Army cutbacks have as much to do with history as austerity

At a defence conference last week, Philip Hammond outlined the principles underlying the government’s decision to reduce the number of personnel in the Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020.

While many spat their tea and ground their cigars at the idea of another step away from the days of the Glorious Old Empire, it is worth asking whether today’s strategy is, in fact, more in line with how the nation has always fought its battles than we care to remember.

Historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart once recognised British strategic culture as one of fighting on the periphery, acting as support for a coalition force, rather than as a standalone army. Hammond’s statement appears to follow in these footsteps: “Our planning scenario is that we would not expect to be fighting very prolonged campaigns on the scale of Afghanistan in the future. What we do will mostly be done in collaboration with allies.”

Fighting under the flags of allies is undoubtedly an experience familiar to Britain’s Armed Forces. In that sense, Waterloo and Helmand are the same side of a coin. In the future, Hammond has suggested that Britain will be “looking to others to provide the tail, where Britain is concentrating on providing the teeth.”

This seems to hark back to an era in which Britain intervened in order to maintain the balance of power. The difference is that now, where once Britain provided fiscal and logistical support, it now finds itself doing the opposite, focusing on the spearhead – tactical leadership, aerial support, and, presumably, Special Operations.

An issue with this is that it means that the UK must now rely more upon other nations more than it would like, which could impact its own interests. War is political – to paraphrase Clausewitz – so if the UK is to rely on allies to provide logistical support, what does the government plan to do if its allies decide that they don’t agree with the politics of a conflict? Are we to prepare for a modern day Suez embarrassment?

Perhaps this is an exaggeration. After all, Britain has traditionally been able to project strength beyond its numerical size. As Hammond noted “the UK defence budget is still the fourth largest defence budget in the world. And the British Army will be among the world’s most capable fighting forces, even at 82,000.” This is not to be sniffed at.

What many looking at the statistics fail to take into account is the role the unmanned system will play in modern conflicts. While the number of troops may be falling, the number of UAVs, robots and smart bombs is anything but.

The US is leading the way in this new method of combat. As Peter Singer explains, “it is clear that the American military is getting ready for a battlefield where it sends out fewer humans and more robots.” In which case, it can be argued that it is unrealistic for any nation to think that troop numbers will not fall dramatically in the coming years, and indeed, that this is actually a more preferable model. After all, who wouldn’t opt to put fewer soldiers in the danger zone if there was an equally viable alternative?

If what we are seeing is the beginning of a much broader trend which sees the size of human forces reducing but the total number of fighting units increasing, we are posed with another question: what will the role of the soldier be in future conflicts? Suggestions are welcome.

“We are going to have a smaller force at 82,000,” says Hammond, “but it is going to be a highly equipped force with the very latest personal protection equipment [with] the very best and most technologically advanced platforms.”

If the defence minister’s words are to be believed, along with the growing demand for fewer troops to possess a more varied and specialist skill set, the UK will be investing more heavily in training and soldier survivability than ever before.

Other avenues of focus on small-team-conflict have already revealed themselves in the budget. Cyber defence, for example, is still a hot button, while Close Air Support is firmly back on the agenda. Notably, the new AH-64D Apache Block III attack helicopter has the ability to control UAVs as part of manned-unmanned teaming (MUT).

If we are to take Liddell Hart’s view on British strategic culture it would appear that the reforms of today reflect those of yesteryear, particularly when it comes to multinational tactics. However, globalisation has changed how and why armies fight, and this is in many ways being ushered in by the emergence of new technologies as much as by the fiscal deficit.

Ultimately, Armies must adapt. These reforms may just leave the UK with enough flexibility to carry some clout in the world, whether the old school armchair generals are ready to accept it or not.

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