I really want to write something pithy and insightful on Army 2020, mostly because I was a soldier once and feel I ought to have something to say. But it’s difficult.
You see we’ve been here before. In 2006 the Army went through a similar restructuring (or cutting) process. When senior officers and politicians spoke about it they gave the impression we had found a new best structure; it was called Future Army Structure. And you won’t be surprised to hear there was a snappy sounding acronym for it: FAS.
This new structure took about 6,000 posts from the establishment to leave a force of just under 102,000 soldiers. A number of units dropped off the order of battle, and you may remember Scottish ire at having to merge their distinctive and historic regiments into a new outfit called The Royal Regiment of Scotland. They retained old illustrious regimental names but only as descriptors of each battalion of the new regiment.
But they got on with it and made it work, as everyone did, as is the soldier’s way. And everything seemed to be progressing nicely when someone decided what was needed most was to lop another chunk off the establishment. It seems that the future of FAS wasn’t really a future at all – only a hiccup. Why?
The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall, has written that we must retain a credible military option to underpin diplomacy. This new force will have three core purposes: 1) Intervention and conventional deterrence; 2) Overseas operations in multinational alliances; and 3) UK activity comprising assistance to the civil authorities and sustaining a new Army Reserve.
This sounds positive enough, and sensible even, but I’m not sure I don’t detect an air of resignation. He knows strategists and politicians are looking in new directions. The threat of conventional invasion does not exist; terrorism and cyber attack are more likely scenarios; and if we do need to strike an enemy we can use unmanned air systems, rely on allies or co-opt local proxy forces. Our Libyan intervention might just become a template for our preferred method of intervention in the future. CGS even suggests this might lead to future reductions in conventional forces. Who’d bet against it?
Government spending is always a matter of priorities. Considering government spends just under £700 billion a year, what other conclusion can there be? The money exists; it’s just that it’s being spent on other things, which is unlikely to change. If the history of democracy tells us anything, it tells us that people will always find ways to vote themselves more benefits and advantages while assuming that someone else will be called on to pay for it. If we wanted to we could find the money. It’s just that other things are prioritised above defence.
There are risks to this latest restructuring project, not least the implication of reducing manpower by 20% (not withstanding us finding more potent ways of using less), and we should also be wary of relying on the TA to take up the slack. But these arguments can be taken up later. I suppose we might end up in 2020 with an army that is better structured for our commitments and the threats we might face, and that our future capacity to deploy military force might not be far short of its current level, but these are secondary considerations.
Only one factor drives this, and that’s cutting costs. We can argue over why the budget was allowed to get so out of kilter, but the imperative remains to reduce expenditure rather than increase spending. After all: there’s nothing left in the kitty. And the best way to do this is by reducing manpower, which is what this plan delivers.
And I’m not sure I can get too animated about it. We’ll still have an army. It will be weaker, it will be less convincing on the world stage, it will in all likelihood continue to break harmony guidelines (assuming the plan is not to stop sending the army overseas ever again) and it’s structure will not quite achieve what the architects hope. But what’s new about that?