Infantry of the British Army recruiting areas by regiments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Hot on the heels of the Aircraft Carrier u-turn rumours came the Secretary of State’s speech at the Royal United Service Institute’s Land Warfare Conference. With the Strategic Defence and Security Review calling for a reduction in the size of the Army’s manpower, it was inevitable that at some point proposald would crop up to trim the Army, in terms of regiments, Battalions and capabilities.
The programme is euphemistically being called ‘Army 2020’, as part of ‘Future Force 2020’. Interesting, when the 2010 Defence Review was pretty much out of date with three or four months!
“Army 2020, as we call it, will deliver a new structure designed to meet the needs of a smaller, more flexible and agile Army. Set on a firm foundation, in terms of both men and materiel. Well-trained, well-equipped, and, crucially, fully-funded.”
Apparently three key considerations underpin the structuring of the Army – sustainability, capability and integration:
“That requires the UK’s Armed Forces to be intelligent, flexible and adaptable, both in approaching the fight and during the fight. With an expeditionary capability and a theatre-entry capability.”
Expeditionary capability is hanging by a thread as it is, and any future cuts might render it a thing of the past.
“But all of us here recognise the reality that this process is not taking place in a vacuum. The wider national interest requires that we build for the future with strict financial discipline. Tackling the fiscal deficit and returning the economy to sustainable growth are themselves strategic imperatives. Efficiency and the successful application of military force are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, military productivity, which binds them together, is a key concept in the future management of our Armed Forces. The value that our Armed Forces produces for the country is based on their capability to deliver standing military tasks and project formidable power when national security requires it. That, not balancing the books, is the raison d’être for the existence of our Armed Forces and the MOD.”
The talk about financial discipline is of course welcome. Of course, the thing about balancing the books is just lip service – even the dumbest observer knows that slash and burn is the name of the game.
Hammond had something interesting to say about logistics:
“Working closely with partners to operate logistics more rationally through Alliance structures. Looking, sometimes, to others to provide the tail, where Britain is providing the teeth.”
This has been tried before many a time. When we think back to NATO, early on there was a strong movement to adopt the same calibre small arms, and standardise as much as possible – hence how military equipment has a NATO stock number (even the hull of a warship, it seems!). But standardising on 7.62 and 5.56 is one thing, but what about when it comes to rationing, uniforms, fuel, and the myriad of other cultural differences? It’s one of those things that sounds great to an accountant – get rid of the support lines and just buy it in when you need it – but you can’t just hire in military tail whenever you need it. A tail doesn’t just bolt onto the teeth effortlessly. Would other countries be able to handle supporting the cultural diversity in Britain’s army, for example? We’re talking leather in beret bands (anathema to a vegan!).
In terms of Reserves:
“The Future Reserves must be structured to provide, as they do today, some niche specialist capabilities that simply aren’t cost-effective to maintain on a full-time basis – for example in areas of cyber, medical or intelligence. But the Future Reserve must also be able to provide on a routine basis those capabilities across the spectrum of tasks requiring less intensive complex training.”
I feel this is slightly cynical. Again and again we find ministers attempting to replace regulars with reserves. And that is what it entails. No disrespect to reservists, but it is always going to be a downgrading in capability. I know that there are some success stories with use of reservists – some of the medical reserves, for example, and the Royal Engineers railway guys, but I can’t help but wonder if we have already pushed the reserve agenda as far as we can? Maybe he’s thinking in terms of reducing Regular Logistics?
Or, more ominously, is he thinking in terms of privatisation of logistics? This, if true, is rather worrying. My personal feeling is that privatisation in defence has been pushed too far by successive governments, and that the cost savings pale in comparison with the problems experienced. Wherever privatisation is heralded, I cannot help but fell that it is motivated by a desire to help wealthy businessmen make even more money. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Haliburton springs to mind.
On the Regimental System:
“I also understand that people worry about how, in the midst of all this change, we will maintain a strong thread of continuity. Retaining the ethos, traditions and connections that are part of what makes the British Army so effective – particularly a regimental system and regionally-focused recruiting. Of course, a Regular Army of 82,000 will have a different structure to one of 102,000. And some units inevitably will be lost or will merge. But let me be clear, we value the history and the heritage because they deliver tangible military benefits in the modern British Army. There is no question, as some have suggested, of abandoning the regimental system in the British Army. But that does not mean that we can avoid difficult decisions as the Army gets smaller. That means focusing on analysis of recruitment performance, demographic trends and future recruiting needs.”
Thinking wider about the Regimental system, one wonders if it might mean an extension of the restructuring that occured in 2006.
In the current British Army, there are 37 Regular Infantry Battalions:
- Grenadier Guards (1 Bn)
- Coldstream Guards (1 Bn)
- Scots Guards (1 Bn)
- Welsh Guards (1 Bn)
- Irish Guards (1 Bn)
- Royal Regiment of Scotland (5 Bns)
- Duke of Lancasters Regiment (2 Bns)
- Yorkshire Regiment (3 Bns)
- Mercian Regiment (3 Bns)
- Royal Welsh (2 Bns)
- Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (2 Bns)
- Royal Fusiliers (2 Bns)
- Royal Anglian Regiment (2 Bns)
- Royal Irish Regiment (1 Bn)
- Parachute Regiment (3 Bns)
- Royal Gurkha Rifles (2 Bns)
- Rifles (5 Bns)
One would imagine that if the MOD is intent on reducing infantry manpower and infrastructure, it will attempt to reduce the number of parent Regiments through mergers, and then reduce the amount of Battalions. For example, in 2006 the Royal Greenjackets (2Bns), the Light Infantry (2 Bns), the Devon and Dorsets (1Bn) and the Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshires (1Bn) merged to form the 5 Battalion Rifles Regiment. There are a lot of 2 and 3 Bn Regiments in the order of battle that might make sensible mergers.
One wonders how Hammond – and indeed Cameron – will fare when it comes to the inevitable decision that the Royal Regiment of Scotland cannot sustain 5 Battalions. As outlined by Mike Jackson years ago, demographically it just isn’t sustainable. Yet when Alec Salmond and his ilk start their bluff and bluster about Scottish heritage, who will blink first? In 2006 Blair called in Jackson and said, to quote, ‘I need you to help me out of a hole here’. There have already been unfounded rumours in some Scottish media outlets about disbandment of Regiments. Hell hath no fury like an old boy whose Regiment is threatened. In particular, regional pride in the form of Ireland and Wales might also be heavy going. The Guards, although seemingly out of date, are bombproof from any kind of change when it comes to the Army’s respect for all things senior and historic.
The traditional Regiment structure has been evolving ever since the early nineteenth century. The Cardwell Reforms in the 1880’s saw the establishment of country Regiments, which in turn were merged into what might be call sub-regional Regiments between the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. The County Regiment structure which appears to be held up as a traditional golden age only existed for around 60 years. History suggests that where Regimental structures are concerned, a state of flux is actually the norm.
That things have to change is, sadly, non-negotiable. As with the Royal Navy, we would all swell with pride if the Army regained some of its former glory. But strategic necessity and my tax bill just don’t warrant it. But on the flip side, we don’t want to see a rerun of previous defence cuts, with cuts so savage that the guys that are left have an impossible job to do, and are then asked to do too much by the very same politicians who slashed the Armed Forces in the first place!
Interesting times ahead indeed. My predictions – more mergers and cuts in Infantry units, cuts in Armour and Artillery, and cuts and increased reliance on reserves in specialised support functions – in particular logistics.