Special forces soldier who led fight against ISIS in Syria to become head of British Army

SAS officer Roly Walker who also fought in Iraq and Afghanistan will become next chief, defence sources confirm

Roly Walker with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a visit to Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. Getty Images
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A special forces officer who commanded the British campaign against ISIS in Syria will become the next head of the army, defence sources have told The National.

As one of the military’s most combat-experienced soldiers, Lt Gen Sir Roland "Roly" Walker will take over the force as Chief of the General Staff at a time when it will be reduced to just 73,000 personnel, the smallest it has yet been.

But his extensive fighting experience, which included operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, could prove useful in the context of Ukraine and fighting for reforms of equipment and personnel issues.

While the army was a force of more than 100,000 soldiers when Lt Gen Walker was fighting in Afghanistan as commanding officer of the Grenadier Guards in 2009, it has since shrunk by 30 per cent.

Much of its equipment is out of date, large amounts of ammunition have been sent to Ukraine and the force is severely lacking in artillery as well as air defence missiles.

But army sources told The National that Lt Gen Walker, 53, will be able to navigate the challenges because “he is politically savvy, respected by politicians, knows Whitehall and has proven himself”.

One of his greatest personal leadership challenges he faced came when a rogue Afghan National Police officer opened fire on a British base, killing five guardsmen.

During the tour he was also the target of a Taliban assassination attempt when his Ridgeback armoured vehicle struck an IED. The Ridgeback was thrown into the air and its wheels blown off but the officer survived, along with the five soldiers inside.

During his command the Grenadiers were engaged in 1,300 firefights with the Taliban in which they killed “north of 600”, the officer said in 2010 after returning from his tour in which his battle group suffered 15 dead and 69 wounded in action.

The commander was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for excellent leadership on operations.

Educated at Harrow, Lt Gen Walker successfully completed special forces selection, joining the Special Air Service (SAS) in 1997. It is understood that he served on several operations, including SAS missions against Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad.

While director of special forces, Lt Gen Walker managed the SAS-led operation that reduced ISIS in Syria from a major threat to eventual defeat in a hard-fought campaign.

As current head of military strategy and operations, he has an intense job directing British armed forces missions around the globe, which includes close interaction with the Secretary of Defence.

He is said to get on well with Ben Wallace, who he has known for more than 30 years when the politician served in the Scots Guards.

That political interaction will serve him well once he replaces the outspoken Gen Sir Patrick Sanders next year, who recently said that the army’s equipment was outdated and “not fit for purpose”.

Gen Sanders, who will be stepping down at the end of his two-year stint, also fought against the substantial troop cut from then-current levels of 86,000 to 73,000 in the next two years, arguing that Ukraine demonstrated the need for large numbers of professional soldiers.

That is a fight his successor is likely to continue, sources said. “Roly is very urbane, personable and intelligent,” an officer who served under him told The National. “He's got a big profile. and a lot of combat experience."

But the soldier admitted that there would be considerable challenges for him in reforming the army.

“That's where the job becomes less about being inspiring figurehead and more about the running of the job. You have to fight, to make your case and argue that Ukraine is the perfect demonstration of why we need an army, not the Boris Johnson-inspired global projection of aircraft carriers.”

The UK’s Ministry of Defence said it was unable to comment on who the next army chief would be because no official announcement had yet been made.

Updated: August 16, 2023, 1:34 PM