Defence is once again a monumental mess. Nearly eight years since the Conservatives came into government, we have self-inflicted a strategic loss of fighting power and reputation. We are facing another serious ‘black hole’ in the defence equipment programme. What is going on?

Some recently retired defence chiefs, the only ones allowed to speak the brutal truth in public, have been scathing about the impacts of year-upon-year cut backs. General Barrons assesses that our forces are not fit for purpose and that the army is twenty years out of date in terms of serious war fighting capability. It would, he said, be severely challenged facing the Russian drones and artillery that had recently defeated Ukranian forces. Admiral Zambellas worries that we are in danger of becoming a Third World nation in military terms and says the navy is hollowed out.

There is nothing new about defence chiefs fighting their corner and calling for more money. So why should we pay attention now? Because if more money is not found and impending cuts to front line forces go ahead we risk losing two vital components of our national security: the critical mass and corporate morale of our armed forces.

Our armed forces are part insurance policy, part deterrence and they deliver considerable soft power. Their core and defining role is hard power – all the way to last resort aggressive homeland defence. Thus the critical mass of armed forces is about fighting power. This consists of mainly young people, weapons systems, platforms, logistics and networks all integrated into highly trained and tuned teams.

The physical component of military power is highly visible and measurable. More important, though, is the invisible moral component. Napoleon rated the moral component 3:1 to the physical. This fighting spirit and determination to win, high morale, depends upon quality recruitment, high standards of training, leadership and unit spirit.

Here is the rub. We have already dropped beneath critical mass. Any further front line cuts will take us significantly beneath it. Defence corporate morale which has been fragile for some time would take a body blow. Cutting today’s 78,000 strong army (last this size post-Waterloo) and reducing our one royal marines brigade and some of its specialist shipping, as proposed, will break the camel’s back.

Other departments of state reaching crisis point can be turned around relatively quickly by throwing it the necessary resources – money, people and leaders. Not so for defence. The timelines for procuring defence equipment, recruiting and developing trained personnel and units are much longer. And the lasting impact of failure in the meantime can be catastrophic.

We already face a serious problem recruiting and retaining servicemen. Tommy Atkins’ parents are not encouraging Tommy to join up, and Tommy is not signing up in anythink like the numbers required. An atmosphere of near-permanent decline has taken root.

We have sacrificed too much in terms of size and numbers to pay for some top of the range “exquisite” weapon platforms and have much less resilience, staying power, than we need. We have just 19 destroyers and frigates. More capable ships cannot be in two places at once. Ships forced to leave post for mechanical reasons have not been replaced. In the age of drone and missile swarm attacks, overall size and numbers have a quality of their own. Our army does not have the vehicles that enabled the French Army to conduct a brilliant campaign in Mali. It is years behind French armoured force capability. Comparisons of some key equipment holdings and formation level training are acutely embarassing.

The hopeless and facile government response to all this to date has been to trumpet our standing as the world’s 5th highest defence spender, and to point to some of our world class defence assets – top of the list, 2 new huge aircraft carriers.

The claim that we are one of few allies that meet the NATO 2% defence expenditure target convinces few serious commentators. It is based on very creative accounting. Nevertheless we do spend a lot of money on other elements of national security, including GCHQ, intelligence services, cyber, border force, and police.

With the NHS needing some £4bn (King’s fund estimate), and housing, transport and prisons high priorities too, is it realistic to expect defence to get an extra £2bn? Yes, for the reasons outlined above, further front line cuts would imperil our national security at a time of serious and growing danger. They would alienate a significant number of voters, including 2.5 million ex-servicemen, and ruin another Conservative core brand and competence.

So what would be the smart thing for the Prime Minister to do now? She should announce that there will be no more front line cuts, trigger a formal defence review and an informal (unvarnished outsider) quicker report, personal to the PM, on defence availability, sustainability and resilience. She should prompt a further shake-up of the defence procurement system to include adjustment of the wasteful and bureacratic annual defence costings exercise to every 3 or 5 years. She should call for options for part use of the DFID budget for ‘dual use’ of defence personnel and assets – defence soft power has a major role to play in a more global Britain. Finally, she should do what Tony Blair concluded but never applied, solve the recurring defence elephant in the room issue by creating a separate budget for the strategic deterrent.

Nigel Hall is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London and a 
Brigadier & former Commanding Officer for 1 Duke of Wellington’s Regiment