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Shapps defends drop in Army personnel as 'it's not just about numbers'

The defence secretary has played down concerns about falling British Army recruitment numbers.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps speaks to the media outside BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday January 21, 2024. (Photo by Maja Smiejkowska/PA Images via Getty Images)
Defence secretary Grant Shapps has defended the government's record on military recruitment. (Getty Images)

Defence secretary Grant Shapps has played down concerns about falling numbers in the Armed Forces, claiming its strength is about more than boots on the ground.

His comments come after a former Army chief warned that the force has "never been smaller" and that ultimately, "numbers do matter" if Britain wants to be a significant military power.

Appearing on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, Shapps was asked why the number of full-time trained Army personnel stood at more than 80,000 in 2021 and is on track to hit 73,000 in 2025. Suggesting it's more important to have a highly-skilled and well-equipped service, he said: "It's not the number of people alone that matters, it's the lethality, it's how capable our systems are at defence."

Shapps urged viewers not to solely focus on the Army, pointing to the 188,000 full-time personnel across the Armed Forces, including both the Navy and Air Force and also newer fields such as cyber and space.

Flag of United Kingdom on military uniform. UK Army. British Armed Forces, soldiers.
Figures show Army recruitment figures to be consistently below target. (Alamy)

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The minister hailed the UK's deal with Italy and Japan to build a "next generation" of stealth fighter jet, and Britain setting aside £200m on drones for Ukraine's defence against Russia. On the Royal Navy, he said the UK has "the largest ships that we have ever put to sea" and referred to the high-powered DragonFire laser defence system that was tested this week on aerial targets.

Still concerns remain over falling troop numbers, with the number of Army recruits signed up last year only reaching 5,500 – well short of the target of 8,000.

A recent Parliamentary inquiry heard how Army recruitment goals for full-time troops have consistently been below target since 2010, UK Defence Journal reports. However, despite the continual downward trend, Shapps has denied claims that numbers are on a trajectory to hit 52,000 in a decade's time, as reported by The Times.

View of the DragonFire laser-directed energy weapon (LDEW) system, during a trial at the Ministry of Defence's Hebrides Range, Scotland, Britain in this undated handout image. UK MOD/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Shapps hailed the UK's new DragonFire laser-directed energy weapon as a sign of military power. (Reuters)

Speaking to Sky News's Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips, he said it was "not projected to go down to 50,000. It's actually, specifically, to 73,000 plus the reserves". Asked whether under the Tories' watch, the size of the army would not fall below 73,000, Shapps said: 'That's correct."

The UK's defence spending is currently below the target of 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), Shapps said, adding that "we're comfortably above 2%" and that the government will meet its goal when economic conditions allow. He defended Jeremy Hunt's focus on tax cuts rather than upping defence spending, saying "the chancellor has been incredibly generous" with a nearly 10% pay rise for the Armed Forces.

He told Phillips: "We are committed to spending more when conditions allow. But I also think that it is true to say that people do want to see more of the money that they earn kept."

'Numbers do matter'

Despite Shapps' insistence on quality over quantity in the Armed Forces, Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, still has concerns about dwindling personnel numbers.

He told The Telegraph: "The bottom line is numbers do matter. It is a fact that at 73,000 the British Army has never been smaller and the government has to accept there is a risk having an army that small. What happens in future if British forces are committed on the ground, can we sustain the operation for six months to 18 months?"

Francis Tusa, who writes the Defence Analysis newsletter, suggested a lack of investment in other areas beyond new recruits. "The problems facing all the services are major, deep and growing: personnel, infrastructure, training – and that's before you get to equipment," he told the Times.

He told how he heard from one European Nato general, who told him the UK "can't put a brigade in the field" and is seeing "kit falling apart". This, has raised questions about Britain's ability to lead Nato's rapid response force.

https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8175/
How the UK compares to other NATO members in military spending. (Commons Library)

How does the UK's military compare to other countries?

The answer to this question depends on how you look at it.

Britain is too small a country to win on numbers, ranking 25th in the world for active military personnel at 194,000, according to Statista.com. That's compared to two million for China, 1.45 million for India, 1.39 for the United States, 1.2 million for North Korea and 830,900 for Russia.

However, in 2021/22, the UK spent £45.9bn on defence, which was £3.6bn higher than the previous year, according to House of Commons data. This arguably allows it to continue "punching above its weight" as a military power.

According to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK was the sixth highest military spender in 2022. The US was in first place, spending around $877bn, followed by China at $292bn and Russia at $86.4bn.

Britain's firepower, its nuclear and weapons manufacturing capabilities and highly-skilled personnel are all held up as its strengths, but questions have still been raised about its ability to keep its place as a military power.

General Lord Dannatt has hit out at the shrinking size of the Army, which he said has fallen from 102,000 in 2006 to 74,000 today "and falling fast". Writing in The Times, he drew parallels with the 1930s when the "woeful" state of the UK's armed forces failed to suppress the rise of Nazi Germany and its invasion of Poland at the end of the decade.

"There is a serious danger of history repeating itself," he said. Pointing to rising geopolitical uncertainty, he said: "If our armed forces are not strong enough to deter future aggression from Moscow or Beijing it will not be a small war to contend with but a major one."