Closing the Say/Do Gap for UK Land Power

Stepping up preparations: soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh carrying out river crossing drills on Exercise Steadfast Defender in May 2024. Image: Defence Imagery / MOD Crown Copyright News/Editorial Licence

With mounting threats to European security, simple tests can determine the new UK administration’s seriousness on defence.

Although the outcome of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is still in the balance, Ukraine’s defeat would place European security on a grave trajectory. While the new government has indicated that there will be no diminution in the UK’s commitment to supporting war termination on terms favourable to Ukraine, the basic test for whether the government takes defence seriously lies in the steps taken to prepare for an adverse outcome. This can be boiled down to ensuring that the UK’s Armed Forces are contributing to a credible deterrence posture alongside European NATO allies by the end of 2027.

If Russia concludes its operations in Ukraine in 2025, it would likely take it two years to reconstitute its forces such that it can present a threat to European NATO. This accounts for Russia’s mobilised defence industries replenishing critical lost equipment and the time needed to put Russian ground forces through a full training rotation. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has directed that the People’s Liberation Army must be ready to be able to seize Taiwan by 2027. The future security of Europe therefore depends upon NATO countries having a credible conventional deterrent posture in theatre by 2028, in a context where most US capacity is fixed on deterring China from escalating in the Indo-Pacific.

For the RAF, the foremost test of its readiness to contribute to this deterrence posture is its capacity to conduct the suppression and destruction of enemy air defences. Beyond training for this mission set, the deficiency to be addressed is suitable munitions. For the Royal Navy, the priorities are the assurance of the UK’s continuous at sea deterrent, anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, and the protection of sea lanes of communication to include undersea infrastructure. For the British Army, the relevant question is whether it can contribute to a NATO land force that is sufficient to blunt Russian offensive operations against NATO territory.

The refrain of the Ministry of Defence when gaps are highlighted in UK capability is that NATO is an alliance, so the gaps in one member’s capabilities are bought out by the whole. The relevant question, however, is not whether the UK can match Russian ground forces, but whether it can fulfil its own commitments within the NATO plan. In the land domain, there is currently an expanding gap between the UK’s stated commitments and its capacity to deliver against them.

The fundamental question is whether the government is prepared to reconcile its commitments with the resources necessary to make them deliverable

In 2015, the British Army’s headmark output was to be a warfighting division of two heavy and between one and two medium combat brigades, an artillery brigade, an engineering brigade, an air defence group, a logistic brigade and an ISR brigade. The current British Army actually fields half of one heavy brigade’s worth of equipment, split between two, and one regiment of artillery. Even in 2015, the enablers for the warfighting division were scarce. Today, it takes 70% of the division’s enablers to sustain one brigade in the field. As former Chief of the General Staff Nick Carter testified to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, the ability to generate a credible warfighting division proposed during the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review was premised on fielding an Army of 82,000. The Army has since been reduced to around 72,500.

Despite this trajectory of decline, the UK has not curtailed but has instead expanded its stated commitment to NATO. Today, the UK promises to provide a UK Strategic Reserve Corps. A corps is formed of a minimum of two divisions, plus corps echelon troops that collectively amount to a third division’s worth of equipment, such that the UK’s commitment to NATO has in effect tripled. With one UK brigade already committed to Estonia, the actual forces available for this corps appear to consist of one under-strength brigade which is short of enablers, and a deep recce-strike brigade double-hatted as both the divisional and corps fires group. It is fashionable to suggest that the value of this corps lies in the fact that the UK is likely more willing to be deployed at the point of attack earlier than some other NATO countries. But since the lack of troops in the formation is glossed over by reference to its multinational character, the commitment of the corps is not a UK sovereign decision.

The fundamental question, therefore, is whether the government is prepared to reconcile its commitments with the resources necessary to make them deliverable. There is a credible path towards fielding a sovereign division within the parameters of spending currently announced. Building towards a corps in the longer term may be viable, but will require a significant increase in expenditure and procured equipment, with substantial alterations to policy.

Even with the ambition of a fully capable division, the British Army must ruthlessly prioritise if it is to be competitive within the timeframe available. The priorities can be framed simply as: firepower, enablement, readiness and resilience.

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In wargame after wargame – confirmed by the actual data from Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and Gaza – it has been shown that a force’s ability to win fights without taking unacceptable losses is intimately tied to the organic firepower in a given echelon. The British Army has suffered from a thinning of its close combat capabilities. If it is to be made ready to credibly fight then the level of firepower – and thus lethality – available to the company, and the concentration of firepower in the divisional artillery group, must be increased substantially. This is achievable. The UK has a large number of multiple launch rocket systems. Now it must have the munitions to make these an actual warfighting capability. There are also tactical problems that must be solved for the Army to be ready to go to war. Foremost among these is a counter-uncrewed aerial systems capability across all echelons. If this is not in place, the force is not ready to fight.

The second priority must be to invest in enablement: logistics, engineering, medical, bridging and transport. There is no point having forces if they cannot be deployed and sustained. Ukraine’s failure in its summer 2023 offensive was in part a product of committing units with insufficient critical equipment for breaching. No amount of staff competence or cunning will get a force out of a lack of enablement proportionate to its deployed forces. If it is not enabled, it will become fixed and unable to execute complex tactical deployments.

The third priority must be readiness. The British Army has become overburdened by bureaucratic processes that constitute massive barriers to getting onto training areas and exercising. The bureaucratic burden – and institutional risk – shouldered by captains and majors on Regimental duties is terrible for both retention and the efficiency with which the force can get out, experiment, take risks and learn. Although Operation MOBILISE has made progress in ensuring the appropriateness of how the British Army is trained, a root-and-branch audit of process is required to prevent procedural duplication and remove barriers to the force spending time on its equipment.

Deterring Russia is not just a question of demonstrating that its forces can be blunted on the first day, but convincing the Kremlin that Russia’s prospects will not get any better over time

Finally, the UK should expand upon recent foundations to ensure industrial resilience. If the British Army goes to war, new equipment will quickly be required to replace damaged vehicles and equip new troops. Ammunition – desperately needed in Ukraine today – will need to be replenished continuously. There is little point building a larger ammunition factory if the UK cannot assure supply of explosive energetics and other raw materials to keep it working during the disruption that is likely in war. Thus, industrial resilience must account for the entire supply chain. Deterring Russia is not just a question of demonstrating that its forces can be blunted on the first day, but convincing the Kremlin that Russia’s prospects will not get any better over time.

As regards the British Army, therefore, the credibility of the new government’s proposals to meet the threat about which there is a general political consensus can be subjected to five tests. First, does the resources allocated match the scale of military output committed to? Second, do procurement plans increase the lethality of UK units at echelon? Third, does investment in enablement match the size of force that is to be generated? Fourth, will proposals increase the administrative efficiency and increase the number of days spent training? And finally, is the UK investing in the industrial resilience needed to ensure the force can sustain the fight and regenerate a second echelon? Failing these tests will be read by allies and adversaries as a demonstration that the UK does not mean what ministers and shadow ministers have been repeatedly saying.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Jack Watling

Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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