UK ground forces ‘comprehensively outgunned’ by Russia: RUSI

Harry Lye 28 November 2019 (Last Updated July 1st, 2020 17:39)

A report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says that the UK’s ground forces would be outmatched by Russia and calls for fire capabilities to be a modernisation focus.

UK ground forces ‘comprehensively outgunned’ by Russia: RUSI
Review of troops, held after Vostok 2018 military manoeuvres. Credits: Office of the President of Russia.

‘The Future of Fires: Maximising the UK’s Tactical and Operational Firepower’ details the “critical shortage” of artillery alongside a lack in transport capabilities that would leave the UK’s ground forces uncompetitive.

Released ahead of next week’s NATO leader’s summit in London, the report by RUSI research fellow Dr Jack Watling highlights the need for NATO forces to invest in ground forces to lessen the risks posed by a possible conflict with Russia.

The paper reads: “The UK’s ground forces are comprehensively outgunned and outranged, leaving enemy artillery free to prosecute fire missions with impunity. This must ultimately fix and suppress British guns and manoeuvre elements, and thereby lead to the defeat of UK units in detail.”

In response to the report, a Ministry of Defence (MOD) spokesperson told Army Technology: “The UK does not stand alone but alongside its NATO Allies, who work closely together across air, sea, land, nuclear and cyber to deter threats and respond to crises.

“As the largest NATO defence spender in Europe, the UK’s armed forces are well equipped to take a leading role in countering threats and ensuring the safety and security of British people at home and abroad.”

Although in a conflict with Russia the UK would never go it alone, the report highlights a capability gap that the UK will need to fill to ensure the strength of its ground forces.

An artillery numbers game

Comparing the two countries’ armed forces the report explains that “a Russian motor-rifle brigade fields an organic fires compliment of 81 artillery pieces, ranging from 152-mm and 203-mm self-propelled howitzers to 300-mm multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS).”

In comparison, the UK only has two regiments of “24 AS90 155-mm 39-calibre self-propelled howitzers. 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade can each field just two batteries of six 105-mm L118 light guns as their entire fires capability.”

The report adds that the UK’s artillery capabilities would also be limited by GPS jamming technology in a conflict scenario. The UK’s current MLRS uses a GPS guided rocket which RUSI explains would be unable to engage moving targets if its signal was blocked. Its range in comparison to Russian equivalent systems also puts the rockets on a back-foot travelling almost 40km less than Russian weapons.

“Forces have tended to significantly underestimate the quantity of firepower needed to enable ground manoeuvre without prohibitive casualties, when fighting in complex terrain” the report reads, explaining wider deficiencies across the alliance that could hamper its warfighting capabilities.

RUSI notes that in prior NATO interventions such as Libya and Iraq a shortage of munitions affected the alliance. RUSI said: “Despite NATO countries running low on PGMs with the number of airstrikes involved, the Iraqis still used a large amount of ground-based fires in retaking urban areas.

“The success of these operations was therefore dependent on a capability that most NATO forces would struggle to generate themselves, lacking both enough tubes and ammunition stockpiles.”

UK outgunned by Russia RUSIAS-90’s firing during Exercise Steel Sabre. Credits: MOD Crown Copyright.

Time for an ordnance change?

The paper makes a series of recommendations to improve the UK’s fire capabilities and strengthen its ground forces. It recommends that the UK invests in more precision-guided weapons or reassess “its commitments under the Oslo Convention prohibiting the use of cheaper, but highly effective ammunitions natures such as cluster munitions, used by both Russia and the US.”

The Convention Cluster Munitions has been ratified by 107 countries including the UK and obliges signatories to “never under any circumstances to (a) Use cluster munitions; (b) Develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions; (c) Assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”

The paper added: “If the UK is not prepared to invest in capabilities, or enact policies, to deploy an effective fires group then it should consider the viability of its commitments outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy.”

In its report, RUSI notes that the moral objections of the use of cluster munitions can be mitigated in a conflict scenario as advancements in technology since the signing of the Oslo treaty have significantly reduced the weapons’ dud-rate (ordnance that does not explode).

It also highlights how without using the weapons the UK’s forces could be put a disadvantage saying “in a high-intensity conflict in Eastern Europe, where Russian and US forces will employ cluster munitions liberally. Without appropriate munitions, British forces will simply be outranged, outgunned and thereby defeated in detail by Russian formations.”

Going forward the UK will need to address this shortfall in order to maintain competitiveness with both adversaries and other NATO powers. The paper reads: “‘The ability to deploy a credible warfighting force increases the risk for adversaries escalating to direct armed conflict, and thereby allows the UK to maximise its efforts in the competitive space.

“Conversely, forces designed for competition, but unable to fight credibly, can be deterred by the threat of escalation.”