So, what does a medium-ranking power that is still trying to establish its final place in the world do about the last vestiges of its great power status and colonial hang-ups? I am talking about the United Kingdom, a country which has punched above its weight for almost the second millennium, but is now getting a bit punch-drunk. In other words, what armed forces are we looking for in half a generation's time? The reason I ask is that that's how long it usually takes for serious changes to take place in an army. So what can we do? What are we facing? What should we do immediately? What can be done? What's realistic? And all these weighty problems solved in a single op-ed! Do take this with a grain of salt.
As is usual, this essay came together from isolated factors. First, was when I was reading about the fact the British Trident nuclear deterrent was facing parliamentary opposition because that parliament has not discussed it enough. They were not sure whether we will need Trident in 15 years. The second factor was when I was listening to Lord King in the salubrious environs of the Carlton Club in London. The third factor which impacted the thinking was to think about what will happen if a pandemic strikes the United Kingdom. You see, if you are looking at even a non lethal pandemic like a worse form of Avian Flu or SARS, the worst case scenario would be that 25% of the population are incapacitated. Then British civilisation as we know it would grind to a halt. This is when we will need the armed forces out in the street.
Let me start with the second factor first. Lord King of Bridgewater is an impressive fellow, an ex-soldier, Conservative ex-Cabinet Defence Minister (and previous portfolios of Environment, Employment, and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) and currently a member of the House of Lords. If nothing else, the fact that he came out alive and near coherent after the Northern Ireland stint earns my respect! But, one thing which he mentioned during his talk about the future of the British Armed Forces was that it takes 10-15 years to make an army. While it was a political statement he was making, in terms of, "Gordon Brown is praising the Army which we (conservatives) built back when they were in power", it is a truism which many people do not understand. I cannot say anything more about his talk as he invoked Chatham House Rules, but this is such a seminal statement that it is surprising that how many people forget about it.
It takes at least 15 years to hire, train and get your majors, colonels and sergeants up to speed. One cannot put in an advertisement for a colonel now, like you would put in for a training manager or for a sales manager. And believe you me, given the problems and difficulties of hiring civilians for civilian jobs, just think about hiring somebody who holds the power of life and death over his men (it could be in the thousands), with awesome destructive force at his command. You cannot do it. You can call in a mercenary, but mercenary and security companies also need these people, so you will still need trained people from some army.
So, looking at the recent issues around recruitment of marines, navy, soldiers in the British Armed Forces means that we are storing up trouble. There is a shortage of recruits, on all wings, both commissioned and non-commissioned. It is so bad that I have heard senior commanders saying that they hope that the commissioning of Prince William and Harry into the armed forces will force an upsurge in recruitment for officers and squaddies. Ummm, no, it doesn't work like that, I am afraid. The current dissatisfaction with the endless Iraq quagmire is a factor behind the lack of people signing up. Also the reason why it doesn't work like that is that we don't have an idea about what's going to come down our necks in 15 years.
This is where the third factor helps. The days of the United Kingdom fighting pitched battles along the lines of World War II or even Gulf War II or III are well over. Even if there was a battle like this, we need to be out of it. We simply cannot afford to have a huge tank army, a huge armoured fist simply because most of our fights will be against lightly armed insurgents. You don't need an armoured fist to fight air, you need nets and vacuum pumps. An armoured force has a long tail, starting from the people, the tanks, the repair workshops, the heavy lift capability, etc. etc. And no, if the question is to protect your squaddies, then invest more in individual armour protection and smarter intelligence rather than inches of steel. Our squaddies and officers will be asked to fight smart, fight ideologies, create conditions for peace while peace-fighting or very light fights. If you don't believe me, look at all the fights we have been involved in since WW2. None of them really required an armoured fist, not in Falklands, not in any of the colonial fights, and I would submit, for what purpose was a British armoured fist doing in Iraq? You could have done the same business with squadrons of Scimitars rather than Chieftains. But, I digress.
As the third factor shows, there is going to be a high likelihood the British Armed Forces will be asked to be deployed and help out on the homeland itself. This is either due to domestic terrorism akin to the Northern Ireland issue or due to huge pandemics such as Avian Flu. Combine these two and one needs to seriously think how much do we want to punch above our weight?
The problem with trying to punch above our weight is that while it fills us with a warm glow, its economically and politically unsustainable. We are trying to spend like the rich while earning like the middle-class. This can only work for some time before either taxes or borrowings or both need to go up. And you know the appetite for raising taxes for both parties is near zero. So, all in all, we have to move into thinking of our future armed forces as light, mobile forces, rather than an armed force which can handle anything and everything. So, if we try to do everything ranging from a WW2 war to a Falklands conflict, then we will fail.
This brings me to the first point: Trident. While I am aware of the point that we do need our nuclear deterrent and it needs its own investment. It's not like you can pop out to the corner store and order a submarine with nuclear ICBM missiles or Argos it. On the other hand, I fail to see any threat which will require a submarine based missile platform. For example, if the British Public wants to keep the nuclear deterrent (and yes, I believe it should), then the objective can be met by land based forces - with no diminution in the ability to turn any city into molten glass. Besides the U.S.A., will any other country have missile defence in the next 25 years? Very doubtful, so the threat of mutually assured destruction will still be there. Why do we need the submarines then? Difficult question and I agree that we need to think a bit more. I would personally like to see a public debate about threat assessments and solutioning around our nuclear assets.
Some closing thoughts . . . During a PhD seminar at KCL, it was pointed out that the British Armed Forces, since the formation of a standing army and navy, always suffered from a shortage of manpower, whether sailors or qualified personnel or army. So, that sort of put things into perspective. We have always muddled through, but one wonders whether this muddling through is enough in the days of terrorism and highly professional, electronic armies? Attending another presentation by the Right Honourable Nicholas Soames, the ex-Conservative Minister for Defence, I asked him a question, why aren't we using our commonwealth connections? We have Gurkha Regiments, we have a large contingent from Fiji, why aren't we having a formalised link with India, for example? Take the Rashtriya Rifles as an example. At this moment, without exaggeration, I would suggest that they are the best counter-insurgency light troops available (outside the British Armed Forces), with years and years of experience. And given that a structure exists, it would be great to leverage off the commonwealth structure. Remember the Commonwealth is very good in establishing educational, social and cultural links, why not military and intelligence links? So yes, be bold, use the limited resources we have and help out the best light infantry and light touch armies remain so for the next generation.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!