The best army is no army (too bad Wellington didn’t know this)
The Iron Duke led 118,000 soldiers into the Battle of Waterloo. He did manage to squeak by in that one, but it was a close-run thing. How much easier the fighting would have been, and how much more certain its outcome, had he followed the logic of our inimitable Coalition.
Its objective, as encapsulated by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, is to ‘create a more flexible and agile army’, ‘a forward-looking, modern fighting machine’ ‘ready to face the future’. Since no one can possibly accuse Mr Hammond and his colleagues of deliberately undermining our security by reckless penny-pinching, he obviously thinks that this will make the army better. To this laudable end the Coalition will cut our number of soldiers on active duty by 20 percent, to 82,000 men and – I hasten to add for fear of being yet again called an MCP – women.
Comparing this number to those boasted by such formidable powers as Nepal (95,723), Philippines (120,000) and Angola (107,000), one could be forgiven for experiencing a slight sense of trepidation. But that only goes to show how little one understands long-term military strategy.
The key words in Hammond’s strategic initiative are ‘flexible and agile’. You can’t deny that the smaller the army, the more flexible and agile it would be. Just imagine the logistics involved in moving our army around if we had as many soldiers as, say, Colombia (285,220) or, God forbid, Greece (177,600). Why, by the time such a force could be loaded into planes and flown across the world, the bandits would be not just at 4 o’clock but all over the dial.
Think how easy it would be if our army had just enough soldiers to fill one transport plane, let’s say 200 lightly armed men – and, needless to say, women. Give them each a rifle, a couple of hand grenades, maybe a knife, and off they go, defending the realm in a war on evil.
This bit of logical inference shows that Mr Hammond is dissembling: the proposed cut is but an intermediate step. An army of 82,000 will still be much too cumbersome. It’ll be short of both flexibility and agility, those two strategic desiderata that must be pursued before all else. I’d say about 200 men (and women) must be the ultimate load for our ‘forward-looking, modern fighting machine’.
The question arises: exactly what does this machine look forward to? What sort of military challenges does our Coalition, so ably fronted by Mr Hammond, see before us? What sort of dangers will our lean, mean fighting machine protect us from?
After all, an army is but a tool designed for a certain job. No nation can afford to keep a huge standing force that’ll never be needed – and, conversely, no nation can be so stupid as to leave itself hopelessly exposed by reducing its army down to a level where it won’t be able to do the jobs likely to arise. Since we’ve already established that the Coalition, with its implacable logic, is able to drive strategic thought forward, clearly our future army will be up to all future threats.
Here the proposed size of our army can be profitably compared with that of Great Britain’s police (about 160,000 officers on active duty, all told). This comparison will reveal the true depth of HMG’s thinking: the danger Britain faces from her own citizens and a few visitors to her shores has to be twice as great as anything Iran, Russia, China, and Argentina can throw our way. Their army strengths are, respectively, 523,000; 1,027,000; 2,285,000; 77,000, but that’s fine: we have the Argies outgunned, and none of the others has threatened war this month.
I ought to be the last man to argue against Mr Hammond’s dazzling strategic insights. The other day someone did nick a pair of sunglasses (£15 at Peter Jones) from my car, and the Chinese have never hurt me in any way, so the Coalition’s strategy has been vindicated already. Still, while patting our ministers on the back, we ought to mute our congratulations somewhat, by a decibel or two.
What if – and I know this sounds unduly alarmist – we do have to fight a war? Considering all commitments already in place, we’ll now be able to field a force equal to about half an infantry division (8,000 or so). Considering our superior training and equipment, we could probably handle Cyprus (10,005), and that’s a comforting thought. But what if – that dread phrase again – we have to take on Dominican Republic fielding its entire army of 49,910? Best not to think about it.
I hope this has helped you determine exactly where, according to our government, we belong in the pecking order of nations. Well, at least you can get this nice warm feeling from knowing that, while leaving Britain defenceless, HMG is gently pushing its welfare spending ever so closer to a trillion quid. Good to know where our priorities lie.
The Duke of Wellington, please ring your office. There’s an important message from your successors.