The Daily Telegraph had an article over the weekend about how the UK needed to acquire a ‘real army’ in order to be a world power, rather than relying on the current planned force structure of regular and reservists to provide a ‘total force’ concept. The author (John Baron MP) had previous experience as a junior officer in the Army during the 1980s, and it is interesting that the article refers with an almost longing sense of desire to see the UK re-establish a force not seen since that time.
Humphrey has a very personal view that when people call for the military to be changed, it usually involves change to try and make it reflect the military that they served in. For decades people have been complaining bitterly that the UK military doesn’t do what we want it to do, and that only deep change can possibly solve the problem. Meanwhile the British Armed Forces carry on deploying and succeeding on their missions, despite this lack of a ‘wonder weapon ORBAT’. It is very easy to look at an order of battle and decide that somehow the UK lacks a real army – indeed anything can be proved with statistics, and it’s easy to say that because the UK plans a relatively small force with only limited numbers of equipment relative to other powers, it somehow lacks a real army. The problem with such a simplistic argument is that it ignores several issues.
Firstly, while we are now at the stage of looking wistfully back to the Cold War as a time of when the UK had a large army (relatively speaking), historically the UK has always maintained a small standing army. The combination of sea power, the lack of a credible opponent who could invade the UK, and a reluctance to embrace conscription has led to a force which even at its Imperial peak numbered barely 247,000 troops. It is only during the two largest wars in history (WW1&2) that the Army expanded, and even then it was only achieved through mass conscription and bankrupting the nation. The post-Cold War era is one when we maintained a large standing army which was affordable only through the combination of conscription and very low wages until the early 1970s. The reality has been that since military wages improved in the 1970s it has become ever more difficult to afford a large well paid force of troops.
The second problem is that it is difficult to justify a large standing army at a time when there is no existential threat to the UK. Even during the Cold War, once National Service had ended, the UK contribution quickly dropped down to barely four armoured divisions and supporting elements, which seems significant until set against a much wider NATO and Warsaw Pact order of battle. Then, as now, the British Army was a small organisation in a much larger world. Today there are no armoured divisions massing on the inner German border, and no credible invasion force to build to liberate Europe. We have no threat which requires a large army to defend our way of life, and certainly not one which would call for a massively larger army.
So, when we hear demands that the UK has to have a ‘real army’ the question must be ‘what does a real army look like’? We cling to a view that somehow because the British Army doesn’t possess thousands of tanks and legions of artillery batteries it somehow doesn’t have the same impact as other nations which possess much larger military forces. But to the authors mind there are two very different types of armed force out there – those which exist on paper, and those which have genuine capability to meet their missions. One only has to look across the world to see a plethora of nations who on paper possess large reserves of troops, weapons and equipment which theoretically place them at the top of whatever table one looks at. The problem is though that they are often poorly trained, funded and their equipment lacks support or maintenance – the ‘shiny toy in the shop window’ syndrome. When one reads accounts of large armies, it is often striking how they are in reality unable to deploy and effectively use more than a small fraction of their overall strength, or deploy at any distance. The author still shudders when he hears tales of various UN peacekeeping forces where nations with statistically large militaries deployed sizable contingents, only for them to arrive with next to no equipment, logistics or food, and then to have next to no effect on the job at hand. The other category of army is the one that is funded and equipped properly to do the job at hand. This is a much smaller category of nations, and the UK firmly falls into this category. It involves providing a force which may not be numerically large, but where the equipment – both first line and support, is of a good quality, and which works well together.
To the authors mind, we as a nation already possess a very capable ‘real army’ with a balanced mix of capabilities and where investment has been made across the whole spectrum of military need (e.g. not just tanks, but ISTAR and logistics too). The proof is perhaps in the realisation that the UK is one of only two nations currently able to deploy a divisional sized force overseas and fight at a distance prior to commencing a period of peacekeeping / peace enforcement missions. This was a capability tested on both DESERT STORM, Kosovo, and TELIC in the last 22 years. An examination of the 2010 SDSR shows that the UK retains this ability, even with a smaller army to deploy a maximum force of some 30,000 troops in a similar manner to previous operations. The British Army may be smaller, but its ability to deploy a similarly sized force to previous years is not in doubt.
The question is what would having a larger army do now for the UK standing in the world relative to our current force size? The first thing to note is the sheer cost associated with increasing the British Army – even returning to the force of the late 1980s would double the wages bill for the Army – which would be akin to adding several billion to the annual defence budget without even considering the cost of equipment, logistics, bases, accommodation and the like. A cold reality of the current day is that British troops are very expensive, and any uplift in regular forces comes at a huge cost in terms of wages. Add to this the reality that the geographical footprint has been reduced, and you realise that the bases, training estate and accommodation needed to accommodate a larger army simply doesn’t exist anymore. Historically we’ve never maintained large forces in the UK (with the exception of the two world wars), and indeed it would be fair to say that the current projected force of some 82,000 regular troops in the UK will be about the highest number based in the UK for generations. Any enlargement would place an enormous pressure on resources, which would be unsustainable in the medium term. This is also not considering the recruiting challenge of providing sufficient troops for the long haul – it is notable that in recent years the Army struggled to keep itself at a target strength of some 100,000 troops, even when the economy was doing poorly. Any growth to become a ‘real army’ would probably prove immensely challenging to achieve.
Similarly, growth in the Army comes at a cost of needing large numbers of new vehicles, weapons and supply chains. You can’t just wish a new armoured division into existence – there is a vast difference between saying on paper you possess an armoured division and then actually having something that works. Any enlargement would take many years to generate all the associated equipment, and come at a very substantial cost – the production lines don’t exist, and it would cost a fortune to reopen them. It is one thing to say ‘we want the UK to have four armoured divisions’ and another thing to generate four operational armoured divisions.
Finally the most important question is what exactly would an enlarged Army do? It is hard to see what military need exists to justify significantly increasing the Army in size. The past twenty years have seen the UK deploy on many different operations, but outside of GRANBY and TELIC, there has never been a need to deploy more than a few thousand troops on any one operation at once. HERRICK saw some 10,000 at the peak, but this included several thousand Royal Navy and RAF personnel too. So, in reality even assuming a 3:1 ratio for deployment (one training, one on task and one recovering) and allowing for the reality that some areas have much tighter margins due to personnel situation in certain pinch points, it is hard to see how a larger army would do more than reduce the frequency of deployments.
Given the SDSR essentially lays out that the UK only plans on doing small scale operations, certainly until 2020 and then only looking to medium scale (e.g. sustaining a small Bosnia sized deployment), one has to ask what enlargement would do beyond provide a pool of soldiers who are probably bored to tears of exercising on Salisbury Plain. There is little point in enlarging the Army unless there is commensurate political willpower to actually employ it overseas – it is hard to see that this exists at present. Some 13 years of sustained operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a situation where the UK possesses immensely experienced armed forces, who are well equipped to deploy and sustain themselves across the world, but there is arguably a lack of political willpower to see further such sustained entanglements. While the UK has traditionally supported deployments where casualties occur, and where things can get very challenging, there is a substantial difference between remaining a nation willing to take casualties in order to achieve a short term aim (such as a NEO) and whether this would translate into willingness to see another open ended commitment such as HERRICK in the next few years. It is hard to see a need for a larger Army if one does not see a similar political will to use it. At best when one looks at the projected employment of the British Army over the next few years, there seems to be opportunities for overseas training, some small peacekeeping and preparing for contingency operations such as NEOs. Enlarging the Army without any equivalent increases in military need seems counter-intuitive. Why incur vast expense in maintaining a military that can’t be fully employed or justified, instead of funding a smaller force which can be properly trained and equipped to meet expected tasks?
The reality for the British Army is that it is a force which does not have a likely opponent, nor an existential threat to defeat. It is all very well calling for it to grow, but at a time of very constrained budgets, and ever more expensive equipment, the question is where is the money to support this? The challenge for the UK in the next SDSR and beyond is perhaps to better justify why it warrants a regular British Army of 82,000 people at all - an island nation with no existential threats, and any likely deployments to be small in nature, perhaps the question is whether we need an Army that large in the first place? Given the Royal Navy and RAF are better suited for the type of expeditionary warfare that is so in vogue at present, does the Army warrant being the size it does? To the author at least the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. The current force provides sufficient personnel to be able to support coalition operations (for we are highly unlikely to deploy an armoured force in isolation), and to meet all likely outputs required of it. But, it is not just about numbers – the UK could do what the French does and pay smaller salaries, invest in front line equipment to the detriment of support equipment and put a numerically larger force in the field which struggles to support itself. This would not be sensible – rather the current structure means that the UK can afford some very useful ‘enabling capabilities’ which mean it seen as being an ally of value to other nations. Investing in ISTAR, in logistics and in other key but ‘unsexy’ assets makes the UK well placed to be able to maintain a force which other nations want to work with – one of the so-called benefits of soft power, as nations seek UK troops for training and support.
In conclusion then, Humphrey remains confused as to what exactly the benefit would be of the UK changing course and trying to fund a vastly larger army. The money doesn’t exist for such a course of action, and the infrastructure to support such a force no longer exists (even in BAOR days the majority of the Army wasn’t based in the UK, so we’d need to build it from scratch), and the costs associated with recruiting and equipping a large force are enormous. Given the lack of existential threats, and the reality that there is no real desire for sustained overseas operations for at least the next few years, it is hard to escape the view that the UK not only possesses a reasonably sized army proportionate to its current strategic position, but that by keeping it relatively small, it retains the funds to keep it well trained and well equipped, and in turn enabling it to punch above its weight as a partner of choice for other nations.