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Overcoming quantity with quality: Can the British military withstand troop cuts?

Under the British government’s force structure plan, Downing Street has resolved to reduce the size of the British Army by 9,500 soldiers to 72,500. Such a reduction marks the smallest British Army since 1714. With a reduction in Royal Navy and Royal Air Force capabilities also expected, how can the United Kingdom leverage qualitative superiority to remain “global”?

Under the British government’s force structure plan, Downing Street has resolved to reduce the size of the British Army by 9,500 soldiers to 72,500. Such a reduction marks the smallest British Army since 1714. With a reduction in Royal Navy and Royal Air Force capabilities also expected, how can the United Kingdom leverage qualitative superiority to remain “global”?

Under the British government’s force structure plan, Downing Street has resolved to reduce the size of the British Army by 9,500 soldiers to 72,500 by 2025. Such a reduction marks the smallest British Army since 1714.

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To compensate, Downing Street hopes to court a model of qualitative advantage in which smaller units of deployed troops are supported by better technology including robot-human teaming and increased electronic warfare capabilities.

Explaining the shake up, Lieutenant General Ralph Wooddisse, CBE, MC, noted, “Future Soldier is the next step in the evolution of the British Army; it is the most radical change for the British Army in 20 years. It will change the way we fight and operate, and make us more lethal, agile and lean.

“It will be underpinned by changes to structure, technology, and workforce. Future Soldier is fundamentally about ensuring the British Army is a competitive and resilient organisation able to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, wherever they may be.”

Despite this, the British government’s cuts have hit all sectors of defence. Last year it was announced that the Royal Navy would lose an estimated two to three frigates over the next five years, while the RAF is expected to retire the C-130J Hercules next year, reduce the number of Typhoons by 24 and halve the original order of F-35Bs.

Considering these capability reductions, it is not yet evident how the United Kingdom could follow a policy of “increased deployability and technological advantage” (as Defence Secretary Ben Wallace outlines).

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To compare Britain’s military footprint to that of a global superpower, in 2019 an image of a Chinese shipyard was posted online in which a single shipyard was constructing nine destroyers. Former Forbes contributor HI Sutton provided a sobering thought: “To put that into context, the Royal Navy’s entire destroyer fleet is just six ships. And this yard is just part of a much bigger construction program.”

However, such cuts to the size of the military have faced political scrutiny.

According to the BBC, the Labour opposition emerged against many of the proposed reforms, saying that “size matters” in the military. An interesting insight given 91 per cent of veterans represented in the House of Commons are members of the Conservative Party.

Writing in War on the Rocks this week, Chris Morris explained that British defence policy has planned for the war it wants rather than the war it will necessarily get.

“This, at least, was Britain’s approach when it drafted its global trends report in 2018. Now, several years into that imagined future, the limitations of such wishful thinking are becoming ever more clear. Rather than realistically confront its budget limitations, the British government remains committed to planning for an unrealistic scenario in which it can cut spending and reduce its conventional forces without sacrificing global military power,” Morris wrote.

In response to this policy, he recommends that the British government “insulate” those undertaking future military projections from the broader government apparatus including those determining budgets and marketing the widespread changes.

Silver linings

However, the UK’s Global Strategic Trends report published in 2018 does possess some crucial strategic insights including the need for a resilient cyber space capability and a strong defence industry capability that can rapidly scale up in times of conflict.

“The construction of a National Cyber Centre, for example, serves as an indication that the United Kingdom believes offensive cyber operations represent an effective, more economical alternative to the use of conventional force. Concurrent investments in space further emphasise that the United Kingdom imagines fighting future wars with different tools,” Morris notes.

“Consistent with this recognition, the 2021 integrated review recommends the United Kingdom also allocate significant funds to the Royal Navy, as well as securing the aspects of British industry needed to support the fleet.”

Nevertheless, these benefits are likely to be eclipsed by the threats posed by large-scale changes in Britain’s force structure and the inability for a nation to speedily undo the impacts of ageing infrastructure and fleets.

“The extent to which these new capabilities can offset the loss of concrete and established capabilities is also uncertain. As many pieces of older equipment age out of service, a clear schedule for replacements is often difficult to determine. The United Kingdom may keenly feel these losses, given that it may see its forces deployed more frequently and for longer periods,” Morris contends.

While admirable that the UK should seek qualitative superiority in the domains of cyber and space, it should not come at the expense of reducing kinetic fighting capabilities.

Coalition building

Neither the faltering British economy nor the country’s middling population favour a larger standing military, however, the United Kingdom has boosted its policy of coalition building to overcome these shortfalls and project its interests the world over.

Late 2021, the British and Ukrainian government embarked on negotiations to commence the UK’s first arms deal with the country. This week, it was announced that the British would sell anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian government and provide training on their use. The deal coincided with a fiery speech from SEC Ben Wallace on the rights of an independent Ukraine.

Last November, the United Kingdom deployed troops to Poland and Lithuania to support the countries amid last year’s weaponised migrant crisis with Belarus. Speaking to the BBC, Secretary Wallace noted, “What we will do is send some Royal Engineers - that is part of the Army designed for building or making fences or roads or putting in infrastructure. We are going to be using that part of our forces to help the Poles and potentially other Baltic states to secure their border.”

At the same time, the Polish and British governments announced that they would undertake technology sharing arrangements to design and develop “Poland’s future Ground-Based Air Defence System”, with Secretary Wallace noting that “this agreement will deliver a step change in our defence co-operation with Poland and paves the way for our militaries to operate even more closely".

Just last year, the Five Power Defence Arrangements between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the US celebrated its 50th anniversary a month before the Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Joe Biden to announce the AUKUS trilateral security arrangement.

While Britain may intend to scale back on the size of its military, the nation's projection of power through coalition building remains stable.

Your say

While the United Kingdom scales back its military in favour of possessing a qualitatively superior soldier, British posture has nevertheless held firm with ongoing military and weapons relationships the world over.

Do you believe that Britain’s defence cuts should be reversed or is Downing Street’s policy on the right path? As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Overcoming quantity with quality: Can the British military withstand troop cuts?
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