In a letter to Robert Gates, cleverly disguised as an op-ed in The Times, soldier-author Allan Mallinson asks a very simple question: “Why, for example, are we so overstretched keeping 8,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan out of an Army of 100,000?”
It is a very good question, the answer to which lies in the MoD’s “concurrency assumptions”, the assumptions military planners use to foresee the required structure, size and capability of the armed forces. In Delivering Security in a Changing World Future Capabilities, the MoD estimated that Britain could mount “as a norm, and without creating overstretch”:
- an enduring Medium Scale operation; simultaneously with
- an enduring Small Scale operation; and
- a one-off Small Scale intervention operation
It went on to say that the government reforms would allow a reconfiguration of the armed forces so they could rapidly carry out:
- the enduring Medium Scale operation; and
- an enduring Small Scale operation; simultaneously with
- a limited duration Medium Scale intervention operation.
And given time to prepare, British armed forces should be capable of undertaking:
- a demanding one-off Large Scale operation; while still maintaining a commitment to
- a simple Small Scale peace support operation.
The first problem with all these assumptions is that they were based on a notion of a time-limited engagement i.e. getting the troops in and then out quickly. But it has not turned out this way. Both Operation Telic (Iraq) and Operation Herrick (Afghanistan) turned into enduring medium-size operations (and latterly one medium, and one small), which the armed forces struggled to sustain.
This begs the question: if the MoD cannot manage two enduring medium-size operations can it handle an enduring Medium Scale operation, an enduring Small Scale operation and a limited duration Medium Scale intervention operation all the same time, as the White Paper suggested? If the answer is negative, Britain either needs to drastically adjust its ambitions downwards or the armed forces need to grow dramatically.