Monday, 28 September 2015

Soldiers from the Sea: Imagining a Future for the British Army

"The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy"
- Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary 1905-1916

The recent history of the British Army has been one of apparently relentless decline. At the height of the Cold War in 1960 the UK had 316,000 Soldiers, many of whom were still National Service conscripts. The service's core purpose was at that time brutally evident, the defence of Western Europe in the case of a Soviet incursion. Now the Cold War is over, and the number of troops stands at 82,000 (plus a planned 30,000 reserves by 2020). It is fair to say that the Army has shrunk very significantly. What matters though is asking seriously if we should be worried by this fact, and if we are then should the decline in troop numbers be reversed?

When looking at what the shape of tomorrow's British Army should be it's only logical to start with an examination of yesterday's Army. By asking: why were there 316,000 Soldiers in 1960, and what were they doing? The major commitment, as I've already mentioned, was to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), and the defence of West Germany against the Soviet Third Shock Army. It is also often forgotten that the BAOR was also an army of occupation, a product of the outcome of the Second World War, with substantial civil duties and powers. In 1960 it's strength stood at 52,000 men of all ranks, fewer than the 55,000 requested by NATO. Although this seems an impressive force it is important to note that the War Office was under no illusions that it would not be an effective force if it were required to fight a major war against the Soviets. The intention was to reinforce this number with some 114,000 troops based in the UK if the Soviets were detected mobilising for war. In reality, even with these reinforcements the BAOR would still have been horribly overmatched by it's intended opponent. Estimates made in the early 1970s were that they could hold the Soviets for 48-72 hours through conventional means alone. It's true purpose was always to act as a demonstration of the UK's continuing commitment to NATO and, like the rest of NATOs forces in Germany, to act as a tripwire for the release of nuclear weapons.
The army of 1960 also retained a substantial role in policing the UK's remaining colonies as many made the, often difficult, transition to independent states. During the Malayan Emergency, which reached it's conclusion in 1960, the UK had some 35,000 troops deployed to that country alone.
Finally there were enough forces set aside for a modest sized "fire brigade", available at short notice and deployable in the event of a crisis.

In summary, the army of 1960 was:
1.Mostly committed to NATO and the defence of West Germany.
2.Responsible for Imperial defence and overseeing the ongoing process of decolonisation.
3.Able to deploy a moderately sized force, at short notice, in support of UK interests in the event of a crisis.

The first two commitments, by their very nature, required a large continental-style army; something that the UK had historically not maintained in peacetime until after the First World War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the handing over of Britain's last major imperial possession, Hong Kong, in the 1990s two of the major reasons for a large British army had disappeared. The 1990 "Options for Change" defence review saw an 18% cut in manpower across the board, with the army reduced to 120,000, mostly through cuts to the combat arms. It's successor, the 1994 "Front Line First" review, saw much smaller reductions, falling mainly on support and logistics structures. Reductions have continued since then, although no single review imposed reductions as great as those under Options for Change, the regular Army has decreased in size by 38,000 since the 120,000 level set in 1990. Many former soldiers and members of the press have lamented the drop in the Army's size, most claiming that the UK is slowly becoming unable to conduct substantial ground operations and high-end warfighting. In the author's opinion this gives the lie to the idea that Britain has ever really been able to do these things alone. With the exception of the World Wars, both of which we fought in coalition with continental allies, the British Army has never been especially good at fighting large continental wars. It usually winds up to be too small and institutionally amateurish at the higher levels of command to be really effective. Some parts of the Army tend to perform better than others and the performance of individual regiments tends to depend more on the quality of individual officers and NCOs, and the command teams they form, than on an effective universal doctrine. Even the comparatively large army of 1960 could not hope to contend with it's intended enemy, the Soviet Third Shock Army, without the use of nuclear weapons and the help of it's European and US allies.
1st Battalion the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment on parade in 1969, part of Britain's large Cold War army
The large Army of the Cold War is now a relic of the past and the future looks set to include a much smaller role for the land component of Britain's armed forces. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that the Army could not sustain an enduring commitment, of an operationally useful size, for the purpose of counterinsurgency warfare. Nor was the force especially well equipped to deal with such a commitment. It took a major effort on the part of all three services to eventually sustain 10,000 British Soldiers and Marines in Helmand province. It would eventually take a combined force of more than double that to begin the process of winning a measure of security for the local population. The force deployed to Afghanistan was neither large enough nor well enough equipped with transport helicopters and suitable vehicles, to do the job asked of them. The UK's involvement in these two wars came at significant expense, with disproportionate cuts falling on the RAF and Royal Navy in the 2003 defence review in order to sustain the Army's strength for operations in both countries. Now Britain's involvement in both wars has come to an end it's necessary to assess what the army was able to achieve in five years in Iraq and thirteen in Afghanistan. Aside from preserving a somewhat larger army for the ten years from 2001 to 2011 the conflicts have proved to be bloody (for modern wars), expensive and have achieved little in the way of furthering the UK's international interests. They have also done immense damage to the prestige and standing of the British Army in the eyes of the United States. I would argue that the army has no foreseeable future in enduring counterinsurgency operations. It's experience of efficient counterinsurgency methods in the context of "colonial policing" is now far less relevant than it was during the wars of decolonisation, when the UK usually had direct control over large native police, military forces and civil institutions as well as extensive expertise on the countries they were fighting in. This would almost certainly not be the case in any future counterinsurgency operation, with the possible exception of the unlikely chance that the IRA returns to armed struggle in Northern Ireland.

This all now begs the question: what is the modern British Army actually for? 

There is no doubt that the success of military operations will always hinge on the ability of the armed forces to effect events on land. While control of the air and sea can be helpful, even essential, to achieving this aim it is their effect on events on the ground which ultimately matters. How, then, do we go about getting the most out of a comparatively small regular army?

The force structure currently envisioned by the government, entitled "Future Force 2020", includes a number of promising changes to the overall force structure. By assigning specific units to regions of interest or concern to the UK there is substantial scope, if correctly exploited, for substantial improvements to the army's institutional understanding of the unique problems and challenges faced in those areas. It also puts a greater focus on preventative measures such as native capability building and defence engagement, rather than allowing states to fail before intervening in a significant (and usually costly) way. In order to make the most of this structural change the increasing investment in intelligence needs to be kept up and effectively co-ordinated with the activities of the regional brigades. Improved co-ordination with the Department For International Development (DFID) and Foreign Office will also be necessary to realise the aim of conducting early and effective preventative action. To achieve the close interdepartmental civil/military co-ordination needed regional command teams, which would provide overall direction and leadership, should to be developed. They need only be small civilian-led organisations, equipped with area experts and put in command of substantial civil and military resources, to achieve the government's strategic goals in their area of responsibility. Returning to the Army, improving our capability for regional defence engagement will mean enduring deployments of small numbers of troops, in and around potential trouble spots. It is encouraging to see that their presence in Africa, an area with a young population and vast economic potential, is likely to be increased. If the UK follows in the footsteps of their successful training missions in Sierra Leone and Kenya there is much that could be achieved at a low cost and with small numbers of troops.
The areas of responsibility for Future Force 2020's regional brigades
That said, the army will always have an important role for when things do not go to plan, when preventative measures occasionally fail the Army will need the ability to go to the crisis and effect events on the ground. Now we can return to the third role I outlined when looking at the 1960 structure:

Able to deploy a moderately sized force, at short notice, in support of UK interests in the event of a crisis.

This will be just as necessary for the Army of tomorrow as it has been in the past. The ability to surge and sustain a capable land force into a potentially hostile area requires a broad array of specialised equipment. There are a few predictions that we can make about the shape and core requirements of such a force, based on the Future Force 2020 structure. The Army's main surge strength seems to be invested in the "Reaction Force", made up of 16 Air Assault Brigade ready to move at very short notice and 3rd (UK) Mechanised Division made up of three armoured infantry brigades on rotation, with one at short notice and the other two available with longer notice. These slot into the broader Joint Rapid Reaction Force, the tri-service structure whose land component also includes 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. It's undeniable that either the bulk or the entirety of any UK reaction force would need to be moved, supplied and possibly introduced into the area of operations by sea. With uncertainty about where the next military mission may come from, Britain no longer has the luxury of being able to pre-position it's heavy equipment and quickly fly troops out to crew it when needed, as was the case for the BAOR. Despite this fact, the UK's rundown of it's military sealift since 2011 has become worryingly apparent. One of the UK's two Albion class LPDs has now been mothballed, the helicopter assault ship HMS Ocean will be paid off without replacement in 2018, RFA Largs Bay was sold to the Royal Australian Navy in 2011 and two of the six Point Class RO-RO merchant ships leased by the MOD had their contracts terminated. In total this amounts to a loss of almost a quarter of the UK's sealift. In real terms the cut has likely been even deeper, because of the demands of maintenance for the remaining platforms. Having a smaller, more regionally engaged and better equipped army will do Britain no good if it isn't deployable enough to "go to the crisis" and remain there until the job is done.

Sealift will become an essential force multiplier for a smaller army in the future
Unless we wish to become wholly reliant on the goodwill of the United States to cover our logistical needs then a substantial investment in military and civilian sealift will be necessary. The ability to move significant numbers of well equipped troops nearly anywhere in the world at a few weeks notice is essential if the UK is to make the most of a small but powerful army in the future. The costs involved in expanding the sealift force needn't be prohibitive either, the RFA's Bay Class cost £130 million each (2006 prices) or about a third the cost of a Type 26 Frigate. HMS Ocean, the centerpiece of the amphibious fleet, cost about the same as a Type 23 Frigate. Also to be considered is that the manning costs of sealift vessels operated by the RFA is substantially lower than that of Royal Navy warships of a comparable size.

In summary, the British Army at it's peacetime numerical height in the 1940s-1960s was neither large nor well enough equipped to actually fight the war it was intended for against the USSR. In the years that followed successive governments reduced the size of the army until it constituted a large, but still conventionally impotent, nuclear tripwire as part of NATO. Since the disintegration of the communist bloc between 1989-91 the army has seen even further reductions, largely as a function of the draw down from it's Cold War posture in Europe. There is now little popular or political stomach for protracted counterinsurgency operations following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the focus in future will become prevention through native capability building and defence engagement, with a robust intervention force available in the event of a crisis. In the author's opinion, to really make the most out of a smaller army the UK needs to be looking seriously at expanding it's sealift capability so the smaller army can remain a highly deployable independent force.

1 comment:

  1. Complaining about the 2 Ro-Ros is like hitting an excess wall. They were never used.