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Britain’s ‘withered’ forces not fit to repel all-out attack


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The Financial Times  /  September 16, 2016

Britain’s armed forces cannot defend the UK against a serious military attack and have lost much of their ability to fight conventional wars, the recently retired head of the country’s Joint Forces Command has warned.

General Sir Richard Barrons, who stepped down in April as one of the country’s four service chiefs, has said a series of “profoundly difficult” strategic challenges are being sidestepped as Whitehall focuses on “skinning” budgets and delivering costly but increasingly redundant big-ticket military projects.

His 10-page, private memorandum to Michael Fallon, defence minister, is the most forthright criticism of defence policy from the UK’s senior military leadership to have emerged publicly in years. It came just months after the last spending review handed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) a significant funding boost despite widespread cuts to other departments.

The general’s detailed analysis will raise grave concerns in Nato. Britain has long cast itself as a linchpin of the alliance’s European military power base, but the US has voiced doubts about its diminishing capabilities since the troubled campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Capability that is foundational to all major armed forces has been withered by design,” wrote Sir Richard. The MoD, he says, is working to “preserve the shop window” while critical technical and logistical capabilities have been “iteratively stripped out” behind it.

In the correspondence, a copy of which has been obtained by the Financial Times, Sir Richard states:

There is no military plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict. “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory … There is no top-to-bottom command and control mechanism, preparation or training in place for the UK armed forces [to defend home territory] … let alone to do so with Nato.”

A Russian air campaign would quickly overwhelm Britain. “UK air defence now consists of the (working) Type 45 [destroyers], enough ground-based air defence to protect roughly Whitehall only, and RAF fast jets. Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force — let alone both concurrently — could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort.”

Navy ships and RAF planes are often deployed without adequate munitions or protections because they have grown used to depending on US forces to protect and support them. “Key capabilities such as radars, fire control systems and missile stocks are deficient.”

● The army is not equipped to fight a rival professional land force and is significantly outgunned by Russia. “The current army has grown used to operating from safe bases in the middle of its operating area, against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale, have no protected mobility, no air defence, no substantial artillery, no electronic warfare capability, nor — especially — an air force or recourse to conventional ballistic or cruise missiles.”

● Small numbers of hugely expensive pieces of military equipment make the UK’s capabilities “extremely fragile”. It is unlikely the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, which cost £2bn each, will ever be sent within 300km of the Chinese coast, for example. “We operate platforms that we cannot afford to use fully, damage or lose — industry would take years to repair or produce more.”

● Manpower across all the forces is dangerously squeezed. “It is not necessary to shoot down all the UK’s Joint Strike Fighters, only to know how to murder in their beds the 40 or so people who can fly them.”

Sir Richard warned that the UK’s entire strategic thinking was underpinned by the assumption it could fight wars on a discretionary basis — a supposition he says has been completely upended by the increase in global instability over the past two years.

“There is a sense that modern conflict is ordained to be only as small and as short term as we want to afford — and that is absurd. The failure to come to terms with this will not matter at all if we are lucky in the way the world happens to turn out, but it could matter a very great deal if even a few of the risks now at large conspire against the UK.”

The Ministry of Defence said: “Our defence review last year put in place a plan for more ships, planes and troops at readiness, alongside greater spending on cyber and special forces. That plan was backed by a rising defence budget. And, crucially, it was backed by all of the service chiefs, who were heavily involved in putting it together.”

Across Nato, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine has thrown defence planning into flux. While the UK’s armed forces are the best resourced in Europe, they are also among those struggling most to adapt themselves to the rapidly changing European security environment.

“We became used to using the military as a foreign policy tool, but in that lost any real sense of it as an insurance policy,” said a senior Whitehall official. “So far there is a lot of talk about deterrence across Nato but what really matters is whether it is credible, certainly as far as Russia is concerned.”

Shortfall 1: Artillery and tanks

Britain has cut back its armoured warfare capabilities significantly over the years. A Russian brigade contains two or three artillery battalions. A British brigade contains just one. The focus on fast, lighter vehicles also makes the UK vulnerable

For the past decade, Britain’s military posture has been conditioned by the Afghan and Iraqi deployments as well as by the reality of a dramatically shrinking budget. The most recent Strategic Defence and Security Review — which coincided with a generous spending commitment from the government and a wide-ranging review of defence priorities — has gone some way to addressing the challenges. But experts say it has not gone far enough.

“There is a capability gap across the services,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that he strongly agreed with Sir Richard’s assessment. “With regard to Russia, the SDSR is schizophrenic. There is lots of language about being shoulder to shoulder with Nato allies, the value of deterrence and increased expenditure, but the threat analysis in it specifically rules out a direct threat to the UK — and I think that is wrong. It is not clear at all that the UK’s conventional capability is being rebuilt nearly enough.”

The British army, Mr Barry continued, had not practised armoured warfare properly since 2003. It was outgunned in comparison to Russia’s forces, in some areas significantly so. Each Russian brigade had either two or three artillery battalions within it, he noted; the UK’s had one.

Shortfall 2: Manpower

All four services have seen dramatic reductions in manpower. This has curbed deployability and flexibility. But more critically, there are severe shortages of manpower in critical jobs, such as naval engineering, intelligence and medicine.

While Britain is committed to a comprehensive upgrade of its Warrior tanks, that programme has a low priority within the existing defence equipment plan. By comparison, Russia’s new Armata tanks outgun anything the UK or Nato can field, and have an active protection system that will reduce the effect of British anti-tank weapons by between 50 per cent and 90 per cent.

The other services are even more pressured.

“[In the air], the forces are being pushed in a way they have not been since the end of the cold war,” noted Justin Bronk, research fellow and combat air power specialist at the Royal United Services Institute. While the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, due to come into service soon for the RAF, was an exceptionally capable weapon, Mr Bronk said, the numbers purchased — at least initially — would limit its utility sharply because of pressures such as training, servicing and maintenance.

Shortfall 3: F35 fighters

Britain’s new generation of fast jets are the most expensive — and capable — combat aircraft ever built for the UK. But with just 48 of them, the UK will only be able to operate six at a time and payloads are limited

The UK has committed to buying 48 of the jets, which will be able to launch from the Navy’s two aircraft carriers. “That essentially means that on a long-term sustainable basis you might be able to deploy six of them,” says Mr Bronk. “At a high tempo for a short duration, you might be able to deploy 12.”

The UK’s aerial surveillance assets are the most stretched, however. On any given day, just one or two of the British six-plane AWACS fleet can be used to provide long-range radar and command functions for British forces. The aircraft were so old that their capabilities were “substantially” below their French and US equivalents, said Mr Bronk. “That is certainly not going to give you a 24-hour presence … let alone the ability to field more than one at a time in two or more different theatres.”

eShortfall 4: Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissanc

The UK’s fleet of 6 AWACS planes, which provide long-range radar coverage and act as command hubs for deployed forces, are very out of date. Only one or two can operate at any one time. The UK cannot even sustain 24-hour coverage over a theatre of operation with them.

The Royal Navy’s spate of new investments — from the Type 45 destroyers to the Queen Elizabeth carriers and the forthcoming Type-26 frigates — also belies significant operational constraints.

“The major capability gap that the Royal Navy faces is one of numbers,” said Lee Willett, editor of IHS Janes Navy International. “It is the simple need to have enough ships in all the places that the government requires them to be.”

While new high-tech ships would deliver a “major capability uplift in the short to medium term”, said Mr Willett, there may not be enough of them to combat or deter adversaries.

Shortfall 5: Type 45 destroyers

With only six Type 45 destroyers the Royal Navy will struggle to protect UK waters and its carrier fleet. Each carrier needs at least two destroyers to protect it. The ships have also been bedevilled by technical glitches.

The six Type 45s, for example, must between them cope with aiding the defence of UK airspace and territorial waters, routine deployments to help allies such as escorting US carriers through the Gulf, escort of the UK’s own new carriers, low-tempo operations such as countering piracy, as well as potential high-tempo operations such as combat operations. The ships are already bedevilled by technical glitches that have curbed operations.

Other, less prominent elements of the navy have continued to suffer. Amphibious assault forces, for example, are being cut back. The number of Bay-class logistics ships has fallen from four to three, and there are no costed plans to replace the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean.

Shortfall 6: Aircraft carriers

At £2bn each, the two carriers are the most expensive military platforms the UK fields. But there will not be enough F35 jets to fully kit them out for years. The big ships are also vulnerable to a host of emerging military technologies: China’s new hypersonic missiles could easily sink them.

According to Sir Richard, the challenge is not merely one of resources or money. More fundamentally, he wrote, the issue is one of strategic oversight and planning.

In the MoD and the security organs of Whitehall, he said, there was now “almost no capacity left to think and plan strategically or generate resources for the unforeseen … our own bureaucracy struggles to get its head above managing details and events”.

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12 hours ago, HeavyGunner said:

Sounds similar to our watered down cut back military we have right now. 

And the U.S. military is losing 976,000 troops due to enhanced retirement  next year.We will not even be able to beat up an old lady in a walker!


 “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy shit, what a ride!’


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1 hour ago, 41chevy said:

And the U.S. military is losing 976,000 troops due to enhanced retirement  next year.We will not even be able to beat up an old lady in a walker!

Yet very few pay attention to what's going on and if you're vocal about what you see going on you're labeled as a kook. 

  • Like 2

The problems we face today exist because the people who work for a living are outnumbered by the people who vote for a living.

The government can only "give" someone what they first take from another.

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