So back in August I wrote this;
"Further compounding this problem is the reduction in the value of the pound brought on by the Brexit vote, especially when considering the future major purchases of US products such as the P-8 Poseidon and F-35 Lightning. Under normal circumstances you'd expect a big organisation such as the MoD to have taken a sizable hedge position in the dollar prior to the Brexit vote, just in case, given the scale of its potential exposure to currency risk. But then this is the MoD we're talking about, so nothing is certain. We'll find out soon enough I guess."
Yeah, so we found out. They didn't. And now the fresh black hole in the MoD's finances amounts to about £20bn over 10 years. But it's not all currency based, as it has also emerged that the MoD has backtracked on many of its prior pledges to reduce expenditure. Which brings us here, to the second part of this three part series looking at how the UK might plug said gap. That means assessing the army.
Or not, as the case may be, as the Secretary of State has come out and robustly rejected any notion of the cuts on offer. On the surface that seems good and has won him much praise, but in the long run all it will do is probably make him look like a fool, as eventually the budget will need to be cut and he'll have no choice but to backdown and make the cuts anyway. Rejecting cuts now does not fix the problem with the MoD budget, nor does it solve the governments debt crisis. By delaying the inevitable I think it just make the SoS look weak, being unprepared to take the steps required of him and ultimately having to U-turn at some point down the road, which will no doubt be met with much derision.
I do just quickly want to highlight my comment in that last paragraph about a government debt crisis, because that indeed is what is at stake. The government has done an excellent job of playing down the amount it is borrowing, using the figure that only represents the deficit between revenue and expenditure of about £40bn. What the government is less inclined to talk about is the money that it has to borrow - slated to be around £80bn by the end of this financial year - in order to pay off Gilt redemptions (old bonds that have reached maturity).
It's worth bearing in mind that we're now reaching the 10 year point from the financial crisis, which is when a mountain of 10 year dated debt from the financial crisis era starts maturing, along with some of the debt from the borrowing that followed it. Coupled with shorter term Gilt redemptions, the scale of current annual government borrowing is actually closer to £120bn per year all told, interest on which is due each year and the annual servicing of which now costs more than the entirety of the defence budget (£50bn, give or take a billion). And that's before we get into its distorting effect such heavy government borrowing has on private investment and exchange rates.
As such, anyone protesting strategic need or the defence of the realm etc needs to take a long, hard look at their entire concept of what strategy means and what defence of the state as a sovereign entity really means. The Russians aren't coming for your fields of wheat; the governments creditors might be. Right now the problem is drifting past everyones attention because of the dual assumptions that governments don't go broke and that the UK has lots of room for additional borrowing, despite the fact that neither of those two statements is true, coupled with the fact that borrowing for Gilt redemptions is kept on the quiet despite it costing double just on its own what the government spends funding the deficit.
And the Russians really aren't coming, not for us anyway. Recent revelations have suggested that three options were presented for cuts and people were going out of their minds claiming that a cut in the army from 82,000 to 68,000 would somehow take the UK from being broadly impenetrable to foreign powers down to being dangerously exposed to the prospect of a Russian invasion and having Putin in Number 10. In which case someone really should ring the Norwegians and let them know that anything less than 82,000 troops wont cut it and they're imminently about to be over run.
Or, people could get a grip of themselves and realise that the British Army is no more capable of fighting off the red hordes now than it would be with 14,000 less soldiers, and that nothing short of a several fold increase in the size of the army would suffice for that, something which the country most definitely cannot afford.
The fact that the army has steadfastly refused to adapt to the times and is now primed for serious cuts to its manpower is nobody's fault but its own. To be clear, in the world of business you do not throw good money after bad, as Carillion recently found out. When it comes to asking for more money the army - much like the MoD in general - hasn't got a leg to stand on.
And let's be real here, if major cuts are coming to defence then they should be (and are) coming to the army. I don't care about how big Wellington's army was, I don't want to hear it. Wellington didn't have Challenger tanks and satellite guided rockets. Nor did Wellington have the entirety of Europe and a military the size of the US as his allies.
It is simply unsustainable for the army to keep ploughing away year after year in its current exercise of preserving cap badges at all costs while denuding itself (and arguably deluding itself) of the necessary support and equipment needed to function as a modern army in a contested battlespace, resolutely closing its eyes and ears to any criticism that it might have been left behind by progress elsewhere, while simultaneously pleading for more cash to fix the problem when it isn't prepared to take hard choices of its own.
Particularly of note is how people seem to be positioning the British Army as the potential victim of a grand conspiracy against them. Yet as anyone who has read Think Defence's excellent series of articles charting the story from CVR(T) to FRES would know, the army has done a perfectly good job of shooting itself in the foot over the years. Observe for example the current structure of the army, which in the age of mechanisation has barely enough vehicles to cobble together three armoured brigades, yet has enough cap badges to support nearly seven light infantry brigades.
The Chief of the General Staff has described the ability to generate and deploy an armoured division as being central to the British Army's future as apparently this makes the army a "reference customer" (I really cannot stand that man), though where this actually fits into UK strategy abroad seems uncertain. He seems more concerned that we can generate influence in coalitions than whether or not that division is actually appropriate for our needs and what equipment it might need or what size it should be.
Let's start with the size issue for example. I've seen all manner of numbers banded about for a UK division, normally creeping up to the 40,000 man region. This is odd considering your typical armoured division on all sides of the second world war rarely went over 20,000 on paper including all the support elements, of which there were normally more than in a modern division structure on account of all the necessary additions such as anti-tank and anti-air battalions which seem to be absent now.
Not that the army could probably generate enough tanks for a division with its current structure which was announced recently would slip to include just two armoured battalions*. That's two battalions of tanks that are getting long in the tooth, use ammunition that is incompatible with our allies and lack any of the kind of passive or active defensive systems that their Russian counterparts have.
*On this blog I generally use the more traditional terms battalion/company/platoon, rather than the typical British Regiment/Squadron/Troop. Because the former are widely used and make sense, and the latter are a largely pointless holdover from days gone bye that simply serve to confuse many foreign readers.*
If you come from the Hermann Balck school of armoured warfare then you probably see small numbers as a virtue (approx. 30 tanks to a battalion!) but I think most people would agree that the best use of tanks historically has come from concentrating them in numbers. Numbers that Britain simply doesn't have. As such a find it odd that we would be talking about reference customers and using the division as a cornerstone of the army when the army refuses to fund it as such. Actions, not words.
It could be done. There are ample funds within the army for it, providing some difficult choices are made. These include a reduction in the amount of light infantry and the abandoning of the 8x8 vanity program. For clarity, the army has around 20 infantry battalions total that are not currently used in either the armoured or heavy protected mobility role on a routine basis, including the Parachute Regiment.
As for the 8x8 program, I feel we're chasing a dream that has long since passed the UK by. It seems more of a choice of fashion than anything else. 8x8 vehicles, despite improvements in their cross country performance over the years, are still no match for tracked vehicles off road and are entirely unsuitable for the role of keeping up with the tanks. For road marching and the obsession that some seem to have with "rapid deployment" (which can only be to an environment where no enemy armour exists as by definition such a fast road march would preclude friendly armour from coming along) we have to question whether an 8x8 vehicle really offers much over existing options like Foxhound and Mastiff. Seems to me that a lot of money is being earmarked for an upgrade of immensely dubious value.
Now some might be worried that as they were mentioned above that I'm going to advocate for a cut of the Parachute Regiment, but that's not the case. What I do contest is whether we need 16 air assault brigade as it currently exists and whether or not the Parachute Regiment could not simply be re-rolled into some kind of armoured or protected mobility role. It may seem an odd suggestion at first, till you remember that the British Army has many dragoon regiments that do not fight as dismounted infantry, has plenty of Lancers with no lances, and Household cavalry who are neither members of the Royal household nor do they escort a monarch into battle.
There is no reason that the Paras could not continue with their existing ethos and selection regime, while mainly preparing for a military role that would not involve the 21st Century equivalent of the charge of the light brigade. And in turn I think this leads us to question two really important assumptions currently being made by the army; that it needs so much light infantry and that it needs the regimental system as it currently exists.
This is not to say that the role of infantry is dead. Even at the peak of the second world war - a war characterised by the rise of mass mechanisation - light infantry still had many important roles to play. And unlike some I also don't think we've seen the back of COIN operations. Maybe in the short run such a large scale campaign as Afghanistan would be unthinkable, but in the long run I don't think we can discard the possibility.
The question is more about how much of it we need and what role the army intends for it to play in the future. The concept of using mentors to pre-build the capacity of local forces to face down challenging security threats such as ISIS branches or similar threats makes a lot of sense, but whether the army needs 20 battalions of light infantry to achieve this is less certain. For a modern, advanced economy like the UK the rational for keeping large numbers of foot-slogging - or at best lightly protected - manpower at arms is highly questionable in my opinion.
What it looks like more and more on the surface is a naked attempt to preserve as many cap badges as possible. This in turn ties into the wider argument about the regimental system and whether the army ought to be spending quite as much money as it does to preserve the notion of geographically tied entities, even when the reality has historically been very mixed (insert your own jokes about the percentage of Fijians in the Royal Regiment of Scotland here).
Switching to a smaller number of very large, geographically unconstrained regimental titles makes a lot of sense to anyone not tied doggedly to preserving a current name. Granted even that has its problems, as one look at the naming conventions of the Royal Armoured Corps will attest to, but it certainly has the potential to once and for all put to bed many of the arguments over certain counties losing their historic titles.
The actual regional titles need not even die, with their names potentially being preserved in both reserve and cadet formations. I'm not sure anyone would particularly care if the Essex Regiment or the West Yorkshire Regiment continued to live on in reserve status with just one or two companies to its name, as long as the cap badges themselves were preserved. It seems a logical way to meet the demands of both sides of the regimental debate.
And if we're being realistic, the numbers of light infantry will be where the cuts fall. For all the talk of adaptable forces and the like, it's unlikely that the army would sacrifice its prized armoured division capability to preserve light role forces whose "fightiness" in the next shooting war might be questionable. Then again, given the under investment in what supposedly makes the army a "reference customer", the end might not be quite so nigh for the legions of light foot.
Because it's not just a lack of tanks that is hampering the armoured division, although much like the NHS's record when it comes to actually keeping people alive, this does seem quite a profound failure. The problems go much deeper than that. When we look at recent conflicts to try and divine some of the trends of modern warfare we see some startling deficiencies in the British Army's order of battle.
Taking the conflict in Ukraine for example, we've seen the earlier mentioned use of passive and active tank defensive systems. We've seen the advantages of rapid fire rocket based artillery systems which have been known about since at least the 1940s but as yet not embraced in the UK. We've seen the increasing use of electronic warfare, for everything from GPS and communications jamming to the early triggering of airburst fuses on artillery and to bring down hostile drones.
We've seen the rise of interleaving drone types used to acquire targeting data and the integration of these into artillery fire missions to provide rapid "engagement on detection" capabilities. We've seen the increased use of anti-aircraft artillery, for anti-drone missions, shooting down helicopters (which themselves continue to prove highly vulnerable in contested battlespaces) and even for use in the anti-personnel role, especially for providing suppressive fire in the assault alongside self-propelled artillery used in the assault gun role. We've also seen a massive rise in the utility of dedicated anti-armour units using ATGMs, one shot anti-armour weapons, recoil less rifles, and even vehicle mounted cannon systems like the prior mentioned assault guns.
What's particularly bizarre and frustrating about most of these examples is that they're not exactly new. Virtually everything listed above has been around in mechanised warfare one way or another for over 70 years. The UK simply refuses to learn and/or apply the lessons. If we take theatres like Syria and Iraq into consideration as well we see additional trends such as the use of commercial drones as not just targeting systems but attack systems in their own right, along with the proliferation of ATGMs being used as essentially pocket guided artillery versus enemy infantry concentrations.
The point about drones is particularly compelling as we find ourselves in a situation where ISIS - an organisation bordering on the point of total collapse - has a better battlefield observation drone capability than the British Army. Indeed, while the army has spent the past decade and many millions of pounds trying to reinvent the wheel, the commercial sector has been happily churning out XSTOL radio controlled aircraft with take off runs as short as six feet, R/C helicopters with built in "anti-idiot" measures, and of course quadcopters and their ilk.
To say the British Army is lagging behind global trends is an understatement. In addition to the above, look at how some nations are exploring the use of small glide bombs attached to artillery rockets as a way of significantly expanding the range of their precision attack capabilities without having to rely on their airforce (and at much lower cost than calling in an airstrike), while others are even exploring the use of weapons like the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile as alternative sources of long range, precision strike. The UK? Nothing, not even some kind of ground based, extended range Brimstone/SPEAR 3.
And for all the talk of 8x8 troop carriers and the new FRES tracked recce vehicle, there's no mention of any plans to acquire a dedicated wheeled recce vehicle along the lines of the French AMX-10 and ERC 90 vehicles for operational reconnaissance purposes - despite the proven history of such vehicles - again going all the way back to the second world war.
As such it's debatable if the army can even conjour up the armoured division it so desires, at least not one that can actually operate against a modern peer enemy as it no doubt desires. The level of investment would require a serious re-think of the army's structure and spending, and I'm not entirely sure the army is prepared to have that sort of conversation with itself.
So perhaps it should maintain the light forces? Not that it has adequate support mechanisms for them either, as much of the above mentioned would also be required to support a light division/brigade/battlegroup against a modern opponent. Maybe it could get away with it on the basis of company sized deployments to minor theatres, but the reality is that the modern army would seem on paper to be in many ways ill-prepared to fight even someone of the likes of ISIS if it had to, let alone someone on a more peer level in terms of expenditure and national development.
So would the army be prepared to take radical measures, reducing down potentially to as little as two deployable divisions, one armoured, one light? And (yes, I know I've started a lot of sentences with "and" so far) by deployable divisions I mean divisions that can actually be put into the field with all their supporting cast and all the equipment needed to fulfil their proper functions in a modern conflict, not some hastily bodged together formation that's missing half its kit and down to 10 rounds of ammunition per man.
I'm talking about an armoured division that comes with all the bits required that were mentioned above; operational division recce battalion, 2-3x armoured bn, 2-3x armoured infantry bn, 1-2x heavy protected mobility bn, anti-tank bn, anti-aircraft bn (mixing gun and missile based systems), engineer bn, dedicated ISTAR bn, 1-2 close range fires bn (basically regular artillery), long range fires bn (your deep striking, 100km+ range type weapon systems), Electronic Warfare bn, and then your usual medical/logistics/etc on top. For a light division remove the armour/armoured infantry/heavy protected mobility and insert around 8x light protected mobility, e.g. Foxhound/Jackal/Coyote etc.
Even accounting for set aside battalions to be rotated in and out for rest purposes - much as the navy maintains a high operational tempo with its ships but still has the odd vessel set aside for refit - and the need to maintain theatre reserves in Cyprus and Brunei, the army would be able to slim down its light infantry presence significantly while re-rolling some existing elements. The light infantry division could also pick up the slack of training in the amphibious role if the changes to the Royal Marines suggested in my previous post were implemented.
Or you could do something more radical. Why a division? Why a brigade? Why not take the opportunity to explore alternative structures designed in a bespoke manner for the light infantry perhaps, designing them from the ground up purposefully for the mentoring/light intervention/COIN role, leaving the conventional conflicts to the more traditionally structured armoured forces?
Whichever approach you might favour, it's hard to argue that the army is short of cash. Short of ideas and innovation, maybe. Behind the times? Definitely. Up for the chop? Quite possibly. With government budgets under pressure to shrink in the coming years to maintain the desired path towards fiscal stability it is almost inevitable that defence will have to shoulder part of the burden, especially as other departments that are more vote winning in nature will almost certainly engage in a similar round of special pleading to maximise the leverage they currently have on the government (and indeed some already have).
In that case the army will likely have to face up to the facts and bare the brunt of the cuts. When looking for someone to blame for these it need only look in the mirror.