WE’VE just seen the British Armed Forces at their best with their stoical, dignified, unified and highly disciplined performance at the Queen’s State funeral. All that pageantry didn’t just happen: there was a regularly updated plan which immediately swung into action. It worked brilliantly. As the NHS found in the pandemic, the armed forces are pretty darn hot at planning.
Courtesy of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine we’ve found ourselves in a proxy war with a nuclear power since February. The UK’s role has been threefold: sending arms, providing training and keeping a Western coalition of support together. While this has undoubtedly helped Ukrainian armed forces to resist Vlad’s invaders it has yet to force a Ukrainian victory, or even a ceasefire. Instead we’re confronted by a Russian President who can’t accept that his ‘special military operation’ has failed and is making thinly veiled nuclear threats again. Pending a better idea, Liz Truss is continuing to write cheques.
Deterrence rests upon capability and credibility. President Putin didn’t believe that Nato could or would interfere, so off to Kiev he went. Given a clear direction from the then Prime Minister, the UK sent anti-armour weaponry. Again, it didn’t just get delivered by DHL – multiple military organisations swung into action and Putin’s armour was stopped. The armed forces do short-notice reactions well too.
In response to Nato’s belated hand-wringing, the last government pledged to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP from the (forecast) 2.3 per cent it was in March 2022. That should translate into an additional £20billion a year or so, which our new Prime Minister intends to achieve by 2030. The real question is: what extra capabilities do the armed forces need?
The easiest answer is for the Royal Navy. As Lord Nelson said, ‘more frigates’. (Nowadays he’d rightly want more submarines too). The Falklands task force, which was only a part of the Royal Navy, comprised two carriers, eight destroyers, 16 frigates, five nuclear attack submarines and a diesel-electric one plus two assault ships (which carry troops, vehicles and landing craft). Today’s Royal Navy is much diminished, comprising two aircraft carriers, six Type 45 destroyers, 13 Type 23 frigates (to be replaced by eight Type 26s and five Type 31s), four Trident submarines, six nuclear attack submarines and two assault ships. Warships are not cheap. Frigates cost £250million to £500million, destroyers and attack submarines around £1billion. On top of that is the cost of running them and their crews. While building ships is far from quick, the Royal Navy has current designs under manufacture so increasing the buy should be reasonably simple. Whether the ageing Type 23s can be further extended in service is questionable, but they are undergoing a £25million-a-ship life extension programme. Recruiting a few more Jack (and Jacqueline) Tars shouldn’t be hard.
The Royal Air Force is in the throes of receiving its new F35 fighters. It originally planned on 138 aircraft, now reduced to about 60 to 80. No doubt the RAF will seek to purchase more, but of course there is a queue. It still operates about 100 Typhoons. They are ageing and serviceability is rumoured to be a problem, although the 2018 Combat Air Strategy undertook to keep Typhoon up to date. The RAF is planning its next jet, the Tempest, due in service in 2035 with a demonstrator flying by 2027. Advanced combat aircraft are horrendously expensive and, being at the cutting edge of technology, are plagued by delay. While other countries are signing up for the Tempest programme, it’s a long way from a done deal. It’s also possible that the incremental capability increase of Tempest over the F35 may not justify the cost for potential partners. Similar logic led many Nato countries to choose the proven and cheaper F16 and/or F18 over Typhoon. It’s also unlikely that America will enjoy Tempest competing with their F35 and whatever else they have on offer. Still, the RAF has a plan and a structure.
The problem child is the Army. Notwithstanding the enduring high quality of its soldiers and its ability to plan and deliver, the stark truth is that today’s Army is about the same size as the Cold War British Army of the Rhine but can deploy perhaps a quarter of the combat power. At a target of 73,000 it’s the smallest it’s been since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Having gleefully turned much of its tank fleet into razor blades, convinced that armoured warfare was over, it’s now unable to field a credible armoured brigade for a protracted campaign. (An embarrassment, as we promise Nato an armoured division). The Army embraced ‘special ops,’ ‘cyber’ and ‘rangers’. It floated and then scrapped a concept called ‘strike’. It’s scrapping the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle, still waiting for its troubled (and probably flawed) new Ajax reconnaissance vehicle and is spending £800million to procure 141 Challenger 3s by 2030. That’s enough for two tank regiments with 60 or so per regiment. They would be the basis of just one single armoured brigade (an armoured division has two or, more usually, three brigades). That single brigade could be deployed for six months or so; longer deployments would require rotating troops, and those troops do not exist. The entire armoured might of the Army that can be deployed for protracted operations comes out at a single tank regiment. The Army is obfuscating this, using jargon to obscure its weakness.
On the upside, the new Boxer personnel carrier should be coming into service in 2023, although it is far from clear how many of these will be infantry carriers – the current £2billion-plus buy is enough for perhaps six infantry battalions. The Army of 2025 will have some 23 regular infantry battalions (excluding parachute and rangers). It’s hard to see quite what the 17 non-Boxer equipped battalions will do on a modern battlefield. If they don’t have a combat vehicle they will be slow-moving, under-gunned and highly vulnerable. If a few billions more is spent on buying them Boxers they’ll need tank and artillery support too. Artillery is in a bit of a mess – its most numerous gun is the obsolescent 105mm howitzer (everyone else in Nato uses 155mm). Its 155mm AS90s are at the end of their life and we almost certainly need more MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) and something with rather longer range if we’re serious about deep fires (as we should be).
That’s just the tip of the equipment and organisational iceberg. While the Army is undermanned at battalion level its upper echelons are ludicrously overstaffed, having three full generals, 12 lieutenant generals, 44 major generals and 151 brigadiers. All of that to command and manage just two combat divisions (a major general’s job) comprising (perhaps) 15 brigades (a brigadier’s job). There are more generals than there are battalion-sized units (a lieutenant colonel’s command). While some international jobs like deputy commander of Nato and (some) defence attachés require high rank and some substantial non-deploying organisations merit a major-general, such a top-heavy structure is simply not justifiable. The British Army of the Rhine had one full general, one lieutenant general, five major generals and fewer than 20 brigadiers.
Fixing this mess requires the politicians to set out what military capabilities they want. While Ben Wallace has done a good job in as much as he has secured funding, he has not yet delivered clear direction. It’s time for him to step up to the plate.
Even if he does such transformation is not going to happen overnight, or even in the life of this government. That’s unfortunate, as Putin is on the warpath now. The first steps must be to replenish our ammunition stocks, to increase readiness and to work up plans to deploy force if necessary. It may well be advisable to deploy more troops, armour and combat aviation to East Europe.
While it’s easy to say ‘we won’t allow the use of nuclear weapons’, the question is how to stop Putin using them. Shooting missiles down is hard; it’s close to impossible if the missile is hypersonic. Using air power to destroy launch systems within Russian borders looks alarmingly like World War Three. If the launch can’t be stopped the only hope is a malfunction, the only counter is retaliation. Whether Mr Putin believes that the West’s rhetoric is credible is an open question. I really hope that we don’t find out the hard way.