How to Fix UK Land Power

I have recently looked at both the brigades of the U.S. Army and the German Heer on my blog. It's an interesting thought experiment to do the same to about the army of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This is a guest post from long time defence blogger Sven, from Defense and Freedom, a German milblog.

Sven describes his blog as;

This blog is about the defence against external threats and about the defence of civil liberties. Most topics are about the art of war, military history or military technology

It is always good to get an outside perspective on things.

So on to the subject, fixing UK Land Power…

The security situation in Europe has changed from the rather pleasant state at the turn of the millennium.

At first, the warning shot of the South Ossetia War left little impression on most who bothered to pay attention to military affairs in Europe. Few dared to be derided as Cold War dinosaurs and began to point at collective deterrence and defence as the raison d’être of NATO, calling for attention on deterring Russia for the sake of the vulnerable Baltic members of NATO. At least NATO finally and belatedly began to plan for their defence in 2010.

Yet the official stance was still that Russia was a partner, not a great power to be deterred.

This bubble of illusion did burst with the Ukrainian Civil War – a war that was waged between pro-Western and pro-Russian elements in the political arena, albeit the actual forces siding with Russia were Russia’s own army operating without proper national insignia, adventurers from outside the Ukraine and relatively few actual ethnic Russians from Ukraine.

Whatever the political and military events looked and look like in Ukraine – that war seemed to have convinced a majority of those who paid attention in NATO that Russia is more of an aggressor – a threat – than a “partner for peace”.

Meanwhile, all those great power games on distant continents ended in a mess – one after another.

  • Iraq is still a mess,
  • Afghanistan is a mess’
  • Yemen is a mess,
  • Somalia has made a mess its natural state of existence,
  • Pakistan may turn into a mess with nukes any day.

None of the great power gaming with military forces has achieved much more than body counts. Additional oil has been poured into the fire. The belief in military force as capable of solving problems on distant continents was mostly shattered in the West. It wasn’t quite a majority opinion in Europe anyway. Most of those politicians who get to play great power games – with the world as their sandbox and the armed forces as their plastic toy soldiers – have lost this naive faith as well.

Many of those who pay attention to military affairs at all are somewhat surprised by the new threat Russia, and in their primitiveness many of them conclude that we need to spend additional resources to meet such a threat.

I have yet to see anyone who publicly does the rational thing: Look at the real threat situation, look at the budget sizes (less pensions), look at what efficiency of military spending can be achieved and then determine the required level of spending.

Instead, the easiest route is being preferred. Let’s throw some more resources at the problem, this is how to solve problems, right?

Didn’t this serve us well in the great power games before?

I have recently looked at both the brigades of the U.S. Army and the German Heer on my blog, trying to determine what minimum changes should be done to make them fit for collective deterrence and defence against the only somewhat realistic threat, Russia. I mustered the self-discipline and moderated the ambition, trying to point at but a very few pivotal points instead of creating some fantasy army from a blank sheet of paper.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to do the same to about the army of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Said army is still recovering from being used as a pool of ‘toy soldiers’ for great power games in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s also withdrawing from its WW2 legacy bases in Germany. Its equipment for conventional warfare such as main battle tanks or air defences suffers from very small production runs and inventories, and the wisdom of additional national design solutions is highly questionable. Development and procurement of equipment in the past decades hasn’t exactly gained the bureaucracy a reputation for outstanding competence. Its post-Cold War track record in developing combat platforms for the army has been as dismal as in the United States.

British Aerospace has become a binational corporation (US/UK), and the English people stand out in Europe as feeling much more close to North America than continental Europe does, and attitude that can at the very least be traced back to the Thatcher era. Both these factors almost predetermine that the British Army’s equipment will become ever more similar to the U.S Army’s. In my opinion any advice or proposal to choose another path is bound to be unrealistic.

Likewise, it’s unrealistic to expect the UK to feel as a land power first and foremost anytime soon. Ever since the 16th century the English in particular have looked to the seas first, with land power being an afterthought during peacetime at least. An all-out orientation of their army at NATO’s Eastern frontier as can be asked of the Germans is thus unrealistic.

What conclusions could be drawn for adjustments to the British land forces (including the Royal Marines) then?

The land forces can sensibly be expected to have several tasks:

  1. to provide a contribution to NATO’s Eastern deterrence and defence
  2. to provide a contribution to NATO’s Northern deterrence and defence
  3. to protect the UK territory at least against feeble invasion attempts
  4. to provide a pool of great power game toy soldiers*

[box type=”note” bg=”#” color=”#” border=”#” radius=”0″ fontsize=”15″]TD NOTE; Have discussed this last point point with Sven and for the avoidance of doubt, he has used this term in the context of his opinion that contemporary politicians see the Army as plastic toy soldiers on a board as part of their ‘power games’. No slight or insult is intended so please do not climb aboard the outrage bus.[/box]

I do not claim to fully understand or even like British army traditions, regimental system et cetera. A main battle tank battalion that gets called “Hussars” is an insult to my military history sense, for example.

Still, I do feel that there are sensible paths for change that do not require substantial extra budgeting or unrealistic changes of national attitudes. So much I dare to pretend to know and understand.

Concerning the four principal missions:


A combination of Royal Marines, “Para” and “Commando” forces could meet the Norway defence requirements. Norway is too large and its geography too complex for a complete defence, but the persistence of forces even in face of an invading force could neutralise Norway as a base for opposing forces’ air and sea power. This in turn would keep the UK far from any opposing forces’ base and thus safe. It is reasonable to expect the Americans or preferably Canadians to do the same regarding Iceland.

The equipment of forces meant in part for employment in Norway needs to be air-deployable, suitable for very cold weather, suitable for mountainous terrain and efficient in supply demands (both mass and volume).

Effective, denying attacks on airbases and harbours needs to be possible with some pieces of this equipment even in face of strong security efforts on the opposing forces. Obviously, this goes well beyond what 81 mm mortars can do.

The organisation of these forces will likely remain a hodgepodge of one-of-its-kind units with traditional designations. Any effort at organisation standardisation would likely be a wasted effort. The organisation should meet two requirements, though: It should both allow for guerilla-like persisting operation of highly elusive small units and units that keep threatening bases AND concerted synchronised assaults to defeat invading forces when this seems to be possible.

This way a mere share of the UK’s land power could in concert with Norwegian forces provide the deterrence required to make Norway a most undesirable target for invasion, and thus safe. This is in the long term and grand scheme of things the price to be paid for being -and staying- at a safe distance from the net potential aggressor.


Forces for employment in Eastern Europe would first and foremost need to be able to deploy there in time. There’s still no road connection, and the Eurotunnel appears to be a fairly easy target for disruption efforts. A deployment by rail from the UK into Poland is thus too unreliable an approach to be trusted. Any deployment by sea on the other hand would only reach to Hamburg. Hamburg is the closest to Poland and the Baltics among all reasonably safe harbours. A road march of hundreds of kilometres after disembarkment would thus be inevitable unless at least the equipment was prepositioned. There’s little reason to expect much forward positioning of equipment or even complete brigades given the political situation (especially fiscal policy) and attitudes. Air transport assets would be overburdened by the Royal Air Force’s needs (in support of Typhoons) and the deployment of forces into Norway. To add much additional airlift capacity is unrealistic considering the high prices of Western military transport aircraft.

I do not wish to insult the UK’s land forces, but to me they seem to be limited to a slow deployment reinforcements role regarding NATO’s Eastern security. A battalion or so may be in the region as symbolic tripwire force as part of some rotation scheme, but the bulk of land power would arrive so late that they would have no say in whether the Russians overrun and occupy the Baltics or not.

The consequence of this is simply that the land power would need to be suitable for liberation of the Baltics, a capability which may add to the alliance’s deterrence. This also means that these forces would be pointless and thus their budgets wasted if Russia’s leaders were convinced that such a liberation could be deterred with the threat of tactical nuclear strikes or if NATO allies such as Poland and Germany convince the same Russian leaders that Lithuania would not be overrun in the first place, and Estonia/Latvia only be overrun at the price or losing the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Still, what should such forces look like?

Air defence needs to be more serious, which CAMM may provide – but MICA VL is available military off the shelf already and ESSM Block II may spawn a land-based system before CAMM becomes available. Anti-tank defences should be bolstered as well, and this goes beyond the question mark about Challenger 2’s 120 mm munitions.

Javelin has been understood by the Russians since 1989. They are almost guaranteed to have worked out a counter to Javelin, and thus also to EuroSpike. This may be a warning sensor and a liberal employment of multispectral smoke if nothing else. My proposal is thus the same as for the German and American land forces; add redundancy and thus reliability by adding an anti-tank munition with very few if any systemic (shared) risks: A Mach 6 missile with a kinetic energy penetrator similar to the long rod of APFSDS fired from 120 mm tank guns. Multiple American projects appear to be the closest to introduction into service; LOSAT, CKEM and HATM. They share a weakness at short ranges since the missile first needs to accelerate, but this happens within the effective range of NLAW and at those ranges where Javelin cannot exploit its top attack mode yet.

45 Commando operate NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon) at Castle Martin Ranges, South West Wales. Picture: LA (Phot) Pepe Hogan Royal Marines from 45 Commando, RM Condor, training with NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon) and Jackal vehicles. The training was taking place at Castle Martin Ranges, South West Wales. 45 Commando assumed the role of Lead Commando Unit on 1st May 2015, which means that they are the UK’s response to any military or humanitarian crisis, maintained at high-readiness to deploy anywhere in the world. Members of the Unit are currently embarked on HMS Bulwark involved in the migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

British artillery shares about the same problems as the American artillery; its self-propelled gun is an old style 155 mm L/39 ordnance, not L/45 of the 80’s or L/52 of the 90’s. Really long ranges can only be achieved with exotic (gliding) rounds that aren’t in the inventory. The AS 90 either needs to be upgraded, or artillery needs to focus on multiple rocket launchers or alternative 155 mm L/52 systems need to be introduced. A substantial range disadvantage compared to 2S19, 2S35 and possibly even the old 2S5 should not be tolerated.

MLRS should be reverted from a GMLRS-only role; the system lends itself well to large thermobaric munitions which would be uniquely suitable for destruction of identified and occupied positions, akin to TOS-1A.

Organisation-wise, I think terrain and mission would favour a mechanised brigade format, essentially well-rounded little divisions with organic air defence, anti-tank unit, tank, armoured infantry, artillery, infantry, engineer and logistics components. This could yield up to three battalion battlegroups, either identical or with different weighting of infantry and armour.

Rocket artillery on the other hand should stay out of the manoeuvre brigades; unguided rocket munitions are terribly bulky and thus poorly suited for mobile warfare while guided rocket munitions can support from far ‘behind’.


The Army Reserve (territorial forces) faces the challenge of being relevant for deterrence while spending as little as possible. A great dependence on reservist and possibly part-time personnel is thus the way to go, and let’s be frank: The most sensible course of action would be to hand them mostly second hand equipment that’s been succeeded in the deployable army already. The move from a militia-like territorial force towards a pool for additional, cheaper, soldiers was ill-advised.

By now it’s obvious that this yields no benefit whatsoever.

Deployment on the continent in the event of collective defence in Europe would hardly be a benefit, for it would expose the UK to event he flimsiest airborne invasions if the Typhoons fail (or are absent). The Army Reserve would furthermore arrive even later than the regular army, and would no doubt be rated much lower in quality by Russian army planners. To change this would turn the Army Reserve into regular army forces, with the resulting fiscal disadvantage.

The Army Reserve should in equipment and organisation be focused on defeating the VDV and on disaster relief in my opinion.


Finally, the pool for those ‘board game toy soldiers’ should probably follow the Légion étrangère format, exploiting recruiting in Commonwealth countries and especially among Gurkhas. The equipment could be dominated by armoured air-deployable cars, while the Commando/Para ‘Norway reinforcements’ could add the infantry strength needed in places like Belize.

– – – – –

I paid much attention to laying out the reasoning, as well as why, where and how the path dependency should be broken to increase the fitness of British land power for missions that really matter. The exact choice of equipment types and formation designs is not so much of importance as is clarity about what land power is good for now, in the near future, and why.

Only this utility may justify the fiscal expenses as well as the spending of time, sweat and often even health by British soldiers.


“began to plan for their defence in 2010” :







“withdrawing from its WW2 legacy bases in Germany”:

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