What are the armed forces for? This is the question that hangs over every defence review, and one that recent governments have been averse to answering.
The problem is this: since the end of the Cold War, defence has gradually slipped further and further down the political priority list. At the same time, ministers and senior officers have been reluctant to publicly scale back their ambitions for what the military should do.
As a result, instead of making decisive cuts to certain capacities in order to maintain others, we have gradually shrunk all the services to the point where they face serious operational difficulties.
Britain boasts two aircraft carriers, for example, yet lacks the support ships to put two (or perhaps even one) full carrier groups to sea. What use is an aircraft carrier if it can’t be adequately defended? Meanwhile the army has withered to the point where some analysts question whether the UK has even a single division that is theatre-ready.
The latest reforms announced by Ben Wallace may have taken a step towards finally providing an answer to the problem. But we might not like the answer.
At the heart of the reforms, according to media reports, is the aim to ‘transform the army into a more agile, integrated, lethal and expeditionary force’, centred on a new ‘special operations brigade’. This will be backed up with billions of pounds worth of new equipment.
Having a capable, deployment-ready armed forces is obviously a good thing, even if it is the bare minimum we might expect of a country with as strong a military tradition as ours. But there is no escaping the fact that it will be very small.