War has changed. We need men on the ground, not aircraft carriers

What are the Armed Forces for? As Britain exits Iraq, and Afghanistan moves to the centre of the military stage it is interesting to look back at this Government's ambitions for the Army. In 1998 the Strategic Defence Review, modified by the 2003 White Paper, was clear: “As a norm, and without causing overstretch, the Armed Forces must be capable of conducting three simultaneous and enduring operations of small to medium-scale.”

Despite a defence budget of more than £30 billion we were unable to commit to two. Why? The short answer is that under Gordon Brown the Treasury would not come up with the cash. But since there is no prospect of more cash from this or an incoming Tory government, defence planning assumptions must be reined in further, or the priorities re-examined.

Always dogging chiefs of staff is the balance between current operations and the need to deter war and to be able to fight one if deterrence fails. Doing a bit of everything was always the preferred strategy, but that is no longer affordable; it is time for senior officers to earn their pay and advise unequivocally on which strategic risk to take. It is not that difficult: real and present dangers must take priority over possible future threats.

Or, in the words of the former Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, shoot the wolf nearest the sledge.

But conflict between the needs of the present and future may not be as pronounced as supposed. It is clear enough what Iraq needed and Afghanistan needs: more men, more helicopters, better armoured protection - the same as in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. But what of future war? Do we really envisage, in the time frame of the defence programme, the need to replace like-for-like the technology of the Cold War era for interstate war on the old “kinetic” model? Is Nato not strong enough to confront such a threat? Need we make so great a unilateral effort in the medium term? And what would fighting in future interstate wars actually look like on the ground? The defeat of the Iraqi army in 2003 was a far more subtle affair than in the Gulf War of 1992, which was fought in the empty spaces, not among the people.

War among the people, whether inter-state or counter-insurgency, needs, above all, state-of-the art intelligence and general purpose infantrymen; it needs the type of aircraft that can support them - helicopters not more Eurofighters; it needs ships able to control coastal waters in the way that troops control the streets - frigates not Leviathan aircraft carriers.

Nuclear weapons reinforce international caution, but our strategic deterrent need not operate in its old Cold War posture. The Shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, speaking at the weekend, suggested that Trident's replacement might be three submarines, not four. This is a sensible judgment of strategic risk: there is scarcely a case for continuous deterrence any longer, rather the capability to deploy an undetectable deterrent when necessary.

Above all, we need to be ruthlessly honest about the state we're in. Much of the MoD seems to be carrying on as if we were not at war. It has grown too large to respond with agility, as the past six years have shown, while the increasingly organisation of everything from operations to procurement for all three services together, far from producing the necessary synthesis of the various single-service needs, has become its own creature, promoting, literally, those offices who “understand” the tri-service line. Too often this has little to do with the reality of operations.

Nothing illustrates this better than the scandalous state of our military medical services: we can no longer treat wounded servicemen in the military nursing environment that best speeds their recovery and return to duty. For every soldier killed in Afghanistan half a dozen are wounded, some seriously. The Army is under strength: arithmetic, not just questions of morale and decency, demands that we get our medical services on a proper war footing.

But if the Army is under strength, how can we raise a bigger one? It would be nothing like the problem we imagine. If a larger Army were the MoD's priority, the entire atmosphere for recruiting, and critically for retention, would change. It is far easier to recruit for a growing organisation. “Personnel costs” would no longer be dirty words if it were acknowledged that the man is the first weapon of war.

The cash would follow the minister's and the Chief of Defence Staff's priorities. And once the Army regained its balance, with the right mix of operations, recuperation and retraining, soldiers and their families would find the stamina to stay. Nor need we be nearsighted in our search for recruits. The Gurkhas, though no longer a “cheap option”, could easily double in strength. They are now more able to integrate on operations, and, in places such as Afghanistan, have distinct language and cultural advantages. The recently published review of the Reserve Forces also recognises that the Territorial Army should be used to augment operations as much as for “maximum effort” in times of national emergency. That said, however, no matter how imaginative the reforms, the sheer impracticalities and uncertainties of employing reservists will always militate against relying on formed TA units rather than individuals, except in so-called “niche capabilities”.

Although he failed to perceive the nature of the Iraq insurgency, Donald Rumsfeld at least transformed US armed forces from Cold War “heavy” to expeditionary “light”. We must now do the same. Not only is there a budgetary imperative, there is a strategic one. Future war and current operations are not unconnected: defeat today only heightens the risk of war in the future. Were we defeated in Iraq, as some commentators suggest? The mere question is alarming enough.

By Allan Mallinson, a military historian, novelist and former soldier.