The British military has been horribly overstretched by the wars of the Labour years, says Max Hastings. But the Tories’ only option will be to cut further still. Hideous decisions lie ahead

Britain’s armed forces sometimes suppose that they get a better break from Conservative governments than Labour ones, but their recent experience suggests otherwise. After 11 years of Margaret Thatcher, it proved necessary to cannibalise the entire armoured resources of the Rhine Army to deploy a weak division for the First Gulf War. Today, the services welcome the prospect of a Tory government after a long period of policy paralysis. But they are also braced for bad news. They know the Tories intend brutally to reduce defence spending.

David Cameron has committed himself to protecting the health and overseas aid budgets, while reducing government expenditure elsewhere by at least 10 per cent. A new defence secretary will take over a department with a huge accumulated deficit. Budget cuts will be rendered more painful because for the past two years the current government has cynically pushed back payment of some big bills until after the election, when they will arrive with ‘final demand’ stickers. The core annual defence budget is around £34 billion. A further £10-20 billion is adrift on programmes authorised but unfunded.

Thus there is a crisis, which cannot possibly be resolved by efficiency savings, salami-slicing or the familiar expedient of distributing pain between all three services. Some very big programmes must be axed. When the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review is complete, and cuts implemented, Britain’s armed forces are certain to look quite different from what they are today. The only issue at stake is where the axe will fall most heavily.

At the heart of bitter current dissention among the top brass is the belief that they are now fighting for the viability, even the existence of their own services. Politicians of all parties urge service chiefs that they would better serve the interests of the armed forces by presenting a common front. This is a wholly unrealistic expectation when so much is at stake, even before personality clashes are added.

This week, Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute offered a projection that, if the MoD takes its share of pain in the new world of Britain’s colossal fiscal deficit, numbers of uniformed service personnel might fall by 20 per cent to 142,000 within the space of six years. He also believes the defence budget will fall by between 15 per cent and 20 per cent over the same period. As General Lord Guthrie points out, the armed forces are already so shrunken that further cuts will be imposed upon a perilously low base.

Even if a new Tory defence secretary — almost certainly Liam Fox — displays the wisdom of Socrates, he cannot escape doing harsh things. He is stuck with some massive commitments. The RAF is buying 232 Typhoon Eurofighters at a cost of £20 billion. Many are likely to go straight from the factory into mothballs, for lack of cash to man or fly them, but the contract is too expensive to cancel.

The Royal Navy took a perilous gamble by staking its future upon two big new aircraft-carriers, with 150 American-built F-35 aircraft to fly off them, at a total cost of over £20 billion. The money is simply not there to finance two behemoths without crippling the army. For present and likely future tasks, combating piracy not least among them, the navy needs more small, cheap-and-cheerful frigates. The most obvious single step towards closing the defence funding gap is to cancel the carriers and accompanying aircraft.

Opponents of draconian cuts in navy and RAF strengths cite the importance of a balanced strategy, which addresses potential future threats as well as current commitments, dominated by Afghanistan. The problem with this approach, admirably sensible in theory, is that it threatens to leave Britain’s forces balanced only in inadequacy.

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My own strongly held view, shared by some much cleverer people on both sides of the Atlantic, is that the only credible way forward is to undertake a drastic restructuring, which explicitly prioritises ground forces. We should plump for a properly funded fighting army with appropriate support, including helicopters and transport aircraft, and a big commitment to unmanned drones. In a rational world the RAF, already smaller than the US Marine Corps’s organic air wing, would be integrated with the army. Politically, this is probably a bridge too far. Imagine the headlines: ‘Cameron achieves what the Luftwaffe could not’; ‘new Battle of Britain lost on the playing fields of Eton’.

But the charade of treating all three services as of equal importance, especially in the allocation of top jobs, should end. The army, fighting a serious war in Afghanistan, is exasperated by a perceived nonsense: that the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, is an airman deemed unsympathetic to soldiers. The army deplores Stirrup’s appointment of RAF officers with little knowledge of ground warfare to key staff appointments, including that of senior liaison officer at US Central Command in Florida, which controls current combat operations.

Stirrup has made himself trusted by Gordon Brown’s government, to the point that soldiers describe him contemptuously as ‘a civil servant in uniform’. He was granted an extension of his term as CDS to 2011, to keep Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt out of the job.

My own view of Sir Jock is a trifle prejudiced by the memory of a moment when he first joined the chiefs of staff and I invited him to lunch. He replied that he would be happy to come, but the meeting would have to be on the record, with a civil servant present. Writing back to decline, I said that in 30 years of meeting senior officers, I had never encountered one so frightened of raising his head above the parapet.

The generals’ view is that the army will dominate any major deployment to which Britain’s forces are committed, and thus it is only sensible for soldiers to fill the relevant command roles. It is a sorry situation, that Britain’s CDS does not today enjoy the confidence of those responsible for running the Afghan war.

That said, however, it should be acknowledged that the army’s command record in recent years is less than flawless. The government bears responsibility for much that has gone wrong with ‘Blair’s wars’, but senior officers have also made serious errors of judgment both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A future Tory defence secretary should increase the army’s chronically overstretched infantry strength, because foot soldiers are the vital element of every plausible commitment. Professor Chalmers this week suggests that unless large sums are diverted from elsewhere in the defence budget, the overall number of ground combat units — armour, artillery, infantry — could fall from today’s 97 to 79. This would be a disaster.

Moreover, every fighting battalion badly needs to increase its established strength, to compensate for the relentless shortfall caused by casualties, sickness, leave and R&R absences. Only this week, the MoD disclosed that 20 per cent of infantrymen are routinely unfit for frontline duty, which places a disproportionate burden on their comrades. Unfortunately, men are expensive — personnel costs account for more than a third of annual defence spending.

The other big commitment is, of course, replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent at a cost of at least £20 billion. There is a powerful strategic case for the UK to abandon its symbolic ‘big willy’ nuclear role. The Tories are unlikely to accept the political pain of doing this. It is likely, however, that they will examine possibilities for a cheaper minimalist deterrent.

It would be naive to harbour extravagant hopes of an imaginat
ive Tory new-broom defence policy. A senior officer observed recently: ‘Liam Fox talks a lot, but he doesn’t listen’. The shadow defence secretary provoked dismay by a headlined pronouncement that he intends to bring the rump of Rhine Army home from Germany. A soldier said wearily: ‘Doesn’t he know that we have wanted to do this for 20 years, but the barracks and tank training facilities simply don’t exist in the UK?’ Fox faces a huge challenge in reforming the MoD, and a lot to prove about his own fitness for the task.

If the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review reached sensible conclusions, it would declare that Britain needs to spend a larger proportion of GDP on national security than the current 2.6 per cent, even if still far short of the Americans’ 4.2 per cent. In the current climate, however, this shot is not even on the board.

Big programmes must go. Maybe some Tories cherish private hopes that, once ‘Blair’s wars’ are wound up, they will not have to send British troops to fight overseas. But, as Lord Guthrie observes, something always turns up. Unless Britain withdraws from its international role, we must possess capable armed forces, as today we scarcely do.

I remember being shocked, a year ago, meeting the RAF officer in Kandahar responsible for allocating helicopter troop-carrying resources. He said: ‘The brigadier commanding in Lashkagar wants a capability to move one company tactically once a week’ — scarcely a massive undertaking — ‘and I can’t give it to him’.

Matters have improved a little since then, but the British campaign in Afghanistan remains fundamentally under-resourced. This, when we have in the field barely a third of the number of soldiers deployed in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and are overwhelmingly dependent on the Americans for helicopters.

The Tories talk a good game. Soldiers were impressed by William Hague and George Osborne when they visited Afghanistan last weekend. A military friend says: ‘They restored my faith in the Conservative party’s capacity to govern.’ But those dreadful numbers will not go away. The expectation is that a new government will swiftly show the door to Stirrup, identified with both poor war management and the Labour government. His most likely successor is the current head of the army, the impressively radical General Sir David Richards.

Richards wants a major overhaul of the armed forces. He said in a recent speech: ‘We cannot go back to fighting as we might have done ten years ago when tanks, fast jets, fleet escorts dominated the doctrine of the three services. Our armed forces will try with inadequate resources to be all things in all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any. The risk is such that it’s too serious any longer to be accepted.’

The defence community is braced for change and harsh decisions. It will be a great misfortune if an incoming Tory government fails to exploit this mood quickly, ruthlessly, and constructively — which means with a determination to set strategic priorities rather merely distribute pain equitably. Neither we nor the Tories should be in any doubt that to sustain a serious army within declared spending levels requires cutting the Royal Navy and RAF to the bone.

The armed forces need and deserve budgets that permit long-term planning rather than scissors and paste expedients. If they win the election, the Tories will inherit a once-in-a-generation defence crisis. But with it comes a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated