JEREMY Hunt has emerged from obscurity to call for more spending on defence. Score 10 out of 10 for a statement of the obvious. The appalling depletion of our armed forces (as raised here on TCW repeatedly) should be obvious to all his colleagues. We lack enough tanks, we’ve scrapped our infantry fighting vehicle and the less said about the troubled new Ajax reconnaissance vehicle the better. The Navy is struggling to maintain its number of frigates at 11, which represents the bare minimum it needs to meet its current obligations, let alone any that may accrue from ‘Global Britain’ (remember that?) or our new Cold War. The RAF currently has no Airborne Early Warning until the Wedgetail arrives in 2023. Its Maritime Patrol fleet stands at just five airframes, enough to maintain one on station. There are another four on the way. Whether that’s enough is an open question.
However, as I said on Saturday’s GB News, from 3:09:30, it’s not just about throwing money at a spending ministry (also known as NHS policy), the war in Ukraine is evidence of the complete failure of UK, West and Nato to deter aggression. Before we spend billions on much-needed equipment, we must rapidly work out what went wrong and fix that too. While the Navy and Air Force at least have operating concepts and some suitable equipment, the Army is a shambles.
As the oft-maligned then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said in his speech last September introducing the Integrated Operating Concept, deterrence rests on the ‘four Cs’ of comprehension, credibility, capability and communication – he added a fifth C, compete. What it all means in simple terms is that the UK must understand the threats it faces, have a credible capability to intercede and ensure that the threat command knows this. To do that we must compete (for influence) at levels below the threshold of war, such as training missions etc. This gave rise to the four new Ranger Battalions. As he said, ‘It is important to emphasise that the willingness to commit decisively hard capability with the credibility to war fight is an essential part of the ability to operate and therefore of deterrence.’
Obviously something has gone wrong or Putin would never have tried this. We, the UK, were training the Ukrainian armed forces as long ago as 2015, which would now be seen as competing. So the failures lie elsewhere.
For a start, post Iraq and Afghanistan the Army neither comprehends armoured warfare, nor has much in the way of capability to do it. The ignorance comes from the dominance of light-role infantrymen in the upper echelons. The capability to defend Nato and UK interests in Europe requires armour. Yet Challenger, Warrior, AS90, MLRS, CVR(T) and Ajax have been reduced to risible levels and Warrior is to be axed completely. Putin saw this. He probably also noticed that the British Army rarely trains at brigade level, let alone at division. So he probably thinks we can’t fight effectively at that level, yet we have an armoured division pledged to Nato. He’ll also be aware that most of the Army’s combat vehicles are in light storage under a system called whole fleet management. While this saves money, it does mean that the amount of time armoured soldiers spend with their equipment is much reduced, as is the Army’s entire operational readiness.
Sorting out this abject failure is not going to be easy. No doubt it will start with the hoary old chestnut that tanks are obsolete and that drones are the way ahead. Perhaps, but few other armies think that. The current pin-up, the very capable Turkish unmanned combat aircraft Bayraktar TB2, is doing great work in Ukraine. But it carries only two missiles. Once they’re gone another plane has to take over. By comparison an Apache attack helicopter carries up to 16 missiles, and a Challenger 2 more than 40 anti-armour rounds. The MoD has highly capable simulations and a shiny new simulation centre; one hopes it gets a definitive answer to this question and then acts on it.
For sure the deep strike capabilities rightly sought by the Army will be vital. Unfortunately developing them was pretty much put on hold 30 years ago when the Cold War ended, so delivering them is not going to happen overnight. In the interim the problems of the almost terminally troubled Ajax reconnaissance vehicle need resolving, which may well mean scrapping the programme and starting again, this time with a clear vision of what is needed.
We’ve ended up, to our surprise, on the brink of a new European cold war. Our Army is about the same size as the one we had in Germany, but with less than a quarter of the combat power. It’s hardly surprising that Putin was not deterred.