Philip Mitchell: The army has a social fabric no less than the NHS. And it is under threat.

25 Apr

Philip Mitchell is a member of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

By promising more money overall for the Defence Budget, Ben Wallace has sought to persuade us that “less is more” in the context of modernising our Armed Forces, and making them fit for the next conflict

He has deftly explains why some of our Typhoon fighter jets will need to be retired before the all-British Tempest is developed; why 148 uprated main battle tanks are somehow better than the current 247; why ship numbers will go down because Type 23 frigates are taken out of service before numbers increase again; and why an army of 72,000 soldiers is somehow more effective than the current 82,000 (though fighting reductions appear not to affect the number of bureaucrats – with 56,000 civilians in the Ministry of Defence).

This smoke and mirrors exercise may well convince those who believe that future wars will be technocratic affairs, sustained by modern equipment, with only the minimum of human intervention. But Defence planners seem to have overlooked the human impact of peacekeeping troops on the ground in theatres of conflict where the mere sight of a British uniform is a guarantee of professionalism, humanity and restraint; of troops rendering vital aid in countries blasted by a tsunami or earthquake; of soldiers routinely playing a valuable civil role in crises such as foot and mouth disease ,or building emergency hospitals under Covid 19.

If military numbers are reduced to the point where only specialist units with state of the art kit are in the front line, then tasks such as these will be harder to perform and the nation will be poorer for it.

The Defence Secretary has argued that is not 10,000 troops that are disappearing, but only 3500 – because the army is already under strength compared with its notional establishment.

Indeed, it is said that the reduction can be achieved by natural wastage, and that no troops will be made redundant. However, that merely confirms current troop shortages, and it highlights the inadequacy of a recruitment policy which has relied on commercial agencies instead of the recruiting sergeant. Much easier and cheaper, then, to get everyone to fill up a form online, and hope for the best.

Even if we accept the direction of travel of the Review, that a smaller number of well-equipped troops will adequately fulfil the roles envisaged for them in future regional conflicts, there is an entirely separate consideration to be weighed in the balance, and that is the negative effect on communities from which recruits are traditionally drawn and the places with which they are identified. The Army surely has a social fabric no less than the NHS or the police, and it is under threat.

Ten thousand fewer troops represents the loss of 16 infantry battalions (out of 50) of 600 persons each. Over the years, with reduction in numbers from 100,000 at the beginning of the century, many regiments have been amalgamated or the number of battalions reduced to one.

Take away one from one and the result is zero, unless by sleight of hand the size of a battalion is reduced, say, to 400 troops. More likely, though, single or even two- battalion regiments, including some which are long associated with their local areas, will necessarily disappear. None of the Guards regiments, for example, have any reserve battalions. Once this happens, it becomes difficult if not impossible to increase numbers again in a time of national emergency, for there is no local pool to call on.

Already, local affiliations have been weakened by successive defence reviews. The Royal Regiment of Scotland has amalgamated the Argyles, The Black Watch, the Gordon Highlanders and the Borderers. The indeterminate Mercian Regiment has replaced the Cheshires, the Worcesters, and the Staffordshires, each with magnificent war records. Names like the Royal Sussex, the East Surreys and the Buffs, have long gone. We should arguably be re-establishing these units, with a larger overall establishment, not cutting them again.

Wallace will know only too well that military service is often a matter of family pride, and that the Roll of Honour on many village memorials reflect an enduring continuity of service. If numbers are drastically cut, the opportunities for youngsters to enter the armed forces (and especially the army, since it is numerically the largest of the three) are correspondingly reduced.

Once a family connection is severed, it will not revive. Serving in the armed forces is regarded by school leavers as a realistic alternative to other careers because of its comradeship, its training opportunities, and its good pay. Concerned parents have likewise seen their unmotivated or wayward children develop into responsible citizens with a secure future. This is surely endangered if troop numbers fall so low that selection is available only for technical high flyers, or for those with above average intelligence.

The local connection is already tenuous. A sample search online for local army recruitment centres found the following: in East Sussex, only Brighton has an office; in Devon one only at Exeter; in Durham, none; in Hertfordshire, none; for Argyll and Bute, up comes Glasgow, 30 miles away; in Birmingham only one, for a population of a million people; in Powys, none, the nearest being Cardiff.

A further reduction in numbers will see even these centres diminish, so that all applications are eventually made centrally or online, with assessments made at distant training camps.

The army is about people, not machines. People feel more secure within their families and their communities. If the armed forces neglect their roots, they will become no more than a mercenary force.