When Philip Hammond, then the defence secretary, slashed the overall strength of the British Army by 20,000 personnel a decade ago, I warned it was ‘a hell of a gamble’.
Hammond was livid. At the time I was Nato’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the minister wanted to see me court-martialled.
Hammond’s gamble has not paid off, and Britain is more vulnerable than it has been at any time since the 1930s. The last time we were so woefully unprepared for war, facing an international aggressor, Nazi Germany was on the rise.
Our Army has been hollowed out at a time when Moscow poses the gravest of threats. This week, it emerged from Treasury sources that plans for any increase in the Budget during the latest spending round could be put on hold – although ministers have not taken a final decision.
The Government has to redress the damage. There is still time.
When Philip Hammond, pictured, then the defence secretary, slashed the overall strength of the British Army by 20,000 personnel a decade ago, I warned it was ‘a hell of a gamble’
But as it stands we no longer have the troops, the kit or the ammunition to defend ourselves. It is a truly perilous and unforgiveable situation.
Today, in Ben Wallace, we do at least have a defence secretary with the political courage to say so. But that is scarcely a deterrent to Vladimir Putin.
So woefully depleted are our Forces that they are incapable of supporting our closest ally, the US, in any meaningful way. And our decision to send tanks and self-propelled artillery to Ukraine – which I fully support – has left us without a credible means of defence.
The British Army could not even deploy a division with the capability to fight a war within six months. In the time it took us to put our boots on, any war would be lost.
Senior Ministry of Defence staff are claiming that Russia’s military has been exposed as inferior and badly equipped – but believe me, we are in no state to stand up to them.
By a ‘division’, I mean about 25,000 personnel comprising three brigades, with all the logistical back-up, command-and-control, combat support, firepower, artillery and air defence, engineers, and the rest that comprises a fighting force.
A division is an army in its own right. And we can no longer field that. And while we have sent only 14 Challenger II tanks to Ukraine when 50 would have been far more effective, their loss to our arsenal is also significant.
More worrying still is the warning that our ammunition stocks are so depleted we are buying bullets and shells from suppliers in south-east Asia.
As it stands we no longer have the troops, the kit or the ammunition to defend ourselves. It is a truly perilous and unforgiveable situation. Today, in Ben Wallace (pictured), we do at least have a defence secretary with the political courage to say so
It is unacceptable that any foreign government could have the power to cut us off from ammo supplies, or that some other breakdown in the global supply chain – such as that caused by Covid – could leave soldiers with empty magazines.Yet our manufacturers are so under-tooled that, by one estimate, it would take Britain a full year to produce all the 6,000 shells being fired by Ukraine’s forces in a single day.
It was also revealed last week that, by sending all 30 of our functioning AS90 guns to Ukraine, the Army has been left without any heavy artillery. An MoD spokesman said they now plan to accelerate ‘the Mobile Fires Platform project which is designed to deliver an enduring replacement this decade’.
In other words, we have no back-up and don’t expect to before 2029. It’s not merely that we don’t have live firepower. We also have few guns for training new crews.
How have successive Conservative governments allowed this to happen? For a party that claims to be patriotic, I’ll say again that it is unforgivable.
Yes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened our military considerably. But the reality is that this crisis has been in the works since 2005. It started with the downsizing of the Army under Labour – at a time when we were at war on two fronts, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the real damage was done in 2010 with coalition prime minister David Cameron’s first defence review. At that time, an infamous statement announced that there was no existential threat to these islands from a foreign power and that, as none was anticipated for at least a decade, our defence budget should be scaled back.
This was a level of naivety that you might expect from anti-war peaceniks, not hard-headed politicians – let alone politicians who were so quick to wrap themselves in the Union flag when votes were needed.
It went far beyond immature pacifism. This was criminal complacency.
Russia had already invaded Georgia in 2008 and was blatantly intent on changing the national borders in Europe by force. Yet the Government pretended there was no likelihood of a renewed Cold War with Russia or any other credible threat to our sovereignty.
Instead, Army procurement has been undertaken as though we’re re-fighting previous wars. It seems we’re preparing to fight in the Middle East, when all evidence suggests the next battleground is far more likely to be Europe.
Wheeled vehicles called Boxers are being procured to replace the infantry’s Warriors – which have tank-like tracks.
Wheels might be suitable for the terrain in desert conditions, but they can’t keep up with tanks on the mud of Eastern Europe. Tracked vehicles don’t have the same long-range capability of wheels, it’s true. But range isn’t much use to a vehicle bogged down to its axles.
Not only has ill-judged defence spending been chopped back repeatedly, but what budget remains is spent disastrously.
Witness the disgraceful chaos of a so-called medium tank called Ajax, a 38-ton armoured fighting vehicle. Way over budget and way behind deadline, it simply cannot operate effectively.
The noise and vibration deafen its crews and, even if its mechanical issues could be fixed, it is no match for Russian tanks such as the T-90. What the hell is the point of Ajax? Another of the most egregious misuses of defence money is on display every Sunday night, in the BBC2 documentary The Warship: Tour Of Duty, which documents the £3billion aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on its mission to the South China Sea.
At one terrifying point in the series, a squadron of Russian fighter jets closes in on the ship sailing through the Suez Canal.
However proud we are of our Royal Navy, and I am convinced its sailors are the best in the world, I have to question whether we can afford an aircraft carrier – or whether we need it half as much as we need tanks and guns.
The cost of the flotilla with its escort ships is colossal. Yet an aircraft carrier is of limited use, at best, in fighting a European war. In my novel 2017: War With Russia, I envisaged a crisis similar to the one we now face in Ukraine and imagined deploying a British carrier to the Baltic Sea.
A sitting target for Russian submarines, in my story it was sunk by torpedoes.
That’s the nightmare scenario – a state-of-the-art warship, powerless to join the land war, sunk with 1,600 crew.
Far from being the stuff of fiction, it’s a very real possibility. The Government has not been listening. They had better start listening now. Britain has never been more vulnerable to attack in my lifetime.
General Sir Richard Shirreff is Nato’s former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe
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