It is pleasing that Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace dismissed reports circulating that military chiefs have been mulling potential cuts in British Army numbers, by insisting that there are “no plans to shrink the army”. “In fact,” he said “my direction to the Army has been to improve recruiting and retention levels”. The assurance by Mr. Wallace had earlier been bolstered by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson who confirmed during the Conservative Party manifesto launch that “we will not be cutting our armed services in any way – we are in fact increasing services for our armed services and will maintain our NATO commitment of spending 2% and more” [of our GDP on defence].
Heaven only knows where all this imaginary rubbish comes from and personally, I doubt very much that even if there was a grain of truth in this it could have come from anyone of high ranking responsibility within the MOD, one notes that even before the Conservative manifesto was published the Sunday Times published a spurious article yesterday suggesting that:
“The Tory Party manifesto would drop the government’s commitment to “maintain the overall size of the armed forces” and instead pledge to maintain defence spending at more than 2% of GDP, raising it each year at half a percentage point above inflation. The suggestion of dropping the personnel numbers commitment had apparently prompted intense lobbying among the armed forces as to which branch will suffer the most. Discussions among defence chiefs have quickened during the election campaign. The newspaper suggested that plans include a further reduction in the size of the army to around 65,000 to 60,000 personnel and the mothballing one of the navy’s new carriers, or lending it to an allied navy. Army chiefs, the Sunday Times article contested, regard the [two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers for the Royal Navy] as white elephants. Navy chiefs in turn have, according to the journalist, joined forces with the army to press for the RAF to see a cut in manpower. Both the navy and army think the RAF’s job will soon be done by drones, according to one source. The change, the Sunday Times suggest, might depend on who succeeds General Sir Nick Carter as the chief of the defence staff. Cuts to the army are most likely if First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin wins the race, while the aircraft carriers are at greater risk if Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, chief of the general staff, gets the job. The Navy hasn’t had one of its own in the [Chief of the Defence Staff role] since 2003, since when the army has held the post four times and the RAF twice”.
I was loathed to repeat the above article but it is only right that you should see what is being suggested by journalists and to be reminded that, when items like this occur, these can and do often cause huge angst by military personnel.
That said, while not giving any target numbers there was no actual pledge to maintain the overall size of the armed forces at a certain figure as had been the case under the Theresa May administration in 2017. Indeed, David Cameron had, in 2015, committed the Tories maintain the army’s strength at minimum of 82,000 although quietly, as army personnel numbers have declined markedly to around 73,000, that figure now seems to have been dropped.
While the next government will need to seriously address maintaining of sufficient Army numbers, particularly front-line troops I share the view of many other that the army now needs to get its own house in order and make itself far more efficient. Accepting that they have brought home the majority of troops formally stationed in Germany and moved then into various former Royal Air Force bases that they have taken over such as Leuchars, Kinloss and Lyneham together with various of their own large bases such as Larkhill Barracks where vast amounts of money has been spent building new accommodation and facilities, I do believe that it is high time we looked once again at what our requirement is and should be for front line troops and whether this now needs to be adjusted downwards. Similarly, what efficiencies are available within the other two thirds of Army numbers that serve in support. These are matters that Chief of the General Staff and indeed, the man that he is responsible to, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter need to address with speed.
In detail although the subject of defence was as usual, lacking detail, it appears that the manifesto has a commitment by the Conservative Party to raise defence spending by 0.5% above inflation in every year under a Tory government, thus continuing a policy that was put into practice by David Cameron back in 2015. Not surprisingly, the Manifesto also vowed to maintain the Trident Nuclear Deterrent capability and also adapt to new threats such as warfare, and establish the UK’s first space command. Nuclear Deterrent.
The Tory Party manifesto maintained the now long-standing commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid although it made no additional remarks in relation to possible changes in how this money would in future be used.
One of the most important remarks made in the Conservative Party manifesto was a promise to introduce new legislation to tackle vexatious legal claims made against veterans.
Having fallen well down the list of what governments deem to be priorities in terms of spending is of course a matter of great regret. That defence even gets a mention in party manifesto’s is something of a miracle but we must be grateful for what little we get.
Labour Party defence policy which I touched on a couple of weeks again when lambasting its leaders’ views on NATO is hardly worth wasting time on. In terms of detail all that I can find is a commitment to maintain spending to at least 2% of GDP (1.8% in real terms if additions such as pensions were removed) and to initiate a strategic defence and security review.
Lib-Dem defence policy is also to maintain spending on defence at the current 2% of GDP and also to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent capability. However, they are saying that rather than implementing the Trident system with four Dreadnought submarines, they would have three.
Separately, critical skills shortages in the armed forces would be addressed by giving graduates in Stem subjects £10,000 one-off payments to become armed forces engineers.
Whilst I have little pleasure in writing anything in regard of defence in relation to the Scottish Nationalist Party, I observe that the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has seemingly issued a list of demands that must be met by Labour if she is to agree to a confidence and supply arrangement with Jeremy Corbyn in the event of a hung parliament.
Speaking on Sky News yesterday Ms Sturgeon said she was “absolutely firm” that scrapping Britain’s nuclear deterrent was a “red line” for her. “I wouldn’t be prepared to press a nuclear button that would kill potentially millions, tens of millions, of people,” she hypothesized, adding: “There is also the opportunity costs of Trident – the billions, tens of billions, that are required to renew Trident in my view are better spent on stronger, conventional defence that is more effective to protect our country but also hospitals and schools and better social security provision. And these are the choices that we should be thinking very carefully about.” It was however pleasing to see the Daily Telegraph quote the GMB union saying that “Ms Sturgeon’s stance as a “campaign for mass unemployment”.
CHW (London – 25th November 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785