This week the Secretary of State for Defence was able to formally announce to Parliament the planned future basing strategy for the British Army. This significant announcement heralds the end of the British presence in Germany, some 70 years after the end of WW2, and perhaps forever sees the removal of significant formations of British troops from mainland Europe.
The announcement showed that in future, the British Army is going to be concentrated across several core sites and areas, rather than being dispersed to the four winds. This inherently sensible strategy of trying to base together units and formations means it will be easier to achieve collective training, and also hopefully instil some stability in what has often been a rollercoaster of a postings plot. In an ideal world, the greater stability offered by a home based army, coupled with more time at home should hopefully lead to better retention at all levels of the forces.
Additionally, some £1.8 billion of investment has been programmed to build new accommodation for the returning troops and units. While some may complain that this seems a lot, the reality is that much of this money would have had to be spent anyway at some stage as existing barracks were updated. One of the major challenges facing MOD is how to upgrade existing accommodation to make it fit for purpose – particularly when so much of the estate is often pre WW2 in age, and fails to match up to modern standards. There is seemingly little point in investing money on training and equipment if the location your troops live in is a dump – they will often walk away, and you end up with a real retention problem as a result.
So, in many ways this announcement was good news – the Army now has a clear plan to deliver to, and the way is clear to begin preparing for Army 2020,which will see a theoretical force of some 82000 regulars and 30000 reservists make up the future military.
|Challenger 2 MBT|
The problem to the authors mind isn’t the announcement, but the manner in which the media have chosen to interpret it. Buried among the details was the news that the 7th Armoured Brigade (the so-called ‘Desert Rats’) would lose its armoured capability and instead become an infantry brigade. The reaction from the media has been one of nearly controlled hysteria as they published article after article making out that due to the loss of tanks, the UK is no longer a military power (the articles were nearly identical in tone to ones stating that due to the loss, of potential loss of Sea Harrier, Aircraft Carriers, Trident, the Red Arrows, cuts to the SAS, the Household Cavalry and presumably the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps, the UK has ceased to be a military power several times over).
To the authors mind this is a good example of how it is increasingly difficult to have a rationale and coherent debate about meaningful reform of the military in the UK. Of course it is difficult when units have to be disbanded, titles changed or roles amended. But fundamentally the military as it exists is a product of generations of exactly this sort of process occurring. Almost all of todays military units that exist in the Army do so as a result of generations of amalgamations, disbandment, role changing and different ways of doing business. Whether we accept it or not, the Army is inherently an organisation which exists in a state of near perpetual change.
One only has to look at the title ‘7th Armoured Brigade’ to realise that it doesn’t exactly have an ancient history as an organisation – formed as an armoured division in WW2, its name, title, assigned units and role have changed many times in the last 70 years. While the desert rat flash rightly occupies a place in the British mindset, as a symbol of victory in the desert and of later successes in other wars, it doesn’t mean that the organisation somehow automatically needs tanks in order for it to be a success.
It is emotive when units change roles or titles, and there is no doubt that from a purely emotive perspective it will be a sad day when the formation no longer operates armour. However, we have to be objective here. There are several armoured brigades in the British Army, and they will be reducing in number. There is nothing particularly special about the 7th Armoured Brigade that means it must be kept in priority to other Armoured formations – indeed, many of them have long and glorious histories. What is it about 7th Armoured that has gained it column inches in a way that many other disbandments- say the loss of the regional forces 2* HQ (2,4,5 Division – all formations with great historical past) or the loss of the BAOR Armoured Divisions in the early 1990s didn’t get?
To the authors strictly personal view, it is a case that the media chose to focus on simple symbols and issues that they get, and believe that their readers will ‘get’ in order to stir up the appropriate level of ‘outrage’. Most readers of a certain age will be familiar with the Desert Rat symbol, and its easy to tie this purported loss into a wider narrative of national decline and failure in a way that saying 4 Mechanized Brigade losing its tanks wouldn’t get (the so-called 'black rat' patch). This is perhaps ironic, that a unit of equal history, provenance and role as 7 Armoured has generated no meaningful coverage at all of its Army 2020 future, despite being affected in the same way. The difference is that while the 7th Armoured 'Desert Rats Brand' is vaguely known to many British people, 4th Mechanised has never ocuppied a similar place in the public conciousness.
The problem is that it makes it increasingly hard to have rationale debates about how the military is structured. Its an old joke, but it is tellingly true that you know that a planning round is going ahead when the tired old ‘Disband the Red Arrows’, ‘Scrap the Household Cavalry’ or other such stories start doing the rounds. Certain elements of the military have achieved a near mythological status in the public mindset, which means any effort to do away with them is all but impossible. For instance, we recently had the sight of the Prime Minister turning the existence of the Red Arrows into a political matter, even before any decisions on the final size of the budget were taken, due to it being on the front page of the media.
The irony is that the same papers that go into ‘outrage overdrive’ the moment they see a defence issue that they think the public will understand (such as Aircraft Carriers with no planes, or Desert Rats with no tanks), are the first ones willing to complain that the MOD is unwilling to modernise, needs to do more with its resources and needs to be more attuned to the 21st Century. All well said and done, but how is this possible when the moment even a hint of change is considered, we see the nations media mobilised for war against the Ministry for even considering such disloyal thoughts?
|More than just a symbol?|
The reality is that the UK will not find itself militarily impaired simply for providing a force structure where the Desert Rats don’t have tanks. One only has to look at recent military operations to realise that in the 70 odd years since the end of WW2, the UK has employed armour on military operations on relatively few occasions (Korea, Gulf War 1, Kosovo and the Balkans, Operation TELIC). Outside of the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars, these deployments have been limited in number to at most a couple of squadrons of vehicles. Even the 1991 and 2003 wars only saw the deployment of at most some two brigades worth of armour. This isn’t to ignore the role played by the British Army of the Rhine, with its armoured divisions held against a theoretical Warsaw Pact attack, but the reality is that for most of the last 70 years, the UK has had very little need to call on armour for actual, rather than contingent, military operations.
The tank does still have an absolutely critical role to play in the modern military environment, but it comes with a significant footprint attached to its use. Even in Iraq during Operation TELIC, once the initial warfighting phase was over, there were rarely more than 12-16 tanks actually based in theatre. In Afghanistan not a single British tank has been deployed, although there has been enormous innovation and development of wheeled vehicles capable of mounting significant firepower. One only has to look at the future force structure to see that there is a significant appetite and requirement for the mid level vehicles – the lightly armoured reconnaissance roles and fire support roles which can be filled by a variety of vehicles. At the same time the growth of capability such as Apache, the Javelin anti-tank missile and Brimstone means that a wide range of means of delivering firepower exist, which do not always require a tank to do the job.
So, given that the UK has only deployed a maximum of two armoured brigades on any operation since the end of WW2, and given that the future force still envisages three armoured brigades on the order of battle, it is hard to see a threat to national security from this small change.
The real challenge is trying to win the PR battle to explain why these cuts are required, and how difficult it is to field first rate military force these days. The British public tend to be remarkably morose when it comes to discussing their nations military potential. There is a real tendency to do down the remarkable achievements of the British military over the years, and look back with misty eyed fondness to a past that never really existed.
It is very easy to look at a table showing how many troops and tanks may have been in service in the 1960s and compare that to today, and then think that we somehow no longer matter. Of course it is sometimes sad to look at the many units and equipment which no longer exists, but at the same time we need to be coldly realistic about this. The harsh reality is that to own and successfully employ a first rate, world class, military is extremely expensive. To buy the high end equipment, to support it, train with it and operate it takes a lot of money, and that only gets more expensive when you factor in wage costs too. Our military is a world class organisation, but it costs a phenomenal amount of money to run.
Of course the UK could adopt a different path, and instead of buying world class equipment, it could buy slightly cheaper and less effective equipment – this would increase manpower requirements, add significantly to the costs needed to buy sufficient vehicles or planes to do the job, and reduce our ability to work at the head of a coalition force. We’d not really save money, but we could perhaps convince the public that somehow possession of a force of 800 – 1000 tanks was a good thing – even if they weren’t as good as what we wanted, and even if we didn’t have the ability to manufacture or modify them (assuming we bought off the shelf from overseas). One only has to look at many of the armies out there to see orders of battle full of tanks, guns and troops, but relatively few logistical, signals or support elements. On paper these armies look incredible, but in reality their lack of investment in things that really matter means that they would struggle to deploy or sustain themselves for any length of time. At best they are almost a means of symbolic defence – much as an animal can modify itself to look bigger, scarier or more dangerous than it actually is, these armies have a similar function. They look dangerous, but when push comes to shove, many will struggle to achieve the most basic of military tasks.
The reason why the British Army has been reasonably successful is because of its investment in the less glamorous equipment and support areas, and focusing on being able to deliver capability when required. This means that when changes go through, it is still able to deploy effectively – one only has to look at the size of deployments in recent decades to realise that despite the army being half the size it was compared to 1990, it is still able to deploy an almost identical level of troops and capability.
We are as a nation rightly proud of our history, and it is something to be moved by, the way in which the British take such a fierce pride in their military heritage and history. We associate ourselves with concepts, units and names that have long since ceased to be part of the order of battle, or whose veterans have long since passed away. Despite this, we continue to value these links. In the authors family, a prized possession is the Jerboa flash of his Grandfather, who was a founding member of the Desert Rats during WW2 and who fought with the Division for much of its wartime adventures. Similarly, the author himself feels an affinity to the Desert Rats, having served alongside them at a Divisional level during one of the TELICs, and a prized possession of his is a more modern ‘Jerboa’ which sits as a quiet reminder of a particularly challenging deployment.
So to the authors mind, the challenge here is to be able to explain to the public why the Desert Rats not having tanks doesn’t mean that the UK is no longer a military power. There is no easy way of doing this for its much easier to look into a headline and believe that the lack of a tank under an organisational structure means that we’re doomed, than it is to believe that little has changed beyond the units assigned to the formation. One only has to look at the quality of the people assigned to a unit to realise that for all the administrative changes, the quality of the individual British soldier continues to be a unifying and reassuring symbol of hope and pride, regardless of the role, structure, organisation, capbadge that they wear. That is perhaps the only thing that really matters in this debate.