Has the British Army been learning from its mistakes?
British Army acquisition programmes have become a headache for the UK MoD in recent decades. Due to unrealistic timetables, demanding requirements, funding and mismanagement, several efforts were terminated without delivering the expected systems even after spending millions of pounds from taxpayers.
Although the services have been repeating the same errors over decades, both the army and the MoD have been given signs that they have learned some lessons from their mistakes.
Admitting and recognising the failures is the first step to avoiding continually committing the same errors.
In June, at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2022, Chief of the General Staff Gen Patrick Sanders acknowledged that the branch's platform procurement has not been ‘a smooth journey’ during the last decades.
‘We have the humility to learn the lessons where it has gone wrong and the confidence to engage with industry to generate the mutual trust required to get the very latest technology for the best value for money,’ he said.
Sanders also claimed that the army has been working on identifying the areas of its administration process that take up its time and slow the service down: ‘we must be practical and cut through unnecessary bureaucracy’.
From the MoD side, the ministry released the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) in March 2021 and the Land Industrial Strategy (LIS) in 2022 with the goal to plug gaps between the government and the industry. Ultimately, it is intended to reduce procurement risk.
Issued in July by the House of Commons Defence Committee, the ‘Integrated Review, Defence in a Competitive Age and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy - Second Report of Session 2022–23’ analyse both DSIS and LIS.
Ares variant of the Ajax family. (Photo: British Army)
The report stated that having those documents ‘would have helped over the past decade’ since ‘it may have ensured that the Government’s approach to the sector would be more coherent’.
Although it seems that the services learned some lessons from their past mistakes, several other adjustments must be taken in the next coming years.
Avoiding repetitive mistakes is among the most important issues. Over the last decades, the MoD has committed several mismanagement errors in the combat vehicle programmes that resulted in the waste of millions of pounds.
‘Having initiated an alphabet soup of more than a dozen different armoured vehicle families since the 1990s, the MoD has been incapable of digesting any of them, with one programme cancellation after another,’ the report of the Defence Committee pointed out.
The Future Rapid Effect System Utility (FRES-UV) vehicle and the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP) are examples of the misapplication of taxpayers’ money.
The same mistakes seem to have recurred with Ajax. As the report of the Defence Committee stressed, the challenges the MoD has faced on this programme ‘are not new, but symptomatic of UK armoured vehicle acquisition since the end of the Cold War’.
Another crucial measure is often evaluating the geopolitical context and reassessing strategies and decisions in order to be prepared for tomorrow's battlefield. In this sense, the UK military seems not to be keen to adapt its forces to the current scenario.
In this sense, the UK Integrated Review (IR), released in 2021, intended to modernise UK defence and put emphasis on adopting capabilities based on novel technologies in order to ensure the defence would have equipment suitable for the Information Age.
The investment for those future capacities was prioritised over maintaining current capabilities, such as conventional ground systems.
IR reduced the number of military personnel in the British Army. (Photo: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2022)
IR also planned to retire the Warrior IFV, which would be replaced by Boxer by the middle of this decade, which created a capability gap in the army.
Moreover, it reduced the number of military personnel from 76,500 to 72,500 by 2025, as the operation of the new systems would require fewer people.
The Defence Committee’s report pointed out that the MoD stated that ‘mass is no longer of importance but the conflict in Ukraine seems to undermine this conclusion’.
The document also highlighted that the impacts of both the Afghan withdrawal and the Russian invasion of Ukraine ‘are being seemingly dismissed as insignificant and there appears to be no intention to re-visit the conclusions of the documents’.
Indeed, on 5 July, while providing oral evidence before the House of Commons Defence Committee, Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, claimed that several assumptions in the IR command paper ‘are absolutely in the right place.’
The army and the MoD have also to take into consideration that the war in Ukraine can impact the reserves of defence material and equipment, the availability of resources to be invested in procurement, the industry capacity of production as well as the agenda of acquisition efforts.
The Defence Committee’s report issued noted that the war in Ukraine ‘has only exacerbated the pressure on Defence resources’.
In order to be prepared for future warfare, the UK MoD as well as the army have to change the approach and better apply the lessons learned from their mistakes. Otherwise, the UK risks being overmatched on tomorrow’s battlefield by near-peer adversaries.
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The UK government appears determined to double defence spending by 2030, but it cannot simply wish away the sizeable economic obstacles in the way.
Lessons learned from the war in Ukraine have been putting in check decisions taken under Integrated Review.
While the Integrated Review was broadly correct in some of its assumptions, events in Ukraine have challenged the thinking behind cuts to UK capability.
The UK Integrated Review outlined how the UK plans to compensate for the loss of numbers with more advanced technologies, novel training solutions and the acceleration of digitisation across all forces. A year on, it is still unclear how the British Army will reach the desired sophistication and readiness levels.
Along with the British Army, the Royal Air Force has lost out on the Integrated Review and the UK MoD has taken risky bets. It is in need of an honest review and ministers should accept that wrong assumptions were made.