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Does the UK have enough soldiers to defend itself?

Will the new Government continue with the ambitious plans to increase the number of trained Army Reserves to 30,000 by 2019? Can the radical restructuring planned by the Army work if the recruitment of Reserves falls short of expectations?


Reserves of strength

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and a subsequent internal study, proposed cutting the Army's regular force by 19%. At the same time, an independent Commission prompted the Ministry of Defence to completely rethink how it utilises the Reserve forces.

To offset the loss of nearly 20,000 regular soldiers the Army has opted to undergo a radical restructure. The plan, known as Army 2020, will integrate the Reserves and Regulars into a single Army. Achieving a total Army of 112,000 will require increasing the number of trained reserves from 19,000 to 30,000 by April 2019, alongside a regular force of 82,000.


Chart 1: Trained strength of reserves

The Armed Forces in general, and the Army in particular, have ambitious targets to increase the number of Reservists over the next five years.

Trained strength of reserves in January 2015 and targets for end-financial years 2014/15 to 2018/19

Chart showing trained strength of reserves in January 2015 and targets for end-financial years 2014/15 to 2018/19


The planned cuts would leave the size of the regular force smaller than at any point since 1850. These reductions, combined with such a significant increase in trained Reservists, has raised concerns about the feasibility of the plans, and the impact were they to fail or fall short at a time of regional and global insecurity.

In particular, many are yet to be convinced that the Army and the Ministry of Defence will recruit and train 11,000 Reservists in the time given. Even the Chief of the Defence Staff has admitted that achieving a reserve strength of 30,000 by 2018 "was always going to be a tall order."

Successive reports from the Defence and Public Accounts Committees and the National Audit Office have raised serious doubts about the robustness of the plan. The National Audit Office found the Ministry of Defence did not assess whether it was feasible to recruit and train the required number of Reserves within the necessary timetable. Nor did it find evidence of robust planning data to underpin the Department's recruitment targets for Reserves.

The Defence and Public Accounts Committees found little evidence during their inquiries of the Army or Ministry having a fully developed contingency plan to hand in the event recruitment targets are not met and gaps emerge in the Army's structure.

Cuts to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force of 5,000 personnel each have attracted less attention but have been no less significant. The Chief of the Defence Staff warned in 2013 that the Navy is "perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms." Referring to what the Americans call a hollow force, the CDS described the danger of a "strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it."

More to come?

Could the size of the Army be reduced further? Media speculation of potential further cuts to 60,000 regular soldiers prompted denials from David Cameron, who promised no further reductions in the Army's regular force. The Chief of the Defence Staff publicly pledged to "fix my bayonet and fight to the last" to prevent such reductions.

However, the Ministry of Defence only has a commitment from the Treasury to increase the equipment budget from 2015, not the overall budget. Defence economist Malcolm Chalmers has observed that "planned increases in pension and National Insurance contributions, together with growing salary costs, will increase the pressure on personnel numbers."

He sketches out two scenarios for the defence budget over the next Parliament, both of which entail a reduction in the size of the Armed Forces. His optimistic scenario sees a fall in Armed Forces personnel from the current 145,000 to 130,000, while his pessimistic scenario sees a much harsher reduction to 115,000 in total.

Capability concerns

Why does this matter? Because if the Armed Forces do not have enough personnel they may not be able to fulfil all the tasks the Government wishes them to, above and beyond their standing commitments and operational deployments.

The UK's allies are beginning to air publicly their concern about the operational impact further defence cuts might have. The US Army chief, General Odierno, outlined the direct impact further cuts might have: "in the past we would have a British army division working alongside an American division. Now it might be a British brigade inside an American division, or even a British battalion inside an American brigade."

  • Will the Armed Forces be cut further and how small can the Army become?
  • What happens if the Army cannot recruit the number of Reservists in the timeframe required?
  • Will the new Government have to think again about the threshold for military intervention overseas?
  • And will the next Strategic Defence and Security Review reassess the Defence Planning Assumptions as to what the Armed Forces are expected to be able to do?

These are all questions the next Parliament will have to address.



Found to be neglected, under-exploited and in decline by an Independent Commission, the Reserves will in the future form an integral element of the Armed Forces.

Reservists will be mobilised and deployed on a far wider range of operations than now and will be more closely aligned with Regulars. Restrictions on the deployment of Reserves were lifted in the Defence Reform Act 2014, while a 2013 White Paper promised a new relationship with Reservists, their families, employers and society.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review set a target of a trained Reserve strength of 35,000 by 2019: 30,000 Army; 3,100 Maritime Reserve and 1,800 Royal Auxiliary Air Force.


Party Lines

  • Conservatives: (…) will maintain the size of the regular Armed Forces and not reduce the army to below 82,000
  • Labour: (…) ensure the UK has a responsive, high-tech Armed Forces, capable of responding to changing interconnected threats
  • Liberal Democrats: maintain a strong and effective Armed Forces and the capability to deploy rapidly expeditionary forces
  • SNP: (...) will support greater transparency in UK defence spending, with a full breakdown of spending by nation and region in the UK

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Copyright: Ministry of Defence