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Despite the SDSR lacking any major procurement decisions for the army, headlines of ‘Rapid Strike Force to Fight ISIS’ still hit Monday’s tabloid front pages. Those newly announced brigades will not be ‘smashing’ anyone this decade – as some articles claimed – and would be of questionable utility in such operations anyway. Nevertheless, this dramatised re-brigading helped ensure a red tinge to the SDSR ‘good news’ headlines.
For the army, the SDSR was not about new capability investment but rather government endorsement for several of its long-term visions (lacking mature staffing, it is hard to call them much more) that have steadily emerged under the current Chief of the General Staff: most prominently, a green light for operationalising the Land Joint Strike concept; the significance and ambition of operating at divisional level; an emphasis on agility for broadening utility, in everything from international defence engagement to high-end war-fighting; rebuilding readiness; and a nod to the ‘information manoeuvre’ of ‘integrated action’, with references made to the specialist formations for counter hybrid warfare and non-lethal effects.
Land Joint Strike now has a force structure around which to develop, but much is yet to be done to articulate let alone achieve its desired end state. More substantially, claims about the Ajax vehicle’s inter-theatre reach, low logistical drag and ISR dominance must now be matched by doctrinal developments on what they mean for operational employment, whether against non-state adversaries or, more likely, in countering peer state anti-access area denial.
This leads, in turn, to questions about sustainment, air-land integration, and physical readiness from forward deployment (given the indefinite absence of sufficient strategic airlift). This must then be co-ordinated with simultaneously bringing into service a mechanised infantry vehicle offering complementary capabilities (overcoming the troubled FRES legacy); doing so before the first brigade is fully Ajax-equipped in late 2020 is almost unimaginable, but then maintaining the operational readiness mechanism with two Reaction Force brigades at readiness will be similarly challenging. The Strike Brigades’ manpower will, reportedly, be less intensive than for other formations, but needs sourcing from a redistribution of the redundant armoured infantry brigade and another within the Adaptable Force; additional savings from specialisations elsewhere could provide a cap-badge-protected, politically palatable manpower remedy to the ‘hollowing’ of Army 2020.
The army as a strategic instrument
It will be needed, as Joint Force 2025 envisages increases in deployable numbers to 50,000, with a roughly 40,000-strong land component, firmly putting the ‘UK’ back into 3 (UK) Division. The ambition is no longer for a command-and-control node into which allies plug their brigades alongside Britain’s, but a truly sovereign strategic military instrument together with carrier strike and the nuclear deterrent. Of course, the divisional concept remains integrated and scalable, but now ‘best effort’ would require the army to deliver a personal best, with a land force larger than those which it provided for the invasions of Iraq and equivalent to half of its total regular personnel.
Alongside this reinvigorated, conventional war-fighting aspiration run several unconventional adaptations for ensuring agility at the other end of the spectrum of conflict – with defence engagement and counter-terrorism both featuring prominently. Special infantry battalions – rank-heavy and significantly smaller in size – will be established in reflection of today’s Iraq operations, although it is unclear how far their tasks will stretch from training host-nation forces to fighting alongside them as ‘counter-terrorism’ operations (as implied in the White Paper); certainly, training, advising and assisting partners would be greatly advantaged by also accompanying them. Closer to home, the vast majority of the 10,000 military personnel earmarked for emergency response will continue to be drawn from the army. It is unclear from which formations these are, already, being drawn or at what readiness levels they are held and the implications for their collective training, but it is clear that they, rightly, provide nothing more than a nationwide supply of co-ordinated and disciplined manpower, in support of the civil authorities, only called upon when required in manpower-intensive emergencies, from flooding to terrorism.
But it is the assured provision of such trained, disciplined and determined personnel that is at the heart of all land capability, central to everything the army does and will do in the future. In this regard there is less aspirational news (stand-fast welcome inclusivity targets and career specialisations); there is a limit to which the logic of ‘maximising talent’ while also minimising the cost of that talent can be stretched. Admittedly, few details of the personnel, pay and allowances measures are currently public, but it is hard to see how enduring (increasing, even) fiscal pressures will not impact on the cohesion and deployability of the Army. The SDSR has rubber stamped the Army Board’s direction of travel, but it must now refine the details of its route there – and be sure to take its people with it along the way.
Pete Quentin is a Research Fellow for Land Warfare at RUSI.
*Header image: Crown copyright 2014