First, a premise. I really hate the “difficult choices” refrain that is constantly brought up when talking about UK armed forces. It’s right up there with “sacred cows” and other rhetoric figures which 99% of the time are empty of actual meaning other than making the speaker sound real deep and wise. In the end, it seems to only ever lead to arguing in favor of cutting off everything but your pet project of the day.
If there is something that years of cuts have made clear is that in the UK the problem is not making “difficult choices” (its Draconian acts of self-mutilation are "admired" worldwide), but making difficult choices that make sense in an integrated defence policy and not in isolation.
What the UK constantly fails at is taking difficult decisions that adhere to one coherent vision. Again and again, Defence starts investing on one particular area, then eventually, when it is more or less ready to reap the benefits of decades of work and investment, ruins everything by going with another short-term knee jerk decision in the desperate attempt to save some money. Savings which are often ridiculous compared to the damage inflicted to capability.
I’ve already written some time ago a longer dissertation on the cyclical suggestion of “cutting the PARAs and Royal Marines”, and explained just why that makes very little sense, so I’ll just point you to that article, while repeating once more that the really difficult and key question the UK must finally find an answer to is what kind of country and military power it wants to be.
You can’t separate ambition from how much you are willing to spend.
Once a level of ambition is defined, the new SDSR should completely ignore the empty rhetoric of sacred cows, which are mostly just the latest evolution of inter-service bickering, and assess instead what the UK absolutely needs to do, first of all, and immediately after determine what it can do well, and specifically what it can do with what it already owns. Instead of wasting capability that already exists in pursuit of nebulous new ambitions, it should ensure that the maximum possible output comes from what is already available, for once.
If it is not possible to do everything, you should stick to what you are good at. If your money is not enough to purchase all you’d need, at least start by using well what you already have, and have already paid. The UK is extremely well positioned to deploy a very competitive and powerful naval task force; and owns most of the equipment needed to field a powerful airmobile army capability. It would be absurd not to capitalize on strengths built up with much effort and expenditure over decades.
When you are “poor”, the last thing you should do is waste what you do have.
Instead of trying to convince the world that tanks are no longer needed; that wheeled APCs are the future; that air manoeuvres are now unfeasible and amphibious capability does not require landing craft and surface manoeuvre, and getting offended when the world does not agree; the UK should use a bit of actual realism and go for the real soul searching.
There are unpleasant questions that I never hear asked but that are staring us all in the face. One is about the wisdom of sinking so much manpower and money into 1st Division, which has more than half the Army’s infantry under command but that will have absolutely zero supports once the last set migrates to 3rd Division to enable the second STRIKE brigade. 4 Royal Artillery, 27 RLC, 2 REME, 2 Royal Signal and 32 Royal Engineer are the last CS and CSS resources that remain to enable the “Vanguard Light Brigade” that is organized rotationally from the 4 brigades that make up 1st Division (4th, 7th, 11th and 51st).
All of those regiments, and indeed presumably one of the brigade HQs as well, are going to be taken out to create the second STRIKE brigade, leaving 1st Division as truly nothing more than a container for spare Light Role infantry battalions that support Public Duty and Cyprus rotations and the “regional stand-by battalion” commitment at home, which has been expanded all the way to a 5 battalion requirement in recent times.
One actual difficult question to be asked is whether this use of precious finite resources is in any way efficient and wise. Over half of the Army tied down in “fake” brigades with no combined arms capability for complete lack of Combat Supports and Combat Service Supports is, to me, a complete folly, regardless of how many battalions you intend to justify by committing to penny packet presence projects all over Africa, or sandbag filling in the UK during floods.
And this brings me to an even harsher question that needs to be formulated: are 16 Reserve infantry battalions in any way justifiable?
Army 2020 hoped to squeeze more useability out of the Reserve. At one point, it literally cut down several infantry battalions from 3 to 2 companies each with the hope that Reserves would be sufficiently available to fill the gap.
That project never worked out, and eventually the Army has rebuilt the missing companies thanks to the manpower removed from the Specialised Infantry Battalions (which are just 267 strong and thus have released quite a few soldiers back into the system).
The Army Reserve was supposed to relieve the regulars of a number of those standing commitments that absorb so much manpower, but the results have been frankly far from stellar. Reserves have in a few occasions provided much of the Falklands Islands Roulement infantry company; and in February this year “history was made” by building up a Company group, 240-strong, with reservists from 7 RIFLES and 5 RRF for a six month UN peacekeeping turn on the Cyprus Green Line.
I know I will bring even more hate upon myself for posing this question, but I think it can no longer be avoided: is this output actually enough to justify 16 reserve Infantry Battalions?
I don’t blame reservists: they should be rightly praised and thanked for offering their spare time to their Country and I couldn’t respect them more. But the Reserve must be re-assessed for overall value for money, and for functionality. The problem is easily understood: a volunteer who depends on a civilian, full-time job cannot, no matter how well meaning he might be, be available often for long deployments and operations. It’s just unfeasible, unless the volunteers and employers are supported in a whole different way, which however would make the Reserve a whole lot less cheap. It is not an easily solved problem.
But if Regulars cannot be relieved in a meaningful, enduring and assured way from the variety of secondary, enduring tasks, what is the point?
Resilience and Regeneration in times of major crisis is the other big reason for having a Reserve, but again there is an enormous and majorly unpleasant question that no one is considering: is it really feasible, for the UK, to Regenerate combat mass in a crisis in this era?
What magnitude of crisis would make it conceivable?
What would the timeframes look like?
Could it realistically be done in any scenario short of an existential struggle?
If the UK was to be involved in a large scale operation abroad, which required a Division in the field for more than the 6 / 12 months at most that 3rd Division could sustain, is there any realistic chance of rebuilding enough mass to relieve the deployed Division with another, for example?
Obviously, 1st Division would have to be rebuilt into a formation capable of actual Combined Arms Operations. What it would overwhelmingly need, however, would be the CS and CSS units it does not possess, not 16 Reserve Infantry Battalions. The Division already has regular infantry, it is everything else that it lacks.
What level of capability could be regenerated, beyond the lightest and most barebone of formations? There is not any significant amount of equipment in storage that could be brought out and issued to Reservists. For example, even assuming the Challenger 2 LEP goes ahead, which in the current budget climate is in no way a given, the number of vehicles being mentioned wouldn’t even be enough for fielding the Royal Wessex Yeomanry in the field, no matter how dire the situation. The regiment has been uplifted to have the capability to put into the field complete, formed crews, but the UK would extremely quickly run out of tanks to give to those formed crews. Do the math by yourself: we have been told numbers that range from around 140 to 167. Even if every single vehicle was issued for operations, it still wouldn’t suffice for a third Type 58 regiment to hit the field.
Warrior CSP, assuming it goes ahead, also will deliver barely enough vehicles for the Regulars, if that. There is zero margin built in into any purchase, and the UK, unlike other countries, has the habit of getting rid of the fleets it removes from active service, to avoid having to spend on its storage and upkeep.
I’ve quoted the heavy armour bits, but the situation does not in any way change by looking at lighter AFV fleets, or other major bits of equipment.
The cupboard is literally empty, there is nothing behind the glass to be broken in case of emergency. What is in storage is needed to equip the regulars, and considering that just four facilities held the majority of the stores, vehicle fleets and munitions, it is hard not to think that in a major, existential crisis the enemy just needs to land good long-range hits on Ashchurch, Monchengladbach, Kineton and Donington to not only knock back any regeneration effort but to maim the regular force itself into near paralysis.
If we are not prepared to imagine a scenario in which an enemy will try to hit those targets, by default it implies we are not prepared to imagine an actual existential scenario / new major war. With all what descends from this.
I always struggle, as a consequence, to imagine Regeneration actually happening, regardless of whether the Army Reserve ever hits its 30.000 trained personnel target (in the near term it won’t, by the way).
Even if Reservists were called out en masse and were to be actually available for operations, the ability to kit them out for a meaningful operation is next to inexistent.
I am not in a position to know whether Telford and Merthyr Tydfil could possibly be able to start producing whole new vehicles in a hurry in a major crisis, but output and timeframes, if not overall feasibility, are doubtful at best. Even if equipment could be sourced from the US (the only Ally which might be in a position to help, thanks to the huge number of items it keeps stored and its active production lines), a lot of precious time would still be needed to actually train and prepare units.
When it comes to “difficult decisions”, instead of looking at chopping the best manned and best recruiting regular units in the Armed Forces, I’d recommend looking at how the Armed Forces actually plan to fight, and at their true resilience.
A majorly unpleasant decision to be taken might indeed involve the Army Reserve, because those 16 infantry battalions look like a true white elephant.
The SDSR might want to reassess Reserve numbers and, even more importantly, roles.
Excellent results come through reservists contributing their specializations to the Army (medical units being just the most visible of examples); but the outcome from the infantry units seems hard to justify.
Moreover, Resilience / Regeneration should be approached in a more systemic and realistic way. A good way to start could be to try and provide 1st Division and its Brigades with the supports they lack, using Reserve or Hybrid formations.
If even that proves unfeasible because of low availability, the future of the Reserve might be smaller and more niche.
No matter how comparatively “cheap” the Reserve is, if it can’t deliver a meaningful output outside a few specific areas, it might still not be worth its cost.