The Tip of the American Spear? How the United Kingdom Could Pursue Military Specialization


For all but the biggest countries, this century is going to be one of hard choices. Britain’s armed forces face fundamental questions, but the most crucial is: Can the United Kingdom continue to possess “full-spectrum” military capability? Can it undertake every kind of military operation, on land, in the air, and at sea, and do so if necessary independent of any other nation? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

It should be to the United Kingdom’s embarrassment that allies can see this. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, recently told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute in London that Britain needed to “reassess” (by which he meant “increase”) its defense spending given the current global threats. This, he went on, would mean making a “decision around whether the army needs to be strengthened,” adding that “investments in their navy are significantly important.” Del Toro was staying within the bounds of politeness, but his message was thunderous.

As an official in Parliament, and then as an adviser and commentator, I have seen defense review after defense review based on the most optimistic of assumptions and best-case scenarios. The Ministry of Defense has shuffled budgets, extended the lifespan of equipment, and waved away capability gaps to be seen to keep the show on the road, and the effect on both what the armed forces can do and the policy framework has been viciously corrosive.



Now is the time for a different approach. Britain should begin by looking at the elements of its armed forces that work well, have credibility with allies, and are sustainable and affordable, specifically in light of the challenges the country will face. The British Army is too small but paradoxically too heavy, still holding on to the footprint of a force designed to fight on the plains of Germany. It should shed its heaviest and least useful armor and become a lighter, more flexible force tailored to work alongside its allies.

With this in mind, it is time to build a force for the missions Britain will actually undertake, rather than adapting one tailored to a theoretical conflict. The country’s main battle tanks are aging, far too heavy, and designed for 20th-century missions. The new tracked armored personnel carriers are years behind schedule and wracked by technical gremlins. A smaller armored force based on wheeled vehicles should be paired with more forces on the model of the new Ranger Regiment, created to operate on the margins of full-scale conflict and in training and capacity-building.

Adopting these and other similar changes will bring significant long-term benefits. But the necessary transformation cannot be achieved unless the U.K. leadership — civilian and military — is rigorously honest with itself about what it can do, what it can afford, and where it is failing.

Full Spectrum in Name Only

The United Kingdom has never given up a significant military capability. It was the world’s third nuclear power, after the United States and Russia, but since 1952 it has been theoretically full spectrum. It has possessed every kind of military capability its allies and adversaries have exercised, despite its diminishing status on the world stage: heavy armor, strategic bombers, aircraft carriers, submarines, and, since 1969, continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence.

Some of these capabilities have now worn almost impossibly thin. U.K. defense policy assumes that the Army can put a division-sized warfighting unit into the field, maintaining it “at continual operational readiness.” Experts have cast significant doubt on this. The House of Commons Defense Committee heard from leading analysts in June 2023 that 3rd (U.K.) Division at best comprises two understrength brigades rather than the official three, and that only one brigade, 7th Light Mechanized Brigade, is currently deployed. Raising this to division strength in the event of a conflict would take weeks.

There are also gaps in Britain’s maritime strength. Asked, “Could the Royal Navy fight tonight?” Nick Childs of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said that while the Navy “could deliver some key capabilities at pretty short notice,” other critical components were simply not in place. The Royal Navy’s carrier capability was “potentially uncertain,” and while HMS Queen Elizabeth was at high readiness, “there are questions over aircraft that you could put there.”

These deficiencies are going to get worse. A recent report by the U.K. public audit body, the National Audit Office, concluded that the Ministry of Defense’s 10-year equipment plan for 2023–33 was “unaffordable, with forecast costs exceeding its current budget by £16.9 billion.” Even the Ministry of Defense itself predicts that the shortfall, the gap between aspiration and reality, could be between £7.6 billion and £29.8 billion. These are fantasy numbers.

The British Army currently stands at around 77,500 personnel, and it is proposed that it will shrink to 72,500 by 2025. In March 2023, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, M.P., told the House of Commons that the plan represented a “clear judgment” and that, despite the conflict in Ukraine, there was no intention to change those numbers.

This is the smallest the Army has been since 1799, which some believe verges on unsupportable. General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the Defense Staff from 2018 to 2021, said last year that “the Army probably has to be in the order of 80,000,” while Professor Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute, refers to a “threshold of strategic significance,” a size below which British forces are “too small to make a significant difference.” I argue 72,500 is right on that threshold, and may even be under it: Witness the fact that the Army cannot currently generate a full warfighting division.

The Case for Specialization

If the United Kingdom cannot do everything and is either unable or unwilling to spend significantly more resources on defense, something has to give. The sustainable and intellectually coherent approach would be to accept that some capabilities are unaffordable and will have to be surrendered.

The idea of countries specializing in military terms is not revolutionary. At the Munich Security Conference in 2011, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen unveiled the concept of “Smart Defense.” In light of the global financial crisis of 2007–8, he noted that defense spending by NATO’s European member-states had fallen by $45 billion and that, while in 2001 the United States had provided less than half of the total NATO budget, that proportion had risen to nearly three-quarters and was still growing. This could not continue.

Rasmussen proposed that the alliance could “ensure greater security, for less money, by working together with more flexibility.” A major part of this was to reframe the way NATO looked at capabilities. Instead of a range of roles, equipment, and missions in 28 individual member-states, governments should consider capabilities as comprising a coherent whole across all member-states. Nations could then specialize, delivering a smaller range of functions at an alliance level.

Consider the Czech Republic, which has been developing a specialization in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats since 2003. The Smart Defense concept was adopted at the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, and there is now a Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense Center of Excellence at Vyskow: 70 personnel from 14 nations working on planning, training, and equipping the alliance to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats and counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It has allowed NATO to develop a coordinated policy on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats based on specialized forces and equipment.

The flipside of this is “negative specialization,” giving up capabilities that are too expensive and that will be supplied by allies in the event of a major commitment. In 2004, Denmark retired its submarine fleet as part of its Defense Agreement 2005–2009 and focused resources on the capabilities it most required. The Netherlands retired its Lockheed P-3 Orions in 2005 and focused on naval sensors and communications in which it could specialize through domestic supplier Thales Nederland and its own research facility

Strategic constraints follow this kind of specialization. Military operations become reliant on allies for the full range of functions, which inhibits the ability to take action unilaterally. For the United Kingdom, this would be a major psychological hurdle. No British government has ever permanently given up a discrete capability. Even when the Royal Navy’s CVA-01 aircraft carrier program was cancelled in the 1966 Defense Review and the last carrier was decommissioned in 1979, naval aviation was maintained by the building of the Invincible class of “through-deck cruisers” beginning in 1973.

Where to Specialize

If Britain took the radical step of specialization, what might a restructured armed forces look like? The current “temporary” gaps invite examination. In March 2021, the Army cancelled the upgrade for its Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, anticipating that they would be replaced in the mid-2020s by the Boxer armored fighting vehicle; but Boxer is wheeled rather than tracked, is not a like-for-like replacement, and is still in trials. The tracked Ajax program will include the Ares armored fighting vehicle, but the whole project has been plagued by problems and is badly behind schedule.

While the Army’s fleet of “battle taxis” is being significantly downgraded, there are doubts about the long-term future of its main battle tanks. Challenger 2 entered service with the Royal Armored Corps in 1998. It acquitted itself well during the 2003 invasion of Iraq but was pitted against much older ex-Soviet hardware. Fourteen Challenger 2s were delivered to the Ukrainian Army in March 2023 and have been in combat against Russian units, and the accuracy of the tank’s main gun has won praise from Ukrainian personnel. However, there are only slightly more than 200 Challenger 2s in service.

The Challenger 2 is due to receive a major upgrade as Challenger 3, but this will not be fully operational until 2030. Although Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Commons in January 2023 that he would “consider whether the lessons of Ukraine suggest that we need a larger tank fleet,” only 148 tanks are currently due to be upgraded. At a meeting of the House of Commons defense committee in November 2023, members of Parliament questioned the full strength of the fleet, suggesting “you have very few Challengers that you can actually use.”

Having worked for the committee, I am acutely aware of the Ministry of Defense’s persistent optimism bias and ability to deny reality when it comes to procurement. With so many questions over the Army’s suite of armored vehicles, the Ministry of Defense could instead choose to rethink its requirements.

In March 2020, the U.S. Marine Corps published Force Design 2030, which set out a radically reconfigured shape for the Corps focused on its central tasks. Its guiding principle was “purpose-build[ing] forces capable of assurance and deterrence — forces that are ‘combat credible’ in accordance with the National Defense Strategy.” A major element of the new plan was retiring all 450 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks as “operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority challenges in the future.” Armored mobility continues to be provided by the wheeled LAV-25, in service since 1983, which will be partially replaced by the Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle program.

This decision was dictated by the Marine Corps’ transition from being, in effect, the U.S. Navy’s own army to a more narrowly focused and lighter strike force that will operate in littoral areas and seek to “compete and win” in what it calls “the gray zone.” This is defined by the United States Special Operations Command as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.”

The U.S. Marine Corps can design itself to complement the U.S. Army, while the British Army cannot. Let us suppose that the army decided to phase out its Challenger 2s and Warriors and to cancel the Ares variant of Ajax. The United Kingdom would be surrendering the ability to match a peer competitor in terms of tank versus tank.

Realistically, which nation operating a significant main battle tank fleet is Britain likely to face alone in a conventional land war? The countries with the largest armored forces are either allies — the United States, India, South Korea — or rivals the United Kingdom would only ever fight as part of a multinational coalition — Russia, North Korea, China. Looking at the past 40 years, Britain’s two major unilateral military deployments have been the Falklands War and the intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, neither of which was appropriate for heavy armor. Retaining a tank force would be keeping the ability to contribute perhaps 150 to 200 main battle tanks to a force led by the United States, which operates more than 2,500. Bluntly, Britain can offer more in other areas.

Pointing at niche capabilities is the recent creation of the four-battalion Ranger Regiment, a special operations–capable unit that was established in 2021. This force of around 1,000 personnel is designed to “operate in complex, high threat environments below the threshold of war alongside specialized Partner Forces to deliver operational insights and effects.” Comparisons have been made with the U.S. Green Berets, though they are only partially valid: The Rangers will carry out training and mentoring and unconventional warfare, but not the whole range of functions that the Green Berets encompass.

Former Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith described the Ranger Regiment as the “vanguard of the Army’s global footprint,” and in its first year, it deployed personnel to over 60 countries. The 1st Battalion has served in West Africa training the Ghanaian Armed Forces, while the 3rd Battalion has been training in the Arctic with units from soon-to-be-NATO-member Sweden.

We need to see the Rangers as part of a whole alongside U.K. Special Forces proper. Since the beginning of the “War on Terror” in 2001, U.K. Special Forces have developed an enviable reputation for counter-terrorism including strikes against high-value targets. Dr. Simon Anglim of King’s College London has emphasized that the Ministry of Defense regards its special forces as “one of those national military assets allowing the U.K. to ‘punch above its weight’ globally into the 21st century.” The army also learned some tough lessons in counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, with initial overconfidence giving way to hard-won experience and expertise.

Drawing down the armored fleet and strengthening the Ranger Regiment and other similar units point toward a future much more focused on the “grey zone.” They would meanwhile preserve the ability to contribute to multilateral peacekeeping and stabilization forces, as Britain currently does principally in Cyprus and Somalia. There is an attractive logic in stepping away from areas in which Britain is already struggling and placing greater emphasis on already strong and improving functions.

This radical reordering of defense priorities would only make sense if it was supported by the United Kingdom’s allies and, particularly, by the United States. I chose the title “The tip of the American spear” for this essay because a realistic assessment of British foreign policy suggests that military operations are very likely to be carried out in partnership with the United States. There are concerns in the U.S. military that the British Army is a “barely tier two” fighting force, and that Britain is “decidedly not what it used to be.” The precise shape of a restructured armed forces would have to be negotiated with the United States and compatible with the kind of strengths Washington would look for in a first-preference junior partner.


There will be undoubtedly be those objecting that it is disastrous and humiliating for the United Kingdom to abandon its — theoretical — position at the front of second-tier powers. But Britain remains a nuclear power, has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, is one of the few NATO member-states to achieve the spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, and has the world’s sixth-largest economy.

The “refresh” of the Integrated Review, published in March 2023, refers to alliances, partners, cooperation, and burden-sharing. Overall foreign policy is becoming more interdependent, and the assumption running through the document is that the United Kingdom will always be part of an international military coalition. That assumption vastly derisks the idea of Britain reducing its capabilities, and refocuses thinking on what should be provided. And the Integrated Review refresh already touches on specialization: “Science and technology is increasingly vital to our future. We are a top five nation in innovation, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and cyber, and a major international power in science and technology.”

These ideas are already in the policy ether: specialization, interdependence, reliance on multinational coalitions. The concept I have sought to outline is simply to carry this further, to embrace its underlying logic and pursue it to make significant changes to the way the United Kingdom plans defense policy. The refresh of the Integrated Review is the fourth major reassessment of British defense I have watched at close quarters, and they have all been marked by depressingly similar corrosive compromises. Always driven by financial constraints, they have nevertheless always been portrayed by the government as clear-headed assessments of strategic priorities. This has led to a situation where, in effect, the Ministry of Defense tries to negotiate as much of the budget as it can, for as many of the capabilities it thinks it requires.

This will always undermine robust planning and strategic coherence. If the armed forces manage to win 70 percent of what they initially request, but still develop policy and doctrine based on the 100 percent, it will lead to compromise and disappointment. It is better surely to reduce the whole by a third, but secure all the necessary resources.

There will be a general election in the United Kingdom in 2024 and probably a change of administration. An incoming Labor government has pledged to undertake a defense review within months of taking office. I have laid out one strategic direction that the new government could choose to adopt. It does not solve all of the challenges facing the United Kingdom, nor is it how I would approach defense policy in an ideal world. But while conceptually radical, it is both rational and realistic. It is based on an honest assessment of the world as it is, and it attempts to imagine a global role that would maintain British influence based on the country’s international standing and economic prosperity. It would be a painful journey, but more than 20 years observing defense policy has shown me an unsustainable fiction that needs to end.


Eliot Wilson is a writer and commentator on politics, defense, and foreign policy. From 2005 to 2016 he was a senior official in the U.K. House of Commons, including on the Defense Committee and the U.K. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. He writes regularly for City AM, The i, The Spectator, and The Hill, and blogs at The Ideas Lab. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute and a co-founder and director of Pivot Point Group, a strategy advisory and PR consultancy.

Image: Ministry of Defence