WASHINGTON — When the United Kingdom released the “The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” a document designed to serve as the guidepost for the future of its military, it included calls for modernizing the British Army and retiring older systems. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, the Army’s chief of the general staff, is the person in charge of executing that vision.
During a May visit to Washington, he sat down with Defense News to explain some of the changes facing the service as the U.K. moves toward a heavily digital future focused on the Pacific region.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The U.S. Army is having an existential discussion about its role as a land force at a time when the country is focused on the Indo-Pacific region — an area certainly not lacking bodies of water. Britain’s integrated review posits a need to focus on that region. What is the British Army’s discussion about its future there?
Well, you’re right: The strategic relevance and utility of the land component, particularly the conventional land component, in a moment in military history when it looks as though the real challenge is warfare of the information age, rather than continuing to double down on conventional dominance in a form of warfare that might already be behind us, is one of the existential challenges which the review has sought to address.
With respect to the specifics of the land contribution across the Indo-Asia-Pacific: Our emphasis as the Army will be more on the Indo than it will be necessarily to the Asia-Pacific. We’ve had long military relations across that region, most particularly with Australia and New Zealand. And those are ones that we will continue to reinforce. They play host to combined exercises to which we contribute. We are interested in continuing to reinforce our relationship with both Japan and South Korea. Japan I visited just before COVID-19 lockdown, and I’m planning to visit Seoul later in the summer. And so those all indicate a much more active Army conversation across the region.
When it comes to defending against Russia, the U.S. is considering increasing its inventory of pre-positioned gear. What’s the British Army’s plan for defending Europe, if such action is necessary?
“Forward presence” would be my bumper label for it. The key utility that we need to bring is readiness and speed of response, and that is much more complicated with a domesticated Army garrisoned in the United Kingdom. We are going to be doubling down on our residual Army locations in Germany and making sure that we’re going to forward-base some of our key war-fighting equipment and stocks in order to increase our responsiveness and shorten the timeline. And we will simply flow troops forward to marry up with our equipment in Germany. From there, they will be able to exploit all the overland strategic routes to reinforce our Baltic partners, our [Enhanced Forward Presence] in Poland, and indeed I wouldn’t even rule out in the future a greater British Army interest in the southern flank of the Balkans.
We have the facilities and are investing in more facilities for precisely that in Germany. We’ll be looking at a sort of spoke-and-hub arrangement, but the real investment is going into a sort of central depot.
The British Royal Air Force said it wants to be carbon neutral by 2040. The U.S. Army is investing in electric vehicles. Do you have a big green idea?
I think the Army, given our size and scale, needs to be a core leader with respect to the green agenda in the U.K. After our own National Health Service, we’re the single-largest organization in the country. We are responsible for just over 1 percent of the U.K.’s real estate. So we’ve got not just a responsibility, we’ve got a real opportunity.
We are opening our first set of solar farms later this summer. We would want, inside the balance of this decade, to be carbon neutral and generating all our own energy in order to sustain our garrisons. And we have plans for upward of 100 solar farms across our accommodation garrison and training estates in the future.
This isn’t just, in a sense, burnishing our green credentials; it actually comes with very significant materiel [and] operational advantages as well. It makes the force lighter, more self-sustained and with less detrimental footprint, all of which is a good thing.
Is this just for basing and not related to going carbon neutral for the whole force?
In a sense, [it’s part of creating] all our own energy for the running of our own facilities. I think we’re, industrially, still some way away from completely living without carbon engines in our principal war-fighting equipment. There’s considerable battery and propulsion requirements that have not yet been solved.
I think the next generation feels a responsibility toward it. They’re intellectually interested in it. Some of them find it one of the important features of an organization that they’re inclined to volunteer and serve with, so it’s a major incentive — or disincentive, if we get this wrong.
Ben Barry, a warfare analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the following in a recent paper: “The British Army will be capable of fielding a war-fighting division by 2025. However, it will be smaller, less heavy and have less modern armor than originally planned.” Is that a fair assessment?
I think Ben is correct that the cornerstone of our modernization priorities is the upgrading of a digitized suite of war-fighting equipment built around a nucleus of our main battle tank, the Apache, the Boxer armored personnel carrier and our Ajax vehicle, supported by an emphasis on long-range precision fires and surveillance and target acquisition capabilities, armed UAVs, and a big emphasis, now, on ground-based air defense and electronic warfare. I think bringing that complete orchestra together is going to be something that will be closer to the back end of the decade than the 2025 that he talks about.
But what will be happening by 2025 is the fielding of the front end of a series of accelerated programs around Boxer and the modernization of Challenger III tanks. And at that juncture we can begin to withdraw from service some of those legacy systems, such as the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle, which are becoming obsolete evermore rapidly with encroaching technology.
The integrated review includes a plan to retire the Warrior armored vehicle after years of declaring it was vital for the Army. Was this purely a money decision, or have military needs changed?
I think Warrior fell into that bracket of being a legacy platform — first fielded in the very early 1980s, so 40 years old already. It had been the subject of a couple of upgrades, most recently in order to field it in Afghanistan, but it was really toward the end of its shelf life. And the debate was: Were we going to pour very scarce, precious new money into a platform that was going to be nearly 50 years old by the time we were fielding it? Or would it not be better to take this to be the moment to take it out of service, invest the money in new emerging capabilities, such as Boxer, buy more of them, and accelerate the production? And it became really quite an easy decision — that if we were going to get off to true transformation, we needed to leave behind as many of the 20th century legacy systems [as possible], and Warrior fell precisely into that.
The challenge is that Boxer isn’t a direct substitute and like-for-like replacement. So what it does argue is that we need to reimagine how that close battle is fought. Most close battles in the future are going to look and feel very much more like Mosul and Raqqa and Fallujah than it is going to feel like the Central European plain. And therefore utility of an [infantry fighting vehicle] in order to maneuver dismounted ground troops into fixed defensive positions feels like less of a priority for me against being able to operationally deploy infantry across large, strategic distances quickly.
You’ve said the Morpheus program, which is a key digital backbone for the Army’s modernization efforts, is on track. But we know digital integration onto older platforms can create problems. What’s the challenge there?
It’s certainly not a challenge we would want to duck. And given that it’s a challenge, it’s not a good reason not to be doing it. We are at an absolute inflection moment where the theory of warfare — its actual conduct and execution — is diverging exponentially. The crux for the British Army is to transform to an organization optimized for warfare of the information age, and at the heart of that clearly is digitization. Only with a digitized force can you bring to bear the full constellation of defense capabilities.
I do think future land warfare is going to be fought at ever greater range, ever greater lethality and precision. The entire battlespace feels today much more like a giant sensor. And I think some small wars are throwing up really interesting big lessons — I’m talking around Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, Syria, etc. — where we can already see the tactical application of early generation artificial intelligence, quantum computing, early fielding of remote robotics and autonomous systems, and for the very first time a mixed economy of manned, unmanned and semiautonomous systems.
What today occasionally looks and feels clunky, of course, is going to exponentially improve really quite quickly, certainly [in] the balance of this decade. And on that basis, the geometry of the battlespace changes and the economics of warfare change with it because you can’t afford to field a really expensive, vulnerable system probably manned by people. Because if it’s seen, it will be identified, and if it’s identified it will be killed. And it’ll become virtually irreplaceable. So this becomes a macro game of hide and seek.
You mentioned the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, which involved suicide drones and loitering munitions. Is the Army investing in those offensive capabilities? Are you focused on capabilities to defend against such systems?
We need both. [We have] a renewed emphasis on ground-based air defense, which has not been a military challenge for us over the last 20 years. It really is today. I was speaking not that long ago to a retired Army chief, among whose distinctions it was that he could claim to be the last Army chief to have had a spear thrown at him. I countered by saying I thought I was the first Army chief to have been bombed by a UAV, and you know, that is how the warfare is changing.
We will be fielding a deeper suite of armed UAVs, both short and medium range. At the same time, we need to protect against the opposition who’ll be fielding exactly the same capabilities, and getting the balance between the two right is going to be important.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.