Back To The 1930s?
At a speech at Lancaster House on 15 January, Grant Shapps, the UK Defence Secretary told his audience that we had transitioned “from a post-war world to a pre-war world”. He called Russia, China, Iran and North Korea “belligerent autocratic states” which, together with their proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen, are currently threatening Britain and the West (for which read NATO and its Pacific allies such as Japan and Australia) as a whole. Mr Shapps’ phrase was echoed on 18 January by Admiral Rob Bauer, a senior NATO official, who added that the alliance “was preparing for a conflict with Russia”.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of the defence staff, spoke last month about our living in “extraordinarily dangerous times”. Then a speech made at the International Armoured Vehicles conference by the head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, was leaked to the media last week. He called for a “citizen army” to be trained and equipped for a war with the Russia-China-Iran-North Korea axis. He would like the British Army to expand from its current 75,000 soldiers to 120,000 within the next three years. Further, Sir Richard Shirreff, a retired British Army general and former NATO deputy supreme allied commander, wrote a letter to The Times last week suggesting that Britain should carefully consider the reintroduction of conscription.
Other NATO commanders have made similar statements recently. Last week, the Commander in chief of Norway’s armed forces said that the West had “two, maybe three years” to prepare for war with Russia. And Boris Pistorius, the German defence minister warned cadets in Hamburg that peace in Europe was “no longer an irrefutable certainty”. After the drone attack on a US military base in Jordan (where we learnt the US has over 3,000 military personnel) last Sunday (28 January), Donald Trump – who has a more than 50 percent chance of regaining the White House on 05 November – declared “We are on the brink of World War III”.
But if there is to be war, how prepared is the UK? Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the US Navy Secretary, Carlos de Toro, urged the UK “to reassess where they are today given the threats that exist”. He added that Britain should decide “whether the army needs to be strengthened”. That means that the Biden administration thinks the UK government is not spending enough on defence. And if Biden thinks that – what will Trump think?
Currently, after years of cuts, the Royal Navy and the British Army are the smallest they have been since the Napoleonic Wars and the reduced Royal navy is struggling to keep its vessels afloat.
The Conscription Debate
Most senior British Army officers are instinctively opposed to conscription and would prefer an entirely volunteer force. In World War I conscription was not introduced until 1916 – a full two years into the war. In contrast, it was imposed as soon as WWII broke out on 03 September 1939 for men aged between 18 and 41. But National Service in peacetime only lasted from January 1949 to 1960 and applied to men aged between 17 and 21 who had to serve for at least two years. The last conscripts were released from duty in 1963.
The reason why people like Generals Sanders and Shirreff have now raised the issue is that Britain’s armed forces are facing a recruitment crisis. There are simply not enough young men and women coming forward to fill the shoes of those who are leaving the forces. Last year 5,800 more people left the armed forces than joined. What’s more, many military personnel complain that they have to live in inadequate accommodation – which is one reason why they choose to leave the forces.
The British Army is down to around 75,000 men and women and is likely to fall further. In the event of a ground war in Europe Britain would have the capacity to deploy only 20,000 troops to the front line. We know this because that is the number of troops committed to Operation Steadfast Defender – the largest NATO simulation exercise since the end of the Cold War. And yet, Armed Forces minister James Heappey has suggested that in order to fight a full-scale war Britain would need to deploy up to half a million troops, including reservists. That would not be possible without conscription – and yet Prime Minister Sunak has already ruled it out.
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which the Asquith government deployed at short notice to Flanders in August 1914 consisted of 84,000 men. It was famously dismissed by Kaiser Wilhelm II as Britain’s “contemptible little army” – hence the affectionate nickname of that BEF as the “Old Contemptibles”. The BEF that the Chamberlain government deployed to France in the winter of 1939-40 amounted to nearly 340,000 men. Yet that was not enough to stop the Wehrmacht from sweeping into France in May 1940. About 280,000 of those men were able to escape back to Britain, as anyone who has seen the Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk will know.
The Royal Navy was forced to mothball two serviceable frigates last month – HMS Westminster and HMS Argyll – because it could not muster a sufficient number of sailors to crew them. Recruitment for the Royal Navy fell by over a fifth in the year to March 2023. And yet the Navy Command HQ in Portsmouth (NCHQ) is redeploying marines and sailors to become diversity and inclusion officers. Currently, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force handle their own recruitment process. In contrast, the British Army’s recruitment programme has been outsourced to Capita PLC (the company that also administers the much-resented BBC license fee) until at least 2026.
One reason for the recruitment crisis is almost certainly that a large section of the population, both young and not-so-young, would not be inclined to fight in the event of a war. In a recent survey conducted by GB News, 30 percent of Britons agreed with the statement “I would do whatever possible to avoid fighting for my country”. Only 17 percent agreed with the statement “I would willingly fight for my country”. Just under 15 percent of the British population today was born abroad and emigrated here by choice. But would they – or their children – want to fight for King and Country? Many of the people waving Palestinian flags in central London every Saturday afternoon give the impression they might want to fight against us.
Some commentators have linked the decline of martial sentiment to the rise of wokery. The young have been fed an insipid diet of post-colonial guilt, anxiety about toxic masculinity and a dollop of critical race theory which argues that all white people are racist. Many believe that we lack the moral authority to stand up against ISIS, let alone Putin. In the USA, veterans command high social status and are regarded as a warrior caste worthy of esteem. Here, the brave men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan remain uncelebrated.
Neutral Switzerland still has National Service. There, able-bodied young men must spend 18 weeks at boot camps every year learning to use weapons and getting fit. They are required to keep and maintain their weapons at home (and yet, unlike in America, gun crime is minimal). The last referendum on this regime was held in 2013 when 73 percent of Swiss citizens voted to retain it.
The introduction of even limited conscription – or at least the massive expansion of the Army Reserve (Territorial Army) – would signal to any potential enemy that we are serious about defending ourselves. Just as importantly, it would raise the profile of the armed forces in the population at large.
Even if the recruitment crisis could be overcome – which in the most optimistic scenario will take time – new recruits would have to be fully equipped. Yet our existing undermanned armed forces are woefully under-equipped.
The British Army is down to just 213 Challenger 2 battle tanks and 625 Warrior armoured vehicles. To put that in perspective, the Russians have lost an estimated 2,200 tanks in two years of war with Ukraine; yet they still have another 1,000 in the field, not including tanks which remain on home soil.
The Royal Navy’s two “world-class” aircraft carriers, Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales lack supply vessels to keep them at sea. And they keep breaking down. As a war unfolds in the Red Sea they have both remained in dock in Portsmouth – though there are reports percolating that one of them will shortly be deployed against the Houthis. (Even though both carriers lack aircraft, unless flown by the USAF which has been using them as a kind of Airbnb for their F-35 fighter-bombers). The Royal Marines – whose future is apparently in doubt – are likely to lose their two ageing assault ships, without any replacements on order. Two Royal Naval vessels recently collided off the coast of Bahrain, reportedly because the bridge had been mis-wired and one vessel spontaneously went into reverse. You couldn’t make it up.
Currently, HMS Diamond, which is on patrol around the Strait of Bab-al-Mandab in order “to protect freedom of navigation”, cannot attack land-based Houthi forces because it lacks surface-to surface-missiles. Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles (or successor weaponry supplied by Norway) cannot be used against land targets. British warships will not carry cruise missiles until 2028. Over the last few weeks, British assistance to the Americans in eliminating Houthi drone bases on land has consisted of sorties by RAF Typhoons from the RAF base in Akrotiri, Cyprus – which is 1,500 miles away. That tactic is less effective – and much more expensive – than firing a cruise missile from a warship.
Stocks of munitions are at “dangerously low levels”, according to a recent Parliamentary Defence Committee report. General Sir Richard Barrons, a former head of the British Joint Forces Command, told the committee that he doubted if there were sufficient munitions “to sustain a high-intensity conflict for more than about a week”. Meanwhile, the Russians are churning out shells at an estimated rate of two million a year.
Britain’s network of one hundred or so nuclear bunkers was abandoned early in 1990s as part of the peace dividend, so the London Underground network would have to be used as bomb shelters in the event of war. More seriously, the decline of manufacturing means that there are few factories which could be converted to manufacturing weapons, as occurred during WWII. Tata Steel’s decision to shut down its two blast furnaces in Port Talbot (to be replaced by a small-scale metal recycling plant) means that steel will no longer be produced in Britain. Without steel, we cannot independently manufacture warships, tanks or artillery shells. Any future enemy will naturally disrupt the import of steel, as indeed of food too. Food would have to be rationed from the first day of a war.
The centrality of drones in the Russia-Ukraine war, and now in the Israel-Hamas war and the Houthi versus the West war, has reminded the Ministry of Defence that Britain has missed a trick here. At least the one thing that all the top brass seem to agree on is that the MoD’s dismal procurement process must be reformed.
When people who are interested in military history encounter the title First Sea Lord they think of names such as Sir John Jellicoe and Lord Mountbatten of Burma. But who knows who our First Sea Lord is today? I admit I had to google it. It has been Sir Ben Key since November 2021. But, unlike in the United States our military is generally invisible. They should step out of the shadows.
Things could change quickly. Consider that the mighty Russian army has been forced into virtual stalemate (but for how much longer?) by a country that ten years ago had just three infantry brigades of about 7,000 soldiers. Ukraine teaches us that, if a nation is determined to protect its independence, it can rearm and build a formidable fighting force in a relatively short space of time. (That said, Ukraine is now running out of men and the average age of its men on the ground is over 40). Last month, given the heightened state of geopolitical anxiety, 10,800 people signed up to join the British Army – double the average. There is yet hope.
Meanwhile, back in Russia, the Western regime of sanctions has been turned to Putin’s advantage by providing a siege economy in which the production of armaments is prioritised. Russian artillery is firing around 10,000 shells a day in Ukraine, as against Ukraine’s 2,000. Some of those shells are supplied by North Korea. And the Chinese have the largest army in the world (in terms of men) and the largest navy (in terms of vessels). Iran is mobilising its Axis of Resistance across the Middle East to destabilise the region.
The accession of Finland and now Sweden to the NATO alliance attests that neutrality is no longer an option in this dangerous world.
I wrote in my Hesitant Predictions piece here on New Year’s Eve that the probability of an escalation of the Israel-Hamas war into a US-Iran war was 15 percent or less: because neither side would benefit. Iran wants the USA out of the Middle East altogether and the USA wants to contain Iran to within its own borders. But after the events of recent weeks, and the increasing frequency of Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea, the probability of such a war has increased significantly. We are still waiting to see how the Biden administration will respond to the 28 January attack; but voices in Tehran have already stated that the country is ready for war with America.
If there is a conflict between US and Iranian forces, or if the US attacks Iranian targets (probably by missile), Iran’s powerful friends may not remain as bystanders. Moscow may use that as a pretext to widen the war in Ukraine. China might ratchet up pressure on Taiwan – though it still seems that a full-scale invasion of the country is unlikely.
The irony is that this “axis” (a term borrowed from the WWII description of Nazi Germany and its allies) is a motley crew. Russia is nominally democratic but de facto an autocracy where, as in the time of the Tsars, the Orthodox Church presides at state ceremonies. Iran is a Shia Islamic theocracy which persecutes Christians and other minorities. The People’s Republic of China is an atheist state where the Chinese Communist party is the only source of civil or political authority. North Korea – the “hermit kingdom” – is an Orwellian nightmare which perpetuates the cult of devotion to the Dear Leader.
While each of those countries is quite different, what they do have in common is that they are all revisionist states which aspire to terminate the world order which has obtained since 1945. That is one in which America is the hegemonic power, the US dollar is king, and “the West” exerts both hard and soft power across the world. They also see the West as economically in decline and culturally decadent. Some elements within that axis also think that we would not even fight for our freedom.
The really troubling problem is that they might be right.
I attended a Thanksgiving Service this week at St. Vedast (a Wren gem of a church in the heart of the City of London) to mark the 550th anniversary of the royal charter that founded the Worshipful Company of Pewterers (a livery company of which I am proud to be a member). The address was given by Lord Chartres who was for 23 years the Bishop of London. Richard Chartres, who is an eminent historian and theologian, spoke of how our realisation that the “holiday from history” that we enjoyed after the end of the Cold War was an illusion – as now we know. The peace dividend has been spent. Our assumption that democracy will always prevail is now under grave challenge.
If only Richard had concluded his ecclesiastical career in Canterbury.
Rule Britannia! Putting aside the objective fact that Britannia evidently no longer rules the waves, I was intrigued by a letter to the Daily Telegraph from a Mr Fish of Truro who explained the origins of our great national hymn.
Around 1710, an 11-year old lad from Penryn, Cornwall, Thomas Pellow, was abducted by Barbary pirates and taken as a slave to North Africa. Thomas was just one of at least a million Europeans who were enslaved in North Africa between the 16th and the 19th centuries. After 23 years he escaped and managed to get back to Cornwall in 1737. His book about his experiences as a slave inspired a poem by James Thomson which was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740.
So, Rule Britannia! is an impassioned plea by a slave victim for the Royal Navy to take arms against this evil trade. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Meghan Markle’s favourite cellist, should take note.