What is the British Army for?

Recent debates over the British Army tend to fixate on equipment – from procurement headaches to its state of readiness after donating tanks to Ukraine – but the real matter to resolve is its role. The war in Eastern Europe may offer political leaders the space to answer the key question: what does the government expect of its soldiers?

British poster depicting soldiers and civilians helping the war effort during the First World War
British poster depicting soldiers and civilians helping the war effort during the First World War. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

As the new year dawned, governments on both sides of the Atlantic mulled over whether to supply Western tanks to Ukraine. Within weeks, discussions quickly moved to questions of quantity and sustainability. Meanwhile, debate raged on social media over the relative merits of each platform and the exact criteria required to call a tank a tank.

In remarks that found their way into the press, the UK chief of the general staff, Patrick Sanders, told soldiers the British Army would be ‘temporarily weaker’ following the decision to donate fourteen of its Challenger II tanks and some AS-90 artillery to Ukraine. Somewhat unusually, officials from allied governments have publicly warned the army is in a poor state of repair (although these anonymous briefings have arguably strengthened Sanders’ case in his battles with the UK Treasury). The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is reluctant to hand the army more money, given its recent procurement debacles. In January, MPs on the Defence Select Committee took the Ministry of Defence to task for its delayed and over-budget armoured vehicle programmes.

This focus on equipment masks an even more inconvenient truth: the British Army lacks a clear role. This has been apparent since the end – if not before – of its combat missions in Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan in 2014. How should the army contribute to the government’s national security objectives? Prior to the intensification of the war in Ukraine last year, army planners even grasped for a greater role in the Indo-Pacific as part of the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the region. In 2021, the Ministry of Defence’s command paper stated: ‘The Army will be designed to operate globally on a persistent basis.’ Such talk has faded since February 2022. Within months of Russia’s onslaught on Kyiv, General Sanders emphasised that Europe would now be the army’s ‘singular focus’.

Lacking a clear sense of purpose would be less of a problem if the British Army could still field a full suite of capabilities. After all, defence spending is akin to an expensive insurance premium. The UK armed forces have long tried to maintain their status as a ‘tier one’ military, able to deter or tackle any threat – from non-state actors to peer adversaries. The British Army has traditionally prided itself as a ‘reference army’ for many allies and partners. Yet, after decades of falling defence spending (in relative terms), the decision not to specialise seems questionable at best and negligent at worst. For years, the army has traded mass for the promise of better technology (for example, the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle) and has now reached a critical point where it cannot meaningfully do it all.

The sad truth is that the British Army would currently struggle to meet its principal NATO commitment – the deployment of a division for operations on the Continent. There is little sign of this changing. Across Whitehall, there is neither the enthusiasm, nor the money, for a return to a land force remotely near the size of the one that existed during the Cold War. General Sanders’ superior, the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, has shot down any talk of a renewed ‘continental commitment’ and recently made clear that the UK is ‘an expeditionary rather than a continental power’.

Where, then, does this leave the British Army?

To General Sanders’ credit, he is at least trying to articulate a vision for it. Yet political direction is lacking. Military historian Hew Strachan has observed that effective civil-military relations depend on a robust dialogue between politicians and the armed forces. What, therefore, does the British government expect and require of its professional soldiers? Wary of new missions that might involve large numbers of ‘boots on the ground,’ politicians have preferred to shirk the issue, highlighting instead the armed forces’ contribution to national resilience. In the public consciousness, the army’s role has shifted from the sands and valleys of Iraq and Afghanistan to the ambulance bays and passport desks of Britain. Military assistance to civilian authorities (MACA) is not in itself problematic. The mounting number of these requests is, however, troubling. This was the case even before the pandemic, at which point the figures skyrocketed. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of MACA requests rose by nearly 50 per cent. At the same time, the army’s headcount has been dropping. It is neither wise, nor fair, to rely on the increasingly overstretched men and women of the UK’s armed forces to become the public sector’s backstop. For one thing, it will likely make it harder to recruit and retain talented personnel. It is time for political elites to envision a clear role for the army in the 2020s and 2030s.

Despite this gloomy outlook, there are some grounds for optimism. Army planners can take heart that their predecessors have grappled with similar dilemmas in the past. Over a century ago, Liberal statesman Lord Haldane reorganised the army after its bruising experiences in the South African War. Before embarking on his reforms, Haldane reportedly asked: ‘What is the army for?’ The expeditionary force he fashioned between 1905-1912 would later be deployed on the banks of the Marne, helping the French to prevent the German capture of Paris at the beginning of the First World War. More recently, the army was restructured in the 1990s to reflect the demands of the post-Cold War era. In both cases, political and military elites operated in a constrained financial environment and had to assess how a smaller army could best integrate with allies and partners – much like today.

A second silver lining is that the British Army has time on its side. Its likeliest adversary is engaged in an illegal and fruitless war in Ukraine. With Russia temporarily weakened and preoccupied, the British government should use this time to determine what it requires from its army. The UK no longer has the resources to field a land force with ‘full spectrum’ capabilities, so it should decide — in conjunction with allied militaries in NATO – how best to specialise. The British are fortunate to be a part of an alliance with relatively deep levels of trust and interoperability. There is scope for a better division of labour within NATO, particularly given that many of its members are land powers.

Ideally, strategy should be driven by desired outcomes, not dominated by discomfort over any change to the status quo. Once objectives are clear, debates over equipment and procurement can sensibly resume. At this stage, there should be no space for sacred cows or tolerance for sunk cost fallacies. Consider, for example, the vexed issue of tanks. The UK’s current plan is to upgrade 148 of its Challenger IIs. Does it make sense to retain such a token force, given the rate of attrition in modern warfare, as well as the fact that continental powers are investing properly in their fleets? Poland, for example, is buying almost 1,000 modern tanks from the United States and South Korea. Would most of the UK’s extant tanks (over 200) not be put to better use in the hands of Ukrainians fighting to defend their country? That would surely do more to uphold Europe’s security order in the short term. Such a move boasts the rare characteristic of having both moral and strategic merits. The UK could give up the pretence of a division-strength commitment and recast its contribution to NATO around its considerable naval and air assets, as well as a new suite of rapidly deployable army units to reinforce the alliance’s flanks. It may be, however, that planners decide to retain heavy armour (although they could still take a ‘capability holiday’ by gifting most of the Challenger IIs to Ukraine, retaining some for training, before buying a more robust number of off-the-shelf tanks in the future). The problem is not tanks per se, but a failure to acknowledge trade-offs, prioritise, and entrust allies.

The army today is at a Haldane moment. Its senior officers will naturally be instrumental in designing and implementing change. It is up to their political masters, however, to set the course. Today’s procurement headaches are partly a symptom of the failure to reassess the army’s overarching role. The war in Ukraine offers a window of opportunity for some fresh thinking.


William D. James