Sir Patrick Sanders says we face 'a 1937 moment'
The war in Ukraine is not a brief and bloody spat in a faraway country of which we know little. Instead, as the new Chief of General Staff General Sir Patrick Sanders warned in a historic speech at RUSI today, “This is our 1937 moment,” as “we are living through a period in history as profound as the one that our forebears did over 80 years ago.”
The harsh reality is that “the visceral nature of a European land war is not just some manifestation of distant storm clouds on the horizon; we can see it now”.
As a result of major state-on-state conflict on our home continent, at a scale vastly beyond our current capacity to sustain, including artillery battles with “ammunition expenditure rates that would exhaust the combined stockpiles of several Nato countries in a matter of days”, Britain therefore has no choice but to rearm: “Mobilisation is now the main effort.”
As it stands, our Army is simply too small to confront Russia. As Sanders warns, “if this battle came, we would likely be outnumbered at the point of attack and fighting like hell”. The decades of cutbacks that have diminished our land forces must end, now: “it would be perverse if the CGS was advocating reducing the size of the Army as a land war rages in Europe and Putin’s territorial ambitions extend into the rest of the decade, and beyond Ukraine.”
Similarly, so much of the Whitehall commonsense of the past few decades must be discarded as unfit for the present threat: the excessive focus on cyber capabilities founders on the hard truth that “Land will still be the decisive domain… to put it bluntly, you can’t cyber your way across a river.”
The Army’s Just In Time system of vehicle fleet management, once heralded as the means to greater efficiency, is similarly exposed as unfit for wars of sheer mass, in which materiel is deployed and swiftly destroyed on an industrial scale. “Having seen its limitations first-hand as the Commander of the Field Army”, Sanders notes, “I think we need to ask ourselves whether Whole Fleet Management is the right model given the scale of the threat we face.” Instead, we must “re-build our stockpiles and review the deployability of our vehicle fleet”.
This isn’t an easy task: our industrial capacity must be ramped up immediately to meet the demands of modern high intensity warfare: “We can’t be lighting the factory furnaces across the nation on the eve of war; this effort must start now if we want to prevent war from happening”.
Similarly, our donation of munitions to Ukraine was necessary, and the Ukrainians are grateful for it, but it’s left us with a huge gap to fill now that war is on our doorstep, with Sanders warning of the urgent need to replenish “our own diminished stockpiles as a result of Gifting in Kind to the brave soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. Generosity that leaves us weaker is no help to anyone: every munition, every vehicle donated to Ukraine must be replaced many times over if Britain is to see itself through the coming decades.
And like Macron, and the more serious American strategic thinkers, Sanders warns that this is Europe’s war: “Given the commitments of the US in Asia during the Twenties and Thirties, I believe that the burden for conventional deterrence in Europe will fall increasingly to European members of Nato.”
American military aid is necessary now, but in the medium term it will be Europe’s job to safeguard Europe’s own security: the Americans will soon be distracted by their own great confrontation in the Pacific, and we must rely on ourselves to meet the great challenge ahead. As Sanders warns, “It will be hard work — a generational effort,” but “this is our moment. Seize it.” The warnings, and the advice, cannot be clearer: now it’s the government’s turn to show that it can meet the challenge of the troubled years rushing towards all of us.