Yesterday, the British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, announced the latest in a series of cuts to the British military. The new British Army will consist of some 80,000 regulars plus about 30,000 reservists. According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the new, “leaner” British Army will be able to deploy a single three brigade division to a non-enduring, high intensity conflict. Great Britain’s rapid reaction capability will consist of a single air assault brigade. More depressing still, all that the MoD promises to field for an enduring expeditionary operation is a single brigade. Secretary Hammond’s announcement fudged the reality that in order to maintain even this small contingent of combat-capable forces, the Army was drastically cutting back on combat support capabilities such as logistics and communications in the Regular Army, pushing these functions into the Reserves or relying on private contractors. What remains now is a small, if shiny spearhead attached to a slight and breakable shaft.
These reductions are a continuation of the general decline of European military power that began with the end of the Cold War. The size of the entire Regular Army is now about the same as that of one formation, the British Army of the Rhine, that stood guard on the inner German border for most of the Cold War. As recently as 2003, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Great Britain deployed nearly 50,000 combatants alongside U.S. forces. Today, it would be lucky to field half that number. When the new reductions take effect, by 2017, Great Britain will not be able to match its current deployment of forces in Afghanistan. In fact, at its new proposed size, the British Army could not even deploy the same number of troops that it did in the 1970s to secure peace in Northern Ireland.
What remains of the British Army will still deploy some usable formations. Current modernization plans include the upgrade to the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle and Apache attack helicopters, as well as additional Chinook transport helicopters and an intelligence fusion system. But quantity has a quality all its own. So when the active Army becomes the size of a Forlorn Hope the consequences for the credibility of British security policy are going to be serious and negative.
The British military has long been something of the canary in the mine when it came to the implications of budget pressures on its Free World counterparts, particularly the U.S. military. The British Army has been reduced to a one major contingency force, and even then only if it buddies up to the United States. Although the new U.S. Defense Strategy claims to have sculpted a force capable of handling two major regional conflicts at a time — if our allies also contribute — it is becoming obvious that the U.S. military is rapidly devolving into a one trick pony. The sun seems to have set on the British Army and the shadow of a long twilight is creeping up on the U.S. military.