Cromwell’s Ghost: Will the Integrated Review Give Britain a New Model Army?

When all the different parts of the Integrated Review are finally published, they will point towards the creation of a ‘New Model Army’ for Britain. But will it be a model in the ‘exemplar’ sense; or more like the ‘Airfix’ sense?  Michael Clarke describes the challenge.

Cromwell’s New Model Army only lasted 15 years, from 1645 to 1660. It was disbanded after Cromwell’s death. But in that time, it revolutionised thinking across Europe about how armies should be raised, trained, equipped and led. And in the two Continental campaigns it undertook, small contingents of the New Model Army were devastatingly effective against European opposition.

The British Army is currently a long way from being Europe’s New Model Army, but on 22 March when we see the Defence White Paper part of the Integrated Review (Global Britain in a Competitive Age, out on 16 March) it is likely to reveal an ambition for the Army not dissimilar to Cromwell’s.

Many of the defence choices for the Integrated Review have already been mortgaged by previously announced decisions. So we know pretty well what the Royal Navy and the RAF will look like for the next decade. And since they are both more direct customers of British defence industry than the Army – Britain produces few land systems these days – there is also more certainty about the big-ticket defence investments the government has already made.

But the Army is the last to re-equip, the last to re-think, and the most unstructured going into the mixing bowl of the Review. And partly for that reason, it will come out of the Review with the greatest weight of expectation and ambition on its slimmed-down shoulders. The Army will probably be facing deeper and more profound changes after this review than it has faced in several generations.

Wrong Size, Wrong Shape

Expeditionary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – the ‘wars of 9/11’ – proved to be very demanding on an Army constantly being reorganised downwards over a decade and a half. They left it insufficiently and inappropriately equipped for high-end modern warfare. And whatever the right size of the Army is now judged to be, the number is very unlikely to come out as the present 82,000 (actually around 76,000, or less, on any given day). If the Army is to perform many different roles and maintain full spectrum capabilities, it is far too small at 76,000. On the other hand, if it is to be based essentially around the creation of a single ultra-modern combat division – properly capable of fighting 2030s high-end warfare – then a smaller number might actually be preferable.   

Nor is the Army anywhere near the ambitions laid out in the Chief of Defence Staff’s Integrated Operational Concept (IOC) of September last year.[1] The IOC sets out a template for British forces to recognise the vulnerabilities, and more particularly to embrace the advantages, of operating in the digital age. Despite the creation in 2015 of 77th Brigade to take up the digital challenge, the Army as a whole is not well-structured to cope with constant competition in that big, grey area just below the threshold of armed conflict. And the experience last year of Azeri forces extensively using Turkish and Israeli combat drones to paralyse Armenian armoured forces in Nagorno Karabakh has set planners wondering how the current Army would really get on operating above the armed conflict threshold after all. It could lose in a single afternoon an awful lot of the particular type of combat division it was envisaging only a couple of years ago.         

Of course, when the defence white paper appears there will be a predictable, and heated, row about whatever cuts or reorganisations are announced. Reports are that it will be reduced down to 70,000 or even fewer. Which units will be cut, merged or re-orientated? Which cap badges lost?

But the choices that will most matter to the Army’s future will be judged by how far – and how genuinely – the review seems to be going down the IOC road, and whether there will be sufficient funding for it to sustain the ambition long enough to see it through.

The New Challenges of Integrated Operations

The Integrated Operational Concept is not short on ambition. All the armed forces, it says, should be capable of being ‘more assertive’; of ‘continuously seeking information advantage’ and ‘continuously operating on our terms and in places of our choosing’.[2] No longer would the armed forces be the ultimate insurance policy – training and preparing for when they are occasionally needed. In the IOC they are intrinsically part of society’s ongoing functioning – continuously competing in the grey area below the combat threshold yet still able to operate as war-fighters if the threshold is crossed by our adversaries; constantly operating, constantly deterring, and still, perhaps, fighting at the high-end if necessary.

In the dead-pan prose of the IOC, all Britain’s armed forces will have to be ‘smaller and faster’, promote ‘mobility over protection’, be ‘stealthy’, exploit the ‘information advantage’, balance themselves between ‘crewed and uncrewed’ platforms and operate their own system of systems in ‘the combat cloud’.[3]     

These phrases are particularly resonant for the Army in its present state. They emphasise how far it still has to go. It implies playing some role in greater societal resilience as a matter of course – reducing the social impact on national institutions and the wider public of what our adversaries may be doing in the ‘grey area’ to weaken British and western resolve to defend our legitimate interests.

More dramatically, it means that in preparing to deter, or if necessary fight, a future war the Army has got to embrace some radically new capabilities. It really does have to recast itself as a New Model Army. It will likely have 150 refurbished ‘Challenger III’ tanks, 590 Ajax armoured fighting vehicles, 500 Boxer mechanised infantry vehicles, and, at most, 70,000 troops to do it with.

Alongside this backbone it must invest a great deal more in deep strike capability – engaging well over the horizon against opposing forces it cannot see and will probably never directly encounter with any of the 1,200 fighting vehicles listed above. It is what ex-Royal Marine general Robert Fry has described as the ‘Midway moment’ for land warfare – the strategically decisive 1942 Pacific battle where the opposing aircraft carrier fleets never got closer than 100 miles from each other.[4] And while it is striking deep, in order to avoid an adversary’s own deep strike forces, a British combat formation must be capable of stealth and physical dispersal followed by rapid concentration at the points where it matters. It needs extensive medium-range air defence and electronic protection – probably far beyond the current plans for the Sky Sabre replacement of the ageing Rapier air defence system. A New Model Army will make use of a great many robotic vehicles and platforms. And the need to have all the necessary information and command and control in the IOC’s ‘combat cloud’ is best understood as having the ability to manipulate the ‘Internet of Things’ – the military’s and everyone else’s IoT – to best tactical advantage.

Certain eternal verities of warfare, of course, have to be recognised. Every commander should still seek to avoid putting British forces into a fair fight. And when tanks, boots and bayonets are really required, nothing else will do. But other small units will be required to deliver devastating effects; by rocket artillery, drones, or cyber-attack against fast-moving targets a long way beyond the horizon; robots will take big physical risks in the hottest parts of a battlespace; the whole combat unit will be working hard to remain elusive without losing coherence, while a combined forces effort is made to exert the right sort of pressures on an adversary. All precisely so that if and when tanks, boots and bayonets are required, they won’t be entering a fair fight. 

That’s quite a challenge for any army to accomplish within the decade during which this battlespace will become a reality. But if the Army is to be smaller – which now seems inevitable – it must be smaller to a better strategic purpose. Only in that way can it influence its European military partners in NATO, be taken seriously as a military ally by a frankly sceptical United States, and restore some of its global prestige after twenty years of foreign operations that, as Ben Barry says, had turned ‘to dust’.[5] The words used in the Defence White Paper will doubtless be grandiloquent. But words are cheap. Transformation is hard and expensive and Britain will be in the European and international spotlight as it tries to show what a small, high-tech army can really do.

Not least, there is the question of the qualities and the motivations required of the young men and women who volunteer to serve in this transformed New Model Army. The United Kingdom is emerging from a period when it has been diseased, distracted, and may even be dissolving. Cromwell’s ghost might be whispering to us again: ‘men must know what they fight for’, he said, ‘and love what they know’.[6] That’s a challenge for us all.  

Michael Clarke was the Director General of RUSI, 2007-15. He is the author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018. He is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London. I.B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021, forthcoming.

Photograph: Crown copyright. This photograph is public sector information licensed under the Open Government License v3.0, available via the Ministry of Defence here.

[1] Ministry of Defence, Introducing the Integrated Operational Concept, 30 September 2020.

[2] Ibid., pp. 10, 13.

[3] See also Secretary of State’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute, 11 December 2020.

[4] Robert Fry, ‘War on land approaches its Midway moment’, The Article, 20 February 2021

[5] Ben Barry, Blood, Metal and Dust: How Victory Turned into Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq, London, Osprey, 2020, p. 490.

[6] Jonathan Fennell, Fighting the People’s War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 230.