The Long and Winding Road: Army 2020

Size is not everything as the British Army announces reductions in personnel. Though sheer quantity is certainly not irrelevant, the numbers in the Regular Army are rather less important than the structure, training and equipment that it embraces.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director General, RUSI

The immediate comments about the unveiling of Army 2020 are inevitably about cuts to Army formations.  The emotions that surround cap badges are intrinsic to making the regimental system as remarkable as it is, but they can also disguise the fact that throughout history the size of the Army has ballooned up and down as it has evolved and periodically remade itself. The Army's most successful phases normally followed structural change and reform; its disasters have almost always followed a period when tradition has been given undue respect.

Of course, Army 2020 is set in the national context of public expenditure cuts, but it is about much more than that.  It is about re-designing the Army, not just for the years after Afghanistan, but for the new years facing us that will be times of disorder, interdependence and technological novelty.  It would be nice if the Regular Army could remain at a 100,000 in this re-structuring, but the country does not choose to spend more than around 2 per cent of its GDP on defence, so it cannot.  Though sheer quantity is certainly not irrelevant, the numbers in the Regular Army are rather less important than the structure, training and equipment that it embraces.

Configuring an Adaptable Force

Army 2020 is designed to give the country a rapid-reaction brigade that can kick the door in if the need arises, and an 'adaptable force' and supporting elements who, if necessary, can precede its operations, back it up, and do a range of other training and support jobs that will be increasingly important in the coming era.  The Army would have to think in similar terms anyway in the circumstances of the next decade and Lieutenant General Nick Carter (the Army 2020 Team Leader) has done a good job in putting the British Army's conceptual thinking some way ahead of its allies and counterparts. 

The UK aims to be a model for smaller forces; able to deliver a real punch while broadening the base of the non-combat work to which Armed Forces can contribute.  If the ability to deliver such a punch gives the British Army respect and prestige in the world, the adaptable force element should be able to make the most of it in political terms and buy the UK some valuable diplomatic credit.  UK Armed Forces want to create some existential deterrence - if the UK comes to visit your part of the world, you will certainly notice - but also to derive from that the political gains that such respect can win.  It is a bold and imaginative design and for the UK it is the right road to travel.

A Long Road to Transition

But it is also likely to be a long and winding road.  It will be a long road because there is much to do between now and 2020.  There is another Strategic Defence and Security Review coming up by 2015 and many other decisions from other elements of the UK's Armed Forces to be factored into the progress the Army is making.  And the long road may turn out to be even longer if the economy does not recover, or if the Eurozone collapses, and current plans across the defence establishment are shunted further to the right.  It will not be surprising if the 2020 vision gets a bit blurred and drifts towards a 2023 or 2025 vision.

The road is also liable to be winding, because the Army's design is predicated on integrating a rejuvenated Reserve Force into the structure, building new bases to accommodate the 20,000 troops coming back from Germany, finding money to introduce new kit into the force, and getting equipment in Afghanistan that was procured under the urgent operational requirements framework back home and into the core programme. 


A good deal of the equipment the Army now needs - upgraded Warrior, the Scout vehicle, a new utility vehicle, and upgraded Challenger 2 tanks - is not fully funded in the programme and that will be a priority. More complex will be the task of creating Territorial Army (TA) reserves with a 'trained strength' of 30,000 by about 2018. The TA will be intrinsic to the operation of the adaptable force (maybe 30 per cent) and TA personnel are expected to make up around 10 per cent of the strength of the reaction force.  New legislation will certainly be needed next year, and even more difficult, a new relationship with employers will have to be developed where they buy into the Territorial Army's expanding training requirements.

Any one of these issues has the potential to make the road to 2020 much more difficult. But it is unquestionably the right way to go. Of course, those near the top of the force and those who have now retired or left the Army feel the sort of cuts announced this week in a very personal way. That is natural. But armies are predominantly about young people, trained to a professional standard. And the task for the British Army is to articulate a vision of its future that will engage and motivate the young men and women who are now serving and the next generation of those who will also serve. The Army should not only seek to represent the best of our society; it should seek also to represent what we aspire to be as a society and in the world. Yes, the road will be long and winding, but Army 2020 sets off at a decent pace and facing the right way.  



Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content