CommentaryEuropePolitics

The future of the British Army in Europe

The UK's security will remain intertwined with that of Europe, and is inextricably linked to NATO's sustainability

Dr. Rowan Allport
Human Security Centre

Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO has generated a package of initiatives to bolster its European posture. Perhaps the most visible has been the deployment of four multinational battlegroups in Eastern Europe under the Enhanced Forward Presence mission. The British Army plays a substantial role in this tasking, leading the battlegroup in Estonia and supplying troops to support the U.S.-led force in Poland – in total providing just over 1,000 personnel.

Nevertheless, while this contribution is welcome, it cannot mask the declining U.K. military presence on the European mainland. With the challenge not only of Russia, but also the need to help convince the United States that its allies are serious about burden sharing, and a requirement to retain strategic influence after Britain leaves the European Union, the time has come for the United Kingdom to reconsider the future of its land forces in Europe.

Planning recon during Saber Strike 2018
A British Army soldier with 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards plans a reconnaissance exercise with Battle Group Poland during Saber Strike 18 at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland, June 2, 2018. Image: US Army/Spc. Hubert D. Delany III

Departures and arrivals

Like its U.S. counterpart, the British Army’s European footprint has contracted significantly since the end of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell, there were around 55,000 U.K. troops stationed in West Germany. The force was more than halved shortly after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. However, whereas the U.S. elected to maintain a significant Army presence indefinitely, in 2010 the British declared an intent to fully depart, citing reasons of cost and the perceived lack of an operational requirement to station forces in mainland Europe. Currently, the final U.K. combat units in Germany are scheduled to leave in 2019.

Logically, the re-emergence of the challenge from Russia should have seen the plans to withdraw the British Army modified to fit the new circumstances. For its part, Washington has chosen to steadily escalate its activities in Europe, with its flagship land force efforts under the European Deterrence Initiative now including the rotational deployment of a U.S. Army armoured brigade and combat aviation brigade, and moves to build up enough pre-positioned equipment to support an armoured division by 2021. However, London has so far largely failed to follow suit in either preserving or boosting its regional presence.

France and British aircrew
French and UK aircrew taking part in Exercise Frisian Flag at Leeuwarden Air Force Base, the Netherlands, July 12, 2017. Image: SAC Rob Bourne/UK MoD/OGL

Burden sharing and retaining influence

The threat from Moscow – recently made clear by the nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent on British soil – is only part of the challenge facing the U.K. in terms of its NATO commitments. U.S. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his displeasure at the failing of many European alliance members to fulfil their defence spending obligations.

Although Britain meets the 2 percent of GDP defence expenditure target and is therefore far from the worst offender regarding low levels of spending, it also has an outsized ability to set the tone and help reduce the risk of U.S. disengagement.

The value Washington places on the U.K.’s contribution was recently made clear in a leaked letter from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to his British counterpart Gavin Williamson, in which he raised his concern over the erosion of the U.K.’s military capabilities. These worries are hardly likely to be assuaged by Britain sticking to its current withdrawal plans.

Military commitment also brings political influence. Since the days following the Brexit vote, the British Government has been at pains to say that its commitment to European security remains undiminished – in no small part because London realises that, with the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. in 2019, NATO will soon be the country’s primary institutional bond with the continent. It is, therefore, an unfortunate coincidence that the year of Brexit will also see the last British Army field units depart from Germany after a 74-year presence.

Major General Felix Gedney reviews coalition training in Iraq
British Army Major General Felix Gedney, deputy commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, strategy and support, speaks with a German officer during a battlefield circuit to review coalition training near Erbil, Iraq, November 22, 2017. Image: US Army/Sgt. Tracy McKithern

Alternative ways forward

Thankfully, there is still time for a reversal of current plans. The U.K. Government is currently conducting a defence review known as the Modernising Defence Programme. The review has seen a bitter battle to obtain additional resources for the military from the Treasury and has recently had its publication delayed –  despite an urgent desire to finish it in time for this week’s NATO summit. But it still represents an opportunity for a policy shift on the Army’s future European presence that would be both affordable and have real practical and political benefits.

The British Army has two broad options for preserving a substantial European footprint. The most basic would be to utilise assets warehoused in Germany – vehicles, ammunition, spare parts, etc. – as pre-positioned resources for personnel based in the U.K. who would be flown out for exercises or in a crisis. Compared to shipping everything required from Britain, such forward basing of resources would have major benefits in terms of saving time.

There have already been indications that this pathway is gaining favor, and that the plans for the final stage of the British Army’s withdrawal from Germany may not be fully carried through. Speaking in January, the then head of the Army and now Chief of the Defense Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said that the force was examining if it should retain its remaining storage and training facilities in the country in the long term. In 2017, it was revealed that the Army’s vehicle depot facility located in Ayrshire Barracks, Mönchengladbach, will be retained until at least 2023.

The more proactive option would be to halt and partly reverse the Army’s withdrawal of personnel from Germany. At present, 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade remains the last major formation in the country, but it is already in the process of moving back to the U.K.

Sustaining a brigade and supporting elements – around 5,000 personnel – in Germany would provide a useful contribution to NATO’s ability to surge forces east in an emergency. Putting the brakes on current plans would generate costs and create complications for planned changes to the Army’s structure, but the fact that one of the force’s main tasks must now unavoidably be seen as a deterrence mission against Russia is likely to make such inconvenience worthwhile.

Whatever decision is finally taken, it should be based on the recognition that the U.K.’s security will remain intertwined with that of Europe, and is inextricably linked to the sustainability of NATO. A significant land force on the continent would help Britain further its interests and those of its allies.


Rowan Allport

Rowan Allport is a Senior Fellow and the Security and Defense team lead at the Human Security Centre, a London-based think tank. He holds a PhD in Politics and an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York. Specializing in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan has written widely on U.K., U.S. and NATO defense policy, as well as on broader issues relating to interstate conflict.

Follow him on Twitter @DrRowanAllport.


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