After an earlier announcement that our soldiers had better be prepared to fight again in Europe, he spoke at the Land Warfare Conference held in London this week of the West being at a “1937 moment”, with reference to the time when Europe finally woke up to Hitler’s expansionist ambitions and began scrambling to re-arm just before the Second World War.
At the same time, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has been pressing the Prime Minister to up the UK’s defence spending from just above two per cent of GDP to 2.5 per cent, whilst former soldier and government minister Tobias Ellwood MP is espousing a rise to three per cent.
All of this is, of course, a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the realisation that the major threat to the UK’s and Europe’s security is not in Afghanistan or the Middle East but much closer to home.
The truth is that the UK and its Nato allies had taken their eye off the ball and have been caught on the hop. Despite the obvious fact that Russia’s military has not performed anywhere near what most military commentators might have predicted, it’s clear that in conventional armoured warfare against a peer or near-peer enemy, numbers matter. And that’s why there is now a rush once again to make up lost ground before it’s too late.
The British army in particular is in a pretty parlous state. With its personnel currently planned to reduce to 72,500 shortly, it will be the smallest army Britain has had since Napoleonic times. It is armed with much equipment that is either obsolescent or obsolete, and what it does have in its inventory is far too small numerically, lacking tanks, artillery, and air defence systems to name but three.
It is also stuck in the middle of the procurement fiasco that is Ajax, the army’s long-awaited new tracked reconnaissance vehicle, with over £3 billion spent and only 26 of the 589 units delivered, and these cannot be used on account of noise and vibration issues.
The government and Ministry of Defence have lost patience with this programme and, barring some miracle, most observers expect it to be cancelled at the end of the year, leaving the army to soldier on with its now 60-year-old Scimitar recce cars.
Things amongst our European allies are somewhat better, but in some cases only just. Meanwhile, at the Nato summit in Madrid this week, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for the number of ‘immediate readiness’ troops across the alliance to be increased from the current 40,000 to 300,000. Ambitious but appropriate, the only question being how on Earth Nato countries will be able to implement this in time to deter further Russian aggression. These things don’t happen overnight.
It is interesting to note also that Sanders’ speech at the Land Warfare Conference referenced the need to rebuild depleted stocks of materiel. What the Ukraine conflict has highlighted is just how much materiel is consumed in high-intensity warfare of this nature.
Ukraine, for example, claimed a few weeks ago that it was using roughly 5,000 to 6,000 artillery rounds a day, and the Russians are likely to be have been using many times more than this.
The UK has sent well over 5,000 hand-held anti-tank weapons to Ukraine so far, out of a probable – it’s classified – total stock on around 20,000. Losses in tanks and aircraft in Ukraine have been well documented in the media.
It is quite clear, therefore, that the ability to sustain armies in combat – or the current lack of it – is a major consideration.
Peacetime consumption estimates have been proved widely optimistic, and so all nations need to look to their industrial base and stocks of equipment with some urgency. The UK, for example, may not even have the means to manufacture ammunition any more, relying instead on overseas suppliers. This weakness needs to be addressed to meet the renewed threats.
Is there any good news here? Well, yes. Putin’s aggression has persuaded historically neutral states like Sweden and Finland to think again, and their application to join Nato will, now that Turkey’s objections appear to have been dealt with, strengthen the alliance.
Both have extensive military capacity and will secure the northern flank. In addition, the aspiration to upgrade Nato’s enhanced forward presence battlegroups, each of roughly 800 to 1,000 personnel, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland, to brigade combat team strength of perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 troops is significant.
Europe’s renewed interest in collective defence is also good news for the USA, Nato’s linchpin member, which has long been dismayed at the unwillingness or inability of its European allies to reach the two per cent of GDP spending on their militaries previously agreed.
Indeed, at one point Donald Trump threatened to pull America out of Nato altogether on account of European parsimony. Now there appears to be a consensus that this figure is a floor rather than a ceiling, and states such as Germany have reassessed their commitments to do their share.
So, there’s no doubt that the alliance was caught with its pants down when Putin moved into Ukraine on February 24, despite all the warnings from the intelligence community that it was going to happen. The danger is now apparent to members in stark relief and they have attempted, albeit slowly and gradually in some instances, to revise their military stances and re-equip and re-arm.
But no one knows what Putin might do next, and will the West have reacted with too little, too late? Only time will tell.
Stuart Crawford, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment, is a defence and military commentator