So I've been fairly busy of late which has put back a post that I wanted to rustle up last week (or was it the week before? How time flies) when it seemed the wolves were beginning to circle around the British army. With all this talk of a possible "SDSR 2017" etc it seems the knives are out and everyone is after a slice of the budget pie currently tied up in the land domain. Some articles I've seen have been quite interesting, thought provoking and reasonably balanced. Others... less so, shall we say. All though seem to share a similar theme; now that Afghanistan is over and done with we can raid the army for cash for the other two services, justified on the premise that the army is a) a bit knackered equipment wise and b) apparently lacking in strategic relevance all of a sudden.
The immediate question mark that arises is one of double standards. A lot of the criticism being levelled at the army is that because much of its equipment is getting old and is struggling to keep up with the Jones's abroad, that it should simply be binned and the money spent instead on recapitalising the other two services, some of whose equipment is getting old and struggling to keep up with the Jones's abroad...
It just makes no sense to me, this mentality that if we're talking about knackered* or out-dated equipment in the navy/air force then it obviously needs replacing, but if we talk about knackered or out-dated equipment in the army then obviously it needs to be binned and the units that hold it should be disbanded immediately. People point to things like Challenger tanks and argue that because they're dwindling in numbers we should just abandon the idea of operating tanks full stop. Surprisingly the fact we don't have enough towed array sonar systems for every last frigate has not prompted similar calls to just give up on anti-submarine warfare, nor has the past cannibalisation of Typhoon airframes for parts brought similar calls to get out of the fast aviation game. Odd that isn't it?
*(For the benefit of American readers who might not be familiar with the term "Knackered", think Peyton Manning in the last two seasons of his career)
All that said, I don't contest the overall idea that the army requires some kind of significant reform to keep it relevant going into the 2020s. As things stand the army has enough infantry battalions to comfortably man at least 3 square infantry divisions if it desired. The fact that it wouldn't be able to properly support said divisions with all the bolt on capabilities that a modern division requires says a lot about how the army has allowed itself to be shaped over the proceeding decade. Manpower for manpower's sake seems to have become the order of the day. I can't see that lasting very long, especially in the face of the reality of an ever changing world.
Part of the army's vision for its own future is in the Strike Brigade. Nobody really seems to be sure what this means yet, other than it being packed with the new AJAX vehicles, because they're cheaper than tanks and they're being purchased anyway, so why not double down on them eh? The Strike Brigade(s) is touted as providing a rapid reaction capability, to which end it'll also include some kind of as yet to be purchased 8x8 troop carrying vehicle, most likely the German Boxer, to provide high end mobility. Quite how wheeled and tracked vehicles will integrate to provide a rapid reaction ability is uncertain at this stage. Initial Operating Capability is set for 2021 and Full Operating Capability for 2025, which means there's a good chance the concept will be out dated and dumped before it ever gets that far.
The other main part of its vision is to retain the ability to deploy an armoured division at longer notice, something which has been questioned by many. Why does the UK cling to this ability to deploy a full division? This is how General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the general staff, put it to the defence select committee not long ago:
One of the great outcomes from the SDSR, from my perspective as the head of the Army, was the ambition to deliver a war-fighting division, because, in a sense, the division is a bit like an aircraft carrier—it is where the full orchestra comes together. It is where all the capabilities that you need to compete in the state-on-state space happen. That full orchestra is an aspiration that I think is absolutely right for us to have at the moment, because it makes you a reference customer not only of your enemies, but of your allies. It means that you can sit at the table alongside the Americans and the French, who can field this capability, and you can use that as the basis for restructuring.
Putting that into Google** translate and converting it from Bullshit to English, what he's saying is that the division represents the ideal level to bring together all the main elements of land power; tanks, armoured infantry, artillery, engineers etc, with which to take the fight to the Queen's enemies. It's also the level by which major land combat power is judged in the current era, though I'd argue that's a touch more speculative. I'd agree that being able to put an armoured division in the field with sufficient notice is a solid aspiration. Quite why it's considered to be part of the rapid reaction force is not. The major problem with that aspiration is that he doesn't have the equipment to realistically deliver it.
**(Amusingly the spell check on this Google powered blog doesn't recognise "Google" as a real word).
For a start, the reconnaissance regiments expected to head the division and provide operational level recce are tracked and not wheeled like their French counter parts, defying the lessons of about 78 years of armoured warfare. The army is now moving towards only having two Challenger equipped regiments (battalions for all the non-British readers. Fucking cavalry) which would be scraping the barrel even if that was all supposed to go in the one division. But because they'll have to rotate through differing levels of readiness it means that likely only one regiment will be available at a time and it seems the plan is to make up the deficiency using the Ajax vehicles of the strike brigades to act as "medium tanks", which of course cannot possibly end in disaster.
Trailing behind all this will be a variety of clapped out armoured vehicles that are older than most of their crews, even the veteran ones, mixed with shiny new 8x8 troop carriers that are more trendy than required, and supported by a lack of modern, mobile artillery that has been cut to the bone over the years, no dedicated anti-tank battalion (as these are definitely not trendy these days, despite their historical utility and the increasing use of direct fire 122mm in Ukraine) and without the kind of electronic warfare support that the Russians have basically established as being the baseline for modern operations from now on.
The under investment in the artillery is particularly odd, considering artillery has long been considered vital to modern integrated operations and has historically been one of the areas the UK has always garnered great respect from its enemies for. It's called the king of the battlefield for a reason, with casualty rates caused by high explosives in conventional conflicts typically reaching 70-85% of all casualties inflicted. And, again, if we look at the snapshot of modern conflict presented by operations in Ukraine we can see how important artillery remains, especially with the use of modern top attack dispensing munitions.
So it seems that while General Carter has his aspiration for an armoured division, he doesn't actually plan on doing anything to achieve that aspiration, like making the hard choice to take a scythe to the number of infantry battalions he has under his command in order to provide the appropriate funding to actually build and maintain the very thing which he thinks will make him a "reference customer". If this all sounds a bit familiar for UK defence then sadly that's because it is, as money is poured into maintaining the headline numbers and not in forming all the nitty gritty bits that really matter when the chips are on the table.
Sad thing is, there's more than enough manpower and funding there if properly distributed to do both the armoured division aspiration and a lighter, more mobile division for rapid reaction, albeit one that would operate more in terms of providing force elements at readiness (FEAR. Or FE@R if you want to go all 21st century) for emerging, lower threat level operations as opposed to deploying as a division itself.
One needs most of the heavy stuff, some of the medium stuff (Mastiff will suffice) and some shiny new stuff to bring it up to date. The other can mostly get by with Foxhound, a sprinkling of some shiny new stuff such as the US HIMARS to give it a bit more punch, and that's about all. The heavy division is the long term force, dialled up when needed with a bit of warning. The lighter division provides bits that are ready to go in a pinch and does most of the defence engagement business.
Or, with correct marshalling (fuck you Google, that's how it's spelt) of the support elements, it might even be possible to keep the whole force at varying levels of readiness to be called upon when needed to create essentially a "plug and play" force of whichever type was needed the most at the time, scalable from brigade to division level, which would permit greater manpower reductions in exchange for more money for re-capitalising the army and providing much greater funding for training, with any excess savings returned to the treasury.
So in summary, yes, I can agree that the army needs a trim. But no, I don't agree that the army should be put out to pasture, or trimmed so that money can be used to shore up gaps in the naval and air services. If any trimming (cuts) are to take place, they should be used to fund a massive program of investment to drag the army into the modern era and to equip it with the systems it needs to conduct both 21st century armoured warfare and 21st century support to its allies.