THE country’s most senior military officer has issued a stark warning that Britain’s Armed Forces are in danger of being “hollowed out” with no manpower left to operate state-of-the-art equipment.
General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said that while the future budget for the forces equipment programme was guaranteed by Ministers, military manpower was increasingly seen as an “overhead”.
Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute military think tank, Sir Nicholas, who is from Otley in West Yorkshire, said the result was that activity and training levels were being “squeezed” while the Royal Navy was “perilously close” to its “critical mass” in terms of manpower.
“Whilst exquisite technology has been protected as the key to operational superiority, manpower has been seen as more of an overhead. Activity levels and training has been squeezed,” he said.
“The one bit of defence’s future funding that has political commitment to real growth is the equipment programme but the dawning reality is that even if we maintain the non-equipment budget in real terms, rising manpower costs raise the prospect of further manpower and activity cuts in the future.
“Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure – exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train. It 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.”
Following his speech, the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, took the unusual step of issuing a statement acknowledging that his service was under “significant manpower pressure” but insisting it would not “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,” he added.
In a wide-ranging address, Gen Houghton said there was a “creeping aversion to risk” when it came to deploying of the Armed Forces which he contrasted with the “mindset of aggressive risk management” shown by the French in recent operations in Mali and the Central African Republic.
“This aversion has multiple origins – some in politics, some in society, some legal, some in the media, and some in the armed forces themselves,” he said.
“We must be careful as a society and as a professional military not to lose our courageous instinct since it is one of the things that keeps us for the moment in a class apart.”
The Government’s duty to provide security could not be “wished away”, he said, and it was not enough simply to see the forces as a “£33bn national insurance policy” waiting to respond to events.
“Government must not, given the security challenges at the edge, keep that capability at home waiting for the next intervention,” he said.
“Rather it must exploit it pro-actively meeting the challenges of stabilising an uncertain and dangerous world, helping to prevent conflict and to build security capacity of other nations.”
Gen Houghton’s speech echoes concerns among some in the military that manpower cuts since the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010 have gone too far.