I was privileged to be invited to speak at a dinner at the Honourable Artillery Company, an ancient regiment with a formidable reputation and illustrious history. (I was surprised: members of my own regiment would never have allowed an after-dinner speech to stand between them and the bar).
I told them that I believe that the war in Ukraine has changed everything: we have seen a whole nation mobilized in a war of national survival. Most of the fighters are not regular soldiers, reserve units -like the Azov at Mariupol, have played a critical role.
We, by contrast, have optimised for expeditionary operations much further afield beyond the NATO area, fighting ‘wars of choice’ against adversaries over which we have significantly greater capabilities.
The Chief of the General Staff in his lecture to the RUSI Land Warfare Conference stated that we must now prepare for war in Europe against a ‘peer adversary’. With that in mind, what can we learn from Ukraine’s experience against that very peer adversary?
I suggest the lessons are:
-The importance of number of manoeuvre formations that can be put into battle
-The quantity of infantry, thickened by anti-armour and anti-air capability, to protect long lines of communication
-Engineers to keep those lines open
-The manpower challenges of protecting civilian populations and infrastructure
-The even greater manpower requirements of urban warfare and the need to rotate exhausted troops
As my colleague Julian Brazier, formerly MP for Canterbury, says “mass is back; Quantity has a quality all of its own”
The last time that the main threat came from Russia the Territorial Army provided potent blocking units equipped with Anti-tank missiles and mortars. Yet, there are current proposals to strip them of them. Which would seem to me to send a signal that the infantry is not taken seriously except to backfill regular units.
I do not underestimate the importance backfill or of augmentees. They are a vital resource, many ‘serial mobilizers’ have made magnificent contributions providing critical support to the regular Army, enhancing the reputation of the Reserves. Many sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But over-focus on backfilling has a danger: Reserve peace-time activity must also work for people with challenging civilian careers too or we will lose the very capabilities that have made the reserves so versatile and deployable.
My prejudice is that we are rapidly losing our ability to mobilise our reserves as fighting units. Their establishments are to be cut by a further 10%: The Army element of the Integrated Review would reduce reserve unit size below the capability to deliver realistic training -striking at the heart of unit spirit.
Were I not the blockage between the bar and my audience I might have gone on to explore a number of short-comings, not least recruiting – Gadzooks! We used to do our own. We’d send a troop out to shopping centres on a Saturday and bring in the Black Country’s finest. They would start training on the very next drill night. Now I get emails from frustrated constituents who have been made to wait almost a year.
Events this year prove that size matters once again, we cannot carry on reducing the Army. Equally, regular soldiers are very expensive at a time when there is little ready money.
The Chancellor, did say in the autumn statement that he would spend more on defence but first he needed to re-open the Integrated Review prepared before the Ukraine war. This is the opportunity to make the case for the reserves.