By Nicholas Drummond
The Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper were a necessary reset of UK defence priorities. In order to make defence affordable and sustainable going forward, short-term economies were necessary. This resulted in various programmes being deleted, delayed, or scaled back. Despite being the force most in need of modernisation, the Army was most affected by what many view as a cost management exercise more than force optimisation plan. The question is whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now invalidates IR and DCP assumptions, and whether Army modernisation should now be accelerated.
2. Army modernisation – Out of step with pacing threats
3. Wrong-footed by Putin
4. Potential outcomes in Ukraine as guide for UK defence initiatives
5. Practical next steps
British defence reviews rarely survive the first international crisis that follows them. Within seven days of the 1990 Defence White Paper being announced, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and an entire armoured division that had sat dormant in Germany for decades was used in anger. The 1998 Defence White Paper was never properly implemented due to 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror. This saw forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, while reorienting the Army around counter insurgency operations. Now, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has questioned the validity of the 2021 Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper within months of their publication.
Although the 2021 Integrated Review correctly identified Russia as the principal threat, it did not anticipate that Putin would follow-up his annexation of Crimea with further aggression. The underlying narrative was more about promoting post-Brexit, Global Britain than maintaining a European focus. It acknowledged China’s burgeoning superpower status through a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific rather than an outright “pivot.” Behind the strategic context, the Integrated Review was an attempt to force the three services to live within their means and drive improved efficiency in the management of essential modernisation programmes. Many existing problems stemmed from overcommitment. So, instead of trying to perform an extensive array of defence roles to a mediocre standard, the goal was to define a more focused range of priorities, resource them properly, and deliver excellence across these key areas.
A necessary part of this re-set was balancing the books. This inevitably meant deleting, delaying and scaling-back modernisation plans until more money could be made available. The Army was the biggest loser with headcount slashed by 9,500 soldiers. Challenger tank numbers dropped from 227 to just 148. The Warrior infantry fighting vehicle was axed altogether. The RAF lost 24 of its older Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft, while the Lockheed C-130J Hercules fleet is to be retired early, diminishing our strategic transport fleet. Only 3 E-7 Wedgetail early warning aircraft will be acquired instead of 5. The Royal Navy did not lose any ships, but there has yet to be a firm commitment to purchase additional F-35B joint strike fighters beyond the 48 already agreed. The RN and RAF may get 66, but this is a far cry from the original anticipated total of 138. UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, described the Defence Command Paper as “putting our house in order.” It was certainly this, but it was cost management exercise more than a force optimisation plan.
In fairness, the economic impact of Covid-19 had made further short-term belt-tightening across all areas of government unavoidable. Britain’s delayed response to the outbreak showed that if any part of the defence establishment needed additional investment it was national resilience. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contingency planning for the NHS was the main priority. Post-invasion, securing oil, gas, and other energy supplies, protecting vital infrastructures, and ensuring that UK food production is sufficient to feed the nation in the prolonged absence of imports, have all become more important than buying more warships and aircraft.
However, there is no escaping from the fact that delayed modernisation, especially for the Army, has resulted in serious capability gaps. Equally important, with so much of defence discussion focused on equipment, it’s easy to forget that defence is about much more than military hardware. Logistical planning, building-up reserves, recruitment, training, and ongoing support are all resource intensive. Being prepared is not about buying new stuff, it is making sure that everything already in service is fully operational and making sure we have enough war stocks to fight for more than a week.
2. Army modernisation – Out of step with pacing threats.
The piecemeal allocation of budget since 1990 has steadily eroded the mass and combat power of the British Army. Atrophy might not matter if force generation were more easily and rapidly achievable, but manufacturing new equipment and building-up reserves takes time. In contrast, modern conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and ferocity, which means we go to war with the Army we have, not the Army we would ideally like. It is worth remembering that Britain was largely unprepared for war in 1939. Even with American support, it took three years for industry to ramp-up. Consequently, we were forced to fight a much longer and more costly war than we would have done had our armed forces been better prepared at the outset.
The Army is the most difficult of the three services to manage. It has the largest headcount. It is the most complex organisation with the most moving parts. It is difficult to use on operations, because logistical support is so resource intensive. It is the force most in need of modernisation, yet it is the one that most lags behind the others.
The most disappointing aspect of the Integrated Review is that it proposes further cuts at a time when the Army’s armoured vehicle fleet is approaching a cliff-edge of block obsolescence. The FV432 armoured personnel carrier is still in service after almost 60 years of continuous use. This is the same as the Mark IV tank, which appeared in 1917, still being used in 1977. The CVR(T) Scimitar reconnaissance vehicle is 50 years old. The Warrior IFV is 40 years old. The Challenger 2 main battle tank is a youthful 25-year old, but can trace its origins back to the Chieftain tank of the 1960s. Because modernisation has been delayed so long, upgrade programmes have needed to be extended scope, increasing cost, risk and the time needed to deliver them. The cost of upgrading the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle ballooned to the point where the programme was uneconomical. It made more sense to acquire a new-build vehicle than to refurbish the existing fleet, but this was considered unaffordable. Instead of acquiring a new IFV, the capability will be deleted. The decision was justified on the basis that tracked IFVs are no longer relevant to the way we expect to fight. In reality, it was about cost.
To a certain extent many of the Army’s problems are self-inflicted through the mismanagement of key programmes. But with modernisation delayed by successive governments, by 2020, it was managing six major programmes simultaneously. The pressure this placed on the delivery organisation was enormous. Delaying programmes may help to relieve the burden in the short-term, but cancelling them completely as if to punish the Army for its mistakes is self-defeating.
The Army 2025 plan envisages three primary divisions supported by Field Army Troops and Home Command. The overarching structure provides a solid foundation on which to build. Unfortunately, the component formations are hollow. The 1st (UK) Division has only a single deployable light mechanised infantry brigade. It has other assorted infantry battalions, but these lack artillery, engineer and other enablers. The UK’s primary war fighting division is 3rd (UK) Division. This will include two hybrid armoured brigades with a mix of Challenger 3, Boxer and Ajax. A further deep strike reconnaissance brigade is envisaged, but this an artillery brigade with Ajax reconnaissance vehicles and no logistical support assets. 6th (UK) Division has four smaller Ranger Regiment battalions plus 77 Brigade, a small information manoeuvre unit. Finally, there is 16 Air Assault brigade. In total, the Army has just four deployable brigades. This is not credible.
The creation of the Ranger Regiment provides an uplift in SF and SOF troops through four smaller battalions. This is inconsistent with reduced headcount, because we may not be able to recruit sufficient numbers of élite soldiers from within a smaller army. There are four further Security Force Assistance Battalions, also with reduced headcount. Of the Army’s total of 31 infantry battalions, only 23 are proper infantry battalions. This is not credible.
Army 2025 emphasises fighting the Deep Battle over the Close Battle. This involves the use of long-range tube and rocket artillery, as well as precision guided missiles, to defeat adversaries at stand-off distances. It is a sensible approach to counter the mass of Russia (and other potential peer adversaries). However, the Royal Artillery, will have only 5 regular field regiments, 2 deep fires regiments, 2 air defence regiments, 2 UAV regiments and a counter-battery radar regiment. This is not credible.
The belief that we can fight the Deep Battle at the expense the Close Battle is also misguided. Any army that wishes to seize and hold contested territory has to be able to fight the Close Battle. The most worrying aspect of Army 2025 is that we appear to be deleting our combined arms manoeuvre warfare capability. Without it, our capacity to retake lost ground or to partner with key allies will be severely limited.
Under present plans, combat formations mix wheels and tracks, meaning they deploy at the speed of the slowest vehicle. This compromises rapid reaction or any kind of expeditionary operation. The Ajax reconnaissance vehicle is already five years late and having encountered unreserved development issues, it is not clear when it will be delivered.
The lack of protected mobility for infantry is also a concern. Only 8 Regular Army infantry battalions out of 31 have MRAP vehicles. The MRVP programme to acquire a less expensive fleet of protected vehicles has been delayed five years.
Assuming a nominal headcount of 5,000 personnel for a typical brigade, an Army of 72,500 really ought to be able to generate more than four 4 or 5 such units. Many of our European allies in NATO have 8 or more brigades. Ultimately, the Army 2025 structure is an uneasy compromise forced upon the Army by budget considerations, not UK defence priorities.
3. Wrong-footed by Putin
Russia experts were convinced that Putin’s threats were no more than a shaping exercise designed to achieve his political goals through bluster and bluff. They could see no advantage to an actual invasion and therefore decided it was a remote possibility. It is now clear that Putin had planned the invasion some time ago and still has every intention of absorbing Ukraine within an enlarged Russia, if he can. While national resilience still deserves to be a higher priority in UK defence and security planning, it is essential to see Putin’s aggression for what it is: the most serious international crisis we have faced since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
The immediate reaction of Germany’s new government was to reject decades of indifference by allocating an additional €100 billion to reinforce its armed forces’ capabilities, beyond its existing budget of €46.9 billion. Hawks within the UK, many whom sit on the Government’s own back benches, believe that Britain should follow Germany’s example. However, ministers have been be quick to point out that Britain is now the third largest defence spender globally after the USA and China. Even if Germany and France now spend more than us, Britain’s budget of £46.5 billion (€55.9 billion) would still place us among the top 10. The Government’s view is that if Britain is already spending an agreed 2% of GDP to support its defence commitments, there is little need for a budget uplift beyond what has already been allocated.
The long lead times associated with the development and manufacture of ships, aircraft, and land systems, mean any new capabilities ordered today would take several years to be fielded. In other words, we are already too late. If increased spending would be too late to influence the current conflict, does this mean we should do nothing and carry on as normal? Or do we need to recognise that the world has changed? If we want to prevail in a more unstable and uncertain environment, doing nothing and waiting could be a risky strategy.
Our next step has to be the development of a robust hypothesis about how the situation in Ukraine is likely to evolve and then adjust our defence commitments and priorities based on the most likely outcomes. But this is not to advocate a blank cheque approach like Germany. We simply need to fill the most obvious gaps.
4. Potential outcomes in Ukraine as a guide for UK defence
This article was written six weeks after hostilities began. Even at this point, it is difficult to predict how the situation will evolve. When the invasion started, it was widely assumed Ukrainian resistance would collapse quickly. However, even Putin underestimated Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself. Ukrainian forces have fought with courage and determination. Casualty estimates have been difficult to substantiate, but consensus estimates suggest that more than 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed with twice that number injured. The Ukrainians say they have destroyed at least 600 Russian tanks more than 1,400 other armoured vehicles. Attacking across multiple fronts instead of a single axis, Russian Army adopted a flawed strategy, implemented it with bad tactics, poor leadership, disastrous logistics, and then failed to adjust the plan quickly enough when it proved unworkable.
Russia has paid a heavy price for its mistakes. A failure to achieve its military objectives while suffering unsustainable casualties has damaged Putin’s reputation within Russia, while global condemnation of the invasion has damaged him outside Russia. However, he has a firm grasp on power and has shown himself to be capable of eliminating any threat to his authority and control. His inner circle consists of equally ruthless individuals. Should an opportunity present itself, they might try to oust Putin, but so far there is no sign of his position weakening. Regardless of the situation on the ground, Putin is unlikely to admit defeat. He will reinforce efforts to achieve his goals. For the moment, it would be dangerous to perceive the current drop in the tempo of combat operations as anything more than a strategic pause. With more than 90% of the initial invasion force committed to the invasion, these units are now exhausted and need to be replaced by fresh troops. Once the rotation has been made, we can expect a renewed assault to take place. Despite losses, Russia still has considerable military resources at its disposal, so should not be written-off.
In the medium-term, Putin has two choices. He can either stabilise the situation or escalate it. These translate into four potential outcomes:
- Russia is defeated. Ukraine forces prevail, with the level of casualties inflicted upon Russia giving Putin no alternative but to withdraw troops. Potentially, Ukrainian forces could counter-attack, recover lost territory and revert to the status quo that existed before the invasion. This option does not exclude a further strategic pause that would allow Russian forces to regroup and try again.
- Stalemate. Putin commits additional resources and engages in a new offensive that is again defeated. This could lead to a costly and protracted war of attrition through which Russia would seek to wear down Ukrainian resistance and break its economy. Alternatively, Russia could announce that it has achieved its objectives and stand firm on the new borders defined by the limited territorial gains it has achieved. Either way, continued Western support of the Ukrainian war effort is likely to blunt further Russian offensives to the point where hostilities effectively cease or are maintained only at a very low level. As with the option above, this option does not exclude a further strategic pause that would allow Russian forces to regroup and try again.
- Russia is victorious. Putin commits additional resources, ramps-up offensive action, defeats the Ukrainian Army, and takes control of key cities. This is likely to be a short-lived success, because a Ukrainian insurgency would undoubtedly emerge, miring Russia in a second Afghanistan. This would be supported externally. It would be a long and bloody campaign. Ultimate success would be elusive.
- Russia escalates. Putin changes the narrative and decides that NATO’s contribution to Ukraine represents unacceptable interference. He could retaliate by attacking a NATO alliance member, or by using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) either against NATO countries or in Ukraine. He will certainly use threats of escalation to try and achieve political advantage.
Some Russia analysts have described these outcomes as: Lose sooner. Lose later. Lose small. Lose big. Any of the first three scenarios is likely to be inconclusive. They all imply a new Cold War with Russia, with Ukraine acting as a buffer zone. Without regime change, we will be locked-into a stand-off with Russia for as long as Putin remains in power. Assuming he dies of natural causes, he could remain president for at least another decade. Even when he goes, there is no guarantee that the person who replaces him will be any different.
There is also the possibility that Putin will not fail in Ukraine. If he fully mobilised Russian armed forces he could overwhelm Ukraine. Should he succeed, he may decide to broaden his ambitions. He could try to subsume another former Soviet satellite, such as one of the Baltic States.
Putin has threatened the use of WMD. They remain not only a defensive weapon of last resort, but an offensive weapon that gives him freedom him to do whatever he wants via nuclear blackmail. Would Putin actually unleash nuclear weapons in Ukraine or against NATO? Would his inner circle try to prevent him from doing so? It goes almost without saying the use of any kind of WMD would lead to a much wider and more serious conflict. China could reasonably be expected to become involved. We have always assumed that the impact of a nuclear weapons would be so devastating that no rational government or leader could be expected to sanction their use pre-emptively. Even if we assume that Putin is still rational, he does not think like Western leaders. He has different values. It’s not clear what Putin might do to prevent defeat or when defeat stares him in the face. Does this mean, in a worst case scenario, we would abandon Ukraine to prevent WW3? These are all difficult questions to answer. Being faced with a nuclear-capable rogue state is what makes this situation so challenging. We should be in no doubt that no one wins a nuclear war. With high stakes and no end game visible at this point, our strategy and the military tools we use to achieve it must give us maximum flexibility.
Ultimately, Putin is an authoritarian dictator who only respects the strength of hard power. If we want to avoid a nuclear exchange, then our own hard power capabilities must send a determined message. This shifts UK priorities towards being prepared for land warfare in Europe. We must also be prepared for the unexpected, which is another potential adversary using NATO’s preoccupation with Ukraine to do something elsewhere, such as China invading Taiwan, or Iran attacking Israel.
5. Practical next steps
The UK’s Trident ballistic missile submarine fleet is the ultimate guarantor of national security. If we deplete our conventional forces to the point where we are wholly dependent on the nuclear deterrent, we risk having no other response to aggression. At the very least, adequate conventional forces allow progressive escalation and negotiation before resorting to a nuclear option.
An immediate response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the imposition of further sanctions, but these are not a complete answer. Russia is used to hardship and more than able to survive independently without imports. Although sanctions are likely to cause significant long-term damage to its economy and further suffering among its people, Russia may become another North Korea rather than collapsing completely. It is reasonable to assume that Putin expected additional sanctions as an inevitable consequence of the invasion and these have already been factored-in to Russia’s military risk calculus. In any event, it may be some time before the full weight of sanctions achieves meaningful impact.
Balancing the above factors, there is a strong case to reinforce the UK’s land warfare credentials. As already noted, the Army is the service most in need of accelerated modernisation. The challenge is to add teeth to its outline structure by generating two proper war fighting divisions.
The proposed Army 2025 structure provides a robust framework on which to build. We should start by reconfiguring the Army’s two primary divisions so that they can field a total of seven combat brigades as follows:
- Two armoured brigades with Challenger 3 plus a new IFV
- Two medium brigades with Boxer
- Two light mechanised infantry brigades with MRVP (deployable with Army Reserve enablers)
- One air assault brigade with Chinook and a new medium helicopter.
This structure replicates the US Army’s four brigade types (Armored, Stryker, Infantry and Airborne) and would enable UK brigades to operate effectively in partnership with equivalent NATO units. To increase the total number of deployable brigades would require additional Regular Army engineer, logistics and medical regiments. Total Regular Army headcount would need to be maintained at 80,000 personnel to achieve this, rather than being cut to 72,500, as proposed by the Defence Command Paper. If additional budget were available, the total number of infantry battalions could be usefully increased from 31 to 34. Ultimately, an optimal peacetime establishment is 90,000, plus 30,000 Army Reserve personnel. It is accepted that this is not feasible at the moment, but it should be a long-term aim.
Infantry mass could be restored by re-roling the four Security Force Assistance battalions as regular infantry battalions. The Ranger Regiment should be sufficient to perform all training and mentoring roles, as well as special operations roles. 16 Air Assault brigade should be moved to 6th (UK) Division, effectively turning this into a special operations division.
Key equipment investments would include: upgrading 200 Challenger 2 MBTs to the Challenger 3 standard instead of 148; an off-the-shelf purchase of 600 new IFVs; plus an acceleration of the MRVP programme to ensure 20 out of 31 infantry battalions have protected mobility. Secondly, we need to expand the recapitalisation of the Royal Artillery, increasing it from 12 to 16 regiments. Additional capabilities would include two further G/MLRS (rocket artillery) regiments and two further air defence regiments.
The Army also needs to invest in loitering munitions. There is no programme of record yet.
None of these initiatives would curtail other modernisation plans already underway, including robotic combat vehicles, improved C4I systems, upgraded infantry weapons, and new mobile artillery systems. A major question is what to do with Ajax? We are still waiting to hear whether the programme can be salvaged, how long it will take, and how much it will cost. If Ajax cannot be delivered within an acceptable timeframe, then a Boxer-based turreted reconnaissance vehicle would potentially be the least expensive and most rapidly achievable alternative.
In summary, a mix of tracked and wheeled vehicles, in light and heavy brigades, supported by further investment in tube, rocket, and missile artillery, would give the Army an extensive range of flexible capabilities with utility across a variety of deployment scenarios. Wheeled medium and light mechanised brigades would deploy rapidly in expeditionary roles. Heavier tracked armoured brigades would provide a peer war fighting capability and interoperability with other NATO partners. In case any of these proposals seem unrealistic or unaffordable, they are less extensive in scope than the modernisation initiatives being undertaken by the French and German armies. Above all, they would enable the British Army to regain the mass and combat power it lacks today.