5 March 2021

A cut too far: why shrinking the Army would be a huge strategic blunder

By Freddie Fitzjames

Recent media reports have suggested that the British Army is likely to be made smaller yet again in the Integrated Defence and Security Review. It seems likely headcount will be reduced from 82,000 to around 70,000, with the money saved used to modernise the Army’s woefully outdate equipment and to invest in crucial areas such as air defence and artillery, where the Army currently has barely any capability at all.

It is true that the Army desperately needs to modernise its Cold War era kit, but it is a huge risk to pay for this by reducing manpower. Robbing Peter to pay Paul only transfers the risk from one place to another, size does matter and cutting the Army to 70,000 would leave Britain more vulnerable to a range of threats.

Furthermore, given the appalling military procurement track record, there is little chance that manpower cuts will help the MoD recover its perilous finances. Since cutting the Army to 82,000 in 2010 the Ministry of Defence has still consistently spent over its budget, leaving a hollowed out force less able to defend Britain’s interests.

For the Army, manpower matters. Simplistically put, in the Navy and the RAF personnel man equipment, whereas in the Army equipment supports the man. That’s why debates about the future of the Navy or RAF focus on the number of ships or planes and not the number of people actually sailing or flying. The modern RAF relies increasingly on drones, whilst the Navy is genuinely able to do more with less manpower: World War II aircraft carriers had a crew of nearly 5,000, in the 1970s this reduced to about 2,500. Today, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s crew is less than 700. 

However, for the Army manpower is its main asset and reducing it presents big problems. To understand why we need to understand what is required of the Army and consider that diverse range of threats it faces.

We currently live in an age where ‘Dragons and Snakes’ threaten us at the same time. ‘Dragons’ being hostile great powers with sophisticated and large militaries. ‘Snakes’ are the pernicious, insidious networks of global terror. Though using different means, both ‘Dragons’ (such as China, Iran and Russia) and ‘Snakes’ (such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or Boko Haram) aim to promote their own authoritarian ideologies and undermine democracies. In order to defend our freedoms and values, Britain must have a military able to deter – and if necessary fight – both threats.

This is more of a problem for the Army than for the other services. Broadly, the Navy does not need to worry much about counter-insurgency, whilst the RAF can use the same planes to strike ISIS as it would to dogfight the Russians. The Army, however, needs different tools for different jobs; the force required to be successful against state adversaries is different to that required to combat insurgents or terrorists. The Army therefore needs both high-end, high-tech forces for Dragons and light elements able to conduct ‘war amongst the people’ to defeat Snakes. There is overlap, but it has limits: an armoured division designed to fight the Russian 1st Guards Army is of less utility against al-Qaeda. Equally, the mine-resistant vehicles designed to counter Taliban IEDs are not much use against Russian tanks.

But there is also a third dynamic, which has recently captured the imagination of Defence chiefs and security experts. This is the inter-breeding of Dragons and Snakes, known as ‘hybrid’ or ‘grey-zone’ warfare. It is the melding together of the techniques of both to create a new threat. These are irregular operations conducted in the shadows, often using new technology to achieve a state’s strategic aims without provoking a military reaction. Russia, aware of its weaknesses, is expert at this and uses discrete forces, cyber-attacks, information operations, assassinations and a range of other methods to achieve its goals. The result is that the West has to develop new defences to protect itself and new offensive capabilities to respond in kind. That costs money. 

However, ‘grey-zone’ or ‘hybrid’ warfare is nothing new, it is a feature of statecraft as old as states. In the fifth century BC Sun Tsu wrote that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Yet technology has seduced us into thinking that this is the future of conflict. Undoubtedly new technology is important, it always has been, from the long bow, to the cannon, to the tank, to AI. But this does not mean soldiers are irrelevant. Ultimately, wars are won by soldiers taking and holding ground, and this is not likely to change. Technology simply supports troops to achieve the decisive act.

A very small British army with exquisite kit will only be suited to certain types of conflict. But as the future is unpredictable, we need a balanced force to respond to different shocks. For example, different types of land force were required for the Falklands, the Gulf War and Afghanistan, and most post-WWII conflict has been counter-insurgency, where technology is less useful than soldiers. Indeed, despite being in a different technological age to the Taliban, we were still unable to defeat them – there were simply not enough troops to do the job. Helmand is four times the size of Northern Ireland, yet at the height of Troubles in the 1970s the Army deployed 21,000 soldiers and stayed for 38 years. In Afghanistan, a country with a completely different language, culture and history, the Army never deployed more than 10,000 troops at one time.

In our most recent conflicts, such as in Libya or Mosul, we have relied on proxies and allies to do much of the ground fighting for us, supporting them with intelligence and airpower and directing them with Special Forces, avoiding using British troops. However, this is a luxury we may not have in future conflict, there may be no proxy suitable. There is also a moral and political dimension to relying on proxies and allies. The first whether it is right for us to expect others to do the fighting and dying on our behalf, the second is that those who are hold the ground at the end dictate the peace, and may do so in a way that is not in our best interests, or that align with our values. In Libya we arguably created a greater danger to our security by destroying Gaddafi than we had when he was in power.  

How do we square the circle of buying desperately needed new equipment without shrinking Army headcount to pay for it? The answer lies in reforming procurement. Rather than succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy by continuing to invest in bespoke kit designed specifically, and only, for us, the MoD should buy proven, cheaper and often more reliable kit off the shelf. The Estonian Army, for example. recently equipped a battalion with CV90 combat vehicles – these may have been second hand, but are still far more capable than Britain’s 1980’s era equivalent. Given that much of the kit we require is made by BAE for other militaries, we would often still be able to ‘buy British’. Over time this approach would save billions.

Clearly there is not enough money to maintain both the current equipment procurement programme and maintain a (still very small) Army of 80 000. However, the solution is to fix procurement, not reduce the number of soldiers. France manages to run a regular Army of 114,000 with better vehicles and equipment than us, so it is not impossible. Soldiers are the Army’s greatest capability, reducing their number further would be a strategic mistake.  

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Freddie Fitzjames is an experienced military officer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.