Humphrey has now safely returned from his wedding and honeymoon, and is slowly catching up with the events of the last few weeks. Its clearly been a challenging time – the dreadful events in Kenya were brought home to the author when he transited Nairobi and saw Army personnel everywhere returning from the siege. Similarly the party conference season here in the UK seems to have stirred up a few debates about the state of Defence, perhaps hiding other more important developments.
The one debate though that made the authors heart sink was the frankly ridiculous report by the UK National Defence Association which through some fairly interesting interpretations of statistics tried to purport that the UK is no longer a military power in any way (apparently we have less troops than Greece or Argentina, and less planes than Italy). What is so depressing about this is firstly that this report was written by an organisation which has many senior former military personnel in it who should frankly know better than to rely on pure statistics as a measure. Secondly it is depressing that the level of defence debate in the UK has descended into an incredibly puerile series of reports suggesting that because the UK doesn't have 3000 tanks, we are somehow an irrelevance on the global stage.
There is always a tendency to look fondly back at times gone by and suggest that they were better then than things are now, and this report perhaps shows this. In terms of time elapsed, we’re now nearly a quarter of a century out since the Cold War ended, and we can now look back at the force structures of the time and gasp, near agog, at the sheer size of the UK armed forces and just how many people were in them. No doubt people were doing the same back in 1991 and wistfully looking back to the UK military of 1966 and its global presence.
|Does the UK really need more than 250 Challenger Tanks?|
The problem for Humphrey though is trying to work out what the UK would possibly achieve by having the vastly larger armed forces that some seem to think would cement our status on the world stage. When one looks back over the last 150 years, the possession of large military forces by the UK has been somewhat of an aberration. If you ignore WW1 & WW2, then the only period in which large forces were sustained was from 1945 until the end of the Cold War. This could only be done by relying firstly on large numbers of conscripts, then having to provide very low pay after the end of National Service. It is telling that once military wages began to catch up with, then overtake civilian roles, manpower quickly became increasingly unaffordable. Similarly it is easy to forget that this period is one of the very few in UK history where there was a clearly defined opponent, where UK forces had a clear role to play (e.g. maintain BAOR, defend the home base, conduct ASW) as well as support wider non NATO commitments. It is much easier to justify the retention of larger armed forces when you have a specific role in mind for them, and not just being held at readiness as a contingency.
In the UK we are perhaps guilty of looking back on the Cold War period as halcyon era where we had large armed forces, while forgetting that they existed to do very specific roles, and also encourage other nations to pull their weight too. The post Cold War era wasn't some wonderful period where UK forces roamed the globe in glorious isolation emulating Palmerstons views, but a period when the UK had to contribute to an international coalition and work with our partners against a common enemy. This is important to remember, for the argument that 30 years ago we had X frigates, Y jets and Z tanks compared to today's paltry number is actually misleading. In reality much of this equipment was fully committed to NATO forces, and wasn't easily available to support wider UK national interests beyond the NATO area. So yes, the UK had capabilities, but they were borne to meet a specific external threat, and not a general role.
Similarly, if one looks at availability, it becomes clear that in real terms UK capability for purely national tasks now isn't far off what it was at the end of the Cold War. Speaking to a Naval friend who joined in the late 1980s, he pointed out that of the 47 escorts when they joined, nearly a third were usually tied up in refit. Add to this the tasking and working up of escorts for things like NATO commitments, and support to the South Atlantic, and suddenly that’s the best part of another 15 escorts committed. At best there would be a margin of some 10-15 hulls available for national discretionary deployments – not much more than is available today.
It is also clear that the report focuses far too heavily on manpower being the sole guide to a nations military prowess, while ignoring the vast technological changes which have gone on. The old County Destroyers needed some 500 crew, the Type 42s needed around 250-280, while the Type 45s need barely 190. In real terms, the RN would have needed some 3000 sailors to put six Countys to sea, but barely 1100 for the Type 45. A simplistic analogy, but one which perhaps demonstrates that in many ways the RN of today may have less sailors, but it also needs less sailors to operate vastly more capable equipment. The usual riposte at times like this is to deploy the tired old adage ‘but a ship cannot be in more than one place’ – something which may be true, but ignores the difference in capabilities. An RN task force of 30 years ago would have needed two or three ships to achieve the same effect as a modern Type 45 can have – so whilst in peacetime that may mean two or three less ship visits, it does mean that in wartime the RN has a broadly equivalent level of protection now with far less hulls than before. Numbers are only one part of the equation, and while important, should not dominate to the point where capability is no longer considered.
|We could afford plenty of 2nd rate Type 14s, but they were not hugely useful.|
It is also important to realise when looking at these sorts of papers that nations have very different defence requirements. It is one thing to say we have less soldiers than say, South Korea, but we forget that we do not have a nuclear armed neighbour on our border with a leader who is not always a completely rational actor. It is entirely logical that some nations will have more military personnel than the UK – they have direct ground threats, or their need for manpower for other jobs means it is politically helpful to keep a large army to hand. For instance many states still conscript their troops, meaning on paper their army is vastly larger than the British Army, but this is only achieved through a ready pool of manpower who can be paid a pittance and employed on duties which are often as much about support local agriculture by working on farms, or support public order as it is about being a military force.
There are also many nations out there who on paper have large stockpiles of equipment (particularly in the Middle East) and this can easily be turned into a headline about how a tiny nation has more tanks than the UK. The reality though is that these purchases are little more than an insurance policy designed to coax the nations into feeling an obligation to support the purchaser in a real crisis. If one views defence sales to the Middle East as a means of these nations buying support through economic largesse then that’s probably not far off the mark. Many of these equipment buys are in fact often stored in the desert and left to rust without ever being used. The author has heard many tales of armouries full of weapons never removed from packing crates, or trained on and often forgotten about. On paper this is a capability, and in reality it is little more than a box of life expired spare parts. One difference between the UK and many other nations is that the UK is willing to genuinely use and ‘sweat’ its assets to get the most from its equipment purchases. Just because some nations have impressive arsenals does not equate to a genuine ability to use them to best effect.
This is an important matter to realise, nations have the military force that they think their own unique strategic situation deserves. For many countries possessing a large army is a useful pool of manpower, but doesn't make them more than a local player. It is telling that so many of the nations cited in the report as statistically high ranking actually have practically no capability to send troops any distance at all from the homebase. This is great if you want an armed force which protects the Presidential Palace and stops people from launching coups, not so useful if you want to deploy overseas. Indeed, looking at military contributions to Afghanistan or Iraq, it is telling that many contributing nations possessed far larger armies than the UK, but were unable to send or support more than a company group because deploying at distance into a high intensity warzone was a step beyond what their military could provide.
|Capabilities unmatched by almost any other nation.|
This then is where the UK forces excel – they may be small, but they are structured in a manner which has historically served the UK well. Todays armed forces are essentially a means of deploying a small raiding force into a hostile territory to conduct surgical strikes and achieve effect with minimal effort. The operations in Libya in 2011, or Sierra Leone in 2000 are good examples of this, where a small force deployed highly capable equipment to achieve the end state before withdrawing. This is in many ways no different to the Victorian armed forces, which in many ways did similar missions – deploy overwhelming technological advantage and withdraw before it became too difficult. It is telling that the times when things got complicated was when a short operation turned into a prolonged campaign (e.g. Crimea or the Boer war). If we look at the structure of the UK forces, we see a nation who has chosen to invest heavily in very high end capabilities which provide several things:
Firstly, the ability to integrate with and operate with US forces, which in turn makes the UK a partner of choice, not only with the US, but other nations seeking to improve their ability to work at the top tier.
Secondly, a strong logistical capability to allow operations to occur at distance from the homebase. It is telling that the UKNDA report went on about the French having more aircraft than the UK, but as we saw in Mali this year, as soon as things got complicated, the French quickly became reliant on the UK and US for logistical support. It is far better to have smaller numbers of properly supported assets that can do the job, than an overloaded ‘front end’ of superficially impressive equipment which isn't actually supported by any worthwhile logistical network.
Thirdly, an ability to think innovatively about getting the best of manpower. Many jobs that used to be done by the UK military have either been civilianised or handed off to contractors. This has reduced manpower totals, but also saved money. Many nations have yet to do this sort of thing, so their manpower requirements are higher than they necessarily need to be. If one considers the sort of jobs now passed out of military hands to the civilian world, it actually adds up to a considerable number of posts saved.
|Do we need bigger armed forces in order to scale up this sort of parade?|
So, the question is surely what does the UK need larger armed forces for? There is no existential threat to the UK in a conventional sense that calls for larger armed forces. When you ask people about the military, there is a sense that they think the Military should be bigger, but don’t know where or what it should be there to do. When one looks at the argument for the Fusiliers battalion being scrapped, people are understandably angry that 600 soldiers are going, but fail to realise that preserving the Battalion would not measurably improve UK capability – it only makes sense to retain it if you also preserve the enabling assets like logistics, intelligence, artillery and the like to deploy it as part of a coherent force. By itself little is gained from preserving a single unit as it would sit in isolation. While one hears of pressure on the Army over the last few years, the reality is that the Army has become increasingly expensive to pay and equip and the commitment of ground forces to an open ended commitment is not hugely popular with the public. As we move towards SDSR2015 and the Future Force 2020 it is clear that the future vision of the UK military is far less about large formations waiting to repel an armoured invasion, but small niche formations designed to intervene, to train and to influence our allies.
Where the UK retains influence and value is the way in which it provides high quality staff officers who can plug into a headquarters, or provide an airfield logistical unit. Every nation can provide infantry units, but far fewer can provide the less glamorous or appealing units that are absolutely essential to coalition operations. The UK has an ability to do this – its similar in many ways to smaller NATO nations like the Netherlands, Denmark or the Baltic's – small military forces which are hugely professional and highly rated by their peers because they've chosen to provide useful niche capabilities.
The problem though is that the public debate is not framed around the discussion of what useful enabling capabilities the UK has, but instead focuses far more on how we no longer matter because we only have 19 escorts not 32 escorts. This doesn't help the public understand that as taxpayers they possess an extraordinarily capable military which is well equipped to carry out the roles assigned to it. They also do not get the chance to pick up that the threat is changing and that a single hacking group in a parents basement can do more damage to UK national infrastructure than 50 hostile warships. The real challenge for the MOD is to continue to try and move the debate forward, trying to get people to understand that numbers do not mean everything, and that in reality a lot has changed.
It is all well and good to say that the UK needs X thousand more troops, planes and ships, but the problem is that no one seems able to identify the threat that they need to meet and why the taxpayer should pay for them. Humphrey was particularly struck by the argument that the RN is going to struggle in wars as it has too few ships and is at risk of losing some – having done some basic research, if you ignore the period of WW1 and WW2, then the sole occasion between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and today when RN vessels were sunk in a military operation was the Falklands War. We keep clinging to the idea that as a nation we should be spending lots of money on more warships to protect ourselves, when over 200 years of history would suggest it is exceptionally unlikely that such an event will occur – is this good reason to spend a fortune on new ships?
So in conclusion, the idea that the UK is a military irrelevance because we only have a small amount of manpower or ships is complete and utter unmitigated nonsense. One has to look beyond this sort of report and focus on what the UK is actually capable of doing today and how it is in fact a remarkably capable nation, able to achieve far more than we like to give ourselves credit for. The argument of ‘we need more to matter’ seems to be very much a case of wishing ourselves to have a threat to face, rather than because we actually need such a capability – is there such a thing as an unnecessary level of defence?