The well-informed British defence blog Thin Pinstriped Line looks at the latest of a series of official plans to move the British Army forward. Keep in mind the Brits, besides operating within NATO, as part of UN peacekeeping missions, and in ad hoc coalitions, still see using their army abroad in independent fashions to pursue their own national interests, if they can figure out how to pull off the trick. Canadian have never really had any such ambitions– some further thoughts on the Canadian Army at end.
The British Army has announced its new plans for its revised future structure and operational roles. The announcement made by the Secretary of State for Defence sets out how the British Army will be restructured into a force of 73,000 regulars [Canada about 20,000], supported by reservists and civil servants…
By defining the Army as being an organisation more intended to focus on training, assistance and operations in the ‘grey zone’, this plan could be potentially significant. If there is genuine, long term and sustained commitment to growing Ranger Bns [battalions], and using them as long term training teams to enhance capabilities of partner nations, then this will have very positive benefits for UK security.
A long-term plan, which sees training delivered year after year, with sustained regional presence to build relationships that last a career can potentially be a hugely positive outcome. Done well and done with the intention that this is the long term plan, then the future looks positive.
There is always strong demand for British Army training around the world, and having the means to offer it, to build capacity and to deliver to partners could be good news…
…This move to working with partners, letting their forces take the lead in conducting kinetic operations while providing skills, training and niche assets will be a compelling offer – it may prove a policy and permissions challenge, but it is something that looks an extremely positive offer [but how happy will ‘partners” be if Brits stay behind the front lines? and will the UK government wish necessarily to support those “kinetic operations”?].
The bigger question though is what beyond Ranger Bns is the British Army actually going to do? The paper focuses on a return to older missions like supporting the Civil Authorities, and assisting allies, but there feels like there is a gap between low-key low-level training abroad, stuffing sandbags and then moving into the high intensity conflict space where suddenly the Army will be used to deter peer rivals globally.
…the return to a more assertive deterrence posture in central and Eastern Europe by putting more troops and vehicles through on exercises will be welcomed by many NATO partners. This commitment to Europe is a welcome sign of the UK continuing to play a serious and credible role at the heart of European security, and to act as an additional complication in Russian planning for mischief making [Canada for its part has “540 soldiers leading a NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia” but they are present simply as a deterrent, er, tripwire–the Canadian Army does not significantly take part in NATO exercises in Europe].
However, as the Cold War showed, the ability to turn up and fight as a coherent worked up battlegroup in time to deter others isn’t easy and requires a huge amount of training and effort. Is the will and funding there to seriously train and sustain a credible force that can reinforce and defend the borders of Eastern Europe as required ?
…Over the last 10 years the Army has tried on several different occasions to reinvent itself and offer new roles, structures and organisational changes – for example the ‘Army 2020’ plan.
In this period there has been the vision of the Army as laid out in the SDSR, the Army 2020 vision and now this vision of the Army in 2025. Each time the answer feels different – different structures, different locations, different unit roles and different objectives – there is a sense of near perpetual change as the Army strives to find a version of itself that it feels comfortable being.
Between1945 and 1990 it had this through the existence of BAOR – it knew that its role was to deter in peacetime, and in wartime expand rapidly to provide enough troops to buy time to avoid the war turning nuclear. Once the war had turned nuclear, then there was no role for it – bluntly the Cold War Army existed to fight for 7-10 days then die [as with the Canadian Army in Germany with NATO; UN peacekeeping was a sideshow, see this post: “Not Remembering Canada’s Real Post-WW II Military History“].
It is perhaps telling that files from this period on planning for home defence struggle to identify a post-strike role for the Army beyond helping the civil power. Yet this structure and reason to exist gave a sense of purpose [emphasis added].
The period 1990 – 2015 was arguably a period of fighting wars that felt familiar, without having to answer the difficult ‘so what’ question about what value this added to British foreign policy outcomes. For all the huge sacrifices made in Iraq and Afghanistan, this tactical set of victories still has arguably resulted in at best strategic stalemate or defeat in both countries [ditto for Canadian Forces’ activities].
The problem then is trying to work out how the Army can avoid these challenges in future – what roles can it take on that avoids the errors of the past, while in the same turn provides relevant assets that can add value to help deliver Government security objectives.
The move to a training focus seems sensible, and one that if committed to, could be a really valuable outcome. But the problem is, lurking behind this sense of opportunity is the concern that we may find ourselves going around this buoy again in another 5 years when the ‘Army 2030’ vision inevitably gets launched.
The other big concern about this document is that for all the talk of impressive new capabilities and investment coming downstream, it remains the case that the British Army will be unable to deploy a modernised divisional level capability until around 2030 – the best part of a decade away [emphasis added–the Canadian Army’s intent is to be able to deploy a combat-capable brigade group, see antepenultimate bullet point at bottom of p. 11 PDF here; that is impracticably aspirational, to be charitable].
…many of the strands in the paper feel like a greatest hits of Defence papers dating back 30 plus years. The call for better integration of reservist and civil servants, and the call to address retention and gapping, and also to make better use of skills and experience to create a digitally enabled workforce – all of these are themes that go back at least as far as 1998, and probably a lot further. (It is also notable that both Space and Cyber remain a ‘new’ domain despite being a military issue for over half a century).
The fact that once again there has been a rallying call to say ‘we must have a better integrated workforce’ not only leads you to conclude that all of the previous commitments to doing so have been a total failure, but also that there is little likelihood that without serious cultural change, this time is likely to be any more successful either…
What is needed is a period to let these changes work through, to try things out and to actually get the new equipment needed and make sure the Army is able to do the jobs it wants to be able to do. Right now it feels that whether it wants to or not, we’ll be hearing in a few years’ time about how Army 2030 / 2035 is the bright exciting future of the British Army…
One might add that the current Canadian government is even unwilling to deploy the army for UN peacekeeping missions to perform any boots-on-the ground roles such as reconnaissance or patrolling that might risk casualties–see this post:
In fact one suspects that with increasing natural disasters and the pandemic problem that that government may be trending along these lines: