capabilities in the digital domain will enable us to compete in the “Grey Zone” below the threshold of conflict. Potential adversaries are already operating effectively in this space, initiating activities that fall just short of outright aggression. With an increasingly blurred distinction between competition and conflict, the Defence Command Paper emphasises the need to be more active and assertive in countering attempts to compromise democracy, the freedoms we take for granted and our way of life. While some of these tasks will be performed by the Army, many fall under the responsibility of GCHQ, the Government’s communications headquarters.
The Government said little about what it would do in the space domain. Activities in this area will likely include investing in satellite systems such as Skynet for communication and surveillance tasks. The need for secrecy means that detailed information is not readily available.
The reality of the situation we now find ourselves in is that we need to address a wider set of defence and security challenges at a time when we need tighten our belt. Part of the problem is that modernisation has been deferred so long that all three armed forces, particularly the Army, need more extensive modernisation than the budget now allows. The situation is like the roof of a house. Over time, holes appear. If they are repaired on an ongoing basis, the cost is manageable and the roof will last more or less indefinitely. But, if the roof is not maintained, existing holes get bigger and more appear. If nothing is done, you eventually reach a point where the whole roof needs to be repaired. This is always much more expensive than ongoing maintenance.
Although £24 billion of extra money has been allocated to defence, much of it will be used to ensure that existing plans are successfully implemented, rather than funding a further expansion in new capability areas. Unavoidably, we have been forced to reduce costs. This has required us to make difficult choices. Faced with the binary decision of whether we conduct a reduced range of modernisation initiatives across the existing force structure or implement a more extensive range of initiatives across a reduced force structure, the integrated Review makes it clear that we are following the latter strategy.
Given that the Ministry of Defence had been given two years to develop its future strategy, it seems strange that Defence Command Paper was not complete and was changed extensively at the last minute. All things considered, though, the question that has to be asked, despite the gaps that still exist, is defence in better shape now than it was before the integrated Review?
The answer is that the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is a quantum leap above the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews. It is also superior to the 1998 Defence White Paper. All in all, it does an excellent job of providing a strategic narrative that sets UK defence and security priorities. However, the Defence Command Paper is not yet a proper implementation plan. To judge its success, we will need to wait until Project Embankment publishes its recommendations.
With the global geopolitical environment evolving rapidly, there is a possibility that the latest defence review will again be overtaken by events, so regardless of the priorities set today, we may need to adapt the plan before it is even implemented and quite possibly move in a different direction from the one we anticipate. However, as things stand today, Britain still possesses an extremely potent array of military capabilities.
In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the British Army as a “contemptible little army.” Although it numbered only 250,000 soldiers compared to Germany’s 960,000, it was well-equipped, well-trained and highly professional, having learned many hard lessons during the Boer War. Despite its small size, it punched well above its weight. The contemporary British Army is also comparatively small, but equally well-trained, well-equipped and professional. Potential adversaries may still consider it to be contemptible, but, when all is said and done, it remains a force to be reckoned with.