Redesigned British Army: smaller, with more reserves

Government decisions to reduce the defence budget and lower strategic ambitions have prompted the British Army to undertake its most radical reorganisation for 50 years. The long-term viability of the project relies on the successful withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan and a significant increase in the utility of the army's reserve forces.

Budget stringency

The October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was formulated in response to the urgent imperative of financial austerity, as well as the war-weariness of the British public and politicians. Under the review, UK defence spending was reduced by 8% in inflation-adjusted terms over four years. Ambitions for UK military operations were lowered: the maximum size of forces on operations was reduced, while the time allowed for them to get ready to deploy overseas was extended. The maximum strength for a future war-fighting intervention at divisional level along the lines of the two land attacks on Iraq in 1991 and 2003 was reduced from 45,000 personnel deployed with six months' notice to 30,000 deployed at up to a year's notice.

As envisaged by the SDSR, the army would be reduced in size by 7% by 2015 and cease permanent basing in Germany by 2020. These changes were intended to be achieved without major organisational change. But it later became clear that further cuts were necessary in order to meet the government’s austerity targets. In July 2011, then-defence secretary Liam Fox announced the army's size would be reduced by 20% by 2020, from 102,000 to 82,000 people. However, the part-time reserve Territorial Army (TA) was to be revitalised and have its trained strength increased from 19,000 to 30,000 people.

Realising that these reductions could not be achieved incrementally, the army embarked on its own redesign exercise. Published in July 2012 and known as 'Army 2020',this second review made clear that only through radical restructuring could the army meet its operational requirements, maximise the potential of the reserves and incorporate lessons of recent conflicts.

Past lessons inform future strategy

The early stages of both the Iraq and Afghan conflicts had starkly exposed a surprising lack of agility on the part of the British Army, which adapted to the requirements of the campaigns more slowly than the US Army and Marine Corps. Some weaknesses, such as inadequate tactical intelligence, had resulted from a failure to properly institutionalise capabilities developed in Northern Ireland and the Balkans. As well as assessing new capabilities and combat techniques developed over the previous decade, the army analysed the likely nature of future conflict on land, including the considerable challenges of fighting 'hybrid' opponents capable of fighting both conventional and guerrilla wars. It concluded that the global trend of rapid urbanisation meant that fighting in built-up areas would no longer be exceptional but was likely to become the norm.

For these reasons, Army 2020 recommended that close combat capability should rely primarily on armoured infantry, supported by tanks. Artillery would remain important, but would need to be increasingly discriminate and precise. Troops would require better support from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and would need to be connected by a secure military broadband. So-called 'soft effects', such as information operations, and reconstruction and development, would need to become an integral part of the force. The army would be better organised for joint, inter-agency and multinational operations, and would retain the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters, for which the UK is the framework nation.

Apart from a commitment to undertaking overseas expeditionary operations, two further areas of focus emerged from the redesign: partnership and capacity-building, and providing support to the police and civil authorities in the UK. The SDSR put renewed emphasis on preventing conflict by international 'upstream engagement', such as building the capabilities of a nation's armed forces. This was reinforced by the subsequent publication of a government strategy document on 'Building Stability Overseas'. The role that the army played in dealing with floods in 2007 and in providing security at the London 2012 Olympic Games illustrated its potential role in homeland emergencies.

An army of three parts

The best-manned and most extensively trained element of the redesigned army will be a ‘Reaction Force’ comprising a division made up of three armoured infantry brigades, a mixture of tanks and armoured infantry. Held at high readiness for overseas interventions, these will undertake 'hard fighting' against both conventional and hybrid opponents, as well as the toughest peace-enforcement missions. The Reaction Force will include 16 Air Assault Brigade, which will retain a unique mixture of parachute battalions and Apache attack helicopters, although its ground element is set to get smaller, as will the army's contribution to the Royal Navy's amphibious force, 3 Commando Brigade. Either brigade could be joined by armoured infantry brigades to make up a division-sized war-fighting formation.

The second element will be an ‘Adaptable Force’, a division made up of seven infantry brigades of regular and reserve light cavalry regiments and infantry battalions. Speaking at the IISS in November 2012, Major-General Kevin Abraham, Director General, Army Reform, said the force would be ‘easily capable of adapting to a wide range of tasks'. Three brigades are designed to combine together to form up to two light all-arms brigades for an enduring stabilisation operation. Four smaller infantry brigades will be held at a lower state of readiness. New thinking suggests that the Adaptable Force could be used as a primary tool for UK military assistance and training to other countries. Its units are likely to be aligned to particular regions of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, to establish closer links and develop broader understanding and language skills. The adaptable force will also be the primary source of support to the UK civil authorities.

The third element of the Army 2020 vision is a division of 'Force Troops', containing artillery, signals, engineer and medical brigades that will support the Reaction and Adaptable forces. Close support communications, engineers and artillery were previously part of the armoured and mechanised brigades. But, driven by the need to partner both regular and reserve units, and to make the most cost-effective use of equipment, the majority of support units are to be centralised in specialist brigades. Previously disparate surveillance, drone and intelligence units will be grouped into a single new intelligence and surveillance brigade. Signals units will be redesigned to deliver network and broadband access to battlefield units in new ways through deployed 'points of presence'. The army's hard-won expertise in countering improvised explosive devices is to be merged into a single group of engineer search teams, bomb-disposal operators and search dogs.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars saw an ever-increasing requirement for experts in languages, cultural issues and civilian reconstruction, who were eventually brought together in a Military Stabilisation and Support Group. This will now evolve into a new Security Assistance Group, which will not only retain this hard-won expertise, but which will also provide linguists and other experts to assist the army’s partnering and training with foreign armies.

The Afghan war saw British troops making extensive use of close air support. So numbers of tactical air-control parties, which act as the essential interface between ground troops and attack aircraft, were increased accordingly. These are set to be retained at their current level. Army air-defence units are to fall under the operational command of the Royal Air Force.

The overall size of the regular army will fall from 142 to 119 units, a reduction of 17%. The number of brigade headquarters will fall from 27 to 18. Four out of 36 infantry battalions are being disbanded. Two armoured regiments will merge and another will be disbanded. The number of regular artillery, engineer and logistics units will fall by 14%, 27% and 33% respectively. The process has already begun, with the disbanding of one brigade headquarters and an artillery unit. The reductions are to be complete by the end of 2016.

Rebooted reserves

Army reserves, namely the TA and the 'regular reserve' of former soldiers, are set to benefit from the new design. Together they have contributed up to 10% of the troops on stabilisation operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the army now envisages a greatly increased role for them. Reserves could provide up to 10% of the Reaction Force, while Adaptable Force brigades conducting stabilisation missions could draw up to a third of their strength from them. And some capacity-building and peacekeeping tasks could be led by TA units. This has already happened: in recent years TA battalions have been employed in the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.

The reserves are set to play pivotal roles in areas that require less military training than front-line combat or that draw on civilian skills – such as trauma surgeons or cyber specialists – that are impractical to maintain in the regular army. Logistics units are to be reduced by 33%, meaning that much of the capability of one of the army's two deployable logistics brigades will be transferred to the reserve. The army is also assuming that it will make greater use of contractors to provide logistics on operations.

Regular units in infantry and specialist brigades will 'partner' reserve units. For example, strengths of regular infantry battalions in the Adaptable Force are being reduced on the assumption that they would be joined by reinforcements from their partnered TA battalion when mobilised for operations.

An additional £1.2 billion has been allocated to building army reserve capability over the next decade, and is being used to fund a recruitment drive and additional training. The greater integration of the reserves will demand cultural change. Employers will need to be persuaded to support this initiative. Although deploying on operations provides a unique opportunity for their staff, it creates gaps that are difficult to fill, especially for small businesses. So employers are being consulted by the government and additional legislation may be required. The experience of the US, Canadian and Australian army reserves suggests that it is feasible to get more capability out of the British reserves. But the new organisation and basing of the TA have yet to be designed.


The army's ambitious programme of change carries significant risks. The regular army will be reduced to close to the minimum size needed to sustain its ability to operate at divisional level, as well as to command multinational operations. And the centralisation of most combat support may make it more difficult to bring all combat and supporting arms together for all-arms training, an activity that has been essential preparation for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

New equipment programmes will be required, particularly the replacement of ageing light- and medium-armoured vehicles by new Scout armoured reconnaissance vehicles and a utility armoured vehicle. Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles will need to be modernised. The defence budget provides funding for these programmes, as well as for improved helicopter and drone capabilities. The new structure also envisages the wider use of equipment procured as part of 'urgent operational requirements' for the Iraq and Afghan wars, including Jackal and Foxhound patrol vehicles, which the army plans to re-deploy from Afghanistan to equip light cavalry and infantry in the Adaptable Force. It is not yet clear, however, that the Ministry of Defence has the funding to retain all the equipment that the army hopes to transfer from Afghanistan.

Another risk is to the army’s morale. The 20% cut in personnel is to be achieved by reducing recruitment, and through voluntary and compulsory redundancies. Fewer than 4,000 people have been made redundant so far, and the army expects to make another 9,500 people redundant by the end of 2014 – at a time of bleak UK economic prospects. The last decade’s wars acted as powerful recruiting sergeants, but decreasing opportunities for adventure could make it difficult to retain combat-hardened talent and to recruit sufficient new personnel.

Commentators have criticised the increased dependence on the reserves, claiming that 30,000 TA personnel will have less capability than the 20,000 regulars being removed. However, the less challenging operational timelines set by the SDSR may allow the TA to deliver similar capabilities to those of the regular army, provided it has sufficient time to mobilise and train before deploying. The expanded reserve capability is unlikely to be complete before 2018, and will be challenging to create – a significant risk to the whole project. Army 2020 also depends on the force reductions in Afghanistan proceeding as planned and on equipment being successfully recovered to the UK and refurbished. These two factors mean that deployable army capacity will be reduced between 2014 and 2018, lowering the UK’s ability to respond to unforeseen threats during that time.

Despite these considerable challenges, the reforms have the potential to transform the army's capability and to incorporate the lessons of recent operations. Success depends on the programme being properly led, managed, resourced and politically supported.

This article was from the IISS (The International Institute for Strategic Studies)