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What should become of the British Army?
The Chief of the General Staff is retiring early, apparently. Let’s see. I can’t usually get excited about musical military chairs, but this time the machinations reveal some important strategic tensions. The incumbent, Patrick Sanders, is apparently disgruntled. Informed journalists attribute his departure to service infighting and disagreements with the government about the UK’s geostrategic focus and the sort of forces that should follow from that. The General has lost the battle: the Army faces significant personnel cuts in the looming defence review. Sanders himself evidently reckons the Army is poorly equipped – lagging behind the sort of technological changes needed for modern warfare.
All in all, the British army is in a pickle. What’s it for? Too often, analysis of this issue starts with fantasy kit lists, divorced from their overarching purpose. Much time is spent harrumphing about at-risk cap badges. There’s seldom enough connection to the economics that underpins grand strategy.
So here, let me sketch four big ideas that should weigh in the balance.
First, my conclusion up-front: A relatively poorer nation, we need to adjust our mental image of global Britain. We are in a post-Brexit funk, and it won’t be easily fixed, certainly not by boosterism, which is, thankfully, going out of fashion. It’s not declinist talk if we are indeed declining, and seven years on from the Brexit vote the picture is gloomy. Some leading indicators: our crappy productivity, huge labour shortages, decaying public services, and baked-in inflation. Sooner or later, there will be consequences for defence: that’s grand strategy for you.
And so my bottom line for the army: we need a slightly smaller one (in headcount terms). It needs fewer infantry, but better equipment. And given there’ll be no real increase in overall defence spending, some of the additional resources for that should come from the Navy, currently ascendant and the natural cheerleader for ‘global Britain’.
So, those big ideas:
1. The ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific is overdone, at least in military terms. And there’s no need for the conventional army out there anyway.
Yes, it’s an important region: China is clearly an economic superpower, an ideological competitor, and an increasingly potent military power. It’s challenging international norms, sometimes stridently.
But the UK military’s regional contribution is trivial. It’s a real stretch to sustain carrier strike deployment, and even that is a marginal contribution. Crewing and supplying the ships is increasingly challenging. If anything, we need more attack submarines – subject of another post.
So why the ‘tilt’? I think it will be seen as a particular moment in political history, whose peak has already passed. Imperial nostalgia, wrapped in shiny Brexiteer optimism, and the boosterish ‘global Britain’ notion. Alongside that, there’s a wilful downplaying of our European centre of gravity. Europe remains kryptonite in Westminster politics – but that line won’t hold.
Our main contribution to counterbalancing China won’t be three-yearly deployments of HMS Queen Elizabeth. It will be bolstering the ‘western’ model – of democracy, robust and transparent rule of law, freedom of expression, our culture of innovation, and, as Europeans, our welfare state model. That’s especially important in time of rapid technological and social change (i.e. our large-scale immigration and rapidly ageing population). Also important will be building resilience to any China-originating shocks – especially building sovereign capacity where we currently lack it – as in manufacturing high-end computer chips, or in civil nuclear power.
That’s not a declinist narrative – it’s realpolitik. It’s an acknowledgement that puffing ourselves up on misguided nostalgia and boosterism is no recipe for sound strategy.
2. Europe is home – but a large British army isn’t necessary to defend it.
We are a regional, not a global power. We need to better reintegrate with the continent – both economically and socially. We need to acknowledge the connection between economics and grand strategy. Britain’s future security and prosperity rests on a secure and prosperous Europe.
Militarily that suggests a balance of land and maritime power. Realistically, the British army is too small to make a decisive contribution to land warfare on the continent. That’s fine: Not only is Russia currently degraded, we’d also inevitably be operating in a coalition. But to be effective allies as part of a credible conventional deterrent, Britain’s army needs quality formations.
Currently that’s lacking, at least compared to modern ideal, illustrated by the Ukraine war. Ukraine’s impressive battlefield performance features digitised battlefield management at all levels; extensive use of uncrewed tactical drones and loitering munitions; and the growing importance of long-range surface-to-surface rocket artillery. The British army, by contrast, is still shaped by its decades of counterinsurgency warfare.
So prioritising Europe means making a high-quality contribution to larger NATO land forces. It means having capacity to generate follow on forces too, to replace those lost in the initial fighting. That means bigger stocks of munitions, and sufficient NCO and officer cadres for training and absorbing new recruits. Perhaps it also means changes in procurement - being less focused on exquisite technologies, produced over decades by slow-moving national-champion primes; and more on fast iteration, rigorous, open competition, and interoperability with allies.
The war in Ukraine has, however, demonstrated the enduring importance of mission-command, and combined arms (inevitably with new technological tweaks). Timeless principles of land warfare, in other words, and of the British way too. Those should be the army’s watchwords as it restructures.
3. Stabilisation operations in the developing world were, retrospectively, a very bad idea. We don’t need an army for those; and we wouldn’t know how to design one, even if we did.
The UK won’t, I hope, lightly embark on hubristic ‘nation building’ or ‘stabilisation’ in strategically marginal theatres. With considerably greater mass than today, the army and its allies failed to achieve government’s overly ambitious strategic goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we evidently don’t need an army for enforcement operations mounted from over the horizon, as in Libya and Syria.
Still, there remains a naive tendency to suppose that, through the judicious deployment of savvy, capable land forces, we can anticipate events and exert control in societies about which we are seriously under-informed. You think we’d have learned. Coupled with the odd British preoccupation with special forces, and you end up with the Rangers and woolly doctrinal thinking on defence engagement. I’d revert those to regular infantry, but I don’t suppose anyone will.
4. The home front: We still need guardsmen, but fewer sandbag fillers
Support to civil authority is perhaps the only task for which low-skill and poorly-equipped troops in sufficient numbers can make a difference. The public perception, fed by the media and by politicians keen to bask in their reputation for brisk no-nonsense competence, is that the army will step in, whatever the crisis. Whether riot control, a natural disaster, general strike, or pandemic response — The Sun’s answer is usually to send for the troops. But the army is too small to maintain readiness in high-quality warfighting formations whilst performing large scale support.
That tension, though, is likely to remain, because the public and politician’s instinct that the ‘army is the answer’ is a double-edged sword. It feeds into veneration of the army, even as it stretches it. The halo effect works for senior officers too – it’s useful to be seen as the go-to answer for challenging management problems elsewhere. [An aside: it’s intriguing that a ‘can do’ reputation still resonates, given the army’s recent failures in managing large projects. Handy for retiring generals though]. But no one else is coming to support the civil authority in an emergency, so the army will likely have to lump it, and bank the kudos.
In contrast, I think the ceremonial role, sometimes criticised (more horses than tanks, harumph!) is important and worth resourcing. It sustains public support for armed forces, especially as armed forces make up an ever-smaller proportion of British society. And that is an intangible, but important contribution to fighting power.
My bottom line again, then:
The army is in a fix. Too small to make a large contribution to major ground warfare in Europe; too poorly equipped too – lacking sufficient drones, long range fires, and mechanised infantry. And it’s too far away from any potential action in the Indo-Pacific. The solution for Britain is to cut our defence cloth to suit our purse. That means a smaller, heavier army. And – come at me, navalists, I’d have you pay for it. 😊
[Image of a Challenger 2 tank by Cpl Ross Fernie RLC - Defence Imagery]