Back in February 2017, TMT reported on the changes to the Army 2020 plans after they were circulated in response to the 2015 SDSR. SDSR referred to the British Army plan called Army 2020 drawn up between 2010 and 2015 by the coalition government; the Army plan was then part of Future Force 2020.
The basis of Future Force 2020 was a document called Joint Concept Note 2/12, Future Land Operating Concept, issued in May 2012 and endorsed by the then CGS. Today, a search reveals that document is “archived” and has been replaced by JCN 1/17 which “is for MOD personnel only and will no longer be available via GOV.UK”.
Many were a bit concerned that the new level of secrecy was merely covering up a state of “flexibility”, bordering on indecision, as far as future plans were concerned. Those suspicions seem to be borne out by events that followed, as well as an almost complete lack of consensus among informed observers about where the Army was heading.
In a booklet called “SDSR 2015, Defence Key Facts”, issued shortly after the SDSR was published, reference was made to a new plan called Joint Force 2025. The booklet was assumed to present a series of headline facts and figures to allow the public to see where the UK was heading in terms of its defence capabilities (MOD publication: SDSR 2015 Defence Key facts).
Defence Key Facts is in fact somewhat confusing. As mentioned, a cursory glance would indicate it is a summary of what the Forces might look like in 2025 as it starts by giving figures for overall MOD defence spending and refers to a raft of new equipment being introduced to fight future wars. It then moves seamlessly to a list of the capabilities expected of each of the services within a Joint Force 2025. But it is only then that you realise that Joint Force 2025 was, in fact, a loose description of the sort of force that the UK would want to be capable of deploying as a cohesive fighting force – whether as a single nation or part of an alliance (NATO, UN etc.)
Consisting of up to 50,000 personnel, a Joint Force 2025 contingent would consist of some, or all, of:
A Maritime Task Group of around 10-25 ships and 4,000 to 10,000 personnel
An Army division of 3 brigades and supporting functions of around 30 – 40,000 personnel
Air Group of around 4-9 combat aircraft squadrons, 6-20 surveillance platforms and 5-15 transport aircraft and 4,000 to 10,000 personnel
Joint Forces, including enablers and headquarters, of around 2,000 to 6,000 personnel
It turned out that Joint Force 2025 was something of stab-in-the-dark at what the British Army would have to be capable of deploying in order to provide an aiming point for the Army planners – and perhaps to prepare the public for radical changes that could include some well-disguised spending cuts.
After SDSR 2015 was published, the British Army started to look at the implications for its Army 2020 plans as part of what it then called “Future Army Plans”. However, this was further modified to become “Army 2020 Refine”. This looked at the whole of the Army, but especially its fighting brigades which needed to be equipped to deal with the changing nature of likely future operations in the light of the Afghan Campaign and the evolving battle against the likes of IS.
(It would be wrong to characterise any of these plans necessarily involving tearing up the previous ideas and starting again; instead, one can imagine harassed staff-officers being told to go back and rethink the previous plan – but with more emphasis on this or that new requirement.)
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These were some of the early outline aims of the British Army Refine project:
- Creation of two new “Strike Brigades”, to be formed by the re-roling of an Armoured Infantry brigade and an Infantry brigade. These will be formed by 2025, comprising 5,000 personnel each, equipped with Ajax vehicles.
- The UK’s deployable warfighting division will, by 2025, comprise two armoured infantry brigades and a strike brigade.
- Creation of a Specialised Infantry Group, to be formed by re-roling 4 infantry battalions.
- Two innovative brigades will be established, comprising a mix of regulars and specialist capabilities from the reserves, that are able to contribute to strategic communications, tackle hybrid warfare and deliver better battlefield intelligence.
Under the original Army 2020 plans, there were to be two divisions of roughly equal capability and able to deploy as (nominally) stand-alone forces. Separate to this requirement, there was a need to be able to deploy an independent brigade force on a long-term operation.
Post “Army Refine”, the plan changed again. It now became “Army 2020 Refine” and envisaged a modernised, three-brigade “warfighting” divisional force, with full support, but possibly deploying for a more limited period. Under these plans now only a single division, the 3rd, would have the capability to act as a truly independent UK land force.
Within 3rd Div, there will be two Armoured Infantry Bdes and two Strike Bdes. These will form the core of the division’s fighting strength, with the two Strike Bdes providing the mobile or “manoeuvre” elements. The Armd-Inf Bdes will be based on the current 12 and 20 Bdes, with the Strike Bdes being formed after the findings of the “Strike Experimental Group” are taken on board. These changes are due to be in place by 2025.
In addition to the formations within 3 Div, the Army will end up with a Specialised Air Assault Bde and six infantry Bdes. While it is stated that a Strike Bde would be able to operate outside the division, and most likely as part of an international force, no such specific commitment has been made for the other brigades that TMT is aware of.
The Strike Experimental Group (SEG) involves taking the new equipment, such as the Ajax vehicle, and rotating units through the SEG to allow them to play with the kit and to develop a concept of operations over a three year period, at the end of which the findings will be brought together to form the basis of a new Strike Brigade Doctrine. Prior to actual equipment being available, studies were being carried out on simulators – in what the Army refers to as “a synthetic environment”. The aim is for the KRH and 4 Scots to then form the first “square” Strike Brigade sometime in 2019. Effectively, the SEG will become an actual brigade and be assigned a brigade number.
The other major change will be the establishment of Specialised Infantry battalions which will be formed under the command of the Specialised Infantry Group. These are supposed to be the UK’s enhanced contribution to something now called Defence Engagement, or more simply put, making sure our overall military efforts make more sense in the long run. These are supposed to be smaller versions of current battalions that can act as advisors, mentors and trainers of foreign armies in a range of situations and roles that are currently met by British Army Training Teams (BATT) around the world. The Army says they will approximate to US Special Forces battalions and have a far higher proportion of experienced NCOs and officers. These units would effectively fill the vacuum left in previous operations after fighting troops left the theatre and local forces were unable to either keep or impose “the peace” on their own.
The priority areas in which they might work have been listed as Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is planned initially to keep dedicated battalions working in two areas for the long-term, namely the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Arica. They will be based in the UK but will develop local expertise and knowledge over the long term to allow them to deploy in or out of their specific area as needed. Support services will be either integrated at unit level or attached on an as-required basis.
The close observer will note that these battalions will have fewer private soldiers. This will mean the battalions are smaller, but it begs the question as to where those soldiers will go – or indeed whether the posts will be lost. At the moment, the answer is that the posts will be transferred to the armoured infantry of the heavy division – but it would be a strange thing if someone did not use the opportunity to reconcile the current shortage by reducing future established strengths in some way.
Although not specifically addressed, the existence of a Specialised Infantry Battalion in a potential theatre of operations would be a useful jumping-off point for a UK deployment. With a larger than normal cadre of NCOs and officers, one can envisage such a battalion forming the nucleus of a rapid reaction force in the early stages of a deployment, and becoming a reinforced infantry battlegroup as required. (No apologies for the reference to that Cold War terminology!)
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Hand in hand with these changes, the Army’s real- estate will be shuffled around to make training more efficient but also to deal with a planned reduction in Defence Estates of almost a third. The main tracked regiments and battalions will all be grouped around Salisbury Plain Training Area. Other concentrations will be based on recruiting or even local industry support such as that found in the West Midlands for signals and electronics.
As far as the reserves are concerned, the plan to be able to deploy a “modernised” division is predicated upon having the same level of reserve support as was envisaged in the Army 2020 plans; that is to say, some 30,000 reservists in support of a regular British Army of 82,000. There is the talk of forming two more reserve infantry battalions, but this is presumably another area where a shortfall might be removed by simply letting such plans fall by the wayside.
One Div will, presumably, now be a hollowed-out version of its former self and might be able to provide either reinforcement to 3rd Div or work alongside NATO forces perhaps. Other changes include a more centralised and rationalised support element as well as a beefed-up SF component.
Some view the changes as being de-facto recognition that the UK is, at last, cutting its cloth according to the new realities of life. Suggestions that the Army was going to have to eventually reduce in size have been around for a while – but by the start of 2018, informed observers started to suggest that the real aim of the current plans were to transform the Army into a force that traded size for “punch and depth”. Certainly, the formal recognition that the British Army will in future only be able to field a single division is in itself a cause for both concern and regret to some.