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The incredible shrinking Army (apart from the generals)


ANOTHER month, another announcement from the MoD about the great way forward for the Army – which keeps getting smaller. Last week’s offering was called Future Soldier and is a typical jargonfest with lots of pictures of military kit, some bewildering organisational structures and a commitment to create a Ranger brigade. You can read it here (although you might lose the will to live). The short version is that the Army thinks it can do more with fewer soldiers, which led to the Daily Express noticing that one of the results will be a reserve unit supplying troops for ceremonial duties, which is more or less a first.  

Public duties, such as providing the guards at the various palaces plus big parades such as the Queen’s Birthday Parade (also known as Trooping the Colour) is the role of the Household Division, which comprises the Household Cavalry and the Brigade of Guards. These troops have war-fighting commitments too and it is not unknown for other regiments to cover for them from time to time to ease the burden. The ‘new’ reserve regiment seems to me to be a sensible step, although it’s really an indication that the Army (particularly the infantry) has problems in recruitment and retention that it can no longer mask owing to its ever-diminishing size.

The Army’s future complement of 73,000 is less than half what it was at the end of the Cold War in 1990. Then the Army had three complete armoured divisions, an infantry division (note, not the same as a division of infantry) at high readiness (able to deploy for war in just six hours) committed to Germany as part of Nato. It had a further three brigades in Northern Ireland on constant operations against terrorists, plus a couple of other brigades for other Nato tasks, one in Hong Kong and several battalions spread across the globe. (Very roughly, one division is three brigades, one brigade is three battalions.)

Today’s Army has no credible division (although it has three divisional headquarters and a Field Army HQ, for reasons that escape me). Jobs for the generals springs to mind.

In terms of combat power the Army has two light brigade combat teams (dismounted infantry). There is a security force assistance brigade whose units are (I quote) ‘routinely deployed around the world, contribute to conflict prevention and resilience at an early stage’.

There are two armoured brigade combat teams and a deep recce strike brigade combat team. Oh, and a special operations brigade (the Rangers) and, of course, an air assault brigade combat team. On over half the manpower of the Cold War army it delivers less than one third of the combat power. That’s not value for money.

There is very little increase in capability through new equipment, for the simple reason that most of the combat equipment is the same. Yes, Challenger 2 is more capable than Challenger 1, and Challenger 3 will add a bit more. But it’s not game-changing and does not compensate for the fact that just one 1990s armoured brigade had more tanks that the entire regular British Army has today. (Those who cling to the belief that tanks are not important should look at the Russian Army, or, if you’re feeling really brave, the Chinese one).

Connoisseurs of what passes for British military thought may recall that back in 2020 the Army was pinning its future on strike brigades. They no longer exist. The latest big new idea is ‘Rangers’.

These soldiers, who are – it seems – not special forces, will be highly qualified operators selected to learn appropriate languages and work alongside allies, joining them in combat if necessary. It’s a nice idea, and perhaps central to the new strategic imperative of ‘compete’ – rightly introduced by General Sir Nick Carter (who retired this week). But it’s not straightforward; if you remove some of the highest qualified soldiers from line regiments, how do you maintain quality? Which languages do you teach people, and how many superb soldiers did not join the Army because they were gifted linguists?

Oh, and which friendly nations have asked for their support? Who decides when they deploy, and when they can fight? How will wounded Rangers get to medical cover (and are we deploying that too – it’s not in the slide show)?

How is it we have three divisional headquarters, but no deployable divisions? What is the point of a Field Army HQ, which seems simply to command the non-deploying divisions? Why do the brigade combat teams include neither support (artillery and engineer) nor logistics – all of which have been grouped into their own brigades? Why is the much-talked-about cyber capability tied to the Field Army HQ, not the combat units? What provisions exist for supporting Ranger battalions on the other side of the world? What happened in the past two years to transform Strike from the future to a historic footnote?

Above all, why am I the only person asking these questions? Where’s the Select Committee? Where are the mainstream defence correspondents?

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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