By Nicholas Drummond

As the Government gears-up for the forthcoming Defence Command Paper refresh, rumours are swirling that British Army numbers will again be cut. In 2010, headcount was slashed from 110,000 to 82,000. In 2021, this was scaled-back to 72,500. The new target appears to be 60,000. If this is correct, what does it mean for UK defence?

As recent events have shown, conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and ferocity. It means we go to war with the Army we have today, not the one we hope to cobble together in 6 to 12 months’ time. As it was in the Falklands, it is a case of: “come as you are, bring what you can.”

In the past, we viewed our peacetime Army as the core around which a larger wartime force would be built. This is now an unrealistic expectation. We no longer have the luxury of time. The force we have at the outset of a crisis is the force that will ultimately be decisive. The reason for this is nuclear weapons. They have eliminated total war but not all war.

The physical presence of forces on the ground can pre-emptively prevent the loss of vital territory. It can deliver a political and military response that either buys vital negotiating time before we resort to WMD or, better still, prevents their use entirely. But without a sufficient mass able to draw a line in the sand, our only recourse will be nuclear weapons. Or to accept the loss of sovereign territory.

If Ukraine had not maintained an army capable of holding-off the initial Russian assault, Kyiv would have been seized, Zelensky would have been toppled, and it would have been game over. We were not going to start World War 3 after Ukraine had fallen. As it was, Ukraine’s Armed Forces were able to inflict a comprehensive defeat, but only becasue they had the necessary starting mass.

Ukraine’s initial success in the first few weeks was crucial. It enabled Zelensky to galvanise global support. A trickle of military aid became a flood. As the war has progressed, Russian territorial gains have been stemmed, while its army has been forced to pay an ever higher price in terms of lives lost and materiel destroyed. It is too soon to call a Ukrainian victory, but some type of peace deal may soon be agreed. If the conflict comes to an end, the bloody nose Ukraine has given the Russian Army means Russia will likely think twice before having another go. Meanwhile, Ukraine has established itself as an independent state to a greater extent than it ever has before.  

The effective deterrence of aggression depends on the critical mass of the personnel and capabilities you have before a potential adversary contemplates offensive action. It is about denial through presence. Those who are strong tend to be left alone. Those who are weak, or perceived to be weak, are attacked.  

For Britain, it is not a question of being attacked domestically. We are an island, so unlikely to be invaded. Historically, we have always gone out to meet threats at distance to prevent them turning-up on our doorstep. It’s why we maintained an army on the Rhine for 50 years. What made BAOR credible was not what it was in its entirety, because it could never match the mass and might of the Soviet Union, but what it contributed to NATO Alliance as a whole. This is true today.

At the height of the Cold War, Britain had an army of 160,000 with four armoured divisions and an artillery division. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. The managed decline of the British Army has undermined how we are perceived, not only by our potential adversaries, but also among our allies and partners. Raw numbers still matter, because no soldier can be in two places at the same time. Investment in new technology can certainly help a smaller army to punch above its weight, yet much of the British Army’s equipment is more than 40 years old.

In trying to offset the impact of recent defence reviews, Army chiefs have tended to maintain as many existing units as possible, but have reduced headcount within the regiments and battalions that remain. Over time, this has created a hollowed-out force that is top-heavy, bureaucratic, and inefficient. We still think in terms of corps, when we can barely raise a single division, and struggle to field more than four deployable brigades. We are living in the past. 

Phillip Hammond, when he was defence secretary, told me that the British Army is a financial black hole that will absorb as much cash as you throw into it. Within Westminster, it is seen as a sprawling organisation without vision or focus. While the Navy and RAF have delivered meaningful change through successfully delivered modernisation programmes, the Army’s Ajax, Warrior, and Morpheus programmes are emblematic of its struggle to evolve. Regardless of this, we must continue to modernise the Army as extensively and efficiently as we can.

Can the Army deliver meaningful value to UK defence with just 60,000 troops? It depends on what we believe its roles and tasks should be. There is a view within Government that the British Army will never be deployed to fight a ground war in Europe. Instead, Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic States, France and Germany, are likely to deploy their armies before we deploy ours. 

However, if we as a nation have collectively learned anything from the wars that have shaped us, it is to “never say never.” We have a perfect record for predicting future conflicts. We haven’t been right once. This means we need naval, land and air forces that are resourced and equipped for the most likely and most serious potential scenarios. While the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force undoubtedly have an important role to play as we adopt an Indo-Pacific tilt, while maintaining a Euro-Atlantic focus, over the last 50 years it is the Army who has borne the brunt of the conflicts in which we have been involved. 

The problem for the Army is that it has reached a point where it is not able justify what it believes it exists to do to those responsible for funding it. This makes it very hard to devise a compelling strategy, let alone deliver it. Those of us close to the coal-face of modernisation, who have seen this story play-out over the last 20 years, believe that the Army has reached a point where it needs root and branch reform. We figured that this would only happen when it reaches rock bottom. This will occur when it is defeated in combat. With headcount reduced to 60,000, perhaps we are creating the conditions that would lead to this?


  1. The performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine has surprised many who would have given its victim very little chance of staving off a full-blown invasion. The truth draws a line under the future of the British Army if a full-blown conventional land war in Europe, seems unlikely the more the Ukraine war progresses. If the Russian army is no longer the menace we feared, why does the UK need a Cold War-type army? If as some predict China becomes a military threat then the RN and RAF could play a significant role in monitoring events in the Far East, without the heavy armour of the Army being required in theater. All that said, another conflict in the Middle East as seen in Quate and Iraq can not be ruled out and a meaningful UK Army involvement would be increasingly difficult to contribute if its numbers continue to be cut?


  2. Further reduction in the army,will stop US reinforcement reaching Europe.risking invasion of parts of the UK,and threatening Nuclear weapons being used. the
    British army needs to modernise increase its manpower and logistics support.concentrating on few ,stronger regiments.also extra long range artillery and air defence.lesson must be learnt from Ukraine.


  3. I’m actually hoping it will be cut by that amount because there will no longer be anywhere to hide or any basis to pretend that we have large ground forces to deploy around the world in wars of choice. It should force proper root and branch reform (HQs, cap badges, too much light infantry, not enough CS and CSS) and sacred cows to be culled (ARRC HQ, Apache Guardian, and deep recce strike to name a few).

    Russia is not the Warsaw Pact and China, Iran and North Korea cannot land a force on UK soil. If we’re strong in the air and at sea we are secure. That goes for British overseas territory too.

    NATO only needs four regular/reservist corps to contain Russia: the Nordic front, the Baltic front, the Polish front, and the Slovakia/ Bulgaria/ Romania front. Those front line countries will carry that burden on land. France, Britain, Spain, and Italy only need to contribute a brigade groups to these fronts to provide article five assurance. With Germany and the United states providing reserve divisions to support those fronts. This force would completely overwhelm a Russian invasion. Wanting to play a bigger role on land is pure ego.

    All we need is 3-4 standardised expeditionary brigade groups to make one enduring contribution to a NATO division and to temporarily deter an attack on a British overseas territory when a threat emerges. 60,000 can do that and if properly constituted and equipped, can do it very well indeed.


  4. The British Army needs to deliver a brigade at readiness in turn from 3 similar brigades. The operational readiness mechanism will not be exactly the same as the Army 2020 Reaction Force. The approach that structured forces to warfight and adapted them for all other missions needs to change to the Integrated Operating Concept. A brigade is at readiness to Constrain or Fight an adversary. A second brigade in collective training will Engage with allies and partners. The third brigade will contribute to Protect.

    These will be multi-role brigades but not the multi-role brigades of Future Force 2020. There will be light (Foxhound & Jackal), medium (Boxer & Ajax), and heavy (Boxer & CR) units. The wheels & tracks combination is not a discussion point – that is what the army has ordered and it is not going to change before 2030.

    The brigade at readiness is not just at readiness to NATO commands. It is ready for anything required by global britain. With this demonstrable core, the army must justify additional specialist formations. The justification should not be too hard unless the army just states that they know and everybody else is amateur. Then we may be looking at a 60,000 army.


  5. Perhaps a word of caution. Rumours before the 1998 SDR heralded that all services would loose their helicopters which would be transferred to a resurrected Royal Flying Corps. Before the 2010 SDSR a plan to merge the Royal Marines with the Paras was rumoured. Before the 2015 SDSR the Royal Marines were rumoured to be loosing their amphibious shipping. Before the 2021 IR the Army was rumoured to to be loosing it’s tanks. Let’s put all rumours in context.


  6. Given the current climate, the UK probably needs at least 3 armored brigades, the para brigade & 3-4 “battle groups” of motorized infantry for MOOTW-plus the SAS & a security force assistance brigade. The battle groups would be for use in situations like the Mali deployment- essentially battalion tactical groups. All told probably about 65K troops (a better fit would be more like 75K+ troops and 3 armored, 1 para & 3 motorized brigades-but that doesn’t look likely). The UK should maintain 3 armored groups for heavy combat, b/c that is minima required to have 1 armored brigade always ready to deploy & armored brigades are the currency of serious war in Europe-which is the real threat to the UK. For operations other than war (like Mali), an battalion tactical group equivalent would suffice- the UK is unlikely to go so alone. The reserve forces should be structure to bring the BTGs up to brigade level.


    1. Needs to add some foreign policy background. A situation where America retains 100k troops in Europe while the UK keeps less than a brigade scattered around is not sustainable. America is growing increasingly isolationist and preoccupied elsewhere and at home. And an army with 150 tanks ,when that’s what Norway and now the Czechs will be bringing to the table, looks risible. As does expecting light infantry on jeeps to deal with Russian armour, or indeed anyone with much armour.
      You can argue that we should provide more of what smaller NATO allies cant in the form of rocket and long ranged artillery fires, the ATACMs replacement to counter the Iskanders, their intelligence support, and more than a token air defence capability. The lack of any homeland air or missile defence also needs dealing with in the face of what we have seen of a long range 360 degree missile threat.

      But we still need boots or tracks on the ground in Europe to look credible as an ally, which means 3 heavy brigades to sustain a rotation , plus the Airborne and air cavalry brigade for rapid deployment, and some, but less, infantry for small scale operations and homeland security. It’s not all about manpower though – its more about fielding forces that can do real harm – with highly visible capability , in more than token numbers and with more than a few days of ammunition.

      You can argue for more concentration on air and sea power, but in the case of air that is needed anyway to restore some of the offensive power thrown away in 2010. Having more firepower at Lakenheath than the RAF has in total is another nonsense the US will find ridiculous. That needs more F35s to give us something of strategic value- if we buy more than token numbers of weapons.

      Similarly the RN needs to have some more surface combatants, – and ideally a couple more SSNs, more than a token force of F35s on the carriers, and no more of the nonsense where the Treasury just buys a token force of cruise missiles – so that no PM is ever tempted to spend too much using them. We need more air defence at sea for when the USN moves east , and generally more ability to do harm in our army , RAF and on our frigates. And if we are silly enough to pretend we are a Pacific power , we need the numbers to do it while fulfilling our national and NATO rules and filling in for US forces in the Med and Gulf.

      Basically , we need to start by actually give our existing manpower something to fight with.

      But we are stuck with a Treasury that has now gone back to the original argument for the ten year rule – the enemy they didn’t allow for did turn up, but he’s now been vanquished ,supposedly for good, so we can go back to being unprepared. And a PM who seems to be their lapdog….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well said. When you compare what Britain now offers compared to Norway or the Czech Republic, and see how pathetic it is relative to the USA, and consider how America is becoming less European-focused and more Pacific centric, then we need to up our game.


  7. A simple question: is it true that in 2021 the number of volunteers for “regular army” dropped by over 30% relative to 2019? And that it continued dropping further in 2022? Because the size of the army needs to be determined by its given tasks, but also it needs to take into account the number of people ready to serve.


    1. Intake of UK regulars (excluding Gurkhas) and full time trade trained strength (including Gurkhas).
      Year – Intake – FTTTS
      2019 – 9740 – 73670
      2020 – 9800 – 76350
      2021 – 8940 – 77380
      2022 – 6510 – 75710
      The number of applications (volunteers) is not reported, just the intake accepted for training. This did not drop by over 30% 2021 to 2019. But intake was consistently too low to achieve the required FTTTS of 82000.


      1. Well, you have a 30% drop in intake from 2020 to 2022. With, what, half a year lead time from volunteering to admission, that’s about right. The real question is this: has this trend reversed since the war started? If not, you have no way of maintaining an 80K active force. It might be as simple as that.


      2. Perhaps the volunteer data is not reported per se, but still some pieces are hidden here and there:

        “The number of applications to the British Army Regular Forces in the 12 months to 31 March 2022 was 69,282”

        “Applications to the British Army Regular Forces in the 12 months to 31 December 2021 were 77,432”

        “Applications to the British Army Regular Forces in the 12 months to 31 December 2020 were 105,019, an increase of 5.1% compared to the 12 months to 31 December 2019 (99,888).”

        So actually a 22% drop in applications from 2019 to 2021. But initial data seems to indicate that this drop has further increased in early 2022. Any insight into what happened in the last 12 months?


      3. There was a break in reporting applications but it has restarted and I was wrong to say it is not reported. Latest numbers are for 31 March 2022 as given by wojtek.

        There is a note of caution from the statisticians.
        The volumetric count of applications as collated here, must not be used as a performance indicator and should not be compared year on year. A change in volume does not equate to a change popularity of the Army or performance of the Recruiting Partnering Project. Marketing campaigns and recruiting activity are designed to match the number of applications with the required size and shape of the Army as set by the MoD over a several year period.


      4. We, and our overseas territories, are all islands. We are under prepared in countering the threats that are realistic to our geography: long range missiles from submarines, ships and aircraft. Most acutely GBAD cover for critical defence, government and infrastructure sites (such as nuclear power stations). The SSN and ASW and CS/f35 fleets are slightly too small to keep that threat at distance. The Typhoon force also appears to be too small to sustain both QRA and alliance commitments. Only then comes the ground force, sized to protect UK territory from conventional attack and sabotage (barrow, flyingdales, lossiemouth, Hinckley, etc).

        Only then comes a contribution to collective defence of the Eastern front, sized to what we can afford to sustain, equip, and train. Then lastly comes wars of choice…where our defence and the defence of our treaty allies are not in question. Resourcing these latter conflicts is optional.

        In terms of the land contribution to collective defence, it must be credible article five assurance (skin in the game) and does not need to be large enough to defeat Russia alone or be full spectrum…

        The alliance brings mass and allows specialisation. Therefore, either go with a rotated brigade group approach or a ‘fill the gaps’ / niche approach (MALO uav, wet gap crossing, long range fires, SF, raiding, wedgetail, apache, heavy rotary lift, rapid reaction air mobile brigade, HET, ARRC HQ, etc).

        One makes has more synergy with our responsibilities to overseas territories than the other but both work as credible contributions to collective defence.


  8. @PaulSergeant

    My understanding is that the application process changed a few years ago and became much easier. I am not entirely sure (you would know better) but perhaps it is as easy as just sending an email or filling out some online form with a nonbinding expression of interest? Since this new system is just a few years old and we had a pandemic recently, I would assume that there is no good way yet to convert those numbers to statistically significant information about how many people really want to serve.

    But your intake numbers unfortunately correlate very well with numbers of applications. That says something.

    Perhaps one answer is to lower the standards, another to increase training. But the third obvious choice is to reduce the size of the army.

    There is also a fourth choice: invest more into semi-regular forces. Maybe create a new dedicated program for students, create a new step in the volunteer force, where part of the force will have an increased amount of contract days per year. With an increased pay. Find novel solutions for veterans in military training and education – perhaps in high schools. It will not increase the number of divisions and brigades you can maintain. But it will build up reserves that can be up-trained and used more quickly when necessary.


  9. Nicholas, in your WavellRoom article Defence Command Paper Refresh – Every Soldier Counts I find the Figures to be unreadable. Could you publish a higher definition format, at least for the concluding Figures 6, 7, & 8?


      1. Are you allowed to republish your paper here, with better quality images?
        Or maybe just a brief summary with all the better images with necessary caption?


  10. Hello Nicholas,

    Once again I too really enjoyed your Every Soldier Counts article in the Wavell Room (, but like others I had difficulty reading some of the graphics.

    On structures I wonder if it’s worth going back to WWII (or perhaps earlier) to draw lessons. For instance a wiki check ( seems to show that British armoured divisions had only 2 manoeuvre brigades during that time (1 x armour, 1 x infantry) and I wonder if that might indicate that, during the realities of high intensity warfighting, one’s better off with a 2 rather 3 brigade manoeuvre force? So your 2 divisions of 3 brigades each might be better as 3 divisions of 2 brigades.

    I’d be interested to hear your views.


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