It is impossible to judge the defence review without seeing the full budget breakdown, available only to government officials. But even with the information we now have, it is pretty clear that some assumptions are incoherent. Some plans just don’t add up. The most obvious issues are with the shape of the army after 2015.
There may be big troop cuts hidden in this review that Cameron just didn’t want to mention.
1) The mystery of Britain’s 29,000 surplus troops in 2020
At the moment Britain’s 110,000 strong land forces can sustain a deployment of around 10,000. By 2020 this enduring deployment will fall to brigade level, which amounts to around 6,500 men.
This is basically an admission that we will be unable to sustain as big a role in the next Afghanistan or Iraq.
But more curious is the fact that we’re not cutting the land forces by as much as we’re cutting the deployments we expect them to sustain.
The “force generation” ratio — the proportion of troops to boots on the ground — will actually deteriorate over the next decade according to the defence review, even though Liam Fox has ordered a separate review on how to improve it.
At the current rate we generate forces, we’ll only need around 71,000 to sustain 6,500 troops in the field. Yet the defence review plans for Britain to have around 100,000 army soldiers and marines by 2020.
So what will happen to the extra 29,000? Either we’re planning on giving the land forces a break and allowing them to be more inefficient. Or there is a secret plan to cut numbers after 2015 that the government are hiding.
The clue may be in the fact that the head of the army pleaded with David Cameron to announce no troop cuts beyond 2015.
2) Magic savings from withdrawing from Germany
Defence ministers have long looked for savings from withdrawing the 20,000 troops from Germany. The problem was always that it would actually cost money in the short term. The only way to make serious savings was to cut size of the army so that new bases weren’t needed in the UK.
What we have in the review is a commitment to remove troops from Germany by 2020, without a commitment to deep army cuts. How does that add up? Again, one for that defence review in 2015. There’ll be plenty to sort out.