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Global Britain, Global Army? The Review and Land Warfare

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

So What?

This article examines the implications of the United Kingdom government’s 2021 policy paper, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which lays out the Boris Johnson government’s external policy aims for the 2020s, the Ministry of Defence Command Paper, Defence in a Competitive Age which accompanied it and the British Army paper Future Soldier: Transforming the British Army which followed shortly afterwards. It focuses on what these implications might be for Britain’s land warfare capabilities, in particular the British Army and the Royal Marines, and asks how well-prepared they might be for what the Integrated Review expects of them. This matters for a range of reasons. The Integrated Review and Command Paper identify, and, indeed, at times centre on the most ‘acute threat’ to the UK and Europe as coming from Russia.

Russia is a land-based power so if it is to be deterred credibly it must be deterred on land; – Dr Simon Anglim

beyond this are the eternal fundamentals of land warfare, presented very clearly in Future Soldier: ‘It is only on land that ground can be held, populations sufficiently reassured and adversaries physically deterred from aggression. It is most likely to be in the land domain that decisive military outcomes are achieved if deterrence fails.’ So, whatever the reorientation of British strategy towards maritime operations and the Asia-Pacific, credible land warfare capabilities must remain a key part of the UK’s defence setup if it is to meet the aspirations laid out in the Integrated Review. There are signs, however, that some of these aspirations may be problematic, as will be explained throughout the paper. Before doing this, however, it will be helpful to situate the Integrated Review and Command Paper in the context of the recent history and current state of the UK’s land warfare capabilities.

Changing of the Guard?

The Integrated Review and Command Paper are potentially seminal documents in the history of the British Army, and, indeed, fall at the intersection of several historical processes. First is a change in the fundamental role of the British Army and its core mission set. Before the early 1990s that core mission was to prepare, literally, for Armageddon. The four armoured divisions of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) were deployed under North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) command in northern Germany as a contingency against a Soviet invasion which would precipitate a Third World War. The BAOR trained and organised for Second World War-scale armoured battles also, it was presumed, involving the use of battlefield nuclear weapons by both sides and chemical weapons by the enemy. An important secondary role, which continued for almost a decade afterwards, was containing the prolonged insurgency in Northern Ireland, necessitating training and organisation for urban counterinsurgency and aid to the civil authorities. There were operations ‘out of area’ during this period, most obviously the Falklands War of 1982, but these were few and far between and often involved small and select parts of the Army not preparing for the projected ‘real’ war in Germany, such as The Parachute Regiment, or the Royal Marines, part of the Royal Navy.

The early 1990s and the end of the existential threat from the Soviet Union brought a sea change, the Army’s main commitment since then being in optional interventions and expeditionary operations outside Europe or on its fringes working alongside the USA and other allies. – Dr Simon Anglim

This pattern commenced with the Gulf War of 1991 and continued with recent action against jihadi terrorist groups in the Middle East since 2014, but was dominated by the decade-long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Army’s organisation and ethos has changed to reflect this, the doctrine and training for mass armoured warfare of BAOR giving way, over the past twenty years, to a focus on lighter operations in small wars and counterinsurgencies in remoter areas. This is clear and obvious in the Integrated Review and the Command Paper but particularly in Future Soldier, which promises ‘a modern army that is more agile, more integrated and more expeditionary….designed to operate globally on a persistent basis’. It is a matter of historical record that the British Army’s performance in this new role has not been a complete success. The early part of this period saw the Army do well in operations working alongside the US and other NATO allies and involving the heavy warfighting capabilities of BAOR applied in other theatres such as Kuwait in 1991 and the Balkans later in the 1990s. However, since Sierra Leone in 2000, deployments have more often involved strong elements of stabilisation and peace enforcement alongside counterinsurgency, things requiring a different skillset. The British Army thought initially it was good enough at this kind of stuff to teach others. As of the mid-2000s, the narrative peddled by senior officers – mainly to American colleagues – spoke of ‘The Best Little Army in the World’ and the global gold standard for counterinsurgency. Then, courtesy of the Taliban and the Mahdi Army and at terrible cost – 633 servicepeople killed across the two theatres and thousands more wounded, some maimed for life – they found it was neither of these things, largely because,

while it still excelled at fighting, particularly in Afghanistan, the Army shouldered a series of shifting objectives and a state-building role for which it was transparently unsuited yet with no objection from those same senior officers. – Dr Simon Anglim

Adding to this still-raw legacy is that the Army tends to be tied to specific theatres (e.g. BAOR, Northern Ireland, Basra, Helmand, etc.), which can make it seem very focused on operations and tactics ‘down in the weeds’, unlike the more global and ‘strategic’ aspirations of the other two services, and its immediate reputation can depend on how it performs in those theatres.

Secondly, the Army has got smaller over the past thirty years, savaged by cuts in defence spending as successive UK governments hunted the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’. 

The Army has fallen from a strength of just under 153,000 at the end of the Cold War in 1989 to a projected one, as of 2021, of 82,000. – Dr Simon Anglim

Reductions in equipment scale match this – in the mid-1980s the British Army deployed over 800 Chieftain main battle tanks (MBTs) while the Command Paper envisages a force of just 148 Challenger 3s. Unsurprisingly, this has led to deployable forces shrinking proportionately. Prior to the Integrated Review and Command Paper, the future of the Army was going to be shaped by the Army 2020 Concept, authored in 2011-2012 by General Sir Nicholas Carter, the Commander Land Army and future Chief of the General Staff (CGS) and Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). Army 2020 was conceived in the wake of the Cameron government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) –which cut the strength of the regular Army by 12,000 – and overshadowed by Britain’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan. Army 2020 posited a move away from the prevailing optimisation for ‘stability’ operations, such as those in Afghanistan, towards something more flexible. The plan called for a high-readiness ‘Reaction Force’ consisting of a division with three armoured infantry brigades, plus the airmobile 16 Air Assault Brigade, all intended for high-intensity operations, alongside an ‘Adaptable Force’ centred on seven infantry brigades tasked with other duties including those ‘short of war’. These proposals evolved with the publication of the 2015 SDSR, the projected ‘Reaction Force’ division now consisting of two armoured infantry brigades plus two Strike Brigades, the latter a new type of force specialising in deep reconnaissance and screening for heavier formations, a capability centring on two new armoured vehicles, the tracked Ajax and the wheeled Boxer, both slated to enter service in the mid-2020s.

The third context is one of strategic method. There is a growing tendency by Western powers to apply military force ‘remotely’ or ‘discreetly’. Risk-aversion among the Western political class and distrust of politicians among the voting public following the debacles of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya combine with shrinking defence budgets to incentivise Western governments to wage war via ‘remote’ means – airpower, Special Forces and proxy local forces, all having limited physical and political footprint – rather than via large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ in theatre. This is traceable to President Obama’s replacement of the Bush administration’s strategy in the Global War on Terror of ‘regime change’ in countries designated by the US as supporting jihadi terrorists with one based on strikes against high-value targets – terrorist leaders and facilitators – by crewed aircraft, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVS) and Special Forces alongside generous material support for local actors fighting against terrorist groups and regimes likely to support them. The UK has followed suit closely as demonstrated by its actions in Libya in 2011 and Syria since 2014. The Chief of the General Staff – official head of the British Army – General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith commented in May 2021 that this ‘form of remote warfare has almost become our house style.’

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Command Paper anticipates this kind of operation continuing, shaping its arguments about the role and nature of land warfare in the 21st century and its announcement of the expansion of land assets specializing in this role.

Global but Remote

The global strategy proposed by the Integrated Review is proactive and dynamic. – Dr Simon Anglim

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson lays out in his introduction: ‘We will play a more active part in sustaining an international order in which open societies and economies continue to flourish and the benefits of prosperity are shared through free trade and global growth’. The Review states explicitly it ‘signals a change of approach’ away from defending the post Cold War rules-based international order towards active competition in a world in which the values Mr Johnson outlines are under challenge from authoritarian peer competitors and in which the UK must try to shape the situation rather than just stabilise it.

As to the roles of the British armed forces in this, the Command Paper sees these as the defence of the UK and its dependent territories, deterrence of potential aggressors via membership of NATO, building the capacity of friendly powers to resist aggression or subversion and continuing operations against jihadi terrorism across the globe. To do this, British forces must establish a persistent forward presence ‘in the places where we judge we will have best impact against the global challenges we face’ a sea change from the previously intermittent and reactive approach. Alongside this, the armed forces will be building friendly powers’ military capacity to resist aggression from hostile actors, be they states or terrorists. Where there is an immediate threat, British forces will engage in ‘campaigning’, an apparently open-ended and flexible set of actions ranging from aggressive deterrence to countering subversive activity to all-out warfighting and taking place across the five ‘domains’ of land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.

How an Army of just over 80,000 – with an estimated 20,000 deployable combat troops – will manage this while maintaining NATO commitments is unclear, particularly given the Command Paper sees ‘campaigning’ expanding beyond Europe to Ukraine, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. One way in which this might be done is through ‘remote warfare.’ The Command Paper states clearly there will be a leading role in ‘Global Britain’ for UK Special  Forces (UKSF), the tri-service command incorporating the UK’s ‘Tier One’ assets, the Army’s 22 Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS) the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service (SBS), The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), the Special Forces Support Group formed from First Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (SFSG) and their support elements.

UKSF have been the central element in the UK’s increasingly ‘remote’ approach to military interventions since 2011. It is notable that while the rest of the Army has contracted over the past twenty years, their numbers have expanded and they now constitute a sizable all-arms force. – Dr Simon Anglim

What the Command Paper proposes for them has few surprises. The Command Paper promises: ‘they [will] continue to be equipped to undertake rapid, precision strike operations when UK interests are threatened….and a high readiness intervention force with global reach’; there are also more cryptic allusions to increasing their ability to act covertly and ‘equipping them with integrated multi domain capacity’ possibly the better to deal with terrorists or counter state-based threats short of war. UKSF have a demonstrated ability to establish a forward presence rapidly and covertly even in hostile territory, as shown throughout the Cold War and more recently in Libya in 2011 and Daesh-occupied parts of Syria. Moreover, their combination of low visibility with high tactical impact reduces political risk, so giving them a leading role makes sense within the context of ‘Global Britain’.

Indeed, ‘special operations’ will, apparently, expand with the re-constituting and re-tasking of some existing units who will receive arresting new titles reflecting their new status. A new Army Special Operations Brigade will: ‘conduct special operations to train, advise and accompany partners in high threat environments….[and] project UK global influence and pre-empt and deter threats below the threshold of war as well as state aggression.’ The Brigade is anticipated to take on much of the ‘influence and support’ role performed previously by 22 SAS. It centres on a new infantry regiment, the Ranger Regiment, with £120million invested in it, expected to begin forming in August 2021 and be deployable twelve months later. The Rangers are a formalisation of the British Army’s Specialised Infantry Group, a new concept introduced as part of the Army 2020 reforms, each of the four SI ‘Battalions’ – 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland, 2nd Battalion Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and 4th Battalion the Rifles – consisting of 267 officers and NCO instructors drawn from their parent infantry regiment and tasked with training and ‘accompanying’ partner forces in designated non-NATO countries deemed to be under threat from terrorism or hostile state penetration. The UK government views Specialist Infantry – and, presumably, the Rangers – as another ‘remote’ asset, albeit more overt than UKSF, providing a way of establishing forward presence ‘upstream of developing problems’, ensuring local partners are prepared to deal with them as they arise so precluding the need for large-scale ‘ground-holding’ interventions on the scale of Basra or Helmand. They might also train partner countries as part of UN deployments.

Capacity-building of friendly forces is a traditional strength of the British Army so this is a positive step which can also bring political benefits. – Dr Simon Anglim

Alongside the ‘new’ Army capabilities, £40million of the Royal Navy’s budget will be invested in the Royal Marines’ Future Commando Force, which is projected to have a strength of around 4,000, drawn from the Royal Marines’ existing strength of just over 7,000 (and if this entails a reduction in size, it also entails a reduction of the one UK force designed explicitly to be expeditionary). While there are little hints at organisation, these forces are projected to form a key part of two Littoral Response Groups, one committed to support NATO in Europe and the Atlantic from 2022 onwards, the other as part of the ‘Global Britain’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific and based at Duqm in Oman from 2023. The Future Commando Force will be: ‘special operations capable [yet not Special Forces]…ready to strike from the sea, pre-empt and deter sub-threshold activity and counter state threats’. This is an apparent revival of the explicitly ‘Commando’ role the Royal Marines carried out very effectively in the Second World War. Planning for the Future Commando Force reportedly involves burden-sharing with UKSF, enabling the latter to focus on more specialised activities, such as countering Russia or China through a range of activities ‘short of war’.

Should operations outside Europe escalate to ‘ground holding’, the Army can offer a new ‘Global Response Force’, ‘an Air Manoeuvre Brigade Combat Team’ – based presumably on the existing 16 Air Assault Brigade, elements of which at the time of writing are engaged in rescuing British and Afghan nationals from Kabul – plus a new Combat Aviation Brigade centred on two regiments of Apache attack helicopters. The Brigade Combat Team (more on this concept below) will presumably continue to centre on Second and Third Battalions of The Parachute Regiment, who alternate in the airborne task force role annually, and its stated role seems tailor-made for the Paras, the Army’s most famous regiment: ‘[to] be used overtly and dramatically to demonstrate capability, readiness and force projection power’ although the prospect of missions not dissimilar to that in Kabul now should not be discounted. It is certainly no coincidence that the government plans to spend £1.4billion on fourteen of the latest model H-47(ER) Chinook heavy lift helicopters for the RAF. The Chinook has served steadfastly since the Falklands War and the new ones will surely see extensive use by the 16 Air Assault successor and UKSF. The future of fixed-wing transport sees more of a departure. The C-130 Hercules which the RAF has used since the 1960s are being phased out in favour of a force of 22 A400 Atlas.

The RAF will have the capacity, at least in theory, to drop two Parachute Regiment battalions at once, expanding the potential critical mass of the Air Manoeuvre Brigade, – Dr Simon Anglim

but it is unclear if the A400 can match the Hercules’ short take-off and landing (STOL) capability on rough strips, which has proven key to a number of UKSF operations since 1990.

It seems, then, that special forces and ‘remote’ operations are the current ‘growth industry’ in UK land warfare capabilities, so it is unsurprising that the Command Paper announces expansion of these roles and puts them at the forefront of the British Army’s (and Royal Marines’) future ‘forward presence’. It is telling that units elsewhere in the Army also seem to be shifting towards this sort of role. Five of the twelve regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps, for instance, are now organised as ‘Light Cavalry’, carrying out long-range reconnaissance and patrolling on heavily-armed light wheeled vehicles not dissimilar to the ‘technicals’ used by militias all over Africa or, more aptly, the armed jeeps and lorries of the SAS and Long-Range Desert Group in the 1940s. In December 2020 elements of one of these Regiments, the Light Dragoons, deployed to Mali in support of the UN mission there, indicating this kind of unit can also establish ‘forward presence’ very effectively.

However, there are potential issues arising that are not addressed in official documents. One of these is that capacity-building, influence and support of friendly powers, while, as noted already, a traditional British strength, needs to be placed in the context of the fallout from Iraq and Afghanistan. Questions could be posed as to how the post-Basra, post-Helmand British Army might compete for customers in this field with Russia, Turkey or Iran, all combining analogous capabilities with more successful recent combat records and not quite as politically toxic in certain parts of the world as Mr Johnson et al might hope.  A second is the issue of ‘special operations’, particularly the status of the new brigade.

In 2015, the creation of the SFSG was used by the Army – brazenly – as a means of saving at least one Infantry battalion from the chop by sticking the ‘special forces’ label on it. – Dr Simon Anglim

It has been suggested that the creation of the Special Operations Brigade and the Ranger Regiment represent a similar political tactic which also entails hollowing out infantry numbers to prevent further battalions being cut, particularly from the Foot Guards and the Royal Regiment of Scotland. A third, related issue is putting that ‘Special Operations’ label on what is still, effectively, line infantry, ‘Rangers’ apparently not being expected to pass the vigorous selection procedures of UKSF, The Parachute Regiment or Royal Marines or demonstrate the aptitudes needed to do so. However, these issues pale beside those besetting the Army’s high-end warfighting capability.

The Division that Isn’t

This capacity remains essential, as reports about the demise of conventional warfare are proving premature. In Ukraine, in the four years after 2014, at least 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed or wounded in combat and over a million people were displaced while entire towns and villages have been flattened by artillery fire from both sides. There has been very little ‘hybrid’ or ‘grey zone’ about what has happened in Syria, Iraq or Libya over the past ten years and the autumn of 2020 brought the second Nagorno-Karabakh War, in which at least 5,000 soldiers on both sides were killed in the space of six weeks. In that last conflict, Azerbaijan won a clear and decisive military victory through conventional military force, thanks to sticking to basic operational principles, deftly combining new with old capabilities and a willingness to sustain casualties on a scale which would topple any Western government. In July-August 2021 the Taliban re-conquered Afghanistan in a rapid motorised advance aimed at seizing key towns. It appears, then, that

conventional land warfare certainly has a present, which means it quite possibly has a future as well. – Dr Simon Anglim

To meet this challenge, the Command Paper promises that: ‘The Army will deliver a modernised, adaptable and expeditionary fighting force, centred around HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps [ARRC] as a corps HQ and 3(UK) Division as a warfighting division, optimised to fight a peer adversary in a NATO context’ with a total of £23billion to be spent on this capacity. This already has the potential for political friction with allies. Although based in the UK, with its commanding general and chief of staff always from the British Army, ARRC is explicitly a NATO asset, not a British one, 60% of its staff come from other NATO countries and so it would be difficult to impossible to deploy it in a purely British war of choice. And yet, as the Command Paper understands, it allows the British Army to retain its capacity to command at corps level, so the relationship here is complicated to say the least.

Moreover, prior to the Integrated Review and Command Paper’s publication, there were concerning rumours about the structure and equipping of these forces, some turning out to be true. Conventional land warfare is about contesting control of territory, fighting for ground as opposed to insurgency’s contesting control of populations. To fight for ground cost-effectively, a force must maximise its capabilities at protection, movement and shooting at close range which means it needs tanks or some kind of tank-like capability. Yet, the build-up to the Integrated Review was awash with media rumours that as a reaction to the alleged mass destruction of Armenian armour by Azerbaijani UCAVS in autumn 2020 and the ‘conventional warfare is dead’ narrative pressed online and in some currently influential literature, the British Army was going to retire its entire MBT force, the money to be spent instead on UCAVs and non-kinetic cyber and information capabilities. These rumours got to the point where Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who had hinted previously at supporting such a move, was forced to issue a public denial. That these rumours were taken so seriously is a possible indicator of current internal culture within the Army. It is rather noticeable that no other army in NATO appears to be having this debate, nor are potential adversaries. Russia, for instance, fields nearly 3,000 MBTs while holding another 10,000 in storage and these figures do not include its new model, the T-14 Armata. In the event, the British Army will retain a token MBT force of 148 Challenger 3s – Challenger 2s with updated turrets and powerpacks installed by Rheinmetall and due in service by 2030. The Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle will be phased out of service with no clear indication of what will replace it, as, according to General Carleton-Smith, it risks obsolescence in a future battlefield dominated by urban fighting. It seems, therefore, that

the British Army will at least temporarily abandon its armoured infantry capability and with it the ability to fight a true combined-arms battle, tanks needing to cooperate closely with infantry in order not only to survive, but to carry out their own missions. – Dr Simon Anglim

This also reduces the British Army’s capacity to work alongside allies, who still intend to deploy massed armour, the Americans in particular.

Moreover, winning the land battle entails mass – of people, systems and firepower – and the Command Paper’s projected conventional warfighting component, 3 Division, seems unlikely to be able to generate adequate amounts of these before the end of the decade, if ever. As noted already, Army 2020 planned for this division to have four brigades, two armoured infantry brigades equipped with Warrior or a Warrior equivalent, a tank regiment with Challengers attached to each, plus two of the new Strike Brigades with Ajax and Boxer, the Division to be operational by late-mid decade. The discontinuation of Warrior calls the validity of the armoured infantry brigades into question but there are potentially even more serious issues with equipping the Strike Brigades. As of the time of writing, a Strike Brigade and a brigade-equivalent Strike Experimentation Group have been formed in the UK and are training for the Strike role. Ajax was supposed to be operationally capable by the end of 2021 (the Army having 598 on order at a cost of £5.5billion). According to the Command Paper, Ajax would ‘combine…formidable sensors with enhanced fires systems to provide long-range persistent surveillance for the coordination of deep fires’. During testing and training, however, it emerged that crews were reporting hearing loss, thanks to engine noise being amplified over the radios, and other injuries related to excessive vibration. It emerged subsequently that a combination of vibration and poor workmanship was damaging vehicle components including wheels shearing off. Consequently, trials were suspended as recriminations bounced back and forth between ministers, senior Army officers and the manufacturers throughout the summer of 2021. This is without issues to do with the system’s tactical utility. Ajax is as broad as a Challenger MBT and somewhat taller while being far less well armoured, raising questions about its survivability as a close reconnaissance asset in a battle against anything other than lightly-armed enemies, while its size makes it inappropriate for operating alongside lighter friendly forces. There is also the question of whether the Army needs armoured reconnaissance on that scale (nearly 600 vehicles), when a combination of Special Forces, UAVs and Light Cavalry might prove more cost-effective.

The Ajax issue threatens an indefinite delay on the introduction of the Strike Brigades in the form intended, which means, in turn, delays in 3 Division coming online as the Command Paper intends. – Dr Simon Anglim

What the Army actually has now and for the foreseeable future is a divisional HQ plus two heavy brigades and a nominal ‘Strike’ brigade and it is still unclear what those brigades will actually consist of. Rather more positively, the Command Paper recognises that divisional assets need to be updated, promising that £250million will be spent over the next ten years on acquiring advanced artillery assets, particularly the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, £200 million on electronic warfare assets and an unspecified amount on updating battlefield air defence, with one accurate lesson from Nagorno-Karabakh being that the ability to defend against swarms of small UCAVs may become critical over the next decade.

There seems, therefore, to be an underlying presumption, or perhaps a gamble, that 3 Division would not be required for at least the next 6-7 years after 2021. Were a NATO Article V scenario to emerge before then, in order to be a viable fighting division, 3 Division would require a NATO ally to provide it not only with a fourth brigade, but also at least with the artillery and air defence assets it needs to generate the support fires necessary to manoeuvre effectively. This might have political implications affecting Britain’s role in NATO, possibly including its command of the ARRC and the post of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, all of which should surely hinge on burden-sharing on several levels.


there is another, far more serious issue arising: failure to consider attrition in battle, of both people and systems. – Dr Simon Anglim

The British Army’s conventional operations since 1991 have seen it pitched against opposition that was massively over-matched, mainly by US and NATO airpower and other long-ranged systems. Nevertheless, it still suffered attrition in the form of soldiers killed or wounded and armoured vehicles destroyed. The Russians and Chinese are not the Iraqis: their ground forces may not be so over-matched, notwithstanding that the air environment may not be so benign as Western armies have become used to. In early 2021, a House of Commons enquiry on the acquisition of armoured vehicles for the Army was presented with an assessment by the International Institute for Strategic Studies which concluded that the 3 Division envisaged in the 2015 SDSR would be outmatched by a Russian tank division 2:1 in terms of tanks, 1.5:1 in self-propelled artillery and over 4:1 in terms of anti-tank guided missiles. This calls into question the division’s ability to defeat even an equivalent-sized Russian force in battle, at least not without the risk of heavy casualties to itself, possibly enough to endanger its mission or even require its withdrawal given public and political reaction to casualties in previous operations.

In these contexts, Future Soldier’s announcement that the deployable army will instead be made up of six Brigade Combat Teams lays the Army open to accusations of making a virtue out of necessity. One of these Brigade Combat Teams will be the Air Manoeuvre BCT covered already, and alongside this will be two heavy BCTs, a Deep Recce Strike BCT (Strike now being reduced from two brigades to one) and two Light BCTs. Each will have ‘supporting capabilities routinely assigned’ including artillery, UAVs/UCAVs and engineering, the aim being to ‘create more self-sufficient tactical units with the capacity to work with partners across government, allies and industry’ (and presumably defeat the UK’s enemies if called upon). The heavy BCTs will incorporate the Challenger 3 force and ‘Boxer mechanised infantry vehicles’, Boxer now evidently being seen as the Warrior replacement. Boxer is certainly faster and can carry more troops than Warrior, but its wheeled configuration would limit its tactical manoeuvrability and so possibly its ability to work with the Challengers. The Deep Recce Strike BCT is intended to ‘find and fix’ enemy targets for deep strikes by artillery, drones or fast air which might, if it works, go some way towards allowing British and allied forces to match superior numbers of Russian tanks and artillery. This will be achieved by a combination of UAVs plus Ajax, and Ajax will also, Future Soldier claims, form the main reconnaissance asset for the Heavy BCTs. Hopefully, Ajax will have its problems sorted out by then and, even without them, it is unlikely the BCTs will be ready before late in the decade. Beyond that is the greater gamble that the force, if committed to battle, will not take heavy casualties and can be rebuilt if it does.


Rather than ‘the best little army in the world’, it might be more accurate to describe the British Army as a small army with some world-class capabilities – Dr Simon Anglim

(in line with some of our European allies) and some of those capabilities are going to be very stretched indeed if the Army follows the pattern laid out for it in these proposals. While the British Army is often accused of preparing for the last war, in this case, it seems to be trying to avoid it, it being likely that the ‘A’-word will hang over the British Army for a generation just as the ‘V’-word did for the American. The emphasis on ‘remote’ operations suggests a new military culture centred on the application of discrete amounts of ‘low footprint’ force, a mixture of strikes delivered from distance plus Special Forces, supporting local allies who are doing the attritional ‘heavy lifting’, the hope being that situations can either be pre-empted, contained or perhaps even resolved without the need for conventional troops to be deployed in potentially bloody ‘ground holding’ operations. This brought a degree of success for both the US and UK in Libya and Syria and there are indications it was working in Afghanistan before President Biden pulled the plug on the country. The creation of British Army assets aimed explicitly at building friendly capacity dovetails with this and also with the Johnson government’s concept of ‘strategic competition’ with authoritarian powers. However, this places a major strategic burden on a small number of units, UKSF in particular. Special Forces are already taking on some of the burden of the conventional ‘green army’, being the force of choice for reactive deployments, doing much of the actual fighting and taking of casualties – albeit out of sight and with the Ministry of Defence declining to comment. This in turn suggests two problems in store. First, the problem of overstretch on what is still a small force, leading to burnout and morale problems amongst its members and problems with retention (particularly given ex-SF are much in demand in an expanding private security sector). Second, as the Army shrinks, so does the pool of potential SF candidates.

Moreover, there are scenarios, such as a potential invocation of NATO’s Article V, where only the deployment of ‘ground holding’ forces and a commitment to conventional operations will do. The British Army’s capacity to do this might be described as ‘transitional’ right now, decisions on equipment and organisation gambling on such scenarios not erupting for at least a few years from 2021 and restricting the Army’s ability to operate even in a NATO-based context.

They posit a force with a number of tactical limitations and which might be destroyed in a single afternoon’s fighting against serious opposition. – Dr Simon Anglim

This may have political repercussions a long way beyond any future battlefield.


Dr Simon Anglim is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s and the author’s alone. Dr Anglim dedicates this paper to the soldiers and junior and field-grade officers of the British Army and Royal Marines, serving and former. You did the job with honour – be proud.


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