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British Army faces critical digitisation and modernisation challenges

23rd September 2022 - 15:00 GMT | by Norbert Neumann in London


The British Army's deep-battle approach would rely on the Ajax. (Photo: UK Crown Copyright)

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.

There was no shortage of uproar and clamour when the then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson published the Integrated Review (IR), with many of his rivals and allies challenging the practicability and approach of the matters outlined – or the lack of those – in the document.

The IR and the subsequently published Future Soldier recognised the need for a digital transformation across the British Armed Forces, and they promised the creation of a more agile, more deployable army.

The former paper outlined bold objectives for modernisation and overhauling and said the UK ‘will prioritise the development and integration of new technologies.’ Yet, indicated cuts to both personnel and equipment across the RAF and the Army at the same time.

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Out of the three British services, the army had the highest proportion of its equipment either obsolete or nearing obsolescence at the time of the review.

The British Army has been receiving way lower funding than the RN, the RAF or nuclear capability programmes in the past decades, and thus remains the least digital part of the armed forces. Additionally, due to budgetary restraints, the British Army is constantly shrinking in size and is the smallest it has been since the end of the 19th century.

Many of the ambitions that were announced in the IR have yet to be funded.IISS senior research fellow for land warfare, Ben Barry.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing tension in the Indo-Pacific prompted a reassessment, or at least a revisit, of the security and defence matters.

Although conversations have begun about the acceleration of some of the land programmes where possible, it is still unclear from where the army would get the money for those.

‘Many of the ambitions that were announced in the IR have yet to be funded. The Government says the money is there, but whether it actually is or not is an open question,’ IISS senior fellow for land warfare Ben Barry told Shephard.

There are a lot of experimentations going on within the UK to achieve rapid digitisation and modernisation, but just like many other countries, the UK is struggling to deliver large, complex technologically sophisticated projects and training programmes.

The Ajax armoured vehicle is an example for the British Army, Barry pointed out.

‘The Ajax programme appears to have turned into a very problematic one,’ he explained. ‘And of course, the Ajax is the second fully digital vehicle that the British are fielding, but it is already well behind the curve.

‘There have also been persistent reports that the new Bowman digital communication system, which is being made by the same manufacturer, General Dynamics, is problematic.’

If survives, the Ajax IFV would come in six variants with a high level of automation and digitisation in the turret, C2 capabilities, laser warning system and various other technologies that are designed to give operational advantage and a super-stealthy operational mode.  

At the RUSI Land Warfare Conference in June, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff said that the British Army will ‘ruthlessly prioritise’ mobilisation and the acceleration of modernisation aspects of Future Soldier. At the heart of that being combined arms training and urban combat training, with an increased focus on readiness.

The new AH-64E apaches would play a significant role in establishing the British Army's new deep battle reconnaissance strike brigade. (Photo: UK Crown Copyright)

Barry reasoned, however, that spending on modernisation is likely to only happen later in the decade due to soaring inflation, extremely high energy bills and the intense pressure on public spending.

‘I don’t think it’s safe to assume that the increases in defence spending can be sustained,’ Barry cautioned. ‘While there will be industrial pressure from the aerospace and shipbuilding industry, the land sector does not have the same sort of lobbying power.’

He argued that, since the British land sector is much smaller than it was during the Cold War when it made a huge range of armoured vehicles and weapons, the international defence industry for land forces does not have a huge incentive to establish itself in the UK.  

There are other obstacles standing between the current and a highly digitised British Army, not least the need to increase spending on stockpiles of ammunition and spare parts. The low levels of supplies are further exacerbated by the ammunition and weapons the UK continues providing to Ukraine to fight against Russia.

None of the above makes for an optimistic prospect for the army, especially given that the outgoing and incoming capabilities are very much designed around a successful digitisation approach.

As the Warrior IFVs will retire in 2025 with no replacement, the UK will become the only major NATO country without armoured infantry as part of its army. In conjunction with the reduced ground-manoeuvre brigades, this will considerably reduce the army’s close-combat and urban fighting capabilities.

The army's CATT programme remains important in training British troops. (Photo: UK Crown Copyright)

Instead, the UK would focus on “deep-battle”, which would entail the engagement of targets with greater precision at longer range. This, in theory, would reduce the requirement of close fighting.

The army would achieve this by the creation of a new deep reconnaissance strike brigade combat consisting of the Ajax, the new AH-64E Apache attack helicopter, EW and long-range precision artillery such as the M270 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS).

‘They [the UK] have taken a big gamble with this investment,’ Barry asserted. ‘They think the close battle will be less important, but I’m not sure that’s supported by the evidence coming out of Ukraine. If you look at the initial defence of Kyiv, although there were deep attacks by Ukrainian mortars, artillery and special forces, actually it was close battle that stopped the Russians from reaching the capital.’

Assuming the Ajax programme endures, and the army will successfully implement its recce brigade, it could still face challenges in training troops for deep battle.   

Ajax, Boxer and Challenger III, as three big core platforms, are smart and are giving off more data than any other platform we’ve ever seen.Lockheed Martin director of business development, Chris Harrison.

While the UK had deployed more forces to the east flank of NATO territory than any other European NATO member, the amount of land-based live training and exercises it does has also been reduced over the years for economic reasons. Judging by the number of virtual training programmes in which the MoD’s Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) is investing, it is clear where the UK sees the future of training.

Talking to Shephard, Lockheed Martin director of business development Chris Harrison, who is closely engaged with the British Army’s Combined Arms Tactical Trainer (CATT) programme, said: ‘There is a move from the analogue to digital. ISTAR digitisation, communications digitisation and its health and usage monitoring digitisation.

‘These are smart platforms [the British] are buying. Ajax, Boxer and Challenger III, as three big core platforms, are smart and are giving off more data than any other platform we’ve ever seen.’

He said there is a need to capture that and use it to understand not only the live training domain, but also how to represent real data in the virtual worlds in large simulations like CATT.

The UK MoD and DE&S did not answer Shephard’s request on the  digitisation issues facing the army.

Norbert Neumann


Norbert Neumann

Norbert is the Military Training & Simulation reporter at Shephard Media. Before joining Shephard in …

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