British troop levels will shrink to record lows as the Ministry of Defence puts its faith in technology, automation, and cyber and space capabilities in its long-awaited revamp.
The Defence Command paper, published yesterday, is billed as the biggest shake-up to the military since the Cold War.
The plan includes swarming drones, a new ship for protecting undersea cables, and for the Royal Marines to be re-purposed as a commando-style force deployed overseas in the teeth of geopolitical storms.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that the blueprint, “marks a shift from mass mobilisation to information age speed, readiness, and relevance for confronting the threats of the future.”
It comes as part of a broader foreign policy review that includes a pivot towards the pacific and to state-based threats and competition.
The Navy and its carriers remain the centre-piece of that pivot to Asia, which was already outlined last week.
“The UK Armed Forces–working with the rest of government–must think and act differently,” said Wallace. They will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become more present and active force around the world.”
Despite a 14 percent boost in spending, there will be a drop in troop levels to historic lows.
“The Army’s increased deployability and technological advantage will mean that greater effect can be delivered by fewer people,” Wallace told MPs. “I have therefore taken the decision to reduce the size of the Army from today’s current strength of 76,500 trade trained personnel to 72,500 by 2025.”
That reduction in troops has already prompted criticism from former army leaders.
The government is pumping money into developing military space and cyber capabilities, along with unmanned aerial systems.
“All services recognise the importance of Unmanned Aerial Systems, which is why we will also develop combat drone swarm technologies,” said Wallace.
The number of tanks is also to be reduced, raising more concerns among some military analysts.
“The British Army had 1,200 main battle tanks at the start of the first gulf war, 1990,” Robert Clark, a military analyst at the Henry Jackson Society told The Epoch Times.
“It is now going to be reduced from its current 227, to just 148. So that’s enough for two armoured regiments,” he said. “It’s not even a token force amount.”
“The U.S., for instance, and several of our significant partners have seriously questioned the UK’s ability to sustain an armored commitment going forwards.”
Meanwhile, the Royal Marines are becoming SAS-style special operations forces—the Future Commando Force.
Instead of waiting on home soil ready to leave at a moment’s notice, they will be deployed overseas, hustling for geopolitical footholds in what is known as the “grey zone.”
They will be joined by another special ops regiment: the Rangers.
“It’s a much more light footprint, expeditionary in nature, deployment capability the Marines will have going forwards,” said Clark.
He says that this forward-deployed presence can counter the state-based threats which the UK government now regards as the major security threat.
Special operations forces will also be used to tackle the so-called “grey zone” activity.
That refers to enemy action that falls short of war from China’s South China sea aggression and island-building, to Russia’s disinformation campaigns on Twitter.
According to Clark, special forces will tackle this kind of warfare in collaboration with both MI6 and GCHQ.
“You are blending traditional capabilities and non-conventional capabilities with intelligence and cyberspace. So it’s very interesting, going forward.”
In the Navy, a new spy ship is being built to counter the growing threat to undersea internet cables, and undersea drones will replace the fleet of 13 minesweepers.
Overall, reaction to the plans have been mixed says Clark. He thinks that the plans may have been over-hyped, leaving some people underwhelmed. “Over the last six months so there’s so much excitement and build up,” he said.