The British Army has announced its “Future Soldier” programme, claiming the project offers the most radical reform for the last two decades in order to shape a force fit to fight the wars of the 21st century.
The restructuring comes as the strength of the regular army is due to be reduced from 82,000 to 73,000 in the next four years, with focus on expeditionary units which can be deployed to conflict zones as well as setting up bases abroad.
The new strategy will be buttressed by an investment of £41.3bn over the next decade on equipment, £8.6bn more than had previously been pledged.
Part of the policy will be the establishment of a special operations brigade for missions abroad, unveiled eight months ago, as “Global Britain” seeks a broader military footprint with new and traditional allies outside Europe.
A Ranger regiment will form the core of the new force which will engage in combat, as well as carry out training, with the aim of signing a series of defence agreements and being deployed to international hubs in Oman, Kenya, Poland and the Baltic states.
The defence secretary maintained that the army would be “leaner but more productive” adding “crucially, it will also be an army designed for genuine warfighting credibility as an expeditionary fighting force that will be both deployable and lethal when called upon to fight and win”.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said: “[It will] mean we have fewer soldiers. But it also means we will have honest armed forces that says what it does on the side of the tin rather than lots of people and equipment that is 20 years out of date, which is what we have had for too long.”
Responding to critics of the reforms, including former commanders, Mr Wallace was in a combative mood. “Some of the former senior officers who throw bricks and mortars were delivering armies that were hollow,” he said. “I think we are now a more reliable, more ready partners to allies than we have ever been. And I think that is something that brings value to the United Kingdom as offering to our allies around the world.”
Mr Wallace held that current-day commanders were looking to the future and not the past.
Pointing to around 500 soldiers whose jobs had been reprieved, he said “I think it’s quite telling that the army with 500 more personnel didn’t just resurrect an infantry battalion which they could have done with 500. They chose to put those people in a range of capabilities such as cyber and other enablers because that is what is actually needed.”
However, as well as light and rapidly deployable forces like the Rangers, troops and armour will be deployed as tension mounts in the new cold war with Russia. Tanks and infantry fighting vehicles will be stationed in Germany, at the Nato forward holding base at Sennelager, as well Estonia, where the UK currently leads, on rotation, a thousand-strong battle group.
The Labour Party charged that the plans leave the fighting forces “too small, too thinly stretched, too poorly equipped”. Shadow defence secretary John Healey pointed out Ministry of Defence civilian staff numbers have risen 2,200 in the last six years, while the numbers of full-time soldiers have been cut by 5,000 over the same period.