What Use is the Army?

The Light Dragoons provide support to the Environment Agency and Doncaster Council as part of the effort to reinforce flood defences in the village of Kirk Bramwith, South Yorkshire. (c) Crown Copyright 2019

Written by Andrew Sharpe

This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.

I feel slightly uncomfortable asking the question in the title, under the current circumstances, with COVID-19 cutting its swathe through the British population and as the nation leans upon the Army (and, to be fair, the Royal Navy and the RAF too, but mainly on the Army) to help with national logistics, with the construction and staffing of giant field hospitals, and with many other tasks besides. It looks like a slightly ignorant question. Even slightly offensive. Especially to those soldiers who are putting in 18-hour shifts, delivered, I’m sure, with the usual good-natured grumbling and dark humour.

Yet, only two-and-a-half months ago (when global pandemics were still, no doubt, in the ‘extreme contingencies’ tray of the MoD policy writers), speaking to the Army Generalship Programme a senior Civil Servant uttered those very words to the new Major Generals on the course, making it clear that, after long service in Whitehall, and especially within the MoD, he struggled to answer the question for himself. And, shortly afterwards, the challenge was re-issued to them by two senior officers, one from the Royal Navy and one from the Royal Air Force who were offering ambitious futuristic visions for the utility of their own Services. And the question troubled the generals, who felt, rightly, that it deserved serious consideration and that satisfactory answers to the question were required. At the same time, the Army’s concepts, strategy, capability and force development staff officers have all, in their different but inter-linked workstrands, been working long and hard hours for some time now to provide clear answers to exactly that question.

As the Integrated Review looms (whether delayed or not), academics and practitioners alike are writing and talking about yet another revolution in military affairs (and there have been an embarrassingly large number of them in my short lifetime). Mass, of any sort, is horribly ‘old money’. It’s all about AI, machine-learning, precision, dispersion, hypersonic capabilities, miniaturization, exquisite and un-manned platforms and, of course, cyber. Policies will be about the avoidance of international entanglement, about clever and selective engagement in the ‘grey zone’, about the centrality of alliances and coalitions, and the wise tailoring of Defence resources to address carefully projected task-sets. Many in the MoD and wider Whitehall are currently conducting the debate using the expression ‘Sunset and Sunrise Capabilities’. All of this is right-thinking and sensible force development. Alongside this undoubted wisdom, the implication, however, among those who are not thinking hard enough about what they are saying when they use that phrase too freely, is that once the sun has set on those ‘Sunset Capabilities’ they will never be needed again and the future will be about, only, the wonderful ‘Sunrise Capabilities’ that must now demand our full attention. The only real judgement, they argue, is the identification of the correct moments of ‘sunset and sunrise’ and, because they like to play with the analogy, to make sure that there is no period of darkness between the two!

Yet here’s what they are describing as ‘Sunset Capabilities’: large numbers of organised and disciplined people, flexible in their approach and ready to work extraordinary hours, putting national interests and the interests of other people before themselves and, often, before those of their own families. People who, by the way, are all trained to a very competent level in practical First Aid. Any logistics capability that is not ‘lean’ and dependent upon ‘just-in-time’ structures. ‘Unnecessary’ reserves of personnel (like, perhaps, enough people to step up to the mark if the Fire Service, or the Police Service, or the Ambulance Service, or all three at once, are struggling). Which means that those old staples of any discussion on what armies are for – MAC(A) and MAC(P) – have become side-issues.

Of course, budgetary constraints will mean that Defence will need to be trimmer than ever (and post-COVID these budgetary constraints will be of a whole different order of magnitude from the already straitened times that preceded COVID). Of course, ‘competing in the constant competition’ will need to be achievable.  Of course, responsible NATO membership, with the capability and activity costs that that requires, will remain important. Of course, the force will need to be developed to make it relevant for the 21st Century. But all of that aside, the whole point is that history shows us that we cannot just build and maintain cleverly-designed perfect armies (or navies or air forces for that matter) for cleverly-divined uses; rather, sadly, that we also have to build and maintain armies that, in a civilized world, we hope that we don’t have to use; but that when we need them we are likely to really need them, and at little or no notice. This hardy perennial of history is sadly forgotten time and time again (but then, as Hegel so famously observed, the only thing that we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history).

In short, what you need the Army for is to fill all of those roles and requirements that, in the furtherance of the nation’s security, the planners and force developers can foresee it reasonably being required to fulfill, according to your policies and projections. And then, also, to have enough reserves (both in the kit and the people sense) to do the stuff that isn’t in your policies and projections, but is really going to matter, that’s REALLY going to matter, when you need them. So, next time you are in a discussion with the cognoscenti as they talk about ‘horse and tank moments’, ‘revolutions in military affairs’, and ‘Sunsets and Sunrises’ listen carefully – because they have a good point, and they’re right – but only to a degree. And if they take that degree too far, and ask, at a time when the question is slightly less offensive than it is right now “what use is the Army?” advise them to “wake up and smell the COVID”.