26 June 2018

Britain’s anachronistic Armed Forces are in urgent need of reform


The British Armed Forces have a long and proud history – but the time has now come for major reform so that they are properly able to serve the nation in the modern world.

There is no shortage of public comment from the Forces themselves as to the many difficulties they face. The acknowledged problems are in relation to size, equipment, retention of personnel and the increased demands on our military.

In November last year, General Barrons, the immediately retired head of Joint Forces Command, said that the army was using equipment which was 20 years out of date and that the RAF was at the edge of its engineering capability. In January this year the current head of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, warned of how unprepared our forces are for the threat of Russian cyberwarfare.

The proposed solution to these problems is almost always more money. And the Defence Secretary’s attempts to secure that money for the Forces is only getting more desperate.

Such warnings are unsurprising, but they are backed up by statistics. Current British (and indeed Western) defence spending is at historically low levels. Although total UK Defence spending was £35.3 billion in 2016/2017 that only represents 2.2 per cent of GDP. This is less than it has been since 1900. Even in 1929, before inter war re-armament, the lowest equivalent percentage was 2.5 per cent. In 1980, defence spending comprised 5.8 per cent of GDP.

And although the planned establishment of Armed Forces personnel has been consistently cut, the Armed Forces are substantially below their recruitment target. At present there are just over 155,000 total service personnel (87,652 army, 33,279 Royal Navy / Royal Marines and 34,000 RAF). That amounts to 234 service personnel per 100,000 of the population.

In 1929, there were 713 service personnel per 100,000 of the population. In 1980, the armed forces were well over twice their current size as a proportion of the population.

Despite these low numbers, the Armed Forces are unable to retain the personnel they most need – trained and experienced specialists. There are 4.5 per cent fewer of such trained specialists than the Forces would like.

While service personnel numbers have declined, the opposite is true of Ministry of Defence civil servants. A total of 56,920 were engaged as of October 2017, almost equal to the Royal Navy and RAF combined.

There is no doubt that Britain will have to spend more money – substantially more money – if it wishes to confront the threats posed by the modern world. It is, for example, simply not possible to have a credible nuclear attack submarine capability with only five vessels of the most modern class.

However, money is only part of the answer. There are other problems which senior officers are not so keen to highlight.

Armed forces, if they are to be successful, should represent the society that they defend. They have, of course, to be trained and are, by their nature, a conservative part of society but they need to reflect the essential values and culture of the society that they serve.

The youngest of the British armed forces was established just over 100 years ago in March 1918. At that time, Britain was still a deeply class-ridden society. It would have been unthinkable not to distinguish, in social terms, between officers and “other ranks”.

That distinction is not and should not be supportable today. Although deeply embedded within British military culture, the idea that a 20-year-old second lieutenant, fresh out of Sandhurst, and with no experience, should be giving orders to a 35-year-old sergeant with three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan behind him is, objectively, ridiculous.

Equally absurd is the idea of having three separate armed services – each with their own officer training college, rank structure and bases.

This partially explains the number of civil servants. No sane person designing defence forces in the 21st century would separate armed forces according to their mode of transportation. Success in conflict has always required the co-ordination of arms but such co-ordination is now pre-eminent.

Specialisation is essential – but such specialisation is by categories independent of means of transport. A software engineer will be essential for every service and should be capable of being deployed wherever he, or she, is most needed.

The separation of the services promotes divisions where they should not exist. This is not a new problem. Any sensible discussion of British strategy over the last 100 years has to recognise that there have been needless divisions as to, for example, the role of “strategic” bombing, the conflict between the proponents of land- and carrier-based aircraft and the proper function and role of amphibious forces.

There are, in any event, far too many ranks. Ignoring titular oddities which abound (within the army alone the same rank can be called a corporal, a bombardier or a lance sergeant), there are 17 separate gradations. Tables have to be drawn up to correlate positions within the armed services.

The services are also top-heavy. The Royal Navy presently has 120 officers of Commodore (equivalent to Brigadier) or above. That is one for every 277 personnel. In 1903, the Royal Navy was the largest in the world. It had no permanently appointed commodores and a total of 92 Admirals on the Active list. Wars are not won by having more admirals and civil servants than the enemy.

So, what is to be done?

First, there should be a single UK defence force with a single, much simplified, rank structure. It would be not unlike the US Marine Corps. It would save money through the amalgamation training establishments and consequent reductions in administrative support.

Secondly, the distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned ranks would be abolished. There would be a single point of entry with the prospect of rapid promotion after an initial period of engagement of, say, two years. This would be a more meritocratic – and, from the point of view of potential recruits, more appealing – system.  It would also make the Forces’ senior ranks much more diverse.

These proposals will, of course, produce howls of outrage. But they would mean the Armed Forces got more bang for their buck.

It will be said that centuries of tradition are being dispensed with. Such outrage is not new. It has greeted every significant reform in Britain’s history – whether it be the abolition of flogging, the end of selling commissions or the Fisher naval reforms before the First World War.

Reform is always easier after military defeat – see Frederick the Great – but it is better for the nation if done in advance.

Roger Stewart QC is a barrister at 4 New Square.