The British Army is a magnificent institution with a long proud history and many admirable qualities. Humphrey is proud to say that he has worked at LAND HQ, served on a Divisional Staff overseas on TELIC and deployed on the ground with the Army on HERRICK and spent happy times living full time in Army Officers Messes. But, despite his emotional infatuation, there are still many difficult questions that face the Army today about its role and future.
It occupies a curious place in both the emotional heart of the nation and the head of policy makers. The public if asked are usually aware of an organisation steeped in regimental tradition, know of units like the SAS, Guards and Parachute Regiment and may know a little bit about the equipment such as tanks (noting that all APCs are tanks to the layman’s eye…). They recognise it from state ceremonial, where it is an integral part of the national fabric and identity, and are proud of the perception of ‘our boys’ serving overseas in warzones. There is often a deeper rooted, but baseless suspicion of the senior echelons, dating back to the tired cliché of ‘lions led by donkeys’ and fed by a generation of misguided historians trying to rewrite WW1 as not the greatest victory in the history of the British Army, but instead four years of class war and turgid poetry.
To policy makers the Army is an institution which is central to the survival of the nation, and which carries out many vital roles to meet defence and security policy objectives, but which is also extremely good at champing at the bit to get involved in operations overseas, even when it is not necessarily in the national interest to do so.
A cursory examination of history suggests that the British Army is not by itself a war winning organisation. It does not go to war alone with peer rivals and expect to win – UK policy instead for centuries has been to maintain a small (but professional) Army able to either conduct colonial policing, or work as part of a larger coalition force to achieve victory. This is not to do down the efforts of the Army, but to accept the reality that as an island nation, the UK has relied on the Navy as the ultimate guarantor of its security.
Before WW1 the Army was optimised primarily as a colonial police force, coupled with a small expeditionary force of regular soldiers intended to deploy to the Continent to work alongside the French or other allies in the event of war. WW1 was an event that really constituted three Armies – the small regular/territorial force of barely 300,000 soldiers that mobilised in 1914 and was wiped out to buy time. The interim force of Territorials and Reservists that held the line in 1915-1916 while the Army reconstituted, and the civilian volunteer/conscript force from 1916 onwards that saw the Army grow to over 4 million men by 1918.
Rapid demobilisation followed, followed by regeneration in the 1920s and 30s to become the most mechanised army in the world by 1939, comprising some 224,000 regulars. It is often forgotten that the British Army of 1940 had many more tanks and vehicles than the German Army – history is not kind to the losers. The Army in WW2 grew to a citizen force of roughly 3.5 million men, before shrinking post war.
The continuation of National Service, the war in Korea and the end of Empire saw the Army stay at roughly 330,000 soldiers for much of the 1950s, causing significant damage to the national economy due to the cost and lack of manpower for rebuilding. By 1957 the Army estimated that its regular strength was roughly 80,000 personnel (only a quarter of the whole force), many of whom were tied up training two-year National Servicemen. A major factor in the 1957 Sandys Defence White Paper was the need to reduce manpower costs and free people up for other economically important tasks.
The Sandys Review led to a reduction to 165,000 troops most of whom were focused on either colonial policing actions (it is often forgotten that in the early 1960s there were over 100,000 UK service personnel in the Far East) or deployed in Germany as part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). The withdrawal from Empire saw the Army shrink to a strength of approximately 150,000 by the 1980s, where its role was primarily to provide a Corps of four Divisions in Germany in the event of general war, supported by mobilisation units from the UK which would provide further Divisions to augment BAOR and conduct Home Defence roles.
The end of the Cold War saw the first deployment of a Divisional sized force, with an Armoured Division sent to the Gulf in 1990 for Operation Desert Storm. This happened just as the Options for Change review cut BAOR and reduced the Army to approximately 120,000. Further deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s followed by the deployment of an Armoured Division to Iraq in 2003. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2014 saw the Army struggle to sustain itself on two fronts without heavy support from the RN and RAF providing extra manpower and resources.
The 2010 SDSR initially preserved the Army at just under 100,000 personnel, although later reviews cut this down to 82,000 regulars supported by a target of approximately 30,000 reservists working in a far more integrated manner. Today the Army is struggling to sustain itself at 82,000, with recent manpower figures showing a total of roughly 78,000 troops.
That’s terribly nice – so what does it all mean?
What this quick canter through history shows us is two key issues -firstly the UK has sustained an Army of a size to combat external threats, and deployed them primarily overseas. As the threats have receded, so has the size of the Army. The second issue is that the Army remains determined to see the deployment of a division globally as the benchmark against which its performance is measured.
The manpower issue is the first challenge – the Army has not responded well to attempts to reduce its size, and has fought a strong rear-guard action to prevent further headcount reductions. The 2015 election was fought on a clear promise to not cut the size of the Regular Armed Forces, and to keep the Army at a strength of 82,000 people.
The problem for the planners is twofold. Firstly, there is no clear sense of what these 82,000 people are needed for. Secondly, there isn’t enough money to equip all of them to the right standard to be uniformly deployable.
One of the unexpected outcomes of HERRICK was the emergence of a two-tier Army. One only should look at the ‘Theatre Entry Standard’ (TES) set of equipment of a unit at the start and end of the operation. In a period of less than 10 years the UOR system provided the Army with a set of entirely new vehicles, weapons and equipment that was used to fight a low-level insurgency. The infantry platoon of 2013 on the ground of Afghanistan bore next to no resemblance to their predecessors of 2006. But, they also bore no resemblance to their colleagues back in the UK conducting more routine operations as funding was reprioritised for ‘OP ENTIRETY’ – brought about by the Treasury making the not unreasonable point early on in HERRICK that the Army was there for the long haul, and wouldn’t it make sense to reprioritise funding to coherently equip troops for HERRICK and not hold them for contingency purposes, given they would be on HERRICK and not held for contingency.
This meant the Army had two entirely different outfits – one was the HERRICK Army, with units getting ready to deploy or on operations with access to new first-rate equipment that was bought for Afghanistan, not every operation going. Other units left behind simply didn’t have access to the same equipment or capability – and were arguably far less well equipped as a result. The Army had gone in barely 20 years from being a ‘heavy armour army’ optimised to fight on the Rhine to being a medium/light Army optimised to find IEDs.
|The future or the past?|
The end of Afghanistan brought the opportunity for the Army to take a long hard look at itself and work out what it wanted to be for the next war. Some of the UOR equipment was disposed of, other kit was ‘brought into core’ (e.g. long-term funding in place) to equip units. Meanwhile work continued to identify what of the legacy armoured vehicle fleet needing replacing, updating or deleting (e.g. the Challenger 2 fleet remained firmly based in Germany and the UK, with only a small number making it to TELIC).
The problem was money – there simply wasn’t enough of it to keep the Army of 82,000 equipped to the right standard of post HERRICK equipment. A simple choice emerged –cut the Army (the figure of 60-65,000 is routinely quoted as their optimal size) which would allow a fully funded and equipped Army to make the most of post HERRICK kit and remain optimised for high end warfighting.
The commitment in 2015 to not cutting the Army ahead of the SDSR led to the outcome where the Army was forced to keep soldiers it couldn’t afford to equip, and perhaps more importantly couldn’t easily identify a role for, in its structure for primarily political reasons. Speak candidly to most Army officers and many of them recognised that an Army of 82,000 makes sense if you have a clear role for it, and can afford to give everyone the same level of equipment.
Instead the outcome was a fudge, whereby the two-tier Army was formalised as a small high readiness force, with a much larger regeneration force with lower readiness and equipment held behind to do defence engagement roles. The various restructuring seemed aimed at trying to maximise some form of warfighting capability, while recognising that politically it would be impossible to carry out deep reform of the Army by scrapping ‘capbadges’ – nothing riles the Conservative backbenches more than knowing their local Battalion of ‘Loamshires’ is at risk.
How do we solve a problem like a Division?
The 2015 SDSR also committed the Army to be able to deploy a Division globally at 6 months’ notice as a ‘best effort’ commitment. This felt like a sop to the Generals and backbenchers who felt that this was the ‘great power’ standard to which the Army should be judged. By some measures it made sense – the RN had got its aircraft carriers, the RAF new JSF and Typhoon with global strike capability. The commitment to a Division highlighted that the UK remained a serious military player.
The question though is whether any credible political or strategic benefit is gained from keeping a deployable division? The beauty of maritime and airpower is that it is inherently fast and easily deployable. A ship can be on station in a few days, airpower can launch cruise missile strikes easily at less than a weeks’ notice. The operations in both Libya and Op SHADER showed how airpower is flexible and able to deliver effect very quickly after a decision is taken to use violence.
The Army is very good at doing short notice small scale operations – just look at the ability to deliver hostage rescues, evacuation of UK civilians or provide training advice. This sort of small scale and easily defined boundaries of a deployment sits well with politicians – it doesn’t (usually) provide mission creep and helps generate good PR for the government. What politician doesn’t want to see images of brave British soldiers on a mission to rescue hostages overseas?
The problem is when mission creep happens, and there is arguably serious ‘long mission fatigue’ prevalent in Westminster now. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are clear – there is no such thing as a quick ‘large’ deployment. If you look where the UK has deployed forces in the last 40 years as an initial crisis response or peacekeeping / peace enforcement mission – Falklands, Belize, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone are just a few that spring to mind, then the UK is still there now.
The days of delivering force on land, moving into a country, removing the government and then departing once the mission is accomplished have gone forever. The international political environment simply does not stand for this anymore. If you break it, you pay for it, seems to be the new motto of military operations overseas. A deployment of a UK division merely ties the UK into a cycle of longer term presence in a country, often for decades after the event.
The wider issue is the sheer notice required to put a Division on the ground – 6 months’ notice means tying up merchant shipping (thus RN escorts), strategic and tactical airlift and other assets and denying resources elsewhere. To deploy a Division is thus a major policy commitment for HMG, and one that will have long term impacts elsewhere.
For instance, a carrier deployed to the Med, or an RAF aircraft squadron to the Gulf can both deploy quickly and recover in short order. The small numbers of personnel involved means it’s easy to recover, get the units back in harmony (essential to retention) and have them ready to deploy again without significantly impacting on wider outputs. By contrast the deployment of a Division takes time to get troops there, but even longer to get them back. It’s often forgotten that the last year of the HERRICK presence was fundamentally about taking down the infrastructure and sending equipment home – long after combat operations had ceased the UK still needed troops on the ground to get their kit home.
A deployment of a Division impacts significantly across many units, reduces Army assets to deliver other roles and ties up joint assets used to deploy, sustain and recover it. It is a politically significant statement that almost certainly means a follow up deployment of a Brigade or other force is required to relieve the force and continue the UK presence – it is hard to conceive of any credible situation where a Division would deploy and immediately recover without a legacy UK presence.
The desire by politicians and policy makers to get into this sort of entanglement is diminished these days. The lessons of the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan proved that peacekeeping/enforcement is expensive, time consuming and demands a high sacrifice of blood and treasure for very little difference.
The appetite seems to be for quick ‘surgical’ operations where airpower, Special Forces or cruise missiles can help deliver the ‘union flag’ so desired by politicians without the messy reality of sorting out logistics chains to sustain a force on the ground for years to come. It’s hard to see any real desire by the Politicians to want to get involved in wars that require divisions anymore.
This then leaves the Army in a bit of a quandary. It has focused on delivery of a global division as its benchmark at a time when the Politicians simply do not want to do this. It has focused on keeping 82,000 troops when it can’t afford to keep them all equipped, and to meet the political priority of protecting certain Regimental capbadges, it has been forced to sacrifice its far more valuable logistics, communications and other enablers that keep it as a genuinely effective force.
Talking to friends in the Army, there is a real sense of anger and frustration among many mid-level officers. The veterans of HERRICK feel that the Army hasn’t learned lessons and remains bound by tradition and an inability to really learn. Candidly, many feel that the UK ‘lost’ in Afghanistan and hasn’t yet accepted this fact. They feel the Army is overly top heavy and rigid and unable to really adapt to 21st century warfare. Suggestions that much of the Army exists as a structure to support rapid expansion in the future is met with a hollow snort of derision – we could never do a WW1 style rapid expansion again for the legacy reserve stocks of weapons and equipment have long since been disposed of as part of the move to RAB accounting in the early 2000s.
The operations that the Army is likely to be involved in are either low level defence engagement, or as part of NATO reassurance in Eastern Europe. The chances of needing BAOR established again are slim – if we get to the stage where the UK is trading shots with the Russians, then things will be quickly escalating beyond the point where conventional weapons are of value. Home Defence remains an issue, although the days of Exercise 'Brave Defender' will never be repeated - the threat is completely different. There is simply no credible home threat that needs the Army to deploy against invasion or insurrection. It is telling that there has been a move to get back into the aid to the Civil Power role again, if only because having troops able to do flood relief helps generate positive headlines.
Whenever brave efforts are made to try and look again at how things can be done differently to free up funding (such as closing RHQs or making sense of the archaic HQ and Regimental structure) leaks to the press ensure a media and Parliamentary furore that prevents real change being put into play. This stops the Army from being able to genuinely restructure itself because the moment it tries to do so, some tired old headline such as ‘we don’t have an army anymore, only a militia’ (an utter fallacy) appears and men of a certain generation with angry moustaches and blazers with badges and purchased medals write to their MPs. In a Parliament without a majority, it only takes a minor backbench rebellion to threaten chaos, meaning no Minister will risk reform if it angers the backbenches.
The Army today faces a structural and existential crisis. Too large to be properly funded, and politically barred from restructuring itself (although the recent 2017 manifesto pledge is merely to preserve the headline strength of the forces, not the individual services, so there is still hope). Denied a credible enemy that it can prepare to fight against, it has no clear rationale for why it needs to operate at a large scale when the political decision makers are increasingly set against boots on the ground for long term commitment.
The RN and RAF are regularly proving themselves able to deliver ‘good news’ operationally and with tangible equipment progress. At a time when major change is needed, and an honest debate about manpower and equipment and more importantly what the Army is for, it feels that an opportunity has been missed to answer this question and move forward. We may be able to deploy a Division, but no one seems to know why, or for what purpose. Until this can be answered, one most worry for the future of the Army.