Today’s British Army is a complex and multifaceted organisation with over 112,000 regular and reserve soldiers.
These men and women perform a variety of roles, some with historical forerunners, others modern and hi-tech.
What follows is a basic breakdown of the structure of the Army, and then a look at the main weapons used by its soldiers.
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British Army Organisation – An Overview
The structure of today’s British Army can be more easily understood in the context of its past.
Historically, the Army was made up of a core of locally recruited infantry regiments, around which supporting cavalry, artillery and other elements were added.
The various infantry (and other) regiments were subdivided for easier tactical use and administrative purposes. In the case of infantry regiments, this meant several battalions of around 1,000 men each would be recruited from one area and numbered and named after the parent regiment.
For example, the regiment historically associated with Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire was the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, so 1 Ox & Bucks LI and 2 Ox & Bucks LI would have been the first and second battalions recruited within the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry regiment.
Meanwhile, Battalions themselves were, and still are, subdivided into companies (of around 200 men), platoons (of around 40 men) and sections (usually 10 men.)
Further up the organisation scale, infantry battalions were clustered into groups of three or four to make a brigade, and brigades were further grouped together, usually in threes, to make divisions.
Two or more divisions made up a corps, while two or more corps made up an army. This meant that at certain periods in its history, when the Army was very large, such as in the First and Second World Wars, it actually contained a number of armies (i.e. First Army, Second Army, Third Army etc.)
The various support elements – artillery, cavalry and others – have been added to and controlled at the different levels within the Army throughout its history, though the main fighting element was and remains the infantry. The MOD’s Army site says that today it is still at the core of the Army.
Because of various reforms, there are fewer infantry regiments now than there were historically, with today’s Army containing 17. By contrast, there were 73 infantry regiments in the Army at the start of the First World War.)
Each infantry regiment in the Army now specialises in at least one of five possible roles. The first of these, like the old Ox & Bucks LI, is the light infantry role, which entails fighting on foot with the latest weaponry.
There is also the armoured infantry role, which involves the use of the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle to provide protection and mobility to fighting troops; the light mechanised infantry role, which involves soldiers riding into battle and then exiting their vehicles to fight on foot, the vehicles in this case being lighter armoured vehicles like the Foxhound; the mechanised infantry role, which is similar to the light mechanised infantry role but involves the use of larger, heavier vehicles such as the Boxer or Warrior Infantry Support Vehicle (pictured just below); the airborne infantry role, where soldiers are dropped into combat by helicopter or parachute; and the specialised infantry role, where soldiers mentor their counterparts in allied nations.
There are currently 16 Reserve and 32 Regular (or mixed) infantry battalions within the British Army, each with around 500 or 600 personnel belonging to the aforementioned 17 regiments. The specialised roles of each of these regiments are broken down in the table just below.
Infantry Regiments And Their Specialised Roles Within The British Army Today:
The Royal Regiment of Scotland
Light, Mechanised and Specialised Infantry
The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment
Armoured and Light Infantry
The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment
Light and Specialised Infantry
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
The Royal Anglian Regiment
The Yorkshire Regiment
Armoured and Mechanised Infantry
The Mercian Regiment
Armoured and Light Infantry
The Royal Welsh
The Royal Irish Regiment
The Parachute Regiment
Light, Armoured, Mechanised and Specialised Infantry
The Royal Gurkha Rifles
More broadly, the battalions within each of these regiments sit within a structure designed to support them, while at the same time containing other combat formations. Today’s Army still contains many elements of the basic historical model, with divisions and brigades administering regiment or battalion-sized units below them, or even smaller company or platoon-sized units. These units might be Regular (i.e. those with fulltime Army employees), Army Reservists (i.e. part-time soldiers) or a mixture of the two.
Corps are also still a part of the Army, though the term now is generally used to denote support elements that are separate from the Army’s main divisions. In fact, the Army’s main field army is itself small enough by historical standards that it is essentially a single corps, containing three divisions.
As well as the various headquarters at the top of the structure, and the infantry battalions at the bottom, the various other elements arrayed throughout the Army’s structure.
The Royal Armoured Corps’ 11 Regular (or mixed) and four Reserve regiments are like modern cavalry, providing mobile support and armoured protection for the infantry. The RAC uses vehicles from the Challenger 2 to the Jackal Fighting Vehicle.
While the infantry and RAC make up the Army’s combat forces, it also has a number of combat support forces. These are the Royal Artillery, which has 20 regiments and provides heavy firepower in the form of artillery and rockets; the Corps of Royal Engineers, which has 18 regiments providing technical support throughout the Army; the Intelligence Corps, which has nine regiments that collect and analyse key information; and the Royal Corps of Signals, which aids communication throughout the Army with its 17 regiments being trained in IT, cyber security and telecommunications.
The Royal Signals also provide tactical satellite ground terminals for the Army, which enable all land-based headquarters to have satellite communications. The platforms include the SMALL SATCOM, the ground terminal portion using the SKYNET5 network to support forces anywhere in the world (Skynet is a kind of military communications satellite) and can be set up in 30 minutes; and the Reacher, which is usually mounted on a Mowag Duro 3 vehicle and provides communications terminals for the MOD within the UK.
Other communications systems include the Falcon, which uses IP (Internet Protocol) technology to support the Army within the UK as well as within the ARRC (Allied Rapid Reaction Corps), part of NATO; and BOWMAN, which enables communication at High Frequency (HF), Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) from formation HQs down to their fighting units.
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The Army also has four combat service support elements: REME, the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, which, with its 11 battalions, helps maintain and repair Army equipment; the Royal Logistic Corps, which has 25 regiments and helps keep the Army supplied and moving both at its various bases and when deployed overseas; the RAMC (or Royal Army Medical Corps), which provides medical support through its 24 regiments; and the Royal Military Police, which has six regiments that, as the MOD puts it, “police the Force and provide police support to the Force” – the Force, in this case refers to just the Army (the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have their own police.)
Air support, meanwhile, is provided by the eight regiments of the Army Air Corps (AAC.)
The British Army also has under its control the defence forces of a number of overseas territories: those of Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Falklands, Gibraltar and Montserrat, in the Caribbean. It also has a presence in Germany and Belize.
The Basic Structure Of Today’s Army (Main Formations And Locations, With Subunits):
1 Division (with 4, 7, 11 and 51 Infantry Brigades, 8 Engineer Brigade, 102 Logistic Brigade, 104 Logistic Support Brigade, 2 Medical Brigade)
3 Division (with 1, 12 and 20 Armoured Infantry Brigade, 1 Artillery Brigade, 7 Air Defence Group, 25 Engineer Group, 101 Logistic Brigade, 11 Signal Brigade)
6 Division (with 1 Signal Brigade, 1 Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade, Army Special Operations Brigade, 77 Brigade)
16 Air Assault Brigade
HQ London District
HQ Regional Command (with 1 Military Police Brigade, 38 Brigade, 160 Brigade, HQ North East, HQ East, HQ South East, HQ North West, HQ South West, HQ Scotland, HQ West Midlands)
Army Recruiting and Initial Training Command
Army Personnel Centre
Joint Helicopter Command:
Contains helicopters from the AAC (Army Air Corps) as well as from the Royal Navy and RAF. Army elements of the JHC are:
Watchkeeper Force (47 Regiment, Royal Artillery)
Army Aviation Centre (with 2 and 7 Regiments AAC – both training units)
1 Aviation Brigade (with 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 Regiments AAC and 7 Aviation Support Battalion, REME)
Royal Armoured Corps
Royal Corps of Army Music
Army Weapons – Small Arms And Support
The primary weapon used by soldiers in today’s Army is the L85 and is visible as the weapon being used by the soldiers in the cover image of this article. It is part of a group of weapons called SA80, first introduced in the 1980s (the name stands for “Small Arms for the 1980s”) and of which there are both Individual Weapons (IWs) and Light Support Weapons (LSWs.) The Individual Weapon is the L85, and the Light Support Weapon the L86.
According to the Ministry Of Defence (MOD), the SA80 turned out to be so accurate when it was first introduced that the Army marksmanship tests needed redesigning. Additionally, the A2 series that was introduced in 2002 made this family of weapons extremely reliable as well.
The SA80 series also features a shorter barrelled (i.e. carbine) version of the L85 known as the L22, a weapon designed for those who operate in confined spaces such as tank crews.
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Some units in the Army also use the Colt Canada C8 instead of the SA80 as a main weapon. The version of the Colt Canada adopted by the Ministry of Defence for UK forces is the C8SFW, and it has been used under the name L119A1 and L119A2 (the A2 being an upgraded version.)
For short range shooting, the Army also has the Glock 17 pistol, known within UK military circles as the L131A1, the L128A1 (Benelli M4) combat shotgun, and for other close-sector combat, a fragmentation grenade (the L109A2) and the L3A1 socket bayonet.
The Army also has a number of weapons for launching grenades at longer distances, such as the UGL (Under-slung Grenade Launcher), attached to the L85A2, and the Heckler & Koch Grenade Machine Gun, which is a belt-fed, rapid-fire grenade launcher often seen on vehicles.
There are a variety of machine guns in use within the Army: the Minimi light machine gun (or the L110A2), as well as the L7A2 General Purpose Machine Gun (or GPMG) and the L111A1 heavy machine gun, also usually vehicle mounted.
Long-range and high-precision shooting is done with sniper rifles, like the L115A3, L96, L129A1, the L135A1 and, more recently, the Accuracy International (AI) AX50 (Accuracy International also make the L115A3 and the L96.) The last two of these are both .50-calibre rifles.
Heavier weapons come in the form of mortars (the L16A2 81mm mortar) and rocket launchers, of which there are themselves subtypes. The MBT LAW (or NLAW) and Javelin are both anti-tank weapons, while the Starstreak, or HVM (High Velocity Missile), is an anti-aircraft weapon that fires three laser-guided exploding darts from a 130mm canister (or missile) at ranges of between one and five-and-a-half kilometres. It can be fired from a shoulder-mounted launcher, in which case it can fire one missile, from a three-missile launcher tripod, or from a mount on a vehicle called a Stormer, in which case it can fire eight missiles.
The HVM is also due to be replaced by the Light-Weight Multi-Role Missile (also known as the LMM, or Martlet), a weapon system that can also be fired from the shoulder or mounted on a helicopter.
A Comparison Of The Different Weapons Used By The Army:
Max effective range
20 or 30
150 – 200 metres
Colt Canada C8
L128A1 combat shotgun
12 gauge (18.4mm)
40 metres (buckshot);
130 (solid shot)
Grenade Machine Gun
2,000 metres (for area targets)
800 metres (light role) 1,800 for sustained fire
L111A1 Heavy Machine Gun
L96 sniper rifle
L115A3 sniper rifle
L129A1 marksman rifle
L135A3 .50-cal rifle
5 or 10
AX50 .50-cal rifle
150mm anti-tank missile
1 – 8
1,000 – 5,500 metres
Finally, the Army also has a number of heavier support weapons.
The first of these is the L118 Light Gun, a towed artillery piece that resembles the towed field guns of the Army’s history, though it is in fact technically a howitzer, rather than a traditional field gun. The latter fire at lower, flatter trajectories and are more likely to engage a target directly, whereas howitzers have their barrels set at a steeper angle, and therefore tend to fire on targets indirectly at a steeper trajectory, with the artillery round arcing up before gravity sends it down again, where it falls on top of the target.
As well as being towed, the L118 can also be hoisted into position by a Chinook helicopter. It is manned by eight regiments within the Royal Artillery, four Regular and four Reserve. Of the Regular regiments, one of these – 7 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery – supports the Parachute Regiment, and another, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, supports the Royal Marines. (29 Commando is discussed in relation to the Royal Marines as a whole here).
There is also the AS90, a kind of self-propelled artillery (or, more accurately, self-propelled gun – since the AS90 is also a howitzer.)
These weapons move themselves into position on tracks and, being armoured, look a lot like tanks - though their role is to support a battle rather than participate in it directly, as a tank would. (For more on the differences between self-propelled artillery and tanks, as well more on the AS90, click here). The AS90 is capable of a top speed of 33 miles per hour, and a driving range of 261 miles before needing to be refuelled.
The AS90 fires a 155mm shell, and has an automated loading system, so that even though it fires one round at a time, it can still fire up to three rounds in under 10 seconds.
The M270B1 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), meanwhile, is a kind of armoured, self-propelled rocket artillery, hauled into position on top of a modified Bradley Fighting Vehicle chassis, which has a driving range of 398 miles.
According to the MOD, the GMLRS has pinpoint accuracy and can deliver its 200-lb surface-to-surface rockets to targets at double the range of other artillery systems within the British Army, and at a rate of fire of 12 rockets a minute.
The Army also has the Rapier, or more precisely the Rapier Field Standard C air defence system, which can strike up to two attacking enemy aircraft simultaneously, be they planes, helicopters, cruise missiles or UAVs with its surface-to-air missiles.
Rapier is being replaced by Sky Sabre, or CAMM (Common Anti-Air Modular Missile.) It is already in service with the Royal Navy aboard Type 23 Frigates and is known as Sea Ceptor, while the Army variant is known as Land Ceptor.
The Army also have two UAVs – the Desert Hawk, which provides surveillance, and the Tarantula Hawk, which the Army uses for countering IEDs.
A Comparison Of Heavy Support Weapons Used By The Army:
Max effective range
L118 Light Gun
1 (at a time)
1 (at a time)
12 rockets (in two 6-round pods)
2.25-metre-long, 45-kg missile
500 – 8,200 metres
*Range for HE, or High Explosive, rounds.
Click here to learn more about some of the ‘Dead Regiments’, the former regiments of the British Army. And to read the second and third parts of the Know Your Army series about land vehicles and boats and aircraft, click here and here.
And to learn about the Royal Navy, check out the Know Your Navy series here, here and here.
Cover image: Soldiers on a Light Close Reconnaissance Commanders Course in Brecon, Wales (picture: MOD)