The Buzz

Russia Could Defeat the British Army 'In an Afternoon'

Russia could defeat the British Army's single combat-ready division “in an afternoon,” according to a new report from the British military.

Over by Teatime,” blared the headline in the British tabloid The Sun.

Budget cuts have so depleted the army that it could be destroyed by a “competent enemy” such as Russia, according to excerpts of the report published in the British press.

That ominous conclusion comes from the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR), a British Army think tank run by the Sandhurst military academy. The report was based on a two-day conference of active-duty and retired officers.

Down to just eighty-three thousand active-duty soldiers, from 102,000 in 2010, Britain can field just one “war-fighting” division (compared to three million men and forty-six divisions in 1945). And even deployment of that sole division isn’t guaranteed, because of shortages of transport ships, cargo aircraft and tank transporter vehicles, according to CHACR.

“The last time the UK sent a division to war was in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq but experts believe it would currently not be able to deploy much more than a brigade of between 5,000 and 10,000 troops,” notes the Sunday Times.

As the British Army shifts from small-unit counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to potential big-unit mechanized warfare in eastern Europe, that combat-ready division is supposed to expand from thirty thousand soldiers to fifty thousand soldiers. In other words, the bulk of Britain’s active-duty soldiers will be concentrated in a single oversized division, which doesn’t leave a great deal of depth and resilience when confronting Russia’s army of 750,000 active soldiers.

Such brittleness may hamstring the British government from committing troops to operations. “The ‘prospect of losing the division in an afternoon’ will weigh heavily on the chain of command . . . as politicians appreciate the stakes involved in committing the division to battle,” the report said, according to the Times.

The CHACR report did acknowledge that Britain isn’t likely to fight a division-sized land battle today, but it also pointed out that it wasn’t inconceivable either. “This raises an important question: is the British Army ready for such a possibility? If one merely sees preparedness through net manpower and kinetic force capacity, the answer might be a simple ‘no’: the British Army is at its smallest and has faced years of budget cuts.”

The Ministry of Defense responded to the outcry with a bland statement that Britain is indeed capable of deploying a division-sized force. Not surprisingly, the CHACR report was played up by Russian media such as RT and Sputnik News, as well as Iran’s PressTV.

Of course, when an army—British, American or anyone else’s—suffers budget cuts, there are always dire warnings coming out of the military–think tank complex. The greater shock would have been if the report had lauded Britain’s army for being in fine shape. Nor is it likely that Britain would fight a big land battle alone, rather than as part of a coalition that would include the United States.

Nonetheless, Britain has the world’s fifth-largest economy, as well as an increasingly muscular foreign policy that has deployed troops to eastern Europe and the Middle East. And it can only muster a single combat division on short notice. What would Churchill have said?

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: T-14 main battle tank. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin