I have been thinking about the future direction of policy with regard to the Armed Forces and in particular the Army. I am not going touch more than lightly upon the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce as I feel these fall too greatly outside my own areas of knowledge.
My starting point is a comparison of broad numbers. The Regular Army numbers 156,940 with 75,110 reserve personnel for a total of 232,050 at present. This number however conceals the very weak cutting edge of the Army.
In military parlance, the military strength of the Army, also known as “bayonet strength”, is carried in the fighting units. These would be primarily the infantry and armoured regiments, of which the Army has 18 infantry and 14 armoured regiments. Each “regiment” in the British Army is in fact a battalion, so I will be using “battalion” in place of regiment for simplicity.
Sounds reasonable? Well, partially. Normally a wartime division is organised around three brigades, each made up of three to four battalions. This would on the basis of thirty two combat battalions mean two divisions of nine or twelve battalions with a brigade or two to spare.
Sounds reasonable still? In the Cold War, Britain could field four divisions, three of which were armoured (meaning the division had a heavy allocation of main battle tanks) and one infantry division. So on a peacetime establishment, we can still field about half the same field force, though this assumes the whole Army is mobilised.
This is where the first weakness become apparent. The Army has just four tank battalions and a total Challenger 2 strength of 227 vehicles. Not all all of these would be concentrated in the armoured battalions. There are others based with the training battalion of the Armoured Corps. Oh yes, and there are NO replacements for Challenger 2. Each tank destroyed in action is lost permanently.
So, the Army could field two brigades with two armoured battalions each, making one partially armoured division. But doesn’t the Army have 14 armoured battalions?
Yes. But one is actually the training battalion at Bovington. The rest are a mixture of armoured cavalry and light recon battalions. Only the armoured cavalry actually have armoured fighting vehicles, the rest are equipped with Land Rovers, Jackals and the like are not intended for heavy combat.
So, the combat strength of the Army is infantry heavy. This is not such a problem if we only expect to conduct peace-keeping or counter-insurgency combat operations. However, we have seen a resurgence of Russian military aggression since 2014 together with threats to NATO allies in the Baltic states and the Russian Army, though not without its own problems remains a much more tank heavy force (2,562 with 12,000+ in reserve).
While the Russian Army is still largely a conscript force and retains much of the same cultural problems which plagued the Soviet Army (officer-dependent leadership as NCOs are largely non-professional) lowering the combat value of much of the Russian Army units, Russia has deep reserves to draw upon and as noted above much greater armoured strength of numbers.
Open war with Russia remains unlikely, however the danger of open war has been rapidly increasing with Russian aggression. We cannot afford to discount the possibility of a Russian invasion of the Baltic nations or even Poland. This would bring our NATO commitment into play. I’ll discuss possible scenarios later but suffice it here to say that a scenario which sees either Russian occupation of NATO territory or which requires heavy garrisons to deter Russian attacks, would stretch the Army to its limits.
With a battalion constituting 550-750 men, anyone familiar with military history of war between two technologically equivalent foes knows that combat strength rapidly leeches during intensive military operations. Assuming 18 x 750 men, the infantry strength of the Army is 13,500.
Now, engage in a thought experiment. Russia has invaded and occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Polish Army is mobilised and being reinforced by NATO battle-groups from the other member-states.
Do not imagine that NATO could negotiate an end to the war. The purpose of NATO is to deter aggression and the Russian Army would have to be expelled by force. A NATO counter-offensive would have to attack from a line Olsztyn – Cizycko – Suwalki north-eastwards to retake Riga, seal the eastern border as well as securing Narva to retake Tallinn. This would constitute an offensive-drive of 500 km, against at least equal Russian numbers.
Assume the operation is successful but incurs repeated heavy combat for British Army units. The British infantry force (assuming total mobilisation) could take 50-75% casualties from all causes by the time the Baltic states are retaken. This would mean infantry casualties in the order of 6,750 to 10,125 men. The latter figure would mean that the entire Army’s infantry strength, the core of the fighting capability of the entire Army would have been mauled. Entire battalions could be reduced from 6-700 men to less than 100.
Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Intensive combat operations in WW2, Korea and Vietnam all saw casualties in this order.
But remember the Russian preponderance in tank numbers? Let us first count the number of first-rate MBTs in NATO armies.
The British Army has 227 Challenger 2s. The German Army has a current MBT strength of 250 with plans to add another 100 or so Leopard 2 MBTs. The Dutch Army really doesn’t have any MBTs (having borrowed 18 from the German Army). The Belgian Army has none. The Danish Army has 57 Leopard 2. The French Army has 200 Le Clerc MBTs with another 200 in storage.The Italian Army has 200 Ariete MBTs. The Polish Army has 250 Leopard 2s with another 750 T-72 variants, which will not be counted here. We can also add the US Army’s 1,200 M1 Abrams (there are about 6-7,000 older models in storage), so assuming the US Army deploys the bulk of its armoured brigades to Europe, the NATO total field force would be 2,484 MBTs, assuming no stored tanks are mobilised.
But again, we have to make allowances. Not all the European MBT force would be deployed to Poland. Tanks would have to be brought up to operational readiness, which would be a major headache for the German Army, given its low current state of readiness and which may be an issue for all member-states with the possible exception of the USA.
Also, tanks will have to be left behind both to furnish a pool of replacements and to train replacement crews. So, assuming 10% of the European tank force is left out of battle, the NATO army group is left with 2,200+ first-rate MBTs, though it should be noted that approximately 100 of the Polish Leopard 2 fleet are the old A4 model.
We may also have to allow for deployments to other sectors of NATO territory. Removing another 10% leaves a field force of about 2,000 first-rate MBTs. Still good, given that much of the Russian tank force is older Soviet model MBTs, though again these would not be the poor quality rubbish fobbed off on the Iraqis. The late 1980s models of Soviet tanks were much better armed and armoured than NATO expected when the Cold War ended and the Russians have been quietly upgrading their tank fleet.
Remember that there are no Challenger 2 replacements. The British Army would have to either reopen production, if possible or seek foreign-built replacements. I do not know how many tanks Krass-Maffei, the German manufacturer of the Leopard 2 is capable of building per year, but my estimate based upon Leopard 2 deliveries in the 1980s is about 100 per year in peacetime conditions.
The scenario also assumes that either the Russian objective is occupation and a dug-in line of defence along the Polish border. It does not assume a continued Russian offensive into Poland proper. It also assumes that Russian intentions could be detected sufficiently in advance to mobilise and prepare NATO forces, not to defend the Baltic states but to reinforce Poland.
Air superiority is a questionable assumption, given NATO dependence upon the USAF. At best, I believe we would have limited air superiority and may have to conduct a counter-offensive under conditions of air-parity, which would place a great burden upon air-defence systems and units, while accepting the risk not just to combat units on march routes but the vital supply convoys of trucks rolling after the armoured spearheads.
Another question is that of ammunition supply. The British tank fleet has a finite supply of Challenger 2 main-gun rounds as the British factory which manufactured this ammunition has long been closed. Once the ammunition supply has been fired off, it’s gone.
The above assumptions may apply to a degree or in different ways to the Russians. We don’t know the state of Russian logistics, so both sides could be hampered by the absence of wartime economies.
The point is that the British Army with two divisions, one of which is armoured, would be able to give NATO a full-strength effort only once. After that, either the British government would have to consider peace-terms or full-mobilisation of the economy and the manpower-pool which would cause great disruption to the country.
The same is true of all NATO countries, except, perhaps the USA.
Given the Russian ability now to deploy in a matter of less than six weeks forces up to 100,000 men on a state-border, we have to give real thought to turning the Army from a neglected child to a real combat force capable of sustaining an initial period of hard-fighting of up to six months before reserve or new formations can be mobilised, trained and deployed.
The first priority is aim to double the combat strength of the Army. Infantry are relatively easy to train. The same is true of the logistical arm but the armoured force must be expanded from four battalions to sixteen, enough to give two armoured divisions a full-weight of 232 MBTs each in four battalions. All no more than one quarter of the combat battalions can be reserve units, given these will take time to train to efficiency and to recall once war is imminent.
The new armoured divisions will need to be supplemented by infantry-divisions. If war is to take place in the East, there will be a premium upon infantry in heavily forested areas as well as to hold lines of communication. Armoured units should not be tied up in this role.
If there are two regular armoured divisions with two reserve divisions, then there should be the same number of regular infantry divisions but with four reserve infantry divisions. This entails expanding the tank fleet from 204 in four battalions to 928 in sixteen battalions with another 100 for training and another 100 or so for replacement.
The infantry arm would expand from a theoretical 13,500 in 18 battalions to 24 armoured infantry battalions (two per armoured brigade) and a further 54 infantry battalions (three per infantry brigade). This would be an armoured infantry force of 18,000 and an infantry force of 40,500. The infantry arm would total 58,500 men, 22,500 in the regular Army, 36,000 in the Army Reserves.
This calls for a massively expanded budget, just for the Army. The defence budget would have to also accommodate similar expansions and re-equipments in the Navy and Airforce. It would also call for a reform of the MoD, which is long overdue, to return control to the Forces themselves and not the Civil Service.
It would also call, I believe, for the development of a pool of trained manpower in the population. This means we will have to reintroduce a form of national service to reduce the budget and manpower burden on the regular Army. I propose that of the four regular divisions, one armoured and one infantry division be largely manned by national servicemen, leaving two divisions available for immediate overseas deployment.
The Reserve Divisions would manned by those who have completed their national service. Assuming 30,000 young (mostly) young men pass through national service with the Army per year, if these are placed in the Reserves as a part of a national service legislative arrangement for approximately four years after completing a three year national service arrangement, the Army would be amply provided with manpower both active and reserve and in the prime of physical fitness.
If the national service element provides enough young men with a taste for army life, then the Regular Army can be sustained at two full divisions plus the core of the two divisions manned by national servicemen.
Industrial policy will have to subordinated to equipping the Army for war-preparation. This means that we need national defence industries to produce MBTs, AFVs of all types, weapons from rifles to artillery to guided munitions. Above all we need to ensure that we have enough munitions to sustain two divisions in an overseas deployment and a sufficient stock to equip and sustain two more. The Reserve divisions can be supplied out of stepped up war-time production.
NATO states will have to coordinate industrial and procurement policies. Years ago, I wrote about the mess of NATO organisation and defence procurement cooperation. NATO needs radical harmonisation of equipment. I fear for any NATO force in the field given the bewildering variety of spare parts needed for vehicles, the different radio systems and even the different field rations.
Addendum: the Royal Airforce uses the Brimstone air-to-surface missile. Each one costs an average of £135,000 (£100,000 – £175,000 depending if development costs etc are included), which means that a Leopard 2 MBT costing £4,000,000 would be the same as 29 Brimstone missiles. I think a tank is a complementary investment.
This will seem appalling to modern, educated minds but in statecraft, we must face appalling possibilities. The worst of these is war. The only remedy is preparation.
Si vis pacem, para bellum