1. What is the current strength of the army?

In January 2023:

  • The full-time trade trained strength of the army was 75,710. This was 2.2% smaller compared with the previous year.
  • There were 190,170 service personnel in the UK forces. This was smaller by 3.5% compared with the previous year. The total figure includes both trained and untrained personnel.
  • The combined full-time trained strength of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and Royal Air Force and the full-time trade trained strength of the army was 134,530. This was 1.9% smaller compared with the previous year.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) publishes quarterly figures for the size of the UK armed forces. These include the overall strength of UK forces service personnel and its full-time trained strength. In the case of the army, the MoD measures its trained strength in terms of its full-time ‘trade trained’ strength. This includes all personnel that have completed both the basic service training and subsequent ‘trade training’. Targets for the size of the UK armed forces the government sets are based on the figures for full-time trained strength/full-time trade trained strength.

2. What is the government’s target for the size of the army?

In November 2021, the government published ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British Army’, which put the size of the army at 73,000 trained regulars. This was slightly higher than a figure set in March 2021. The Ministry of Defence’s command paper ‘Defence in a competitive age’ had confirmed that the full-time trained strength of the army would be reduced to 72,500 by 2025. The ‘National security strategy and strategic defence and security review 2015’ had set the strength of the army at 82,000.

The government’s plans for changing the army formed part of its strategy outlined in ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’, published a week before ‘Defence in a competitive age’. The integrated review identified several overarching trends facing the UK over the coming decade. This included geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts, such as the increased power and assertiveness of China internationally, and greater ‘systemic competition’ between states, leading to a growing contest over international rules and norms. The integrated review also said the UK should respond to ongoing rapid technological change and transnational challenges such as climate change and global health risks.

On the armed forces, the integrated review said the government would:

[…] create armed forces that are both prepared for warfighting and more persistently engaged worldwide through forward deployment, training, capacity-building and education. They will have full-spectrum capabilities—embracing the newer domains of cyberspace and space and developing high-tech capabilities in other domains, such as the future combat air system. They will also be able to keep pace with changing threats posed by adversaries, with greater investment in rapid technology development and adoption.

The government also said in its 2021 command paper it would be increasing investment in the UK’s defence capabilities, including in new weapons and in the domains of space and cyberspace.

3. What has the government announced subsequently?

The government’s ‘Integrated review refresh 2023’ (IRR) was published on 13 March 2023. On the same day, the government announced it would provide £5bn of additional funding to defence over the financial years 2023/24 and 2024/25. It also said its ambition was to increase defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product in the longer term.

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022, the government had faced calls to review the plans set out in the integrated review and to increase defence spending. In September 2022, the government confirmed its plan to publish an update to the integrated review. This was initially expected to be completed by the end of 2022 but was subsequently delayed. In the 2022 autumn statement, the government said it recognised the need to increase defence spending and would consider this as part of the planned update to the integrated review.

The 2023 IRR did not make any recommendations concerning changes to the size of the armed forces. However, the government said it would continue to modernise the armed forces and they would be “further strengthened as we learn the lessons from the war in Ukraine”.

On 13 March 2023, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, told the House of Commons that the government expected to conclude an update to the defence command paper in June 2023. The Times has reported that the government is reviewing its target for the size of the army as part of this update. When questioned on the size of the army in the House of Commons, the minister for the armed forces, James Heappey, said the government came to a “clear judgement” at the time of the 2021 integrated review. However, he said that the government was considering “whether the assumptions of the last [defence] command paper are still sound”.

4. How big should the army be?

In January 2023, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published a report entitled ‘UK defence policy: From aspiration to reality?’. The committee agreed with the government that the integrated review needed to be re-examined in the light of the war in Ukraine. It argued the “strategic assumptions” on which the previous integrated review was based had now changed. As part of its inquiry, the committee considered the issue of the size of the army.

The report noted that some of the witnesses it had heard evidence from had expressed concern about plans to reduce the number of army personnel. This included the former chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, who argued the size of the army should be “in the order of 80,000” to ensure that the UK could field a full division of troops as part of a combined NATO force. The committee also heard evidence from Professor Michael Clarke, the former deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, who argued the government’s target size for the army would be sufficient to field a full combat division but would not leave sufficient capacity for the army to do anything else.

During his evidence session with the committee, Ben Wallace said the size of the army alone was not a good measure of its capabilities. He said the government was focused on the modernisation of the army, including utilising new technological advances. He said this would compensate for reductions in personnel.

The committee concluded that it agreed with the government that “headline troop numbers are not the most appropriate metric by which to judge the army’s capabilities”. Instead, it argued:

The more important question is whether the army has the resources and capabilities it needs to deliver on the government’s ambitions. This depends not only on the number of troops, but also on how well-equipped and trained they are.

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Cover image by Dominic King, UK MOD © Crown copyright 2014 on Flickr.