19 December 2013
Last updated at 06:22 ET
Britain is in danger of being left with hollowed-out armed forces, the UK’s top military officer has warned.
Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said this would be with “exquisite” equipment but without the personnel needed to use it.
In a speech, he said training levels were being squeezed and manpower was increasingly seen as “an overhead”.
The British armed forces are due to be significantly reduced in numbers by thousands of personnel by 2020.
The Army will lose 20,000 soldiers, the Navy 6,000 personnel and the RAF 5,000.
Gen Houghton emphasised that if the UK wished to stay in what he called the Premier League of smart power, then it must invest in armed forces that could generate credible hard power capability and deterrence.
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The Chief of the Defence Staff’s first annual Christmas speech to a defence audience at the Royal United Services Institute was more outspoken than many had anticipated.
It was a firm warning shot, aimed clearly at political parties that may make up the next government in 2015 – and the Treasury – not to cut the defence budget further, making clear that reductions to manpower have gone far enough, and that anything more risks a “hollow force” – one unable to fulfil the tasks asked of it.
He made clear that this was his “conscience” speaking – suggesting that he wanted to lay down a marker in public, not just make the argument behind closed doors in Whitehall.
In the Autumn statement, the Treasury again cut defence in a little-noticed raid that took some £200m out of the defence budget, after the 8% cuts made in the strategic defence review.
Many within the Army have long been wary of spending on large ticket items such as the aircraft carriers, which will soak up much of the defence budget in the coming years, as will the successor to the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent.
BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said this first annual talk by the new chief of the defence staff contained rather blunter warnings than many had anticipated – Gen Houghton said the UK must both fund and use its armed forces properly.
Gen Houghton took over in the late summer, at a time when the effects of the 8% cuts to the defence budget started having a clear impact on armed forces’ morale and what the UK could offer its allies on the international stage.
With the regular Army cutting thousands of soldiers and much future spending committed to equipment, Gen Houghton gave a clear warning to any future government wishing to cut defence spending again in 2015, said our correspondent.
Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute, in what he described as “an outing of professional conscience”, he said Britain risked being left without enough military manpower in the future, with the Royal Navy particularly vulnerable.
He said: “Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it.
“This is what the Americans call the spectre of the hollow-force. We are not there yet; but across defence I would identify the Royal Navy as being perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms.”
Gen Houghton suggested spending decisions were too often made “with an eye on supporting the United Kingdom’s defence-industrial base” and said a programme of “balanced investment” in manpower and equipment was needed.
While limited resources had increasingly been channelled into “large capital equipment programmes”, the forces had been left “critically deficient” in key capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance, communications, logistics and tactical transport.
“We must be careful that the defence budget is not disproportionately used to support British defence industry,” he said.
The UK has ordered two new aircraft carriers to enter service from 2020
Gen Houghton called also for a re-evaluation of homeland security, with the potential for a state-sponsored terror or cyber attack to alter “many of our calculations about the security of the United Kingdom in the years to come”.
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We take a long view on our duties at sea and, on behalf of our nation, are fully ready to meet the challenge”
Admiral Sir George Zambellas
First Sea Lord
He also pointed out the paradox that the armed forces had rarely been held in such popular high regard – while the use of force after Iraq and Afghanistan was less popular in the UK than ever.
With future funding levels clearly a worry, and the next defence review due in the election year of 2015, this was a chance to fire an early warning shot to any politician who may contemplate further cuts, said our correspondent.
The current government has promised a 1% rise in spending on equipment from 2015 – which takes up half the defence budget – but there is no such promise regarding manpower, which has gone down steadily in all three services since 2010.
Gen Houghton also warned of the dangers of a more risk-averse society – stressing that the UK must be careful not to lose its “courageous instinct” within the professional military.
The forces themselves must evolve to ensure they remained appropriate to the threats faced at home and abroad today, he said.
In reaction to the speech, Chief of the Naval Staff, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, said he did not expect the “significant manpower pressure” on the navy “to throw us off track”.
“We take a long view on our duties at sea and, on behalf of our nation, are fully ready to meet the challenge.”
The shadow defence secretary, Labour’s Vernon Coaker said: “What do we want our armed forces for in the future? What are the sorts of situations we envisage our armed forces being involved in?
“What is the threat that we face in terms of cyber, in terms of the amount of intelligence we need?
“We need to answer all of those questions and that’s the sort of things that the general is saying that we need to think about in order to come to the right decisions.”