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Adapting the British Army for a maritime century

The maritime domain is under increasing pressure from systemic competition…and is facing levels of threat and coercion not seen since World War Two. I believe that it’s therefore right to say we are genuinely entering a “new maritime century”. 

As Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, points out, the strategic context which faces British national security today has already, and will continue to, evolve rapidly. The world is more volatile, as events in Ukraine, Armenia-Azerbaijan, and Israel-Gaza have shown. Despite the fact that this volatility includes the land and air domains (amongst others such as space and cyber), the maritime domain will be decisive, especially so for the United Kingdom (UK) as seen with the rise in importance of the Indo-Pacific, the Russian Navy remaining a threat in the Euro-Atlantic, and the UK’s continental European allies stepping up to collective defence. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are starting to meet these new challenges, but how can the British Army – long distracted in Afghanistan – adapt?

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second World War, a shattered Europe lay vulnerable to the Soviet Empire, backed by the behemoth of the Red Army. Even after post-war demobilisation, the Red Army numbered well over 3 million battle-hardened men. It was against this backdrop that a weakened but victorious Britain formed the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), a Corp-sized battlegroup that would go on to form a key link in NATO to deter Soviet aggression. At its height, the BAOR numbered over 80,000 soldiers, larger than the entire British Army today. 

Following 40 years of successful deterrence and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there should have been an opportunity for the British Army to downsize significantly, but the ‘War on Terror’ intervened. For better or worse, the Army was committed to conducting two large-scale, manpower intensive, simultaneous counter-insurgency operations. From 1945 to the end of the ‘War on Terror’, there could be a case made for the need for a big (in terms of manpower and funding) and heavy (in terms of its focus on division sized tank-centred formations) British Army. But this is no longer true, and the sooner the British Army wakes up to this fact, the easier it will be for it to adapt to the new strategic context. 

Today and in the future, the UK no longer needs to be able to provide division sized armoured forces in Europe. Europe is richer, stronger, and more confident; the British Army is no longer required to provide the muscle that it used to. Nowhere else is this more evident than in Poland. Over the last few months, the Polish Government has begun one of the largest military expansions seen in Europe for decades, spending billions of zloty on thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, and other key hardware. Poland will soon be the premier land power in Europe. Poland is by no means the only case, Sweden (soon to join NATO) recently announced it would increase defence spending by 30% and Germany has announced plans to increase its own defence spending by US$100 billion (£81 million) – the so-called ‘Zeitenwende’.

Now, much as the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have begun to adapt to the new maritime environment, Britain’s generals should embrace this opportunity to regenerate a different, but still crucial, land force.

There are those who argue that, due to the war in Ukraine, the British Army should be increased in size to deter a Russian attack. In fact, the opposite is true, for two reasons. Firstly, the war has so far resulted in the destruction of over 12,500 pieces of Russian military equipment (representing only the visually verifiable losses, by the open-source Oryx database); much of this destroyed equipment has been Russia’s most modern tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and missile systems. This is having a clear impact; Russian generals have had to bring literal museum pieces out of storage to replace their losses, including the ancient T-55 and T-62 tanks (first entering service in 1948 and 1961, respectively). Although the threat of Russian aggression will remain (and it should be taken seriously), thanks to the bravery and skill of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the Russian Army is not the threat it once was. 

It will take years for Russia to recover and, owing to economic and demographic decline, it is plausible that Moscow will find it far harder to threaten NATO allies as it could before February 2022. A crucial caveat to these losses is that they have almost entirely impacted the Russian land forces; so far, the Russian air and maritime losses amount to 93 aircraft and only 16 naval ships and submarines (almost half of which are patrol boats). This means that the serious threats posed by the Russian navy and air force have remained relatively intact despite nearly two years of conflict.

The second point is that, as a nuclear power, the UK will never again fight a war of attrition against a nuclear peer or near-peer adversary. Ukraine has had to fight the war this way due to its lack of airpower, making it harder to punch through layered defences and Russian mass. Even if deterrence broke down, (fighting with NATO) the British would take advantage of overwhelming air superiority and combined NATO mass to break through and avoid attritional style warfare. Not all lessons from Russia’s war against Ukraine are not universal; what works for Ukraine may not necessarily work well for NATO, or even specific NATO allies.

Where, then, does this leave the British Army? 

The situation facing Britain is a more aggressive but weakened Russia in the Euro-Atlantic, a stronger more assertive People’s Republic of China in the Indo-Pacific, and increasing instability elsewhere in the world, particularly in Africa, due to environmental change. The British Army can contribute towards the UK’s national security against all three of these factors, but this requires changes to the army’s plans as outlined in its Future Soldier Guide:

  1. There is no longer a pressing need for big British armoured formations, especially at the division size, in Europe. Reducing 3rd Division from the planned two armoured brigades and one deep strike brigade to two more balanced mechanised brigades (which would include a component of tanks) would free up resources where they are needed more. The UK should encourage NATO allies on the eastern flank to provide the ‘mass’ of land power. 
  2. The army needs to plan more for how it can support littoral warfare (coastal areas/islands) requirements. The Future Soldier Guide does not mention it once and it is only mentioned in passing in the most recent version of the Joint Doctrine Publication: UK Land Power (JDP 0-20), which is a striking omission considering how important this will become in the maritime century. 
  3. The British Army needs more rapidly deployable forces. 16 Air Assault Brigade currently performs this role, but risks overstretch as global crises look likely to proliferate. Forming a second brigade along these lines by adapting one of the 1st Division’s Light Brigades would provide more capacity to respond. This is especially true of allies who may be threatened by nuclear powers; by enmeshing lighter British forces with local allied forces – such as those along NATO’s eastern flank – the UK can extend and compound its nuclear deterrent. This should include a new look at how British forces can best act as multipliers for NATO allies nearest to potential threats. For example, Poland needs no extra armour, but could be supported with specialist reconnaissance forces, and other allies will have differing needs that the British Army can supplement.
  4. There is no point in having a capable army if there is not strong enough naval and air power to deliver, sustain, and act as force multipliers for it. The JDP 0-20 recognises this fact, but fails to recognise that the army’s current share of defence spending has impacted the ability of the other services to generate sufficient strength. The British Army needs a culture shift to accept it will no longer receive as great a share of the budget as it enjoyed during the Cold War and ‘War on Terror’. If defence spending were to increase significantly in the near future, this may change the situation; until then, the UK should ensure its limited military investment goes as far as possible to meet the threats it faces.

The British Army has a key part to play in deterring and defending against threats to the UK, and in upholding the open international order, even in a maritime century. Yet, rather than learning the wrong lessons from Russia’s renewed war against Ukraine, it should focus on being leaner and more deployable, able to support key allies with specialist capabilities. European allies can develop the mass to provide a large-scale fighting force. This was the British way of war for hundreds of years pre-1914, until events on the continent forced the size and use of the British Army to shift. Now, much as the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have begun to adapt to the new maritime environment, Britain’s generals should embrace this opportunity to regenerate a different, but still crucial, land force.

William Freer is a Research Fellow in National Security at the Council on Geostrategy.

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