By Nicholas Drummond
After a gap of several months, this article provides a deep dive discussion of how the Army’s Integrated Review Strategy needs to evolve in the light of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It builds on recurrent UK Land Power themes, but also introduces a number of important new concepts. As always, the thoughtful feedback of those who follow this blog is much appreciated.
(Featured image credit: Photographer Sergeant Tom Evans, RLC / MoD Crown Copyright 2021)
02. The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
03. Positioning the UK’s armed forces to counter multiple threats – the utility of duality
04. The Army’s uneasy compromise
05. What assumptions does Ukraine change?
06. Does the British Army need to evolve beyond current modernisation efforts?
07. If the Army’s current plans are looking good, does anything need to change?
In 2021, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, gave his annual RUSI lecture. Underlining the strategic cornerstones of the recently published Integrated Review, his “Back to the Future” speech made the point that the Cold War had not ended, but merely been paused. While Russia posed the most immediate threat, intelligence estimates at the time suggested that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a worst case scenario. If it occurred, however, he predicted that it would result in fighting on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War.
A year later, in his 2022 lecture, Admiral Radakin, provided a clear context for the Integrated Review refresh. He described the impact of this worst case scenario. He catalogued the catastrophic losses suffered by Russia and contrasted it with the corresponding success achieved by Ukraine in so valiantly defending its territory. He reminded us that the Integrated Review had correctly identified Russia as the major threat on our doorstep. This means that any modifications would be a course correction more than a fundamental re-think.
Looking ahead, the admiral stressed that while we need to remain focused on the situation in Ukraine, Russia was not the only threat. We need to keep a watchful eye on China, Iran and North Korea, which might use our preoccupation with Vladimir Putin to advance their own agendas. Britain’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, rather an outright pivot, perfectly encapsulates the resulting balance of priorities. We need to protect British interests at home and abroad. We need to ensure any investment in new military capabilities is not compromised by a new era of economic austerity forced upon us as a result of the pandemic. It was hard to disagree with anything Admiral Radakin spoke about. The underlying message was, notwithstanding his confidence in the Integrated Review, it is absolutely right that we should to question whether its previous assumptions and output remain relevant to situation we now find ourselves in.
02. The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has been far more than one independent sovereign state invading another to settle a dispute over contested territory. Beyond a brutal ground war that has seen huge losses on both sides, the civilian population of Ukraine has been deliberately targeted. A large number of Ukrainians have died, been injured or have been displaced. The Russian Army has committed war crimes including murder, torture, rape, and ethnic cleansing. Its conduct has fallen well below the standards set by the laws of armed conflict. It is disturbing to hear Vladimir Putin use language to describe policy ambitions that are indistinguishable from genocide. To stand back and let him conquer Ukraine would have only led to a domino effect with other former Soviet states becoming his next target. This is why NATO is so heavily invested in supporting Ukraine. So let’s be clear, this is a proxy war with Russia and one that we cannot afford to lose.
With Western military aid and Vlodymyr Zelensky’s inspirational leadership, Ukraine’s armed forces have comprehensively frustrated Putin’s ambitions. According to Admiral Radakin, the Russian Army has lost 100,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing, 4,500 armoured vehicles, 600 artillery systems, 12 ships, 70 helicopters, 60 aircraft and 150 drones. Russian ammunition stocks have been almost fully depleted. Whole battalion tactical groups have ceased to be effective fighting units. New recruits have been rushed to the frontline, but most have arrived with inadequate equipment and little to no training. Overall, Russia has performed below Western expectations. Its vehicles and equipment have been less than impressive. This is partly due to their age, but also because corrupt generals have siphoned-off money that should have been spent on their maintenance. Events of the last 10 months have reduced Russia’s international standing. Sanctions are crippling its economy. The failure to achieve any of its strategic objectives 300 days into its 30-day “Special Military Operation” is an embarrassment that would have seen the leader of any western power who tried something similar removed from office long before losses reached anything like the same level as those sustained by Russia.
Despite all this, Russia is still far from a spent force. Despite successive tactical defeats; despite the wholesale destruction of its ground force capabilities; and despite growing opposition to the war at home among its own people; Russia has shown no willingness to withdraw from Ukraine. Despite exhausted troops and declining morale, it has used any pause in the tempo of fighting to re-group, re-arm and conduct renewed hostile action. There is a fear that any peace deal concluded at this stage would only allow further recapitalisation of Russia’s military capabilities, paving the way for another invasion in due course. There has been talk of Putin stepping down or being forced out, but among ordinary Russians the only reason to replace him is because he has failed, not because his actions are morally reprehensible and unjustifiable under international law. So far, Putin seems to have consolidated his grip on power. If he is ousted, his inner circle is comprised of people just like him, who share the same beliefs, the same values, and who would pursue the same objectives. This means, regardless of who leads the country, Russian ambitions are unlikely to be quenched until Ukraine becomes part of a larger Russia. While the tempo of operations has dropped as winter snow and ice restrict movement, no obvious end to the conflict is in sight. The war in Ukraine is not over. Whether Russia halts in place or withdraws, it will remain a major threat to European peace and security for the foreseeable future.
To make matters worse, North Korea and Iran have supported Russia directly by providing weapons and equipment. Analysts predict that it will take at least a decade to rebuild the Russian Army, but the provision of military aid by Russia’s totalitarian allies could accelerate that process. It should also be noted that China has supported Russia indirectly by continuing to buy Russian energy. The most dangerous aspect of the current situation is that Russia still possesses a large nuclear stockpile. While there is no immediate resolution to the danger Russia poses and with NATO’s attention focused on Eastern Europe, there is the secondary risk of another belligerent using the situation in Ukraine to advance its own political goals elsewhere. China could seize Taiwan. North Korea could attack South Korea. Iran could strike Israel or Saudi Arabia. In other words, the current geopolitical operating environment is complex, multi-faceted and volatile. So, what does this mean for Britain’s wider defence policy priorities?
03. Positioning the UK’s armed forces to counter multiple threats – the utility of duality
The overriding implication of the current state of world affairs means we cannot put all of our eggs in one strategic basket. We need flexible and balanced forces prepared for a variety of potential scenarios. Notwithstanding the existential threats already identified, there is always the risk of a black swan event – the unforeseen crisis that erupts out of nowhere with surprising speed and severity. In simple terms, this means that our armed forces must be resourced for operations at home and abroad.
The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have clear and focused strategies that enable them to offer utility locally and internationally. The Royal Navy’s priorities close to home are protecting UK approaches and North Atlantic security. Beyond our shores, global roles include protecting trade routes by securing rights of passage in the South China Sea, and conducting anti-Piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean. The Royal Navy’s ease of deployability enables it to protect UK interests wherever and whenever the need arises. It has four primary capability prongs: the nuclear deterrent, carrier strike, attack submarines, and anti-submarine frigates.
The Royal Air Force is also resourced for home and away matches. Its primary role is to protect the UK mainland from aerial attack, but equally when its aircraft are based at overseas bases or used on the Navy’s carriers, it can conduct strike operations transcontinentally at reach. The RAF has four core capabilities. These are its Typhoon air defence aircraft, F-35 strike aircraft, anti-submarine aircraft, and its transport aircraft fleet. Within the high level aspirations of the Integrated Review, The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are rapidly able to switch between roles and operating environments. Their duality is what gives them utility. Overall, their priorities do not need to change, although we have seen the Navy rapidly acquire two specialised ships to fill a gap: ensuring key underwater cables remain secure.
The Army is different. It is not expeditionary. Hitherto, putting a mobile force together has been like managing a travelling circus. Divisions and brigades depend on an extensive range of enablers to support combat operations. It literally takes months to build-up forces for operations at reach. It’s difficult. It’s expensive. And, it’s manpower intensive. For these reasons, our previous approach preferred to base the bulk of the British Army in Germany close to where it would have been used, had the Cold War ever turned hot. It was wasteful, because armoured forces based in Germany could not easily be used elsewhere. Though we had light forces that were more flexible, they possessed only limited offensive capabilities and so could only perform low intensity roles.
In 1999, the US Army had the same problem. It consisted of heavy armour units with M1 Abrams MBTs and M2 Bradley IFVs, plus light infantry units with Humvees. Its failure to deploy a ground task force to Kosovo in time to make an active contribution to resolve the situation highlighted the lack of expeditionary capabilities among all NATO ground forces at that time. General Eric Shinseki (Chief of Staff of the US Army 1999-2003) observed that the US Army was either too fat to fly or too light to fight. This set in motion the most far reaching changes to the US Army since the Vietnam War. It resulted in the creation of Stryker brigades equipped with 8×8 vehicles. Stryker brigades acquired a comprehensive range of 8×8 wheeled vehicle variants that gave them not only operational mobility, but also tactical mobility. Previously, formations equipped with tracked vehicles had excellent tactical mobility, but could not easily self-deploy over longer distances. Tracked vehicles generally require tank transporters and impose a much greater logistical burden on the formations that operate them. In this sense, 8×8 vehicles were revolutionary, because they allowed entire brigades to become rapidly deployable over long-distances and to be self-reliant once they got to where they were needed. The concept was successfully proven during the second Gulf War in 2003/ 2004, when an entire Stryker brigade was used in Iraq. Since this time, almost every NATO army has acquired an 8×8 vehicle fleet, or what is commonly called a medium weight capability.
But, this discussion is not about positioning wheeled armoured vehicles as a universal panacea to replace all tracked fleets. In some situations, you will still need the terrain accessibility and shock effect provided by heavier tracked platforms. For this reason, the British Army’s strategy prior to the Integrated Review, conceived by General Sir Nick Carter when he was CGS, envisaged two medium mechanised infantry (or Strike) brigades equipped with wheeled 8×8 vehicles for expeditionary roles; two heavy tracked armoured infantry brigades equipped with Challenger MBTs and Warrior IFVs for traditional high end war fighting / combined arms manoeuvre roles, plus two further light mechanised infantry brigades equipped with MRAPS for light expeditionary roles, plus an Air Assault brigade as an early entry force. The Army 2020 plan was excellent (apart from the fact that mechanised brigades included Ajax compromising their operational mobility). In essence, wheeled brigades would deploy rapidly to offer expeditionary readiness. Tracked brigades would take longer to deploy, but provide greater firepower and resilience. This concept was similar to what the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had already achieved. It promised to give the Army the home and away duality it craved.
But there was a big problem. The Army failed to introduce an upgraded version of Warrior or the new Ajax reconnaissance vehicle into service. The Warrior and Ajax programmes were initiated in 2010, but 12 years later in 2022, not a single vehicle had entered service. This reflected badly on the Contractor, General Dynamics, on the Army, and its Ministry of Defence procurement organisation, Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S). This failure effectively sabotaged the Army’s future strategy.
To make matters worse, going into the integrated Review, there was a belief that heavy Armour was a “sunset capability.” Therefore, it was decided to cancel the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (Warrior CSP), and reduce Challenger 2 tank numbers. Many outside observers will be quick to say that Warrior was cancelled at the moment when a turnaround was achieved. This misses the point. The Warrior upgrade was intended to cost around £750 million. By the time it was cancelled, this figure had doubled to £1.5 billion. It wasn’t just Warrior that was over-budget. A failure by all three services to live within their budgets had created a black hole. Economies had to be made to balance the budget. Meanwhile, with Ajax, having spent £3.2 billion without a single vehicle entering service, a question mark still hangs over it as we wait to see whether a remedial plan can finally deliver it.
04. The Army’s uneasy compromise
The Army’s integrated Review challenge was how to make its offer compelling in the light of the mess it found itself in. Its overall proposition was to redesign the force around an expeditionary concept. This would make it more usable and more affordable. Instead of two heavy tracked armoured brigades plus two medium mechanised infantry brigades, two hybrid armoured brigades were proposed to be built around the new vehicles that could be delivered: Boxer MIVs and Challenger 3 MBTs. A further Deep Strike Reconnaissance brigade was also part of the plan, but this formation is reliant on Ajax being delivered.
A second initiative was to create an Army Special Operations brigade by merging four infantry battalions into a new Ranger Regiment. This was in addition to the existing Security Force Assistance brigade, also made-up from four infantry battalions. Together, these two formations allow the Army to train and mentor the forces of strategic partners. Despite criticism that these units have reduced conventional infantry mass, the new Ranger Regiment undoubtedly made a decisive contribution to Ukraine by helping its armed forces prepare for the Russian invasion.
A further decision made to save money was to reduce Army headcount to 72,500. Given the Russian Army lost the same number of soldiers within 8 months of invading Ukraine, we can debate whether the Army is now too small to be strategically relevant, but the reduction in infantry mass is a worry even for the peacetime rotation of units.
The overall British Army structure resulted in eight brigades: two Armoured brigades; one Deep Strike Reconnaissance brigade; two Light mechanised infantry brigades; one Special Operations brigade (Rangers); one Security force assistance brigade; and one Air Assault brigade. This is a far cry from the 1989 Cold War British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), which boasted four armoured divisions, an artillery division, and total headcount of 160,000. Some analysts believe our preoccupation with armour ignores the brave new world of warfare that is starting to emerge, where technology, particular advances in C4I, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Algorithmic Warfare (AW), open a range of unprecedented new possibilities. It is at this point that we should turn to the fighting in Ukraine to see what insights can be found. An important caveat before doing so is that it’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions. Despite imperfect feedback, we can still make useful observations about doctrine, tactics and how we should equip ourselves to effectively deter the range of peer adversaries we now face. Moreover, it is important to consider what can be learned at this stage because we do not have the luxury of time. There is a possibility we could find ourselves directly involved in case Russia decides to attack a NATO member directly.
05. What assumptions does Ukraine change?
The first point to make is that the conflict in Ukraine may not be fully indicative of future peer-to-peer warfare. This is because Ukraine was forced to cobble together a non-professional conscript army at very short notice. It was a case of come as you are, bring what you can. Second, the Russian Army has been poorly led, badly trained with sub-standard equipment. Its tactics and logistical planning were atrocious. It grossly underestimated Ukraine’s commitment and ability to defend itself, and, as a result, paid a terrible price for its mistakes. In other words, the war has not been fought as two fully professional armies might have fought it. Or, as defence analyst Wilf Owen put it, the war in Ukraine analogous to the Ladies 1st rugby team playing the 3rd XV.
It may also be misleading to focus on the impact of new technology while forgetting how effective many legacy equipment types still are. Low cost drones, UAS and other sensor platforms have undoubtedly been transformational. But traditional artillery has once again shown that it is king of the battlefield. We have seen new lessons being taught, but also old lessons reinforced, often at great cost. Like so many conflicts, what matters is not so much the capabilities at your disposal, but their method of employment.
The first re-learned lesson is that armoured units advancing across multiple fronts without infantry and artillery support are extremely vulnerable to hand-held anti-tank weapons. Javelin and NLAW ATGMs graphically demonstrated their effectiveness by neutralising successive waves of Russian armour during the initial assault. They showed that dug-in infantry mounting a static defence could hold their ground against a superior force.
The second re-learned lesson is the force multiplier effect of good logistics. The failure to bring forward ammunition, rations, fuel, vehicle spares, and other basic commodities, forced Russian units to abandon their vehicles in situ. This directly benefitted Ukrainian forces, who quickly repaired them before pressing them into UAF service. During the initial stages of the conflict, Ukrainian forces flooded low-lying land either side of the main line of approach to the city of Kyiv. This forced the Russian army down a single road, which became a focal point for artillery and other weapons creating a log jam of destroyed vehicles. It meant that no supplies reached forward troops, contributing to their defeat.
Prior to the invasion, Ukrainian forces were able to find out that the Russians intended to seize the airfield at Hostomel. Consequently, they were able to surprise and completely destroy an entire VDV parachute regiment. This emphasises the importance of secure C4I systems and the value of an EW / SIGINT capability. The loss of so many senior Russian commanders as the conflict unfolded also showed how poor communications discipline, e.g., through the use of unencrypted communications or mobile phones, can be fatal.
After the initial shock defeat of forces attacking towards Kyiv, Russia withdrew, regrouped and assaulted across a narrower front in the Donbas region. The invading forces reverted to proper combined arms manoeuvre tactics using intense concentrations of artillery to obliterate Ukrainian positions, before advancing in main battle tanks (MBTs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). Once Russia applied a traditional Soviet-style blitzkrieg approach, it started to make gains. This second phase of the war illustrates the overwhelming importance of indirect fires. Ukraine’s use of artillery has been particularly instructive. During the invasion, anti-tank weapons were used extensively, but what broke the Russian Army’s resolve was artillery concentrations. In particular, Ukraine’s use of precision fires, such as rockets and guided 155 mm shells, instead of indiscriminate dumb munitions, achieved an effect at a much lower materiel cost and with reduced collateral damage. Battlefield Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) of all types, including cheap quadcopters, proved to be highly effective when used to feed targets to Ukrainian artillery units.
Rocket artillery fired by HIMARS and M270 launchers has provided an accurate deep strike capability at ranges of 70 kilometres and beyond. The Ukrainians have used these to destroy headquarters, logistics hubs, and concentrations of troops. The other advantage of deep fires is that they have enabled Ukrainian artillery units to engage the enemy out of contact. By the time counter-battery fire arrives, such units have moved to new locations. That said, another artillery lesson is that counter-battery fire arrives much more quickly than before. If any weapon system has become obsolete, it is static towed artillery. The threat of counter-battery fire means that all artillery systems need to be able to “shoot and scoot.” The longer the range that artillery can shoot to, the longer the detection time, meaning that it can stay in a firing position longer. Even so, five to ten minute detection times mandate rapid in- and out-of-action drills.
The other really important re-learned lesson is developing the skills to fight effectively in urban areas. We can expect future conflicts to be focused on close-quarter battles in towns and cities. NATO armies certainly train for this, but seldom practise clearing tower blocks, shopping centres, suburban sprawls and other densely populated areas. We don’t simulate the challenges of moving over rubble and debris. We don’t practise building obstacles or digging underground tunnels to escape. We need to re-think what we do and how we do it.
The second phase of Russia’s Special Military Operation was characterised by artillery bombardments that razed towns and villages, allowing MBTs and IFVs to advance unimpeded. Prior to this, various analysts had insisted that armoured warfare was a relic of the Cold War and contemporary conflicts would be fought only with long-range missiles and drones. While the latter weapon types have certainly played their part, the threat of artillery is greater than that of anti-tank missiles, loitering munitions and armed UAS. If you want to manoeuvre, protected armoured vehicles remain essential. Ukraine’s corresponding counter-offensive to retake lost ground has equally relied on tanks and armoured personnel carriers – many of which were provided by fleeing Russian forces. It is clear that Ukraine’s capacity to take back control of key areas was retarded by its lack of conventional armour.
The primacy of artillery means that protected mobility is needed at all levels. Ukrainian armed forces have used MRAPs extensively in the absence of conventional APCs. MRAPS are good battlefield taxis for transporting infantry rapidly to areas from which they can mount mobile or static defensive operations, but are not ideal for assaulting fixed enemy positions vehicles, because they lack sufficient protection and off-road mobility.
The glue holding much of the Ukrainian war effort together has been reliable C4I systems. The ability to share data in real time between units has helped to target enemy units, but also to build a complete battlefield picture. This has enhanced command and control. In many ways were are seeing an integrated operating model analogous to our own doctrine. The ability of the Ukrainians to fight in a joined-up way has been transformational. Their tactics, training and procedures (TTPs) are not perfect, but in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
The most extraordinary portent of how future wars will be fought is what is being called “algorithmic warfare.” This is also the one aspect of the Russo-Ukrainian we know least about. Alex Karp, the CEO of Palantir, a company specialising in the military applications of information technology and computing, was quoted in a recent article: “The power of advanced algorithmic warfare systems is now so great that it equates to having tactical nuclear weapons against an adversary with only conventional ones.” Analysis of data from multiple commercial sources, i.e., publicly available data can provide wide-ranging insights about enemy force dispositions and intents. A non-Ukraine example of this was the analysis of social media data during the early stages of the pandemic. This showed that the pandemic started long before official sources in China announced the severity of the outbreak. From a military perspective, as AI becomes increasingly more capable of analysing data, those in the best position to harvest insights will gain a decisive advantage. Put simply, algorithmic warfare is lifting the fog of war. Although data analysis can help armies find and target enemy forces, legacy capabilities are still needed to impart a kinetic effect. For the moment, military software has not yet replaced military hardware.
Former CDS, General Sir Nick Carter is given a hard time for the Afghanistan exit strategy, but he developed the UK’s Integrated Operating Concept and the force design model that underpins the British Army’s Future Soldier Strategy. This relies on the linking of sensors to effectors via deployed networks, fully digitised C4I and EW capabilities that seek to locate and neutralise adversaries at stand-off distances. Much of his thinking has been validated by the Russo- Ukrainian War and suggests that the evolution of British Army doctrine and modernisation efforts are much more sophisticated than our generals get credit for. What we realise, however, is that immature technology that fails can be disastrous for those who depend on it. We recognise the need to de-risk radical innovation as it matures by relying on proven systems that have already proven their worth.
Moving on, another dimension to the conflict in Ukraine is the use of air power. Its integration with ground forces was a fundamental element of the US “Air-Land Battle” doctrine from the Cold War. Air power obviously remains a key element, but as we’ve seen very little of it used in Ukraine, it’s hard to draw any new conclusions about it. It’s no surprise that Russian attack helicopters have proven to be vulnerable to air defence cannons and short-range missiles. What we can be said unequivocally is that air defence really matters, especially as UAVs have become ubiquitous. They have democratised air power. Organic short range air defence systems are needed to protect manoeuvre units as they advance. But, we cannot afford to shoot down $1,000 drones with $100K missiles, so air defence cannons are needed. German Gepard SPAAGs have been particularly useful in downing a wide-spectrum of aerial threats. Long range air defence systems are necessary too, not only for anti-aircraft tasks, but also to perform a CRAM role. Like conventional artillery, such units need to be highly mobile and to keep moving.
Before the conflict started, the British Army big 4 + 1 modernisation priorities were already set, but feedback coming out of Ukraine suggests that they were prescient:
- Long-range fires
- Air Defence
- UAS / Counter UAS
- Electronic Warfare / SIGINT
Broadly speaking, much of what we have seen shows that the doctrinal approach that underpins the Army’s Future Soldier Strategy is correct. This should provide confidence that the Army’s overall modernisation plans are fit for purpose. As noted above, if anything needs to change, it will be a course correction, not a fundamental change.
06. Does the British Army need to evolve beyond current modernisation efforts?
Before anyone starts playing fantasy fleets, we need to be very clear about something. The economic situation we find ourselves in means there is little to no scope for grandiose spending plans at this point in time. Even if an extra pot of gold could be found, the British Army has more urgent priorities, like improving accommodation and training facilities. It also needs to re-stock ammunition and equipment gifted to Ukraine. It also needs to be said that the Army has developed an annoying habit of changing its mind. It needs to do what the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force do: make a plan and stick to it.
Right now, the funded plan is to invest in the “Big 4 + Logistics” listed above, while rebuilding the Army around an expeditionary capability. This is sound and sensible. Key to the Army’s future deployability is the Boxer Mechanised Infantry Vehicle programme. Following last year’s review, it was decided to increase the Boxer purchase from 523 (plus 5 prototypes) to 623. It was recently announced that the Army plans to acquire additional specialist Boxer variants for a total fleet of 1,000 Boxers, making Britain the largest user of the platform internationally. This is enough to generate two brigades each with two infantry battalions. This is excellent news. The additional vehicles will require WFEL and RBSL (the UK subsidiaries of the two ARTEC consortium members, KMW and Rheinmetall) to expand their UK manufacturing footprints. This will do much to restore and sustain a domestic capacity to manufacture armoured vehicles in the United Kingdom while supporting British jobs and the regrowth of British skills. In particular, an active UK production line for Boxer will ensure continuity of supply should the Army need to order more. A larger Boxer fleet including specialist enablers will undoubtedly make the Army more usable locally, within Europe, and globally, in Africa, Asia, and the middle East.
It will be no surprise to any regular reader of this blog that the author is a die-hard supporter of Boxer. It offers an unprecedented combination of mobility and protection. While there are those who insist that Boxer lacks sufficient off-road mobility to replace FV432 or Warrior, most of the criticism levelled at it is not based on any actual experience of the platform, only perception. In November 2021, a comprehensive mobility tested was conducted by an independent test authority at the UK’s Millbrook Proving Ground. This demonstrated that, even at 41-tonnes, Boxer could negotiate thick mud, vertical one-metre steps, uneven rock causeways, and reverse-up 60% gradient hills. Those of us with direct experience of Boxer are confident that it will silence the critics as soon as it enters UK service.
The second major investment is the Challenger Life Extension Programme. The new tank will gain a 120 mm smoothbore gun to achieve commonality and interoperability with M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 users. RBSL is to be congratulated on the work it has done to develop Challenger 3. The inclusion of the Trophy active protection system will do much to enhance its battlefield survivability. It’s disappointing that it won’t receive an automotive upgrade, such as the MTU/ Renk Euro-Powerpack, which develops 1,800 bhp, as this would offset the weight growth of the platform. Since Ukraine confirms that tanks still have an important role to play in combined arms manoeuvre, it would be useful to see all 227 Challenger 2 MBTs upgraded to the Challenger 3 standard. This would allow four Type 44 regiments to be generated, plus a smaller training and reserve regiment.
There has been much discussion about the ongoing need for a tracked infantry fighting vehicle. A cohort of senior officers within the British Army believe that Warrior should not be retired, but retained until it can be replaced. It was a huge missed opportunity that CV90 was not selected for the FRES SV requirement that ultimately led to Ajax. Vocal serving and retired soldiers believe we should acquire it now. Indeed, if it could be purchased at a competitive price and be built in the UK, it would definitely be superior to Warrior. But, the issue is this: we just don’t have the money to buy it now. Meanwhile, the US Army has embarked on a new IFV programme that is expected to deliver by 2028. There are five Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) contenders. All look interesting and could potentially offer a step-change in capability. So, waiting two or three years before making a new IFV decision could actually be a smart move.
In the meantime, we might want to augment Boxer’s lethality by putting a turret on it. An unmanned solution is preferred to minimise additional weight on the platform. With this in mind, there are three viable options:
- Kongsberg RT20/ 40/ 60 remote turret family in service with the US Army and USMC
- Rafael / Oshkosh Samson remote turret, also developed for the US Army; and
- Nexter’s T40 a remote version of the manned turret used by the French Army’s Jaguar EBRC
This brings us to the elephant in the room: Ajax. This reconnaissance vehicle programme began prior to 2010. Despite a development schedule that has lasted twice as long as the Second World War, it is not yet in service. With concerns about excess noise and vibration posing a serious health risk to the soldiers who will use it, all testing and evaluation work was paused. Some 18 months later, it appears that a fix has been developed that will finally make Ajax fit for purpose. Given that the US Army’s new light tank, the Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) vehicle, is derived from the same basic ASCOD chassis as Ajax, this should give us confidence that Ajax will be technically reliable. In case Ajax doesn’t work, MPF might even be a fall-back position. But there’s another problem. Ukraine has shown that vehicles operating forward without infantry support are extremely vulnerable. Ajax is not small and stealthy. It is a large vehicle with a substantial signature. We need to ask ourselves whether this type of platform conceptually is still relevant to the way we intend to fight? Would we be better off conducting reconnaissance tasks with a mix of UAVS and smaller, more stealthy vehicles? If this is true, Ajax might be better if it was reconfigured as an APC and employed in a troop carrying role.
As things stand, the sheer number of DE&S staff responsible for bringing Ajax into service has reduced the organisation’s capacity to staff other important vehicle programmes. In other words, the delay imposed by Ajax’s technical issues not only jeopardises the Army’s future armoured reconnaissance vehicle capability, but also other modernisation programmes. We need to see what the resumption of vehicles trials brings. If Ajax can fulfil the original vision, we should get behind it.
For the Army’s combat vehicle fleet to be affordable, it must consolidate the overall number of platforms it operates. It currently has 12 primary types: Challenger (incl. CHARRV, Titan, and Trojan), Warrior, CVR(T), FV432, Mastiff (incl. Wolfhound and Ridgeback), Foxhound, Fuchs, Pinzgauer, Husky, Jackal/ Coyote, M270 MLRS, Terrier, Stormer, and AS90. It would help if Ajax could be a common medium weight tracked platform able to support a wide range of roles including IFV, C2, Ambulance, Engineer, and SPH.
With the cancelation of the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme, four infantry battalions lost 380 armoured personnel carriers. If Ajax were to be cancelled too, four Royal Armoured Corps regiments would lose another 589 protected vehicles. While many people have called for Ajax to be axed, can we realistically afford to cancel a second major programme strategically as well as financially?
Another funded requirement is the Protected Mobility Pipeline. This will see the current MRAP fleet rationalised with four new classes of vehicle acquired. These are: (1) Light utility vehicle to replace the ageing Land-Rover Defender fleet; (2) Light protected version of the Land-Rover replacement (sub-4 tonnes) e.g., Toyota Landcruiser or Mercedes-Benz W464; (3) Medium protected 4×4 (sub-10 tonnes), e.g., Oshkosh JLTV; and (4) Heavy protected 4×4 or 6×6 vehicle (sub-18 tonnes) e.g., Thales Bushmaster, and GD Eagle.
The Protected Mobility Pipeline (PMP) will ensure that more infantry battalions benefit from protected mobility. Used in conjunction with Challenger 3, Boxer, and Ajax, the PMP fleet will consolidate the number of platforms in service, but increase the total quantity of wheeled armoured vehicles, transforming the Army making it more deployable as well as more affordable.
Also funded, there are plans to replace AS90 with a new Mobile Fires Platform, which is expected to be wheeled to align it without our expeditionary aspirations. A total of 116 guns is expected to be acquired, enough for four regular regiments and a training regiment, all with 24 guns each. Our M270 GMLRS launchers are also being upgraded to the A2 standard. We will rebuild a total of 60 launchers, enough for 24 in two regiments, plus a training cadre with 12. The A2 M270 platform will allow targets to be engaged at 150 km with new guided rocket munitions. They will also be fitted for, but not with the new PrSM missile with a range of 499 km.
Within the Royal Artillery, there are two schools of thought. One favours a mix of GMLRS and 155 mm howitzers with 105 mm guns replaced by 120 mm mortars. The other prefers the status quo, believing that 105 mm, or even a 127 mm light gun, is preferable to a 120 mm mortar. Not yet funded, the Light Fires Platform seeks to replace the L118 105 mm Light Gun.
The Army is also getting serious about Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD). It is investing in both Medium Range Air Defence (MRAD) through the SkySabre system that incorporates the MBDA Land Ceptor CAMM missile and Giraffe AMB radar. This is expected to be upgraded to the CAMM ER missile extending its range to 45 km. SkySabre is superb, but we’re only acquiring 24 launch sets, enough for a single regiment with three batteries.
There is also a programme of record for Short Range Air Defence (SHORAD). This will see the existing Starstreak HVM and LMM ground-to-air missile systems mounted on Boxer. Recognising the need for an inexpensive means of shooting down low cost drones, air defence regiments will acquire a counter-small air targets (C-SAT) cannon system. Directed energy weapons for Counter-UAS tasks are also being evaluated, but these are still too big and energy-hungry to be easily used in deployable vehicles. MRAD and SHORAD initiatives together will provide the Army with a layered and integrated air defence capability.
Three other key artillery systems are noteworthy. One is a new counter-battery radar to replace the ageing MAMBA system. The second is a new small UAS to complement Watchkeeper, which remains relevant and useful. Drone technology has advanced leaps and bounds in the last five years alone. New sub-20 kg UAS designs can remain airborne for several hours and have ranges in excess of 70 kilometres. Finally, a key capability gap will be filled when a loitering munition is acquired. The Royal Marines are already using Switchblade 300 and 600. It is possible that both types could enter general service, although the Uvision Hero family is another option.
Less glamorous, but equally important, the Army is acquiring a new C4I system, new BMS software, new EW and SIGINT capabilities. These will be connected via a new digital architecture with a deployable network offering increased reliability and security over greater distances. The Land Environment Tactical Communication and Information System (LETacCIS) programme has run into difficulties. However, reliable and affordable off-the-shelf C4I systems have become readily available, like Systematic’s SitaWare HQ software, currently used by Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) headquarters and by 3rd (UK) Division. With information shared instantaneously across the division, via voice and data, decision-making will be improved, enhancing command and control; but, the real force multiplier effect will come from networked fires that connect sensors to effectors to create faster and more efficient kill chains.
Overall, the Army’s modernisation plans are remarkably complete and well-funded. The glass is more than half full. The noise around the few programmes that are delayed or experiencing development glitches often drowns-out the good news of other programmes that deliver successfully. In particular, the Army’s complex weapon portfolio has been a resounding success, including NLAW, Javelin, JAGM, CAMM / CAMM ER, Starstreak HVM, LMM, and, the star of the show, Brimstone. Apache E has entered service, significantly upgrading our attack helicopter capability. Other helicopter programmes, including Chinook Block 2, New Medium Helicopter, and the Gazelle replacement, are all on-track. In the background, a programme to replace our existing tank transporter fleet is moving forward. Indeed, despite an impending recession, UK defence from a land perspective is in good shape.
07. If the Army’s current plans are looking good, does anything need to change?
While the outlook is positive, inevitably there are gaps. Filling these requires a longer-term, more strategic view to be adopted. The first area is headcount. At 72,500, the Army really is too small. At this size it can field only a single deployable division. Increasing the headcount cap to 85,000 or 90,000, would allow us to generate two deployable divisions. As already noted, we simply do not have the resources to do this at the moment.
Many European members of NATO (e.g., Germany, France, Italy, and Poland) are able to resource two deployable divisions. The difference between us and our allies is that we invest more substantially in enablers such as artillery, engineers and logistical support, so that UK brigades tend to be more larger and more manpower-intensive. If we want two deployable divisions, we would need to invest in additional combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) assets. At the moment, the aspiration under the Future Soldier strategy of 2021 is to resource eight brigades as follows:
Future Soldier Strategy 2021
2 x Armoured brigades
1 x Deep Strike Reconnaissance brigade
2 x Light Mechanised Infantry brigades
1 x Special Operations brigade (Rangers)
1 x Security Force Assistance brigade
1 x Air Assault brigade
Of these, the Deep Strike Reconnaissance brigade is a paper formation until Ajax delivers, but even then it won’t have organic infantry or supporting enablers. The Ranger and Security Force Assistance brigades are not deployable brigades in the traditional sense either, because they lack manpower and enablers. In reality, the UK has only five combat brigades.
With very little extra manpower, the Army could be reconfigured around more potent brigades. But, before suggesting what these might be, let’s be clear about the aim. Any major conflicts in Europe, Africa, the Middle East or Asia, would more than likely see us operate in partnership with our NATO allies, or within some other coalition like AUKUS. To be credible, we have to generate force types with structures that are interoperable with those of our allies. The United States, our most likely partner, is still very much wedded to tracked heavy armour, medium wheeled armour, and light or air assault infantry. So are our other allies. If British Army units cannot be plugged into American divisions, we will be relegated to a peripheral role. Nations that spend less on their ground forces than we do, might be preferred due to the capabilities they offer.
While having expeditionary capabilities is highly desirable, and affordable, and will give the British Army greater utility, the one serious oversight of the Integrated Review was reduction in the UK’s heavy armour capabilities.
Britain’s core doctrine is now concerned with fighting the First Battle and the Deep Battle over the Second Battleand the Close Battle. Fighting the first battle is about providing a pre-emptive response to aggression. It requires us to be able to deploy rapidly enough to prevent territory falling into enemy hands. It is a defensive posture that generally requires an adversary to have a three-to-one advantage in numbers to succeed. If, instead, you commit to fighting the second battle, you will need more substantial forces to prevail. This is because attacking to recover lost ground is always more difficult than attempting to prevent its loss in the first place. Winning the first battle is about fighting the deep battle. This requires an army to use its long range fires (rocket and tube artillery) to degrade an enemy’s war fighting capacity at stand-off distances. Ukraine adopted a first battle / deep battle approach and this was extremely effective in halting the Russian assault. For the United Kingdom, adopting an expeditionary focus is essential to fight the first battle / deep battle.
Unfortunately, any desire to prioritise the first battle over the second battle doesn’t mean we will not have to fight the second battle. The one certainty of war is uncertainty. It means you will be surprised and you will lose territory. Fighting the second battle is about re-taking lost ground. It requires you to manoeuvre to a position of advantage from which you can physically dispossess the enemy of the territory you wish to control. Fighting the close battle is an inherent part of fighting the second battle. It is brutal, difficult, and costly. Unfortunately, closing with and defeating an enemy physically requires the combat power of heavy armour.
Ukraine’s armed forces were reasonably well-equipped to fight the first battle / deep battle. They were aware of Russia’s plans before the invasion was launched, so could deploy proactively. Infantry in wheeled armoured vehicles with only moderate protection were able to move quickly to defend key areas. Once deployed, some units dug-in to create a hard defensive line that held. Others mounted a mobile defence, using anti-tank weapons to ambush advancing Russian forces multiple times before repositioning for follow-up actions. Their protection was their mobility. As noted above, the key enabler in winning the first battle was artillery. Advancing units were targeted as they advanced, but equally logistics units, headquarters, and reserve units in rear areas were also attacked. By winning the first battle, Ukraine forced the Russian Army to withdraw, re-group, and attack across a narrower front.
Despite its heroic actions, Ukraine lost huge swathes of territory. During the Autumn months of 2022, it mounted counter-attacks to regain lost ground. It has fought the second battle and the close battle. In doing so, it has has had to reply on traditional combined arms manoeuvre techniques. This requires tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to advance supported by artillery and combat aircraft. When troops equipped with lesser protected MRAPS such as Bushmaster used them as IFVs, they were overmatched. Where UAF troops used tanks and IFVs, even if they were captured Russian vehicles, they tended to prevail.
As far as the British Army’s Integrated Review strategy is concerned, it will be well equipped to fight the first battle / deep battle. But less so to fight the second battle / close battle.
For all these reasons, Nick Carter’s original Army 2020 plan remains relevant. He understood what was needed and developed a force structure that would have delivered an army capable of fighting the first / deep battle and the second / close battle. Through the failure of Warrior and Ajax, we were forced to reject what was a coherent and credible strategy. When the economic situation allows it, Army 2030 must ultimately revert to Army 2020. This would also result in an Army with eight combat brigades, as already proposed, but configured differently within two deployable divisions as follows:
Future Soldier Strategy 2022 (Revised)
2 x Heavy tracked armour brigades (Challenger 3, Ajax and Warrior)
2 x Medium wheeled mechanised brigade (Boxer)
2 x Light wheeled mechanised infantry brigades (Protected Mobility Pipeline)
1 x Special Operations brigade (Rangers)
1 x Air Assault brigade
What this amounts to is the British Army’s equivalent of the Royal Navy’s and RAF’s four core capabilities. Heavy, Medium and Light Armoured Forces, plus Special Operations Forces. The bulk of the Army would be expeditionary, but having Heavy Armour as part of the toolbox gives it extra utility and interoperability.
Within a European context, the above structure allows heavy tracked armour brigades to be forward deployed for heightened readiness. These units would be reinforced by medium wheeled mechanised brigades just as BAOR forces were expected to be reinforced by units from the UK equipped with the AT105 Saxon.
Within a global context (think Africa, Assia and the Middle East), medium brigades would deploy rapidly from the UK. They would travel by RORO vessels directly to a theatre entry point and from there they would move independently to the area of combat operations. ~If needed, these units would be reinforced by heavy tracked armour brigades at best effort subsequently.
With two further light wheeled mechanised brigades, the force structure could be adapted depending on the terrain and task. Again, the two primary formation types, the heavy and medium brigades, provide utility through duality at home and abroad.
The key question is whether this revised structure is affordable and sustainable? The three significant elements requiring an uplift in the budget post-2027 are:
- Introduce a new IFV
- Increase the number of Challenger 2s upgraded from 148 to 227
- Restore Regular Army headcount to a level that supports the revised structure
I would add three additional capabilities:
- Acquire a cavalry / reconnaissance version of Boxer to provide direct fire support for Boxer infantry battalions (this would offset any further delay in delivering Ajax)
- Acquire a wheeled multiple-launch rocket system like HIMARS (but put it on a MAN truck not FMTV)
- Increase the number of GBAD systems (restore 108 SHORAD systems and 48 MRAD systems)
Extra money is also needed to fix the Army Reserve. The first priority is to ensure the Regular Army is deployable without relying on Army Reserve Personnel. Instead, the Army Reserve should have two functions. One is to generate additional brigades to form a third deployable division. Two is to provide battlefield casualty replacement for the two primary deployable divisions.
For the moment, we should continue to modernise the Army as planned. This means bringing Challenger 3 and Boxer into service as envisaged, and resetting the Ajax programme. The worst thing we could do now would be to change these plans. What we can do immediately, is plan for the longer-term by considering how the Army’s structure might evolve post-2028. If we do it sufficiently in advance, we can ensure the necessary funding is in place ahead of time. Above all, it should be an incremental evolution that manages change without introducing significant programme risk. Re-growing Army headcount cannot be achieved quickly anyway.
There are five over-riding points to make about the Army’s role within the Integrated Review Refresh. First, Russia remains the primary existential threat, but other potential aggressors, particularly China, represent a real and present danger. Unlike the Cold War, where we faced a singular threat, today we must be ready to respond rapidly across multiple scenarios. This means our armed forces must be flexible, with a mix of capabilities, and held in high readiness. This creates a tension between being too focused on a limited range of commitments or being too diluted by being spread across too many.
Second, the Army needs to be as easily usable as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force by having utility at home and abroad. This means making the Army expeditionary by design is a completely appropriate strategy, certainly in the short-term. To invest the Army with utility through duality, it needs to balance deployability with combat power. While we may want to restore a proper combined arms manoeuvre capability in the medium- to long-term, we must accept that this is not affordable now. If there is consensus that a new IFV and other tracked armour capabilities are a desirable long-term addition to the Army’s golf bag of capabilities, then their acquisition can be planned and managed more efficiently, rather than modernisation being rushed. A hard lesson learned through a decade of modernisation efforts is. if you try to do too much too quickly, the scope for error and budget overruns is increased.
Third, a critical component of the Army’s modernisation strategy is reconfiguring it to fight the first battle / deep battle. This will not avoid the need to fight the second battle / close battle, but if we don’t fight the first battle, we will more than likely lose the second battle. This shift in emphasis further supports an expeditionary model and our investment in deep fires capabilities. This is a priority that aligns with the UK’s evolving Integrated Operating Concept and related doctrine.
Fourth, a core pillar of the Army’s future strategy is the recognition that technology can be a force multiplier. It promises to give us an edge in combat and allow us to do more with less. With headcount constrained by economic factors, this is vital to maintain critical mass. Most if not all of the Army’s ongoing modernisation initiatives remain relevant to how it expects to fight in the future. Perhaps the most significant programmes are those to bolster digitisation, including a new C4I architecture, a new deployable network, Electronic Warfare (EW), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Algorithmic Warfare (AW) capabilities. As much as the Army must commit to developing and implementing innovative technologies, it would be dangerous to be dependent on them before they are sufficiently mature. This implies the need for legacy capabilities to de-risk emerging ones. Ukraine reminds us that many existing weapon platforms remain pivotal to counter aggression.
Fifth, and finally, there are four architects whose efforts merit acknowledgement. Ben Wallace, the UK Defence Secretary, has done his utmost to facilitate alignment between the Government and the three services. He has ensured key roles are adequately resourced while balancing the Ministry of Defence’s budget. This has frequently created tension with the Treasury, including UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Within the Cabinet, Wallace’s ability to make the right calls has earned the respect of his colleagues. Angus Lapsley Director General Strategy & International, straddled the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence responsibilities to be the driving force behind the Integrated Review. His work has created true alignment between UK foreign policy and defence. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has implemented the Government policy while providing sage advice on contentious areas. He has also reduced conflict between the services, each vying for a largest slice of the budget. And, General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, has built on the foundations laid by his predecessors to ensure the Army delivers on its Future Soldier strategy. His laser-like focus on people, recognising that they remain the Army’’s most essential asset, gives his leadership integrity and purpose. Ultimately, the top team is not just a collection of talented leaders committed to the same goals, but a team that truly works together. This is not to say that UK defence is all we want it to be, but behind the more obvious shop window of shiny new kit entering service, the real work is being done behind the scenes.
 There are three levels of mobility. Strategic mobility is how a force travels from its home base to the theatre of operations. Operational mobility is how a force travels from the theatre entry point to the area of combat operations. Tactical mobility is how a force travels within the area of combat operations.
 See “From Transformation to Combat: The First Stryker Brigade at War,” by Mark J. Reardon and Jeffery A. Charlston, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 2007
 Ukraine Is Wrecking Russian Tanks With a Gift From Britain, By John Ismay, New York Times, 18 March 2022
 Why the Russian military is bogged down by logistics in Ukraine, by Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha, Washington Post, 30 March 2022
 Road to war: U.S. struggled to convince allies, and Zelensky, of risk of invasion, By Shane Harris, Karen DeYoung, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Ashley Parker & Liz Sly, Washington Post, 16 August 2022
 Ukraine at War: Paving the Road From Survival to Victory, Dr. Jack Watling & Nick Reynolds, 4 July 2022, RUSI
 Military Briefing: HIMARS fuel Ukraine hopes of ‘limited’ counter-offensive, by Mehul Srivastava, Felicia Schwartz, & John-Paul Rathbone, Financial Times, 4 August 2022
 How the algorhythm tipped the balance in the Ukraine, by David Ignatius, Washington Post, 19 December 2022. A summary of the article for those without subscriptions can be found here.
 What social media told us in the time of COVID-19: a scoping review, by Shu-Feng Tsao, Helen Chen, Therese Tisseverasinghe, Yang Yang, Lianghua Li, and Zahid A Butt, The Lancet, 28 January 2021 (The Lancet is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal and one of the oldest of its kind. It is also the world’s highest-impact academic journal. It was founded in England in 1823.)
 UK Integrated Operating Concept, UK Ministry of Defence, August 2021