Written by Adrian Hill
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This article was first published in Briefings for Brexit. We republish it with their kind permission.
Why does our country need an Army that can destroy any foe in any terrain and climate? Because such a versatile army probably won’t have to fight a war, or at least, not for very long. One finds this principle among the records of the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty of ancient China. The Romans explained it with five words – Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you wish peace, prepare for war. Today we use a single rather dry word – deterrence.
Until the early 1960s we had National Service. While good for disciplining the nation’s male youth, its huge training burden devoured the Army. Today we face a similar watershed. British governments got away with several crises because the Armed Forces still had the strength in depth demanded by NATO for the Cold War. That redundancy provided the numbers to cope with the NATO Central Front, Northern Ireland and Confrontation with Indonesia – and later the South Atlantic War – all at the same time.
Since then Tony Blair went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan while his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, continued with peacetime funding of the Armed Forces. Further drastic cuts were inflicted by the governments that followed – who threw more jobs at our forces when those they already faced were unsustainable.
For all the money spent on satellites and spies, despite the recent craze for nerds and weirdoes, few great crises are forecast. Where’s the next? We don’t know. What other known knowns are there?
Before the wall came down West Germany provided a dozen strong armoured and mechanised infantry divisions with two thousand tanks supported by a large air force to help defend NATO’s central front. According to Der Spiegel nowadays barely a few dozen tanks are roadworthy. One can be forgiven for concluding Angela Merkel has quietly disarmed. Perhaps she can explain who will defend Europe – Germany can’t – has she done a private deal with Putin…has she asked France?
The new occupant of the White House must come to terms with this increasingly changed and volatile continent. Eurozone countries bound to Germany are indirectly commercially linked with Russia and China – Germany looks to Russia for its gas and China to replace its exports to the UK. Massive direct investment from France and Germany helps Russia diversify an economy focussed on extracting natural raw materials – and Putin’s government to stay in power. The EU led by Germany has just signed an investment agreement with China.
Against this unsettled and fluid background does this EU takeover bid for the command role in Europe make NATO obsolete? We don’t know but the alliance’s future looks open to question? David Lidington, ardent former Europe Minister, along with former senior British diplomats and even some senior officers already promotes the idea that we should employ defence and NATO as our main channel back into European councils.
The Americans conclude that in a smaller army the divisions must become more versatile, able to cope with all kinds of hostile forces, able to do this anywhere in every climate. Pharaoh’s chariots drowned while pursuing Moses who was on foot. I would add become more strategically mobile as well. Such a common sense strategy demands that we constantly improve our ability to train soldiers in all manner of climates and ground. Demands that we think smaller tanks and swarms of drones backed by lots of air mobiity.
And also demands that we restore naval and air forces capable of supporting them globally against first class powers and if needs, just like the Cold War, sustain our strength for decades. Better armed deterrence than mutual extermination.
All of which demands the diplomatic and intelligence assets to know what is going on – preferably before the muck hits the fan.
Those Big Battalions
For most of the last century British infantry battalions were about 1000 strong reflecting a tried and tested structure from two world wars and garrison service in many lands throughout the Commonwealth and Empire. The same formula that brought the infantry through the advance, retreat and advance in August 1914 served just as well nearly 40 years later when similar huge pendulum swings were also followed by trench stalemate right across the Korean peninsular. After the Korean War infantry doctrine focussed largely on the NATO Central Front and supporting the Royal Armoured Corps in countering the threat from Group Soviet Forces Germany. Anyone who saw the Green Jackets demonstration infantry platoon give their firepower demonstration in 1959 remembers the din and impact shocks to this day. Yet our infantry battalions also performed low intensity duties in many places. Several were flown to support the civil power on the island of Cyprus during Christmas 1963 – two still serve there nearly sixty years later as part of the UN peace-keeping force. Many infantry battalions served in the Far East where we provided a brigade for the SEATO Alliance, nine-thousand infantry served in the jungle every day for three years protecting Brunei and modern Malaysia from Indonesia. Not so long ago we garrisoned Hong Kong.
With four rifle companies of four platoons each forty strong and plenty of support weapons – these were powerful formations able to take and inflict punishment. In April 1951 eight hundred men of the Gloucestershire Regiment held a hill for three days, repeatedly driving off attacks by elements of the 63rd Chinese Army – a heroic feat that allowed the rest of 29 Commonwealth Brigade and flanking UN Forces to withdraw behind the Imjin River. What’s more the Glosters fought with the old bolt action Lee Enfield rifles. Before the battle the Chinese 63rd Army consisted of 27,000 men in three divisions and 29 Brigade was about 4000 strong with four battalions ( one was Belgian ) plus armour and artillery. The brigade lost over 1000 men – mostly captured on Gloster Hill – but the 63rd Chinese Army suffered 10,000 killed before they were pulled from the line.
Outside the Box
Raising enough soldiers for dangerous times requires mental reversal of the last seventy years. Despite stalwart performances from Army Volunteer Reserve soldiers as individuals or formed companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the leadership of the Army still looks upon the AVR as second class citizens. The scandal over slashing training for the AVR to divert £ 20 millions towards regular recruit training remains damning evidence that recent senior leadership seems no wiser than its predecessors. The present CDS, a general, has suspended naval reserve training to save £ 7 millions! Generals must learn to change before the Army will change. So long as senior officers look upon Army Volunteer Reserve soldiers as last resort single replacements – instead of a volunteer reserve that provides a pool of formed units ready for combat, the rest of the Army will not change either.
Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, touched on this during a recent RUSI web event, when talking about recruiting and the future Army. I hope he will go further; the regular Army should become the core of a much larger volunteer reserve. Our professional soldiers of the future should concentrate on command and leadership, strategy and logistics, also specialist duties such as helicopter pilots and main battle tank crews, the jobs which require intensive training. Yes, we need a professional ‘ go anywhere at no warning ’ force or fire brigade as we called it sixty years ago. Equally we need command, logistic and training structures to expand into a much larger army in an emergency thereby opening the way for a national effort on defence. That also gives us the golden key – an ability to train other people’s armies in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Around half our professionals must be ready to carry out ‘ go anywhere at no warning ’ military operations – tasks performed as standing formations such as 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade. These formations, with combat ready AVR formed units added, could provide strategically and tactically agile small divisions. There is a tried and battle tested model.
Airborne soldiers joked in 1943 that if you wanted to find the old pre-war peacetime Army, start at Bulford Camp beside Salisbury Plain. The air landing brigade was the strong point and heavy punch of the airborne division, its strength being almost equal to that of the division’s two parachute brigades combined. Its infantry battalions were the “most heavily armed in the British Army.” Each air landing battalion had an establishment of 1034 men, serving in four rifle companies, a support company and a headquarters company. Straight away we have Liddell-Hart’s thumb and four fingers. A rifle company had four rifle platoons, the support company had six: two anti-tank platoons with four guns in each, two mortar platoons with twelve mortars between them, and two Vickers machine gun platoons with four of the big calibre guns in each platoon. The headquarters company had signals, assault pioneer, transport and administration platoons.
Regular formations normally spend weeks on intensive training before venturing into a combat zone. There used to be a Northern Ireland village like a film set on the shingle beach near Hythe. The best pool of potential volunteer reserve soldiers is the Army itself and one idea raised by Ben Wallace is to allow personnel to move from full-time to part-time or the reverse. When I was a Para sapper the TA was regarded by the Regular Army as its best recruiter. Even the parachute instructors at RAF Abingdon put in a good word for the regular army! Only the government can create the conditions which would allow employers to release young people for intensive training when an emergency deployment becomes probable. Operational deployments require full time training and preparation before an Army Volunteer Rerserve soldier or formed unit becomes battle ready. On the other hand, troops are required for garrison duties in places such as the Falkland Islands, places where one must stay alert. Such exposed garrison tasks could provide AVR formations with experience and operational training. Through a gradual though planned change of emphasis the present line formations, in other words the majority, should convert to become AVR. This would allow the Army to cope with long haul campaigns and build in some redundancy without an enormous increase to its manpower costs.
[To be continued with Part II tomorrow]