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The Army

Written by Adrian Hill

General Sir Patrick Sanders proposed some form of national service for modern youth. Anyone who soldiered as the Army switched from National Service to a Regular Army of volunteers knows the latter is a much more effective solution. Here are some suggestions for how the army of the future might be created.

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During the 1950s the Royal Navy took very few National Service entrants; the RAF took a larger number of National Servicemen but far less than the Army. Why was National Service abandoned so early during the Cold War?

Conscription ended largely because the greatest captain of them all, Captain Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, renowned military historian and theorist, long before argued for the end of National Service in a book of essays – Defence of the West – published in 1950. Ten years passed before a government finally acted on his sound counsel.

Basil Liddell-Hart maintained that a National Service Army is a very inefficient way to recruit and keep ready a fighting force. Four-hundred thousand soldiers, most of them National Servicemen, managed to put three-and-half fighting divisions in the field after providing garrisons for many places overseas. An Army of one-hundred-and-sixty-five-thousand regulars, all of them volunteers, insisted Basil Liddell-Hart, could provide all those garrisons, put six-and-a-half divisions in the field and keep them ready to fight. A decade later as one of those volunteers I took part in the real life switch over that put Basil Liddell-Hart’s ideas into practise. His arguments hold today and we should aim to rebuild to that level of strength.

The first test of this new regular Army came on Christmas Eve 1963 when inter-community violence broke out in Cyprus. By this time I was a civilian and the youngest member of Defence Department at the Commonwealth Relations Office. That evening an advance party from 16 Para Brigade flew to Cyprus. Over the next week we sent the whole brigade followed by more and more infantry battalions until twenty were on the island and the situation much calmer. The Rhine Army in Germany remained intact. Eventually the UN took over and its peacekeeping force remains on the island to this day. Further troubles came in 1967 ( which I witnessed! ) and a full scale Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1975. This army coped with Aden, Northern Ireland, Confrontation, Belize, The South Atlantic, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan –though with an Army one-hundred-and-sixty-five-thousand strong as set out in Liddell-Hart’s book seventy-four years ago.


We still have the core of that Army, the foundations for an Army more than double its present size. And we have Liddell-Hart’s training machine for all the varied types of soldier and trades the Army needs. Thus we can rebuild the Army. In other words, several generations of generals fought and won a long defensive war against a House of Commons packed with spivs and bluffers. That’s how, so far, our soldiers have trained 52,000 troops for Ukraine, 30,000 of them in Britain. That’s a remarkable achievement. I’d like to see that machine train 30,000 troops a year for our own Army.

While I don’t believe reviving National Service is the right answer for recruiting may I congratulate the Chief of the General Staff, Patrick Sanders, for tugging off Rishi’s gag! When most MPs have no experience of wearing a uniform, let alone actual warfare, it becomes more important than ever that serving leaders speak out. Because the bean counters can tell a Minister absolute rubbish and he or she wouldn’t have a clue. I had the same problem at the FCO when all the wartime and National Service veterans in HM Diplomatic Service gradually retired. I no longer found anyone in the FCO who understood my way of tackling difficult or dangerous tasks, risk management and people management through leadership. So I left a decade early with the last of that generation.

Another way forward is asking reservists and civilians to volunteer as Army Reserve soldiers. Maybe a fatter gratuity for such volunteers would encourage those who enjoyed their time with the colours. Many of my fellow Territorial Army sappers were students or working in the City with jobs that varied from accountants to the Stock Exchange. Civilian employers supported the Territorial Army by releasing their part time soldiers for the annual two weeks ‘ camp ’ – full time soldiering – without counting that time as their annual summer holiday. From 1908 to the present day the volunteer reserve concept has worked extremely well. The Territorial Army was more than 70,000 strong. Indeed, the volunteer reserves became recruiting shop windows for the regular forces. The TA Paras were full of wartime veterans. Our brigade commander was Johnny Frost of Arnhem legend. My late close friend, Colonel John Waddy, another Arnhem veteran, raised 23 Regiment SAS based largely on Birmingham to add a second Territorial SAS regiment to the special forces group. More recently 131 Commando Squadron served in the Iraq War as a unit. Many TAVR soldiers served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Better care of the MOD estate would make a career in the Armed Forces more attractive to adventurous young people who want to start a family but can’t afford to buy a house. The Police don’t have an upper age limit for recruiting. Some administration jobs in the Army rely on old soldiers who are now civilians.

Given what we’re learning from Ukraine, surely we should start recruiting the First Battalion of the Royal Nerds –and equip them with the best IT and drones, all the gadgets they couldn’t possibly afford at home unless their parents were Bill and Melinda Gates. I’m sure we would discover some super cyber warfare programme writers. Only this week Porton Down, the defence research centre, revealed that it has developed an electro magnetic pulse that knocks out any gadget, weapon or drone that relies on electricity. Raising the ‘ Nerds ’  might well encourage other young people to volunteer for more conventional battalions and regiments. I began life in uniform as a Sea Cadet aged 14 then became a TA soldier while still at school. My time as a para’ engineer led me to become a sapper officer in the Regular Army while still a teenager.

Strategy and Tactics

Nor should we begin raising a mass army. I hear what the New Bletchley Group says but suggest Ukraine shows what happens to an old fashioned mass army like Russia’s. I saw close up a largely conscripted American army fighting a long bitter war that eventually spread throughout Indo-China. Draftees and an unpopular long war are not a good mixture. The specialist units such as the Green Berets, Rangers, Airborne and Marine Corps tended to have a much greater proportion of career personnel. Once that war was over for the Americans, they copied us, and from 1973 onwards made their armed forces professional with volunteers.

The future army will rely on imagination, speed and maybe gadgets similar to that electro-magnetic pulse though probably not yet invented. France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania have plenty of manpower for large armies. Within this decade Poland will have the second largest European army west of the Ural Mountains. Clearly they don’t rely on the Germans to save them from Russia. Putin will need to repair his army after Ukraine. We should leave the NATO Central Front for the people who live there and concentrate on NATO’s long flanks. Some people think America is tired of defending Europe. I don’t. Donald Trump is an old fashioned isolationist who plays with his mobile phone instead of reading a history book. In case he hasn’t heard, isolation didn’t stop Pearl Harbour.

We should turn back the clock but not to conscription. As a first step, we would do far better to restore our tactical nuclear weapons and thereby dramatically increase our battlefield firepower. That really would scare Putin, whose greatest fear judging from his rambling monologues seems a war with NATO. As a second step tripling the size of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would bring much more leverage to bear globally on all potential foes and thus offer far better investments. Only recruiting the nerds is as urgent. More further on.

The Far East has become the most dynamic region on the planet. Most future growth in the global economy will happen in the Far East. Our diplomatic, naval and air/land activity should reflect the importance of this region to an island trading nation.

Third step restore Liddell-Hart’s Army. As for its structure recent history is our best guide. Until Ukraine the big wars took place beyond Europe. Most were infantry wars such as Confrontation in aid of Malaysia, the South Atlantic, Afghanistan. But the liberation of Kuwait and the Iraq War involved heavy armour as well as infantry. Therefore I would suggest that the Army should aim for a six division structure with enough armoured brigades ( heavy on tanks ) and mechanised brigades to form a pair of armoured divisions and enough infantry brigades to form four infantry divisions. The half division is the air assault brigade with lightweight tanks. One can argue that if the four infantry divisions are air portable/airmobile that restores a powerful fire brigade with the Paras and Royal Marine Commandos. They can be deployed anywhere – desert, jungle, mountains, plains, snow.

All these divisions will draw on components within the TAVR. Infantry, artillery, air defence, logistics and transport for example. My old Para Engineer Regiment now wears green berets as 131 Commando Engineer Squadron. The Army reserve has been disbanded more than once during my lifetime. Now it’s trying to build up to 30,000 but that target number ought to double. This is important. A Cold War British infantry battalion in the 1960s was almost a thousand strong and the Army reserve could provide whole companies as reinforcements in a crisis.

Ukraine’s army shows every day how they have no shortage of courage or soldiers, but need weapons and ammunition, modern jet fighters and long range strike missiles. In other words, more fire power with longer reach. And that’s what the British Army should focus on for NATO flanks plus rapid reaction forces ready to deploy globally. An army that’s air portable can move faster tactically and strategically than potential opponents. That requires tanks that weigh less than twenty tons. Since 1945 the British Army has fought small and big wars on every continent save North America and Australia. Conflicts took place in places as far apart as the Falklands and Korea. We fought two wars in Latin America. Throughout this time the Army upheld its obligations to NATO or a close ally covered for the absent British.

Institutional memory can become forgetful as time passes. The Army should experiment with structures. The US Army tried a pentomic structure of five battlegroups but fought in Vietnam with the kind of structure described above and have stuck with it ever since.  Once again the US Army is going through a debate, this time on whether the main tactical command task should return to the division rather than stay with the independent brigade groups. The latter were created to allow greater dispersal as a defensive posture on a potentially nuclear battlefield – Germany – where the threat of tactical nuclear strikes is a very real risk. Russian doctrine on the use of tactical nuclear weapons is much more trigger happy than NATO’s. Old soldiers remember this from our training as young officers and despite all the jungle, mountain and desert wars over the last seventy years, we’d keep those independent brigade groups.


Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine, is the first drone war. Drones vary in size from ones that take off from the palm of your hand to quite large aircraft that can stay aloft at high altitude for longer than a day. Missile strikes are combined with drone raids. So many drones have been shot down by the Ukrainians that Russia must buy more and more from Iran. Swarm attacks are the latest tactical move with smart microwave weapons as the latest countermove. Apparently microwave weapons can be designed to spot the hostile drones while avoiding damage to friendly drones.

Other drones travel on the sea or through the sea. Ukraine with no navy in the conventional sense has forced Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – what remains of it – to retreat from Sevastopol to a port some distance away on the Russian mainland. I suspect drone tanks are not far off and behind them will come drone supply trucks, drone artillery, and possibly drone infantry for clearing hostile urban areas or hostile fortifications and minefields. Drones already do most of the scouting ahead that used to be the job of young infantry officers with a casualty rate among them to match the risk.

At the Porton Down research centre they have discovered that sending an electro-magnetic pulse overloads a drone’s electronic circuits and simply switches them off. Result – the drone falls from the sky. That news should spoil many a villain’s breakfast….

Our ground to air defences need rebuilding urgently to protect our ports and cities from the kind of drone and missile attacks the Ukrainians suffer night after night. RUSI has just issued a report which says presently we are near enough defenceless. I’m sure they’re right. During the 1950s and 1960s the Territorial Army recruited Light and Heavy Anti-Aircraft regiments the length of the country. Only people my age still remember. This is an ideal task for Nerds and urgent as rebuilding the Royal Air Force.

According to The Times last year fewer than one in ten of the 137,000 young people who applied to join the Armed Forces actually made it into uniform. Has anyone at the Ministry of Defence steered the other nine towards the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve? As for adding instant mass, speed up recruiting, and speed up that search for the 70,000 men and women on the ‘lost’reserve list who have been ignored ( abandoned? ) since the 1990s. If you were a soldier or an officer when you first paid National Insurance usually your Army number is your National Insurance number – mine is – just a suggestion to help the search started by Patrick Sanders.

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About the author

Adrian Hill