When I joined the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (Scotland’s Own) as a brand new, wet-behind-the-ears subaltern in Munster, West Germany, in early 1980, I became part of the mighty British Army of the Rhine.
A relic of the post-war occupation of Germany and very much a fixture in the Cold War years 1945-1989, BAOR boasted some 55,000 troops, out of a total British army strength of 160,000, plus an additional 3,000 in the garrison of Berlin.
The heart of BAOR, 1st British Corps (1 Br Corps), had three armoured divisions in Germany plus a reinforcing division back in the UK. The total British tank strength was roughly 1,200 Chieftain main battle tanks (MBTs), of which 900 were stationed in Europe.
Now we expect the long-awaited Defence Command Paper to confirm on Tuesday that the planned reduction of personnel in our army will go ahead, reducing numbers to just 73,000. As everybody has repeated often enough, this reduces the British army to its smallest size since Napoleonic times.
Numbers are meant to be boosted by a reserve force of some 30,000 reservists, but with the best will in the world such soldiers are never going to match the standards of the regulars. A handful of training weekends plus a fornight’s annual camp just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid.
At the same time, Britain’s tank numbers are being cut to a mere 148 which is truly pathetic. Yes, they will eventually be the new-ish, re-turret-ed and re-armed Challenger 3s with the NATO compatible Rheinmetall 120 mm smoothbore gun (at long last!) which is a plus. But 148 tanks might last about a week in a peer or near peer conflict, and there are none in reserve to replace them. It’s a one shot weapon, truly fire and forget.
And now we learn that the Government’s latest wheeze in trying to paper over the cracks is to call on former soldiers to join up to what us being referred to as a “surge force” to create a strategic reserve of troops.
The paper expected to be laid before Parliament on Tuesday will apparently outline plans for former regular soldiers, including those no longer serving as reservists, to help “revitalise” the army and add much needed numbers to its ranks.
Forgive me for having a bit of a chortle to myself here, but it strikes me that we may be in danger of reforming Dad’s Army, the famous Local Defence Volunteers and Home Guard of yesteryear. Or possibly Germany’s Volksturrm, which was composed of old men and boys as the Nazi regime fell apart in 1945.
I haven’t seen the detail yet, though, so perhaps I should hold my fire, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in the future being planned for the British army. You can’t do defence properly on the cheap, and this smacks of desperation.
In the broader strategic context, however, the continuing diminution of our army seems counter-intuitive. One of the main lessons coming out from the Ukraine war, if not *the* lesson, is that mass matters and victory usually goes to the big battalions.
To be brutally honest about it, and to paraphrase British inter-war thinker Basil Liddell Hart, “a battalion is, like a ship or a shell, merely a munition of war to be expended at a profit”. Wars, unfortunately, incur casualties in both personnel and equipment, and if you don’t have the numbers to keep going then you’re on a hiding to nothing.
Whilst other NATO countries like Poland, the Baltic states, and others are now actively looking to increase defence spending and the size of their armed forces in the face of the renewed Russian threat, Britain seems Hell-bent on reducing ours. It looks like a classic case of cognitive dissonance to me.
Why is this so? Well, the sclerotic and archaic mechanisms within the Ministry of Defence don’t help, and neither does a Prime Minister in Rishi Sunak who clearly doesn’t “get” defence and is more at home with a calculator than a rifle.
Nor is it ideal to have a Defence Secretary in Ben Wallace who has just signalled that he is jumping ship, standing down from the Cabinet at the next reshuffle and not seeking re-election in next years General Election. Why he is doing so is for him to know and for us to guess, but it’s not a good look for the troops.
Defence policy is like car insurance; you have to have it but you don’t really want to have to use it. And, like car insurance, you can choose fully comprehensive at one end of the spectrum and third party only at the other.
Britain’s defence forces are rapidly sliding towards the latter. You can’t do defence on a shoestring. High time to bump up defence spending to at least 3% of GDP immediately and start to expand, not draw down, our armed services.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now