The British Army’s role in defending NATO’s Eastern Border


This post summarised some of the evidence Dr Chin gave to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on the British Army and SDSR 15 in October. A recording  of the session is available here.

SDSR 15 acknowledged the increased threat posed by Russia to NATO and made clear its intention to deter any future Russian aggression. Most interesting is the role assigned to the British army which may be called upon to fight and defeat Russian forces. The British army’s thinking on this issue seems to contain echoes of the Cold War on the central European front in that our conception of defence rests on being able to fight a combined arms battle employing armour, infantry and artillery supported by airpower. As then, we face the problem of how to fight outnumbered and win with the added complication NATO is unlikely to have control of the air domain and the army lacks any integrated air defence capability. As in the past, we have also fallen back on a traditional western solution to ensure ends, ways and means are in balance, which is to employ technology as a force multiplier so that quantity is overmatched by quality. A number of questions arise regarding this approach.

First a great deal seems to depend on the successful acquisition of the Ajax armoured vehicle and the family of related tracked vehicles. However, the history of British weapons acquisition does not inspire confidence this programme will be delivered on time and to cost. A good example of the kind of technical problems that could be encountered is the recently cancelled FRES programme, which appears to contain many of the same technical features. The current CGS emphasised that a great deal of thought was being invested in this programme:`we are building the capability in a methodical and deliberate fashion over time, as this equipment rolls off the production line. Rather like we did in the 1930s, the idea is to test it to destruction and to experiment with it, in the same we did with the mechanisation of of force in the 1930s, so that we get the doctrine and the concept right.’ However, whilst I agree the UK did play a leading role in experimenting with armour in the inter war period and that by the start of the Second World War it was the most mechanised army in the world, we also need to take note of the fact that this still resulted in the production of tanks which were poorly armed and protected and the adoption of a divisional organisation and doctrine which was deeply flawed to the point that it was still being changed in the midst of battle in summer 1944. My point is that the successful introduction of technology is due to many factors some of which are beyond the control of the army and this could inhibit the success of the Ajax programme.

A second concern relates to the belief that combat power can be best articulated via the division. Gen Nick Carter explained:`The rise of state on state threat post 2012 made it important that the UK be able to deploy war fighting division.’ The justification given for focusing on this formation is that, like an aircraft carrier, it has a range of capabilities and it is where the orchestra comes together – `it is where all the capabilities that you need to compete in the state-on-state space happen.’ In his view, the possession of a division provides a metric to your friends and enemies about your power in the land domain about how powerful you are. There are two points I would make here. First, aircraft carriers are high value assets and extremely vulnerable in the modern battle space and because of this are unlikely to be deployed in the forward edge of battle – something a division might have to do if the data links between it and its remote theatre HQ do not work or are hacked. Second, in an age of fiscal austerity we need to think more boldly about how we organise and use military power and I am not certain enough thought has been given to this matter in the land domain. We also need to remember this formation dates back to the Seven Years War which begs the question why in the twenty-first century do we still need an organisational structure which really grew out of the requirements of warfare over two hundred years ago. In other forms of human activity technology is supposedly leading to flatter and more decentralised command structures, where power is devolved to the lowest levels of decision making.

One might argue that this trend can be accommodated within a divisional structure and that might indeed be the case. However, let us not forget that one of the reasons we introduced a divisional command structure into Afghanistan in the latter part of the war was to centralise rather decentralise command and control. Finally, whilst the division remained part of the orbat of some western armies in the post Cold War, the brigade seemed to rise in importance and I think became the most important unit of currency for a time at least. I raise this question because there are those who assert the covert goal of creating a war fighting division has a lot to do with protecting the army from the prospect of further cuts; a division is between 10,000 and 20,000 strong, and because of the teeth to tail ratio of modern armies will require at least a similar number if not more to keep it operational in battle. In essence we need to be bolder and more radical in our efforts to address this security challenge.

Image: UK Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicles on Exercise in Poland, November 2014, via flickr

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