Wednesday 29 November 2017

UK armed forces. How big is big enough?

Image result for uk armed forces

The UK army isn't very old. A standing army from the 1700s only.
And it was tiny by European standards. Outside of the Napoleonic and world wars the Empire had always had a minuscule military presence.
Even the large commitment unsuccessful fighting in the Americas was boosted by 30,000 mercenaries. Accounting for a third of the troops at the height of the war.

The Empire slumped back to its 30-40,000 army personnel size until Napoleon. That was a global war. As bloody, costly and world changing as the later ones. The British Army rose to 250,000.
That's why we have the income tax.

After the Napoleonic wars there was the usual economic mass unemployment and slump. The Army fell to 90,000 ten years after the end of the wars. In spite of having obtained more possessions and responsibilities worldwide. The Navy was huge at this time. And would continue to be. Gaining at the expense of the army, as has always been the English way.

The British army did not rise to Napoleonic heights again until the turn of the century and the Boer war. Not even with the Crimean War or Indian wars. Or the endless colonial wars. Some of very significant size such as the Sudan and Natal wars. 
The Boer war was an empire highlight. A modern war that asked just how many troops would be required to fight an insurgency and subdue an entire country.
 350,000 was the answer.

10 years later and outbreak of WW1 there were 250,000 in the British Army worldwide.
4.2 million in all forces by 1917. Only ever surpassed by the 1944, 4.5 million under arms.

The UK took a very, very long time to wind down the military post war. The Marshall money was squandered on keeping the armed forces at war footing levels. Someone had to do it.
And there was only us and the Americans left.
1,000,000 under arms 1951
500,000 1961
300,000 1991

Then the cold war ended and the UK moved into the  modern defence era.
The government liked to have around 90,000 troops ready for anything in the 1990s. Falling in the 2000s to 82,000.
And they needed them. Being permanently at war somewhere. And with two huge, ongoing commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Not a single person that I know in the armed forces hasn't served in Afghanistan. That includes pay clerks, intelligence and human resources officers. Most had to go at least twice.
And as about half of those people I knew were in the Royal Navy, that shows how desperately stretched the army was for those conflicts.

Theresa May is looking to cut even more from the defence budget. 
Some say, including the defence minister, that would be impossible and irresponsible.
But if ever there was a time to cut army numbers, it is now.

All three services have had a ton of new equipment. A period of no expense won't be as damaging today as it was in the 1980s when equipment generally was obsolete going into the cutting period.

The UK has no intention of getting involved in any conflict, anywhere, for any reason. It would take a global event to force us to join up. And although there are plenty of possibles, Tubby Kim and Vlad the Bad among them, they aren't that likely to spill over into a ground war.
 And both won't just be us, or us and Europe alone.

The military, again due to the Iraq wars, never really settled on a post Soviet role.
What is the purpose of the military? How big is big enough ? 
Should our soldiers have more of an anti-terror police role? 
That is what they have been asked to do for many years now. 

Why is 50,000 troops too few?

The UK has NEVER, ever been fully prepared for a conflict. From the starving long-bowmen at Agincourt. To the unarmoured Snatch Landrover police vehicles in Kandahar,  the UK  has always come from behind to catch up once war breaks out.

This isn't a virtue. Its a terrible thing to have persistently wasted the most able, most veteran, most highly trained of our military in the opening battles. So damaging to the long term build up of the citizen armies that followed and won the wars.
 The horrendous casualties at Mons helped ensure failure on the Somme. The loss of the air strike force in France in 1940 delayed the successful army-air tactical co-operation until Alamein.

But it is how the UK has always fought. 

Image result for uk armed forces
Small, professional, highly skilled peace time army. Capable of police actions alone. Or bigger conflicts as part of an allied army. 

So why should we have 80,000 troops on the books? Who are we fighting today? No one. 
So why is our strength the same as if we were still policing Afghanistan and Iraq? 

Who are our enemies?
Iran? North Korea? Russia? ... France ? 
We aren't going to get into it a ground war with any of them.

Won't 40,000 or 50,000 with a decent paid reserve do the job just as well ? 
Wouldn't we be better having a very small, but very capable multi-role, elite force?
 With all the support aircraft, ships, artillery, tanks, helicopters, drones, surveillance and transport to allow a really mobile rapid reaction force to successfully pop up anywhere?

So, how many is enough?

[ May 2016 -  196,840  "UK Service Personnel" 
4% are 'other' and just shy of 18% are the reserves. 
Former UK military personnel are liable for immediate call up in case of hostilities . The regular reserve. On wiki this gives an additional 45,000 available at very short notice. The UK is committed to defence spending of 2% for NATO. One of the very few EU countries that has always taken this commitment seriously. But modern treasury thinking is to try to make the definition of  military expenditure as wide as possible to allow the use of the defence budget for other areas.]


E-K said...

More spent on an armed police, border force and shore patrol pleeease.

Anonymous said...

Why not make service personnel a more generic function - during times of war give them an army uniform and they go fight and shoot guns.

During peace times they are trained as police officers/firemen/ambulance drivers/border force or other service personal supplementing the usual work force.

Our emergency services get more people with minimal extra costs

Sebastian Weetabix said...

IIRC the MoD purchasing organisation *alone* employs 20,000+ people. The Israeli equivalent, for forces that are a quartermaster’s nightmare, is around 600.

The civil service is where the axe needs to fall. Followed by the senior ranks. We appear to have more Generals, Admirals and Air Vice Marshals togged up like the Duke of Plaza Toro with exec responsibility for paperclip policy than tanks, ships & combat aircraft.

Thud said...

Nobody knows where and when we will fight and so we need to prepare, just because we have always started badly doesn't make it right, this is people dying we are talking about.

Raedwald said...

Sebastian I think has the nub of it. It's the ratio of teeth-to-tail tht counts. If the army has total personnel of 80,000, how many soldiers can we put in the field? 40,000? Fewer? Using pay clerks and catering corps cooks (sorry RLC cooks - a commissioned chum of mine in EOD was humiliated enough to be amalgamated in the same bunch as the cooks and arse-prodders)may be doable to man the perimeter of an Afghan fort, but useless for sustained offensive ops.

To deploy two divisions of three or four brigades each takes a total of over 100k soldiers including tail.

Currently we can just about put one division plus a fast-reaction brigade into the field.

And let's hope the navy's nadir of 19 warships will never re-occur. More than ever we need a fleet of 50 warships to protect trade routes, economic waters and red duster flagged vessels.

Wasn't it Haldane who recommended 100k men in the BEF and 100k in the reserves? Not a bad total to aim at.

Hopper said...

SW nails it: rather than spending X billion upfront on an technological marvel of a minefield clearing system from BAE Systems that ends up costing 10X billion to run due to demented MoD Filton Abbey Wood procurement, we should just round up the Filton folks and make 100 of them at a time run across said minefields.

Nick Drew said...

Vital topic, great historical perspective, great debate. The scale of the forces in the 50s was astonishing - you've focussed on the Army numbers, but the fleet retained after WW2 was truly vast (OK, probably mostly laid-up in reserve); and in that decade the RAF had, e.g., more than 60 squadrons of Gloster Meteors! Nearly 4,000 of them! Of which, they crashed 890 !!

Some other inputs ...

What Raedwald & SW said, plus this: if you want (e.g.) really hot special forces - which we do - you need a very much larger pool of (mostly) infantry from which to select. (A rather small % even apply for SAS, and only a fraction of them pass selection & training)

One of the *self-inflicted* problems is of course the pair of mega-carriers built solely to provide jobs in the constituency of G.Brown: how bitter the Navy must feel abt them

The deterrent can't exist in a vaccuum (big topic, I know) - though that long-running issue will be settled in approx 6 months if Macdonnell gets into power (as well as disbanding GCHQ, which will be even more serious)

If we are in for a period of both parties beating up on the defence budget, the strategic imperative is to hunker down with a capability that can renew itself quickly if/when needed in future. Of course the issue with the Cold War scenario was always how short the envisaged conflict would be: no time to raise & train a new army (in the trad Brit fashion, see BQ's post), you'd have to go to the party with what you'd got. That may not be the issue next time.

Anon @ 8:40 has a strong point on this: the key is to hold good people in disciplined units, accustomed to taking (a) orders, (b) intensive, uncompromising training, including in heavily physical activity, and (c) initiative. Plus an officer corps still constantly thinking military thoughts. An object-lesson in this regard is how, err, the Germans rebuilt their forces between wars, drilling with pick-axes and flying gliders ...

and, finally: preserve the Intelligence assets at all times (see GCHQ above, and much more besides)

CityUnslicker said...

My two cents in the RAF gets way too much. In terms of foreign policy damage, randomly bombing weddings across the world is right up there.

Troops on the ground have to interact with the locals, the Afghans and Iraqis I note don't hate the brits (well, the ones we went there to fight do, but they did anyway).

The Navy is great of rescue and also, lets be honest, protecting our island.

The RAF would be the one to scale back, as ND says, train pilots and keep bases mothballed if we ever need them.

The real truth is in 25 years there wont be soldiers, look how far drones have come in a decade - war will be much more like Terminator than we would like to hope!

Penseivat said...

Why not have a 2 tiered military force? A Home Defence Force used purely for the safety of this country, patrolling the shores to stop illegal immigrants by sea and working alongside the RNLI; working with the Border Force and Police Forces to deal with internal terrorism; and operating aircraft and troops in local humanitarian and training purposes. Then there would be the Regular military organisations which could operate abroad. There would be different salary scales to take account of the slightly different roles and a 2 way transfer system from one to the other. This way, the country would have a ready made military deterrent, lower the unemployment rate, and offer the opportunity to learn life and employment skills along with education qualifications which don't include 'meeja studies'. The fitness and discipline levels would increase as, I would suggest, the crime rate decreases.

Electro-Kevin said...

On military defence I think we need to step up drone capacity. Fleets of old tankers with flat tops welded to them and lots of drones controlled from a remote bunker in the UK.

A core of special forces with attack helicopters - bang for buck.

I cannot believe we're cutting back the Royal Marines whilst about to give the EU £50bn and we remain committed to the foreign aid budget.

I just cannot see how a large conventional army is relevent to these times. Any serious war will soon escalate beyond that. Trip-wire deployments need not be with large numbers.

The threat to our culture and way of life is an internal demographic one, not a military one. And a political one. There are those in power in our country who hate us.

I tend towards a further empowered security service and police force but then think the fewer guns the better.

If the Jihadis don't take over the thought police will.

Electro-Kevin said...

ND - I get that about a large pool of candidates to filter out a few special types.

We're going to have to go a new way about this.

I was talking to a REME Commando last night (a reservist having been a regular for 12 years - his specialisation is explosives.) He quit because his wife was treated like shit in the army.

He tells me some of the best soldiers he's worked with are reservists many of whom have never been regulars.

There is a vast pool of talent out there - intelligent, fit and up for the challenge but they really don't want to be regulars.

Electro-Kevin said...

Loads of ex police and military driving trains now btw.

A decent amount of money without a boss cowering over you all day. In fact I don't see a boss for six months at a time. They can't follow my shifts or movements.

SJK said...

I think what's undeniable is that we get extremely poor value with defence spending. Looking at international comparisons, the UK is near the top of defence spenders, but if you look at the numbers that buys (aircraft, tanks, ships, men --- anything) we're way down the lists.

SW is right, sacking 99.9% of the useless mob at Abbey Wood is surely the first thing to do.

dearieme said...

Navy: patrol boats for fishery protection and for immigration enforcement. Submarines. Maybe minesweepers. Otherwise no floating targets, the technical term for aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers, and the like.

RAF: drones plus planes, preferably pilotless, that might be helpful around our shores.

Army: training to include security duties on home soil plus purchase of vehicles to suit same if what we have already doesn't suit.

I don't know which service should operate the equivalents of exocets and cruise missiles that should be deployed near our coasts.

Electro-Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Electro-Kevin said...

I think the special forces types are still out there to be recruited but the latest Army recruitment campaign is going for (sorry to say it) soft types.

A squeaky

"I. like, couldn't run for a bus when I started ? Like, I was weeelly scared I couldn't do the PT. Like... when I started running ? I was weeelly out of breath. ? like my sargin't - well. He wan beside me... now I'M the wegimentol PTI"

Should be replaced with a very gruff

"Do you fink you're fuckin' hard enough, cunt !"

We've got one in our family. Looks like Vinnie Jones, solid, athletic - proven on the rugby and football field. Sailed his A levels, excellent general knowledge and education and is at Exeter studying maths... did it all with ease and a big grin on his face. Most of all he is a hard hearted chap.

So how do the military draw him away from three years of shagging and a pointless career in hedge fund management ?

With their fixation with equal opportunities do they even want him ?

But seriously. I know we have a snowflake crisis, a chav crisis and an obesity crisis but I think the very best of today's young could easily prove to be the very best there have ever been. When we're getting it right we really are getting it right.

My own lad is similarly gifted but not hard hearted enough. He's gone into medicine instead of officer training in the Marines as I'd tried to encourage him to do. The drop out !

Anonymous said...

@EK - with regard to drones, we've spent north of 1 billion on Watchkeeper.

And what have we got for that? One military deployment by two drones over two days (Operation Herrick.) Per flight hour, Watchkeeper is pretty much the most expensive aircraft in the world, although the F35 could yet overtake it.

We've had better luck with the Predators and Reapers though.

I hope the days of large scale wars are over, so what's needed is mobility, flexibility, deployment speed, speed of intelligence sharing and communication disruption.

Communication disruption will be vital to the next war. Take out the other sides automated systems, or better still make use of them - what gets called AI is actually machine learning, and can be easy to confuse, so making it see friend as foe would be an effective to way to inflict defeat without bothering your own resources.

Technology offers great strides to the military, but it also comes with opportunities for any opponent.

The US has invested in E-bombs for example. They generate EMPs without any radiation, so the Terminator battlefield is going to be as escalation between hardened circuits and EMP strength. Of course, your circuitry hardening needs only to be circumvented *once*

At that point they're an expensive glorified art installation.

Electro-Kevin said...

OK, Anon.

We no longer have to provide free military cover for the EU though.

James Higham said...

Nearsighted not to have 300,000 ready to go, particularly with the threats in Europe and abroad. but more we need our navy beefing up.