Britain was the last of the great powers to introduce conscription and the first to abandon it. For all but twenty-four years of the British army’s continuous existence since 1660 it has relied on volunteers. Unlike that of any other major power during those three and a half centuries, however, the British army has never existed because of a clearly identified threat to the ‘homeland’: France, for example, with her long borders, was always vulnerable to attack from rival Austria or the Netherlands, as were they in turn from France; Prussia positively floated on the map of Europe during the period, her borders resting wherever the Prussian army could make a defensive position; and Russia, though always able to trade vast tracts of territory for time, relied ultimately on her army to settle matters in the marches of Eastern Europe, the Baltic and the Levant. For a century and a quarter after independence the US army, too, fought its frontier wars with native tribes and with Mexico. Britain, on the other hand, always felt secure enough behind its ‘wooden walls’: the enemy could never come by sea, as successive sea lords confidently asserted, and when the Germans once tried to come by air the retort was emphatic.
Because of this, the British army has always had to argue its rationale – and thus for its rations. And more often than not it has been half-starved, for trade and empire were activities of choice, while to politicians of all colours continental military entanglements were something to be avoided altogether. Indeed, as a national insurance policy the army has always been more ‘third party’ than ‘fully comprehensive’. And even when from the middle of the nineteenth century its numbers grew larger for reasons of empire, these numbers were dispersed around the world, rarely combining in more than divisional strength, whereas other nations organized their forces on an altogether larger scale – into army corps and even discrete armies. The British army did not as a rule think big in this way, although it did think globally – or, at least, its soldiers were at ease globally. When for example the 25th Middlesex – a Kitchener battalion – was sent to Siberia via Vladivostok on its own in 1918 as part of the anti-Bolshevik intervention, the soldiers did not bat an eyelid. Afterwards the Middlesex’s commanding officer merely reported that ‘One and all behaved like Englishmen – the highest eulogy that can be passed upon the conduct of men.’ For 150 years British army officers, often very junior ones, have had to relate what they were doing on the ground to the grand strategic object that London desired. Nowadays, young NCOs are doing the same.
From my time in uniform, and from reflecting on its past, I know that the army is a conservative organization: it mistrusts revolutionary change. Field Marshal Lord Carver, Britain’s most intellectually able and battle-experienced soldier of the last century, perhaps explains why in his Britain’s Army in the 20th Century: ‘Using the experience of the past as a guide to the balance required to meet future demands has often proved unreliable; but imaginative visions of how to meet them have also been, if not false, at least premature.’ But the army has more often than not proved exceptionally quick to change in wartime, when the requirement is crystal clear – if a little late.
The risk of false trails, of which Carver warns, is always present. Some senior officers have recently observed, for example, that as a result of working closely with the US army for the past ten years a certain ‘intensity’ is appearing in middle-ranking officers where before there was a ‘breezier’ style. This is more than just the old cricketing jibe ‘Gentlemen out, Players in’ when Montgomery arrived with his own men. It is rather that the easy pragmatism, ‘amateurism’ in the best sense of the word, that served the army so well when it was faced with ‘impossible’ situations may be giving way to a ‘professionalism’ which asserts that there is an absolute right way in any situation – a sort of military totalitarianism. But this sort of approach can work only when there are plentiful resources of men and materiel – which is not the usual situation a British officer finds himself in. Indeed, too doctrinaire an approach would rob the army of one of its true force multipliers: the original thinking of its officers. To what extent the Iraq bruising has dented self-confidence in British superiority in ‘small wars’ remains to be seen, but the dangers of an over-reaction, aping American methods when the British army has nothing like the US army’s resources, are obvious. The Iraq bruising may indeed prove to be a significant break in the habit of victory, but the army’s ability to pick itself up after a setback – as I have shown again and again – was a habit acquired much earlier.
Technology can also be beguiling, pointing down thoroughly expensive false trails. During the 2004 ‘stealth defence review’, the then CDS, General Sir Michael (now Lord) Walker, wrote in The Times:
Our advantage will no longer be in numbers, but in effects … one Apache Longbow helicopter flying against a dispersed and well-hidden enemy can be more effective than a squadron of tanks … Imagine if targeting and intelligence information from that helicopter could be relayed simultaneously to commanders on ships via Awacs aircraft, and to individual soldiers among amphibious forces landing to search for that same enemy. All in real time. Imagine how quickly we could make decisions. That is what we call network enabled capability, and it is that technology which permits us to deliver an increased effect with fewer platforms.
‘Imagine’ indeed. As I have tried to show, the reality of fighting the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan has been more ‘Victoria’s wars’ than ‘network enabled’. But even if technology were – had been – the answer in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the battles of Helmand and Basra pointers to what war in the future will look like? This is the permanent dilemma facing service chiefs in deciding where the money should go.
The parlous state of the public finances in the next decade will make the dilemma more acute than ever. No longer will the chiefs be able to ‘advance on a broad front’. Instead they will have to choose between current operations and possible future operations. In this contest between wolves and sledges, as the former CDS Lord Guthrie calls it, the only sensible course is to shoot the nearest wolf: make sure you win the battles of today, for defeat today increases the chance of war tomorrow. This means finding more men for the army and taking a risk that we can get away with fewer Eurofighters, say, and even aircraft carriers. But finding recruits and keeping trained manpower has proved extraordinarily difficult these past ten years. The infantry is chronically some 1,500 to 2,000 men under-recruited – three battalions’ worth – and many trained infantrymen are hors de combat through war wounds or injuries in training. In addition, an infantry battalion’s establishment – its authorized strength – has been so pared down in the past twenty years that most battalions are scarcely able to deploy on operations without heavy reinforcement from another regiment, including the TA. In fact, for its true war footing the army is at least 10,000 men under-established. But could the under-strength army recruit more men?
Several former chiefs are convinced that they could, not least because the current economic climate with its rising unemployment is in the army’s favour at last (and an expanding organization, as opposed to a diminishing one, has its attractions). Just as important, a bigger army would mean a less stretched army, one in which the soldier felt there was the right balance of training, operations, rest and personal development – and fewer seeking discharge in consequence. Avoiding the loss of serving personnel is particularly important among middle-ranking field officers (captains and majors) and senior NCOs, the repositories of operational experience in the regiments. There are other possibilities. The Brigade of Gurkhas, which bore a good deal of the burden of Malaya and Borneo, and now consists of just two infantry battalions and supporting troops (engineers, signals, transport), could easily be doubled in size. They are now virtually interchangeable with British units, and indeed have other characteristics that make them especially effective in places such as Afghanistan – not least facility in local languages. The ratio of infantry to other arms is also manifestly too small: in 1918 the infantry accounted for over half the army’s total manpower; today the proportion is well under a quarter, yet the nature of operations is once more becoming manpower-intensive. Imaginative schemes to integrate the TA more closely with the regular army have also long been discussed, although the sheer impracticalities and uncertainties of employing TA as ‘formed units’ as opposed to individual reinforcements except in times of national emergencies will continue to dog aspirations for greater integration.
Special Forces have never stood at a greater premium than now. The SAS are without question the world leader in clandestine operations against strategic targets, but their strength – at one regular regiment and two TA – is far less than generally supposed. Their manpower is never ‘capped’, however: the standard is an absolute one, and only a few out of every hundred who begin the process for ‘Selection’ make it to Hereford. One of the ‘critical mass’ arguments in debates about the size of the army is indeed the need for a pool large enough to yield the required number of recruits to the SAS; and equally one of the arguments for retaining the Parachute Regiment – though parachute operations in any strength are now almost inconceivable – is to foster a corps d’élite which not only has its effect in the army as a whole but is a fertile seedbed for the SAS. It is also striking just how many senior officers in the army today wear SAS wings – in no small part due to Guthrie’s championing of men who had served with ‘the Regiment’ when he (himself a former SAS man) was CGS.