29 Nov 21. Claimed by the MOD PR machine to be the largest transformation of the Army for over twenty years, the MOD blurb has it that Future Soldier’ will see the Army become more integrated, agile, expeditionary and lethal. Not before time I hear you say but is the reality far more similar in context to what someone yesterday described as being – smoke and mirror against a background of making the Army even smaller?
Amongst many proposals contained within ‘Future Soldier’ is creation of a ‘Ranger Regiment’ and also, reversing another of the crass decisions made in SDSR 2010, new plans for the Army to return to Germany.
As a concept clearly aligned to that of ‘Special Forces’ I have absolutely no issue with what has been announced in regard of the Rangers. Even so and having read the many different arguments over the weekend, I know that there are many that have seen decision as merely being some kind of re-invention of the Parachute Infantry. Such arguments can easily be supported through confirmation that the new Rangers units are a rebadging exercise of other units.
The plan has certain merit but what it doesn’t do is face up to the reality of forcing the Army to stop clinging to history as the route to success. By that I mean the Secretary of State has steered clear of making changes to the system of infantry, cavalry, regiments and so on. One of the big troubles of having so many regiments is that repetition in respect if training.
Rarely straying into Army affairs as has long been my fashion and admiring many views expressed by Nicholas Drummond over the years, I am mindful of an excellent article he wrote 18 months ago in which he suggested that “the British Army’s Regimental System is often acknowledged as one of its greatest strengths, the source of an extraordinary esprit de corps that persuades soldiers to give their utmost in the most extreme of circumstances. But” he said “it has also been criticised as one of its greatest weaknesses, an outdated institution that’s irrelevant in a modern age, an extravagant waste of money and a barrier to innovation”.
The Army today consists of 46 regular regiments plus a number of Reserve and Overseas Territories regiments or defence forces. Regimental members see them as families and as reflecting the best way that Army units could be structures and organised, build and strengthen identities, recruitment and retention and forge very necessary bonds. But, having large numbers of regiments can and does also increase the possibility of rivalries forming,
The cost of maintaining so many different and distinct regiments must be enormous but while most often succeeding, it is brave Secretary of State that dares to venture into the possibility of cutting the number of regiments. That said, numbers of regiments have been effectively halved over the past thirty years – so too has the number of Army personnel numbers.
These are the words written of Baroness Goldie, Minister of State House of Lords to put out in relation to Future Soldier:
“The Army of the future must adapt even more radically if it is to adapt to the threats of the future. Let us be clear: those threats are proliferating ones, from increasing humanitarian crises to evermore capable and determined violent extremists and proxy forces, and the ever-present spectre of great power competition. To keep pace with the changing character of warfare, our Army must be forward-looking, adaptable and embracing of new ways of working, as much as new weapons and technologies. Not only must it have the best force structure to counter an ever-growing range of threats to the UK, our people and interests, but it must achieve our ambitions on schedule and in budget.”
And these are the words written for Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace to put his name to:
“Far from being deprived of investment as some claim, we are injecting £41.3 billion into Army equipment and support this decade. That is £8.6 billion more than had been planned prior to the integrated review. We are using those funds to create a modern, innovative and digitised Army. Our future Army will be leaner but more productive, prioritising speed and readiness over mass mobilisation, but still over 100,000 strong, integrating regulars and reserves, as well as all the civil servants and partners from the private sector.”
Of course, an Army is worth nothing without equipment and the ability for it to be moved to where it needs to be. Creating a hybrid unit such as the Rangers further questions the crass decision by Secretary of State Wallace and his outgoing Chief of Defence staff to scrap the RAF C-130J fleet.
Amongst the billions of pounds of equipment and support being spent on the Army as included in Secretary of State Wallace’s statement above presumably includes the £6bn Ajax tracked armoured fighting vehicle – one that may well be scrapped if its problems and failings cannot be resolved. Pity is that Secretary of State for Defence lost an opportunity to admit that they were wrong to stop the Warrior IFV upgrade and reverse another very bad decision announced in the Integrated Review process.
Still, at least the Army will soon have 523 Boxer 8 x 8 multi-role armoured vehicles – proven capability that although wheeled rather than tracked provides excellent flexibility and mobility and that unlike Ajax, is far from being regarded as a botched procurement exercise with GD of parts being manufactured in Spain and glued together in South Wales.
So is Future Soldier smoke and mirrors, a quick decision made by Secretary of State to counters the enormous level of negativity surrounding the modern day Army, what it is there for and what it needs to be, or is it really a way forward to re-establishing the Army where it needs to be in respect of all aspects of UK defence?
The truth is probably that although this plan is hardly that radical or transformational. it is a positive start to a process of change and recognition that the future for British Army operation needs to be very different to the past.
CHW (London – 29th November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785