The army you have

By Alexander Clarke

Defence & WarThey say you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. In 1982 the British Armed Forces had over 327,000 personnel in service from which to man a Task Force to reclaim the Falkland’s; the defence budget was 5.95% of GDP – equating to £120,849 being spent per service-member[i]. However, as of August 2013, the Armed Forces of the UK have a strength of 157,680[ii] and are being rapidly reduced by further cuts, the defence budget is 2.14% (including research[iii]) and equates to £214,358 per service-member[iv]. So whilst the percentage of GDP spend is down by more than 50%, and the numbers are down by more than 50%; the British government is spending 77% more per service-member – therefore it follows those personnel must be the best equipped warriors that Britain has ever fielded and there should be no shortages of equipment? Unfortunately, the reality is that it hasn’t worked like that; shortages are all too common theme of operations and of embarrassing press articles[v] which have plagued successive governments. The question is why?

Why do the British public not accept being told that a faster/better police car/fire engine/ambulance can cover more ground than previous types so fewer of them are needed without organising protests, marches and online petitions running into the thousands – but on the just as important topic of defence accept such arguments with barely a murmur? Yes the Eurofighter & F-35 are better than a Tornado or a Harrier; the Queen Elizabeth carriers and Daring destroyers are better than the Invincibles and Type 42s of the Falklands era[vi]; yet none of them have the capability to be in two or more places at once. Furthermore, better also usually means more complicated, not just in terms of mechanics but in terms of the far more confounding computers and programing: meaning that maintenance and any possible problems that occur will require more specialist personnel/skills, making it more difficult to organise and support.

The total list of programs and equipment which have been cut without replacements is massive[vii], Britain has sacrificed its Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) capabilities, and like the Type 22 Frigates, instead of the equipment being put into storage or handed over to the reservists so it would be accessible when needed; it was destroyed. Practically brand new, multi-million pound investments were wiped out without even seemingly a glance or public second thought. The Army has also suffered, although its pain has been masked to an extent by the procurement of equipment for the Counter Insurgency (COIN) wars it has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq: but now there’s talk of using that equipment for years to come, in possibly, ‘peer war’ scenarios. A Cougar or Jackal is great for protecting troops from IEDs and mines, but what about artillery fire/air attack, direct fire from a tank/IFV or an anti-tank missile? The result will not be something any government wants to see (and certainly no amount of blaming the predecessors will wash its record clean). Yet still there is the situation that cuts to defence are considered the soft option of British politics, with even now reports appearing that further cuts are a very real possibility[viii]. These cuts though are not because the British political class are anti-national security; but because the NHS (£124.4 billion), Education (£87.3 billion), Pensions (£139.1 billion), Welfare (£116.6 billion) and even servicing the interest on Britain Debts (£47.2 billion) have a higher priority given to them by the national political debate[ix]. The concentration for this piece though is on defence, but it is of limited length, so it seems sensible to concentrate on just one problem, for one service to provide an example of situation that has arisen.

What has happened to the nation which demanded “we want eight” when faced with the Naval Race of the early 20th century? Why is Britain as a trend disarming by technology? Certain numbers of personnel are required; certain equipment is required in order to be able to deploy the capability. One of the most interesting facets of this trend is that Strategic Deterrent, the supreme example of technological security is understood to require certain numbers to guarantee it’s at sea readiness (which itself is a cornerstone of its ability to act). However, in the same breath as voices declare that, they will declare that two aircraft carriers can replace four[x] (over worked) aviation ships. So for the Royal Navy to maintain the Strategic Deterrent has to guarantee one vessel on patrol, for this four vessels are the minimum[xi]. Yet according to those voices to provide the aviation ship for Carrier Strike/Fleet Air Defence, the aviation ship for the Amphibious Lift/Close Air Support and support any training just two vessels are needed? This is a future problem though (which could be easily solved by the construction of some amphibious aviation ships, i.e. LHDs/LHAs[xii]) and even then it’s not even the most glaringly problematic one. At the current time the RN has to provide escorts for the Response Force Task Group (2+), the Fleet Read Escort (1), Atlantic Patrol Task – North (1), Atlantic Patrol Task – South (1), Combined Task Force 150 & 151, NATO Response Force (1) and other East of Suez patrols – even if all those not numbered just required 1 vessel, the RN would need an escort strength of twenty-four vessels, with no slack to maintain those eight on station. It has just nineteen. Hence, it’s unsurprising that in a recent speech the new First Sea Lord stated[xiii]:

In the Royal Navy, we cross-connect the use of the entire frigate and destroyer force – and we have to, because of numbers – and to maximise output. In doing so, we move seamlessly from training on operations, to operations. We move from a high end role, to a simpler mission, and back again. And, at all times, high end training is necessary, on the right equipment, to be ready.

We allocate ships to more than one task, by double and triple counting – because we have to. And we work the crews very hard to make this ‘ship chemistry’ work.

This is the famous RN can-do attitude at work, but triple counting a ship is an accountancy bluff which only works because it’s not called – not a safe strategic choice for a nation which is as exposed and interconnected globally as the UK[xiv]. For example, if the three Type 23 frigates had not been sold by the government of Tony Blair to Chile[xv] and if Gordon Brown’s government had kept to the letter of the 2003 Defence White Paper, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”, eight Type 45s would have been built[xvi]; so the Royal Navy, even if the Coalition had still cut the four Type 22s frigates[xvii] would have had the required twenty four escorts in service. As it is a successive governments have cut, in a penny pinching fashion without strategy or evening seemingly considering operations. Would it not have been better to sell Chile Type 22s, rather than cut a class which was the back bone of the fleet in numbers; and to which the figure of sixteen does not represent that much larger an operating cost than thirteen? Why not build the seventh & eighth Type 45s – if six are being built, they are replacing twelve ships; again the running cost would not have been that much more for a large operation benefit? The Type 22s, are to an extent harder to defend as they were a small class in a force looking for savings; but they could have been made reserve vessels[xviii] – for which their size and form/equipment would have made them perfect candidates. Then if necessary the government could have called upon one or two from time to time in peace time to fill in for vessels needed elsewhere or damaged by accident[xix]; or even to provide extra escorts for major exercises like Cougar 13[xx] – options which would have been great for reservist capability & moral. Instead the RN is on nineteen escorts and has no reserve[xxi] – no tactical, no strategic reserve; there are no reserve ships for the RN.

Britain is a nation which depends upon energy and food imports, which depends upon exports and the free movement of goods to be able to pay for that. Britain is a nation with many friends, many dependents and many interests. As such Britain depends upon a level of global stability to be profitable. Now though Britain’s largest ally is starting to focus on another ocean. Escorts can no longer be coasted upon and reduced, without thinking through the strategy; and asking the questions: why is this necessary? And just as important is the decision in the best interests of national security?

However, if defence continues to be an issue which is either ignored or subjected to a misguidedly framed debate; such as a focus purely on job numbers, rather than what a programme delivers in terms of security. How will this happen? Not by passing a law that it must be debated or by having another day set aside a year. It has to be the responsibility of those who are interested, who realise the problem to and who when reading the papers shudder when seeing the words “Britain must act” whilst thinking “with what?” This should be the responsibility of everyone as the risks that the UK and its Overseas Territories face affect everyone throughout the country and the world.

Therefore, it is not just the technology that is complicated – these are large complex issues which do not translate easily to a quick soundbite. Furthermore those who try to raise it are too often dismissed as simplistic scaremongers and the military programmes they advocate as either expensive, ineffective or both – and whilst sometimes that is true, it is certainly not the rule but the exception. The public is understandably cynical about such warnings following the way the Blair government acted in the lead up to the Iraq war. When it comes to funding for military programmes there needs to be a discussion about what we can afford and where our priorities lie; but we also need a mature and informed conversation about the risks we will begin to face if we accept a continuing winding down of our military capabilities and do not attempt to reverse it in some way.



[x] five if HMS Argus which is used for helicopter training is included

[xii], and this month’s Notes Making Strategy & Capability from Politics

[xvii] The 4 of which would have meant an escort strength of 28, a very useful amount of slack; (17/09/2013)

[xviii] – perhaps even the last two Batch 2 Type 22s Sheffield & Coventry could have also been kept by the previous governments to provide the reserve capability.

[xxi] In an ideal world the RN would have 16 Type 23s & Type 45s in regular and 4-6 Type 22s in reserve…an escort force of 30 vessels, that would have had sufficient a combination of flexibility & capability built in to adapt to any strategic scenario Britain was likely to find itself in.



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