Monday, 8 July 2013

What exactly is a 'real army'?

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. 


  1. You hit the nail write on the head. If one flouts the idea of a "large army", then only enforced conscription of the last century would make that possible. Even then, you would see society breakdown.

    Similar to the case for a mega size Navy.

  2. Humphrey, thanks for this with which most will no doubt concur. There's an elephant in my room, though (could explain why I'm hunched in the corner writing this) - Basra. Again most will view this as an uncomfortable episode if not a failure of our forces to control this city, since it took the Iraqis and Americans to kick out the Mahdi. Was this a lack of sufficient UK force structure, lack of military leadership or too much political control (again, really a lack of military leadership i.e. not the 'Henry Leach' moment that was likely required)? Gavin Gordon

  3. A convincing argument to concentrate not on enhanced numbers, but modern high-quality equipment, logistics and ISTAR - not just for the Army, but the other Services as well - a bit less "fitted for", a bit more "fitted with, in numbers, and with adequate re-supply" - a bit more urgency about filling capability gaps, upping the tempo of re-equipment and slightly increasing numbers of some big ticket items to make sure we have them available for use when required...

    on the question of Basra, even with more clear-minded political leadership that was probably a job for a Corps, not a Division...and we could not achieve that unless we scaled up to US standards...they have a population of 300 Million Plus with 2 Million Plus in Uniform - to punch at that weight our population of 60 Million Plus would need to provide total armed forces of over 400,000...will never happen short of a serious and slow growing existential threat, perhaps occasioned by the steady failure of the current international system to contain disorder...

    Very good post in my view...


    1. Yes Population is a factor. I'm more worried about the Royal Navy--with their one (it has to be one at least) carrier coming into service, they have to recruit numbers quickly for that ship.

  4. Basra. One cannot disentangle the military and the political in the campaign for this city. Note should be paid to internal (Iraqi) politics as well. Once the Iraqi Government was established it became nigh on impossible to conduct meaningful action against the Shia militias in Basra. This is because the Maliki administration relied upon the Shia parties in the South for support (and funding). the Shia uprising of 2004 clearly illustrated to the US and the Iraqi government the dangers inherent in tackling the shia militias. This state of play lasted until 2008 when Maliki felt strong enough politically (and the threat in the north from the Sunnis was seen as manageable with the Sunni Awakening) to move against the Shia parties in the south.
    Balance Iraqi politics against UK politics where the war was unpopular and the ability to significantly increase troop numbers in Iraq all but impossible and you have the perfect recipe for a strategic fudge.
    from a military perspective the questions to ask (I presume that Chilcott has) are:
    what were the UK's strategic objectives in Basra?
    what was the plan to achieve them?
    was the plan resourced?
    was the plan successful?
    The success of the military contribution to the campaign can only be judged once these questions are answered.

    Red Rat

    1. Thanks Red Rat, Basra has become something of a short hand for those seeking to use it as stick - whether to bash the Army, the MOD or the politicians.

      As is generally the case, and as your post states, it's a far greyer area than is normally stated.

      The other key factors to note are:

      1) Maliki had become very frustrated with the way the British conducted themselves in their AOR. Their methods did not suit his , not necessarily high-minded, desires for that region.

      2) The corrosive effect of having to deal with a governor up to his eyeballs in criminality that the Iraqi government were either unwilling or unable to remove.

      Toast and Marmite

    2. My own experience of Basra was limited to 6 months in one point of the operation, so I'm reluctant to comment more broadly. I would support the views expressed above - the corrosive nature of the Governor, the desire to acheive Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC), and the challenge of dealing with the terrible combination of decades of blood feuds, tribal warfare, family arguments and militia politics set against the backdrop of a tinderbox population challenge meant no matter who held Basra, it would have been immensely challenging to succeed beyond the initial military takeover of the city.

  5. a well constructed argument with which i certainly am agreed.

  6. Is it just me who remembers soldiers crossing the border with 5 rounds of ammunition and special forces making their own claymores out of blocks of C4, bags of washers and ice cream tubs?
    A few years back we had a labour defence sub-minister defending cannibalising one aircraft to keep another operational as acceptable, indeed standard, practice.
    I'd have to go break the books out, but I'm sure a rifles company on the earlier stages of Afghanistan got a single crate of oranges, as their fruit and veg component for 110 days. A single crate to share.

    Thats not to say much rest of the world isnt significantly worse, but there are plenty out there who are better.

    And of course, no matter how impressive it is to deploy an armoured division to the enemy capital, its all for nought if their are three armoured divisions deployed there waiting for you

  7. Humphrey - as usual a very good and thought provoking post. i do agree with most of what you (and the others posting here) say. What I would add is that there comes a point when the numbers are just too small. However well equipped, well trained and well paid, the British Army is just too small. It needs mass in order to fight, take casualties and sustain itself, and that mass has gone. There is no cushion any more. The same could easily be said for the RN and RAF. Everything is very finely calibrated and seems to be predicated on the idea that nothing will go seriously wrong, casualties will be light (when compared against historical rates) and that the armed forces will always prevail.

    The question then becomes - for how long will can we guarentee that the enemy won't do something spectacular that upsets these assumptions?

    Dickon M

  8. Interesting read sir H, I agree that the force 2020 structure with 82,000 men makes a lot of sense. Kind of like an RN with 26 Escorts. If there was more money to be spent then it should go into kit etc rather than larger numbers for the sake of larger numbers.

  9. In the military how can you "expect the unexpected" unless you have the reserves of manpower & equipment to replace losses incurred when you do meet the "unexpected" - Eeyore

    If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience - GBS

    1. An interesting question - since WW2 Army manpower has been sufficient to meet requirements without any need for enlargement. The question is whether we need to plan for a sufficient contingency reserve of numbers, akin to the TA holding the line following the annihilation of the BEF in 1914/1915, or if numbers today are probably okay.
      My instinct is that short of a paradigm changing conflict (in which all bets as to force size are off anyway) the need to worry about reserves and regeneration is not huge.

    2. You could count the raising of the UDR was enlargement, though a lot of personnel initially came from police reserve forces.

  10. Good article, thank you.

    On a point of pedantry, re: "Anything can be proved with statistics".

    This is an Urban Myth, and gives statistics a bad name.

    The point of statistics is to assign a probability to something.
    One may then wish, in one's Great Wisdom, to cautiously choose to believe it may be true, as the opposite would be so unlikely as to be unreasonable. One may also be wrong.

    Such wisdom relies, crucially, on knowing exactly how the statistic was arrived at, because as the IT people so succinctly put it: "Garbage In, Garbage Out".

    So don't say "You can prove anything with statistics", don't even say "Any manipulative sociopath can make up numbers and pass them off as true, and you would be a fool to believe them"*, say "You can't actually prove anything with statistics, but decent ones are a damn site better than guesswork".


  11. The thing that worries me is repeating the mistakes of the past. So the test has to be have we been caught out before with an army that has simply become too small/unbalanced/wrongly equipped for the unexpected. I would say on balance far less so with the army than the navy. We seem to have mainly got that right with the army and indeed managed reductions sensibly. I do not think the same could be said for the RN which (no disrepect meant to the Army or RAF) is inherantly more vital to our national interests. That may make it easier to get wrong but for some reason does not seem to have meant we take more care!

  12. A logical case, well argued. But the corollary of the argument for me is that we need to understand a bit better than we currently do what exactly would be involved, and how long it would take, to build back up if the need were to return. Perhaps a topic worth investigation in the 2015 SDSR?

  13. Good post Sir H, I fully agree that their is too much focus from certain people on what they want (essentially playing fantasy fleets) but with little thought put into the real rational need or benefit from such an increase.

    Putting the RN and RAF aside (which I agree are more suited to expeditionary warfare and so could do with some extra spending) I think the current plan for the Army is a rather sensible one. Being able to conduct day to day peace-keeping and small scale operations with ease, the capability to also deploy a brigade on an enduring basis (although post Herrick one doubts if we will ever want to) and then provide a full division for the occasional high-end deployment (which as you say few nations can still do) sounds pretty good from where I'm sitting!

    Decent logistics and kit, ISTAR assets, very high quality regular regiments, alongside the par-excellence of the SAS, PARA's, Gurkha's and so on.....

    Their is still a lot in size, structure and capability to praise.

    In fact, as you touched on, I think if anything the Army has been overinflated and still too focused on 'heavy' operations ever since the Cold War and so we can see this as a belated but inevitable adjustment.

  14. Fluffy Thoughts10 July 2013 at 10:41


    Sir H,

    Sorry, but any idea what is happening at From my PC the site has no more than a banner....

  15. We failed in Iraq and failed in Afghanistan (the Americans had to take over our sectors because we were in way over our heads).

    You can make the case that an 82k army is suitable to the tasks we're looking at in the medium term future as a consequence of strategic shrinkage, but I don't think you can make the case that an 100k army was sufficient for the tasks we attempted in our last two major wars.

    - Harb!ngeR

    1. Define failed? Exactly how do you get a mega sized army? Recruit every 18 year old?

  16. For a moment I thought The Daily Wafflegraff would send Sir Humph into one of his usual bouts of insobriety and gunsight rebuttals, but to my delight and edification his analysis was expertly woven and logically coherent. As usual.
    I would forbid any retired oficer of commerce, church or gun room from ever speaking to the press in any capacity. They feel flattered to be asked and feel obliged to be of weighty and profound wisdom.
    We, in turn, place great credence by their outpourings as given from a particularly relevent and experienced point of view. Journalists love it. What's more, they believe it. They believe it is unfettered by self promotion and, therefore, to be more relied upon than anybody now holding the reins of power.
    It's baloney, bollox and probably biased as well. Every gaffer I ever had tried to second guess me when they retired. They got more publicity for their pointless ignorance than any of my staff with the relevent fingers on the problem and CURRENT experience.
    Life moves on, and fast. Strategies not only change but are no longer based on historic expectations or even statistics, but future consequences. You HAVE to be able to bring order out of chaos whether it's political, financial, military or fantasy.
    Sadly, the old order, rosy, slow, gallant, valued and smart will play a smaller role.