26 January 2024

We need to prepare for a dangerous century, but conscription isn’t the answer


It’s not even the end of January, and 2024 is really spoiling us on the return-of-history front. An Anglo-American taskforce is protecting merchant shipping off Aden. A US governor is defying Washington to ‘defend Texas’. And now a British general is talking about reintroducing conscription.

To be fair to General Sir Patrick Sanders, he’s not wrong to point out that our Armed Forces are currently totally ill-equipped for a real war against a proper military such as Russia. 

As I’ve written previously, successive governments have continually cut defence spending without having the necessary debate about reducing our capabilities. The result is a military that can do lots of things, on paper, but not in reality.    

Moreover, this country is in theory committed to going to war with Russia in the event that it attacks a NATO member, such as one of the Baltic states. Having given that commitment, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that we should be prepared to fulfil it.

Yet dire warnings from Grant Shapps about the rising risk of such a war in the next decade or so are entirely divorced from the Government’s actual policies on defence, and the debate about conscription – even, at present, a hypothetical one – throws the absurdity of it into sharp relief.

Let’s set aside for the moment the enormous political controversy that would attend any attempt to introduce proper, wartime conscription, and the comical injustice of asking working-age citizens, who get such a raw deal from the state already, to make the ultimate sacrifice to honour promises made by their elders, who won’t be getting deployed.

Think about the practicalities. Assuming a future prime minister could call up a mass military, what equipment would it use? How would it get anywhere?

British military procurement is abysmal. We have already sent much of our stocks to Ukraine, and rumour has it have avoided sending more in order to avoid admitting that much of what we have in storage is not actually operational. 

Our defence-industrial complex is also geared towards providing relatively small volumes of advanced kit. Even resupplying Ukraine has exposed how woefully unprepared Western countries are for the manufacturing demands of sustained, high-intensity warfare. Where is that capacity going to come from?

Perhaps British recruits could be kitted out with American surplus (probably a better outcome than it ending up in the hands of tiny US police forces, as now). But that just kicks the manufacturing bottleneck upstream, and adds a transatlantic journey to the resupply problem.

Then there’s the question of whether any government could maintain political consent for deploying this ‘citizen army’ when the costs of such a conflict hit home. Consider this, from a recent report from the US Army War College:

‘With a 25 percent predicted replacement rate, the personnel system will require 800 new personnel each day. For context, the United States sustained about 50,000 casualties in two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In large-scale combat operations, the United States could experience that same number of casualties in two weeks.’

Presumably any British commitment to the new Eastern front would be smaller, and so would the headline casualty numbers. But it has been generations since this country suffered casualties on anything like this sort of scale.

Even if the state could get enough men and women trained, armed, and indeed fit enough to feed into such a meatgrinder, how long would the voters allow them to do it, in the absence of a direct threat to the United Kingdom itself?

There are sensible ways by which the government can get Britain better-prepared for what increasingly looks like a dangerous century. It could work hard to massively expand the (volunteer) Reserves; dramatically overhaul defence procurement; make the hard decision that if our strategic priority is defending Europe against Russia, other capabilities should be downgraded or abandoned.

Better still, it could come up with a proper strategy for protecting vital industrial capacity, such as the manufacture of virgin steel, and go all-out to deliver domestic energy autonomy by accelerating the construction of nuclear, offshore wing, and the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pylons needed to connect it all to the National Grid.

One suspects, however, that we won’t see any of that. A golden rule of British politics is that now is never the right time to make difficult decisions, and it’s a safe bet that many of the older people calling phone-ins to lambast the young for their lack of patriotism would not be prepared to swallow their objections to a new factory or power plant for the sake of the mission.

You can’t create a ‘citizen army’ without a certain sort of citizenry. It isn’t obvious, at the moment, that we have it.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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