On 7 July 2022, the House of Lords was due to debate the following question for short debate:

Earl Attlee (Conservative) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Sustainability Statement for the 3rd (United Kingdom) Division for operations at the large scale of effort against a peer opponent.

This debate has been postponed.

1. What is the role of the 3rd (UK) Division?

The 3rd (UK) Division, based in Bulford on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, is the UK’s primary armoured warfighting force. Alongside the 1st (UK) Division, it is one of the British army’s two deployable divisions. 3rd (UK) Division is the only division in the British army at continual operational readiness. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) describes the function of the division as follows:

3rd (UK) Division exists as the UK’s strategic land warfare asset. As such the division is able to bring to bear the considerable firepower of the British army and concentrate the force which includes: reconnaissance, armoured cavalry; armoured and mechanised infantry, aviation, artillery, engineers and logistics; in what is referred to as “the full spectrum” of warfighting capability.

2. 3rd (UK) Division sustainability statement

Sustainability statements are used by the MOD to set military priorities and establish overall logistic resources required in order to achieve these priorities. The ‘UK defence doctrine’, published by the MOD in 2014, defines the concept of ‘sustainability’ as follows:

Sustainability is a critical enabler of fighting power. Rigorously assessing logistic realities, including redeployment, is essential to operations planning. Sustainability may be the deciding factor in assessing the feasibility of a particular operation.

It said that sustainability is enabled by combining:

  • logistics
  • personnel and administrative force structures
  • training and equipment
  • infrastructure
  • communications and information management

The sustainability statement for the 3rd (UK) Division and other divisions in the British army are not publicly available. However, the MOD published a generic sustainability statement in annex 4B of its 2015 publication, ‘Logistics for joint operations’. This included details of logistical considerations that might form part of a sustainability statement, such as available equipment and personnel, training, and infrastructure. It also outlines key assumptions, such as the size of an operation.

Although the sustainability statement for the 3rd (UK) Division has not been published, in December 2021, Baroness Goldie, minister of state at the Ministry of Defence, gave the following response to a question concerning the level of readiness of the 3rd (UK) Division, asked by Lord Richards of Herstmonceux (Crossbench):

The army is always ready to fulfil the task of protecting the nation and holds various people and units at different readiness, along with the equipment and stocks required to support them, to enable us to compete against our adversaries, tackle threats at source and reassure allies. I am unable to disclose further details of the level of readiness of the 3rd (UK) Division, as to do so would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of our armed forces.

3. Proposals to reform 3rd (UK) Division: 2015 strategic defence and security review

The 3rd (UK) Division is currently in the process of being restructured and provided with updated equipment. This process has been informed by both the 2015 strategic defence and security review and 2021 integrated review.

In the 2015 strategic defence and security review, the government, then led by David Cameron, announced that the UK intended to field an expeditionary force of around 50,000 by 2025. The government said the 3rd (UK) Division would form a land division within this force. It said 3rd (UK) Division would draw on two armoured infantry brigades and two new strike brigades in order to deliver a deployed division of three brigades. The government said the new strike brigades would be able to deploy rapidly over long distances using new Ajax armoured vehicles and new mechanised infantry vehicles.

In September 2020, the MOD submitted evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee for its inquiry into the progress in delivering armoured vehicles for the British army. In this evidence submission, the MOD said the plans for the land division as described in the 2015 strategic defence and security review were to be scaled back. The MOD said:

By 2025, the army will be able to field a war-fighting division optimised for high intensity combat operations, consisting of a single manoeuvre brigade (armoured infantry) and an interim manoeuvre support brigade (from strike and light infantry). The interim manoeuvre support brigade will be equipped with Ajax, the first Boxer (mechanised infantry) platforms and the in-service protected mobility vehicles. Boxer will be at full operating capability in the early 2030s allowing the remaining protected mobility vehicles to be replaced and the full strike brigade ambition to be achieved.

In September 2020, Ben Barry, a retired brigadier and senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, made a written submission to the House of Commons Defence Committee as part of the same inquiry. He told the committee he did not believe the 3rd (UK) Division would be able to overmatch a peer adversary, such as Russia, either based on its current strength or its proposed strength in 2025. Brigadier Barry wrote:

Since the Russian threat to NATO’s eastern states is heavy in armour, NATO requires a credible land armoured warfare capability to deter and if necessary, defeat Russian armoured forces. Evidence suggests that the British army expects to play a major role in any such war […] The most challenging peer adversary for the 3rd Division’s capability is Russia. To match Russian tank or motor rifle formations, in 2025, the division will need to exploit its strengths, but find ways of overcoming its weaknesses.

In an article for the International Institute for Strategic Studies published in January 2021, Brigadier Barry argued that the 3rd (UK) Division would be lacking in anti-armour and artillery capabilities compared with the Russian army’s 4th tank division.

On 14 March 2021, the House of Commons Defence Committee published its report for this inquiry, entitled ‘Obsolescent and outgunned: The British army’s armoured vehicle capability’. It said that, based on the evidence it had received, it appeared that “the UK’s armoured forces are at very serious risk of being both quantitively and qualitatively outmatched by potential peer adversaries”. It argued this was due to a lack of progress in updating the British army’s armoured vehicle capacity, saying:

[…] were the British army to have to fight a peer adversary—a euphemism for Russia—in Eastern Europe in the next few years, whilst our soldiers would undoubtedly remain amongst the finest in the world, they would, disgracefully, be forced to go into battle in a combination of obsolescent or even obsolete armoured vehicles, most of them at least 30 years old or more, with poor mechanical reliability, very heavily outgunned by more modern missile and artillery systems and chronically lacking in adequate air defence. They would have only a handful of long-delayed, new generation vehicles, gradually trickling into the inventory, to replace them.

4. ‘Defence in a competitive age’

On 22 March 2021, the government published its command paper ‘Defence in a competitive age’, outlining the defence elements of its 2021 integrated review. In this command paper, the government announced it intended to adapt the UK’s defence so that its focus should be on permanent and persistent global engagement rather than primarily designed to be ready for major conflict and war. In the command paper, the government described the 3rd (UK) Division forming part of a “modernised, adaptable and expeditionary fighting force” which would be “optimised to fight a peer adversary in a NATO context”.

The government published its response to House of Commons Defence Committee report ‘Obsolescent and outgunned: The British army’s armoured vehicle capability’, in May 2021, after the publication of ‘Defence in a competitive age’. The government said, as a result of its new defence strategy, it would invest in upgrading the UK’s armoured vehicles, including the upgrading of battle tanks to the new Challenger 3 tank and accelerating the roll-out of the Boxer wheeled mechanised infantry vehicles.

In November 2021, the MOD published, ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British army’. This provided further information on how the British army would be restructured as a result of the proposals set out in ‘Defence in a competitive age’. The policy paper said:

The 3rd (UK) Division will hold the army’s armoured forces and remain at the heart of the army’s warfighting capability. This will be supported by 1st (UK) Division as the home of the army’s light forces and the 6th (UK) Division as the home of our unconventional warfare capabilities.

In a document summarising the ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British army’ paper, the MOD said that two new heavy brigade combat teams would be formed from the modernisation of two armoured infantry brigades. The MOD said that “over the next decade these will be equipped with Ajax armoured reconnaissance, Challenger 3 main battle tanks and Boxer mechanised infantry vehicles”.

5. Changes to 3rd (UK) Division

Future soldier: Transforming the British army’ said that the composition of the 3rd (UK) Division alongside other divisions would be changed. It said the “aiming point” for completing these changes across the whole of the British army would be 2025. Under these proposals, the 3rd (UK) Division would be comprised of:

  • The 12th Armoured Brigade Combat Team (BCT) and the 20th Armoured BCT equipped with Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicles, Boxer wheeled mechanised infantry vehicles and Challenger 3 tanks.
  • The 1st Deep Recce Strike BCT, equipped with Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicles. The MOD said the BCT would focus on “the army’s deep fight, combining deep fires with reconnaissance and the ability to integrate non-lethal effects”. This would be formed through the merger of 1st Artillery Brigade and 1st Armoured Infantry Brigade in the summer of 2022.
  • 7 Air Defence Group, providing short range air and medium range air defence.
  • 25 (Close Support) Engineer Group, providing military engineering support.
  • 101 Operational Sustainment Brigade, providing logistics and equipment support.
  • 3rd (UK) Division Information Manoeuvre Units, providing military intelligence.
  • 7 Signals Group, providing communication and information support.

At the time of writing, the MOD website for the British army currently lists the composition of the 3rd (UK) Division as being:

1st Deep Reconnaissance Brigade Combat Team, 12th Armoured Brigade Combat Team, 20th Armoured Brigade Combat Team, 11 Signals Brigade and 101st Operational Sustainment Brigade, 7th Air Defence Group and 25 (Close Support) Engineer Group, 4 Military Intelligence Battalion and 7 Military Intelligence Battalion.

In February 2022, the government said that, by 2030, the 3rd (UK) Division would benefit from new equipment including Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicles, Boxer wheeled mechanised infantry vehicles, Challenger 3 tanks and Apache AH-64E aircraft. The Government also said 3rd (UK) Division would be provided with new “long range, precision fires and un-crewed aerial systems”.

6. Level of readiness of 3rd (UK) Division

Dr Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, has argued that policies outlined by the government in ‘Defence in a competitive age’ and ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British army’ amounted to a change in the British army’s core outputs and a shift away from warfighting. He describes this change as follows:

The fundamental shift in the British army’s posture is from seeing its warfighting division as its core output, with the army configured around 3 (UK) Division, to the warfighting division becoming a contingent capability, with the force configured around the Ranger battalions and Security Force Assistance capability.

He also argued that, while it was intended for the 3rd (UK) Division to remain the British army’s main warfighting division, there were reasons to doubt that it remained a “going concern”. He cited the decision to convert its armoured infantry to mechanised infantry and the dispersal of elements that would be needed to support the division to smaller persistent missions.

Dr Simon Anglim, a military historian and teaching fellow at King’s College London, noted that the proposals in ‘Defence in a competitive age’ include that HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) would be the corps HQ for the new expeditionary fighting force of which 3rd (UK) Division would form part. He argued this had the potential to create political friction with the UK’s allies, saying:

Although based in the UK, with its commanding general and chief of staff always from the British army, ARRC is explicitly a NATO asset, not a British one, 60% of its staff come from other NATO countries and so it would be difficult to impossible to deploy it in a purely British war of choice. And yet, as the command paper understands, it allows the British army to retain its capacity to command at corps level, so the relationship here is complicated to say the least.

7. House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee: Defence concepts and capabilities inquiry

In April 2022, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s defence concepts and capabilities, considering the proposals set out in ‘Defence in a competitive age’. At the time of writing, this inquiry is ongoing.

The committee has so far taken evidence from witnesses including General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, commander of UK land forces in 2013 and NATO deputy supreme commander Europe from 2014–17. Speaking on 15 June 2022, he told the committee ‘Defence in a competitive age’ put heavy reliance on 3rd (UK) Division as the UK’s warfighting division. He said he believed the capability of the division looked “a bit thin”. He told the committee:

What we have there, I would assess, is the capability to sustain a battlegroup forward constantly in deterrence mode, and the ability to reinforce that for a warfighting engagement should it be necessary, provided all the other parts are in place. My assessment is that a great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that the remainder of that force is in a position to deploy forward to wherever it is required, and a great deal of resourcing needs to be put into the logistic enablement of the theatre. This is obviously not just a UK requirement; it goes across NATO. Part of that requirement falls on us, and I do not see provision specified for it at the moment.

The committee has also heard from Air Marshal (Retired) Phil Osborn, chief of defence intelligence from 2015–18. Speaking in in an evidence session on the same day as General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, he told the committee that the command paper had good areas of emphasis but that it struggled to “reconcile ambition with resources”.

8. Read more

This article was updated on 5 July 2022 following the postponement of the debate.

Cover image by Roberto Catarinicchia on Unsplash