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By Nicholas Drummond

As the Government gears-up for the forthcoming Defence Command Paper refresh, rumours are swirling that British Army numbers will again be cut. In 2010, headcount was slashed from 110,000 to 82,000. In 2021, this was scaled-back to 72,500. The new target appears to be 60,000. If this is correct, what does it mean for UK defence?

As recent events have shown, conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and ferocity. It means we go to war with the Army we have today, not the one we hope to cobble together in 6 to 12 months’ time. As it was in the Falklands, it is a case of: “come as you are, bring what you can.”

In the past, we viewed our peacetime Army as the core around which a larger wartime force would be built. This is now an unrealistic expectation. We no longer have the luxury of time. The force we have at the outset of a crisis is the force that will ultimately be decisive. The reason for this is nuclear weapons. They have eliminated total war but not all war.

The physical presence of forces on the ground can pre-emptively prevent the loss of vital territory. They can also deliver a political and military response that either buys vital negotiating time before we resort to WMD or, better still, prevents their use entirely. But without a sufficient mass able to draw a line in the sand, our only recourse will be nuclear weapons. Or to accept the loss of sovereign territory.

If Ukraine had not maintained an army capable of holding-off the initial Russian assault, Kyiv would have been seized, Zelensky would have been toppled, and it would have been game over. Instead, Ukraine’s Armed Forces were able to inflict a comprehensive defeat. 

Ukraine’s initial success in the first few weeks was crucial. It enabled Zelensky to galvanise global support. A trickle of military aid became a flood. As the war has progressed, Russian territorial gains have been stemmed, while its army has been forced to pay an ever higher price in terms of lives lost and materiel destroyed. It is too soon to call a Ukrainian victory, but it some type of peace deal may soon be agreed. If it does, the bloody nose Ukraine has given to Russia means that Russia will likely think twice before having another go. Meanwhile, Ukraine has established itself as an independent state to a greater extent than it ever has before.  

The credible deterrence of aggression depends on the critical mass of the personnel and capabilities you have before a potential adversary contemplates aggression. It is about denial through presence. Those who are strong tend to be left alone. Those who are weak, or perceived to be weak, are attacked.  

For Britain, it is not a question of being attacked domestically. We are an island, so unlikely to be invaded. Historically, we have always gone out to meet threats at distance to prevent them turning-up on our doorstep. It’s why we maintained an army on the Rhine for 50 years. What made BAOR credible was not what it was in its entirety, because it could never match the mass and might of the Soviet Union, but what it contributed to NATO Alliance as a whole. This is true today.

At the height of the Cold War, Britain had an army of 160,000 with four armoured divisions and an artillery division. But now it is a shadow of its former self. This has undermined how we are perceived, not only by our potential adversaries, but also among our allies and partners. Raw numbers matter, because no soldier can be in two places at the same time. Investment in new technology can certainly help a smaller army to punch above its weight, yet much of the Army’s equipment is more than 40 years old.

In trying to offset the impact of recent defence reviews, Army chiefs have tended to maintain as many existing units as possible, but have reduced headcount within the regiments and battalions that remain. Over time, this has created a hollowed-out force that is top-heavy, bureaucratic, and inefficient. We still think in terms of corps, when we can barely raise a single division, and struggle to field more than four deployable brigades. We are living in the past. 

Phillip Hammond, when he was defence secretary, told me that the British Army is financial black hole that will absorb as much cash as you throw into it. Within Westminster, it is seen as a sprawling organisation without vision or focus. While the Navy and RAF have delivered meaningful change through successfully delivered modernisation programmes, the Army’s Ajax, Warrior, and Morpheus programmes are emblematic of its struggle to evolve. 

Can the Army deliver a meaningful value to UK defence with just 60,000 troops? It depends on what we believe its roles and tasks should be. There is a view within Government that the British Army will never be deployed to fight a ground war in Europe. Along Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic States, Germany, and even France and Germany, are likely to deploy their armies before we deploy ours. 

If we as a nation have collectively learned anything from the wars that have shaped us, it is to never say never. We have a perfect record for predicting future conflicts. We haven’t been right once. This means we need naval, land and air forces that are resourced and equipped for the most likely and most serious potential scenarios. While the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force undoubtedly have an important role to play as we adopt an Indo-Pacific tilt, while maintaining a Euro-Atlantic focus, over the last 50 years it is the Army who has borne the brunt of the conflicts in which we have been involved. 

The problem for the Army is that it has reached a point where it is not able justify what it believes it exists to do to those responsible for funding it. This makes it very hard to devise a compelling strategy, let alone deliver it. Those of us close to the coal-face of modernisation, who have seen this story play-out over the last 20 years, believe that the Army has reached a point where it needs root and branch reform. We figured that this would only happen when it reaches rock bottom. This will occur when it is defeated in combat. With headcount reduced to 60,000, perhaps we may soon reach this point?

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