Chief of British Army says it must mobilise to deter Russia
30 Jun 2022|

The British Army’s main effort is now mobilisation to deter Russian aggression, and it must accept ‘ruthless prioritisation’ to this end, General Sir Patrick Sanders has said.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute’s Land Warfare Conference in London, the British Chief of the General Staff (CGS) articulated his army’s immediate answer to the war in Ukraine and reflected on the longer-term responses that will be required. His address came just prior to the commencement of a major NATO summit in Madrid, which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is attending.

‘This is our 1937 moment,’ Sanders said, appealing to members of the audience to do all they can to deter further conflict. He cautioned against the assumption that the war in Ukraine would remain limited, or that Russia was destined to fail, observing instead that battlefield defeat catalyses rapid learning. Any respite for Ukraine and its partners is temporary, he said, and Russia has demonstrated the capacity to regenerate forces and win in the past.

The CGS also framed events in Europe within the global geopolitical moment. ‘In meeting a revanchist Russia, we cannot be guilty of myopically chasing the ball’, said Sanders. ‘Defence cannot ignore the exponential rise and chronic challenge of China, not just within the South China Sea but through its sub-threshold activities across the globe. Beijing will be watching our response to Moscow’s actions carefully.’

The CGS spoke about the limits of deterrence by punishment that have been exposed by the Russian invasion. Deterrence by denial in the European theatre therefore has a new importance, and the British response, according to Sanders, must be a mix of forward basing and very-high-readiness forces. Land power and armies are central to this response.

The burden for this adjusted posture must fall increasingly on European NATO members, said Sanders, because ‘taking up the burden in Europe means we can free more US resources to ensure that our values and interests are protected in the Indo-Pacific’.

‘Ukraine has also shown that engaging with our adversaries and training, assisting and reassuring our partners is high-payoff activity… With the right partner and in the right conditions persistent engagement and capacity building can be really effective. [The UK’s] Operation Orbital has made a key contribution to preparing the Armed Forces of Ukraine for this fight and it continues to expand exponentially’.

Sanders repeatedly warned against trying to do everything: ‘we will need to suppress our additive culture and guard against the “tyranny of and”—we can’t do everything well and some things are going to have to stop; it will mean ruthless prioritisation’. He said the force must ‘deprioritise where necessary.

Explaining the way forward for the British Army—and noting concerns that should sound familiar to an Australian audience—the CGS said that ‘we must be honest with ourselves about future soldiers’ timelines, capability gaps and risks’. Long-term efforts are important but must occur in conjunction with must faster change occurring ‘from the line of march’.

The CGS identified four immediate ‘focused lines of effort’ for his army.

First, and most importantly, boosting readiness. NATO needs highly ready forces that can deploy at short notice for the collective defence of alliance members. Deterring Russia means more of the army ready more of the time, and ready for high-intensity war in Europe. So we will pick up the pace of combined arms training, and major on urban combat. We will rebuild our stockpiles and review the deployability of our vehicle fleet… The time has come to be frank about our ability to fight if called upon.

Second, we will accelerate the modernisation outlined in future soldier… We will seek to speed up the delivery of planned new equipment including long-range fires, attack aviation, persistent surveillance and target acquisition, expeditionary logistic enablers, ground based air defence, protected mobility, and the technologies that will prove pivotal to our digital ambition: communications and information services and electronic warfare. Most importantly, this will start now—not at some ill-defined point in the future.

Third, we will rethink how we fight. We’ve been watching the war in Ukraine closely and we are already learning and adapting… Many of the lessons are not new—but they are now applied. We will double-down on combined arms manoeuvre, especially in the deep battle, and devise a new doctrine rooted in geography, integrated with NATO’s war plans and specific enough to drive focused, relevant investment and inspire the imagination of our people to fight and win if called upon.

Fourth and finally, Sanders said he is ‘prepared to look again at the structure of our army. If we judge that revised structures will make the army better prepared to fight in Europe, then we will follow Monty’s advice and do “something else”. Now of course adapting structures has implications for the size of the army… Obviously our army has to be affordable; nonetheless, it would be perverse if the CGS was advocating reducing the size of the army as a land war rages in Europe and Putin’s territorial ambitions extend into the rest of the decade, and beyond Ukraine’.

Sanders reiterated that people remain central to the army and its effectiveness. He observed that apparent technological superiority has not translated into a will to fight by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. He observed that Russian forces are suffering from ‘moral decay’ and that the British Army must protect its own ‘moral component’ and ‘fighting spirit’. ‘To put it simply’, said Sanders, ‘you don’t need to be laddish to be lethal—in a scrap you have to truly trust those on your left and right’.

He asked members of his army to cut through unnecessary bureaucracy: ‘like any public institution we have accumulated some barnacles that slow us down—but we are not just any institution, so it’s time to strip them back’.

General Sanders also noted that mobilisation is not simply an internal activity, and that industry is a key partner, remarking that ‘We can’t be lighting the factory furnaces across the nation on the eve of war; this effort must start now if we want to prevent war from happening’.