Britain needs 'up to a decade' to modernise its army

Military at risk of 'obsolescence' and infantry battalions under strength, says head of armed forces

Soldiers from the Royal Horse Artillery commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee on June 2. MOD
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Britain will be unable to field a modern combat division that is capable of fighting alongside America forces as combat unit for almost a decade, the head of country's armed forces has said.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said that after two decades of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the army was “at risk of obsolescence” without a £40 billion capital investment for modern artillery and armoured vehicles.

The Chief of the Defence Staff’s assessment to the Lords’ defence committee will concern Downing Street with the increased threat of war in Europe and particularly after he labelled some infantry regiments “under strength”.

While the government has significantly increased defence spending in the last year, the British Army has suffered significant cuts in troop numbers and neglect of its hardware, and is only able to field 227 Challenger 2 tanks.

Military analysts have stated that a deterrent to further Russian aggression is to station at least three US divisions and a British one on Nato's eastern flank in Poland and the Baltic States.

“That is in the five to 10 years space,” he said. “We can throw out a division now, but I don’t think it’s the division that we would want and I don't think it’s the quality that the US would expect alongside it.”
Tony Radakin

Admiral Radakin said it was the military’s “ambition” to field the force of roughly 30,000 men but they wanted it equipped with long range artillery “and much more modern vehicles”.

He said: “We can put a division out, but the division that we want to put out is a much better one, in five to 10 years' time, with the right capabilities that America would want fighting alongside them … to keep up with America in the battle.”

Asked to qualify what he meant by suggesting it would take a decade to create a single modern division, he suggested that time period was required for the “right quality” and for it to be well drilled in complex divisional manoeuvres.

“That is in the five to 10 years space,” he said. “We can throw out a division now, but I don’t think it’s the division that we would want and I don't think it’s the quality that the US would expect alongside it.”

While the Royal Navy has received two modern aircraft carriers and the RAF is flying fifth generation F-35 fighters, the army has yet to reform from its previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We're really clear that we need to invest strongly in the army because of the risk of obsolescence,” Admiral Radakin. “Over £40 billion is going into the army in capital terms.”

He also admitted that the army had participated in a recent division-size Nato exercise “but our contribution to that was relatively small” and that had to “grow over this decade”.

Thirty years ago, Britain had four combat-ready divisions, with three based in West Germany, and the military had 300,000 personnel. Current plans are to reduce the army by 5,000 troops to 72,000 — the lowest level in three centuries. This reduction could be reversed, especially after the army’s chief, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, said this week that it “must be prepared to fight in Europe again”.

But with the “vast appetite” for defence commitments in the 2021 Integrated Review, that included more overseas bases, a Pacific presence and preparation for “major warfighting operations”, former CDS Lord Air Marshal Jock Stirrup suggested that the military was overcommitted.

“How is all of that to be done within resources that are so much smaller than we had in 1991?” he asked Admiral Radakin on Wednesday.

The officer responded that overall Nato spending had increased by $270 billion in the last seven years and the IR had been right to concentrate on Britain’s nuclear capabilities.

He also assessed that Russia’s war in Ukraine had exhausted its combat forces depleting its army “to the tune of nearly 25 per cent” so it was likely future threats would come from other areas such as space or cyber.

Admiral Radakin also suggested that next week’s summit in Madrid would see the “biggest shift in Nato since 1967” with a “new strategic concept” and “an extraordinary increase in Nato defence spending” alongside Sweden and Finland joining the alliance.

Updated: June 22, 2022, 3:54 PM