Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
During the last two weeks, there have been three potential conflicts which have the capacity to embroil Britain in war. While talk of conflict between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is ludicrous, there is certainly potential for conflict over Syria and with North Korea. The risk is so high that Donald Trump has reversed his position on NATO, and declared it now ‘relevant’.
So an appropriate question to ask at this time is: how well prepared is Britain for a major conflict? I’m going to deal specifically with Korea, which appears to be at greatest risk of escalation. And it’s not good news. Scholars and laymen will usually refer to Clausewitz to understand how well prepared a nation is for conflict and its ability to win a great war – and I’ll be doing the same. As Clausewitz never quite finished his extraordinary analysis of the concept of war, I’ll be using the simple version of his trinity of war; “people, army, government” to look at Britain’s war machine.
The Army: Including the Royal Navy and RAF in this category, the situation is poor. Cuts have taken the Army down to 82,000 people (a number it is struggling to retain, running under-manned currently, and with recruitment under great pressure to sign up enough people of high enough quality). Such a small Army would struggle to deploy continuously more than 10,000 soldiers at any one time, while a deployment for a major conflict would need at least 50,000 soldiers – almost the entire field Army.
The Royal Navy is already cutting the Royal Marines to resource its as yet undeployed aircraft carriers. This is perhaps one of the shortest-sighted decisions since the 1981 Nott review. The Royal Marines are by far the most adaptable, resilient and effective military force Britain has, and their reduction will be badly felt. Britain is short of aircraft, ships and tanks, with shortages in spare parts for all of our critical pieces of equipment
The Armed Forces suffers from an obesity crisis, leaving 10 per cent of its manpower unable to deploy. The cognitive knowledge of large-scale war has been reduced from nearly 15 years of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little organisational knowledge of large-scale, manoeuvre warfare remaining. This is a critical issue, as commanders and soldiers will have spent entire careers operating in an environment of improvised explosive devices, relatively comfortable forward operating bases, rapid medical rescue and tours of six months.
War in Korea would have none of this, with casualties numbering from 30-40 per cent, with soldiers facing tanks, heavy artillery and chemical warfare for many, many months in horrific weather conditions. The Army is also losing its best leaders, struggling to retain junior officers; meanwhile, the RAF is unable to retain some highly skilled pilots, who are being lured by better paid, more comfortable and improved work/life balances in the private sector.
Government: While we have seen a shift in the Government’s stance on international security, with a commitment to the NATO two per cent minumum of GDP spent on defence, there has been little action. The UK did not participate in the US strikes on Syria, and is relatively quiet on North Korea. Public reaction and negative perspectives on the Iraq war of 2003 remain at the front of MPs minds. The chronic under-funding of Britain’s military ambition, along with an unwillingness to close the gap in defence funding brought about by the collapse in the value of the pound, continues.
The Government is going to be under pressure to commit troops and resources to fight should the US strike first in Korea, as the UK has openly aligned its foreign policy position with that of the USA. The paralysis in the UK over committing to conflicts for a long period, along with an inexperience in Government of leading a country in war, means that the UK would struggle in a prolonged conflict.
People: Society impacts not only our willingness to be engaged in conflict and sustain it, but also the ability to provide men and women who are physically and mentally able to fight. While Britain produces a good number of young people able to play Call of Duty, it doesn’t produce enough able or willing to serve. In 2016, Army recruitment was ten per cent below what is needed, with the Army already undermanned by more than 2,000 soldiers, and some of those joining unable to make the commitment to a life in uniform which requires discipline and robust physical fitness.
Soldiers need to be sustained in war by a willing public, which is non-existent. Outcries over the loss of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq show that the British public is simply unwilling to see soldiers dying. The reaction to casualty numbers which numbered thousands from a war in Korea would be catastrophic. The public do not associate their own security with a war on the other side of the world which is far closer to China and the USA.
The threat of war should serve as a wakeup call for the UK and its ability to fight. Britain needs young people who are fit and healthy enough to serve. The Armed Forces need to be appropriately resourced, equipped and manned, and offer excellent careers and compensation for those who commit to risk their lives to protect the nation. Finally, the government needs to be braced to lead the public through extraordinarily difficult times, with the public prepared for casualties in the thousands and an impact to their quality of life. If the nation is unwilling to make that commitment for our security, to deal with threats such as North Korea and Russia, then we must prepare to deal with the consequences.