For many years, the mainstream story of the British armed forces has been one of cuts and decline. More cuts are to come. Even though the army has not been at its target strength for several years, the Defence Command Paper, released on Monday, commits to reducing the British army’s size by an additional 10,000 troops — around 12 per cent of its operational manpower.
But does this necessarily matter? Of course it does. Over the past decade, the British armed forces have been underfunded and stretched to meet the tasks afforded to them by the government. Between 2010 and 2015, defence spending continued to fall in real terms until it fell below the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP.
Although spending has risen since then, it has not been enough to cure the rot. Even a large and welcome £16.5 billion increase in defence spending, provided by Boris Johnson in November last year, has not been enough to maintain the armed forces’ current size as well as develop the new weaponry Britain needs to be prepared for future conflicts.
Yet, British strategists have never relied on large armies. Although mass has a quality of its own, to repeat the old maxim, when forced by a tight budget to choose between mass or technology, the MoD should opt for the latter nine times out of ten. This is how the British military has historically prevailed in wars throughout the ages.
The British army in 1815, 1914 or 1939 was smaller, even dwarfed, by its rivals. Napoleon dismissed the British as a nation of shopkeepers; Kaiser Wilhelm II claimed that he would send his police force to arrest the British army if it landed on the continent. Both lost their wars.