Whilst The USA and The UK have their gaze firmly fixed on the end of the Iraq war and the perception of failure that is beginning to be associated with it (One notices the Americans trying to trash the UK’s contribution in Basra at the moment. This is not a good idea as their turn will come and blaming your allies is not a smart thing to do, especially when it is your best ally and allies are thin on the ground) and upon the war in Afghanistan which is going somewhat better, though with much hard pounding and a surprisingly high casualty rate, President Putin of Russia has been going about making it clear that he is determined to put Russia back into the first rank of world powers and advance Russia’s interests, in part by ramping up Russia’s military spending (up 22% and 25% in the last two years respectively and likely to be 30% this year) and in part by taking a series of quite deliberate steps, such as flying TU-95 long-range reconnaissance missions to the edge of US and UK airspace, planting flags at the North Pole as a claim to the seabed there and threatening to start targeting Western cities once more in response to the USA Missile defence Shield.

Some of the new projects, the money for which comes in the form of vastly increased oil and gas revenues, in part enhanced by his government’s quite cynical seizure of the oil and gas concerns of certain so-called ‘oligarchs’, are those of a nation bent on projecting power well beyond the borders of Russia. Six new aircraft carriers are on order as well as new destroyers to support them. New nuclear subs with ICBM capability are also on the way. Huge numbers of T-90 and T-90s are planned and an updating of armoured fighting vehicles is under way. New aircraft such as the Sukhoi T-50, a mach 2 fighter, an updated version of the TU-160 Blackjack bomber and the advanced SU-34 Fullback fighter are soon to come onstream.

Where does this find the USA and the UK? The USA has twelve carriers currently in service but only the Ronald Reagan is under ten years old. Only four others are under twenty years old. The John F Kennedy is not currently operational and has recently been decommissioned. The last of the Nimitz class carriers, George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) is not due for delivery to the US Navy until late 2008. Its army is in overstretch, with some tales of poor morale floating about. Only its Air Force seems in good order.

The UK has recently seen the announcement of its two new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. albeit with a delay to the date when they will be in service and the recent coming into service of HMS Daring, the first of the new generation of highly capable Type-45 destroyers. Along the line is a replacement for Trident. But for some time to come there will remain a serious lack of major surface ships. The Royal Air Force has got the Typhoon fighter in service and can look forward to its Harrier replacement, the F-35, which will be used on the two new carriers but in other areas, particularly transport and maritime reconnaissance, there are serious procurement problems.

It is with the Army and the ability of the UK being in a position to meet and mount a counter to a conventional threat that one has a strong sense of our armed forces being at their weakest since the early 1930s and the rise of Hitler. Successive amalgamations and defence reviews mean that we now only have a total of ten armoured regiments, not all of which is equipped with Challenger II Main Battle Tanks. The infantry is undergoing the last throes of the destruction of its regimental system, having found itself squeezed into 34 conventional regular infantry battalions plus three regular battalions of the Parachute Regiment. In addition we still have the two commandos of the Royal Marines

In numerical terms, the last time the Army disposed of so few infantry battalions was before the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession, that is since the days of the Duke of Marlborough. Of course Defence Chiefs will point out that a modern armoured infantry battalion packs a far greater punch than did the red-coated regiments of yore. And so they do. But if there is now to be a resurgence of Russian Conventional power in any way directed at Europe, then it must be borne in mind that at the end of the Cold War we had 56 regular battalions plus the Royal Marines. Then, of course, we did not have the additional commitments of Iraq and Afghanistan. Every day we hear of stories of how these two conflicts have stretched the army almost to breaking point. If the Russian threat reappears, how on earth is Her Majesty’s Government to make its contribution to meeting that threat?

With new threats appearing on the horizon, we must begin to consider if the almost exclusive concentration on the anti-terrorist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has in reality done grave damage to the fighting strength and capability of the Army. It takes a long time to plan for and carry out the rebuilding of modern infantry and armoured regiments and it costs a lot of money. We must never allow ourselves to get into a situation where we have insufficient time and insufficient money to put our defence house in order. We need to look much further ahead than we are doing at the moment and plan for the possibility that from the middle of the next decade we will face a combined threat from a much-rejuvenated Russian military and a highly modernized and capable Chinese military, bound together as allies.

Tomorrow is always too late.

Advertisements