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HomeNewsPatrick Benham-Crosswell: Cold War readiness to confront Putin’s bear costs a lot

Patrick Benham-Crosswell: Cold War readiness to confront Putin’s bear costs a lot


The Times reported on Monday that NATO is seeking to prepare a substantial land force capable of deterring Russian aggression. According to the UK’s recent permanent representative to NATO, Sir Adam Thomson, they hope to achieve this through decreasing the response time of 300,000 troops from the current 180 days to 60 days. Sir Adam is quoted as saying “I am not sure that everyone has realised how difficult and how expensive it is going to be, but it is part of that concept agreed in February of this year.” An understatement that Sir Humphry would be proud of.

Now, if NATO wants to deter Russian aggression (a laudable aim) it must persuade the Russians that there is a credible risk that any Russian territorial expansion will be resisted militarily by NATO and that resistance will be significant. This is precisely what NATO did when it won the Cold War.

But back then NATO was smaller so the places of concern were simpler; it came down to West Germany, Norway and Turkey. By far the greatest threat was to Germany so NATO pre-positioned troops there. As well as the substantial German Army, the British had 55,000 soldiers based there (with equipment and ammunition war stocks etc.), the US had over 100,000 soldiers ready to go, and equipment for another 80,000 or so pre-positioned so that GI Joe could literally step off a Boeing and be in his tank a couple of hours later. There were also Belgian and Dutch forces deployed in Germany and, closer to the Rhine, the French.

I was one of them in the 1980s. We trained. Hard. Routinely we were on exercise driving our tanks around the German countryside for well over a quarter of the year. Territorial reserve units practised deploying from the UK to Germany bi-annually. The Navy and Air Force trained equally hard, and the net result was that UK defence spending was around 6 per cent of GDP. It is now closer to 2 per cent (with armed forces half the size).

OK, so the Cold War NATO was pre-deployed (although that was cheaper as the Germans picked up much of the bill because of coming second in World War 2) and had to be ready to fight at very short notice (we were required to be able to get out of camp and into the field ready to go inside 6 hours). So we were very expensive. On the flip side, the future battlefield had been chosen by geography, so a large part of our strength was the “home advantage” that accrues from knowing the ground very well.

In the current scenario, Russia could threaten the rest of Ukraine, and the Baltic states. The former is not a NATO member, but if Russia did expand through it, the Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians (all of whom are NATO members) are not going to be happy. The Norwegians are nervous as well. The point being that, as it stands, we do not know where Russian aggression might materialise, so to be credible NATO would have to train for them all. That is likely to be more expensive than sitting in Germany.

Understand, too, that reducing notice form 180 days to 60 is not just a paper exercise. Ammunition, food and fuel need to be delivered in potentially vast quantities. (A modern, 20,000 strong armoured division’s war stocks for one day if stacked two pallets high occupies an area of around 20 square kilometres – yes, you read that right). Moving this much stuff takes time – either it needed to be pre-deployed or arrangements must be made to ship it sharpish. And it needs to exist. For example, ammunition is not a fast-moving consumer good, so cannot be purchased at short notice. And once produced it needs to be stored – which is not cheap either.

And of course, it is pointless having a large, ready army if you do not also have the air force and navy to support it. This is not going to be cheap. I guess that keeping our current armed forces at Cold War readiness would cost around 3 per cent of GDP (i.e. half as much as it did in the Cold War, because they are half the size). Our current spend is currently around 2 per cent of GDP. This proposal implies that defence spending needs to rise by 50 per cent, rather than the 2 per cent currently forecast.

Has anyone told the Chancellor?

(Image: Defence Images)

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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.

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