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Things look bad for Armoured Juggernaut UK

Regarding just what things the British forces will give up in the impending review, the general was naturally cagey. However he did make comments suggesting that he sees himself as a potential head of all the forces, not just the Army.

"I’d like to see a bigger navy," he said - albeit one with "different ships, and ships we can afford". (The Type 45 destroyers now being delivered cost no less than £1.1bn apiece.)

There was potentially unpalatable news for the RAF, however.

"Well clearly the scope for unmanned aircraft is going to grow and grow," according to Richards.

As for the Army, the whole tone of the general's remarks suggested that the traditional armoured juggernaut - the UK's present just-about-division-size force of tanks, tracked infantry combat vehicles, self-propelled artillery and supporting armoured/mobile troops of all arms - is at least partially on its way out in this Review.

That's hardly a controversial idea in some ways. The last man to command the British armour in action - General Rupert Smith twenty years ago in Gulf War 1 - has since written that in his opinion the last real tank warfare took place twenty years before that, in the Arab-Israeli fighting of the 1970s.

Smith considers that the Iraqi army of 1991, in theory a strong armoured opponent, had been so cut up by allied air power that he and his tanks had little to do. He has since confirmed to your correspondent that were he in charge the current Challenger II main battle tank would not be replaced.

This viewpoint has been echoed to your correspondent by many lower-ranking modern soldiers, suggesting that the huge amounts of time and manpower they spend preparing for traditional armoured/manoeuvre battle are largely wasted - and are, perhaps, a reason for occasional poor performance in modern Afghanistan-style fighting.

On the other hand, the UK armoured division is a major cornerstone of today's Army - huge chunks of the service derive their identity and ostensible mission from being part of it or supporting it. A British Army without a major armoured formation would, indeed, undergo a massive organisational change - perhaps even more massive than the shift from horse to tank, as this mostly involved cavalry regiments simply changing mount.

It just could be that large amounts of the British cavalry will finally be forced to accept dismounted action as their formal primary role, rather than an occasional and regrettable expedient**. Likewise, the Royal Artillery's multiple regiments of traditional self-propelled guns and bombardment rockets might soon find themselves doing other work.

All in all, it's looking more and more likely that the £14bn budget of the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) - the replacement for the army's various kinds of armoured vehicles - is in line for a serious trim.

Sadly there wasn't time to draw Richards on specifics such as the future of Eurofighter, the Royal Navy's new carriers and their controversial F-35B stealth jumpjets etc. In any event, for now at least he remains head of the Army only - but rumour suggests that if the general does win the top job, change may be afoot in the other two services as well as among the soldiery.

It looks like some interesting times ahead for the British armed forces, no matter how things pan out. ®

Bootnotes

For General Richards' full official biography, look here. In brief: Artilleryman, Commando qualified, four pre-ceasefire tours in Northern Ireland, was UK commander for the East Timor and Sierra Leone interventions, then NATO commander in Afghanistan 2006-07, now head of the British Army.

*Brit firms such as Supacat are still making money selling the MoD such things as the highly popular Jackal - a mainly un-armoured weapons platform - but a new full-fat armoured vehicle will never again be made from scratch in Blighty. This is very largely a result of the decision by BAE Systems to invest in American armour firms (following the money) rather than here in Europe a few years ago.

**Of course the cavalry's real job on the battlefield, as the Punch cartoon caption of long ago put it so well, is "to lend tone to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl".

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