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An oft-told joke about Russian conventional military capabilities in its Far East holds that were China to invade, the People’s Liberation Army would have a harder time finding the Russian defenders than defeating them. This refers to the paucity of Russian troops covering such a large area of responsibility. Over Autumn 2019 and Spring 2020, Russia sent 15,500 conscripts to serve in the Eastern Military District. Assuming Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu’s claim that conscripts comprise 35% of the current Russian Armed Forces can be applied evenly across Russia, this means there are only about 45,000 Russian servicemen defend the district’s 7 million square kilometres.
Setting aside the possibility that perhaps the Russian Armed Forces are invisible by design, or the argument that Russia currently has higher military priorities than the Far East, this trend toward fewer people serving in the armed forces holds truth around the world. This article explores some of the political and strategic implications of this declining force-to-space ratio and explores how the UK may be challenged. According to the Correlates of War Project, in 1945 the United Kingdom had just over 5 million people in uniform. Five years later, the peace dividend reduced the number of personnel to 689,000. By the end of the Cold War, this had more than halved to 324,000. Thirty years later, in 2020, this had more than halved again to 148,450 active-duty servicemen and women according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Whereas 1.4% of the UK population was in active service in 1950 this figure fell to 0.2% in 2020.The average UK resident is without any personal contacts serving in the armed forces.
Spending has increased…
Though UK military capabilities may have been declined over this time, it is certainly true that each of those 148,450 in service today is supported by a greater amount of defence spending per capita than their Cold War forebears. Adjusted for inflation, the 1950 UK defence budget amounted to just over £1.9 billion or £28,134 per servicemember according to the Correlates of War Project. At the end of the Cold War, this had increased to £163,678. Using IISS data, in 2020 this figure has almost doubled again to £315,931. This growing expense per person in uniform reflects increased investment in more expensive technologies to both fight wars and to provide military presence around the world.
However, modern defence technologies are practically irreplaceable in wartime. By one estimate, it takes 41,500 hours of labour to build a single F-35B fighter jet, of which the UK currently plans to buy 138. During the Second World War, the last industrial war, the Royal Air Force lost c.1,250 aircraft during the Battle of Britain but was able to build an additional 15,000 over 1940. To replicate this feat with F-35s, the UK would require 622,500,000 labour hours or the full-time work of almost 300,000 people, i.e. almost triple the work force the F-35’s American producer Lockheed Martin employs (not all of which are the skilled labourers F-35s require).
Political and ethical challenges
These statistics point to a growing political and ethical challenge for the UK Government and military: never have so many resources and capabilities been delegated to so few people. Considering the extreme specialisation of individual tactical skills servicemen and women must learn and practice, it is also quite difficult for active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to explain their professions. Let alone describe the technologies required. As such, many civilians, including many politicians, do not understand the needs, capabilities, or limitations of the contemporary armed forces. A recent article even highlighted this ‘communications failure’ as the greatest security risk the nation faced.
Given perceived civilian ignorance of military life, servicemembers form cliques around their understanding of problems faced by the armed forces. This creates a culture of ‘gatekeeping’ in which the armed forces actively shut out the opinions from those who do not understand the specific terms and concepts with which they interact daily. This is sometimes referred to as an echo chamber. Though this is understandable, and has led to phenomenal opportunities for humour such as the American Duffel Blog, it alienates contemporary military culture from civilians. Indeed, such language and culture has more tactical impacts such as preventing people from wanting to join.
As civilians lose connection with military concerns, they exhibit less political interest in and oversight over their military. They can stop questioning military strategy and spending and the military becomes absorbed in networks of knowledge outside public scrutiny. With the proportion of people with direct knowledge and contact with the armed forces falling quickly, wider society has no stake or interest in potentially colossal strategic failures.
Even in more nightmarish scenarios, such as a war between Russia and NATO or China and the United States, civilians wishing to serve their country in the hour of need cannot be rapidly trained to the standards required by modern service. Even if motivated civilians subjected themselves to the months-long standard militarisation and training programmes, limitations on ammunition stockpiles and weapons platforms mean that any war would likely be over by the time they graduated. Similarly, civilians can no longer easily transfer to work in the military-industrial complex as they did in the early 20th century because of a greater need for technical and engineering skills.
These divides leave post-industrial militaries extremely capable but remarkably fragile. This problem is not uniquely British. The United States, China, the Russian Federation, and indeed most countries, have also gradually reduced their overall troop numbers whilst investing in ever more technologically-advanced materiel which is irreplaceable-in-wartime. In the 21st century, weaponization of the civil-military divide has begun to emerge in the form of so-called ‘hybrid warfare’ wherein disinformation can be used to turn local actors against their governments without military force.
What to do?
Reducing this tension will require the armed forces to lower their gatekeeping cultures as much as possible. The Wavell Room’s new ‘Tea, Toast, and Tactics’ podcast is an excellent example of how to start this. The series explains basic military concepts to a civilian audience to engage them and explain military activity. The government, – ideally but not necessarily through the military, must communicate to civilians why they are committing to certain procurement and workforce decisions. Tom Hashemi made a similar point recently by arguing for narrative storytelling to sell the purpose of the military. This would likely best be done in a university setting where many young people eagerly study and research international relations but without learning what 21st century militaries can, and cannot, do. This start may go some way towards re-starting civil-military relations.
And the Future?
Another emerging trend makes reckoning with this problem more urgent. Since 1945, advances in military technology generally made weapons more expensive and powerful and human operators more redundant. Though the latter half of this maxim seems set to continue, the former may be hitting an inflection point. Uncrewed vehicles,ships, robots, lasers, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing all suggest that the next century of military technology advances may actually be making weapons, and future warfare, cheaper even as humans become ever more dispensable. Cost savings and security boons derived from, for example, no longer needing to design submarines capable of sustaining human life aboard them will be socially offset by the disappearance of demand for submariner labour. Is a future in which war is cheaper to fight with even fewer people executing it strategically and socially desirable?
For those serving, insulation from public oversight may seem advantageous. However, this divide between a population and its armed forces creates vulnerability to so-called ‘hybrid warfare’. If deception and political paralysis can stymie the use of military plans based upon great capabilities for the proficient elite in the decisive hour, the utility of these investments is mere sunk cost.
Nicholas J. Myers
Nicholas J. Myers is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow researching the coordination of Russian military and foreign policy and its implications for 21st-century great power competition. He runs the War Vs Peace blog where he publishes data on Russian diplomatic and military activities.