What Britain's 'Future Soldier' project means for MENA

British soldiers from 21 Air Assault Battery Royal Artillery, who are providing the Helmand Task Force Provincial Reconstruction Team, are silhouetted against the sky as they provide security for a meeting with the Afghan National Police at the fortress Qala-e-Bost in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province.
6 min read
21 December, 2021
In-depth: The British army has announced its 'Future Soldier' modernisation programme, the most radical transformation of the military in decades.

Britain’s formal exit from the European Union (EU) on 31 December 2020 has seen it envision key foreign policy transformations. One of its major ambitions is to bolster its “Global Britain” vision, where it can project global power and promote greater human rights worldwide.

On 25 November, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) unveiled its ‘Future Soldier’ plan, which it called its “most radical transformation in 20 years.”

The plan aims to utilise a smaller army that will be “more productive,” with upgraded equipment and new experimentation that will make it more “lethal and deployable,” announced UK Minister of Defence Ben Wallace.

While Britain aims to make its military engagement more effective, with its forces being closer to key frontlines, there are concerns that Britain will engage deeper with its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners with poor human rights records. This would also undermine the UK government’s stated aims of championing humanitarian values.

"The 'Future Soldier' plan relies on securing deeper strategic relations with emerging powers, including the UK's traditional partners in the Gulf"

“More of the Army will be deployed across the globe, more of the time. Greater forward deployment will improve our ability to anticipate crises and be ready to compete beneath the threshold of open conflict. It will prevent conflict by reassuring allies and partners and deterring adversaries,” the Future Soldier plan read.

The plan added that the British army intends to adopt a more futuristic form of warfare, with the British army investing heavily in innovation and experimentation, along with a more climate-change friendly military.

The MoD will also invest an additional £8.6 billion ($11.5 billion) into new military equipment over the next decade, raising the total investment to £41.3 billion over the same period, Wallace said.

“Future Soldier is reinforced by the ambition outlined in the Defence Command Paper to transform the Army into a more agile, integrated, lethal, expeditionary force,” the Defence Secretary added.

Wallace added that the army will operate around the world and will be able to tackle a range of threats, from cyber warfare to battlefield conflict.

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"The British army will aim to deploy more of its forces closer to key areas of operation," Dr Jack Watling, Research Fellow for Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told The New Arab.

"In the past, much of Britain's army was home-based and cumbersome to deploy. If anything happened in the Middle East, Britain could have sent in a smaller force, but it would not have adequate enablers like medical and logistical support to be permitted to take risks,” he said.

“Meanwhile, deploying a larger force would have taken too long and would expose the UK to risk against its commitments to NATO,” he added.

"The ambition is to deepen relations with Britain's partners on the ground by having a sustained presence, and the ability to surge more people into theatre when required".

Among the most significant changes will be the new Ranger Regiment, which went into operation on 1 December. The regiment aims to provide the army with “a new expeditionary posture” to be deployed as part of the army’s special operations brigade, with the aim of countering extremist organisations and hostile states, in collaboration with “partner forces”.

British troops Iraq - Getty
Last month, the UK Ministry of Defence unveiled its ‘Future Soldier’ plan, which it called its 'most radical transformation in 20 years.' [Getty]

Through the plan, Britain has targeted various defence agreements with troops being deployed to international hubs in Oman, Kenya, Poland, and the Baltic states. Oman will be a key country of interest for Britain’s goals in the Middle East, given that it has traditionally been a key area for Britain’s abilities to project power in the region.

Indeed, Wallace also announced the British Army will abandon its military base in Canada and move to Oman by 2023, as part of its plans to upgrade its army’s operational capabilities.

According to reports cited by The Telegraph, moving the base to Oman has strategic intentions, as it means core British hardware will be closer to partner nations such as Ukraine, particularly as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stressed the need to stand up to “Russian aggression” at the G7 summit on 11 December. Thus, Britain will aim to use its partnerships in the Middle East to project power globally.

Showcasing Oman’s importance for Britain, the MoD announced on 29 October that British and Omani soldiers were conducting “low-level training together, including practicing patrolling, pilot escape and evasion tactics, and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and search techniques.”

"There's always been competition among western powers for defence partnerships with the Gulf states, as they are major purchasers of equipment and arms"

Geopolitical and human rights risks

The UK opposition Labour Party has slammed the plans and claimed they leave fighting forces “too small, too thinly stretched, too poorly equipped”. Additionally, shadow defence secretary John Healey highlighted that MoD civilian staff numbers rose 2,200 in the last six years, while the number of full-time soldiers has been slashed by 5,000 in the same period.

Dr Watling added that one of the risks is that states like Russia and Iran may constrain British operations because having optimised its forces for operations other than warfighting, the British Army would struggle to match aggressive escalation.

While Britain is evidently spreading itself thinly, it largely aims to enhance its strategic relations in the Middle East. Britain has used arms sales to Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to secure such partnerships. And along with Oman, Britain has supported Bahrain’s monarchy, as it hosts an important naval base in that country, allowing it to project military power in the Middle East.

With China and Russia’s entrenching influence in the Middle East, Britain could be looking to enhance its clout in the region to counterbalance both Beijing and Moscow.

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“There’s always been competition among western powers for defence partnerships with the Gulf states, as they are major purchasers of equipment and arms,” James Lynch, Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told The New Arab.

“Recent years have seen some strengthening of China’s defence relationships with Saudi Arabia and UAE, and this comes at a time when the US is perceived to be an increasingly less reliable partner for the Gulf,” he said.

“As far as I can see, the ‘Future Soldier’ plan relies on securing deeper strategic relations with emerging powers, including the UK’s traditional partners in the Gulf,” added Lynch.

On 22 November, Britain’s investment minister Gerry Grimstone announced that a free trade agreement with the GCC countries is progressing and will be concluded over the next 12 months. Securing a trade deal with the GCC has long been a priority for post-Brexit Britain, despite criticisms over the government ignoring human rights violations, particularly in Bahrain.

"These partners are not just repressive, they actively promote authoritarian values and actors across the region, from Egypt and Libya to Sudan"

Liz Truss met key Saudi figures in October, but data from the Department for International Trade (DIT) showed just 27 percent of the public would support a trade deal with Saudi Arabia, amid concerns over Riyadh’s human rights record.

“These partners are not just repressive, they actively promote authoritarian values and actors across the region, from Egypt and Libya to Sudan,” said Lynch, particularly referencing Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Citing wider human rights risks from the Future Solider plan, Lynch added: “I don’t see much in the document that acknowledges the human rights issue. One specific risk is Britain’s potential need to exchange surveillance data with authoritarian allies.”

“Clearly the UK assesses that there will be growing military and security threats in the cyber-sphere. As cyber increasingly plays a leading role in security strategy, there is a serious risk of introducing data-driven bias into weapons and other military systems, removing human accountability from decisions about warfare.”

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey