British Army SDSR Preview

Every five years the British government releases a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which details upcoming changes to the armed forces. In the penultimate article in this series, we will be looking at what changes could happen to the British Army.

The 2015 SDSR built on Army 2020, a future force structure first announced in 2011. Army 2020 Refine aims to produce a more agile force following years of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Please note that this article doesn’t include special forces as the UK government refuses to comment on their operations. The structure is based around three divisions, with 3rd (United Kingdom) Division providing the main expeditionary capability.

Reaction Forces

16 Air Assault Brigade will continue to deliver a very high readiness capability to the British Army. Designated as the “Lead Air Assault Task Force” they will be the first units to arrive in theatre capable of conducting combined operations. The brigade’s main firepower will be provided in future by 105mm L118 light guns and Apache AH.2 helicopters. Question marks have been raised regarding the lack of armoured support within the brigade. The CVR(T) family is being replaced by the Ajax family and as Ajax isn’t air-droppable the brigade could well lack armour on future operations.

16 Air Assault Brigade continues to provide the UK’s high readiness rapid reaction capability (MOD © Crown copyright 2019)

Held at a lower readiness than 16 Air Assault will be two “Strike Brigades.” These units will consist of an Ajax cavalry regiment, two Warrior armoured infantry battalions, and a Boxer infantry battalion. Also included in these units will be integrated support including air defences, artillery, and logistics. The original plans dictated three “Strike Brigades” however following cuts to the size of the Army this has been reduced. To find a more detailed look at these units check out Nicholas Drummond’s brilliant article here.

Much has been made with regards to the tracked vehicles being unable to keep up with Boxer on long road deployments. This problem can’t be easily solved, with Boxer not providing enough organic firepower for high-intensity operations. The lack of a vehicle armed with anything larger than a 40mm cannon is also a major issue. Block 2 Ajax could well include a variant fitted with a large calibre gun however no commitment has been made to go through with a Block 2 purchase. If you’d like to find out more about Ajax check out our article here for a more in-depth look.  

The Warrior fleet is about to go through a capability sustainment program (CSP) to keep the vehicles relevant until the 2040s. Included in this program is a new Lockheed Martin turret using the same CTA 40mm cannon as Ajax. This new turret and associated fire control systems will allow the vehicle to pack more punch while also allowing it to fire on the move. Alongside these changes, the fleet is also set to receive armour upgrades to allow them to continue to provide heavy armoured support to infantry. If everything goes according to plan the final approval of the design is set to occur in August 2020.

Warrior CSP will allow the vehicles to continue to be key to mechanized units until at least 2025 (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2019)

The story of Boxer and the British Army is a long one, with Britain being an original partner in the project only to leave and re-join later. A more in-depth look at Boxer will be coming soon so it’s only addressed in the context of the “Strike Brigades” here. Currently, there are 528 vehicles on order split between armoured personnel carriers, ambulances, command vehicles, and specialist carrier variants. It is expected that a more diverse selection of variants will follow in due course and it is currently unknown what additional mission modules are being sought.

Initially, the units slated to receive Boxer will be issued with Mastiffs until such a time that Boxer is ready for deployment. It has been argued that alongside the current Boxer order more specialist vehicles should be ordered. Currently, the air defence, anti-tank guided missile, and artillery variants are being proposed in the media to allow for a more integrated system of support than the current assortment of attached support. The advantage with Boxer is that these variants all share a common chassis and can be converted to a different role by changing the “mission module.” These modules only take an hour to change under field conditions and allow for less, more flexible, vehicles being procured.

Challenger 2

If more firepower is required, the Army will be able to attach Challenger 2 regiments to the “Strike Brigades.” Challenger 2 hasn’t seen major upgrades since entering service in 1998 and several attempts to upgrade the main battle tanks have ended in failure. Currently, Rheinmetall is bidding against BAE Systems for the Challenger Life Extension Program (CLEP) and whoever wins the upgrades will be carried out in Telford. This follows Rheinmetall acquiring a majority shareholding of BAE’s UK vehicle operations and the companies announcing both proposals would continue to compete against each other.

Both designs are expected to include both soft and hard kill defence systems as well as improved fire control systems. Where the two proposals differ, the largest difference is regarding the turret used. BAE’s proposal involves upgrading the current turret and gun whereas Rheinmetall has proposed a new turret which is also compatible with their 120mm/55 smoothbore gun. Whichever design is chosen it is essential that the program is a success with at least another twenty years until Challenger 2’s replacement.

Challenger Life Extension Program aims to maintain the viability of Challenger 2 until at least 2035, by which time a new generation of main battle tanks should be available. (Alan Wilson)

France and Germany have begun work on their next-generation main battle tank the UK will soon need to begin the Challenger 2 replacement program. Considering the small numbers required for the UK the next generation will either need to be widely exported or purchased from abroad. Considering the UK’s strategic alignment with the US it may be preferable to go down that route. The Franco-German project, Main Ground Combat System, doesn’t seem to be a revolutionary change but rather an evolutionary step.

If the UK really wants to be a world player with regards to next-generation tanks, then a revolutionary change needs to occur. A clean-sheet design will most likely be the way to go and the vehicle will need to use the most modern technology available. The real limiting factor with regards to a next-generation tank will be cost. Considering the small number (148) of Challenger 2s being upgraded the UK will not be able to afford to develop a national replacement program.

Most nations producing main battle tanks rely on them due to their large borders that need protecting in time of war. This is in stark contrast to the UK which requires something more easily deployable for out of area operations. A lighter, more transportable, vehicle will most likely be the way to go. Being able to get large numbers into combat quickly will likely be more important than heavy tanks facing down Soviet hordes in the Cold War.

Light Forces

The light combat arm of the Field Army is provided by 1st (United Kingdom) Division. Included within the division are both light role infantry and light cavalry. There is very little that can be changed with regards to light infantry however an increase in numbers is seen as essential. The Army has struggled over the last few years with regards to numbers following sweeping cuts throughout the armed forces.

A major change that needs to be looked at is whether the L85A3 assault rifle will remain in service for the foreseeable future. The SA80 family entered service in 1985 and although there were major reliability flaws with the A1. These were rectified by the A2 upgrade program and the A3 upgrades began entering service in 2018. The L85 will continue in service until at least 2025 and therefore it is time to begin a program for a successor. Many specialised units have exchanged their L85s for Diemaco C8 carbines and it may make sense to continue this exchange throughout the Army. If this route isn’t pursed, then another option needs to be considered considering the age of the SA80 platform.

It will soon be time to replace the L85 which originally entered service in the ’80s and is currently operated in its A3 variant. (LPhot Joe Cater, UK MOD © Crown copyright 2019)

It is expected that light cavalry units will continue to use the Land Rover RWMIK (Revised Weapons Mounted Installation Kit) and Jackal 2. Considering the age of the Land Rover vehicles it is around now that a replacement needs to begin procurement. There are several UK developed options in this field. More Jackals seems like the obvious choice however these may be too large for all operations. The same can also be said of the Foxhound WMIK which is the Foxhound protected mobility vehicle with a WMIK pod replacing the protected patrol module. Foxhound also makes sense as the vehicles can be converted from existing stocks.

If a smaller vehicle is required, then Supacat’s LRV400 seems like an obvious contender. Based on the Land Rover Discovery the LRV 400 is much lighter than the Jackal and is therefore air-transportable by Chinook and Merlin. Providing a proper light reconnaissance capability that can rapidly reach frontlines is essential and therefore the replacement of RWMIK needs serious consideration.

Infantry units currently equipped with Foxhound will lose the vehicles from their orders of battle. Instead, Foxhound will be assigned to a central pool and only used when required for deployments and operations. This shows that the Army wants to rely on Foxhound for its light protected mobility requirements and keeping them centrally makes sense adaptability-wise. This capability is quite something considering that the Foxhound was procured under an Urgent Operational Requirement purely for use in Afghanistan.

As technology continues to develop new and innovative capabilities need to be a priority for light forces. While we don’t know what advances in technology will deliver to the individual soldier, we may undergo a revolution in terms of capabilities. Whatever advances are developed need to be integrated into the equipment available to all forces and light forces are no different. While they won’t get high technology vehicles like armoured units changes will be required.

A major forward-looking program is the Morpheus radio system being developed from the existing Bowman system. A vital component will be the Dismounted Situational Awareness (DSA) program which is the successor to the earlier Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) program. DSA is expected to allow sensor fusion right down to the individual soldier level while maintaining highly encrypted signalling.

Specialised Infantry Group

Another capability generated under Army 2020 is the “Specialised Infantry Group.” This unit is based around providing training and mentoring to partner nations similarly to the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams in Afghanistan. So far, these units have seen service in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

By having a specialised training cadre for foreign militaries, the British Army will be able to expand its influence globally. Many nations will want to have training provided by the UK and therefore the capability will expand the “soft power” capabilities of the UK. Oddly enough as the UK began generating this capability in 2017 the US was also doing the same thing. There are many comparisons between the Specialised Infantry Group and the US’ Security Force Assistance Brigades. The most obvious other than role is the fact that both forces will be used to free up regular infantry units for combat operations.

Totalling around 1,500 soldiers in five battalions the capability to aid training will further the UK’s long-term strategic goals. By having specialist units provide training the need for UK forces to deploy in a combat role will be greatly diminished. This will, therefore, allow regular light infantry to be constantly ready for combat operations, without the need to worry about training allied forces.


Artillery continues to play a major role on the battlefield, and this won’t change for the foreseeable future. Currently, the Royal Artillery operate the AS-90 155mm self-propelled gun (SPG), the L118 105mm light gun, the GMRLS rocket artillery system and Extractor long-range missiles.

AS-90 will continue to provide fire support to armoured infantry units for the foreseeable future and therefore upgrades to ammunition need to be considered. Currently, no guided shell is fielded and AS-90 only fires standard 155mm artillery shells. BAE has been working on an extended range munition with a range in excess of 40km and this will be vital for long-range engagements. Previously the indirect fire precision attack programme aimed to procure guided anti-tank shells however the project was cancelled.

Currently, the plan for artillery support for Strike Brigades revolves around the L118 light gun and while a highly capable system is not suited to this role. A wheeled SPG will be essential and the Boxer Artillery Gun Module (AGM) seems like the perfect fit. Using technology from the German PzH2000 the AGM turret is completely unmanned, with it being operated from within the hull by a crew of two. Not only would this provide Strike Brigades with organic, wheeled artillery support but it could also be used to provide a low-cost solution for taskings where AS-90 isn’t appropriate.

The Artillery Gun Module on Boxer would provide Strike Brigades with an organic self-propelled artillery capability to supplement the L118 light gun. (KMWEG)

The L118 will continue in service for the foreseeable future, with it being well suited for use by light forces where a larger gun is not viable. Rather than looking to replace the L118 upgrades should be pursued. The US Army’s M119 is based on the L118 and in its latest A3 variant includes an inertial navigation system and a digital fire control system. There is no reason why similar upgrades can’t be made to the L118 and therefore it would allow the L118 to continue in service for years to come.

Currently, there are only 35 GMLRSs (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems) in service and this won’t be enough for any future peer conflict. The accuracy of the system has been widely praised by British forces, with it being nicknamed “the 70km sniper.” Considering the M270 system is no longer produced extra vehicles would need to be purchased second-hand and considering the popularity of GMLRS, this may prove difficult.

An alternative would be procuring the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) which uses the same munitions. Although the vehicle carries half as many rockets as GMRLS it is currently in production and as it utilises the same munitions doesn’t require the replacement of existing rockets. Funnily the UK has previously developed an equivalent system, Lightweight Mobile Artillery Weapon System/Rocket (LIMAWS(R)), however, this program was cancelled in 2007. No matter what system is chosen it is vital that an increase in the number of systems is pursued.

The Extractor system was originally a classified purchase of Spike-NLOS missiles from Israel. Due to the size of the warhead on GMLRS, it is unsuitable where collateral damage needs to be avoided and therefore Spike-NLOS fills the role. The original systems procured in 2007 were drawn directly from Israeli Defence Force stocks and since then has been upgraded to use the Mk.5 missiles from trailers rather than leased M113s. It is expected to remain in service for some time and as more advanced Spike-NLOS variants come online they can replace existing missiles.


Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is vital to any military force and the British Army is no different. The majority of ISR is supplied by 1st Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Brigade which includes electronic warfare (EW), military intelligence, UAVs, and long-range patrol units.

Little is known about much of the British Army’s ISR capabilities due to them being a closely guarded secret of any force. Control of the electromagnetic spectrum will be vital in any future peer conflict and therefore 14th Cyber, Electromagnetic, and Electronic Warfare Signal Regiment will be an essential unit to any major operation.

Denying the enemy use of the electromagnetic spectrum will prevent them from being able to fully utilise radar or communications and therefore is a key capability. Electronic warfare capabilities are some of a nation’s most closely guarded secrets and therefore there is almost no information available in the public domain. What we do know is the UK is very confident in its capabilities, but they will require constant development to remain relevant.

The Intelligence Corps controls the battlefield intelligence whereas Defence Intelligence supplies broader, “all-source” intelligence to the whole of the MoD. Intelligence collection and analysis is still vital to planning operations and will continue to remain as such. Enlarging the Intelligence Corps would, of course, bring benefits however it is likely that they are down towards the bottom of the pile regarding funding.


Currently the British Army is replacing its Rapier anti-aircraft missiles with the Common Anti-Air Missile (CAMM), known in British Army service as Sky Sabre. Sky Sabre will deliver a step-change in capability, with its range of “at least” 25km vastly superior to Rapiers 8km range. The system is also used by the Royal Navy on its Type 23 frigates (as Sea Ceptor) and is expected to remain in service until at least 2050.

For shorter-range engagements the man-portable Starstreak system is used. Also mounted on the Stormer chassis, Starstreak is expected to serve for the foreseeable future, with 200 Mk.2 missiles ordered in 2013. Considering a cost of around £50,000 per missile the system isn’t well suited to engaging cheap drones.

If the British Army wants a viable local air defence solution, then a gun or directed energy-based system is essential. Cost per shot is becoming increasingly important and therefore missiles aren’t viable for shooting down a drone that costs a fraction of those missiles. Currently, a Boxer based solution would likely be preferable and could also mount Starstreak for engaging higher performance targets.

Oerlikon offers its Skyranger system on Boxer which utilises a 35mm revolver cannon and this gun has also been used at sea in a CIWS (Close-In Weapons System) role. It is also used in multiple static C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar) applications and as such would provide a vital inner layer to the air defence system.

As well as lacking in shorter range capabilities the British Army also lacks any long-range air defence or anti-missile missiles. Previously the UK was a partner in the Medium Extended Air Defence System (MEADS) which is aimed at replacing Patriot systems currently in use across NATO. No UK order has been forthcoming and it seems like a long-range air defence solution won’t be procured. The sheer cost of such systems is likely the reason, with the UK relying on airpower and allies to provide its long-range air defence.

The UK was a partner in the MEADS air defence project however no order has been forthcoming. (Lockheed Martin)

Army Air Corps

The Army Air Corps (AAC) is currently undergoing a major reequipment program, with Wildcat having replaced the Lynx AH.7/9s and Apache AH.1 set to be replaced by AH.2s.

Wildcat AH.1 serves the battlefield reconnaissance and light utility roles and is also operated the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in a maritime configuration. Developed from the Super Lynx, Wildcat fills the same roles as its predecessor with an advanced electro-optical sensor package. Wildcat also replaces the Gazelle AH.1 in a battlefield reconnaissance role.

Gazelle was originally slated for retirement in 2012 however this was pushed to 2018 and then to 2025. Currently, the aircraft are used in Northern Ireland in a counter-terror role, to support training in Canada, and to support special forces operations. Since the aircraft are due to be retired in five years it seems like they will be retired without replacement despite claims otherwise from Joint Helicopter Command.

The AAC is set to retire its Gazelle AH.1s in 2025 yet not replacement program has been forthcoming. (SAC Lee ‘Matty’ Matthews, RAF, Crown Copyright)

France is developing the H160M to replace its Gazelle fleet, amongst others, however, this would likely be too large for the AACs needs. Other options include the Airbus Helicopters H145/UH-72 (operated by the RAF as the Jupiter HT.1) and the Leonardo AW169M. Considering the role it may make sense to procure more Wildcats however the sheer cost of around £30m per aircraft may make that option unviable.

Apache AH.2 is set to replace the Apache AH.1s currently in service. AH.2 is the UK designation for the AH-64E Guardian helicopters built by Boeing. Unlike the AH.1s which were produced from Boeing kits by AgustaWestland and including UK specific modifications, the AH.2 will be almost identical to the AH-64Es operated by the US Army. The first of these new AH.2s is expected off the production line imminently and the aircraft will be remanufactured from AH.1s, with common equipment being reused.

Apache and WIldcat will provide the majority of the AAC’s battlefield capabilities at least until the middle of the century. (Sgt Donald Todd (RLC), ©MoD Crown Copyright 2019)

It has been widely speculated that Brimstone could replace Hellfire as the Apache’s primary guided missile and considering the use of Spike-NLOS on Apache by the US it would make sense that it will also be integrated in AAC service. AH.2 will continue to use the same 30mm cannon as existing aircraft as well as the CVR7 rockets currently in service.


It is clear to see that the British Army is undergoing a rapid change in the way it delivers combat capability. Following years of counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East high-end warfighting is again becoming a priority and this is a vital pivot in an ever increasingly unstable world.

Other than the major programs detailed above personnel numbers need increasing if the Army is to continue to meet threats into the future. The fact that the same can be said about all the UK’s armed forces shows that numbers have been cut over recent years to deliver capabilities that have been required.

If the Army wants to continue to be a capable fighting force an increase in personnel while maintaining platforms Is vital and without that increase, the British Army will struggle to defeat future threats.


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