So here we are, at last.
This is basically a run down of some of the evidence that General Sir Peter Wall, Chief of the General Staff, gave to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on December 5th, 2012, with regards to the Future Army 2020 concept. As always with these things it should be pointed out that quotes provided are taken from the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence, which means this is not the final, approved version, and that neither the witness nor the members have had an opportunity to correct the record where errors exist.
I wont bring up every point that was made, just the ones that I think are the most interesting.
I'd like to start with a quote that relates to a debate I was having recently over at Think Defence. One of the points being discussed was how much say the forces have over what equipment and manpower they get, in relation to the governments directives.
General Sir Peter Wall: The direction from Government on the size of the Regular Army was very clearly about reducing manpower costs as that segment of the defence budget was also going to be slightly reduced.Q4 Chair: So it was about money rather than the forces we needed to counter any threats that we might face?General Sir Peter Wall: I did not look at it from that perspective.Q5 Chair: Should you not have done?General Sir Peter Wall: Our job is not to interfere with Government decisions about the amount of resource devoted to defence or the Army as a share of the defence budget; it is to find the best way of delivering the most useful and effective capability to meet the envisaged military demands of the time.
Or in other words the government controls the purse strings and the army (and Navy & Air Force) by and large has to make do the best it can with what it's given. Also note the Generals choice of language, which suggests we really are moving into an era where the ability to deliver against certain capability requirements is more important than specific numbers on a sheet of paper, which is very much a good thing if we can stick to it and get it to pervade all areas of defence.
The General went on to reiterate two key points for the British Army that have been coming up consistently over the last year or so; that for the most part the UK does not see itself engaging on operations alone, but rather as part of larger coalitions, and that "upstream engagement", working with allies to quell potential hot spots before trouble has even broken out, will be vital to the way the UK sees its place in the world from a military perspective. He also mentioned briefly about working alongside Navy and Air Force personnel in Joint Operations, emphasising the "purple" nature of modern warfare to the committee.
Slightly more worrying was his next statement;
General Sir Peter Wall: What we are actually saying is that if you look at what we have at the moment, we have an Army of 102,000 with a Reserve that is nominally 38,000 to 40,000, but actually it only has about 20,000 useful people in it. So that’s 120,000 people Regular, with Reserves of varying degrees of utility and commitment-that is our problem, not theirs. If you compare that with what the future heralds, which is 82,000 or so Regulars and 30,000 more usable Reservists, the delta is not nearly as significant as a 20% reduction in the regular Army would have suggested.
On the face of it that might sound good, as the General I think was trying to express the fact that in the future he believes that more of the reserve manpower will actually be "useful" as he put it, but I do wonder. If previously only half of the reserve manpower could be considered useful then that doesn't exactly bode well for a future force that is much more reliant on reserve manpower, even if extra money is being put into the kitty to support the TA.
The questioning then turned to the splitting of the army into the Reaction Force and the Adaptable Force. Without quoting large chunks of what the General said, he basically explained to the committee that the Reaction Force would represent the "best-manned, best-equipped and best-trained" forces to be held at short readiness and deployed in brigade strength to emergency situations, with the possibility of deploying a division sized force with a little more warning.
The Adaptable Force by comparison will be held at lower readiness and orientated more towards "defence engagement" and activities in the UK, though the General did make a point which I thought was quite odd. He said the Adaptable Force would - with sufficient notice - be able to replicate the capabilities of the Reaction Force? I was under the assumption that the Reaction Force would hold most of the armour and armoured infantry, which would be a difficult task for the Adaptable Force to replicate with just Jackals and Mastiffs, though perhaps he meant using an Adaptable brigade to replicate the role of 16 Air Assault Brigade as a rapid reaction light infantry force, when the latter is deployed elsewhere?
His next remarks are worth quoting;
We are starting to understand that the potential of this mix of forces is perhaps even greater than at the point when we designed it. There has been a perception that, if there is a situation like Afghanistan, that will be dealt with by the reaction force. If there is a UK resilience task, a UK operation or something that involves UK engagement with the TA-or, indeed, doing training teams in another part of the world, such as Africa or Asia-that will be the preserve of the adaptable force. I think we will find that these two things co-exist, cohabit and support one another in varying degrees, depending on the situation.
I think the assumption a lot of us had was that in the future the various brigades of the Reaction Force would deploy one after the other into theatres like Afghanistan before the Adaptable Force then eventually took over the slack. It might seem from this that perhaps the Adaptable Force will take over sooner, or indeed that the Reaction Force might be earmarked for forward engagement tasks?
That would seem to muddy the waters a little bit as to the point of having two different forces, if the Reaction Force were to find itself consistently overlapping into the roles that the Adaptable Force was otherwise designed to handle, though the Generals comments above were partially contradicted later on (by himself), so it's a little confusing.
The Generals next answer served to muddy those waters even more;
Q18 Sandra Osborne: Will the adaptable force take over all the stabilisation operations?General Sir Peter Wall: No, I don’t think it will. I think there will be certain niche capabilities held in the adaptable force that will be used on stabilisation operations, but if an operation has gone into the stabilisation phase, as in Afghanistan at the moment, there will be a lot of reaction force capability used on that as well.
So we're going to have reaction forces tied down in stabilisation operations and adaptable forces being broken off piece-meal to assist in those operations as well? I was rather hoping when this split of the army into two forces was first announced, that the plan was to have the reaction force geared solely for delivering that first blow, the "war fighting" if I might use that rather annoying phrase, while the adaptable force would be geared solely for enduring stabilisation operations.
The prospect of having the two overlap to such a degree seems to sort of defeat the point of splitting them up in the first place. We almost end up back where we are now, with a list of battalions on paper that are picked and mixed as needed. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I did think that the new system offered an opportunity to create a force dedicated to stabilisation and forward engagement (along with the appropriate supporting assets), while the reaction force could have become a force dedicated to interventions and conventional operations. We'll see I guess.
The General went on to answer a question about the make up of reservists in each force and indicated that individuals would be used in the reaction force, while company strength was more the goal for the adaptable forces. Again that kind of worries me. Surely the reaction force is meant to be a short notice, rapid deployment force? It does seem odd that the strength of our rapid reaction capability would lean on reserves to some degree, potentially as much as 10% or around that, according to the General.
On the subject of deployments and harmony guidelines, General Wall stated that he believed the 6/24 cycle, that is 6 months deployed on operations with a 24 month break before the next operational deployment, would probably hold up and be the norm for the foreseeable future.
Next the question of Cyprus, Brunei and the Falklands was brought up, which General Wall confirmed would be covered by the adaptable force. He also made the point that he was not expecting the adaptable forces to take on roles from the reaction force (and vice versa) in the sense of having whole battalions transfer from one role to another over time. So it would appear that if you join a battalion in the adaptable force then - unless you are cross posted as an individual - you should expect to spend your career in the adaptable forces, and vice versa.
Right, time for a change of pace with a bit of bulls**t bingo I think. Cards at the ready. Eyes down and see how many you can get;
Q33 Thomas Docherty: That is very helpful. There are also references to homeland resilience. Do you envisage any change in the nature of the military support that is provided to homeland resilience as a result of the adaptable force?General Sir Peter Wall: No, I think this will be demand-led and so, too, will the defence engagement task. It is just that there is a more conscious sense of the demand, and we now have people who will be better equipped to do it well. In the UK operations and resilience base we have seen examples this year: Operation Escalin, which was around the prospective fuel distribution strike that didn’t happen, but for which we trained 3,000 tanker crews across defence, but with the majority from the Army; Operation Quickthorn, which is our response to prison strikes-not prisoner facing tasks, but support to the Prison Service-and, of course, the Olympics, which isn’t going to happen that often but is an example of something coming out of left field which we were able to respond to reasonably adroitly, and with quite large numbers of people. So I think it will be demand-led.
So did anyone get the house? A line? Homeland resilience, I ask you.
One brief point that was made about the Royal Regiment of Scotland is that new recruits entering will be dispersed as needed into the four battalions. From there the incremental/ceremonial company will draw men from all four battalions on a seemingly ad hoc basis as and when they are needed.
This was followed mainly some very vague and broad questions and answers about the reserves and how they will recruit etc, that seemed to not really provide any worthwhile detail. This is a sub point, or a side point if you will, but I do get frustrated reading some of these committee evidence sessions (not just defence) when I think that committee members could - with a little more research - ask some more probing and specific questions. For an example of how it should be done see Labour MP for Walsall South, Valerie Vaz, on the Health Select Committee.
Back to the adaptable force and General Wall gave a little more detail on what some of the adaptable brigades will get up to;
Take, for example, Wales: brigade headquarters, one Regular battalion, one TA battalion, one big training area and a lot of other TA elements. They will have the responsibility for training to the required standard, once in the three-year cycle, the whole battalion including its TA component. They will be, as the regional brigades are at the moment, the primary focus for engaging with the first responders on issues of UK resilience and UK operations-flooding, or whatever it may be. The details are still being worked on, but they will probably have a defence engagement role where they will be the focus and centre of expertise for a particular region of the world where we provide training support to allow others to build up their military capability.
Again, I feel that throws up more questions than answers. If an adaptable brigade forms the centre of expertise for a certain region of the world, what happens when they're doing their large training cycle at home? Will just some elements be abroad, providing the expertise?
Would it perhaps not be more useful to have the adaptable brigades rotate through various overseas training and engagement opportunities (with small, long term cadre's providing the expertise), as opposed to having a very rigid assignment of brigades to geographic areas?
It just seems a little odd and, ironically, less adaptable than the current layout. I'd have thought the army would have wanted a more flexible, varied schedule that would keep the careers of the soldiers fresh and give the brigades the chance to experience operating in a much greater diversity of countries and environments, providing more of a challenge?
I know it's early stages yet and really the finer details are being worked out, but it does seem that the evidence is a little thin on the ground. Parliament relies on the select committee's to probe the various departments and make sure the governments plans come under proper scrutiny by cross party back benchers. If the evidence given is not very substantive, then the level of parliamentary scrutiny will suffer commensurately as well.
Next I just want to highlight part of a question, as opposed to an answer;
Q61 Mr Holloway: In terms of integrating Reservists with Regular units, in my minuscule experience of working with Reservists on operations, while they were capable of doing every task, the difficulty came down to working with specific bits of communications equipment or to the fact that they did not have the breadth of training on different weapons systems and so on.
The reason I bring this up is because I did a post a while back about the reserves and made precisely this point; that if we were going to lean more and more on the TA then how would they cope with the ever increasing complexity of modern communications and weapons systems? Judging by this evidence it seems my concerns were not without at least some merit.
The extra days allocated for TA training in a year only amount to about 5 more days training for any one soldier, which is a cause for concern when we look at just how sophisticated things like Bowman already are, even without looking beyond that to the next generation of communications etc.
The discussion then moved onto a more sobering note, as the question of redundancies came up;
Q67 Sandra Osborne: Can I ask about the redundancies? Are you on track to achieve the level of redundancies required to reduce the Regular strength to 82,000?General Sir Peter Wall: As you know, we have already had two relatively small tranches of redundancy for the Regular Army that have been done in step with the other two services, the Navy and the Air Force. The next tranche-tranche 3-of redundancy should be announced early next year. After that will be the final one, tranche 4. Those will run respectively; in the case of tranche 3 for the first half of 2013. What I mean by that is that the sort of fields of people, of ranks and trades who are liable to be made redundant will be announced in January. Those individuals who are going to be made redundant either as applicants or non-applicants will be notified in June. That is the time frame. The fourth tranche of redundancy will be a repeat of that in 2014.
It's difficult sometimes to remember that the army has only really begun the process of down sizing and that more pain is still to come. General Wall went on to answer a question about morale by pointing out that redundancies are certainly not helping it, though once the final tranche (why must everything be delivered in "tranches" these days?) was completed, that would at least stabilise the career pathways for those that remain.
He also emphasised that losses are mainly occurring amongst those who are in the middle of their careers and that the army is still very keen to take on new recruits, and will still require an annual intake of around roughly 80% of what it did prior to the cuts, though he admitted that the spectre of force reductions could put people off joining and posed a challenge to convince young people that the army still needed them.
A more worrying development followed soon after;
Q78 Bob Stewart: CGS, there are rumours around this place, although probably not at the MOD-so you can put me into touch, as it were, as you are chairman of Army rugby-that 82,000 may not be the last of it. Some people have suggested that it may go down below that. Are you in a position to put me straight into touch on that matter?General Sir Peter Wall: I have heard nothing along those lines. My view is that we need all of those people to do the right sort of job in the context of Army 2020. There has been a sense that there might be more efficiency savings that can easily be achieved. I am absolutely sure that is not the case.
We should highlight that the word used was "rumours", but was followed by "some people have suggested". If true then that is a very worrying sign for defence as a whole. And unfortunately - as we have found with this government - rumours tend to be the smoke before the fire. The coalition has committed itself to a course of quite savage cuts across the whole of government and has recently taken back some of the money that was supposed to be an excess tucked away for the future of defence after 2015. I hope General Wall is right, and that these really are just rumours.
The discussion moved to training and basing, where the General pointed out that the UK would like to retain access to training facilities in northern Germany, in addition to the solid commitment to the BATUS facility in Canada and Salisbury Plain here at home. He pointed out the savings that can be achieved by pooling much of the UK's armoured force at Salisbury, and also emphasised the importance of the excellent training opportunities to be had in Kenya, calling it a "key location".
And that's pretty much that for now. You can find the original copy of this evidence here.
One last thing before I go. I often read evidence given to other committees, try to follow politics in general, and broadly speaking am not shy about being critical of this (or indeed any) government. Sometimes that spills over into this blog, but I'm just wondering if there would be any interest among readers if I set up a separate blog covering the rest of politics? Let me know in the comments or e-mail me (email@example.com).
You can also leave suggestions for topics if you think there is something you'd like to see covered on this blog. And don't forget to use the button things at the bottom if you want to share this on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever half that other stuff is.