Top general warns over 'hollowed-out' armed forces


General Sir Nicholas Houghton: "Whilst exquisite technology has been protected...manpower has been seen more as an overhead"

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Britain is in danger of being left with hollowed-out armed forces, the UK's top military officer has warned.

Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said this would be with "exquisite" equipment but without the personnel needed to use it.

In a speech, he said training levels were being squeezed and manpower was increasingly seen as "an overhead".

The British armed forces are due to be significantly reduced in numbers by thousands of personnel by 2020.

The Army will lose 20,000 soldiers, the Navy 6,000 personnel and the RAF 5,000.

Gen Houghton emphasised that if the UK wished to stay in what he called the Premier League of smart power, then it must invest in armed forces that could generate credible hard power capability and deterrence.


The Chief of the Defence Staff's first annual Christmas speech to a defence audience at the Royal United Services Institute was more outspoken than many had anticipated.

It was a firm warning shot, aimed clearly at political parties that may make up the next government in 2015 - and the Treasury - not to cut the defence budget further, making clear that reductions to manpower have gone far enough, and that anything more risks a "hollow force" - one unable to fulfil the tasks asked of it.

He made clear that this was his "conscience" speaking - suggesting that he wanted to lay down a marker in public, not just make the argument behind closed doors in Whitehall.

In the Autumn statement, the Treasury again cut defence in a little-noticed raid that took some £200m out of the defence budget, after the 8% cuts made in the strategic defence review.

Many within the Army have long been wary of spending on large ticket items such as the aircraft carriers, which will soak up much of the defence budget in the coming years, as will the successor to the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent.

BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said this first annual talk by the new chief of the defence staff contained rather blunter warnings than many had anticipated - Gen Houghton said the UK must both fund and use its armed forces properly.

Gen Houghton took over in the late summer, at a time when the effects of the 8% cuts to the defence budget started having a clear impact on armed forces' morale and what the UK could offer its allies on the international stage.

With the regular Army cutting thousands of soldiers and much future spending committed to equipment, Gen Houghton gave a clear warning to any future government wishing to cut defence spending again in 2015, said our correspondent.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute, in what he described as "an outing of professional conscience", he said Britain risked being left without enough military manpower in the future, with the Royal Navy particularly vulnerable.

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.

"This is what the Americans call the spectre of the hollow-force. We are not there yet; but across defence I would identify the Royal Navy as being perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms."

Gen Houghton suggested spending decisions were too often made "with an eye on supporting the United Kingdom's defence-industrial base" and said a programme of "balanced investment" in manpower and equipment was needed.

Cyber threat

While limited resources had increasingly been channelled into "large capital equipment programmes", the forces had been left "critically deficient" in key capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance, communications, logistics and tactical transport.

"We must be careful that the defence budget is not disproportionately used to support British defence industry," he said.

Computer-generated image of new UK aircraft carrier The UK has ordered two new aircraft carriers to enter service from 2020

Gen Houghton called also for a re-evaluation of homeland security, with the potential for a state-sponsored terror or cyber attack to alter "many of our calculations about the security of the United Kingdom in the years to come".

Start Quote

We take a long view on our duties at sea and, on behalf of our nation, are fully ready to meet the challenge”

End Quote Admiral Sir George Zambellas First Sea Lord

He also pointed out the paradox that the armed forces had rarely been held in such popular high regard - while the use of force after Iraq and Afghanistan was less popular in the UK than ever.

With future funding levels clearly a worry, and the next defence review due in the election year of 2015, this was a chance to fire an early warning shot to any politician who may contemplate further cuts, said our correspondent.

The current government has promised a 1% rise in spending on equipment from 2015 - which takes up half the defence budget - but there is no such promise regarding manpower, which has gone down steadily in all three services since 2010.

Graphic showing cuts to Armed Forces: Army from 102,260 to 82,000 in 2020, Navy from 35,500 to 30,000 and the RAF from 40,130 to 35,000

Gen Houghton also warned of the dangers of a more risk-averse society - stressing that the UK must be careful not to lose its "courageous instinct" within the professional military.

The forces themselves must evolve to ensure they remained appropriate to the threats faced at home and abroad today, he said.

In reaction to the speech, Chief of the Naval Staff, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, said he did not expect the "significant manpower pressure" on the navy "to throw us off track".

"We take a long view on our duties at sea and, on behalf of our nation, are fully ready to meet the challenge."

The shadow defence secretary, Labour's Vernon Coaker said: "What do we want our armed forces for in the future? What are the sorts of situations we envisage our armed forces being involved in?

"What is the threat that we face in terms of cyber, in terms of the amount of intelligence we need?

"We need to answer all of those questions and that's the sort of things that the general is saying that we need to think about in order to come to the right decisions."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 635.

    Yet another example of the Sham Recovery.
    Don't cut the Defence Budget, make the Tax Avoiders pay their dues and put a stop to Government Dept., Fraud!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 634.

    I wonder what life would be like with General Houghton as Prime Minister!! Just think about it....would trains run on time (probably), where would an airport serve everyone and the list just looks better and better. We'd exercise more too I'd expect!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 633.

    Our forces proved they are the best,
    Its the Israeli's mate:) In the past Century Britain was 'beaten' in places like India, saved by the US and USSR in WWII, in Ireland (twice) and then Afghanistan.

    Empire is finished old boy:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 632.

    @618Onan the Barbarian

    When I am talking about refusing orders, I am on about those not in direct combat, I am talking everyone else, if the bottom of the pyramid decides to stop working, so every worker class person not working class that's different, this includes the so called middle classes, those higher up the pyramid will not be able to do a damn thing about it, viva la revolution

  • rate this

    Comment number 631.

    Remember the Falklands Conflict?Invaded by Argies.British citizens under the heel of afascist dictatorship?
    We sent a force to liberate them.(Thanks toMaggie Thatcher)
    Our forces proved they are the best,our Carrier with its Harriers, saw off the Argie airforce and the Marines and Army saw off the invaders.
    Of course after that victory, politicians ignored reality as usual!
    Pathetic donkeys!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    624 beammeup

    Because martyrs are just what we need arent they.
    Not too familiar with the rules of engagement I take it. Conisdering some of our own soldiers have already gone to prison for killing defeated opponents. Theirs a difference between professionals in combat & excecutioners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 629.

    Gen,Houghton is the latest of several senior military officers to raise concerns over defence capability. Just like the others, he will be ignored by the politicians who appear to have no concept of the potential threats to this country, what capabilities are required to meet them or how robust the capability has to be against major disasters such as destruction of an airbase or a capital ship.

  • rate this

    Comment number 628.


    TA soldiers were always trained as combat troops. WW1 & WW2 both saw large TA formations. In the 80s my first unit was asigned to defend a bridge across the River Weser near Hameln. The difference is that the old intention of only deploying the TA for fullscale war has been superceded by using them as an integral part of regular deployments.

    And yes, it is to save money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 627.

    612 Smilereg

    Your not suggesting that only people with guns in their hands should say what the rules are for how to use them. Our army is one of the best trained in the world because were dicsiplined enough to not be a bunch of armed thugs shooting whenever we want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 626.

    Very true Nugget, why have a standing army when you can hire mercenaries, after all a mercenary doesn't get a government pension and if he is killed in action the government doesn't have to answer to his family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 625.

    Exactly what is this Gen. Nicholas Houghton worried about anyway? Since Great Britain is under no threat whatsoever from any country on earth, it hardly needs a huge army or navy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 624.

    If the enemy is shot when at war (in other countries), why isn't the enemy of the people shot (in our country)? When you know they are guilty and after a trial to prove for certain they are and also to enrich the lawyers & system...why aren't they 'shot' instead of placing further burden on the tax payer by keeping them in prison for life (meaning 10 years)? MADNESS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 623.

    I always understood that the TA was set up as a second force for the defence of the country not part of the frontline forces, so as partimers why are they being used as combat troops, when regulars are being made redundant, surely its not to save MONEY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 622.

    607.Load of old pony
    601. sorrysorryandsorry

    They are correct according to wiki.........

    == Well, it should not include no. of reserve military that is why NK has a largest army as I thought it must have to include loads of ponies in the army

  • rate this

    Comment number 621.


    Why do we need soldiers? .....We are at a stage where robots can do the fighting.

    == BBC, any comments from under 18 should not be allowed here in HYS

    Report this comment (Comment number 615)
    Link to this


    No under 18 comments really?

    Well we should stop advertising our military as a career option in every high school then


  • rate this

    Comment number 620.

    What's more disgusting is laying off soldiers and then paying G4S and alike to hire them back as contracted soldiers overseas, they're sent on dangerous supply routes covered in mines (ours know better than to send troops down) but are not even counted when they come back in boxes. There was a BBC documentary "Britains Private War" but was only shown in Scotland!

    It's all about private money!

  • rate this

    Comment number 619.

    A former govt minster recently opined, Britain would become a "souped up Sweden" eventually. Correct! Enough of foreign military adventures which leave us no better off than b4, possibly even worse? Time to forget our ex global policeman role & focus more on domestic issues. A few more police officers on the Streets might do for starters.Jobs there for ex service personnel who might want them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 618.

    614.Matthew "Perhaps our service men and women should start to refusing orders to make our blue blooded and political born with a silver spoon listen. "

    16 from the same platoon are spending Christmas in Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre for doing precisely that. Probably not a good career move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    Myself and every other ex service person has been saying this for a long time now, it seems that the people making the decisions that cause this are unable to comprehend the damage they do, there should be nobody running the MOD who hasn't at some time done service and knows what is required, but then again very few politicians have done any kind of work since leaving school by the sound of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    We must stop intervening militarily overseas as if we were still a (Victorian) superpower and instead concentrate on defending our homeland, its surrounding seas and the airspace above them. Homeland defence has been badly neglected of late and resources have been poured into controversial overseas adventures with dubious results. Homeland security used to be Defence Role 1. It needs to be now.


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