The UK is no longer a first tier military nation according to an anonymous US general. Apparently he has informed British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace that the UK military has been hollowed out over the past few years to the extent that it can no longer defend the country adequately, let alone contribute anything meaningful to coalition operations.
Well, he may have a point. Far from being able to field a warfighting division as the UK’s contribution to NATO land forces, it is reckoned we would be hard pushed to put out a single armoured brigade, such has been the diminution of the British army over the past couple of decades.
How has it come to this? There are several reasons. Twenty years ago the army was able to convince the MoD that the demands of two major campaigns it was involved in at the time, in Afghanistan and Iraq, required it to get priority for equipment regarded as urgent operational requirements (UORs), many of which were bought quickly and expensively. Royal Navy and RAF aspirations were to a certain extent put on the back burner.
Then there were two Chiefs of the General Staffs (CGSs), Carter followed by Carleton-Smith, who were essentially light infanteers with little real interest in armoured warfare. Their comfort zone was battling against jihadists and insurgents in sandy places, re-fighting the Victorian campaigns of the North West Frontier if you like. One of them reportedly said “we’ll be doing this for the next fifty years”.
They, and the army they commanded, took their eye off the ball elsewhere. Defence funding was spent on equipment suitable for the role they imagined would continue, and the army’s conventional warfighting inventory of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery systems, amongst others, languished unloved and without essential upgrades for twenty years.
At the same time, the MoD’s land equipment procurement programme staggered from debacle to disaster. Programmes were started, changed, delayed, and eventually cancelled whilst senior military officers changed their minds and Treasury officials imposed budget cuts. The most egregious example of this slow-motion car crash of equipment procurement is the Ajax armoured cavalry vehicle, with just shy of £4 billion spent so far and nary a one in service.
At the same time, after the excesses of army spending on the aforementioned Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, it became the Royal Navy and RAF’s turn to get the lion’s share of the budget. And this has manifested itself in our two new, shiny aircraft carriers and the F-35B aircraft to go with them. You could argue that this is quite right, as the UK as an island nation properly relies on navy and air force to keep is enemies at bay.
But now the war in Ukraine has served as a wake up call for the British army, and it finds itself seriously exposed to the renewed prospect of conventional warfare in Europe. It is now too small to offer anything more than a token force to augment its NATO allies, the military equivalent of virtue-signalling gesture politics. Its equipment is obsolescent, if not obsolete, and its leadership unimaginative and politically emasculated.
Now Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has stated that the army needs to “recapitalise”, promising an investment of £34 billion over the next ten years. He did not mention, however, whether this was inflation-proofed. If not we’ll only be standing still.
So, what can be done to reverse the decline in the British army’s (and arguably the other two services as well) power and prestige? It seems to me that there are two options. The first is to increase the defence budget dramatically. Currently it’s about £48.4 billion for 2023, or just above 2% of GDP, the NATO target expenditure.
Successive Prime Ministers – Johnson and Truss – promised an increase it to 2.5% and 3% respectively, but this seems to have been reined back in by Sunak to more or less where it stands at the moment. Against the background of inflation, the rising cost of living, and the demands of other departments of state like health and education this is perhaps understandable. But it doesn’t help the army.
The other option, I believe, is for the British armed services to give up the pretense of still being a global, Tier 1 military power, admitting that the nameless US general is actually talking sense. In other words, forget attempting to field what I call a “full spectrum military capability and instead specialise in what we’re good at, leaving some capabilities to others.
What are we good at? Well, naval operations, especially anti-submarine warfare and mine clearance, and our Royal Marine Commandos are as good as anyone else’s marine infantry, albeit not as well equipped as the US Marine Corps. The RAF, despite my previous rudeness about everything they do and the way in which they do it, are not half bad although small in number.
What we don’t do particularly well is land operations for many of the reasons outlines above. Sure, our special forces (SF) have an excellent reputation, but as we continually expand in number what we regard as our SF they become correspondingly less “special”. And, given our now paucity of numbers, we don’t do armoured manoeuvre warfare well at all.
Perhaps we should consider, say, giving up tanks altogether and let others do that on our behalf? If we are unable to contemplate a significant increase in our defence budget, maybe we should play to our strengths and let our NATO allies fill the gaps?
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now