The UK will base hundreds of tanks and fighting vehicles in Germany and rotate more troops on exercises through the country barely a year after withdrawing a large Cold War-era presence.
The mini U-turn – part of a major modernisation plan for the army unveiled by the defence secretary on Thursday – will see Germany becoming one of three new “regional land hubs” for the army, along with Oman and Kenya.
The aim is for more troops to be deployed to different parts of the globe for longer – training with partner forces for months rather than the current exercise schedules of weeks – to strengthen relations with allies and deter threats from states such as Russia and China.
The renewed presence in Germany will also mean the UK can respond faster to any Russian – or other – attack on a European NATO member state.
Ben Wallace, speaking in the House of Commons, also set out what the army will look like as it shrinks to 73,000 by 2025 from a target strength of 82,000 – its smallest size since Napoleonic times – to save money, though the reduction is 500 soldiers fewer than initially planned.
The programme – dubbed “Future Soldier” and described as the most radical restructuring in more than 20 years – is designed “to transform the army into a more agile, integrated, lethal, expeditionary force”, the defence secretary said.
“Transformation on this scale – every single unit will be affected in some way by this change,” he told MPs.
It will include an extra £8.6bn in funding for equipment over the next 10 years. However, one of the army’s most expensive programmes – the £5.5bn Ajax mini tank – is still blighted by problems that have yet to be resolved.
“Our army will operate across the globe, equipped with the capabilities to face down a myriad of threats from cyber warfare through to battlefield conflict,” Mr Wallace said.
Fewer soldiers will mean some base closures, including Alanbrooke Barracks at Topcliffe in North Yorkshire. A total of 33 “site closures” are planned though officers said many of them are small, such as a number of reserve centres and cadet training centres.
There are winners as well as losers with some anticipated base closures being scrapped.
This includes Glencorse Barracks in Edinburgh and the retention of Brecon Barracks in Wales – a decision that will likely be seen as an attempt to woo devolved nations.
The army itself is changing in structure to become more streamlined as it shrinks in size.
No cap badges will be lost and there are no plans for mass redundancies. But the army will be rearranged under four divisions of infantry called The Queen’s Division, the Union Division, The Light Division and the Guards and Parachute Division.
A number of brigades will either be ditched or merged as priorities shift to building up a greater ability to fight from a distance.
This involves investment in long-range missiles and surveillance.
As part of this adjustment, 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade will merge with the Artillery Brigade to become a Deep Recce Strike Brigade.
There will also be an emphasis on specialist capabilities.
This includes the creation of a Ranger Regiment, to be stood up from 1 December, which models itself on the Green Beret special forces in the United States. Britain’s Rangers will be able to operate in smaller groups than the regular army and be more self-sufficient.
They will partner with local troops or militias in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
On the new plans for Germany, the army aims to base a brigade of tanks and armoured vehicles – around 250 machines in total, supported by trucks and other infrastructure – in Sennelager training area, where British forces were previously permanently located.
Battle groups of hundreds of soldiers will then deploy to the training area to exercise on the equipment with NATO allies for around four months at a time.
They could then move on to Estonia, where the UK has for the past five years led a 1,000-strong battle group of NATO troops as part of a mission to deter Russian aggression.
The future UK presence in Germany will be very different to the 20,000-strong military footprint that was located in the country previously – a legacy in the decades that followed the end of the Second World War. That permanent presence was withdrawn in 2020.
An Army spokesperson said: “The NATO Forward Holding Base Sennelager is the Army’s developing Land Regional Hub in Europe.
“Deliberately designed with our NATO partners it will enhance our ability to rapidly meet our commitment to NATO under the NATO Readiness Initiative by increasing our ability to store and hold material and equipment on the continent.
“Whilst the intent is also to increase our training there, alongside our NATO partners, there is no plan to re-base UK combat forces in Germany.”