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Defence Secretary Ben Wallace will make a statement in the Commons later today, unveiling the Defence Command Paper. It will outline the shape and size of the Armed Forces for the coming decade and comes after the release of the Integrated Review on foreign and security policy last week. The size of the Army is expected to be reduced by about 10,000 soldiers, as the UK focuses more on artificial intelligence and cyber warfare.
But that number – reported to be around 70,000 soldiers – would put the UK on par with the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service in February, “consists of over 70,000 active duty, reserve, National Guard, and civilian personnel”.
There were more than 80,000 soldiers in the UK’s regular Army in January 2021, already down from 86,080 in October 2015.
And further cuts are “set to unnerve allies,” including those across the pond like US President Joe Biden – a country the UK has enjoyed a “special relationship” with since the days of World War 2.
According to the Financial Times, US military officials said privately that “while they value UK special forces and are impressed by Britain’s growing cyber expertise, troop numbers still matter”.
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Defence secretary Ben Wallace will address Commons later today
Michael Shurkin, a security expert at the Rand Corporation, stated that the US’s historical military cooperation with the British is based on a recognition of its quality.
He said: “It’s not just that we expect the British to show up when we call — we really want the British to show up when we call, because they’re good.”
He added that “it becomes a real problem” if suddenly a trusted ally can no longer provide the troop numbers it once could.
The challenge now is said to be in how ministers present the cuts to the Biden administration.
Jack Watling, a land warfare specialist at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said: “How well it goes down with our allies depends very much on how honest we are about what we’re doing.
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“If we set out a credible roadmap that admits it’s going to be rough for the next decade but by 2030 we will deliver something that is clearly defined, then the US will probably respond positively.”
Key to this is a new special operations force which will be created to help modernise the British Army and tackle global threats before they escalate – similar to the US Army Special Forces, also known as the “Green Berets”.
This force will be regularly deployed around the world to train foreign militaries and then accompany them to the fight if necessary.
Another important aspect of the review to the US is said to be its focus on the Indo-Pacific, as the UK pursues deeper defence ties with Asian allies such as Japan, India and South Korea in an effort to counter a growing China.
Washington’s relationship with Beijing remains frosty after officials clashed during their first face-to-face meeting since Mr Biden became US President.
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The Army is set to have its numbers reduced
Relations between the world’s two largest economies were already fractured before the two met, thanks to trade disputes, the coronavirus pandemic and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
The Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will deploy later this year to East Asia and is due to carry out joint exercises with Japan.
But some have questioned whether the UK’s commitments are real or merely symbolic — especially since Britain reportedly does not have enough of its own fighter jets to equip the carrier, and is relying on the US to make up the numbers.
Huan Graham, an Asian defence expert at the IISS, based in Singapore, said: “The Brits should be judged on their consistency of presence, not a once-in-a-generation deployment of a carrier group, that’s not really of much use.”
Mr Wallace is set to announce the update after the Ministry of Defence (MOD) secured £16.5billion from the Treasury for what the Government deems the “most significant defence review since the Cold War”.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will travel to East Asia
There will be extra money to fight in the new domains of space and cyber, and for robots and drones.
The MoD says troops, although fewer in number, will be better equipped.
The national cyber force will be expanded and there will be a new space command set up.
Ahead of the publication of the command paper later on today, Mr Wallace said: “From striking ISIS terrorists in Iraq, disrupting drug shipments and deterring Russian aggression in the Baltic, our Armed Forces already reach where others cannot.
“In the coming years, we will broaden the spectrum of this worldwide engagement even further.
“Across a vast global footprint, we will be constantly operating to deter our adversaries and reassure our friends, integrating with our allies, and ready to fight should it be necessary.”