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The State of Britain's Modern Army
House of Lords Debate, Thursday 7 September
With only days to go before the launch of our new book on the state of the British Army between the two world wars, General Lord Dannatt had 5-minutes yesterday in a debate in the House of Lords to present the case against the hollowing-out of the modern British Army. His warning is stark.
Here is his speech. Its short, but should be read by everyone with an interest in our country’s security.
May I join other Noble Lords in congratulating the Noble Lord, Lord Soames, in securing this important debate and thank him for concentrating his remarks on the commitment and excellence of our soldiers, sailors, air force personnel and marines. As the war in Ukraine has demonstrated so starkly, it is the morale and determination of those in military uniform which results in success or failure on the battlefield.
But, my Lords, we need to place what our excellent service people do on a daily basis in the context of the real world which is around us. The refresh of the Integrated Review earlier this year confirmed the tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and the need to support our allies and friends in that region in the face of an expansionist China. There is the unfinished business of confronting Islamist militancy in the Middle East and increasingly in Africa. And dominating across all environments is our support to Ukraine in defeating Russian aggression. This, of course, broadens out to our vital participation in NATO and other multinational commitments, and the need for sustained deterrent deployments, such as in Estonia and Poland.
But all this comes at a cost, especially in the land environment which remains so poorly under-invested. In this month’s edition of the Army’s In-House magazine, Soldier, I was not surprised to read this:
“Talk to personnel in any section of the British Army at the moment and there is one piece of feedback you’ll hear over and over again; everyone is being asked to do more with less.”
Some will say, it was ever thus, but I disagree. There have been times in the recent past when there was a balance between commitments and resources – eventually this came right at the height of the two campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and that was with an Army of over 100,000 regular soldiers and an Army Reserve near its recruited strength of 30,000. Today, we are not engaged in major combat operations ourselves, but the criticism is still there: “everyone is being asked to do more with less.”
And is it any wonder that there is this imbalance when the Regular Army is on course to reduce to some 73,000 soldiers and the Army Reserve is down to around 26,000. And the ultimate illustration of “more with less” must surely be the situation in 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery – a close support artillery regiment in 3rd Division – our supposedly one deployable warfighting Division - but that Regiment has no operational guns. An artillery regiment with no guns is truly reminiscent of the inter war years when football rattles replaced machine guns in training.
Now, my Lords, I exaggerate somewhat to make my point. We have gifted 32 tracked AS90 self-propelled artillery guns to Ukraine, but what about the replacement capability? That is what the Commanding Officer of 1st RHA needs to tell his soldiers about It is a Swedish system called Archer. We have bought 14 of these wheeled vehicles and all being well, they will be in service next November. And what about our tracked Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles? There was no money for a mid-life upgrade, so they are to be retired and a wheeled alternative introduced instead. And, my Lords, I ask is the plan to upgrade only 148 of our Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Challenger 3 capability, enough? Frankly, I mind less about the reduction in our manpower than I do about the reduction in our equipment.
Of course, there are those who would say, that armoured fighting vehicles are “Oh so 20 Twentieth Century – the future is with hi-tech drones, clever imagery, hi-speed communications” – and of course, they are right. But the sad, and expensive, fact of life that Chancellors and Defence Secretaries must confront is that the conflict in Ukraine is showing us that the new ways of warfare are not replacing the old ways of warfare, but they are complementing them. A blending of the old chin to chin slugging match is as important today as the hi-tech developments of the 21st Century. Satellite-informed button pressing long range firepower is in lock step today in Ukraine with brutal gutter fighting with bayonet, grenade and short-range drones. There are no revolutionary silver bullets.
We are told, my Lords, that there is investment in Army programmes – the Future Soldier programme, but that this is largely towards the end of the decade. I must ask, is that good, or soon, enough? In any event, that programme must not be subject to further cuts.
In the 1930’s there was the threat of a dictator rising in Europe. We chose to appease him. Too late, we began to rearm. Mercifully, just in time we produced enough fighter aircraft to win the Battle of Britain. But the British Army? Under manned, under trained, under equipped and transported in wheeled lorries, it faced an armoured enemy that had embraced the then new technology of the main battle tank. In May and June 1940, it was defeated in France and escaped annihilation via Dunkirk.
Today, there is a new dictator in Europe. Not just a threat but a proven aggressor. Are we re-arming? Are we increasing our defence expenditure? Are we taking our defence responsibilities seriously?
In 1935, we spend 3% of GDP on Defence. Today, it is not even 2.5%. But by 1939 we were spending 18%, and in 1940 it was 46%.
My Lords, does history have to repeat itself? I sincerely hope not.
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