Tech or troops: how low can you go?

Technology, what is it good for? Well, it can reduce workloads, increase efficiencies and improve overall quality. All sorts of industries now rely heavily on technology such robotics and automation, taking humans out of the equation. Manufacturing, in particularly, has been at the forefront of using technology to boost productivity, increase capability and bring down overall costs for the consumer.

That’s also true for the military, where technology has been seen as a key force multiplier for many western countries over the past few years. In the post-Cold War world, the west has significantly shrunk their armies, navies and air forces but boosted their technological capabilities. Politicians and generals alike often rave how technology has enabled ships, aircraft and men to do more with less.

But relying on technology can have its downsides.

Take for example the Royal Navy’s newest air warfare destroyer, the Type 45, which is described by manufacturer BAE Systems as ‘the most advanced anti-air warfare vessel in the world’.

Given the ship is equipped with an incredible array of sensors, radars and weaponry, it’s a statement that’s actually not far from the truth. The only problem? There’s a paltry six in service.

Many critics say the low numbers severely limit what the Royal Navy can do with platforms and where they can send them. Despite the £1 billion ships bristling with high-end capabilities, maintenance schedules and operational deployments means that only two ships can ever be deployed for front line operations. Is that really enough to have any impact?

It’s this worrying procurement trend that has many serving, and former, defence practitioners asking; how low can you go?

In June, director of the US Army Capabilities Integration Center Lt Gen HR McMaster said Britain was ‘deluded’ if it thought it could continue to rely on technology for ground operations while continuing to cut troop numbers.

McMaster said: ‘I believe that there will be a greater and greater demand for manpower and womanpower, especially in land forces than there has been in the past. You can no longer trade off technology for manpower.’

That sentiment was echoed last week by the UK’s former defence chief Lord General Richards at an event in London. In a scathing critique of current defence policy, Richards said the Royal Navy’s fleet of just 19 major surface combatants (six Type 45 and 13 Type 23 frigates) was ‘too few’ and the upcoming SDSR would have to address ship, as well as aircraft, numbers.

The issue of army numbers would also have to be addressed, Richards said, especially if the UK government’s failing policy of recruiting more reservists (a total of 30,000) to supplement a smaller regular force, didn’t work out. ‘If your opponents are focused on numbers… then numbers are their asymmetric advantage,’ said Richards.

Richards’ statement should probably remind people of the famous quote, variously attributed to Stalin, Lenin or Mao that: ‘Quantity has a quality all its own’.

It all boils down to quantity versus quality, and it’s an age-old debate in the defence sector. Do you have a greater number of less capable platforms, or a reduced amount of high-end capabilities?

Recent comments from generals such as Richards and McMaster suggest the UK and other European countries have reached a point where neither quality nor quantity is being met.

That’s all the more worrying considering that other countries, such as Russia and China, are bolstering both quantity and quality. They are doing this by investing heavily in technology, but also retaining large fleets and aircraft, tanks and ships.

We’ll have to wait until the UK government releases the new SDSR later this year to find out if they plan to reverse the military’s overreliance on technology and dwindling numbers.

But increasing manpower and fleet numbers is not cheap and, in all likelihood, will be rejected for being too expensive. That decision could have severe implications for UK security and defence over the next few decades.

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