Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.
Recent exposure of the weaknesses in the Ajax light tank further fuel the view that the Army has drawn the short straw in the Integrated Review (IR). Its re-equipment programme is in trouble, while many are focused on the cut in regular personnel numbers.
First some context. The IR is genuinely groundbreaking. It prioritises a more powerful Navy (rightly for an island nation with Britain’s maritime tradition) and Strategic Command which owns key portfolios like cyber, space and special forces.
The Review emphasises transformative technologies and artefacts like artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and drones. It recognises that, with civilian technology rapidly evolving, this can only be delivered through a whole force prism: regular forces, reserves, contractors and civil servants (including GCHQ’s experts and civilian technologists).
Against this template, today’s Army is hampered by a grim legacy. First, the bravery and professionalism of our young officers and soldiers was not matched by the wisdom of its senior commanders in the two major Army-led conflicts of the past generation, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The surrender of Basra, and its recovery by a combined force of Iraqis and Americans, was a national humiliation. The “Platoon Houses” strategy in Helmand flew in the face of established principles of war, cost soldiers’ lives, led to the deaths of many civilians in Helmand, and drove angry young Afghans into joining the Taliban. Again, we had to be bailed out, this time by reinforcements from the US Marines.
The resultant heart-rending trickle of returning dead and maimed young men and women fractured public confidence in the Army’s work. As General Sir Nicholas Carter, the current Chief of Defence Staff, has remarked, the British people sympathise with soldiers but have lost empathy for their job. This was compounded by the outsourcing of recruiting a decade ago to Capita whose dismal performance left the Regular Army thousands short and handicapped the growth of the Army Reserve.
It must be hard for the current generation of generals to listen to lectures in the media from their predecessors who bequeathed them this poisoned chalice.
This legacy is worsened by a third factor. While Royal Navy and RAF investment is mainly concentrated in a few huge long-term programmes from Trident successor to Tempest, as the manpower intensive service, the Army has large numbers of smaller programmes, usually with shorter life-cycles. The result has been that, in successive hiatuses in MoD’s finances over the past generation, the easiest option has been to cancel Army’s equipment, leaving it with an ageing portfolio.
The centrepiece of the Army is its warfighting division. Despite new technologies, our major allies – and potential adversaries, like Russia, China and Iran – recognise that armour remains a key component. Britain plans two future tanks: 148 upgraded Challenger main battle tanks and a family of 589 Ajax light armoured vehicles for armoured reconnaissance roles. Sadly, neither is a good story.
Taking Ajax first, reported weaknesses include excessive vibration leading to an inability to fire on the move, damage to the health and hearing of crews, a de facto speed limit of just 20mph, and an inability to reverse over a 20mm step – all this in a role where agility is critical. Nevertheless, the suite of advanced weapon systems for the Ajax family is remarkable and, if these issues can be overcome, offer an important step forward. It is too soon to give up on Ajax – despite the £3 billion already spent.
In contrast, the proposal to re-turret Challenger, has little upside. Fixing an existing gun, in a new turret, to a tank without the matching turret ring, combines high technical risk with depressingly low technological ambition. If, as it is alleged, only one prototype is planned, and the development and production phases will be telescoped, it will also fly in the face of costly lessons of the past. Furthermore, the projected number is too few to be credible or economic.
It would be better to proceed with only one risky programme, Ajax, accept a trough in main battle tank capability, save money in the short term, and then participate in either the American or German programmes for a new generation of tanks. If Ajax fails, MoD could up the number of those and top up with an off-the-shelf recce vehicle.
Army reformers have moved forward where they can. Sandhurst is full again and soldier recruiting has recovered. Soldier retention has improved too although for officers it has been damaged by the bizarre Future Accommodation Model (FAM), imposed by MoD.
The latter allocates houses based on family size rather than rank so a private with a large family gets the house which a young company commander would have occupied until recently. This is a system used by no other army in the West and discriminatory to those who cannot have children. (It equally affects the RAF, but not the Navy; with its people concentrated in three large coastal cities; owner occupation for naval families is the norm, an option the others cannot follow).
The new programme of “rangers”, second line special forces, is an important innovation, alongside the shift towards more drones, after the lessons from Armenia. Given the tight financial constraints, the choice of Boxer to replace the Warrior as the infantry’s battlefield taxi also looks sound.
The Army Reserve has rebuilt, and reserve units are now routinely carrying out tasks from armoured recce in Poland to peacekeeping in Cyprus to Covid testing here. The Army has also set the pace in integrating senior reservists into their decision making – a process which the RAF and Strategic Command are now following but the Navy, perhaps emboldened by recent financial victories, has studiously avoided. Not surprisingly, the latter are now falling behind in areas like cyber.
Lord Lancaster’s innovative paper FR30 points to additional ways that Defence can grow capability affordably, but emphasises that individual reserve units need to be larger if they are to play the front line roles they do in our English-speaking allies. More than half the US Army is in the National Guard and USAR, including most infantry brigades. Moving more capability to the reserves makes sense.
What is urgently needed is to halt the Challenger upgrade programmes before more money is wasted, wait to join the next generation of tanks, fix Ajax, and stem the flow of young officers, not least by scrapping FAM. This would enable a credible regular armoured division, backed by a genuine reserve capability which enabled the fielding of a large, capable army at longer notice.
Britain’s army can become the best again, but only if the land forces element of the IR is revisited.