The British Army will be capable of fielding a war-fighting division by 2025. However, it will be smaller, less ‘heavy’ and have less modern armour than originally planned. The shortfall in armour is the result of procurement problems compounded by inadequate funding: the outcome is that the army will deliver considerably less near-term capability than was the goal.
Just how short the British Army will fall of the divisional target established by the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has been made apparent during an ongoing House of Commons Defence Committee inquiry into British armoured-vehicle programmes. During hearings, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) acknowledged it would not meet the aim of the 2015 SDSR. Rather than being able to field a division with three brigades – two armoured infantry brigades and a strike brigade – the division would only consist of two: a single armoured infantry brigade and an ‘interim manoeuvre support brigade’, the latter with some new Ajax vehicles and infantry travelling in Boxer and Foxhound armoured personnel carriers (APCs).
Missing the goal
The MoD said it was unable to meet the 2015 SDSR target because its budget ‘did not fully resource the army to achieve this output within this timeframe’. More simply put, it did not have enough money to fund what it said it was going to do. Development delays to the new Ajax medium armoured fighting vehicle and a very slow delivery rate for new Boxer APCs have further compounded the issue. There are also indications that the stockpiles of spares and ammunition needed to deploy more than one armoured infantry brigade have not been funded.
The army currently has one single heavy division: the 3rd Division. It is declared to NATO, but could also be employed on other missions, including with the United States. It is made up of three armoured infantry brigades, each with a single regiment (battalion sized) of Challenger 2 tanks and two armoured infantry battalions with Warrior infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). Three armoured cavalry regiments are currently equipped with Scimitar light-armoured reconnaissance vehicles. The Scimitars are obsolescent, while the Challenger tanks and Warrior IFVs have undergone only limited upgrades and are approaching obsolescence by the army’s admission. Both require improvements to their firepower, including new guns, ammunition and turrets. Research and development work has been funded, but the Warrior upgrade has been greatly delayed. The MoD, army and the companies involved say some of the delay with Ajax and Warrior has resulted from weaknesses in managing the programmes. Both the Warrior and Challenger programmes are yet to receive ‘main gate’ approval – they must do so if they are to be fully funded. And even if approval is forthcoming, it is unlikely that the first modernised vehicles will enter service before 2025.
Further modernisation aims for the 3rd Division were set out in the 2015 SDSR. Two ‘strike brigades’ were to be formed to complement the retention of two of the three armoured infantry brigades. The new formations would include two mechanised infantry battalions equipped with new wheeled APCs (Boxer). An armoured cavalry regiment optimised for reconnaissance and a medium-armour regiment would both be equipped with the Ajax family of tracked scout vehicle, replacing the Scimitar. Ajax has been funded, with the first unit receiving its vehicles in 2020, albeit with production difficulties delaying delivery of the scout variant. Boxer is on contract, with the first vehicles to be delivered in 2023. However, delivery will be slow − spread over a decade. Although the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has tasked the army with examining options to accelerate delivery of Boxer, there is no evidence that extra funds are being allocated to achieve this.
Over or undermatch
When asked if, in 2025, a British war-fighting division will be capable of ‘overmatching the forces of a peer opponent such as Russia’, Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin replied ‘absolutely’. This assessment runs counter to the MoD’s own evidence. This is illustrated by the graphic below, which compares the anti-armour and artillery capabilities of the 3rd Division − as required by the 2015 SDSR − with an IISS assessment of the capabilities found in the Russian Army’s 4th tank division and the ‘reduced division’ that now represents the limited capability that the British Army could mobilise in 2025. It is highly likely that a Russian tank division would overmatch this much weaker British formation.
The NATO Summits of 2016 and 2018 saw member states commit to improving NATO’s ability to deter and reinforce, along with a renewed emphasis on the involvement of armoured forces in both tasks. The US and Germany are growing their armoured forces, as are Estonia and Lithuania. In this context, the near halving of British divisional combat power in the short term will be hard to explain to these countries and to other NATO allies. It may particularly disappoint the Pentagon and the US Army. This will reduce the influence of the British Army within the Alliance.
Speaking in his recent Christmas address, UK Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter said that the army will in future provide an ‘agile manoeuvre division’ to NATO. He said ‘the Army will undergo its most comprehensive modernisation since the 1980s era of Air Land. It will become better able to fight at reach, with layered target acquisition and precision fires; its air defence capability will be markedly improved’. Other than stating that the tank was not obsolete, however, he did not mention armoured warfare.
Carter’s goal would appear difficult to reach in the near term, given that it would require more rapid modernisation of the army’s armoured vehicles than is currently planned. And while there is an uptick in UK defence spending, much is assigned to maritime, air, space and cyber capabilities. Funds for army modernisation will be finite.