Gen. Sir Nicholas Houghton, left, UK's chief of the defense staff, has warned that prioritizing top-of-the-line military equipment while cutting personnel could degrade military capability. (AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON — The UK’s head of armed services has warned that Britain is in danger of hollowing out its military by acquiring top-line equipment but having too few resources to effectively operate it.
Gen. Sir Nicholas Houghton, chief of the defense staff, said that while the armed forces has not yet reached the point of the hollow force, the Royal Navy is coming “perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms.”
The British equipment program has political commitment to real growth post-2015, but there is a danger of further manpower and activity cuts even if the Ministry of Defence is able to retain the non-equipment budget in real-terms, he said.
“Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it,” he told an audience of politicians, senior industry executives and others at the Royal United Services Institute in London on Wednesday.
Houghton said the emphasis in the MoD has been on technical overmatch against Britain’s enemies while personnel levels were cut.
“While exquisite technology has been protected as the key to operational superiority, manpower has been seen more as overhead and activity levels have been squeezed,” Houghton said in his first major speech since becoming Britain’s military boss in July.
All of the armed services have seen major personnel reductions amid wider austerity measures imposed by the Conservative-led coalition government since 2010.
None more so than the Army, where numbers are being cut by 20,000 down to 80,000, with the government seeking to make up the shortfall with larger reserve forces.
The Royal Navy has cut 6,000 personnel as frigate and destroyer numbers have been heavily reduced.
Without an uptick in armed forces spending in the next Parliament, it wouldn’t be possible to achieve the force structures set out in the 2010 strategic defense and security review, he said.
Britain faces a new strategic defense and security review and a comprehensive spending review across government departments immediately after the next election in 2015 that will set the tone for defense for the remainder of the decade.
“A combination of tight national resources, concerns regarding utility and political and societal reservation about the beneficial use of military force does not create a benign environment for defense funding,” he told the audience.
The “creeping aversion to risk in the employment of our armed forces” has the potential of becoming the most damaging problem facing the military, he warned.
Britain’s service-centric, major equipment focus has left the armed forces short in the ability to provide the key enablers required for the joint force operations of today, he said.
“We are critically deficient in the capabilities which enable the joint force. Such things as intelligence, surveillance, compatible communications, joint logistics and tactical transport,” Houghton said.
Increasingly, Britain has spent its defense budget on large capital equipment programs, often with an eye to supporting the UK’s defense industrial base, he said.
While there was a strong strategic goal to retain specific sovereign capabilities, he said “we must be careful that the defense budget is not disproportionately used to support the British defense industry.”