The UK Defence Select Committee today released its considered opinion on Army 2020 (the plan the MoD published in 2012). So this is a very considered consideration. It is fair to say that the Committee were not overly impressed with what they had read or heard of the government’s plans. Echoing the thoughts of Mark Phythian and I at the time, the MPs concluded that the SDSR aimed to “fit a financial envelope [with]…serious implications for national security”. But that’s not news, and nor is the other significant conclusion one can draw from the critique, which of course relates to ongoing issues in the Ukraine, Syria and any other strategic shock queuing up in the wings.. which is that we are no longer equipped to deal with a shock of any magnitude. Even a Russian military that has suffered the transitional pains of the last twenty years looks across at what Europe (in general) has to offer, and Britain specifically (I would have thought) and will no doubt have concluded that they’re more scared about losing places at top British public schools via targeted sanctions than they are of the prospect of Cameron waving a military stick.
That should be a salutary conclusion for us. We are not yet reconciled to being a soft-power actor. And dare one even think about mentioning Milward’s ‘European Rescue of the Nation State’ thesis as a possible clue to the most sensible direction for the UK to travel if it is going to persist in neutering its military?
The reduction in the size of the army to 82,000 (from the 102,000 it currently stands at) is to be notionally offset by an uplift in reservists from 19,000 to 30,000, with a retention strategy for those being made redundant off the regulars. That particular proposal has come in for lots of Parliamentary criticism and the struggle to reach recruiting targets is probably the biggest of the threats to the Army 2020 plans. The current number is around 22,000. The Select Committee seem particularly vexed by the MoD’s ability to hit recruitment targets.
The issue I always felt with the plans for the Reserve was around the need to encourage or incentivise employers (particularly those with micro- or SMEs) to be flexible enough to accommodate active service, and post-service, in general terms and for those who might return with specific post-conflict needs. I think it’s a difficult ask regardless of the legislative framework, good employer practice or patriotic duty, and this may be coming through in the numbers. The Shadow Defence team is probably right to ask that the planned redundancies from the regulars are now halted whilst the reservists have such a critical short-fall.
The MoD have countered some of the conclusions of the MPs by saying that defence and security are reorienting to new threats, such as the ever-frightening threat of cyber-attack. For an alternative view of how frightening or not this is, check out our newly Professored Thomas Rid’s excellent book on the same. But if we were to accept that cyber warfare is existentially frightening or concerning the fact that defence and security resources are being seen in this zero-sum game is worrying, and unrelated to what we can see on the ground. The increase in cyber threats does not appear at a time (clearly) when traditional military threats are receding. Infact, there is a persuasive thesis to be made that those traditional threats are homing back into view: a well-crafted series of arguments has been made recently around China and Taiwan in the medium term, the same was made (shockingly in terms of its prescience) around Russia and Ukraine by Sarah Palin: it may just have been coincidental, however.
So, it’s stuck record time at Main Building, I think. Are we an interventionist medium sized interventionist power with a force structure to suit, or are we a soft-power actor, with a good level of military capability if premised around a soft-power disposition?
It seems nearly tedious to be asking such a question… when the same question can and has been asked since (pick the date of your choice, Sandys, Healey, Nott, Options for Change, SDR etc etc etc). Might be nice to answer it though, eh?
(Or perhaps we could answer a different question around what is the optimum security we can achieve with sub-2% GDP, which might lead to all sorts of different conclusions and further questions.)