Why is the UK shrinking its army in response to Ukraine?
Ministers are invoking dubious analysis to justify cutbacks
It’s always handy when global developments happen to vindicate the exact policy you were embarking upon before they occurred. But such claimed connections are seldom true.
The war in Ukraine has upended strategic thinking in Europe. Countries such as Germany are planning to ramp up defence spending and are reconsidering policies, such as shuttering nuclear power stations, which would have left them even more dependent on Russia.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Unfortunately, these shockwaves seem to have petered out somewhere over the English Channel. Instead of reconsidering the UK’s military posture, the Government is instead trying to insist that the situation in Ukraine vindicates its latest round of planned defence cuts.
Speaking in Parliament this week, James Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, argued:
Although we should be very careful about drawing firm conclusions from the footage coming out of Ukraine, the state of the information war being what it is, it does seem to be the case that the Ukrainians are making good use of small, well-equipped infantry units.
But Heappey’s position is, on a broader level, nonsensical. The key to success has not just been possessing such formations, but having enough of those formations. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies, Kyiv has over 125,000 ground troops. For comparison, the current Integrated Review plans to slash the strength of the British Army’s infantry section to 19,400 soldiers, backed by inadequate armour.
It might be the case that, soldier for soldier, such a force could handily outfight the Russians. That no longer seems as high a bar as it did a couple of months ago. But it could not fight them in several places at once. The logic of such small numbers is the expectation that British forces will operate largely as auxiliaries for an allied — which means American — war effort.
This attitude reflects another long-running vice in British defence thinking. Heappey says that:
Time and again, the UK has insisted on top-of-the-range kit (of the sort the Americans get), but without the budget to sustain numbers. That means every new generation of ships et al is smaller than the last one. Each ship can indeed do a lot more than its predecessors, but the overall fleet can be in fewer places at once.
Heappey’s thinking suggests the same logic afflicts the Army. Ministers should stop pretending that a defence approach focused on getting costs down is going to deliver a stronger and more effective Armed Forces.
Why? Because those clever little gels and cheps at the Treasury have decided that the UK can’t afford the premium for even a 3rd party fire and theft policy against an uncertain future, so have told the politicians to find a reason not to pay one. They’ve never been wrong, or at least, never been called up to fight when they have been wrong (every time), so that’s all right.
It was ever thus
1) It was not until March 1939 that the Treasury would let the Army order anti-tank guns since it felt that the Army should never fight European armies and Britain should rely on the RAF. A year later there was an agreed requirement for over 10,000 anti-tank guns but only a 100 a month being produced.
2) From the 1950s until the first Gulf War HMT argued consistently that since the Army should never deploy tanks outside Europe there was no need to make sure they could operate in Middle Eastern temperatures. This despite the supply of oil from the Middle East being the known Achilles heel of western strategy.
and so on. I fear there is such a cultural gap between the two organisations that the Army will always suffer disproportionate cuts compared to the Navy and RAF in peacetime and then have to be expanded too hastily in emergencies.
Was it not the late A.J.P. Taylor who said the “definition of a Great Power is one that can fight a Great War”?
Well, we haven’t been able to do so since 1916, so we must expect the Army to shrink accordingly.
However the recent deployment of ‘wimmin’ in the Front Line may just improve its current lamentable combat effectiveness.
What’s wrong with women on the front line? The YPJ for the Kurds are very effective front line soldiers
Ask the Israelis and the US Marines, and also use your imagination!
If I was to spell it out on UnHerd I would be ‘cancelled’.
Israel has women serving on the front line, and has mandatory national service for females. The main reason for women not joining regiments such as the SAS is to prevent romantic relationships forming
Less than 4% of Israeli women in the combat arms. Virtually none in the infantry.
May I ask, have you ever been an Infantry Officer and served in an active service theatre?
Finally look at women in HM Submarines, an absolute disgrace, amusingly described as “Up Periscope “!
For bedtime thought just think of how they actually urinate and defecate whilst on a fighting patrol, and how the rest of the patrol are likely to act. Plus never forget the 28 day curse, “nature does nothing without a purpose “. *
No, there are no women in the SAS because they haven’t a hope in hell of passing selection.
Most wouldn’t I agree, but that isn’t the reason they’re barred from trying
Little more than indisciplined terrorists.
You for some reason miss the Second World War. France actually provided many more troops than Great Britain in the First.
During the 1944 Normandy landings, the US landed 73,000 troops Britain and Canada 83,000. Elsewhere it states 14,000 Canadians, in other words there were almost as many British as American.
However the broader point is that given the pretentions of Britain to still be at least a middle ranking power, there is far too small an Army and Navy.
Britain’s entire effort in WW II was paid for by the USA. We were a bankrupt, belligerent, supplicant, suffering from a severe case of self-delusion.
By 1916 we had a many men
in the field as the French.
…we have a moat, so we need first and foremost to be a sea and air power…and we are definitely moving in the right direction in both those areas. On the ground, we need limited numbers of highly effective land troops for expeditionary warfare, and to stiffen and support…and indeed train and equip…our allies….
…but we can, and should, leave tank war on the Central Front to Germany…who finally seem to have woken up and smelt the coffee.
This is the basis on which we won the “first” world war between 1757/63…and the “second” between 1792/1815…and created the largest Empire the world has ever seen. In our history, the events of the last hundred years from the BEF to the BAOR are an aberration.
Our route was to maintain “Command of the Ocean” …which we have clearly ceded to the USA…but where we can still do a great deal more to our own benefit and that of our allies than practically anyone else but them.
Your forgot to mention that much of our victory in both WWI 1756-3 (5) and WWII 1792-1815 was due to our payment of simply enormous subsidies to our European ‘Allies’ to do the ground battle and serious killing in Europe.
We tried this again in 1914-16, but sadly ran out of cash, and the game was up!
…quite right…and indeed in the current situation we are again subsidizing the ones doing the fighting, which is exactly what I would advocate. But we need the Command of the Ocean (including the skies over it) to get the money and the kit there…and enough highly trained soldiers to explain it’s use and help out in areas where our professionalism and long experience are useful. But not enough to be tempted to recreate the BAOR…
3000 people crossed that ‘moat’ illegally in rubber dinghies in the last month. We might need a bigger boat…
H.M.S. Hood perhaps?
The SBS for example?
Er, we might need a bigger moat.
The short answer is so that we can spend more on ‘our precious NHS’. Clearly defence spending needs to increase to 3% of GNP to provide adequate defences against advanced weapons and cyber-war, never mind manpower, but that’s not going to happen.
Crap kit is just part of a long British Army history…
Like the dreaded SA 80.
Heappey’s position on every level is nonsensical. Planning to fight the last war before it is the last war is progress of a sort, but it might be better to wait until it is the last war, and some analysis of why it went the way it did has been carried out so we know how to fight it. Still, so long as our next opponent doesn’t learn the lessons of better joint and combined arms operation, synchronising intelligence, infantry, armour, artillery, and logistical support, we’ll be alright. Numbers for engaging in 2 conflicts matter less than the ability to bring up reserves, replace casualties, and sustain longrunning operations with roulement. And, as one military analyst remarked, quantity has a quality all of its own. The French went the way of light mobile infantry units in their pre-WW1 doctrine of ‘attacque a l’outrance’. It didn’t turn too well at Verdun or in the trenches.
If we’re going to be U.S puppet our armed forces may as well look the part.
A US ally, which is not the same thing, and in any case rather better than being a Nazi or Soviet puppet, which were two possible 20th century alternatives.
I cannot foresee an occasion on which Britain would go to war against another great power, in which it was not operating as part of a wider coalition. Given this, I think it’s reasonable that British armed forces are tailored to provide the capabilities our allies may lack, just as they will supply those aspects the British military is weaker in. We should not be looking to build a redundant ground force when this could be better provided by our allies.
Neither can I but our collective strength and willingness to fight must be an effective deterrent. At present neither our strength nor the willingness amongst some of our so-called allies exist.
Arguably our response to Ukraine demonstrates why it makes sense to reduce Army numbers. Post Afghanistan/Iraq, we’re not willing to commit British soldiers to high intensity combat (or even counterinsurgency warfare) for fear of casualties mother than in the direct defence of the UK. As an island, any existential threat to the UK must come by air, sea or cyber and so these are the areas in which to invest for our defence. We need to meet our NATO commitments but should do so in those environments. The land threat should be countered by our continental allies with territory to defend and who can forward mount defensive formations indefinitely. We don’t need a new BAOR – we just need Germany to provide properly for its own defence.
The Channel and the Navy are not enough, especially if a hegemonic power were to gain air superiority, as the Germans might well have done in 1940.
It is erroneous to think that that Britain rarely fought wars on the Continent. It did so often, albeit in alliance with other powers and also subsidising them. Marlborough and Wellington are obvious examples.
I’m all for making the best use of military resources, but it seems rather cowardly as well as foolish to leave the Germans to do it, especially given their recent pacifist record.
and having a nuclear capability certainly makes us feel harder than others, right?
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe