Is Britain a credible military power?

Armed Forces face acute funding and recruitment challenges as US general warns that British Army is 'not what it used to be'

English bulldog wearing a military cap, Union Jack scarf and playing with a grenade
The Army has failed to meet targets for new recruits every year for the past decade
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Britain's shrinking army is "not what it used to be", a top US general has warned, as the UK’s Armed Forces face a funding, procurement and personnel crisis.

The UK has taken the lead – along with the US – in conducting military action against Houthi rebels in Yemen, with Rishi Sunak authorising RAF air strikes last night for the second time in two weeks. This fits with Britain's vision of itself as a "tier one" military power, loosely defined as having a full spectrum of capabilities, including a nuclear deterrent and a navy, army and air Force capable of being deployed anywhere in the world. 

But even the UK's closest allies see this as fantasy, with a senior US general telling the then defence secretary Ben Wallace in 2022 that Britain was "barely tier two", according to Sky News.

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What the papers said

The number of British Army combat troops has dropped from 104,000 at the height of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 15 years ago to around 74,000 today, and it is continuing to fall. Analysis by The Times found that at the current rate of loss, the number of regular soldiers will fall to 67,741 by 2026, a drop of 40% since 2010.

Alarm about the declining size of Britain's Armed Forces is far from new but it has been given added impetus by a warning from Defence Secretary Grant Shapps. He said over the weekend that the world could be engulfed by wars involving China, Russia, North Korea and Iran in the next five years, "raising concerns about the UK's military capability and how much was being spent on defence", reported Sky News.

Last week a top Nato official told its members that they must prepare for all-out war with Russia within the next 10 to 20 years. But while eastern European countries – led by Poland – is "rearming, reinvesting, and recruiting at scale" because they understand the "nature of the threat and the old Cold War maxim that mass has its own quality", here in Britain we are continuing this "bizarre and chaotic hollowing out of our once revered military" warned Robert Clark, director of defence and security at the Civitas think tank, in The Telegraph.

Government spending on defence, delays to procurement – which has effectively grounded two of the Royal Navy's multibillion-pound aircraft carriers at a time when they are desperately needed – and the quality of equipment are all major issues, along with a long-running "recruitment and retention crisis", said John Healey, the shadow defence secretary.

Morale is at an all-time low, said Clark in The Telegraph, while the Army has failed to meet targets for new recruits every year for the past decade, since outsourcing firm Capita won the contract to oversee recruitment, according to The Times. Despite this Capita has been awarded business worth more than £1.1 billion over this period and had its contract extended from 2022.

What next?

Shapps announced this month that he is launching a new offensive to enlist more women into Britain's military in a bid to tackle the recruitment crisis.

The debate over the British Army's strength matters because the UK – and the West in general – finds itself facing a growing number of potential conflicts around the world, led by increasingly emboldened foreign state actors such as Russia, China and Iran. 

"Parallels with the 1930s should not be dismissed as a historical indulgence," said former chief of the general staff Lord Dannatt in The Times. When Shapps recently declared that "we are moving 'from a postwar to a prewar world', a shiver should have gone down our collective spine", said Dannatt.

The "woeful state" of our armed forces in the mid-1930s failed to deter Hitler or prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust, he said, adding that "there is a serious danger of history repeating itself" today.

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