It seems the Army has lucked out. Just as the axe is about to fall on the British defence budget the Army just happens to be in its longest and bloodiest campaign in history. Using the moral high ground of "we can't cut the army when we are fighting in Afghanistan" it seems the head of the army has convinced Ant and Dec to spare the service from cuts until 2015.
I am full of admiration for the quality and capability of the British Army as well as the ongoing job they are doing in Afghanistan. However to suggest sparing the army at the expense of the navy because they are fighting in Afghanistan is nonsense. 3 Commando brigade which make up roughly a third of the Navy's personnel is being deployed to Afghanistan for the third time. How many times has 7th armoured brigade been deployed to Afghanistan. answer zero. The Amry which has 100,000 serving soldiers as well as a brigade of Gurkha's and a TA reserve of 33,000 men seems unable to sustain a single brigade in theatre even with the support of the Royal Marines. The question that we should be asking is why a force of nearly 140,000 soldiers can't sustain a force of 10,000 or less indefinitely.
The answer is because large sections of the British Army sit on their arses and do nothing except get ready to fight the Soviet Union in the planes of North Germany. While formations like 16th Air Assault, 19th light brigade and 3 Commando are run ragged other formations like 1 UK armoured Division are sitting round gathering dust in warehouses in Germany.
While I realise that certain battalions and personnel from these formations are serving in Afghanistan by in large these formations are short of work.
Forces like 7th Armoured brigade and very useful in a major shooting war. Even an Iraq style invasion. However these type of conflicts are rare. At most we can expect to see a deployment like this on average once every 10 years. Can we justify spending such a large portion of a shrinking defence budget on forces that are used once or twice in a Generation.
Operations that we can expect to fight almost constantly are high intensity COIN operations such as Afghanistan and Iraq post 2003 as well as low end peace keeping such as Bosnia and Sierra Leone. Having a full time professional British Army of sufficient size to fulfill all these requirements is perhaps beyond our means or indeed our needs.
Full time professional soldiers are expensive. Perhaps too expensive for many of the crappy duties we expect them to do. Combat troops are there for just that combat. It costs nearly £70,000 per year to train, feed, pay and equip the average British soldier.
With this in mind it seems a waste of money and resources having one of these highly trained and equipped soldiers arguing with two guys in Sierra Leone over a goat. Or sitting drinking in a bar in Germany preparing to fight a war that will never come.
A cheaper Alternative
Believe it or not there are cheaper alternatives.
A reservist costs roughly 20% of a full time regular soldier.
A full time foreign peace keeper costs around 30% of what a full time regular British soldier costs.
Many people would say that a reservists or weekend warrior lacks the training and ability of a full time soldier. However we should note that roughly 40% of US forces in Afghanistan at the moment are activated reservists.
Another point to note is that the academic requirements to join the British Army as an officer and go to Sandhurst is a level below that which most if not all universities would accept candidate's.
Here is an interesting quote from Lt Col Richard Williams former commander of the SAS
"In my own experience, the highest end of special operations activity conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, 40% of them were National Guardsman [US reservists].
"The fact that they cost broadly... one fifth of a regular capability to maintain... you can see there are advantages.
[On the decline of reservists]: "The moment you start cutting people's money to train and giving them full unit roles, morale and recruiting suffers and numbers go down.
"Across society the younger civilians... are much quicker at picking up information technology systems and concepts than those who've been drilled in armoured warfare on the north German plains. We might find that we're able to pull in just the type of potential for a transformation of the armed forces that we need."
If a former commander of the SAS feels reservists can be as effective as regular army then who are any of us to argue.
Many would point out that foreign mercenaries could not be relied upon to act and fight in an appropriate way. However does any one doubt the capability or commitment of the Gurkha's or the French foreign legion. Excluding the Gurkha's around 11% of the British Army come from abroad already. Are these soldiers any less dedicated or committed than the home grown variety?
The British Army can match and beet any fighting force in the world man for man. However what it lacks is men. While being able to deploy a division into a theatre is useful for support of a coalition force its hardly an invasion force in its own right.
Being able to sustain a deployed brigade is better than most forces can manage however our main problem in both Afghanistan and Iraq was lack of "Combat Power" basically having enough boots on the ground. For this reason we have had to draw back from certain areas to concentrate on a smaller area. Relying on the US forces to pick up the slack.
If we reduce the size of the regular Amry to just 6 identical deploy-able medium brigades along the lines of 16th Air Assault Brigade we could free up funds to increase the size of the Army else where.
We could convert the TA into a heavy armoured force built around three brigades. This force could be deployed in the way that 4th, 7th and 20th armoured brigades are now under the 1st UK Armoured Division. We would likely only need to call on these forces once a decade. Not to fight dirty a COIN type conflicts but to charge through the desert in a quick clean war like 1991 or kick the door in to make way for follow up forces as Kosovo might have been.
A Peace Keeping Corps of 5 brigades made up of foreign volunteers would provide a much cheaper more capable force for follow on operations taking the pressure of the regular army which may be required to fight in multiple theatres at the same time. These troops would have only light APC's and Land Rovers. They would not need heavy artillery, tanks or gun ships. If we base them in Africa and Asia close to the areas we are likley to need them then we can pay them significantly less than a British Soldier based in the UK. We may find that people from the third world have a far more capable mindset in dealing with other people from the third world in Peace Keeping operation's.
Adopting this strategy would allow us to deploy 1 Armoured and 2 Mechanised brigades around an Armoured Division, 2 Air Assault Brigades joined by a commando brigade to form a second Division for and Iraq style deployment. For follow on peace keeping forces we could deploy an Air Assault Brigade from the regular Army and a Police Brigade from the Peace Keeping Corps.
This is roughly double our present capability. It might represent 3- 4 times our capability after the SDSR. The best art is that we could do the entire thing from the existing Army budget.
We would have the combat power to properly commit to places like Afghanistan as well as being better able to conduct large scale invasions on our own or with partners other than the USA. It would enhance our capability to be a true US light mini super power style military power.
One step further
We could even take this one step further. Increasing the Army budget by around 10% roughly £1 billion per year would allow us to raise three additional reserve brigades. This would allow us to potentially deploy a core of three divisions in time of war with out over stretching the full time army. However for a force such as this we would require additional C4 assets as well as extra logistcs support.