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Fewer frontline troops in future as UK depends on AI, new strategy suggests

As defence secretary says cutting the size of the British Army is necessary or soldiers would have to be sent into battle with ‘pitchforks’

Kate Devlin
Politics and Whitehall Editor
Tuesday 18 July 2023 17:59 BST
Sunak hails outgoing Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s ‘distinguished’ career

The UK is set to have fewer front line troops as it relies more on artificial intelligence in the wake of the Ukraine war, according to a new strategy.

It comes after outgoing defence secretary Ben Wallace said cutting the size of the British Army was necessary or soldiers would have to be sent into battle equipped with “pitchforks”.

In its updated Defence Command Paper the Ministry of Defence (MoD) defended plans, set out two years ago, to cut numbers.

The paper adds that future the UK “may have fewer people on the front line but a much larger community of specialists supporting them” as more is learned “from Ukraine about the changing nature of modern battle and explore the opportunities in AI (artificial intelligence) and automation.”

The MoD also set out plans to:

  • Spend an extra £2.5 billion on stockpiles “to improve fighting readiness”.
  • Create a rapid ‘UK Global Response Force’ to enable forces to”get there first”.
  • Spend more than £6.6 billion for advanced Research and Development (R&D) to “create and seize the opportunities presented by new and emerging technologies”.
  • Work more closely with allies such as the US, Australia and other Nato countries “to develop cutting-edge capabilities”

It also said self-driving vehicles would increasingly perform functions from “last-mile resupply and logistics to uncrewed wingmen”.

Small cheap drones will also increase the UK’s “intelligence coverage” and other uses.

The MoD said it would set ambitious targets for ‘AI Readiness’ by 2025.

In another lesson learned from Ukraine the paper includes plans to speed up the delivery of new kit, even if it is not a "100% solution".

Mr Wallace told MPs that "following in Ukraine's footsteps" the UK was increasing the sourcing of "those £100 solutions that can stop 100 million threats in their tracks".

A closer alliance with defence firms would also see technology move more quickly to the front line.

Away from technology, there will be a new ‘zig zag’ employment model that will allow far greater flexibility for personnel to go in and out of or switch between the services.

There will be an extra £400m for accommodation.Mr Wallace also announced plans for five-year delivery deadlines for hardware and three years for digital programmes, to avoid projects dragging on.

"As Defence Secretary, to import the lessons learned from this conflict to our own forces is important," Mr Wallace told the Commons.

"While I wish such lessons were generated in a different way, this conflict has become an incubator for new ways of war."

He defended the cuts to the Army saying there was "no point pretending we can have huge numbers" if they were not properly equipped.

His stance was criticised by the Conservative chair of the Commons defence committee, Tobias Ellwood, who said: “Only two days ago the Defence Secretary warned of multiple future conflicts on the horizon. Yet today’s announcement of cuts to troop numbers, leaving us with the smallest Army since the seventeen hundreds, will be extremely concerning to many.

“Mr Wallace says his plans are not “fantasy force politics”, but we need more personnel, not less, and relying on veterans and reserve forces is no substitute for a regular, professional Force. The Defence Secretary is right to say that our service people are “our real battle-winning capability”. So why won’t he commit to sustaining the regular force the UK needs?

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