Thursday, July 25, 2024
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Lions led by amoebas


TO the possible surprise of the ‘Western Intelligence Agencies’ who were quoted as predicting the imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, not much has happened. As I explained on Mark Steyn’s excellent GB News show (from minute 8) that’s possible because Mr Putin realises that starting an invasion is one thing, completing it is another entirely.

Moreover, as any armoured soldier will tell you, fighting vehicles need maintenance. So if an army has been exercising hard as a work-up to an operation, as is normal and indeed prudent, it needs a maintenance break – which also gives a chance for the vehicle crews to rest (living in a noisy, vibrating metal box is exhausting). Such a break also gives generals time to update their plans and logistics people to ship more combat supplies forward. Any armoured soldier could tell you this, but of course the UK has precious few of them.

So few, in fact, that that one third of the British Army’s Challenger tanks are now in or heading to Estonia. (The Army pretends that it has four tank regiments, but one of them is part of the reserves and is going nowhere any time soon. Mr Putin isn’t fooled.) Why Estonia – more than 1,000 miles from Ukraine? Because that’s where we already had a British commitment to the ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ – which is Nato-speak for a (very) thin red line. Similar contingents exist in Latvia and Lithuania, which joined Nato in 2004. (Quite how we ended up committed to defending the pretty much indefensible is a subject for another day.) They’re there to up the ante should Mr Putin invade, going from annexation to Armageddon.

Finding a positive (no easy task), the British Army’s woke training is up to speed. That’s the end of the good news. Last year the UK launched its Integrated Operating Concept with much fanfare. While correctly identifying the major threats to the UK’s interest as Russia and China, it focused on the need to be able to project force around the (implicitly less developed) world to confront the expansion of authoritarian interest. (This is pretty much what we are doing in Mali.) That needed new equipment (Boxer) and paying for that would be achieved in part by scrapping the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

That’s right, to confront an armoured threat the Army decided to cancel about half of its armoured capability, while most of its infantry still goes to war on its feet – as it did in 1916. On the upside (for the MoD, if not the country) the Armed Forces now have a space command and cyber section, previously thought to be the realm of GCHQ, now part of the new(ish) 6 Division, which does sneaky stuff and keeps a major general employed.

The Estonians may feel grateful for another 30 British tanks. Quite what the Poles (proud operators of about 1,000 tanks) make of our deployment there of a light cavalry squadron (the same thing as we have in Mali) is an open question.

Whatever else Mr Putin has achieved he has demonstrated the utter folly of what passes for the British Army’s organisation and structure. The Army currently has about 30 per cent more troops than the 1990s British Army of the Rhine. It delivers less than a third of the combat power. This flaw cannot be blamed on defence cuts, or even procurement failures. It’s the result of a protracted, collective failure of the Army’s senior officers, MoD civil servants and politicians to develop and structure an organisation that is anywhere near fit for purpose. 

The late Alan Clark once (unfairly) described the British Army as ‘lions led by donkeys’. While Tommy Atkins remains a lion, he’s now being led by amoebas.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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