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Armed Forces: Land War Readiness

Volume 838: debated on Monday 20 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of land war readiness of regular and reserve troops across the armed forces.

My Lords, our Armed Forces are at all times ready to protect and defend the UK, and we continue to meet all operational commitments, both at home and overseas. The global security environment is undoubtedly challenging, and that is why this Government have committed to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by 2030, including a £10 billion investment in the UK’s munitions infrastructure. We are also heavily investing in equipping and modernising both the Regular Army and the reserves. By 2026, the Army will have built the foundations for the force of 2030, with readiness and resilience fit for the next decade.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my registered interests. The House of Commons Defence Select Committee’s report earlier this year, exploring our readiness for war, was scathing. The committee found that while our operational readiness is proven, our war-fighting readiness is in doubt and our strategic readiness has no measurable outcomes. All services are currently deployed above their capacity with significant capability gaps and have failed in their recruitment targets in every year since 2010. The Government accepted the recommendations of the Haythornthwaite review and promised a detailed response this year. Given the current recruitment and retention rate crisis across all services and the impact on our ability to deploy, when can we expect a detailed plan from the MoD?

My Lords, I am sure I do not need to tell anybody in this House that defence is an active, changing situation, and we need to change to events and threats as we see them. As I said, we invest significantly in Armed Forces readiness and will continue to do so. The Royal Navy has 22 ships—now nearly 28 ships—on order. The RAF has greater lift capacity than at any time, and the British Army was deployed in 67 countries last year. While there is a lot to do, if we think about the international, multinational operations that we are engaged in—Prosperity Guardian, Shader, Kipion and Steadfast Defender, to name just a few—let alone delivering vital aid in Gaza, we should be rightly proud of all their efforts.

My Lords, I declare my interest as director of the Army Reserve. Neither the first nor third division can deploy as a division without large elements of the reserve, and it is a misnomer that all the Regular Army is at higher readiness than the reserve Army. There are even elements of the Army Reserve which are at higher readiness than parts of the Regular Army. Indeed, for Op Tosca in Cyprus, three of the last rotations of our peacekeeping mission have been delivered by the Army Reserve. With this in mind, will my noble friend welcome the fact that this year, for the first year, the Army Reserve budget is protected, meaning that it is not subject to in-year savings measures and enabling it to ensure that it can meet its readiness?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for making an extremely important point, particularly about the financing of the reserves. We should never forget that reserves are essential on and off the battlefield. It is all very well relying on the first echelon, but without the second and third echelons in place and working like clockwork, there will be trouble down the line. The value in which reserves are held is extremely high and I am delighted that they are so ready.

My Lords, the Minister said that the RAF is stronger than ever before. Is he aware that 80 years ago, on D-day, 1,000 C-47s carried our paratroopers to the coast of France? In a fortnight’s time, on the anniversary, there will be a commemoration service. Have the Government managed to find a second plane to drop the paras in France for that commemoration, or can we take it that there will be “up to” two planes?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. We are all sitting here because of the success of D-day. The 80th anniversary commemoration is an extremely important moment. As I said in my response to the last question, the RAF is fully employed elsewhere, as are all the other forces. The Government and the Ministry of Defence are working hard to ensure that there are sufficient platforms for an appropriate remembrance to be carried out.

My Lords, one essential requirement for an effective land war fighting capability is to have enough people to man the existing posts within the force structure. Last year, the outflow from the Army far exceeded the intake. A very large proportion of potential Army recruits give up because the process takes far too long. There are also many medical rejections, some of which seem rather baffling. I know of one case where an athletic young lady was refused because she had broken her leg some years previously. Given the importance of manning the force structure, is it not time that the military, and the Army in particular, focused much more on how to get people in, rather than how to keep them out?

My Lords, I cannot but agree with the noble and gallant Lord. It is obviously extremely important to maintain the correct numbers and have the recruitment and retention process running as smoothly as possible. We are making improvements to recruitment, and I am delighted to say that things are speeding up. We are taking quite a broad look at some of the medical requirements now. I am not aware of the broken leg example, but it is indicative of some of the challenges that we have faced in the past.

My Lords, we have seen from the wars in Ukraine and Gaza that, if Britain did become involved in a land war, it would look very different from any war that we have ever fought in the past. The skills that our troops will need are changing all the time, as the Minister has alluded to, but we will have 9,000 fewer troops to work with by 2025—a policy that my party would reverse. Are the lower numbers compatible with the greater skills that we would need to fight a modern land war?

My Lords, the question of absolute numbers must be overlaid with that of capability. There is no question that we do not need the numbers that we have required in the past. In fact, the First Sea Lord has mentioned that modern warships will have fewer fighting troops on them. I fully agree on the challenges that we face with the existing numbers. War fighting readiness obviously involves modernisation and mobilisation of conventional forces, as well as upgrading nuclear systems. It also involves intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance capabilities, electronic warfare, signals, intelligence, cyber and electronics. It is a very broad base so, to the previous question from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, the breadth of recruitment needs to be very carefully looked at.

My Lords, there are 280 regular chaplains serving in the Armed Forces, including more than 150 from the Church of England, and they are working closely with the wider Church to build strong partnerships, which would be essential in the event of a major deployment. Their work is for the whole Armed Forces and the families who would be left behind, irrespective of faith. Does the Minister agree that chaplains continue to play a crucial role in the life of the Armed Forces both at home and when deployed in conflict zones?

I apologise to the admiral; I am sure his time will come. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the Government website details on our reserve situation are curiously uninformative? They do not make a clear distinction between the regular reserves and the Army reserves, which are two separate concepts and have been for the past 10 years. They do not make clear how many of our units are high-readiness or how many are combat ready. Will he encourage his colleagues to provide clearer information online about the state of the reserves, and give us more information on how we are developing a new relationship between our reserves and regular troops of a kind that is being rapidly developed by several of our NATO allies?

My Lords, I will certainly take a look at the website and ensure that it is made a lot clearer on what the differences are. As regards valuing the reservists, I can assure the House that the Ministry of Defence values them extremely highly and will continue to make certain that the level of readiness is appropriate.