Meet the New, Smaller British Army

By International Institute for Strategic Studies

Government decisions to reduce the defence budget and lower strategic ambitions have prompted the British Army to undertake its most radical reorganisation for 50 years. The long-term viability of the project relies on the successful withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan and a significant increase in the utility of the army's reserve forces.

Budget stringency

The October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was formulated in response to the urgent imperative of financial austerity, as well as the war-weariness of the British public and politicians. Under the review, UK defence spending was reduced by 8% in inflation-adjusted terms over four years. Ambitions for UK military operations were lowered: the maximum size of forces on operations was reduced, while the time allowed for them to get ready to deploy overseas was extended. The maximum strength for a future war-fighting intervention at divisional level along the lines of the two land attacks on Iraq in 1991 and 2003 was reduced from 45,000 personnel deployed with six months' notice to 30,000 deployed at up to a year's notice.

As envisaged by the SDSR, the army would be reduced in size by 7% by 2015 and cease permanent basing in Germany by 2020. These changes were intended to be achieved without major organisational change. But it later became clear that further cuts were necessary in order to meet the government's austerity targets. In July 2011, then-defence secretary Liam Fox announced the army's size would be reduced by 20% by 2020, from 102,000 to 82,000 people. However, the part-time reserve Territorial Army (TA) was to be revitalised and have its trained strength increased from 19,000 to 30,000 people.

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Realising that these reductions could not be achieved incrementally, the army embarked on its own redesign exercise. Published in July 2012 and known as 'Army 2020',this second review made clear that only through radical restructuring could the army meet its operational requirements, maximise the potential of the reserves and incorporate lessons of recent conflicts.

Past lessons inform future strategy

The early stages of both the Iraq and Afghan conflicts had starkly exposed a surprising lack of agility on the part of the British Army, which adapted to the requirements of the campaigns more slowly than the US Army and Marine Corps. Some weaknesses, such as inadequate tactical intelligence, had resulted from a failure to properly institutionalise capabilities developed in Northern Ireland and the Balkans. As well as assessing new capabilities and combat techniques developed over the previous decade, the army analysed the likely nature of future conflict on land, including the considerable challenges of fighting 'hybrid' opponents capable of fighting both conventional and guerrilla wars. It concluded that the global trend of rapid urbanisation meant that fighting in built-up areas would no longer be exceptional but was likely to become the norm.

For these reasons, Army 2020 recommended that close combat capability should rely primarily on armoured infantry, supported by tanks. Artillery would remain important, but would need to be increasingly discriminate and precise. Troops would require better support from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and would need to be connected by a secure military broadband. So-called 'soft effects', such as information operations, and reconstruction and development, would need to become an integral part of the force. The army would be better organised for joint, inter-agency and multinational operations, and would retain the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters, for which the UK is the framework nation.

Apart from a commitment to undertaking overseas expeditionary operations, two further areas of focus emerged from the redesign: partnership and capacity-building, and providing support to the police and civil authorities in the UK. The SDSR put renewed emphasis on preventing conflict by international 'upstream engagement', such as building the capabilities of a nation's armed forces. This was reinforced by the subsequent publication of a government strategy document on 'Building Stability Overseas'. The role that the army played in dealing with floods in 2007 and in providing security at the London 2012 Olympic Games illustrated its potential role in homeland emergencies.

An army of three parts

The best-manned and most extensively trained element of the redesigned army will be a ‘Reaction Force' comprising a division made up of three armoured infantry brigades, a mixture of tanks and armoured infantry. Held at high readiness for overseas interventions, these will undertake 'hard fighting' against both conventional and hybrid opponents, as well as the toughest peace-enforcement missions. The Reaction Force will include 16 Air Assault Brigade, which will retain a unique mixture of parachute battalions and Apache attack helicopters, although its ground element is set to get smaller, as will the army's contribution to the Royal Navy's amphibious force, 3 Commando Brigade. Either brigade could be joined by armoured infantry brigades to make up a division-sized war-fighting formation.

The second element will be an ‘Adaptable Force', a division made up of seven infantry brigades of regular and reserve light cavalry regiments and infantry battalions. Speaking at the IISS in November 2012, Major-General Kevin Abraham, Director General, Army Reform, said the force would be ‘easily capable of adapting to a wide range of tasks'. Three brigades are designed to combine together to form up to two light all-arms brigades for an enduring stabilisation operation. Four smaller infantry brigades will be held at a lower state of readiness. New thinking suggests that the Adaptable Force could be used as a primary tool for UK military assistance and training to other countries. Its units are likely to be aligned to particular regions of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, to establish closer links and develop broader understanding and language skills. The adaptable force will also be the primary source of support to the UK civil authorities.

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