Driving a Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, but for how much longer? (Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What is the British Army for and where is it heading?

Will higher defence spending go on tech or boots on the ground?

There is something badly awry if the British political news event of this week is the revelation that the home secretary had a bullying manner and is sorry if it upset anyone. For this was the week when expensive strategic shifts were unveiled. On Tuesday, the British government announced a £12 billion “green industrial revolution” programme before, on Thursday, revealing the largest increase in defence spending for thirty years.

This comes at a time when the response to Covid has cost the Treasury at least £300 billion in the 2020/21 financial year alone, when public sector net debt – at over 100 percent of GDP – is at its worst for over half a century. There is no hint that other massive infrastructure investments, including HS2 (estimated cost closing-in on £100 billion), are poised for the chop.

No wonder, therefore, that those who hold our armed forces dear may be relieved, and even pleasantly surprised, that Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has won his arms-wrestle with the Treasury. The additional £24.1 billion for the next four years secured by the unobtrusively successful Wallace is £16.4 billion more than the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment promised. £190 billion will therefore be spent on defence in the next four years.

Where is all this money coming from? The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will put the splurge (if not the supporting revenue) in greater perspective on Wednesday when he delivers his spending review. There are those who are morally repelled by any increase in defence spending (the environmental writer and activist, George Monboit, tweeted, “No shortage of money for death. Never enough money for life” – which suggests a surprising blurriness about where 94 percent of government spending is directed). There are also those for whom any good news can be twisted into a fresh grievance (pretending without the slightest evidence that the Black Watch was imperilled, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, condemned the large defence budget – and demanded more of it for Scotland). But the sharpest criticism of the four-year spending commitment is that – headline priorities apart – its beneficiaries may be fewer than the sums involved suggest.

Not mentioned in Boris Johnson’s bullish announcement was the continuing inability to get procurement right, an enduring saga which means the Ministry of Defence still has an unfunded £13 billion “black hole” in its equipment budget. It has been made repeatedly clear that this is the MoD’s problem to solve, not the Treasury’s.

Finding a purpose for the carriers may determine Britain’s strategic focus on the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, with a foreign policy to match

In his video statement to the Commons, the prime minister name-checked the runaway winners from this new four-year spending commitment. In the historic rivalry, the senior service has come out on top. “We are going to develop the next generation of warships, including multi-role research vessels and Type 32 frigates” Johnson announced in addition to “taking forward our plans for eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates, and support ships to supply our carriers.”

Back when Rosyth dockyard was important to Gordon Brown’s constituency, the Royal Navy gambled that supporting the construction of two fabulously expensive aircraft carriers would, eventually, bring in their wake the supporting vessels to provide the protecting carrier group, without which the carriers would be dangerously exposed. That increasingly looks to have been a shrewd, if high stakes, bet. Indeed, the carrier group construction could be doing more than restoring the fortunes of a shamefully depleted navy and keeping jobs in the shipyards. Finding a purpose for the carriers may even determine Britain’s strategic focus on the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, with a foreign policy to match.

For its part, the RAF is evolving by reaching for the stars, with a new space command in prospect, and also a new fighter system that relies on AI and drone focussed air-to-air combat. But what of BAE Systems’ Tempest fighter? The existing £2 billion commitment is a fraction of the sums needed to bring it into mass production. This is another big call that has not yet been made. If it goes ahead, fully funded, it would inevitably prove a huge drain on the MoD’s budget over the next ten years. The case for its spin-off contribution to jobs, and to AI and other related technologies, will have to be very compelling indeed.

We cannot put our infantry battalions in the field because they’re at least 25 percent undermanned

Very little was said, let alone confirmed, this week about the British Army. All the prime minister could allude to was that “we shall reshape our army for the age of networked warfare, allowing better equipped soldiers to deploy more quickly.” As with the other services, the strategy underlining the commitment of resources has not been articulated because the four-year spending announcement has come at least two months before publication of the report of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy which seeks to define Britain’s role in the world for the next ten years.

It is for the integrated review to pave the way for where the army’s priorities will focus. But some expectations are clearer than others. Boris Johnson spoke repeatedly of the jobs created by higher defence spending – in the shipyards and the defence technology firms. But absent is an indication about whether the continuing reduction in the number of soldiers will be reversed or the ranks will shrink further, but be more expensively tooled-up. As it is, the headline “boots on the ground” figures are misleading. Last year only 62,000 of the army’s 79,000 regular forces, were fully fit for deployment.

“We cannot put our infantry battalions in the field,” says Patrick Mercer, the former battalion commander, and colonel who served until 2007 as shadow homeland security spokesman, “because they’re at least 25 percent undermanned.” Yet the Covid-ravaged economy provides a perfect opportunity to fill the gaps in the ranks. “Vast numbers of low paid and often low skilled jobs are being destroyed by Covid,” Mercer points out, “you don’t need qualifications to get into the armed forces, but you can acquire skills through them.” Might an active recruitment campaign aimed at giving prospects to this suddenly economically disadvantaged generation of young people succeed now where efforts over the past few years, almost apologetic in tone, have missed their targets?

An even more fundamental concern is what Whitehall – and the British public – sees the army’s role to be. “The government lacks the political courage to get involved in any traditional form of military action” Mercer suspects. Whilst “the French are fully stuck-in fighting Isis’s descendants in West Africa, we haven’t got the political courage to support them with even a couple of battalions to help them confront this threat.”

In Whitehall and Cheltenham, the threat from Russia is clearly perceived, but not primarily in the form that the Cold War planners prepared for – of a massive armoured thrust through the Fulda Gap and into western Europe. Consequently, there will be an increasing focus on lighter armoured fighting and troop vehicles which are more nimble and easier to transport and deploy further afield.

This is not the end of the tracks for the big, heavy, main battle tank (MBT), but the likelihood of a new generation of Challenger tanks being commissioned rests more on a political will to protect British jobs than a stark recognition that in terms of value for money, speed of availability and spare parts, it could make more sense to buy the German-made, Leopard II tank. The suggestion by the Leopard’s manufacturer, KMW, of opening a factory in the UK where much of it could be assembled might make the MoD’s decision easier to make.

In protecting Europe from Russia, there has not been a British Army of the Rhine since the 1990s and the last British Army base in Germany was handed back in February this year (a historic event largely missed by the British press). The significant ongoing continental commitment is the deployment in Poland and the Baltic States. Its mere presence is the presumed deterrent effect rather than the damage it could inflict if engaged. “Our long-range artillery deployment there, the AS90s, have only sixteen live rounds per barrel” and Mercer calculates, “you’d use sixteen rounds adjusting your fire before you were effective.”

This week we got a clearer sense of the size of the MoD’s buck. For the British Army in particular, the power of the bang is still to be felt.

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