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Can Britain’s armed forces survive their retreating budgets?


November 22, 2017   8 mins

This week was the centenary of the first use of massed tanks in battle. At first light on 20th November 1917, four hundred machines went “over the top” towards Cambrai on the Western Front1. The results were remarkable. Without the need of a preparatory artillery bombardment, which always alerted the Germans to an imminent attack, the tanks achieved complete surprise. On a six-mile front, checked only at Flesquières, the infantry of General Sir Julian Byng’s 3rd Army were able to penetrate five miles into the defences of the Hindenburg Line – further to date than anywhere on the Somme or in Flanders. By early afternoon, only a half-finished fourth line stood between 3rd Army and open country, and here there was a wide-open gap for several hours.

An advance of five miles, even a relatively easy one, was tiring, however. By now the tanks were crewed by men exhausted by noise, fumes and concussive vibrations, or were out of action because of breakdown or enemy fire. The infantry, also weary, could make no further progress without them. The hoped-for breakthrough didn’t happen. The Germans rallied, and ten days later mounted a counter-offensive which pushed 3rd Army back to their original line. German casualties in the fortnight’s fighting were around 50,000; the British Expeditionary Force’s were 45,000 (of which 10,000 were dead), yet with nothing to show for it, just the sense of a “near miss”, a demonstration of what the tank could do in the attack if well handled.

After the war there was continual debate as to how tank warfare should develop – if at all. There were those who saw the tank primarily as an aid to helping the infantry advance. These were further divided into those who wanted as heavily armoured and heavily armed a machine as possible, and those who were prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of protection and firepower to gain more mobility. At the other end of the scale were those who wanted the tank to be capable of wholly independent action, to fight in grand fleets like warships. In the prevailing atmosphere of pacifism in the interwar years, however, nothing was resolved, and therefore very little was funded. The Germans, on the other hand, developed the concept of “Blitzkrieg”, originally a British idea, and would apply it with spectacular success in 1939 in Poland, and then again in 1940 in France2. Dunkirk ensued.

The problem of identifying future threats, both in nature and geography – as well as recognising critical technological shifts and then backing the right counter-technology – continues to dog Britain’s armed forces. And just as in the inter-war years, continuing retrenchment makes it doubly problematic. At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Britain’s defence spending was over 5% of GDP; today it is just short of 2%, and further cuts threaten, including entire capabilities such as amphibious assault. There is no margin for error.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Britain’s defence spending was over 5% of GDP; today it is just short of 2%, and further cuts threaten, including entire capabilities such as amphibious assault. There is no margin for error.

Military purblindness

The services themselves have not always been very intelligent about their equipment programmes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a defence review took place – “Options for Change”3 – the object of which was to remove as much money as possible from the defence budget. It mirrored the so-called Geddes Axe of 1922 (which was in part responsible for ‘industrial action’ nine years later by a thousand sailors in the Royal Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, the ‘Invergordon Mutiny’.) The services’ object during “Options”, on the other hand, was to preserve as much as possible of the status quo, and then to replace it at the point of obsolescence. There was no truly strategic rethink by either government or the forces. Thus the Eurofighter programme continued at pre-“Options” specifications in capability and numbers; the Navy continued with its warship designs for high-intensity conflict of the type anticipated in the Atlantic in the event of war with the Soviet Union; and the Army continued with a number of expensive Cold War projects, most of which were later abandoned as events elsewhere demonstrated their lack of general utility, while at the same time cutting manpower, its primary asset.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no truly strategic rethink by either government or the forces

When Labour came to power in 1997 a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) was carried out to try to shake off the remnants of Cold War thinking and reshape the forces for the future4. This was generally welcomed by the ‘defence community’, but the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, doggedly refused to fund the outcome. The forces therefore saw more cuts, either intentional as part of SDR restructuring, or when equipment became obsolete but the money to replace it was refused. The one area in which Brown was willing to spend, however, was warships, including two aircraft carriers, which would be built in Labour, largely Scottish, constituencies. Knowing this, not surprisingly the Navy massively upped their specifications for the carriers. What was originally envisaged by the chiefs of staff committee as a like-for-like replacement of the modest Harrier VTOL (Vertical take off and landing) force became instead a programme for “carrier-strike”, in the same league as the Americans, one in which we had never previously played, and nor in which the chiefs collectively had seen any reason to play.

Change of government, change of spending

In 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis and the previous government’s effective bankruptcy, David Cameron’s new Coalition government carried out a Strategic Defence and Security Review5 in which the object was to reduce the defence budget as much as was “safe” in order to restore the public finances – “austerity”. The Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), Sir David Richards, has said that he accepted this as a necessary strategic risk – the country’s whole economic future being at stake, without which there could be no defence – but with the assurance that the defence budget would be restored again, and quickly, as soon as the economic situation was secure. Implicit too, was the promise of no more military ventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which had so distorted the budget and pulled the forces, the Army in particular, out of shape.


None of these conditions, notably military engagements, have been truly honoured, however, in part by choice, such as Libya, but also as a consequence of earlier misjudgements such as Iraq and Syria. A modest increase in defence spending announced (several times) this past year does little to redress the balance of risks taken.

A further review was carried out in 2015 (the quinquennial review to which the Coalition government had committed)6; and a further “capabilities review” is currently underway. This latter is being carried out in much secrecy, but in the absence of any major re-examination of defence commitments and policy, its object can only be short-term and budgetary. In August the Royal United Services Institute calculated that the MoD faces extra costs of up to £700m a year in the wake of the Brexit vote7 and the pound’s fall against the dollar (much of the defence equipment the government plans to buy, including F-35 fighter aircraft, Apache helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft from the US, is priced in dollars), and also because of unrealised savings measures. From a straight actuarial point of view, there is clearly a pressing need for a spending review.

The chiefs speak out

It was against this background that on 14 November the House of Commons Defence Committee took oral evidence from three recently retired senior officers8, one of whom, General Sir Richard Barrons, had been the MoD’s nomination to succeed Sir Nick Houghton as CDS last year, but David Cameron chose instead Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach. Barrons, one of the cleverest men of his generation, had been chief of tri-service programmes (Commander Joint Forces Command) and was uniquely well placed to judge comparative and marginal benefits in spending across the entire spectrum of defence. His evidence to the committee was always going to be of especial weight therefore, but his forthrightness went far beyond what previous retired generals, admirals and air marshals have said, all of whom, naturally, tend to believe that it is not possible to spend too much on defence.

“Defence is close to breaking. Unless you put more money in it, it will fall over… The armed forces are in a denial that they can hold this together. They can’t… They are effectively fielding holograms of capability in some cases“ General Sir Richard Barrons, November 2017

Barrons’ criticism was directed not simply at the Treasury (of which the prime minister is, of course, if only titular, First Lord):

“Defence is close to breaking. Unless you put more money in it, it will fall over… The armed forces are in a denial that they can hold this together. They can’t hold this together… They are effectively fielding holograms of capability in some cases.”

Barrons’ criticism of the current (and by, implication, past) chiefs of staff, “trying to hold [things] together”, makes his evidence uniquely compelling.

Also giving evidence was Admiral Sir George Zambellas, until last year the head of the Navy. He looked uncomfortable at the hearing, and rightly so. Because of Trident submarine replacement cost increases and the engorged carrier-strike programme, the Navy is desperately struggling with its manning, and is unable to send to sea enough frigates – the most versatile of ships – to safeguard our trade and give us global presence. This happened on his watch, although of course the plans were laid long before.

We are where we are

Notwithstanding the responsibility for previous mistakes, in the context of Brexit – in which we must redouble our commitment to Nato and also to the bilateral US-UK special military relationship – we are in an especially awkward place, one which only government can now do much about. Barrons’ estimate is that defence is underfunded to the tune of £2 billion a year, roughly 4.3% of the defence budget. This not a huge black hole to fill, and to fill it would be both a highly significant signal as well as an essential corrective. But the (by the most generous calculation) £46 billion defence budget is itself such a pared-down figure that properly to restore Britain’s defences to a long-term healthy condition would take considerably more.

Defence is underfunded to the tune of £2 billion a year, roughly 4.3% of the defence budget. This not a huge black hole to fill

Barrons said:

“The first discussion should be in government: ‘How much risk are we running in the world and what do we need to do to fix it?’ We don’t seem to want to have that discussion. So you end up with risk of a ridiculous, zero-sum discussion both within the service – the nonsense of culling marines to buy more sailors – and between the services, which is why you end up generally with a current navy structurally underfunded, an air force that is holding together with a bunch of very good equipment but at the edge of their engineering and support capacity, and an army that, broadly speaking, is 20 years out of date.”

He cited the example of a Ukrainian force that was destroyed last year in two hours by drones and Russian artillery, suggesting that a British force would struggle to put up a better fight in a similar setting. The problem then, of course, is that the risk is too great to deploy a force in a deterrence role. The sole deployable British division might well be too valuable to risk destruction, like the Navy’s dreadnoughts in the First World War.

Radical risk assessment

At least during the retrenchment of the 1920s the government articulated a clear view of the risk – the so-called 10-Year Rule9, a rolling assumption that there would be no major conflict in Europe in the coming decade, and that the services were to arrange their spending programmes accordingly. It is far from clear that the present government, whose ambitions for “no strategic shrinkage” are certainly not matched by the necessary resources, has properly taken such a view of risk. Nor does the “defence and security insurance policy” appear to have sufficient cover, which, as with any insurance policy, is in direct proportion to the premium.

As General Barrons put it, in words that might well have been used in the mid-1930s when the 10-Year Rule was patently no longer safe:

“The first discussion should be in government: How much risk are we running in the world and what do we need to do to fix it?”

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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