James Sunderland speaks in debate on the strength of the UK’s armed forces

James Sunderland welcomes the Government's massive £24 billion investment in defence over the next four years but cautions that the Army probably needs an establishment of 82,000 to mobilise a strength of 72,000.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

It is a great privilege to speak in this key debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, although the concept of strength of the armed forces happens to be a misnomer. First, military force will only ever be as good as the way in which it is deployed. The long asymmetric campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, were indicative of attrition, force protection and technology, more so than outright military power, but times have changed, even over this short period, and as the integrated review has made clear, we are now fighting in an era of “persistent engagement” against multiple threats, on multiple fronts and in new domains. It might be that conventional force, far from being the historical solution it was, is now just a solution.

Secondly, the word “strength” is in itself confusing. It is often used to describe disposition or size, so I would agree with the Opposition’s argument that our UK armed forces have shrunk, but that ignores the fact that “strength” can also mean availability of force, utility and, above all, potency. So, I would argue that reducing the size of our armed forces does not necessarily mean that the application of military force is any less credible. Let us be clear that the vast reduction in our armed forces since the second world war is not just a Conservative problem. It is something for which successive Governments must take responsibility.

I shall outline some facts if I may. In 2009, after over a decade of Labour government, there were 46,000 fewer service personnel than in 1997. Over the same period, the three services ended up 6,500 personnel short of the MOD’s trained requirement, a figure that is larger than the delta today. The reality is that HM forces fell in size by at least a fifth under Blair and Brown.

Before I am accused of being blindly partisan, let us not forget that the Conservatives did something similar in 2010. I spent a miserable two years in Andover doing my bit to cut the size of the Army from 102,000 to 82,000, and there were sweeping cuts, too, in the RAF and Navy.

Bob Stewart 

I remember that in 2010 we cut the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers hugely, and said we would do the job through civilian personnel. Then, in 2015, we cut those civilian personnel. Who will keep all these highly technical things going if we do not have the people?

James Sunderland 

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, as a Corps man myself. It is imperative that we retain these specialist capabilities so that we can prosecute force using the logistical and engineering support we need.

A decade on, there is no doubt that the Government are serious about investing in defence in a way that has not been seen for years. The massive £24 billion boost over the next four years brings the total to over £188 billion before 2025. This is about military power and strength, particularly in the prosecution of force at range, and when the risks of becoming embroiled in another attritional campaign on land can be mitigated, whereby striking at the heart of enemy command and control is so important.

I am concerned about the 72,000 figure for the Regular Army. Every unit has its challenges with under-manning, the training margin, wider commitments and absence from work due to sickness, compassionate leave or maternity, and my sense is that the Army probably needs an establishment of 82,000 to mobilise a strength of 72,000. I am not convinced that the Army can generate a deployable division with those numbers, and I urge the Minister to do his estimate. However, that is the only note of real caution for me and I welcome the publication of the integrated review—an excellent bit of work.

The dilemma for me and for all of us in this place is whether our focus on coalition operations, higher dependence on technology and the perceived peace dividend since the second world war justify the risks of ever smaller armed forces. But none of us can predict the future—not even politicians—and only time will tell whether this is again a bridge too far.