British Army needs 'fundamentally different mindset' as it reforms to fight major battles again, report says

Dominic Nicholls
The British Army must reorganise away from counterinsurgency operations to be able to fight in a more agile and lethal way, a new report has said. Photo taken in Afghanistan Nov 16, 2010.  - Ministry of Defence

The British Army is “not prepared” for the casualties it would suffer if forced to engage in combat with Russia, a new report has said.

In the future, the army will need a "fundamentally different mindset" to casualty procedures “that reflect the difficulties of extracting under heavy contact”.

The warnings come in a paper released today by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) that has examined army structures after two decades of counter insurgency operations.

Alongside rapid-reaction troops like paratroopers and commandos, the army needs a force agile enough to reinforce Nato quickly but which also has the firepower to “slow a conventional Russian thrust” through the Baltic states, the paper says.

The idea for a rapidly deployable and fast-moving force was inspired by France’s 2013 intervention in Mali. After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the government committed £3.5 billion to buy a fleet of 589 new armoured vehicles.

A Mastiff armoured vehicle on patrol in Afghanistan. A new paper says the British Army needs to update its fleet of vehicles. Photo dated July 2016.  Credit: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

The MoD committed in the 2015 Defence Review to creating ‘Strike Brigades’ built around these vehicles, and Army chiefs have been experimenting since then to build the most lethal and versatile force.  

The army’s Strike concept envisages a force that can self-deploy up to 2,000km and be used as protected troop carriers in low-intensity counter insurgency operations, as well as having the firepower to take on Russian tanks.

In any future confrontation in Eastern Europe, Russian air defence systems would make resupply by aircraft almost impossible, the report says, and to meet the weight restrictions of the vehicles - to ensure a high top speed - they could only carry limited armour.  As a result, the Strike Brigades “must compensate by being sufficiently lethal”.

The army has been in a process of managed decline since 2011, the researchers state, and has faced cuts of £31 billion to its budget. Additionally, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan reshaped the army to focus on counter insurgency operations.  

General Sir Nick Carter, then Chief of the General Staff, said in 2015: “We bent ourselves significantly out of shape from 2007 onwards to be able to deal with the challenge that we were confronted with in Helmand.”

The army is still equipped with Mastiff vehicles, bought to protect troops from road-side bombs in Afghanistan. However, these “worn-out...battlefield taxis” are no good against tanks, the report warns.

A British soldier takes part in the joint military exercise 'Noble Partner 2016' at the military base of Vaziani outside Tbilisi, Georgia, May 18, 2016. Credit: ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE/EPA

The researchers accept is is a significant challenge for the Strike Brigades to find a way of evolving the army from the structures and equipment necessary for counter insurgency operations, back to modern war fighting.

The paper says speed of deployment is crucial to reduce the risk of any incident escalating as re-taking towns can be “gruelling, costly and slow”. However, at present, Britain’s armoured infantry Brigades are expected to take 60 days to reinforce the Baltic states.

“In all probability an adversary could achieve its objectives within this time,” the author’s say.

The paper suggests that failing to be seen by Russia as a credible deterrent makes a provocation, probably in the Baltic states, more likely.

“Force structures that neglect, or outsource, critical capabilities...should be looked upon with scepticism,” concludes the report.

A senior Army source told the Telegraph: “the paper raises interesting points on how we might make adjustments to the balance between agility, protection and firepower.

“We are where we are and we need to experiment our way to the future. We have to get on with it as we can’t rely on an ever decreasing number of old and limited platforms that don’t deliver a deterrent effect.”