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In Brief: Army size

(Bumble Dee / Alamy Stock Photo)

Patrick Vollmer

4 min read

In an occasional series, staff from Parliament’s libraries give The House choice nuggets from the archives. This week, Patrick Vollmer, House of Lords librarian and director of library services, looks at the size of the army

The first duty of government is the defence of the realm. But how does a government go about fulfilling that duty in the modern age? One question that often arises is how big the army ought to be, relative to threats and technological advances.  

Current plans for the size of the army were set two years ago, shortly after the publication of the March 2021 integrated defence and security review.  

A defence command paper set out a vision for an army of the future that was “leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats”. This vision would see a planned reduction in the number of army regulars to a full-time trade-trained strength of 72,500 by 2025.  

This revised target for the regular army represented a fall from the target of 82,000 outlined in the previous strategic defence and security review of November 2015. When that target was set, the full-time trade-trained strength of the army stood at just over 80,000, having fallen from just over 82,000 earlier in the year. The Conservative manifesto published for the 2015 general election had promised not to reduce army personnel numbers below 82,000. 

The target was increased from 72,500 to 73,000 in November 2021, although this still represented a reduction compared with the actual strength then of around 77,500. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence set out plans to grow the strength of the army reserve, then numbering around 26,000, to just over 30,000, giving a whole-force strength of over 100,000. 

By January 2023, the full-time trade-trained strength of the army was 75,710. This was 2.2 per cent smaller than the previous year. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed thinking. The invasion prompted Liz Truss during her time as prime minister to commission an update to the integrated review, which was published in March 2023.  

Writing in the foreword, Rishi Sunak maintained the broad direction of the 2021 integrated review was right, but factors such as Russia’s actions and China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait were threatening to create “a world defined by danger, disorder and division”.  

The refreshed review committed the government to a £5bn increase in defence spending over the next two years. The government also said it had a “new aspiration” to reach 2.5 per cent of GDP but did not specify a timeframe for this. 

The review made no recommendations to changes in the size of the armed forces, but there have been calls for more personnel. As part of its inquiry into UK defence policy, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee heard from witnesses concerned about reducing the size of the army. For example, the former chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, argued it should be around 80,000.  

The committee concluded that headline troop numbers are “not the most appropriate metric” by which to judge the army’s capabilities, but more important was whether the army has the resources and capabilities it needs to deliver on the government’s ambitions. 

Rishi Sunak told the London Defence Conference in May 2023 that it was for military chiefs to decide how to optimise the nation’s forces for the military capabilities the UK needs. He said he would not second-guess their decisions. But he also pointed to the Defence Secretary’s review of the UK’s force capacity, the outcome of which is due to be published in a refreshed defence command paper this month. Time will tell whether this definitively settles the question of how big the army should be.  

Read more on this in the House of Lords In Focus article, Size of the Army: Numbers, Tech and the Latest on the Integrated Review, and consult the House of Lords Library website for topical and impartial research, data, and resources.

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