The British Army – Transformation in an Age of Complexity

The British Army is always transforming, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. Society, politics, culture and technology change, old threats evolve and new ones emerge. Transformation, therefore, is nothing new or unusual.

In 2018, the main driver of change for the British Army is the transition from counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East and South Asia to countering a resurgent threat from Russia. Bisecting this are Brexit, the emergence (or perhaps more accurately, increasing prominence) of what is often termed hybrid warfare, and the ever increasing role of technology in modern ‘connected life’. The British Army thus finds itself simultaneously trying to tackle technology and societal change, an evolving threat and a changing political landscape (Global Britain?), all whilst dealing with the legacy of an equipment fleet built for counterinsurgency operations, ongoing recruitment/retention issues and continual budgetary pressure.

Like arseholes, we all have opinions, they are plentiful, although only recently I thought the British Army should be focusing on the near threat from Russia, lately, am thinking we have to start thinking both beyond that and into the most likely scenarios for future conflict, both in Europe and beyond.

Although getting back our armoured mojo might provide numerous near-term benefits, is it really the best way to prepare for the future?

To start this essay, an introduction from my friend Nicholas at the UK Land Power site;

Britain’s army is one of its oldest and most respected institutions. With a history that dates back to before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, no other full-time professional army has done more to protect the interests of the nation it serves.

Discipline, courage and tenacity are its hallmarks. The Army’s heritage and tradition have forged a powerful identity that is synonymous with the British national character. It is an organisation that is infinitely greater than any single person within it. Serving within its ranks, even for only a short period of time, is an experience that leaves an indelible mark on all those who wear its uniform. Perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to adapt and evolve when faced with new or unexpected threats. Historically, Britain has maintained a small peacetime army able to expand rapidly in times of war. Today, the number of soldiers in the British Army stands at less than 80,000.  This is the lowest level since before the Napoleonic Wars in 1799. As well as manpower constraints, many vehicles and key weapon systems are approaching a cliff edge of block obsolescence. Resources for maintenance, training and the procurement of new equipment have been cut or deferred.

According to some former soldiers, the British Army is now engaged in the most important campaign of its long and illustrious existence: the battle for its own survival. In short, the time has come to reform and regenerate the Army so that it can properly protect British interests at home and abroad.

Where Nicholas and I might disagree is what reform and regeneration look like.

Many make the case for more spending on defence, threats are rising and evolving, the world is an increasingly dangerous place and defence and security are the first priorities of any government.

The problem with these, noble as they are, is their reasoned arguments for more funding they often discount the political reality of it happening. No matter how many ORBAT’s or equipment suggestions we might make, they will fall on the fallow ground because of politics and plain old cash, too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

Recognising Reality

It is easy to advance a case for more defence funding and in our echo chambers, we would all agree, with the only dissent being about what to spend the extra loot on. If the MoD does get an increase in budget, great, all power to those that campaign for it, but unless that increase is sustained and significant I suspect in a couple of years’ time there will be another funding crisis and we will all be back to arguing about the same things.

This is reality

2% of GDP on defence it is now considered a benchmark, not a minimum.

There are more painful realities that advocates for spending more on the British Army need to recognise;

  • To those casting a covetous eye over the DFiD budget, it isn’t going anywhere
  • The UK’s debt is already too high and debt servicing payments are a significant percentage of current spending, about £50b per year, don’t be thinking increased borrowing is the answer
  • BREXIT may well depress GDP, and a fixed percentage of that means a reduction in real terms
  • Cutting other budgets like health or welfare budgets, good luck with that.
  • Trident/Successor isn’t going anywhere either, and neither is Carrier Strike or Combat Air
  • Defence inflation cannot be wished away
  • Cyber and defence against hybrid threats needs funding from somewhere

The evidence would suggest those wishing for significantly greater defence funding are going to be disappointed, and those thinking the Army would be a beneficiary, even more so.

Risks, Issues and Threats

The Unknown

Not only does the British Army have to shape and be shaped by the environment in which it resides, but it must also anticipate future changes in readiness for when they may occur because like all large organisations, change from within is slow.

The DCDC Strategic Trends programme publication ‘Future Operating Environment’ reviews and analyses likely threats and potential deployment scenarios to 2050 but like any such analysis, there is always a degree of unpredictability.

Without veering too far into Donald Rumsfeld territory (or is it a Dunning-Kruger Black Swan!), there are threats as yet unknown and trends yet to be revealed. This does create a problem as almost any capability at any scale could be justified on the basis of ‘well you never know’, but still, it is important to recognise unpredictability and our generally woeful ability to predict the future.


It is an indisputable fact that capability rests on people

The Army continues to struggle with recruitment and retention problems, some are a result of wider societal issues; others, wholly self-inflicted. Although the torrent of bad news stories about coffins on wheels and rat infested accommodation from a few years ago has more or less subsided, they have been replaced with those about historic allegation persecutions and suicides due to a lack of mental health care provision. Whatever your view, this contributes to the risk of the Army being seen as a decreasingly attractive career option by an increasingly larger number of people.

Civilian and uniformed personnel and their families are the backbones of capability. All the shiny toys in the world are useless unless we have committed and engaged personnel that are not taken advantage of or abused, see a career and vocation, not a job, and have partners that allow them to serve the nation without being disadvantaged because of it.

The continuous attitude survey and outflow statistics tell a story, but realistic training, a sense of being valued, fair remuneration, partner employment options, a lack of petty regulation, not being persecuted by the legal profession, being treated like adults, effective mental health care, decent accommodation and food, and basic administrative systems that work all, contribute to the objective of making people want to join, and perhaps more importantly, stay.

Undermanned units make ten times things worse, placing additional burdens on those we ask so much of.

Of course, Army leadership knows all this and whilst not everything is solved with money, clearly, we need to spend proportionally more in this area.

Keeping up with the Trumps

Much has been written about the Third Offset Strategy.

Established in 2012, the Strategic Capabilities Office defined a strategy of using advanced technology to deter conflict with peer adversaries by demonstrating clear overmatch across multiple domains. Whether this strategy retains the priority under President Trump and Secretary Mattis remains to be seen but it should be obvious to any casual observer of defense, or even defence, that US forces have the budget to make hypervelocity rail guns, artificial intelligence, lasers and exoskeletons a reality.

The MoD also invested time, money and energy into following the same vision of deterrence by technology superiority, creating the Defence Innovation initiative and ensuring a fixed percentage of its budget is spent on basic research into new technologies.

It is likely that the gap between US and allied forces in pure technology terms will widen and create a significant interoperability challenge. The current US debate between capacity and capability is echoed almost everywhere else but at the minute, it does seem that capacity is a nose ahead in the US, but only a nose. Much is also made of President Trump trashing the post-war order and abandoning long-standing European allies but evidence suggests no such thing is actually happening. That said, there is a risk that ‘Trumpism’ leads to a pivot away from Europe, like the Obama pivot to the Pacific also suggested. A conflict between the US and China does seem more likely than a conflict between the US and Russia.

For the British Army, retaining a reasonable level of interoperability with allies, especially the US Army, is a core objective, but it is also a core problem.


Anyone that thinks BREXIT will leave defence completely untouched is living in denial.
There are two principle defence risks with BREXIT, one related to UK finances and the other to UK commitment to the defence of Europe.
Reduction in GDP, devaluation of the Pound and compensatory spending in other departments could mean less cash for defence over a period of years as the UK economy rebalances and recovers from any shock caused by a disorderly exit. Without getting into political arguments, this is a reality that needs to be acknowledged.
Of more concern is the potential for the above to fracture UK commitment to European defence, and thus NATO. Much has been said on this and much is yet to be said, it is not time to break out the fainting couches just yet. If a poorly managed exit generates significant financial impact, a blame game will be played out. Why should British blood and British treasure be put on the line for those who have been active in damaging the British economy will be the cry?
Regardless of your position on Brexit, your thoughts on the acceptability or validity of this position, it is as predictable as night following day that it will happen. It would be argued that given the UK is part of Europe and when Europe is threatened the UK is threatened so regardless of BREXIT, our commitment should remain in both will and wallet.
Good luck with convincing the British people of that, especially when the opposition party now has much stronger anti-Trident and anti-NATO views. Cool heads on grown-up shoulders are needed to remind both the UK and the EU that the collective defence and security of Europe is a serious game with harsh offside rules.


SDSR 2010 had barely a mention of Russia, four in total, and two of those were in the Glossary. Since then, Russia, through a catalogue of actions has risen to be a greater threat than that of terrorism.

There is a danger though, that this threat is overdone, there is also a danger it is not taken seriously.

The Russian economy is in poor health, based largely on the extractive industries and beset with corruption and low productivity, its single greatest strategic threat is US non-conventional oil and gas. But whilst many like to point out that Russia has the same GDP as Italy, and should not be seen as a threat, Italy does not spend 4.3% of its GDP on defence and does not have low labour costs and a huge legacy of nuclear weapons expertise.

An excellent overview of new Russian defence capabilities can be found here but highlights include;

Improvements and modernisation in strategic nuclear forces, introduction of the Borei (Dolgorukiy) ballistic missile submarine, Iskander-M and Kalibr cruise missiles, Bastion shore defence missiles protected by S-400 air defence missile systems, launched 55 military satellites in the last 5 years, 16 air defence regiments upgraded to the S-400, new deliveries of aircraft at the rate of 200 per year, 60 new naval vessels in the last 5 years, 3,000 new armoured vehicles delivered, new command and control systems implemented, 1,800 new unmanned aircraft, UAV based radio jamming equipment and high levels of readiness and an increasing move away from conscription

In addition to these conventional capabilities, Russia has clearly shown an ability in cyber and information operations and has a willingness to use them.

To counter this evolving spectrum of threats from Russia, NATO, the EU and individual nations are increasing defence spending, improving equipment and readiness, and innovating in response to unconventional and conventional threats alike. Even Sweden and Finland are increasing cooperation with NATO, all this is good, although we can argue the pace of change isn’t fast enough given the ground many NATO members have to recover.

The threats from Russia cannot be seen in isolation, neatly boxed off to allow defence to handle one and the security services the other, this is what the Modernising Defence Programme and Fusion Doctrine are seeking to address.

I don’t buy into the Russia panic, I don’t think every weapon system they produce is brilliant, and I certainly don’t think they are going to be marching into Poland any time soon, but just to make sure, let’s not underestimate or belittle their capability either. From a land perspective, I don’t think NATO actually has much to fear from Russian land forces on an equal basis, where we do face a threat is decision making speed disparity, approach to using area weapons and sheer weight of fire available to Russian land forces should it ever come to it.

The Middle East and Africa

The conflict in Libya exacerbated an already fragile security situation by releasing huge quantities of arms and munitions into the area. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Mourabitoun and Boko Haram are all active, and all creating mayhem and conflict. Boko Haram, as just one example, killed 11,000 people in 2015, the scale is staggering. The French intervention in Mali came as a result of attacks by no less than five separate Islamist groups for example. The rivalry between Al Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamist groups is often intertwined with decades-old local conflict.

On top of this; corruption, water scarcity, religious extremism, transnational crime, piracy, migration exploitation, conflict minerals, great power shenanigans, human trafficking, illegal fishing, poor governance and poaching, Africa has it all. The net result is increased migration to Europe, illegal trafficking and an attendant increase in security threats for Europe.

The UK is already engaged in Somalia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other locations across the area in addition to providing ongoing support for France who has a more formal operation across the Sahel called Operation Bharkane. Italy has also been quietly working in Libya to reduce the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.

There does seem to be a feeling that Iraq may be returning to some level of stability after ISIS but the wider Middle East is still in a perpetual state of conflict. Saudi Arabian and Iranian funded proxies continue to corrupt and destabilise nations. Whether the ancient Shia/Sunni conflict will continue to find release in proxy conflicts or explode into full-on war is not clear but whatever happens, the UK has direct interests in the region and any number of indirect interests. Significant quantities of natural gas and refined petrochemical products are imported into the UK from the region and many Middle East nations are important trading partners, both for import and export. Wider conflict in the area would likely result in global economic impact.

Instability and terrorism. The ‘Arc of Instability’ from Somalia to Morocco will be of increasing concern and cannot be ignored, despite the political aversion to enduring stability and counter-terrorism operations. A key question for the UK is whether to stay engaged in the Middle East at the current level and if so, how it can be resourced. Given finite resources, it may be a question of assessing the relative value of each location in terms of threat and opportunity.

The potential for continuing and escalating conflict in Africa and the Middle East is enormous, and this only means one thing for Europe, more security problems.

And that means for the UK.

Form Follows Function

Any force design must take into account the circumstances in which it will be used, what can be afforded and how it can be optimised for the broadest range of contingencies.

Some things tasks are highly resistant to change; public duties and ceremonial functions, counter terrorism and EOD support to the civilian power, civil resilience and territorial defence of UK and overseas territories all are seen as ‘baseline activities’.

Although the days of the 1998 SDR ‘force for good’ era are well and truly over, the UK still approaches its defence and security by going forth into the world and engaging with it. Global Britain is not just a catchy slogan, we must have an outward looking view, and the British Army likewise.

In responding to the Russian threat and contributing to NATO activities, the British Army has approached the task with a blend of forward deployment in Estonia and Poland, training and capability development, industrial cooperation and a number of joint command initiatives.

Exercise Trident Juncture is one of many exercises designed to demonstrate movement at distance and multinational cooperation in order to deter Russia.

Further afield, Afghanistan is still occupying the British Army and the Adaptable Force model of capability development continues in various locations with contributions to counter poaching in Africa for example. The British Army is therefore organised and equipped to deliver a range of activities from combined arms high intensity combat to light infantry training and force development, but scratch the surface and there are some fundamental problems.

How did we get here?

The Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) was a concept based on a simple premise that in order to have any effect whatsoever you simply had to be there, being there meant speed of deployment. It aspired to bulge out the middle, with FRES brigades outnumbering both armoured and light role. The medium weight force would have been the dominant force.

Then came operations in Iraq which confirmed the value of those conventional armoured forces that were going to be largely replaced with FRES. What followed was a protracted series of counter insurgency operations that saw the heavy armoured forces finding themselves less suited to heavy protected mobility vehicles. FRES was cancelled and we ended up with lots of Mastiff’s.

The Multi Role Brigade (MRB) concept that followed was an interesting and logical idea based on the premise that the British Army is always deployed somewhere, and wherever it is deployed, it tends to take the full breadth of capabilities with it. So they had everything from heavy armour to aviation spread neatly across five equal sized formations to enable sustained deployment but one where protected mobility was dominant. For the much less likely scenario of fighting a conventional battle, there would be time to reorganise into a more conventional structure.

With the end of Afghanistan there was a realisation that the political will for enduring deployments had vanished. The Russian threat to NATO grew and the default UK response was a return to the division and conventional all arms manoeuvre.

MRB’s were replaced over a number of iterations to what is now Joint Force 2025. This will be 2 Armoured Infantry Brigades, 2 Strike Brigades, an Air Assault Brigade and a collection of light role and light protected mobility infantry. Armoured and Strike will be in equilibrium, but there will still be a preponderance of light role infantry.

And yet in achieving the ‘warfighting division optimised for high intensity combat’ we have thinned out fighting power and sustainability to make it fit. It might appear to be a warfighting division but it is one whose jam is spread very thinly. The new armoured infantry brigade will contain one less armoured infantry battalion and no organic recce. Strike is now an enabler to divisional manoeuvre and anyone questioning this, well, they obviously just don’t understand it. No doubt the division is important, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we are being optimistic at the very least, at worse, we are kidding ourselves.

To do things properly, to have a credible force, the British Army can either have a conventional armoured or medium weight capability, but it cannot have both because there is simply not enough money. Is the desire to be a framework nation and the prestige that goes with it dragging on our ability to recognise what is in front of us, so we dismiss these concerns and argue for more money that isn’t coming?


The British Army finds itself in a tough spot, beset with many risks, problems and uncomfortable realities.

Despite these, it retains and unrivalled reputation, fundamentally sound foundations, and a deep well of expertise and experience to draw from.

The next section will suggest an alternative approach.




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