Britain ‘may not be fully prepared to fight full-scale war alone’

Maj Gen James Martin
Maj Gen James Martin insisted British soldiers were still the best in the world - Jeff Gilbert

Britain may not be fully prepared to fight a full-scale war on its own, a general has suggested.

Maj Gen James Martin said the Army was trying to get “back on track” after years of focusing on counter-insurgency, which had left it in “in the process of losing the skills” to mount an all-out campaign.

Decades of fighting insurgents during wars Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan meant the Army’s focus was on those campaigns rather than major conflicts between states, he said.

With the war in Ukraine and the threat of Russia to the rest of Europe, the Army has shifted its focus to readiness for war, and this week thousands of British troops were in western Poland as part of Nato’s largest military exercise since the Cold War.

Nearly 2,400 British troops took part in Operation Immediate Response, which culminated in a complex river crossing involving more than 1,000 vehicles including Challenger II tanks, in 24 hours.

It was one of several exercises as part of Nato’s Exercise Steadfast Defender,  a war game and the largest deployment to Europe in 40 years, involving over 40,000 personnel including 16,000 from the British Army.

Speaking at the end of the operation, near the small town of Drawsko Pomorskie, Maj Gen Martin who leads the Army’s 3rd Division, told The Telegraph: “After 20 years of counter-insurgency campaigning, we were losing this [war-fighting] capability... I think we are now very much moving back on track.”

Cuts mean the Army is at its smallest size in 300 years, and the focus on battling insurgents who did not have tanks or artillery meant stockpiles of ammunition and parts have been slashed.

Maj Gen Martin’s division is the only one in the Army at continual operational readiness in the UK. However, asked whether the Army was big enough to field a war-fighting division, he said that “depends what you mean by a war-fighting division”.

He added that “by Nato standards we can put a war-fighting division in the field”, but admitted the Army had areas in which it was not at full strength and would rely on allies. “There will be areas in which will be less resilient than others. But that is why you have partners,” he said.

Maj Gen Martin, who led the airlift of thousands of Aghans from Kabul three years ago, said the Army needed to be capable of maintaining a longer war and admitted that it would take time to get to the level it hoped to be at.

“A sustained fight, we have to accept that more needs to be done and the Army has put great effort in the last two years in terms of stockpiles of munitions for high intensity fight, our stockpile of spares for our high end equipment and armored vehicles,” he said.

“But there are other areas – that is something we haven’t had to think about over the past 20 years like we do now. This all takes a skillset and an investment, which will take some time to build to the level we want it to be.”

Maj Gen Martin insisted British soldiers were still the best in the world, but added that keeping them equipped in a long war “still requires a lot of effort”.

“The ability of our soldiers to fight at the lowest level – we have always had that. Our armoured manoeuvres remains world class. We just need to make sure ensure it is backed up by the ability to keep the equipment running.”

He added that Britain was strong enough to be a major contributor to Nato, but stressed that “we can’t be complacent about it”.

His comments come after the outgoing head of the Army warned that the defence of the UK does not stop at the borders of Europe amid a growing threat from China.

Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, said: “The defence of the UK does not start at the white cliffs of Dover, nor does it stop at the edges of Europe.

“We have always recognised the need to commit continentally because it is the shared sacrifice and commitment, on land, that binds in allies and deters adversaries.”