In Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s White Flag, their books about Britain’s defence capability, there is a chapter on “Operation Tethered Goat”, which looks at the army’s presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.
Part of it describes the 800-strong NATO UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), as it is called, stationed in an encampment “at the end of a dusty road an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn”. The authors go on to identify how it was originally intended to be provided with 18 Challenger tanks. It got ten.
The RAND corporation reported that however they war-gamed a Russian invasion involving conventional armed forces, these reached Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours. “This is why some in the armed forces privately call the EFP in Estonia ‘Operation Tethered Goat’ “, write Oakeshott and our proprietor.
If Downing Street puts its plans for defence spending into effect, expect the prospects of what the authors refer to as “a small but fierce battalion of UK troops”, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, to be fiercely debated, along with those of an entire division of the British Army – and our defence strategy as a whole.
The background is well known. Dominic Cummings has long had an interest in revisiting defence spending. “He believes that the British state is wasteful; that the most wasteful part of the British state is the Ministry of Defence, and that the most wasteful part of the Ministry of Defence is its procurement function”, as one Tory MP puts it.
Not that this well-placed participant in defence debates believes that Cummings is necessarily wrong. He has read Boris Johnson’s adviser’s profuse and splenetic blogs on defence, which also cover the Pentagon’s use of artificial intelligence, the history of modern weapons development, drone swarms, equipment safety and (topically) China.
A section on Government procurement is sub-headed, Apolalypse Now-style, “the horror, the horror”. This would also be a fair description of the reaction when it was reported that Cummings has been given permission “to tour some of Britain’s most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military”.
There will be much more to his scheme, and to the defence, security and foreign policy review, than the future of Ministry of Defence procurement – or even of the army. It must weigh the future of the navy, internal security, cyber and the air force, not to mention the security threats posed by China, radical Islam and Russia, plus others.
But the prospects for the EFP in Estonia, and indeed those of the Third (United Kingdom) Division are at stake. It is, the Army declares, “the only division at continual operational readiness in the UK” – in other words, the only one of three prepared for action in Eastern Europe.
The word on the defence street is that Downing Street has a proposal to cut the army to 60,000 – not the first time that this figure has been deployed. How can it possibly make sense? “It depends what your objective is,” one backbench source told ConservativeHome.
“If your defence effort is concentrated against Islamist terror in Britain, you don’t need nearly that many. If you want to fight in Estonia, it isn’t enough – you need as many as you can get. For the Middle East, you’d want something in between”.
The review itself is already the subject of swirling internal spats and, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that a cut to 60,000 has been mooted. Or that army numbers themselves have been reduced. On paper, its “establishment strength” has come down to 82,500. In practice, that means a real capacity of about 74,000 regulars.
“It’s been 15 per cent or so beneath strength for years,” another defence-minded MP said. “The generals get their budget, complain about the army being downsized – and pocket savings for kit”. So it has been since the Levene Review years, he said. “We haven’t done badly on reserves; the real hole is in the regulars.”
The army has already reorganised itself in the wake of recent defence and security reviews – see the emergence of “Strike” – and optimists argue that more kit all round can substitute for boots on the ground. That Apache attack helicopters, for example, can assail more tanks at once – or that robots will eventually replace men almost entirely.
Conservative MPs are unlikely to be among them. Forty-five members of Parliament have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists. No fewer than 41 of them are Tories, most of whom are ex-army. Off the top of our heads, we name two senior Select Committee chairs by way of example: Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.
Boris Johnson cannot simply impose a cut to 60,000 on Parliament. For a start, there is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, to consider, if he survives any coming reshuffle. Then there is the legislature itself. There are questions, debates, bills that could be creatively amended – not to mention the defence estimates.
Today, Mark Francois will release the second part of his report into army recruitment (he wrote about the first part on this site three years ago) – a reminder that interest in the armed forces on the Tory benches blooms perenially. There are three possible outcomes to the future of the army when the reviews make their recommendations.
The first is the most likely: namely that, in the manner of previous defence reviews, there is a decision to muddle through. Cummings and others get the cyber investment they want; the army’s headline number settles down at roughly the real figure it is now. No-one is exactly happy but no-one is very unhappy either.
The second is that the army is reduced to 60,000 people. This is almost certain not to happen – because Conservative MPs would kill it. If a band of perhaps 20 can force Minister to turn tail on Huawei, 40 or so can easily do so on such cuts to the army.
The third that Cummings and company get their cyber; that the army stays at 80,000; that the other services are also shielded from economies. Given Boris Johnson’s inclination to spend spend spend as well as build build build, one would have thought this a runner.
Except that Rishi Sunak is already keeping the economy afloat on a tide of borrowed money, and this site is told that he and the Treasury team are getting very restive. They will be well aware of the Ministry of Defence’s unreformed history over procurement.
It looks from here as though a political pile-up is coming, and it’s impossible to say who will emerged from it least damaged. Meanwhile, in Estonia, our soldiers watch and wait for the Russian conventional assault that will, God willing, not come. Cummings and the strategic review, by contrast, are knocking at the door.