Top general warns over 'hollowed-out' armed forces


General Sir Nicholas Houghton: "Whilst exquisite technology has been protected...manpower has been seen more as an overhead"

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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.


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.

Cyber threat

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.

Computer-generated image of new UK aircraft carrier 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".

Start Quote

We take a long view on our duties at sea and, on behalf of our nation, are fully ready to meet the challenge”

End Quote 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.

Graphic showing cuts to Armed Forces: Army from 102,260 to 82,000 in 2020, Navy from 35,500 to 30,000 and the RAF from 40,130 to 35,000

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."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    Myself and every other ex service person has been saying this for a long time now, it seems that the people making the decisions that cause this are unable to comprehend the damage they do, there should be nobody running the MOD who hasn't at some time done service and knows what is required, but then again very few politicians have done any kind of work since leaving school by the sound of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    We must stop intervening militarily overseas as if we were still a (Victorian) superpower and instead concentrate on defending our homeland, its surrounding seas and the airspace above them. Homeland defence has been badly neglected of late and resources have been poured into controversial overseas adventures with dubious results. Homeland security used to be Defence Role 1. It needs to be now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    We will have what we can afford. we've spent 10's of billions on a waste of time an Afghanistan, more 10's of billions on a pointless nuclear deterrent, and most laughable of all billions on a couple of aircraft carriers, that we wont have aircraft for. The new carriers will be fine against 3rd world forces but anyone with over the horizon cruise or Exocet capability will sort them in 10 mins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    I find the way they have gone about cutting the army really quite odd. Why have they made any of them redundant. There is a massive turnover each year anyway. Why not just recruit less new recruits for a few years and let those experienced soldiers who want to stay on, stay on. You wouldn't have this problem of people not knowing how to use the kit then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    I served for 10 years in the military. We have by far the best personnel in the world with such a massively diverse skill set as you'd expect.

    However, only a profound loyalty to the Armed Forces is likely to keep personnel from 'jumping ship' to life in civvie street. Technical roles are massively underpaid in comparison to the private sector with the ability to go home each night safely!


Comments 5 of 9


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