Britain’s military will unveil a shift towards more lethal, hi-tech and drone-enabled warfare on Monday as ministers and chiefs attempt to stave off criticism of impending cuts in the size of the armed forces.
The plan will be highlighted in a defence command paper setting out the military’s ambitions for the next five years and confirming a cut in the size of the army to an anticipated 72,500 troops, and a string of other savings as day-to-day defence budgets are squeezed.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said on Friday it was time to end “the Top Trumps game of numbers” because previous reviews that had emphasised size had left the military with “lots of ships that are tied up and not available, or lots of regiments”.
Instead, ministers and service chiefs will highlight how forces such as the Royal Marines could use a mobile phone app to locate friends and enemies on a battlefield while using Ghost drones, 6ft-long single-blade helicopter-like devices that can highlight and even fire at targets.
Gen Sir Nick Carter, the head of the armed forces, said that “rather than focus on size and shape, I would focus on lethality, the relevance, the resilience and the readiness of our army and our armed forces.”
But ministers are braced for a difficult reception of the paper on Monday. Despite Boris Johnson handing £16.5bn over four years to the Ministry of Defence last November, the extra money is being swallowed up in spending on expensive equipment. And the publication of Downing Street’s integrated review of defence and foreign policy last Tuesday, which highlighted an increase in the number of Trident warheads, also called for the UK to be deployed more actively around the world, even as troop numbers are reduced.
Labour said there was “a gulf between the government’s ambitions and its actions”. John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, said: “Ministers talk about the rise in capital funding but not the 2.7% real cut in day-to-day defence spending over the next four years. This is the achilles heel of their defence plans.”
Wallace and Carter presented their vision at a wargaming exercise at Bovington Camp in Dorset on Friday, where marines and soldiers demonstrated how newly developed drones, phones and maps could be integrated into live combat.
Royal Marines participating in an exercise in which the UK was partnering with a fictional African nation wore mobile phones clamped open on their chest. Using an Android app called Atak, the phones can be used to track allied troops and share the position of enemies.
Operating alongside the commandos were a range of drones including the Ghost mini helicopter, used for reconnaissance, with the Marines planning to buy 10 this summer. They use artificial intelligence to work in a swarm to point out potential targets, with officers able to select what the drones look for, such as a white Toyota Hilux with a machine gun.
Ministers say all firing decisions will still have to be made by soldiers, despite the growing use of artificial intelligence in targeting,. There has been increasing concern about the rise in robotics on the battlefield, in particular in choosing what to aim at.
Nevertheless, military chiefs believe the new technology, in particular the Atak app, which can link to a portable radio, can increase the power of each soldier several times over. At an urban warfare exercise last year in California, the British say, nearly 100 marine commandos defeated 1,500 of their US counterparts because of help from the situational awareness technology.
“The normal assault rules are completely inverted,” said Dan Cheesman, the chief technology officer with the Royal Navy. “It’s not three or four to one that’s needed, it’s one to four.”
Other military technology he highlighted included a DefendTex “flying grenade”, a drone carrying an explosive he described as having the mobility of a “snitch” from the Harry Potter books, and a larger Malloy drone used to dump supplies and possibly one day ferry wounded soldiers from a battlefield. There are also plans to test jetpacks in Portsmouth harbour later this year.
Military chiefs plan to create a Rangers regiment, a special forces light unit, to provide assistance, training and stabilisation missions, most likely to African countries, from 2022. The size of the SAS and SBS are expected to increase and focus on high-end missions, whose existence is rarely publicly acknowledged.