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The Review and the Army revisited: The implications of the war in Ukraine

The Integrated Review in context: One year on
Dr Simon Anglim

Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies

24 May 2022

Despite the UK’s vigorous response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its ability to project force on land, essential to deter further Russian ambitions in Europe, was already diminishing before the Integrated Review. This appears to have arisen from prioritising capabilities other than kinetic force on the land battlefield, arising from prevailing culture in the Army and Ministry of Defence.

We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass…are over and that there are other, better things that we should be investing in….I do not think that going back to a 1940s-style approach will serve us well.– UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, 17 November 2021

Mr Johnson said this during an exchange over cuts to the British Army’s tank force with Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee and a prominent critic within Mr Johnson’s own Conservative Party.  Among the ‘other, better things’ the UK Ministry of Defence should invest in, Mr Johnson argued, was ‘cyber’, Mr Ellwood responding: ‘You cannot hold ground with cyber’. 

You cannot hold ground with cyber– Tobias Ellwood MP

What formed Mr Johnson’s views on contemporary land warfare is anyone’s guess, but the author detects the likely influence of a school of thought currently having much traction in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the senior ranks of the British Army (but not, interestingly, the Royal Navy or Air Force). This is a postmodernist view, influenced by certain US-based authors and think tanks, that ‘conventional warfare is dead’ and that contemporary conflict (or ‘strategic competition’) is now pursued via ‘hybrid’ methods with narrative control featuring prominently and cyber and ‘information’ attacks as credible alternatives to kinetic force. For instance, the recently-retired Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, was a strong proponent of ‘information manoeuvre’, raising a specialist unit in the British Army, 77 Brigade, to address key ‘target audiences’ while presiding over swingeing cuts to the Army’s combat assets. The current Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith spoke in 2021 of a new British military ‘house style’ hinging on ‘discreet’ use of Special Forces, airpower and cyber with local allies doing much of the ‘traditional' conventional fighting.

One doubts whether Presidents Putin or Zelensky would agree with any of this. On 24 February 2022, the army of the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine with an estimated 160,000 troops – almost twice the current size of the entire British Army. Although accurate figures for the invasion force are hard to come by, the Russian Western Military District holds around 1,000 tanks from the Russian Army’s total stock of 2,840 (with an estimated 6-9,000 more in storage) and, perhaps more significantly, given current Russian land warfare doctrine’s emphasis on deep fires, around 1,000 artillery pieces and surface-to-surface missiles and at least 140 fast jets capable of flying air superiority and strike missions and, indeed, the invasion began with deep strikes against military facilities all over Ukraine. These figures do not include extensive reinforcements from elsewhere in Russia.

Russian objectives and NATO’s role

Initial Russian policy aims centred on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) accepting an eight-point draft treaty barring Ukraine from joining it and limiting NATO’s activities in what Russia sees as its ‘sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. This was rejected by NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, on the grounds that as a sovereign nation, Ukraine has the right to make its own security arrangements and that NATO membership is a matter for its own member states. Russia’s demands were also branded ‘unacceptable’ by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with US President Biden and Mr Johnson threatening major sanctions on the Putin regime if it invaded. In mid-February, President Putin escalated, recognising the illegal Russian-majority ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk – Russian puppets fighting the Ukraine government since 2014 – while challenging Ukraine’s very right to exist and the Russian forces entering Ukraine on 24 February were identified as ‘peacekeepers’, their ‘peacekeeping’ extending subsequently to major conventional battles, involving tanks and other armoured vehicles, artillery and air support, fought around some of Ukraine’s key cities and with casualties on both sides in the thousands.

The British Army and UK strategy

This represents the first major international confrontation for Mr Johnson’s government and the UK’s first military confrontation since the publication of two interlinked documents intended to shape its post-Brexit security policy and strategy: the 2021 policy paper, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, and the accompanying Ministry of Defence Command Paper, Defence in a Competitive Age. What follows examines British military responses, real and potential, to the Ukraine War, with particular reference to land warfare capabilities. Why these? There are two clear reasons. First, as this author states elsewhere, Russia is fundamentally a major land power which must be deterred on land and the invasion of Ukraine (or NATO territory in Europe) will succeed or fail on the land battle.

Russia is fundamentally a major land power which must be deterred on land and the invasion of Ukraine (or NATO territory in Europe) will succeed or fail on the land battle.– Dr Simon Anglim

Second, given the gravity of the crisis, we can deduce much about the UK’s current land warfare capabilities from looking at what has been done on land to back up Mr Johnson’s responses, allowing some preliminary judgements on the Integrated Review and Command Paper’s impact and just how credible a tool the British Army they envisaged could be for Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’.

In fairness, Mr Johnson has responded to the invasion vigorously, taking the lead in the international community inflicting punitive economic sanctions on the Putin regime and supplying Ukraine with generous amounts of ‘defensive’ weaponry, most prominently several thousand NLAW portable anti-tank guided missiles which have proven very effective against Russian armour.

Right now, Mr Johnson and others’ strategy of supporting Ukraine as NATO’s proxy while inflicting major economic suffering on Russia seems to be working very well indeed. The invasion has not gone well for Russia and some operations have failed disastrously, particularly the Russian attempt to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. From speaking to British military officials in March and April, the author notes stunned disbelief at just how badly the Russian Army and Air Force have performed but Western weaponry has also been a key factor as the Ukrainians themselves attest. On 9 April, Mr Johnson became the first NATO leader to visit Kyiv since the invasion, holding talks with President Zelensky, who was sincere in his praise for the UK’s support for Ukraine. In response, Russia has rumbled about escalation, President Putin hinting at use of battlefield nuclear and chemical weapons against Ukraine and armed retaliation against NATO countries supporting her. Russian officials have threatened Sweden and Finland should they – as seems increasingly likely – proceed to secure NATO membership, and there is concern that Putin might escalate to an attack on the Baltic States – NATO members – depending on the situation in Ukraine.

This confines current Western action below certain parameters - Putin commands the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and, put bluntly, no sane British PM is going to gamble with a nuclear-armed opponent unless the UK itself faces an existential threat.

Put bluntly, no sane British PM is going to gamble with a nuclear-armed opponent unless the UK itself faces an existential threat.– Dr Simon Anglim

Even considering this, however, the British military response on the ground has been small-scale, provoking questions about possible UK reactions if the Russians were to escalate further. At the beginning of the crisis in autumn 2021, British ground forces deployed against Russia consisted of:

  • Training teams deployed in Ukraine since 2015 as part of Operation Orbital;
  • Thirty soldiers from the new British Army Ranger Regiment, training Ukrainian troops with NLAWs in early 2022.

  • More broadly, British troops have formed part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Estonia since 2017, and in February consisted of a 800-strong battlegroup from the Royal Tank Regiment, centring on a squadron of eighteen Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). Following the invasion, this was reinforced by another British battlegroup from Germany and they are unified under a brigade headquarters – but a third battlegroup would be needed to bring the British force to full brigade strength.

Mr Johnson outlined further deployments at a joint press conference with Secretary Stoltenberg on 16 February: elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the British Army’s airmobile task force, were going to Norway and 45 Commando, Royal Marines, to Poland while 1,000 more troops were earmarked in case of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ emerging on NATO’s eastern borders.

These are probably the most land assets the UK can offer. Reflecting intellectual trends alluded to already, the Integrated Review prioritised spending on artificial intelligence across the armed forces; the Command Paper also prioritised R&D and it is telling that in its chapter on the future structure of the British forces it discusses the ‘new’ domains of space and cyber ahead of the traditional ones of land, sea and air. The Command Paper leaves the British Army with little capacity for fighting the kind of high-intensity mechanised battles most NATO-based scenarios entail.

The Command Paper leaves the British Army with little capacity for fighting the kind of high-intensity mechanised battles most NATO-based scenarios entail.– Dr Simon Anglim

The Army is projected currently to be able to deploy one heavy division, consisting of two armoured brigades to fight the close battle alongside a Strike Brigade to carry out deep reconnaissance for artillery and fast air. The Strike Brigade (already reduced from two) still awaits the Ajax armoured vehicles on which it was to centre following a series of serious technical issues. The tank force, already tiny when compared with peer competitors at 227 Challenger 2s, is to be reduced to 148 updated Challenger 3s while the entire stock of Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles is being phased out and will not be replaced. (The battlegroups deployed to Estonia will use Warrior for now.)

Much of the Army’s artillery and anti-air assets are obsolete and while the Command Paper promises new systems, these will not arrive in decisive numbers until towards the end of the decade.

It is fortunate, then, that the Army’s main conventional force facing the Russians, the understrength brigade in Estonia, has armoured infantry from France and Denmark alongside its Challengers and would, presumably be supported by assets from other NATO members giving it some capacity to fight a mobile conventional battle. Few, however, have considered that if the Russians crossed the border in similar strength to in Ukraine the brigade would be massively outnumbered and fighting alongside the small Estonian Army, totalling just under 10,000 soldiers. The brigade might be boosted to divisional strength, but it could take weeks for the additional heavy brigade and battlegroup to arrive from the UK and the division would still need NATO allies to provide a third brigade and at least some of its artillery and air defence. The brigade might, therefore, be more of a statement of political intent than anything operationally valid although given the Russian army’s dire performance in Ukraine anything might happen.

Moreover, on 12 February 2022 the UK Government announced the immediate withdrawal of all British military personnel from Ukraine, most prominently the training teams from the Rangers. The UK’s second theatre-level evacuation in twelve months presents a challenge to the Ranger/Special Operations Brigade concept and the thinking behind it. Much of the Integrated Review is predicated on pre-emptively establishing British forces ‘forward’ in areas under ‘challenge’ from hostile states. The Ranger Regiment was to contribute to this ‘forward presence’ via training friendly forces and, under some circumstances, ‘accompanying’ them into combat, demonstrating British resolve to deal with situations before they escalate. Ukraine in early 2022 seemed a stark example of such a situation, but the Rangers’ deployment there now looks like more political posturing, as pondering not only the withdrawal, but the initial arrival of a small number of advisors from an Army which had just withdrawn from Afghanistan to train people who have fought the Russians for eight years might indicate. We might also conclude that the complete Ranger package, especially ‘accompaniment’, will be highly conditional in future, particularly if there is any risk of fighting.

The complete Ranger package, especially ‘accompaniment’, will be highly conditional in future, particularly if there is any risk of fighting.– Dr Simon Anglim

Their situation may be complicated even further: in mid-April, the Times reported that 22 SAS may have taken up this training role covertly since the invasion - a possible expression of General Carleton-Smith’s new ‘house style’.

The Army and ‘Global Britain’

All this must be placed in the context of ‘Global Britain’s’ move towards a maritime strategy focused on East Asia and the Middle East and increased spending on the Royal Navy.i This seemed apt at the time, a firm statement of ‘Global Britain’s’ determination to look outwards towards the wider world rather than inwards towards Europe and, when the Review was published, the Ukraine crisis was still months ahead in the possible future. However, one still detects chickens coming home to roost. The size and structure of a country’s armed forces are a statement of how it sees its place in the world and affect how other countries interact with it.

The size and structure of a country’s armed forces are a statement of how it sees its place in the world and affect how other countries interact with it.– Dr Simon Anglim

Even at the time, the Review demonstrated some cognitive dissonance between the UK Government’s tough stance against Russia and its capacity to back it up, particularly on land in Europe, where it really matters. If modern conflict is about ‘narrative’ then words must both reflect and serve action: the war in Ukraine has left the emperors of ‘conventional warfare is dead’ with no clothes and NATO allies are dumping this particular narrative. Will the UK?

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 his and his alone.

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Simon Anglim

Simon Anglim

Teaching Fellow

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