Defence chiefs go to the Tower; Army waits for the axe. By Michael Clarke

Defence cuts are back in fashion and the Army is again in the Treasury’s sights. The Army is currently 74,000 strong. But that is the wrong number in any case. It will need to be either bigger or smaller to fit into a coherent defence strategy. Michael Clarke outlines the problem.

Defence Chiefs went to the Tower of London last week, and now they wait for the axe to fall. An away-day for the Chiefs to think about the future purpose – and shape – of British defence took place at the Tower while the Treasury axe was being sharpened for Covid-crisis defence cuts as the government absorbs the economic shocks and tries to get the public finances ready for a recovery.

And the size of the Army is, again, the focus of discussion. Without Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan to maintain commitments to Army personnel numbers, the question of what the Army is for, and hence how big it should be, is one that has taxed all the armchair generals since the end of the Cold War, and quite a few of them during it.

The present Army is 74,000 strong. That is the smallest British Army since 1770. But whatever the right number for the future Army turns out to be, 74,000 is almost certainly the wrong number. It is either too high, or too low; and it has arisen for a series of not very good reasons. 

It is a matter of history that Conservative governments tend to cut defence capabilities, while Labour Governments almost always maintain them. Conservative governments can get away with it without damaging their image, whereas Labour Governments must always keep proving their prudent patriotism. So, Conservatives traditionally cut defence capabilities because they can, and Labour traditionally don’t because they daren’t.

Defence spending comparisons are not much help. Levels of spending expressed as a percentage of GDP have always been misleading, since a smaller proportion of a growing GDP can still constitute more defence spending; and rising percentages of a falling GDP, the opposite. In the post-Covid world where everyone’s GDP will be taking big hits for the next couple of years, defence as ‘percentages of GDP’ calculations will be scarcely worth making.

In fact, relative real term levels of British defence spending have remained remarkably similar for the last half century. But the actual defence capabilities they buy have been in steady, and inexorable, decline. Unlike transport, communications, mass manufacture, or retail, the real costs of staying in the military business are rising, not falling. Military power, overall, never achieves mass market economies or cheap technology breakthroughs, even where it takes advantage of civil sector innovation. And when Britain’s range and depth of military capabilities have appeared unsupportable, it has generally been Conservative governments that have reduced them, as they are about to do now.

Yes, Britain can maintain world class forces, but at such low numbers that their sustainability, and even their operational effectiveness, are in question. British forces can undoubtedly be useful in many scenarios – they do their tactical jobs with great accomplishment. But that is not the same as being strategically significant – a claim that successive British governments have adopted as an article of faith.  Making the £40 billion defence budget offer adequate protection to Britain’s diversifying security needs, while also giving political leaders some real strategic cards to play in world politics, has become an almost impossible circle to square.

Which is why Downing Street, and particularly Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, appear to be so keen to use the Covid axe to make structural changes to defence, not just to tidy it up. The Treasury is said to be floating 5% cuts all round for Whitehall as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn. But Downing Street seems to want to go a lot further in the case of the Ministry of Defence.

Investing in all the new technologies, becoming a leading player in cyber-warfare, electronic enabling technologies for command and control (the ‘C4ISTAR’ philosopher’s stone[i]), investing in advanced robotics and space domain warfare, AI and advanced policing technologies, are all expressions of a desire to jump a generation of normal military development and leap straight into the 2040s within the next decade. The emphasis on the heavy metal of military forces is seen as a shibboleth of old thinking in a military era that is disappearing fast for everyone – except the superpowers.

This is hardly a new thought in the British defence establishment. It has been a growing aspiration since the defence and security review of 2015. But the current trend of thinking appears to be that big investments in revolutionary technologies are also a way of arriving at a new, strategically effective, defence posture but also at lower levels of real term expenditure. Not wanting to waste a good crisis, Downing Street appears to want to use the Covid emergency to cut and transform defence more fundamentally than even Conservative governments have previously attempted.

The assumption that defence could be both technologically restructured, and simultaneously cheaper – and quickly – can only be regarded as a triumph of hope over experience. And the Chiefs know better than anyone that while the character of warfare constantly evolves, its fundamental nature changes very little. When bayonets on the ground or a bit of heavy metal are genuinely needed, nothing else will do.  Moreover, while new technologies and systems can be phased into defence either gradually or quickly, established systems, once abandoned, are extraordinarily difficult to replace in any reasonable time frame. Recapitalising the armed forces is a fairly irreversible process.

And so it is that the size of the Army – while the RAF and the Royal Navy are already at historically low levels – looks like the most obvious target for restructuring, because the current 74,000 number (actually 73,500 at the end of 2019) is so illogical. In 2000, a full decade after the Cold War, British Army numbers were around 110,000, not counting its 45,000 reserve forces. When it was reduced after the 2010 defence review, the figure of 82,000 was stated by the Conservative government to be a floor, below which it would not be allowed to fall. And that figure, it was subsequently postulated, should really be regarded as closer to the magical 110,000 because the newly reorganised Reserve Forces would add another 30,000 effective personnel to the Army’s total, if required. But the reorganisation of the reserves never made this sleight of hand a genuine reality, and as Army recruitment suffered – a separate and sorry story altogether – the figure had drifted steadily down to around 76,000 by 2017. At this point the then Minister of Defence said that 82,000 was now the ‘target’ figure. By 2018 the actual figure was hovering around the current 74,000, and was very difficult to justify by any national strategic logic – however carefully the Army specified its various different roles.

The bottom line is easy to state – though much harder to enact. If Britain’s strategic ambition for its Army is to be able to field one, potent, combat division, sustainable for a relatively short time in continental Europe or elsewhere, then it doesn’t need 74,000 people to deliver that output. Something around 60,000 would probably be sufficient. But if its ambition is to have an Army that is capable of more diverse tasks, and of some simultaneous combat operations in different places, then 74,000 is certainly not enough. A combat division is a very capable politico/military formation. It is designed primarily for war-fighting, and if the focus of the Army were only to feed and support its various combat needs – infantry, armour, engineers, artillery, tactical air, logistics, personnel rotation and training, command and control, civil-military, intelligence, and so on – it would not be too difficult to achieve this with a smaller Army.

But the other side of the coin is also problematical. A combat division could not easily be used simply as a pool of expertise for a wider range of things. Even where a division might be devolved into its three (or more) brigades to undertake different tasks in separate places, its own personnel and logistics would not stretch to duplicating functions for simultaneous operations. It’s big enough to go deep, but too small to go wide. An Army that wants to be able to perform several simultaneous tasks – such as deterrence or ongoing reassurance missions to its allies, technical support or training for its friends, quick-reaction operational deployments, special forces missions, defence of Britain’s overseas territories, participation in UN peace-keeping, support to the government in domestic crises, and so on – needs to be 100,000 or more to be a credible and sustainable force. And, of course, it has got to be able in the most dire of circumstances, to go to war – in whatever traditional or hybrid form that might take.  

The optimistic interpretation of the present ‘Army on the block at the Tower’ debate is that the currently dire economic circumstances, coupled with the countervailing Brexit pressure to make ‘Global Britain’ mean something, might for once produce a clear strategic intent within the Government that drives a consistent rationale for the Army’s role, and hence its appropriate size for the next two decades or more. If that is the case, then the enveloping cloud of the Covid crisis will have some silver linings.  But if the cart is put before the horse and Army numbers are drastically reduced in order to provide financial headroom for something else, then the Chiefs will again be defining the Army’ role as a post hoc rationalisation for a crude spending cut.

And if the ‘something else’ for which this headroom cut has been provided is a risky dash for a cheaper, even higher tech, future for defence, then we might be creating defence forces with an uneven mixture of flashy, and distinctly less flashy, niche capabilities that don’t convince either our allies or our adversaries that we as capable as we like to think.

[i] C4ISTAR stands for command, control, communication, computing, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. If they can all be achieved to a high and integrated level then small forces – any forces – can be deployed to maximum effect.