Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, has a battle on his hands. 20 or so Tory MPs have signed John Baron’s amendment to the Defence Reform Bill. The bill aims to increase the strength of the Army Reserve (what you and I know affectionately as the Territorial Army) from 19,000 to 30,000 by 2018 in order to make up for personnel cuts to the regular army, the strength of which is to fall to 82,000.
The Tory rebels worry that missed recruitment targets and rising costs prove that the plan is in trouble. As one of them puts it to Coffee House, ‘Recruiting is in chaos. CAPITA has failed in the out-sourcing and no one is joining the Reserves. [Government] needs to answer what will happen if the 30,000 reserves don’t materialise?’ The rebels have called for a legislative pause so that parliament can scrutinise the policy and its processes. They say that theirs is not a ‘wrecking’ amendment; they are trying to help.
The government, it seems, could do without their help. First, Labour will support the amendment, so the vote is going to be very tight. Second, sources in the Ministry of Defence make no secret of the fact that, in their view, delay may undo the plan by halting recruitment. Philip Hammond has taken a strong but polite line with the rebels. In a letter, he laid out why their amendment would do ‘serious damage’ to the military. He added that the amendment would and could do nothing to stop the drawdown of the regular army because that has already been set in motion. He reiterated his case on the Today programme this morning, and in an article for the Telegraph. What was required, he said, was certainty around the policy to encourage recruitment. ‘I believe it would be confusing and chaotic for the army to have the course on which it is set interrupted at this stage,’ he said. He also claimed that employers, especially large employers, were supportive of the scheme, so he thinks that the reserve will see healthy levels of recruitment. Time will tell.
Why does the Army Reserve matter? The strategic defence review placed significant pressure on the regular army’s resources; the army’s capabilities have been limited as a consequence of the ensuing cuts. The expanded reserve exists to meet any demand for land forces should Britain become embroiled in another expeditionary war in the near future. In other words, it allows the government to entertain interventionist foreign policy without maintaining a sufficiently powerful standing army with which to prosecute it. To be fair to this government, that has been British policy for much of the last three centuries. As any attentive reader of Pride and Prejudice will know, Captain Wickham’s militia (the equivalent of the TA) was an intermittent feature of Augustan, Georgian and Regency Britain because landed gents were reluctant to fund a standing army. Indeed, they were wary of what a monarch might do with a regular force.
Funding the Royal Navy was, of course, a different matter; and, I suppose, that is a difference between our age and theirs. HMS Daring’s sterling efforts in the Philippines cannot mask the fact that British sea power, though hi-tech, is at its lowest ebb. Would that there were more retired sailors in the Commons to fight for the navy, because, as the renowned strategic analyst David Kilcullen (General Petraeus’s former adviser) argues in a new book, Out of the Mountains, the threats of the immediate future lurk in the overcrowded, ill-governed and economically booming coastal areas of the developing world. Places like the Philippines, actually. But, more of that later. Today, we have to consider yesterday’s wars.