Continuities in British Defence Policy

Speaking at the Land Warfare Conference at the Royal United Services Institute in London last week, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, outlined his vision for the future British Army within the context of the governments latest Strategic Defence and Security Review. As part of a package to plug the £38bn ‘black hole’ at the heart of the national defence programme, Hammond announced that Army manpower would be reduced from 102,000 to 82,000 all ranks by 2020. This is not the first time that British defence ministers have been forced to find substantial savings in Service expenditure. During the late 1950s, Hammond’s predecessor, Duncan Sandys, also faced stark choices when it came to balancing the nation’s military capabilities with fiscal realities.

Sandys first priority on entering office as Minister of Defence in 1957 was to develop a new defence policy which would secure substantial reductions in both expenditure and manpower – the result was the now infamous 1957 Defence White Paper, Defence: Outline of Future Policy. The starting point of the paper was that ‘Britain’s influence in the world depends first and foremost on the health of her internal economy and the success of her export trade’. Since military forces could not be supported in the long term without a firm economic base (‘sustainability’ in 2012 jargon), the paper stated that ‘it is, therefore, in the true interests of defence that the claims of military expenditure should be considered in conjunction with the need to maintain the country’s financial and economic strength’.

Sandys, like Hammond, looked towards cutting Army manpower in the hope that this would go some way to reducing overall defence expenditure. Accordingly, the 1957 White Paper outlined that the British Army of the Rhine was to be reduced from 77,000 to 64,000 men and that National Service would be terminated by 1960. To make up for the loss of boots on the ground, the firepower of the Rhine Army was to be greatly augmented by ‘atomic rocket artillery’. In 2012, the government again is hoping that emerging technologies will act as force multipliers in lieu of manpower. However, it will be information technologies and unmanned aerial vehicles, rather than tactical nuclear weapons, which will provide support for troops on operations.

One aspect of Army restructuring which always proves to be politically delicate is in relation to the Service’s proud regimental identity. In 1957, the decision to terminate conscription meant that the War Office had to face the grim reality of disbanding or amalgamating 51 major combat units, 17 of which were well established infantry regiments with illustrious service records and many hard won battle honours. Needless to say, this soured an already strained relationship between Sandys and his military advisors. Almost sixty years later and Hammond appears keen to stress that the history and heritage of the British Army will remain firmly intact. He told listeners at the Land Warfare Conference that although some units inevitably will be lost or will merge ‘the ethos, traditions, and connections that are part of what makes the British Army so effective – particularly, a regimental system and regionally-focused recruiting’ will be retained.

Enforcing economies upon a particular Service is never an easy or welcomed task and is the perennial problem of peacetime defence planning. Unfortunately, this can often become a catalyst for inter-service and civil-military confrontations that, if left unchecked, can prevent the attainment of a strong, unified defence policy. In 1957, Army leaders were vehemently opposed to Sandys defence policies arguing that there was no military or strategic basis for the manpower cuts outlined in the 1957 Defence White Paper – only economic; it remains to be seen how today’s military leaders will interpret the current defence review. Unfortunately, the reality is that there will never be enough resources to fund everything that the military requires, or thinks it requires. If there was, peacetime military transformation would be a much smoother process.

I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the continuities in British defence policy.

* The views expressed in this blog are solely my own and do not reflect those of the University of Liverpool or any other organisation *