Review, renew, repeat

The British Army’s regular rounds of restructuring has left the force fractured, with a lack of firepower, armoured vehicles, and core strength to conduct high intensity combat. Richard Thomas examines whether another rethink could yield better results.

Change is not something that the British Army is a strange to, rather the force likely eyes it with the wary gaze of an organisation that has been asked to morph into a variety of shapes, none of which is it ever given the tools and personnel required to do so.

One can take the long view on this, but two recent examples will suffice: the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and the 2021 Integrated Review and accompanying Defence Command Paper. Between these documents, armoured vehicle programmes have been initiated, cancelled, extended, expended, at eye-watering cost, while personnel numbers have been driven ever downwards.

The Strike Brigades of 2015 morphed into the Brigade Combat Teams of 2021, with lessons being learned during the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia threatening another rewrite of the 2021 document. It is possible that 2023 could bring a Version 2 of the 2021 IR and DCP, or perhaps Version 3, if one considers the 2015 SDSR to be the first iteration of a never-ending cycle of change.

Museum pieces

The British Army, as the world nears the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, is still operating vehicles from the 1980s. This is relatively normal for roles such as logistics or non-frontline operations, but its Warrior fleet hail from the mid-to-late 1980s, with the Warrior Capability Sustainment (CSP) programme intended to breathe new life into an old frame. However, Warrior CSP was cancelled, and the platform is expected to soldier on, obsolete on the battlefield, until the end of this decade as it is slowly replaced by the 8x8 Boxer platform.

Another, perhaps most interesting, option being explored by the UK MoD is through the marriage of its Brimstone missile to a simple but effective firing platform, such as a flatbed truck or similar vehicle

The main battle tank of the British military, the Challenger 2, is similarly suffering obsolescence issues, having seen little in terms of development since entering since in the late-1990s. The plan for a Challenger Life Extension Programme will see just 148 of the current fleet of the more than 200 still in service upgraded to the Challenger 3 designation. A new turret and main gun, improved power, and upgraded sensors point to a cost-effective evolution of the Challenger platform, but it is not a long-term solution with an expected out-of-service (OSD) in the early-2040s.

The AS90 155mm self-propelled artillery entered service in 1992, with less than 100 still operational. Meanwhile, the FV430 family of armoured vehicles past their half-century of service long since, first being utilised by the British Army in the 1960s.

At all points in the British Army, old platforms are being asked to continue long after they should have been consigned to various museums through a combination of lack of finances, ubiquitous changes in concepts of operations, and programmatic failures. A move towards mobility with Strike became something more akin to the combined arms and wheeled operations exemplified by the US Marine Corps.

Efforts to introduce modern platforms, as seen with the ongoing struggles with the Ajax programme, have been met with little success.

Playing the long game?

However, operations in Ukraine have taught many a western military a good number of salutary lessons, not least of which is the stark realisation that, despite tactical and strategic failures by Russia, most European countries, if not all, would struggle in a peer conflict. In plain terms, European militaries have no strength in depth in terms of platforms and ammunition and lack the quantity of long-range mobile fires to compete.

//  The UK is planning to literally double-down on its M270 MLRS platforms, although it is searching far and wide for cost-effective options. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

Reading the tea leaves, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) looks like it has taken notice. Recently, a senior British Army official called for the force to be “more lethal” in future, as lessons being learned from the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war and the renewed emphasis on long-range fires looks to shape acquisition and doctrine for years to come.

Lethality, for the British Army, mean medium- and long-range fires from artillery and guided rockets. The AS90 replacement programme has a budget of some £800m to acquire new self-propelled artillery pieces. One of the platforms likely to be in the running is Hanwha’s K9 Thunder system, also recently procured by Poland, which in August secured a $2.4bn deal with the South Korean company.

The UK is also exploring ways to double the number of M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) vehicles in service (currently around 40), including through the reactivation of museum pieces, gate guards, as well as acquiring those in foreign service. Up to six British M270 MLRS have been delivered to Ukraine. Around £250m has been dedicated to the M270 sustainment programme, which will also see the current fleet given a major overhaul and upgrade.

The utility of truck-based solutions

Another, perhaps most interesting, option being explored by the UK MoD is through the marriage of its Brimstone missile to a simple but effective firing platform, such as a flatbed truck or similar vehicle. It should be noted that Brimstone missiles provided to Ukraine by the UK were subsequently mounted to a simple flatbed vehicle and used operationally.

Has the pupil become the master? Potentially. Sources have told Global Defence Technology that the UK MoD is currently pursuing such concepts under a Project Wolfram, although the scale and scope of the programme are not known. What is clear is that flatbed-based solutions for long-range fires and more were clear and present at the recent DVD 2022 at UATC Millbrook, a landmark event for the British Army that drew attendance from dignitaries foreign and domestic, including UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.

A Project Wolfram-esque platform, aimed at delivering the desired effect at lower cost that before, is clearly in the thinking of the British Government, no doubt keen to avoid previous gold-plated failures.

The beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?

The question remains, however, will the UK set itself on a definitive structure for its land forces, or will the cycle of reviews persist as military and political leader’s changes, each perhaps keen to stamp their own individual impression on the British Army.

Renewal is important, vital even, but with a purpose. Renewal for the sake of it does the opposite, as seen with the British Army’s current vehicle fleet, resulting in a lack of direction, which in turn, become inertia, stagnation, and decay.

// Main image: The British Army operates a range of old equipment, including the AS90 self-propelled 155mm howitzer which is supposed to be replaced in the coming years. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright