Having explored the concepts of airborne and amphibious armoured warfare in other pages on this website I was interested to read an article in the Sunday Times of 22 January 2017 under the headline “Shrunken army fears Russia could destroy it in an afternoon”. Written by Tim Ripley and Mark Hookham, it began…
Defence cuts have “effectively removed” Britain’s ability to “deliver and sustain” an effective fighting force against a “competent” enemy such as Russia, according to the army’s think tank. Years of squeezed budgets have resulted in the “hollowing out or deletion of the army’s deployed capabilities”, a paper from the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR) says. It warns that the risk of the army’s one remaining fighting division being wiped out in an afternoon will “weigh heavily” on commanders. The paper, which was compiled after two days of seminars attended by serving and retired army officers and academics, is an alarming insight into Britain’s ability to respond to a Russian attack against Nato allies in eastern Europe.
Years of squeezed budgets have resulted in the “hollowing out or deletion of the army’s deployed capabilities”, a paper from the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR) says. It warns that the risk of the army’s one remaining fighting division being wiped out in an afternoon will “weigh heavily” on commanders. The paper, which was compiled after two days of seminars attended by serving and retired army officers and academics, is an alarming insight into Britain’s ability to respond to a Russian attack against Nato allies in eastern Europe.
Although “we might not be facing an immediate risk of a direct attack by a foreign state”, it said there were “a few plausible scenarios” in which the UK could be dragged into a war after an attack on another country. “This raises an important question: is the British Army ready for such a possibility? If one merely sees preparedness through net manpower and kinetic force capacity, the answer might be a simple ‘no’: the British Army is at its smallest and has faced years of budget cuts.” The last time the UK sent a division to war was in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq but experts believe it would currently not be able to deploy much more than a brigade of between 5,000 and 10,000 troops.
Under the government’s defence review in 2015, the army’s sole “war-fighting division” will be expanded from up to 30,000 troops to up to 50,000 — representing more than half the army’s total of 82,000 regular soldiers — and equipped with better armoured vehicles.
This was part of a move to prepare the army for fighting large-scale wars after years of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CHACR highlights how, if the UK was at war, there would be “political pressures” to safeguard the division. “The ‘prospect of losing the division in an afternoon’ will weigh heavily on the chain of command . . . as politicians appreciate the stakes involved in committing the division to battle.” It adds that the army must be able to “regulate how much risk” the division is exposed to during conflict “unless we are prepared to lose it”.
It also raises questions over whether the UK would be able to transport a large force to the front line, warning that there was a “consensus” at the seminars that the UK did not have enough big aircraft “to transport a large-scale fighting force and its stores”. By 2019 the RAF will have a transport fleet that includes 22 A400Ms, 14 Voyagers and eight C-17s but its ability quickly to move large numbers of heavily armoured vehicles is limited.
The military can also use four vehicle transport ships but its fleet could carry only one of the beefed- up division’s three brigades at a time. Without more aircraft and ships, the military would rely on allies or commercial companies to get its troops to war, the paper says.
A shortage of tank transport vehicles is also highlighted. “The ability to get an entire division’s component parts swiftly and safely into a theatre of operations is identified as a key concern.”
Last week the army sent tanks through the Channel tunnel for the first time to test the rail network. Five armoured vehicles were loaded onto wagons and sent to France in an exercise last Tuesday night, with similar trials expected in the future. Based at Sandhurst, the military academy in Surrey, the CHACR has the task of informing military doctrine and includes some of the army’s “brightest minds” — referred to on its website as “soldier-scholars”. The seminars, held last June and July, discussed how the army had been “distracted by counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan for a decade” and now “lacks some of the tools that would be required against a threat from the East”.
The military “does not yet comprehend” the cyber-threat and the paper identifies “air defence” — the ability to protect troops from enemy aircraft — as a “capability gap”. It says future military equipment is being bought assuming precision strikes against a “compliant opposition”. But this analysis of future wars must be revised to take into account “hybrid warfare” where an enemy could use deception and hit back with cyber-attacks.
Ben Barry, a former brigadier who works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, warned there was a “clear and present” threat of a “military miscalculation” with Russia, and the army “might struggle” to deploy as many troops as it did in 2003 to Iraq. The Ministry of Defence said: “The army . . . is ready and capable of deploying a potent, large-scale, war-fighting force at divisional level with sufficient notice.”
Data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2016 further identified the British Army as comprising 83 360 full time soldiers (down from 102 000 in 2010), 227 tanks, 648 reconnaissance vehicles, 2 250 armoured personnel carriers and 50 attack helicopters. The number of deployable divisions in the British army currently stands at one and is expected to still be one in 2025. In contrast, this figure was 90 during World War One, 28 in 1939, 46 during World War Two and 9 between 1945 and 1989.
Also in contrast to the current British situation was the tactical genius of American Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (13 July 1821 – 29 October 1877) Before the American Civil War, Forrest amassed a fortune as a planter and real estate investor but was one of the few officers on either side of the war to enlist as a private and be promoted to general officer rank and corps commander. Known as the “Wizard of the Saddle”, he established new doctrines for mobile cavalry warfare and after the Union victory both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee admitted that the South had not used his skills to best effect. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman referred to him as “That devil Forrest” and Union President Ulysses S. Grant considered him “the most remarkable man our civil war produced on either side”. He is considered one of the Civil War’s most brilliant tacticians. Without military education or training, he became the scourge of Grant, Sherman, and almost every other Union general who fought in Tennessee, Alabama or Kentucky. Forrest fought by simple rules: he maintained that “war means fighting and fighting means killing” and that the way to win was “to get there first with the most men”. His cavalry, which Sherman reported in disgust “could travel one hundred miles in less time it takes ours to travel ten”, secured more Union guns, horses, and supplies than any other single Confederate unit.
Forrest grasped the doctrines of mobile warfare that became prevalent in the 20th century. Paramount in his strategy was fast movement, even if it meant pushing his horses at a killing pace, which he did more than once. He sought to constantly harass the enemy in fast-moving raids, disrupting supply trains by destroying railway tracks and enemy communications by cutting telegraph lines. Noted Civil War scholar Bruce Catton wrote:
“Forrest … used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest is also attributed as saying that his aim as a commander was to “get there firstest with the mostest”. How tragic it would be if the British army of the early 21st Century only got there last with the least.