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British Army: Troop Size

Volume 823: debated on Monday 27 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the British Army’s troop size.

My Lords, the integrated review and defence Command Paper made clear that we must focus on defence capability rather than troop numbers in response to changing threats and priorities. Through Future Soldier, the Army will have a whole force of over 100,000, comprised of 73,000 regular service personnel and 30,100 Army Reserve. It is reorganising and re-equipping to face future threats. This will deliver a modern force that is more integrated, agile, lethal and fit for the threats of the future, not the battles of the past. It will be better connected and faster, integrated across domains with allies in NATO and beyond.

My Lords, of course it is right that investment is going into new equipment for a modernised Army to fight the battles of now and the future. At the same time, however, dozens of battle tanks have been scrapped, the numbers of Chinook and Puma helicopters have been reduced, all C-130 transport planes have been taken out of service and the Army is to be cut to its smallest size for 300 years. The former head of the Army, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, has said that an Army of just 73,000 is “too small”. The new head of the Army meanwhile says that we need to be prepared

“to fight in Europe once again”.

With Russian aggression, increasing threats elsewhere and the risk of terrorism, along with greater use of soldiers domestically, why on earth do the Government think this is the right time to cut 10,000 soldiers?

My Lords, let me emphasise that the Government recognise the need for the rapid modernisation of our Armed Forces. As part of that, we have committed to the biggest investment in the Army since the end of the Cold War: £41.3 billion. This process will entail a radical modernisation, supported by major investments in ground-based air defence, cyber and electronic warfare. As I said, we have to get away from the idea that capability can be defined only in terms of numbers of people; it is much more than that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree, as he has just suggested, that it is not about numbers but capability? Does he agree that the capability of the British Army is well below what it should be for a nation of our standing and a permanent member of the UN Security Council? In the Cold War, not that long ago, we fielded four armoured divisions in Germany. We cannot field a single armoured division at present and there is a land war in Europe at the moment. Will the Minister tell us when we intend to increase the number of main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, field-to-rocket artillery and the logistics to go with them? Frankly, the situation is untenable, and the Government must do something about it very soon.

My Lords, I always listen with care to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, who has immense experience in this area. I assure him that under current plans the Army will be balanced to deliver right across the defence spectrum, to protect the homeland, engage with allies and partners overseas, constrain the aggressive activities of our adversaries and—if necessary—to fight wars. It is an Army that has been designed to fight but also organised to operate more productively and effectively.

My Lords, from these Benches, I reiterate the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Dannatt, about the size of the Army. In his first Answer, the noble Earl referred to the integrated review and the increased defence expenditure. The latter was welcome but what assessment have the Government made of the current exchange rate against the dollar and inflation? It is all very well to bandy headline figures around, but what will that mean in terms of capabilities? Should we not be concerned about not only the size of the Army, which is too small, but defence expenditure more widely?

The noble Baroness will remember that, as part of the spending review of 2020, MoD secured a generous £24 billon uplift to its budget. This will enable the Armed Forces generally to invest in things that they would not otherwise have been able to, including spending £6.6 billion on R&D, establishing a new space command, developing the next generation of naval vessels, developing a new combat air system for the RAF and enhancing our cyber capabilities. So a multitude of work is going on to improve the capability and capacity of all of our Armed Forces.

My Lords, given that, in 1946, Churchill in particular said that our allies the Russians—they were our allies—particularly despise military weakness, does the Minister genuinely think that today is a good time to reduce the Army, as we are doing as we speak?

My Lords, through history, the same effects have been delivered by fewer and fewer people due to the smart employment of new technology. In our own day, robotics and artificial intelligence play into exactly the same trend: in reconnaissance, one drone can do a job done by scores of people in the past. So this emphasis on the integration of emerging technology will make an enormous difference to the capability of the Army and indeed across the Armed Forces.

My Lords, the noble Earl made reference to Future Soldier. Can he tell the House by what date this country will be able to field a full fighting division, with all of the necessary attendant capabilities, including combat and logistics support and adequate weapon stocks?

The noble and gallant Lord is well aware that we are not in a place that we would wish to be in, which is exactly why Future Soldier has defined the path over the next few years. The Army is designed to fight; it will remain that way, and we will ensure that it is equipped to do so.

My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that our Armed Forces are essential to our national resilience as well as to national defence. Prior to the pandemic, requests to bring them in to assist civic authorities were already rising steadily, and they more than doubled during the pandemic: about 34,000 service personnel were deployed to support the pandemic response and, this year, the pre-pandemic increased tempo has been sustained. There is no mention of this trend in the integrated review, but surely, taking account of this increased demand and the increased national defence demand, this justifies a review of the size of the Army, if we are to become the most resilient nation in the world, which is the Government’s ambition.

My Lords, I emphasise that the programme that we have called Future Soldier is the most significant transformation of the British Army in more than 20 years. As I say, it will create an Army that is more integrated with itself and with the other branches of the Armed Forces, and one that is more agile. This means an Army that can turn its hand not simply to combat in the field, which we hope that it will not have to engage in, but also to the tasks at home that the noble Lord so rightly drew attention to.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving member of the Army—I choose that word carefully, because of course the “Army” is not only the regular Army but also the Army Reserve, and I get frustrated sometimes that we seem to misunderstand that. There needs to be an acceptance that the Army Reserve of today is not the Territorial Army of yesterday; a large proportion of Army Reserve members actually serve on a daily basis, bringing unique skills from civilian life and delivering against a defence demand signal. So, although quantity has a quality all of its own, is it not about making sure that we can access the right skills through the right medium to deliver to defence tasks?

My noble friend is absolutely right: our reserves are intrinsically important to the future Army and our Future Soldier transformation programme. Integrating the reserves with regular units to support the delivery of tasks is a major feature of Future Soldier. Each reserve unit will have a clearly defined role and task, particularly—to answer the noble Lord, Lord Browne, incidentally—in relation to homeland resilience, where we expect reserves to take on greater responsibility.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the cuts to the Army are to result in the reduction of only one unit—namely, the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment—but the cuts are to be effected by reducing the numbers in battalions from 550 to 420, with a possible consequence that the support company, which is vital to the effectiveness of the overall battalion, may lack snipers, mortars and machine guns? Is technology going to deal with all this?

My Lords, it is quite correct that the Army will be smaller and, therefore, will require fewer units in the infantry. This means that there is a requirement for one less battalion, as the noble Lord indicated; 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment will be merged, as the Defence Secretary announced last year. I hope that the noble Lord will have gained the sense, from what I have said already, that the reduction in manpower in that area will be more than made up for in the capability that the Army will gain as a whole.