When the Coalition took its decisions on the size and shape of the Armed Forces at the time of its Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, it did so in the midst of an economic crisis. A decision was taken to prioritise equipment over manpower, not unreasonably given the long lead times in defence procurement and the need to preserve British jobs in the industry.
But, to balance the books, manpower reductions of 30,000 personnel across the three Services were required, which inevitably would fall most heavily on the Army. The mitigation of the risks inherent in a 20,000 cut in regular Army manpower would be the recruitment and training of a Reserve of 30,000, giving an overall integrated Army manpower strength of 112,000. Put like that, this seems a reasonable outcome, but doubt has remained as to whether a regular Army of just 82,000 is sufficient for our needs, and whether the target of 30,000 trained reservists is achievable.
The withdrawal of our Armed Forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, linked to a general feeling of war-weariness – and war-wariness, given our recent experiences – would seem to take the heat out of any arguments about the size of the Army at present, but that overlooks the strategic landscape. While there is neither the logic nor appetite for intervention in Syria, nor a treaty obligation requiring military intervention in Ukraine, both situations are stark reminders of how the strategic landscape can change.
Predicting the future is notoriously hard: strategic shocks happen. The invasion of the Falklands, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and 9/11 were all unexpected events with major consequences for our defence policies and capabilities. It is often said about predicting the future that the trick is not to be so far wrong that when the future reveals itself you cannot adapt quickly to the new circumstances. But, now, certain things are changing which are plain to see, and we should change with them.
The Russian takeover of Crimea may not have been conducted to Vladimir Putin’s timing, but it certainly suits his agenda and aspirations. Whether his ambition reaches into eastern Ukraine or elsewhere, only he knows. However, with a resurgent Russia, this is a poor moment for the US-led West to be weak in resolve and muscle. Diplomacy and sanctions may be the right response for now to the Russian president, but he will look beyond those things to see where the real check on his actions might come from.
Russia has long been the ally of Syria. Mr Putin will see the UN and EU as virtually powerless to impose their will on President Assad, and will be further encouraged. There are uncomfortable shadows of the Thirties.
While economies are still struggling to recover from the epic downturn of 2008, there is a temptation to curb public expenditure further, as trailed by George Osborne in the Budget. But to remove further resources from defence would be sending exactly the wrong message at this time. On the contrary, there is a strong argument to recognise that the international landscape is more challenging than in 2010, and consider making a statement that greater military capability must underpin our diplomacy.
The Defence Reform Bill, currently going through the House of Lords, provides an opportunity to make such a statement. Genuine concern exists as to whether we can recruit and train 30,000 members of the Army Reserve, and the current Bill could offer the opportunity to alter the regular/reserve balance within our Army and increase the size of the regular Army. An additional 3,000 regular soldiers would provide an extra deployable brigade – a useful increase in capability in itself, sending the signal that Britain takes its defence responsibilities seriously, not only on behalf of its citizens but on behalf of our EU and Nato allies, too. Were we to keep that additional brigade stationed in Germany, it would further underline our commitment to peace and security.
Lord Richard Dannatt was chief of the general staff from 2006 to 2009.