The telegraph made headlines this week with an article claiming that the Army would be facing a cut of up to 20,000 troops after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving manpower cut to circa 80,000 in the period following 2015. This has come as a surprise to some quarters given the vagueness of the SDSR itself, not least because of the constant reference to the heavily quoted number of 94/95 thousand troops alongside repeated references to the ‘aspiration’ of the 2020 force structure. It should not have been a surprise.
Notwithstanding ambiguous quotes in the SDSR document there were plenty of caveats.
Despite the supplementary documents stating that future troop level projections of 95,000 were based on the 2015 time frame, in both the Future Force 2020 fact sheet and the British Army fact sheet, the main SDSR document itself makes the following statement:
We will also, for now, assume that by 2020 we will require a Royal Navy of 29,000 personnel, an Army of 94,000 and an RAF of 31,500.
And it does so on the same page as stating that the 2015 figure is 95,000, the key word here being “assume”. The natural assumption is for the reader to slide from the 2015 figure of 95,000 to the 2020 figure of 94,000 and sigh to oneself; “well, after what we’ve just been through another 1,000 is of no real significance given that we are talking about ten years time!”. At our most forgiving we might brand this as obtuse language easy therefore to misinterpret, at worst we might call it disingenuous.
So why should this one headline be taken seriously? Surely we should all be sceptical having witnessed the endless parade of doomsday stories leading up to the SDSR itself, even if we cynically believe that Defence is always good for a trim here and there from our callous political masters………….
The answer is manifold, but principally depends on the fact this information isn’t new, and that it does fit the logic of the SDSR process. Lost amid wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted the publication of the SDSR on the 20th of October was the latest of the RUSI Future Defence Review series titled:
The key findings are as follows –
> The UK’s defence budget will be cut by 7.5% in real terms over four years. UK defence spending is likely to fall to 2.2% of GDP in 2014, down from 2.7%. If all operational spending has ended by 2014, the defence/GDP ratio is projected to fall further, to an estimated 2.0%. Despite this cut, defence’s share in total departmental expenditure is due to rise from 8.7% to 9.1%.
> If projected savings prove impossible to achieve, the MoD may be forced to look at further cuts in front-line capabilities in order to balance its books. The SDSR was careful not to claim that it has identified all the savings that will be needed to close this funding gap, even for the next four years. The SDSR has only just begun to identify where savings can be made.
> By 2015, land forces will account for around 65% of total service personnel, compared with current levels of around 55% in the US and France, 53% in Canada, and 50% in Australia. The main determinant of the outcome of the SDSR, beyond the need to make substantial financial savings, was the decision to ring fence capabilities that were required for support of ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
> But there will be a strong case for a new ‘interim’ SDSR once substantial progress has been made on withdrawal from Afghanistan. Indeed, on one influential reading, the government has been content to leave a large funding gap after 2015 precisely because it knows that it will want to rebalance the force away from land capabilities post-Afghanistan, but does not believe that it would be politic to say so now.
Whilst it is not accepted in all quarters that a continental or maritime focus must be the inevitable outcome if expeditionary capability is to be maintained in the face of inadequate funding, this is indeed the view of RUSI.
Of course this all depends upon political support from within the government, so we should perhaps look to the current thought on Afghanistan and how this might translate to a future willingness to engage in dispersed and protracted wars among the people. Surely a commitment to COIN would have a significant impact on force structures as RUSI note:
If the government were to be persuaded that the nature of modern conflict dictates the maintenance of a land-centric force structure after 2015, it would probably have to revisit some of the more radical options for reductions in maritime and air capability considered, but rejected, during the SDSR. Such options would have to include most of the following: the abandonment of the commitment to introduce a new carrier into service in 2020; a further reduction in surface escort numbers, perhaps to around twelve; the decommissioning of most remaining amphibious ships; and further reductions in fast jet numbers, together with F-35 postponement and a consolidation of the fleet around Typhoon (the model adopted by Germany).
Is the government so persuaded? Rory Stewart, the modern day Lawrence of the Hindu Kush, provides a powerful argument that Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan should become very much narrowed to providing targeted military support to the Afghan government, he appears to be the guiding force for government policy on Afghanistan:
Stewart believes in a long humitarian commitment to the country but in a greatly reduced military presence: only 10 or 20,000 troops, ‘so that the Taliban are at least facing a stalemate’, as he recently put it.
- Afghanistan-based Islamists pose a domestic security threat to Britain, as do those based in many other countries – such as Somalia and the Yemen.
- We’re not attempting to counter that threat in those countries by making major military commitments to them and, in doing so, trying simultaneously to support a strong central state.
- There’s no reason to treat Afghanisan in a different way. We should therefore concentrate our military operations on counter-terrorism rather than nation-building.
“Let me address the first question that people are asking. Why are we in Afghanistan? I can answer in two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base”
While we might argue, legitimately, about what the future nature of war will be there is little argument about what the SDSR presumed it would be: Five multi-role Brigades for enduring operations, in addition to 16AAB and 3CDO for rapid interventions, which only permits the sustainment in theatre of one Brigade on planning assumptions. A COIN force this is not. Likewise, the retention of the Carrier(s) alongside the majority of the amphibious tonnage and 19 escorts is also not complimentary to a force structure built around COIN operations.
Here RUSI return to the nature of the future troop reductions:
If the post-2014 defence budget remains flat in real terms, this is likely to require total service personnel numbers to be reduced by around 15,000 compared to the currently planned 2020 level of 154,500. Even if all of this reduction were to fall on the army, it would leave it with a higher proportion of total personnel than it enjoyed in 2010. Most importantly, such a reduction – to an army of around 80,000 by 2020, rather than the current plan for 94,000 – would make it possible to preserve other key capabilities that might otherwise come under threat. One possible option for achieving such a reduction, some argue, would be to maintain the SDSR’s five brigade structure but reduce some of the lower-priority elements (such as heavy armour) currently included. A reduction in the planned size of the army would have an additional advantage. The SDSR has committed the government to return half of the 20,000 personnel in Germany to the UK by 2015, and the remainder by 2020. Some of these returning personnel might be accommodated in housing made vacant as a result of the closure of RAF bases (for example in Kinloss).
During the transition to seven brigade model over the course of this parliament we will still have to maintain current battalions & regiments to ensure we can rotate 10,000 troops through the theatre as per harmony guidelines, but it is these ‘non-committed’ battalions that one would expect to be shed post 2015. We appear to have eight regular brigades at present (inc 3CDO), and have formed an additional two on a temporary basis due to the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is to be presumed that a similar situation occurs during the transition to fewer multi-role brigades, and that post 2015 there would no longer be the ‘slack’ to create these ad-hoc brigades. Worryingly, RUSI make no mention of 16AAB in their assumption above.
On the one hand you have respected Defence commentators such as Richard Beedall suggesting that the MoD is full steam ahead in its search for a buyer of the second CVF, on the other hand we have Newspapers claiming that the recent middle-east Mardi-gras is causing them to rethink their naval strategy. Which is it? This blog suspects that recent events prove nothing more than a useful justification for revisiting elements of the SDSR that were never ‘properly’ clarified in Oct 2010. To quote Rumsfeld;
“as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
This blog refuses to believe that the British Defence establishment, in drawing up the SDSR, could possibly have discounted how regional instability might cause our host-nation-access and host-nation-support to evaporate. It was hardly an unknown unknown, and was really no more than a temporary capability gap that, fingers crossed, would not come to bite HMG in the ass.
As a related aside, it is frequently stated that Strategic Raiding is a flawed concept from the start, not least because it depends on sovereign ability and all British force-generation assumptions work from the principle that anything larger than a Small Scale Force Insertion will be a coalition operation. Why maintain the full panoply of bespoke equipment for amphibious theatre entry when coalitions can specialise and aggregate capability? However, this assumption of coalitions for medium scale and above does not appear to hold true:
The second scenario was a stabilisation and counter insurgency operation of the sort we have become familiar with. There were two main issues which we tested here. The first was scale, where we concluded that we needed to remain capable of deploying and sustaining indefinitely a brigade sized force. The second was self-sufficiency. Although we expect to conduct this sort of operation mainly in a coalition we took the view that we needed to remain self-deploying and self-sustaining. So the Future Force delivers the enablers to avoid being a burden on others.
The most challenging scenario was an operation to liberate an ally from an occupying state. Here we judged that we need to be capable of putting a divisional sized force in the field with substantial maritime and air support. Our multi-role brigade concept allows us to configure this sort of force for the threat it is likely to be faced with at the time. This represents the best effort of the Future Force 2020 and could operate alone or with allies.
In conclusion, the majority of manpower cuts in the 2015 SDSR would appear to fall on the Army, and even then will leave Britain with a very Army-centric force structure, but the key point is that this is not news, it was stated by RUSI from the day the SDSR was published, and even by this author before that date.
Afghanistan was always going to distort the 2010 SDSR, how could it not.