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Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer. 

So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”

I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.

The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”

It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.

In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”

In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”

So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).

For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.

Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.

How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.

John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.

Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.

Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.

This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”

The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.

But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.

The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.

The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.

When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.

What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.

These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.

Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.

In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?

Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?

Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.

That, ultimately, is what the army is for.

115 comments for: Allan Mallinson: What is the army for?

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