So, without waiting to confirm the merits or otherwise of a Daily Mail report published on Saturday in regard of an alleged serious shortage in Infantry Battalion Soldier Strength, up pops Labour Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey quoted in the Guardian saying that “the report raises the alarm on the readiness of our military” and warned that the UK was vulnerable to exploitation – although it is not thought the country faces an invasion threat”.
Mr. Healey went on to say that “After a decade of decline our forces are over 10,000 below the strength ministers said are needed, with combat personnel indispensable for our defence and our commitment to NATO” and that “Britain can’t afford any more reckless cuts to our forces, so ministers must put personnel at the heart of their delayed defence review. Our adversaries will exploit continuing holes in our capability. The UK needs a proper defence strategy without further delay.”
Whilst I do not doubt that some sections of the Army are understaffed and that we need to improve the ratio of fully trained deployable soldiers to those who do other equally important behind the scenes support work, the MOD response to the media speculation over the weekend puts the issue into proper perspective:
“Contrary to a report today claiming the British Army is ‘dangerously short’ of deployable soldiers, the infantry is 90% staffed and trained. As well as delivering vaccines and supporting the UK-wide C-19 response the Army achieved 100% of its recruiting target last year.”
The MOD response made clear that it is not true that ‘32/33 infantry battalions are dangerously short of battle-ready soldiers’ because the infantry has 90% trained strength and 31/33 are rated as over 75% ‘Fully Deployable Strength’ adding that “those who are ‘Medical Non Deployable’ or ‘Medical Limited Deployable’ can be for any number of reasons, often mid-short term, such as training injuries or even lack of in-date dental checks, so many of these statistics rapidly change in the event of deployments.
Ensuring infantry units are recruited to their establishment and continually pushing to increase their deployability is absolute priorities for the Army. Furthermore, through the Integrated Review process we are seeking to ensure that ‘form follows function’ and all the Armed Forces have credible fighting units, not hollow structures. But any leaks and reporting on the review at this stage are deliberately stoking speculation because the final decisions have not yet been taken.
Separately, an Army spokesperson said: “The Army achieved its target for infantry recruits in 2020 and continues to actively recruit today. We are confident the Army has the numbers and talent required to protect the United Kingdom. The Integrated Review is not yet complete and any reporting about Army force structure is merely speculation.”
In terms of background the MOD has stated very clearly its view that:
- Applications to join the Army hit a five-year high this year and we’ve achieved 100% of the target of soldiers being recruited, ready to train.
- Overall strength of the Armed Forces has increased over the last year with the latest figures showing a rise in numbers over the last quarter.
- The full Infantry recruiting target was met in 2019/20 and although the allocation of some training places has been delayed due to Covid-19 the infantry inflow was 98.3% of demand.
- The Infantry Training Centre (Catterick) is currently running at full capacity.
- The Integrated Review is not yet complete and decisions about British Army force structure have not been finalised.
Just in case you might be thinking that I am having yet another ‘go’ at press and media please put that completely out of your mind. I most certainly am not!
For the most part, press, media and social media perform a very professional and important job of work reporting on all matters defence – I might add that you only have to read ‘The Times’ story from their new Defence Editor, Larisa Brown this morning and who has been given an interview with Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace following his visit to Porton Down and correspondingly, his warning of the growing threat of chemical and biological attack to see what I mean.
ITV News Carl Dinnen was also given similar access to Secretary of State and Porton Down and reported on ITV News last evening. I have myself been to Portion Down on three occasions over the past twenty years and never cease to be fascinated by the work that Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (DSTL) scientists do there.
Separately I read on Twitter last evening that Carl Dinnen was told by Secretary of State that the Integrated Review would finally be published at the beginning of March. Best go for the second week rather than the first!
Is Tobias Ellwood MP Stepping Out of Line?
It is the job of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Chair to challenge government actions in relation to capability be that people, equipment funding along with MOD strategy, policy and the work of the UK within our various international defence relationships with other allied nations, NATO and to some extent I suspect, with the EU. It is not however, in my humble view, the job of the Defence Select Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood to speak out of turn on individual issues based on what other nations have decided to do without this having been agreed by all members of the Committee.
Speaking in the House of Commons over the past few days Tobias Ellwood urged the UK “to align itself fully with its closest security ally and end similar arms exports connected to the war … The US reset” he said “is very much to be welcomed and poses our first big test as to what global Britain means in practice.” As a personal view and speaking in the House of Commons Mr. Ellwood is perfectly entitled to air his views but, as far as I know, the matter has not been discussed by the Defence Select Committee meaning that, if correct, his comments do not carry the same weight as they might had this been a report issued by the Committee.
Decisions relating to our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia are for the Foreign Office and Cabinet to decide and recommend. If there was to be any future change in UK/Saudi Arabia policy proposed by government – and given the serious implications that this would cause the UK I certainly hope that there will not be – it would then be the job of the Foreign Affairs Committee to look at the impact of any change and particularly in relations to future mutual security and also for the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Control (CAEC) whose membership I might add is composed of MP’s from the House of Commons Business, Foreign Affairs and Defence select committees (plus until the department was recently merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) the International Development Committee.
The UK and Saudi Arabia have a very long-standing history of close relations particularly in the area of security cooperation. Never has that mutual cooperation been more important than it is now.
Whilst I accept that the U.S Biden administration has at this stage ‘temporarily paused’ implementation of some pending U.S defense transfers and sales to a number of US allies under what are known as Foreign Military Sales – this in order to allow the new administration an opportunity to review, should not in my view be seen, as it clearly is being by Tobias Ellwood to name but one, as a reason for all other countries to follow suit. The move by President Bidon is not untypical of a newly installed president.
We all wish to see an end to the Saudi Yemen conflict just as we also hope to see a resurgence of diplomacy led move to further the Middle East peace process. The U.S administration understandably wishes to review a number of deals announced by the former Trump administration in its last days in office but that in my view should not be seen as a reversal of American policy to its Middle East allies and particularly those who have proved so invaluable in terms of providing deterrent capability in the face of increased threats and aggression, security cooperation and intelligence.
CHW (London – 9th February 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785