A very upbeat Mark Lancaster MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, tells us how the British Army is ‘upping its game’. The 21st century division will have more strings to its bow than ‘simply armoured vehicles, strike brigades, and air assault capabilities’ and will involve a new sort of infantryman. All this will be ensured through the ‘Modernising Defence Programme’.
The minister’s post on the Conservative Home website ends: ‘Today, in a new epoch of fast-moving information dangers and rapid developments in Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics, we can’t afford to look in the rear-view mirror and discover we’ve missed our moment. By creating a force fit for the future, our great Armed Forces will know they will have what it takes to outflank any adversary be it on the battlefield or in the virtual world.’
Forgive me for being underwhelmed. Some facts:
The British Army nominally has two divisions. The 3rd Division (don’t ask why just two divisions are called 1st and 3rd) currently has three armoured infantry brigades, each of which comprises a tank regiment, two armoured infantry battalions (in some brigades these are wheeled, not tracked) and two (reserve) dismounted infantry battalions. One of the brigades will change into a ‘strike brigade’ next year. Strike brigades don’t have tanks; they have Ajax, which was designed to be a reconnaissance vehicle and has a 40mm (rather than 120mm) gun and virtually no armour. 3 Div fields fewer than 200 tanks, and that’s it.
The 1st Division has lots of light role infantry – this has no armour and goes to war in the back of a truck, which is an advance on 1939, but not much.
We also have 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is a couple of battalions of paratroopers who may or may not go to war in a helicopter (if the RAF can find any working). Plus a selection of Apache attack helicopters and some artillery (much of which is the obsolete 105mm light gun).
Oh, and we have 77 Brigade (of which, as a reserve officer, Colonel Mark Lancaster MP is the deputy commander) which does intelligence, psychological and cyber warfare.
By comparison, according to Wikipedia the Russian 4th Guards Tank division, based in Smolensk as part of 1 Guards Tank Army, comprises 320 tanks (currently T-80U, soon to be T-14 Armata), 300 BMP-2 (broadly equivalent to the British Warrior) and 142 artillery pieces. And the Russians have rather more than two divisions – their total tank strength is over 5,000. NATO has around 2,000 tanks in Europe – of which some 300 are US (the US has many more tanks, but in a different hemisphere).
The multiple threats Colonel Lancaster sees are not new – we had the Russians, IRA and (briefly) the Argentinians in the 1980s. The need for smart command and control systems is not new. Electronic warfare is not new (although cyber-warfare is). Nor should it be news that God is on the side of the big battalions who can shoot straight, as Voltaire observed.
What is new is the idea that Tommy Atkins with a Nokia is going to be able to knock out Ivan in an Armata. That must be one hell of an app. If that app is, as I suspect, a combination of vapourware and management-speak, what is also not new is that the MoD (and the Army in particular) urgently needs to re-establish the priority of taking and holding ground and re-learn how to conduct manoeuvre warfare (i.e. to use tanks).
The minister claims that ‘We’ve already seen our twenty-first century Division in action [when our NATO reassurance force] deployed to Estonia.’ We deployed a battlegroup (approximately one-tenth of a division). He asserts that our Armed Forces must retain ‘a priceless ability to confront aggression, seize hostile territory, hold it and deny access to the enemy’. That’s not what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The MoD has become jargon-heavy and combat power-light. That is unlikely to impress Vlad, no matter how you spin it.