Defending Wales IV: On Land

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

The next three posts will look in more detail at the possible structure of a Welsh Defence Forces – starting with the army.

I don’t like playing armchair general, because armchair generals are usually bellends who don’t know what they’re talking about….oh.


Don’t worry too much about the names – “regiment”, “group”, “battalion”etc. – it’s all indicative.

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Following on from what I said in Part III, this is based predominantly on the structure of the Irish Defence Forces.

The full-time/regular army would consist of two brigades, each one having an area of geographical responsibility within Wales (this could perhaps include recruitment areas too). The 1st Brigade would be responsible for southern Wales and the southern half of Powys. The 2nd Brigade would cover the rest of central Wales as well as northern Wales.

Brigades normally have a minimum of 3,000-3,500 as set out by NATO standards. I’m going to be flexible and assume each brigade had a minimum of 2,500 soldiers, which means at least 5,000 full-time soldiers in total.

Each brigade would be divided in sub-sections. Three infantry battalions would be backed by combat support groups in artillery, cavalry, signals, engineering etc. As the role of the Welsh Defence Forces would hopefully be peaceful, each brigade also has a dedicated medical squadron (for peacekeeping and disaster relief purposes). I’ll return to this in Part IX when I discuss training.

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The third brigade would consist of army reservists, which I’m calling the National Guard. Most of these units and sub-units are based on existing Army Reserve units in Wales, though I’ve added one or two extra ones to ensure proper geographical spread. Again it’s all indicative, but gives you an idea of the possible numbers involved, and you would assume there would be a minimum of 2,000 reservists.

The National Guard could do with extra reserve artillery units – perhaps converting the glut of reserve logistics units – and some extra signals reserve units too. All other specialities are well covered.

These units would be built up over a period of time. A “bare bones” army would be established before independence day. Over subsequent years as the training, recruitment and supply/logistical issues are ironed out, it would gradually build up to “full capability”, as outlined, within ten years.

Defence Estates

Under international law, when a country secedes property is divided into movable and immovable assets. In defence terms, movable assets include those assets that can be physically transported between successor states (I come back to this shortly), immovable assets being training estates, offices, buildings and bases – which would automatically transfer to Welsh control unless a deal is struck.

Here’s a broad outline of existing army-related properties and training areas in Wales (so it doesn’t include bases like Valley – I’ll come back to them in later parts):

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Wales has three sizable military complexes: MoD St Athan, RAF Valley and the Infantry Battle School/Training Area at Brecon and Sennybridge. St Athan and Valley would be the obvious choices as headquarters for the two full-time army brigades – though Valley would need extra investment, particularly homes and training facilities for army personnel stationed there (as it’s currently an air force base).

Underneath this you have a reasonable network of smaller barracks and camps – like Maindy Barracks in Cardiff, The Grange in Swansea and what remains of Hightown Barracks in Wrexham. One of these – Cawdor Barracks near Haverfordwest, currently a Royal Signals base – is due to close by 2018, but it could be retained/revived post-independence.

Wales also has a decent network of Army Reserve Centres, though there’s a clear southern bias and it’s not unreasonable to suggest opening new centres – probably in abandoned buildings – in mid and north Wales to house National Guard units. Many Army Reserve Centres double up as bases for cadet squadrons, and I return to that in Part IX.

One of our military trump cards is the breadth and range of our training areas, which aren’t only used by the British military but NATO allies too – particularly Castlemartin range in Pembrokeshire. Some of these ranges are operated by QinetiQ on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, but they’re usually open to the public and only close when live ammunition is used.

It would be up to an independent Welsh government to decide what to do with them : some of the lesser-used ones could be closed, decontaminated and transferred to national parks, or we could use them as a money-spinner by charging foreign militaries reasonable rates for access.


As mentioned earlier, under international conventions on secession Wales would be due a proportional population-based share (4.8-4.9%) of “movable” military assets from the former UK. This includes British military equipment/materiel.

We don’t have to take all of our “share”; it would be open to negotiation and we could waive a share to certain equipment in exchange for something else – like reductions on national debt or more materiel than we would otherwise be due. The amount of equipment would have to match personnel numbers – there’s no point having 500 trucks if only 100 troops are expected to be qualified to drive them.

The following is based on current military equipment, and it’s likely things will completely change by the time Wales is in a position to become independent. However, as part of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty the MoD are obliged to report their materiel in Europe (2015 – pdf).

Uniforms & Body Armour – British combat uniforms use the Mk.7 helmet and Osprey body armour. General Service Respirators are also issued as standard. Combat uniforms now have multi-terrain patterns so there’s no longer any need for separate desert, arctic, temperate uniforms. The British military uses HAIX boots (which cost up to £150 a pair), but there could be cheaper alternatives – plus they would have to be suited to the theatre of operations, so soldiers might need multiple pairs of boots.The MoD are developing the Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST), which will have a modular system linking communications equipment, weapons etc. It’s likely all troops will be issued with this before Wales is independent.

And, of course, there are ceremonial dress uniforms. We could keep the red tunics, or replace them with something different – it depends on fashions I suppose; I’m no animal rights activist, but the bearskins can be replaced with a peaked cap or artificial bearskins.

Infantry – The standard-issue pistol is the Glock 17. For battle and assault rifles it’s the L85A2 – it’s doubtful Welsh troops would need multiple variants, but some sort of sniper-rifle would be needed for special forces units (Part VII), like the L115A3. For machine guns, you’re looking at the FN Minimi (light) and M2 Browning (heavy). Then there are various grenades and claymores – which are usually issued as standard to fireteams.

Artillery & Air-defence – The standard 60mm mortar is the M6, which can fire up to 12 rounds a minute; that should be enough. To encompass the broad spectrum of hostiles Welsh military personnel might face, even on peacekeeping missions, shoulder-mounted short range anti-tank and anti-personnel artillery would be needed like the MBT LAW.In terms of air-defence, they would have to be mobile and quick to set up, so the shoulder-mounded FIM-92 Stinger and the lightweight surface-to-air Starstream LML would be suitable. A Welsh army probably wouldn’t need heavy artillery/howitzers for other than ceremonial purposes.

Armour/Cavalry – As the likelihood of Welsh troops being involved in open battles will be, not completely eliminated, but significantly reduced, it would be prudent to have a presumption towards armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and scout vehicles. These would be backed by medium tanks for use in situations where combat seems inevitable. These include the FV107 series of vehicles, the Ajax series- which will be constructed in Merthyr Tydfil – and the Foxhound vehicle.

You would probably expect cavalry troops to be taught to ride and care for horses as well (for ceremonial purposes).

Logistics – In peacetime, the military are likely to use unarmoured trucks and there are thousands of them in the British Army with Wales due a sizable number of them as movable assets. In conflict zones, more sophisticated armoured logistics vehicles would be needed like the Husky protected support vehicle or Warthog all-terrain vehicle. The British Army also has a large number of Landrover jeeps which can be equipped with light arms and would be useful in peacekeeping and non-combat operations, as well as civil ones.

Engineering & Support – The main role of engineering crews in a military is to either slow the advance of an enemy or overcome physical obstacles to enable your side to advance. So engineering equipment is usually very similar to that you would see in civilian life, but adapted for combat and tough terrain. The British Army have a contract with Amey to provide civilian engineering vehicles (i.e. construction vehicles) on hire – Wales could probably do something similar.

Support equipment would need to fit with what we would expect Wales’ military role to be – though signals equipment in particular is unlikely to change too much. Peacekeeping operations would need things like mobile“pop-up” hospitals and mine and ordnance clearance vehicles such as the JCB HMEE (pictured above) and Buffalo. Disaster relief and some light combat missions might need things like mobile bridges and demolition/clearance equipment as well as equipment to detect trapped people.

Role, Strategy & Operations

Most countries determine the broad spectrum of their military role as part of a single military doctrine (to complement a foreign policy doctrine: Wales & The World III) – the UK one is here (pdf). Wales would be no different.The UK doctrine describes three components of fighting power: conceptual (the principles underpinning military policy), the physical (the actual forces and materiel themselves) and the moral (morale and leadership – whether political or military). I’ve already covered large chunks of them over the previous few posts.

With regard a Welsh army, the broad role and strategy as part of a military doctrine can be set out as follows.

Setting a clear aim – Every mission and deployment should have clear objectives for forces to achieve on the ground, and for political and military leaders to achieve with strategy and diplomacy. These would have to be consistent with the principles and laws of war as well as other international guidelines.

Collaboration and operational flexibility – The Welsh army should work with others wherever practical and  react flexibly to any situation; ground commanders could be given greater freedom to make decisions based on their own judgement and training, but part of a pre-agreed wider aim. This could include eventual membership of NATO, or a role under the EU’s Security and Defence Policy should Wales rejoin the EU.

Working within the UN Charter – I explained this in detail in Wales & The World VII, but under the UN Charter, nation states can act in self-defence, can use force when authorised by a UN Security Council resolution and it’s generally accepted that the military can intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

Utility of defence – The Welsh army would be the main face of Welsh defence policy, with other arms playing a support role. Wales will be unlikely to have the same influence as the UK in terms of full-spectrum capabilities, but we could carve out a niche for ourselves in :

  • humanitarian aid
  • mediation and conflict prevention
  • police-action/political stabilisation
  • peace-keeping
  • battlefield support as part of a wider alliance (i.e. field engineering and logistics)

In shorthand, while England and other global military powers would do the heavy stuff, Wales could do the softer stuff – which is no less important, but doesn’t require the same level of resources. It could also make other states more amiable towards us. So instead of being primarily about deterrence, it would be about influence and supporting foreign relations.

Regimental Duties – Domestic military duties. This might include support to civil authorities during a disaster or national emergency, undertaking and participating in advanced training exercises, providing logistical support, bomb disposal, participating in civic ceremonies or providing more heavily-armed security at sensitive sites (like the Royal Mint or nuclear power stations).

On Tour – Service overseas. There would be several circumstances where deploying the Welsh army, overseas or at home, would be legal and politically appropriate :

  • Self-defence, including providing military aid to civil authorities.
  • At the formal request of another government (i.e. natural disasters).
  • To protect Welsh citizens or Welsh interests (i.e. embassies, consulates).
  • Upholding treaty obligations (such as a mutual defence agreement).
  • Responding to a UN Security Council resolution.

As explained in Part III, any major deployment would be subject to the approval of the legislature.

How can the army protect Wales?

Even with an army it’s impossible to guarantee Wales can be defended from all threats – the same goes for the UK. The first defensive role of the army would be to repel any organised attack against Wales, whether that comes from another state or a non-state player like a terrorist group (domestic or international).

There’s very little a military can do in the case of a terror attack other than heightening security and, where required, assisting civil authorities like the police and security services. The role would be more to show force in order to deter secondary or copycat attacks than actually getting involved in anything.

In terms of a military threat to Wales itself, as said in Part I the chances of it happening are slim to none because Wales lacks strategic importance.

That said, a reasonably-armed power would probably be able to achieve air and naval superiority over Wales quite quickly. On land, Wales might be easy to “control” but wouldn’t be particularly easy to “hold”. So in terms of home defence we have several advantages: the terrain is difficult even for a modern military; all key routes go east-west, making the centre of Wales in particular an easy place to defend from as it extends enemy supply lines which in turn increases enemy vulnerability; there are very few places to launch an effective amphibious assault; air control – while likely to be ceded pretty quickly – is ultimately useless due to the terrain; helicopters would have to be used for anything other than patrols and air strikes and they’re perhaps more vulnerable to ground-to-air missiles.

Wales would be well placed to fight an ongoing guerrilla insurgency and that would be the main form of defence against organised opposition on Welsh soil. So the army would cede ground quickly, disperse themselves into cells fighting hit-and-run attacks from defensible positions and carrying out targeted assassinations. The goal would be to grind down any enemy over a long period of time and force a political settlement that results in the Welsh regaining sovereignty – which is essentially what the Irish did.

In reality, almost all action would take place overseas, and in those circumstances the Welsh army would likely be trying to uphold a UN resolution “by any means necessary”. We wouldn’t have the capability to launch major offensives, but logistical support, reconnaissance, routine patrols and intelligence-gathering should be straightforward enough and welcomed by allies.

Part V will look at a possible airborne branch of a Welsh Defence Forces.