Yesterday, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR) of NATO, Gen Sir Tim Radford, has warned that Britain’s influence within the alliance is at risk due to its small army size resulting from years of defence cuts.
He is quoted as saying that “The British Army currently has 76,000 serving troops, which is 21,000 fewer than a decade ago and less than a third of the total when Gen Sir Tim joined the military. He expressed concern that our position of influence within NATO, earned through the efforts of Second World War Commander Gen Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, could be lost. Gen Sir Tim emphasized the need to invest in personnel and maintain a balance between technological advancement and military strength”.
Gen Radford’s views were separately supported by those of the former and much respected Chief of the Defence Staff (2013 to 2015) Lord (Nick) Houghton of Richmond who was giving evidence on Tuesday to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and who also criticised the reduced size of the British Army and the lack of a properly functioning reserve.
Lord Houghton strongly criticised the decision to reduce the size of the army and the lack of properly functioning reserve forces. This was an absolute masterclass. He went on to express concern over the inability to mobilise reserves and called it a national embarrassment. The British Army has seen a decline in regular troop numbers, which has become a topic of political debate. Lord Houghton acknowledged issues with recruitment and equipment, including a shortage of available vessels in the Royal Navy and a pilot shortage in the RAF.
Lord Houghton along with the immediate past Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter were over the past two days giving evidence separately to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in relation to the UK’s readiness for war and what is termed by some as being the biggest capability gap ever seen in the country’s Armed Forces.
Open, honest, hugely knowledgeable, full of integrity and yet, someone who continues to respect the level of loyalty required by the military to those in Government that he worked with, Lord Houghton told the Committee no just how it was but also, within the confines of his admission of not being completely up to date, how it is. His use of the term constructive ambiguity when describing whether he thought we had got the balance between openness and the level of scrutiny was perfect and his description of the way the Army so often hides reality behind a newly invented word rings true.
I have not yet watched the evidence and comments made by General Sir Nick Carter in his evidence yesterday because, in part, I fear that as he only stood down as CDS last November I would not expect him to purvey views that did not fit with military chiefs. His former boss as the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace is still in that position and, having accepted the inevitability that he would not be the next Head of Nato, is most likely to remain so until the next General Election. I may or may not do so but the balance of probability is that I will not!
This is one of the very best House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiries that I have followed since I stood down as an adviser to the Committee. Readiness may well be a word that means different things to different people but it is abundantly clear that the UK military will only ever deploy as part of an allied team.
As I have said before, we must in regard of what we have to offer in relation to defence end the pretense that we have sufficient levels of manpower and equipment capability for our needs. We must stop kidding ourselves that others look up to us. We are weak in capacity and capability and I would reiterate all that Lord Houghton said in regard of this in front of the Committee.
That is not to suggest that our military are failing us but it is to say that we are failing them in not providing them with the tools they need. The world has changed, the risks are so much greater than at the time of SDSR2010. Other Nato members are recognising that the level of threat has increased exponentially and they are putting their houses in order.
But we in Britain still believe that we have more than sufficient defence capability for our needs. Yes, we do have some fantastic new technology and defence capabilities but we don’t have nearly enough of them in terms of available capacity. And if Ukraine has taught us anything it is that planning for tomorrows wars is futile if you do not have the capability and capacity to fight today’s!
Well done HCDC and thank you Lord Houghton for providing such huge depth of informed knowledge and experience from your time as Chief of the Defence Staff, for expressing your genuine concerns in a comprehensible manner without reserve as to the appalling state of UK defence capability. Your honesty and integrity are sadly a rare commodity in defence today,
CHW (London – 22nd June 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785