During the First World War, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhem II was famously dismissive of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the opening stages of the conflict, and he allegedly issued orders to attack and destroy that “contemptible little army.” While it is debatable whether he ever issued such an order, those British troops of the regular army took his threat as a source of pride and dubbed themselves “The Old Contemptibles.”
Now some one hundred and six years later the British Army may not be so contemptible, but it could certainly be smaller if not entirely “little.” Cuts proposed by the Ministry of the Treasury could effectively reduce the number of soldiers by 10,000—making it smaller than Germany’s current standing army, which has some 62,000 soldiers in its ranks
Such cutbacks could actually help address recruiting shortfalls. At the current time, the British Army has about 74,000 troops—8,000 below its target of 82,000. That number is likely to fall to the low 60,000s, should recruitment efforts be halted as about 10,000 or so soldiers retire annually.
The British Army has never been the largest in the world, but its numbers are vastly smaller than those of its European partners. By comparison Spain currently fields some 70,000 soldiers while France has more than 115,000 in its ranks, the Express newspaper reported.
This move to downsize the British Army has been questioned by some in the nation’s government, including Tobias Ellwood, chairman of Parliament’s influential Defence Committee.
“If the MoD is being told simply to reduce troop numbers—before we’ve even confirmed what they are supposed to do—then the Review is back to front,” Ellwood told the Express. “It’s clear our Armed Forces are already over-stretched meeting current commitments. With threats over the next decade expected to increase and diversify now is not the time to let our guard down.”
A Smaller Fighting Force
As the British Treasury is on quite cost cutting crusade, to help save on spending, the British Ministry of Defense has not just announced plans to freeze recruitment, but also to close military bases and mostly notably even cut back on orders of fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force.
While the UK had agreed to buy forty-eight of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters—the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the jet, which is designed for use on aircraft carriers—it may only buy half its initial target of 138 of the stealth aircraft. The 138 figure was confirmed as an ambition in the UK defense review in 2015; however the British military was not contractually obliged to buy more than forty-eight of the aircraft. Instead, Britain could buy only half of its initial target goal of F-35B fighters and acquire around seventy of the stealth aircraft, which would enable it to have sixty in service and keep an additional ten as back-ups in case of damage or malfunction.
Moreover, it isn’t just fewer aircraft that the UK may have in its arsenal.
Earlier this fall it was reported that the British military could scale back the number of tanks it operates—to around 148 tanks, which would reduce the British Army to just two tank regiments including the Royal Lancers and Royal Tank Regiment.
However, the British military has considered ways technology could be used to address the shortage of recruits while also remaining a viable fighting force. This could include the use of robots to fill the ranks and work alongside humans in and around the frontline of a modern battlefield. Mechanical soldiers marching to the front would no doubt be something the Kaiser would have considered quite contemptible.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.