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.


  1. Dear Chris
    As usual a very thoughtful comment. Whist I agree with the general thrust of your piece I can not agree with the conclusion that cuts should fall open the 4th Armoured Division. As you highlight the UK will need to specialise in certain areas and one of them surely must be the ability with due warning to field an armoured Division, be that in support of the USA (I agree less unlikely now) where being able to field a Division gives you a serious voice at the table, but more importantly being able to deploy that Division in to Europe. As we have found out from our cost historically it is better to fight wars on somebody else's soil than in the seas or air above Britain.
    When you look at Army 2020 every commentator has stated that the two glaring problems is the lack of deploy-ability of the Adaptable Force and the lack of support elements for 16 Air Mobile Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade. The final problem is for the supposed 32 Battalions the Army has, we have 17 Regiments.
    There are in my a number of things that can be done within this structure to make it more logical. If you don't mind I will ponder the changes I would suggest and post them in the next few days,

    1. Hello Anon,

      Feel free to post your thoughts. The question I have is would the UK actually be able to support an armoured division properly in the field? Seems little point in preserving a capability that cannot be properly supplied. I think hard choices will have to be made and slimming the armoured force could help preserve cash elsewhere. The world has evolved somewhat and while I 100% agree, and indeed have written posts to the same, that we're better keeping enemies at arms length, I'm not sure a single armoured division really helps us do that at the minute. I think a shift towards flexibility and smaller operations that have characterised the last few years in places like Libya, Mali, deploying trainers to Iraq etc, might be a better focus for the army.

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

    I'm not so sure, politicially it will be very difficult to sell. Not impossible but very specific pledges have been given with regards the army.

    1. Like no top down reorganisation of the NHS? A Balanced budget by 2015? A cast iron guarantee of a referendum on Europe? At least the top bloke isn't stepping aside at the next election... oh bugger! :)

      I think they might just do it and be damned to be honest. It's got to be an easier sell, moving away from Afghanistan style planning, towards more a more air and naval focused strategy as seen in Libya and Iraq lately. They can use that as a sign post of success and claim it was their brilliant plan all along.

  3. Well that is true I suppose, they could well ride it out. It would cause some flack for them, mind you chopping up Nimrods live on TV didn't really do them any harm.

    1. Lol, precisely. It sadly seems at this point the most logical choice. How far the mighty have fallen I'm afraid.