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British tanks are to return to Germany amid tensions with Russia, the Defence Secretary has announced, in a major restructuring of the Army.
The move will boost the amount of British military equipment available in central Europe, in an attempt to enable the rapid reinforcement of Nato’s eastern flank.
British forces pulled out of Germany a decade ago, amid the focus on Afghanistan and Iraq.
The announcement forms part of plans to restructure the Army and “catch up” after years of under-investment.
Ben Wallace told the Commons that the need for the Army to update kit and structures was obvious.
“When I went to Salisbury Plain in November and stood amongst an armoured brigade on exercise, apart from better communications and a few laser range-finders, it was entirely the same as one I’d been in 1991,” he said.
“It really reminded me how far behind… our land forces have fallen.”
Mr Wallace added that an extra £8 billion would be used to buy new tanks and helicopters over the next decade, on top of the £40 billion already announced for new kit.
He acknowledged that the Government’s Integrated Review of foreign, defence, security and development policy, which was delivered earlier this year, cut Army troop numbers from 82,500 to 73,000. But he insisted the move was necessary.
The Defence Secretary said: “That does mean we will have fewer soldiers, but it also means we will have an honest Armed Forces that does what it says on the side of the tin rather than boast about having lots of people and equipment that is 20 years out of date.”
Under the reforms, the Army has created a special operations brigade, based around four infantry units, that will be called the Ranger Regiment. These battalions will train foreign forces and accompany them into battle against terrorist groups and hostile states.
Mapping out the future of the Army
Other reforms unveiled in Parliament on Thursday include rebasing units in the UK closer to their traditional areas of recruiting.
The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the only Welsh Cavalry regiment, is to be based in Caerwent, Monmouthshire, and two Scottish infantry regiments will move to Leuchars and Edinburgh.
The Army has had tanks and other armoured vehicles based in Estonia for five years as part of Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission to deter Russia.
Under the new plans, extra tanks will be based at Sennelager, Germany, in the Nato Forward Holding Facility, meaning an entire armoured brigade will be based on the continent for the first time since the drawdown after the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
No additional troops will be posted back to Germany. Instead, units will rotate through Sennelager using the tanks on exercise or preparing them for deployment to Estonia.
In an interview with The Telegraph in 2010, Liam Fox, the defence secretary at the time, said that Britain was withdrawing tanks from Germany as “the Russians are not going to come over the European plain any day soon”.
“We have to look at where we think the real risks will come from, where the real threats will come from and we need to deal with that accordingly,” he said, adding that the military had to be configured only for “realistic potential future threats”.
Defence chiefs believe those threats have rematerialised. A Whitehall security source told The Telegraph that Russia’s military activity on Ukraine’s border was “aggressive” and “worrying”.
Lt Gen Ralph Wooddisse, of the Commander Field Army, said that he recognised the “antiquated nature of much of our equipment,” adding “that must change” and the Army in the future will “focus more on prevention than cure”.
“That’s not to say we’ll lose the warfighting muscles we’ve strived so hard to develop over the last few years… but it must come with recapitalisation.”
He said every Army unit will be affected by the changes.
Support to the Union
The proportion of the Army based in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be sustained or increased by 2025 under the new plans.
This will be reinforced by about £3.35 billion from the defence estate optimisation budget, and a further £1.2 billion from the Army’s existing infrastructure budget will be spent on the remaining sites.
Brig John Clark, the Army’s head of strategy, said that the money would deliver “benefits across the Union”.
Under the reform plans, Scotland will be home to more units and a greater proportion of the Army’s workforce than it is at present.
Glencorse Barracks near Edinburgh will be retained, while the Kinloss and Leuchars bases will be expanded.
The Government said that a £355 million investment in Army buildings and training areas will deliver more than £1 billion of economic benefits to Scotland.
The number of soldiers in Wales is also set to increase with the move of the “Welsh cavalry”, The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, from Norfolk to Caerwent and a new reserve company of The Royal Welsh established in north Wales.
The retention of the base in Brecon and the growth of locations in Wrexham are part of a £320 million investment.
Northern Ireland will keep the same number of Army units, but host a greater proportion of the Army’s overall workforce.
The administrative headquarters overseeing the Army’s 33 Regular and 16 Reserve battalions of infantry will be rebranded under the new proposals.
The four administrative groups will be called the Union Division, the Guards and Parachute Division, the Queens Division and the Light Division.
The Union Division will comprise three battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, the Royal Irish Regiment and two battalions of The Yorkshire Regiment.
Mostly focused on recruiting and career management, these headquarters also act as links to the various regimental associations and other veterans communities.
The Defence Secretary said: “In Wales and Scotland, there will be an increase of a regular unit in each of those countries: Welsh cavalry, currently in Norfolk, to Wales and two Scottish infantry regiments plus Scottish cavalry together based in Scotland.”
Army Reserve to be called out more often
Under the Army reforms, Reserve units will be in charge of responding to crises across the UK such as flooding, or emergencies such as Covid.
Currently, the weight of effort when responding to domestic issues that require military support falls on regular forces. In future, Reserves will be called up much earlier and expected to be deployed for longer.
“Our experience throughout the Covid pandemic has been that the Reserve does that brilliantly,” Lt Gen Wooddisse said.
“The Reserve component will become an intrinsic part of the force. It will be able to deploy on operations today and tomorrow, and be available to provide support for the very worst day when we have to fight at scale.”
Lt Gen Wooddisse said that Reserve units “sometimes feel frustrated when the regular component of the Army is brought forward in order to help shore up a flood barrier. There is a real appetite to do this”.
He added: “What we’re offering to the Reserves is a much more compelling range of tasks than they’ve had recently.”
The Army will re-role 19th Brigade, based in York, to command the reserve combat units.
The brigade is to be fully functional next year and will be in charge of 10 reserve battalions.
Reserve units are expected to target cyber and social media experts for recruitment into the Army’s 6th Division; specialists in developing unconventional capabilities designed for warfighting and for operations conducted below the threshold of war.
Global network of ‘regional hubs’
The Army plans to have a more enduring presence overseas with units spending longer on exercises around the world rather than returning home to the UK as soon as possible.
Through three regional hubs in Germany, Oman and Kenya, the Army will “extend our influence [and] support the prosperity agenda,” Brig Clark said.
The Army plans to concentrate the training of its heavy warfighting units of tanks and infantry in Oman.
Mr Wallace responded to reports revealed this week in The Telegraph that the British Army Training Unit located in Suffield, Canada, a huge training estate used primarily for major warfighting exercises, is to close.
He said that the base would not be closing “in its entirety” and would continue to be used “for different functions”.
However, referring to the tanks and other armoured units that train in Canada, Mr Wallace said there would be “a greater effect having [such forces] closer to home and more ready”.
“Readiness and presence deters our adversaries. Sitting in Tidworth [a base on Salisbury Plain in southern England] on a month’s notice to deploy does not actually put off an adversary such as Russia.”
Basing equipment such as tanks in Germany and Oman is a strong signal to allies and adversaries of Britain’s increased global ambition, Mr Wallace said.
Bases to close, but £8 billion more in funding
The Army will be designed in the future to fight as far away from base locations as possible, using drones, cyber attacks and missiles that can hit targets almost 500km (311 miles) away.
A new Deep Strike Reconnaissance Brigade – a mix of artillery and cavalry units, backed up by Apache attack helicopters – will be formed.
The Army will reorganise to consolidate armoured forces around Salisbury Plain in southern England, with more agile infantry units located in Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.
In total, 33 locations will close, including some small reserve bases. Alanbrooke Barracks in Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, is one of the locations to be lost.
However, in a surprise move, the Defence Secretary announced that Glencorse Barracks will be saved, overturning a decision taken five years ago to close the site.
The decision to save the barracks, opened in 1803 to house French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars, was welcomed by the SNP.
Christine Grahame, the party’s MSP for Midlothian South, said: “This is fantastic news for all involved – the military personnel and their families, the local community and all those who campaigned to keep the barracks open.
“These barracks are an absolutely key part of our community and their closure would have been devastating, not least to local businesses.
“This decision should never have been made in the first place. These barracks are well established, equipped and had a £60 million revamp in the mid-2000s. It never made sense to close them and I’m glad the UK Government has finally seen sense on this.”
The Army’s upgraded Challenger 3 tanks will be in service by 2025, Mr Wallace told Parliament, and the first infantry units to operate the new Boxer eight-wheeled all-terrain vehicles will be operational from 2023.
The Army will also create a new Experimentation and Trials Group in 2022 to drive innovation and competitiveness across the force.
Built around the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment and specialist trials and development units, it will lead on trialling new technologies like drones and other autonomous vehicles.
Best is yet to come for the Army if we turn forward-thinking plans into action
By Lt Gen (retd.) Ivan Jones, former Commander of the Field Army
For all the Army claims it is going through a constant cycle of change, in many ways it differs little from its predecessor fighting in northern France in 1944.
Transport a soldier from the beaches of Normandy into the Army of today and they probably wouldn’t feel that uncomfortable.
But if you put them into The Telegraph’s newsroom or the City of London, they would be blown away by how technology has fundamentally changed.
New thinking is essential, not just for survival but to get ahead of the game. The Defence Secretary is right when he says we have the best soldiers in the world. We can’t ask those soldiers to do the same things, equipped in the same ways as they have been for years.
How are we creating an Army specialised to fight in a digitised and increasingly urbanised world? The integrated review took a step in the right direction, towards an expeditionary, agile and more global military.
The manner in which the Services are working together today, integrating with the intelligence agencies and drawing talent from other parts of government is impressive and deserves credit. The future of warfare won’t be fought by that many people with bayonets fixed.
The battlefields of the future, the peacetime environment that we live in now and the disruptive challenges that we face like Covid-19 require soldiers to think on an individual level.
Independence of mind
We need an independence of mind that corrals together when needed, but can act on its own when appropriate.
Mass, of armour or people, is a dated concept and doesn’t require the skill, training or intellect of the quality of people in the British Army. Forward-basing tanks in Germany to be closer to allies whilst messaging potential adversaries is a smart move.
As is the creation of the Special Operations Brigade. The 6th Division of which it is a part is pretty avant garde, and the US, France and Germany are envious of the collective, collaborative and specialist capabilities therein.
So the Army’s transformation plan is a step in the right direction, albeit one with a comfortable hand holding onto the traditional way of warfare. This is a welcome transitional step.
Balancing conformity with innovative thinking
Of course, we need an Army that balances enough conformity with a degree of challenge and innovative thinking. The new Ranger Regiment embodies this idea. It shows the direction of travel, but we’re not at the destination yet.
Soldiers today are joining with an ability to understand and manipulate technology and information that eclipses the Army of 20 years ago. We should harness that, nurture and encourage it. And then let it loose.
The Army’s transformation programme is called Future Soldier. We need to ensure it is exactly that, and doesn’t just polish what we’ve always done or replicate what others are doing.
If it is a step towards something more contemporary in 10 years time, that is very exciting. The best is yet to come.
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