Conscription is not the answer for Britain to get its military in order

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The writer is a retired RAF Air Marshal who was formerly director-general of Joint Force Development at the UK Ministry of Defence

When General Sir Patrick Sanders, head of the UK army, made a speech last month calling for public conscription, the idea was immediately rebuffed by the prime minister and created a public storm. The suggestion of forcing Britons into military service is guaranteed to raise hackles — but his detractors have taken issue with the wrong part. There are even more serious reasons to criticise his argument.

Behind the upfront messages that “Ukraine really matters” and that we are now a “prewar”, rather than a postwar, generation there were some unarguable points. In a nationally existential conflict, like the first and second world wars, you need to mobilise the nation, and conscription follows. A good peacetime framework of reserve forces provides the kernel for growth, and having well-organised peacetime reservists is a very good idea. Indeed, it is refreshing to see Sanders reversing the antipathy of previous senior army leaders to anything but a fully professional force.

But once intertwined with stark hypotheticals — such as the likelihood of the UK being drawn directly into a war with Russia — listeners concluded that the creation of the “citizen army” must be just around the corner. This contentious idea (“your children will be conscripted”) naturally captured the headlines.

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In the event of any major conflict, the national workforce is divided between the military services and the industrial base that goes into overdrive to produce war-fighting materiel. So if there is a move to gear up the British army, then where is the corresponding acceleration of that industrial base? As ammunition supplies to frontline Ukrainian forces dwindle, this, more than anything, is what Kyiv really needs.

This brings us back to Sanders’s insistence that “Ukraine really matters”. He is right: if Russia is defeated there and its military defanged in the process, then the credible threat to Nato will be eradicated — for many years, at least. Allow Moscow to win, however, and the victorious Russian war economy — enhanced by the lessons of modern warfare they have recently learnt — becomes a very serious problem for Nato. 

While that war continues, a mobilised British army sitting back in the UK, even if expanded by 50 per cent to 120,000 through the use of reserves, will have no impact. Without an augmentation of the defence industrial base to arm and sustain it, this force would have no bearing on the current war, and be no more of a deterrent to future wars than it was before.

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It is true that the UK has recently received overt criticism from the Pentagon over the readiness of our forces. Even smaller Nato allies are looking behind the rhetoric to assess our actual depth. But a focus on troop numbers overlooks other more mundane but no less vital defence capabilities.

The idea that Nato countries should prioritise preparing to fight Russia tomorrow — such as through Steadfast Defender, the alliance’s joint exercise this year, which will be the biggest show of strength since the cold war — over helping Ukraine defeat Moscow today, seems perverse. Don’t help your neighbour put out a small fire; let the flames rage while you prepare a slightly larger hose for when they leap the fence.

The best that can be said is that the Sanders speech — by acknowledging the utility of reserve forces — is a more mature version of the arguments advanced by all three armed services that an inflated frontline would enhance deterrence. Sanders has made a boilerplate plea for a bigger army, using the Ukraine conflict as a bogeyman. But he overtly criticises those who “extrapolate our maritime heritage too far” while claiming the “centrality of the land domain”. In fact, land battles in war reveal national strength, they don’t determine it. As an island, and a vital node on Nato’s sea and air lanes, Britain’s air force and navy are crucial. To claim land is all that matters is like trying to run a football team with just a very good striker.

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My criticism, therefore, is not the argument for conscription. It is that Sanders has taken some unarguable truths, amplified fear by invoking the current instability and then indulged in the usual pleading for his own service. Instead, the UK should be showing political leadership in ramping up munitions production capacity, alongside the Joint Expeditionary Force — a coalition of Baltic, Nordic and northern European countries. This would set a high bar for others in Nato. The immediate lesson for the UK is not that we must find novel ways to enlarge the British army. Rather, it’s that we need to engage civilians in industry — not on the frontline.