‘Out-Gunned And Out-Ranged’—Britain Could Cut 20,000 Soldiers Plus Airlifters And Helicopters
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The United Kingdom’s conservative government is moving forward with a potentially controversial strategic defense review. If previous reviews are any indication, the U.K. armed forces are about to suffer deep cuts.
Problem is, there’s not much left to cut. Her Majesty’s Armed Forces already are too small, largely out of date and suffering from yawning capability gaps.
The issue, as always, is money. Economic figures from April, the first full month of government-mandated lock-down aimed at slowing the novel-coronavirus pandemic, show a 2o-percent fall in the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product. Government borrowing could grow to double what London borrowed during the 2008 financial crisis.
Against this fiscal free-fall, “defense is not likely to be top of the government’s list of spending priorities,” the Royal United Services Institute warned.
Periodic reviews since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have shrunk the British military roughly by half.
The most recent rounds of cuts starting in 2010 eliminated, among other forces, two light aircraft carriers, two amphibious ships and four frigates, plus the Royal Air Force’s maritime patrol planes and carrier-compatible Harrier jump jets. Uniformed manpower dropped by 30,000.
The British Army shrank by 29,000 soldiers. The army also lost 89 of its 316 Challenger 2 tanks and a third or so of its roughly 130 self-propelled howitzers.
“The 2010 [Strategic Defense and Security Review] was not an attempt to design Britain’s armed forces around existential threats,” analyst Nicholas Drummond tweeted. “It was about using the navy, army and air force to reduce the deficit resulting from the global financial crisis.”
Before the current pandemic, defense funding stabilized at around $55 billion annually. In 2017 and 2018, the government was able to allocate to the armed forces an extra $2 billion above planned spending levels, enough to employ 196,000 active and reserve sailors, soldiers, airmen and civilian personnel.
The extra money in part came from a $13-billion reserve fund for four new Dreadnought-class ballistic-missile submarines that the Royal Navy is developing at a total cost of around $39 billion, which is nearly as much as the entire British military spends in a year.
The navy in recent years has managed to buy back, in the form of two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, some of the capability it had lost. The air force did the same in acquiring nine new P-8 maritime patrol planes.
But the British military nevertheless is an increasingly hollow force. The aircraft carriers lack adequate numbers of embarked fighters, escorts and support vessels. The army’s Challenger 2 tanks and self-propelled howitzers haven’t received significant upgrades in decades. There aren’t enough heavy trucks to haul the armored vehicles around Europe.
“The U.K.’s ground forces are comprehensively out-gunned and out-ranged, leaving enemy artillery free to prosecute fire missions with impunity,” the Royal United Services Institute argued in a November 2019 report. “This must ultimately lead to the defeat of U.K. units.”
Pre-pandemic, defense officials planned on building and maintaining a fleet including the two carriers, six Type 45 destroyers, eight Type 26 frigates, five low-cost Type 31 frigates, seven Astute-class attack submarine, 24 patrol vessels, 12 mine-hunters, five amphibious assault ships and nine logistics ships, together embarking six helicopter squadrons and 48 F-35 stealth fighters.
The air force would possess at least 20 Reaper-style armed drones, seven squadrons of Typhoon fighters each with around a dozen planes and two squadrons of F-35s plus 26 patrol, surveillance and command planes, 44 cargo planes and 14 tankers.
The army would have two tank brigades, two mechanized brigades, six infantry brigades, a parachute brigade and 15 helicopter and drone squadrons, each with around 15 aircraft. In Western armies, a tank brigade typically possesses as many as 100 tanks.
This force now seems unlikely. “Today, we are faced with another crisis that has holed the government’s budget below the waterline,” Drummond tweeted. “It requires belt-tightening on a grand scale. There are no votes in defense, so again we should expect it to be an easy source of extra cash.”
If cuts to the armed forces are inevitable, London must decide how to cut them. There are two options. Eliminate entire categories of forces while preserving those forces that remain. Or reduce all existing forces by the same proportion. “Salami-slicing,” experts call the latter.
The 2020 defense review “will have to make choices and set priorities, even though both are difficult for governments who prefer to keep their options open,” RUSI stated. “But the classic response of salami-slicing defense while retaining all of the options, even at lower mass or readiness, is becoming unsustainable given the current size of the U.K.’s armed forces.”
Indeed, if rumors are true, the U.K. defense ministry is weighing wholesale reductions. A new round of cuts could all but eliminate the Royal Marines, remove from service the air force’s C-130 airlifters and Puma helicopters and decommission the navy’s mine-hunters.
But there still could be some significant salami-slicing. The army could lose 19,000 of its 74,000 active troops, likely meaning the elimination of several brigades.
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