Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The word of the day is...

So, Conservative government it is. And given their plans for spending cuts it looks likely defence will be hit again, possibly to the tune of another £1 billion a year. That's coupled with the fact that some decisions of the past have been kicked into the long grass, such as what to do about the slightly embarrassing lack of a Maritime Patrol Aircraft. For that reason it would appear defence is going to be doing some serious juggling during the next defence review. 

I've said it before, I'll say it again here: I think the army is up for the chop. 

To me it seems almost inevitable that the Army 2020 plan will be chucked in the bin to accommodate more cuts in manpower. The question is whether that is a good thing or a bad thing? Well clearly in an ideal world the government wouldn't cut anything from defence, but that's not the world we live in currently. The axe must fall somewhere and - all things considered - the army seems like the place to go. 

The problem is that fundamentally we've reached a level of defence now where the UK is by and large an assisting player. We don't really have the capacity to take the lead in international operations without stretching the services thin to the point of breaking. This I think is most evident in the land environment, where the UK would struggle to put down a divisional effort if required.

With that in mind I wonder whether the UK might be better suited to following some of the examples abroad, where many smaller forces such as our own have taken to the idea of specialising their brigades with the intention of being able to provide a lead element of at least battalion size that is trained in a particular subset of skills. Parachute capable units are the most obvious, something the UK already has. But I do wonder for example when I look at the 3rd division whether having three identical mechanised brigades is really the best use of the scant resources? 

If one were turned armoured by shifting across a tank regiment and dropping an infantry battalion, while another was wound up entirely, then not only would this allow all the infantry units in the remaining two brigades to ride in proper tracked vehicles instead of Mastiff, but it would also save the MoD a decent chunk of the money that it's probably going to need in the coming years.

I think the biggest issue I have with Army 2020, looking at it from a seat here in 2015, is that it looks like we're setting up for another Afghanistan at the same scale, something which a declining defence budget is probably not going to allow, and which public opinion might also have a problem with. I've written before that I think COIN wars choose you, not the other way around, but I think we also have to accept that the UK is unlikely to go back into action on that same scale again. 

It's a shame that defence in the UK has come to this, but that's the price of not being a vote winning area of spending coupled with the endless "peace dividend". Do I think a move to downsize the army could have dangerous repercussions in the future? Potentially yes. But at this stage I'm resigned to the fact that the air force and navy have more broad utility for the immediate future and should be protected by and large from future spending cuts. That's not the same as saying the army has no utility, just that the winds of change are clearly filling the sails of the senior and junior service right now, while the army finds itself beating against gale.

On the plus side the economy is recovering and defence right now has slumped into the minimum 2% region which means that looking out into the future things are likely to get better, if only a little. But for the short term I think a bit more pain is on its way and the army seems the most likely recipient of it. The truly interesting question is whether the army will see this as a chance for some exciting, radical reform to shape itself to face the new challenges of the modern era, or whether it will try simply to fight the last war again on paper.

The move to brigades with a much clearer role, able to provide spearhead elements for various operations across the globe, or to combine together to form task orientated groups, could revitalise the army after what has been a difficult decade of hard and bloody fighting. It's an odd thing to say, but at a time of potential cutbacks "ambition" could actually end up being the word of the day.