Army 2020: Fighting for the future

A soldier of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards is pictured between operations at the main operating base at Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. (Photo by Cpl Paul Morrison RLC © UK MOD/Crown Copyright 2012).

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

The most radical army shakeup since the end of national service has the potential to transform our capability

The British army’s restructuring has been preceded by intense speculation about the identity of infantry battalions and cavalry regiments to be disbanded. Although this part of “Army 2020″ has attracted much comment and lobbying in parliament, it is in many ways the least interesting part of an ambitious and surprisingly radical programme of re-organisation re-equipment, restructuring and re-basing.

The October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review reduced UK defence spending by 8%, resulting in 20% to 30% reductions in Royal Air Force and Royal Navy capabilities. The review also required the armed forces to do less, by reducing the size and speed of deployment of forces on overseas operations.

The Ministry of Defence initially envisaged that the size of the Army would not greatly reduce whilst British operations continued in Afghanistan. But by July last year the MoD’s efforts to balance its budget required cutting the army’s size from 102,000 to 82,000 people over the next five years – making it inevitable that famous battalions, regiments and cap-badges would disband. This required a major redesign exercise, which was based on previous plans to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by 2015 and to close the British bases in Germany. It drew on many of the lessons of the Iraq and Afghan wars as well as emerging British and US thinking about the nature of future conflict, judging that forces which combined the characteristics of both a conventional army and a guerrilla force represent the most challenging of future opponents.

So the first echelon of the army is to be a “reaction force” – at the centre of which will be a division of three armoured infantry brigades. These will be heavy forces with a mixture of Challenger tanks and armoured infantry in Warrior fighting vehicles. They are for hard fighting against both conventional and “hybrid” enemies, including in urban areas, as well as challenging peace enforcement missions. There will be a complementary “adaptable force” of partnered regular and reserve infantry and light cavalry regiments. New thinking sees this force as a primary tool for UK military assistance and training to other countries, as well as support to the civil authorities for UK emergencies. There are reductions in regular artillery, engineer and logistic units. But some innovative new organisations include grouping together previously disparate intelligence gathering units into a single new intelligence and surveillance brigade. And a new “security assistance group” will not only keep alive the lessons from developing Iraqi and Afghan forces, but also to be the Army’s focus for engagement overseas by acting as a repository of reconstruction, language and cultural experts for overseas engagements.

But as the regular army reduces, on its own it will be able to do less. So much greater use is to be made of its reserves, both the Territorial Army and the regular reserve of former soldiers. Both have contributed up to 10% of the troops on stabilisation operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the army now envisages a greatly increased role for them.

This requires the Army to reverse two decades of relative neglect of its reserves and more than double the capability of the TA. Reservists will be expected to do significantly more and more often. So, as well as the additional £1.5bn allocated to rebuilding reserve capability over the next decade, there will have to be a significant cultural change in employers, reserves and regular army, plus new legislation. This presents one of the greatest risks to restructuring.

The other significant risk is the army’s people. Although a redundancy programme has started, a further 12,000 redundancies are required by 2020. As most of those who would volunteer for redundancy have already done so,at least 10,000 are likely to be made compulsorily redundant – not only when the army has to finish its war in Afghanistan but also when there are bleak economic prospects. Despite a generous redundancy and retraining package, this pill cannot be sugar-coated for those affected and their families.

The last decade’s wars acted as powerful recruiting sergeants and provided a real challenge for those who sought to prove themselves on operations. But there is now the danger that decreasing opportunities and increasing pressure from families will make it more difficult to retain the combat-hardened talent the army needs.

Given the 20% reduction target, however, it is difficult to see a credible alternative plan. Taken as a whole, Army 2020 is an imaginative and radical series of initiatives that not only creates new organisations but envisages using both new and existing organisations in new ways. It is perhaps the most radical reorganisation of the army since the end of national service 50 years ago, and has the potential to genuinely transform the army’s capability – provided that it is properly led, managed, resourced and politically supported.

This post originally appeared in the Guardian


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