British Army, Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards, Colonels Review before Trooping the Colour, by Rupert Frere (Crown Copyright, 2016)

British Army Too Small for What?

US General Warns that “Significant-Sized” Army Needed

The USA has apparently warned Britain that its army is too small. The warning cuts to the heart of the question: what is the role of the army in today’s political landscape? In the nuclear age, are large land armies needed at all?

RUSI’s Land Warfare Conference in the Headlines

In the wake of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Land Warfare Conference, June 27-28, the press has been full of critical reports of the British Army. Journalists, from RT to The Times, have been quick to latch onto the “too small” warning and have added their own fuel to the fire, citing budget cuts and lack of support for talent in the ranks.

Speaking at the Land Warfare Conference, US General Ramond Odierno focused on the importance of numbers:

Bombs and bullets from the sky may be the first shots fired in a war, but most of the time the last shot fired is coming out of an infantryman’s rifle.

For the record, the first shots fired in the First and Second World Wars were from rifles, and the dropping of two atomic bombs defeated Japan at the end of the Second.

Also speaking at the conference, Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, was more direct:

Firstly, your military is too small. There is no question about that. If you cut it further it will be bad news… because numbers matter.

This cements an earlier analysis by the USA’s Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA):

Significant reductions in mechanized capabilities and Army end strength mean that for the next several years, the United Kingdom will probably be able to deploy and sustain no more than a brigade (around 6,500 troops) in overseas combat missions. Those constraints—combined with declining political will to use force overseas— have already been felt in the ongoing counter-ISIS air campaign, to which the United Kingdom (like many NATO allies) has only been able to make a very modest contribution.

If the situation is bad now, then it is only going to get worse. The UK’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) is under government pressure to cut a further £20 billion (US$26 billion) in defence spending over the next decade. Earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) said that the MOD’s ability to pay for maintenance and equipment is at “its highest risk.”

This has led the MOD to instead consider cutting roughly 20,000 soldiers to meet the new targets, according to RT. This comes only two years after former Prime Minister David Cameron sanctioned personnel reductions from 100,000 to just over 80,000.

General Sir Nick Carter on Land Warfare Today

Tweeting from the RUSI conference, General Sir Nick Carter highlighted the continuing importance of the Army in delivering decisive land power.

Land Power remains decisive in this era of constant competition. British Army is modernising, innovating & adapting to remain so. [source]

But he also saw that communication was essential to successful warfare:

Fighting on land remains a human endeavour. Technology is important but agile, sharp soldiers adept at communicating is vital. [source]

Addressing the question of the British Army’s size, Sir Nick quoted an MOD tweet on its commitment to maintaining the current strength of the Army, saying:

Mass is a key part of deterrence. Platforms, People & Partnerships + placing innovation & adaptability at our core will give us agile edge. [source]

Changing Military Strategies

The nature and purpose of the Army is also changing. Full-scale military invasion is no longer politically sustainable. The protracted police action in Afghanistan, hindered by widely criticised rules of engagement, hurt the Army more than the enemy. With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Islamic State making progress there as well, the failure of that operation can be seen only too clearly.

Now armies, the US included, go out to train foreign forces to fight those battles for them, with air support and special forces filling the holes in Third World warfighting capability. For long-term regional security this may look like a sensible plan, building up local militaries, although it runs the risk of training tomorrow’s enemies. It also means that large invasion-sized forces are no longer wanted and therefore seen as no longer necessary.

While delivering regional results, this change in strategy leaves home defence in question. Recent reports have highlighted the disparity between the UK and Russian militaries. Britain would not be able to stand alone against Russia. Some might argue that that is the purpose of NATO, to create an ‘all for one, one for all’ fighting capability, but a multinational force with different languages, different equipment and different political motivations cannot deliver the same coherence of effect.

General Milley: New Cold Wars

Despite the change in strategy, US General Mark Milley, also speaking at the conerence, was clear about the state of current threats:

We have re-entered a period of great power competition that some thought had ceased since the Cold War

Enemies Within

However, both the change in overseas strategy and the recognition of new cold wars being played out overlooks the rise of the enemy within. Today, Britain’s most determined and aggresssive enemy no longer has to cross the English Channel – Britain’s first line of geographical defence – they are already in Britain. Britain’s Security Service now has 3,000 suspected Islamic extremists on its watch list.

Islamic State has declared war on the West and all of its people – men, women and children – and Islamic State followers living in Britain have started killing them in indiscriminate terrorist attacks. As Operation Temperer demonstrated, the British Army has an important role to play at home.

Hearts and Minds and Hard Drives

Cyber warfare and information warfare have also further broken down traditional frontlines and require an appropriate response, shifting the weight of responsibility from infantry to IT and the ‘backroom boys’. US capability in cyber and information is established, and the UK must urgently build expertise in these areas.

Mark Sedwill, the UK’s new National Security Advisor, highlighted the threat from information warfare at the RUSI conference.

Sir Michael Fallon, Secretary of Defence, echoed the importance of information when he outlined his vision for the Army in 2025.

But what is meant by “information space”? Information is not a separate domain. Information is the atmosphere in which all other activities take place.

British Army Outnumbered

A smaller force can fight today’s battles. But can it fight tomorrow’s?

The five top security threats to the West today are China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Islamic terrorism. For comparison, China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) has 1.6 million soldiers on active duty. The Korean People’s Army Ground Force (KPAGF) numbers 950,000 active personnel. The Islamic Republic of Iran Army has 350,000 soldiers on active duty. Islamic terrorism presents a different problem. As of 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was estimated to have a force of 30,000 fighters, but this is only one part of a distributed global force that cannot be measured accurately and fights asymmetrically.

Against four, possibly all, of these threats, the British Army is heavily outnumbered. In addition, most of these threats have highly developed cyber and information warfare capabilities. In terms of total active service personnel (from all services), the UK comes behind Bangladesh. The evidence shows that large land armies and large militaries are still needed, even if they only act as a display of force. Like nuclear deterrence, the size of an army alone can and does deter state aggressors.

The British Army remains a capable fighting force and is still justified in seeing itself as the best army in the world, despite more American money and manpower. But its image at home is at its lowest level ever – a reflection of years of political mismanagement and the decline of military culture. More spending will not fix that because the British Army is also outnumbered on another front: the media.

Of all the possible stories coming out of the RUSI Land Warfare Conference, most of the media chose to concentrate on one: criticism of the British Army’s size. And the RUSI conference received no coverage on the British Army’s own website.

Investment is only part of the answer. Numbers are only part of the answer. To be seen to be effective, the British Army must tackle the constant negative press reports because it is losing this homegrown information war.


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