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The thinning khaki line

What does the defence command paper reveal about Britain’s priorities for its armed forces?

Thirty years ago, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, was a newly commissioned officer in the Scots Guards. The Warsaw Pact was dissolving and, with it, Britain was reassessing the scale of its continental commitment. The Ministry of Defence’s “peace dividend” took shape as “Options for Change” which cut by almost a fifth the number of boots in the armed forces. The size of the British Army was slashed to 120,000 personnel. The Royal Navy’s surface escort fleet of destroyers and frigates was slimmed from 50 to 40.

Now Ben Wallace finds himself presiding over the greatest increase in defence spending since that period. In four years’ time, the MoD’s budget will be around £50 billion. That is 14 percent larger than it is now and the second largest defence budget in Nato (France’s 2021 defence budget is €50 billion, or approx. £43 billion).

Yet, still there is no good news for military bootmakers. By 2025, further slimming will reduce the British Army to a strength of 72,500 trained personnel. That is almost 40 percent fewer soldiers than remained in the ranks after the Cold War ended. This is despite last week’s Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign, defence, security and development policy making no bones about Russia remaining “the most acute direct threat.” Unlike thirty years ago, it is now joined by an additional “systemic competitor” in China.

Wallace was serving in Germany at the time of Options for Change and as he said this week in introducing the Defence Command Paper which articulates for politicians and public alike a distillation of MoD thinking and intent, “I was part of an army that, on paper, fielded three armoured divisions in Germany, but in reality could muster much less – it was, in truth, a hollow force.” That historical revelation took Wallace neatly into his theme that “while I know some colleagues would rather play top trumps with our force numbers, there is no point boasting about numbers of regiments when you send them to war in Snatch Land Rovers, or simply counting the number of tanks when our adversaries are developing ways to defeat them.” His defence command paper is about creating a force that is more agile, lethal and integrated.

There is a natural tendency to bristle at such assertions. For years, British military policy wonks and defence ministers have hidden tough prioritising behind stock phrases about “projecting power”, “continuing to punch above our weight” and the deployment of “smart” this and that. Boris Johnson’s administration has added the mantra of “global Britain” (but – as yet – no word on “global overreach”). Sometimes it is not clear whether these expressions encapsulate concrete measures. One of the key points that Downing Street thought vital to share with journalists about the prime minister’s telephone call on Monday with Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, was that the two of them “discussed the important role Nato must play in tackling climate change.” In this, Nato may well be decisively outmanoeuvring the strategic designs of Vladimir Putin and his chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov. Has “asymmetric warfare” gained a new dimension?

the notion of war and peace as binary states has given way to a continuum of conflict

Ben Wallace is one of the Cabinet’s least recognised yet most effectual ministers and it is further to his credit that he keeps platitudes and modish “future-proofing” gibberish to a minimum. True, there is necessarily much left unclear and awaiting later announcement in his defence command paper and many of its commitments are regurgitations of pledges already made. Investment in cyber capabilities, “space command” and a new AI defence centre represent commitments whose efficacy can only be hazily imagined by those not actively involved in their development. But the belief that adversaries may choose to disable Britain by non-military means (eg. a massive cyberattack aimed at strategic disintegration) was central to the unveiling of last September’s Integrated Operating Concept, which is now being appropriately resourced.

There are broader implications. As Wallace puts it, “the notion of war and peace as binary states has given way to a continuum of conflict, requiring us to prepare our forces for more persistent global engagement and constant campaigning – moving seamlessly from operating to war fighting if that is required.” Britain’s armed forces “will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become a more present and active force around the world.” That is plain speaking.

So, this requires hardware as well as software. Addressing fears that a foreign power (which in this instance means Russia) could cut the underwater cables carrying worldwide cyber communications, a “multi-role ocean surveillance ship” will be commissioned. More generally, an increase in Type 26, Type 31, and the new Type 32 frigates will take the Royal Navy’s surface escort fleet from 19 to 24.

There will be more drones for the RAF, but not to the exclusion of combat aircraft: an additional but unspecified number of F-35 Lightening combat aircraft will be bought and investment will continue into developing the eventual replacement to the Typhoon, in the shape of the (still conceptual) Tempest. It is, though, time to begin farewells to the stout but elderly transport fleet of Hercules.

Nimble” is a convenient euphemism for “small”

The full extent of the Army’s restructuring will not be known until the summer, but Wallace’s confirmation that its manpower will be cut yet again has rightly been the most controversial part of the defence command paper. The Army’s reduction is in the judgement of John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, “a mistake” that “could seriously limit our forces’ capacity simultaneously to deploy overseas, support allies and maintain strong national defences and resilience”, particularly since it comes “after cutting nearly 45,000 personnel from the armed force over the last decade.”

The instinct is to agree with Healey. But there is no escaping that the Army has failed to recruit and retain sufficiently to the extent that it has not been at its supposed “established strength” of 82,000 trained personnel for more than five years. It is currently 76,500 strong. By 2025 it fall to 72,500. Natural wastage, not redundancy, will achieve this further shrinkage. But even the current headline strength of 76,500 is misleading. Only 62,000 of these regular forces were deemed fit for deployment in 2020.

The focus is now on achieving greater manpower balance between battalions. The cut in troop numbers will not involve regimental disbandment or amalgamation (although the two brigades of the Mercian Regiment will merge). The Army is to be rearranged into seven brigade combat teams, consisting of two heavy, one deep strike, one air manoeuvre, and two light brigades and a combat aviation brigade.

Reports of the main battle tanks’ demise have proved premature. Many Challenger IIs will be retired, but 148 of them will be upgraded to Challenger IIIs. That is good news for BAE Systems and jobs in Britain’s defence industry, but will frustrate those who believed buying the German Leopard II was a safer bet. The real innovation is the creation of a Rangers Regiment to enhance special operations, its four battalions being “seeded” from battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and the Rifles.

Within the last decade, armchair (and more agile) strategists have pondered how the spiraling cost of cutting-edge technology and procurement policy could be squeezed inside Britain’s proportionately shrinking defence budget. Should the Royal Marines be axed? Ought the new carriers and Fleet Air Arm take over the role of flying aircraft, leaving the RAF to operate drones and missiles? Neither these nor a host of other examples of blue sky thinking have come to pass. “Nimble” is a convenient euphemism for “small” but the investments and priorities that Ben Wallace is overseeing offer Britain’s armed forces broader grounds for optimism than the reality of a shrinkage in the ranks suggests.

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