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Armed Forces: Troop Levels

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 21 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of current and expected future troop levels of the UK armed forces in relation to fulfilling their NATO obligations.

My Lords, defence is committed to remaining a leading contributor to NATO. Our approach and force development are aligned to NATO’s strategic concept and force requirements. We have committed almost all our Armed Forces to NATO in our strongest ever contribution. We will continue to offer NATO the full spectrum of defence capabilities, including our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and our cutting-edge cyber and space capabilities, as well as our conventional Armed Forces.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interest as an honorary captain of the Royal Navy as set out in the register. I thank the Minister for her Answer, but the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body states there are currently 40 delivery pinch points: the Army has 12, the naval service has 12, and the RAF reported none, but UK Strategic Command has 16. The situation is even worse when considering sustainability pinch points related to future military objectives. Simply put, we do not have enough of the right people in the right places. Given our enhanced NATO commitment and the current geopolitical outlook in the Indo-Pacific, is the Minister really convinced that our recruitment and retention policies are working?

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s support of the Royal Navy; it is a very welcome contribution. We know anecdotally that the pay increase awarded to the Armed Forces has been very positively received. The noble Baroness referred to recruitment, and I am not denying that it is a challenge: we are living in a very competitive job market. The Armed Forces are conscious of that. We have been reviewing the recruitment campaigns with very recent effect, and the new version of these campaigns is out now or going out imminently. We are also very clear that addressing pay and recruitment in themselves are not enough, and that is why we are looking at how we can better meld the job offer—the overall package to recruit applicants—to reflect better what life is like now in the workplace, hence the Haythornthwaite review, which is a very interesting and positive contribution to what we might be doing. The MoD is embracing its principal recommendations already.

Does my noble friend not understand that one of the problems with serving in the Armed Forces at the moment is a perception that they are in part of a declining industry? This is not a new thing, but we are actually declining the Armed Forces at the moment by shrinking them. This is completely nuts. Does my noble friend consider that perhaps the new Secretary of State may take a look at this and say, “Well, with a war going on in Europe, it may be time to revisit the so-called refresh: we need troops; we need sailors, we need airmen, and we need to get them soon”? If you have a sense that the Armed Forces are going forward, then people will stay because they feel they are doing something worth while.

With the greatest respect, I slightly disagree with my noble friend and wish to disabuse him of the idea that there is some decline going on; there is not. In fact, the example that the UK has set globally in respect of our support for Ukraine has been universally admired. That is dependent on not just military donations, but also on the NATO support which we are able to provide. As my noble friend will be aware, we are playing our role in these NATO contributions, for example through JEF and EFP—now important both in the Baltic and the Balkans. But our concentration is on whole force, and that is how we have to look at the modern threat and the modern areas of conflict.

My Lords, the Question on the Order Paper is very much about troop numbers, not the wider defence offer. Could the Minister tell us whether 72,000 regulars really is sufficient? Should we not go back to at least 80,000? What is the whole force offer—is there a commitment to increasing the number of reserves, because we have not really seen that either?

When I refer to “whole force”, I am referring to the holistic contribution to our capability from our three Armed Forces and all our other ancillary areas of support. I think the mindset now has to be not of the size of any one individual service, because that is not how we are amalgamating and deploying the capability. That is not how we are now aligning with NATO and fitting into the new modernised, transformed NATO. For example, if you take troops in particular, and Future Soldier 2021, we have an Army force of 73,000 regulars and 30,100 reservists. We are satisfied that these, in conjunction with the investments we are making in armed capabilities, deep effects and sub-threshold capabilities, do enable the UK to continue to force generate and modernise an expeditionary land force, for example, as NATO demands.

My Lords, as has been raised from time to time by various newspapers and by some Sikh historians, given the fact that Sikhs have served diligently in the British Army in both world wars and have proven their loyalty and valour, and given that there is a large Sikh community in the UK, there is talk that the British Army may create a Sikh regiment in the future. Does the Minister know anything about that?

First, I do pay tribute to the very distinguished contributions that Sikhs have made in our British military history. In relation to the Armed Forces across the piece, we are blessed with—indeed, the Armed Forces are enhanced by—having members from many faith backgrounds. Our objective within MoD is absolutely to deliver proper inclusivity, because what all these representations from different faiths have in common is that they swear allegiance to the monarch and to uphold the safety and security of our country. That is a very strong bond that unites them all. We approach this on a holistic base: we take with pleasure all those who wish to contribute to our Armed Forces’ endeavour and, yes, we are very proud to have contributions from all the faith communities.

My Lords, we know that NATO is modernising its structures. How are we responding to this and updating our own structures?

My noble friend is quite correct that NATO has been on a journey of modernisation and transformation, and I think it is a very important journey. The combination of the new NATO force model, the defence investment pledge that was agreed at Vilnius and the NATO political guidance for 2023, in which the UK was a leading influence, represent a modernised, more muscular NATO, to which the UK pledges a full spectrum of capabilities. That includes nuclear, offensive cyber, special forces and space capabilities. For example, the UK was the first ally to offer offensive cyber capabilities to NATO.

My Lords, like the men and women of the Armed Forces, the Minister has a great can-do attitude, which I admire. But is it not plain to any observer of events that there is a chronic discord between our foreign policy ambitions and the operational capability of our Armed Forces? We know that we have the smallest Army since the Napoleonic period. We have a tiny fleet. We have a shortage of aircraft, to the extent that we have an aircraft carrier that has only eight planes on it in its operations. Is it not time to have a genuine strategic defence review, in an attempt to bring our ambitions into line with our operational capability? Otherwise, we will just delude ourselves, as well as trying to delude others.

Well, I am not in the business of delusion, and I hope noble Lords will accept that. I think the integrated review, and then the integrated review refresh, followed by the defence Command Paper refresh, do actually align what our strategic policy objectives in terms of our foreign policy are, and the defence Command Paper refresh begins to fill out how MoD will support these objectives. We actually have two aircraft carriers which are the envy of many other global powers. When we put our F35s on to them, contrary to popular perception, what we put on to the aircraft carriers is the aircraft capability we need for the deployment the carrier is on. I said earlier that the capability in MoD may be just about unrecognisable to many people who were familiar with a different format. But to take the platitude that is often trotted out that we have the smallest Army since Napoleon, well, no wonder—in the time of Napoleon and Wellington, we sent thousands of people to the front line to be slaughtered or injured. Now, with technology, we thankfully do not have to do that. Future Soldier encompasses that very different vision and concept for how a modern military operates.