Hollowing out: What the term means to Armed Forces as Britain faces a '1930s' moment over defence budget

Watch: The description 'hollowed out' has become increasingly familiar in describing the state of Britain's Armed Forces.

A former British Army General says the UK is facing a "1930s moment" as defence waits to hear what settlement it is going to receive from the Treasury.

Richard Barrons, the former head of Joint Forces Command, says the military needs billions of pounds to stop what is been dubbed the "hollowing out" of Britain's Armed Forces.

In January, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted that the Government has "hollowed out and underfunded" the Army, following claims by an American general that the UK is no longer a top-tier fighting force.

The description 'hollowed out' has become increasingly familiar in describing the state of Britain's Armed Forces.

Former British Army General Richard Barrons told Forces News: "Hollowing out is where you fail to resist the temptation to keep the things in the shop window, so big platforms like ships, and tanks, and aircraft, you want to hang on to those, and you want to try and keep as many people as you can."

He added: "But then you're tempted to reduce the things that still really matter but they're less visible, so you buy less ammunition, or you buy less fuel for training or you buy fewer spares and you don't repair your infrastructure and you do those things that actually do reduce defence capability but they don't affect the shop window."

Watch: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said he is "pretty confident" about receiving defence budget boost.

Military leaders have reportedly been using this phrase behind closed doors for years before it came to public prominence in 2013, when the then head of the Armed Forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, made a speech containing a stark warning.

Sir Nicholas said at the time: "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," he added.

Former head of the armed forces General Sir Nicholas Houghton warns over 'hollowed-out' armed forces in 2013 19122013 CREDIT RUSI
Former head of the Armed Forces General Sir Nicholas Houghton warns over "hollowed-out" military in 2013 (Picture: RUSI).

At the time the military was bracing itself for large manpower cuts, but the war in Ukraine has exposed how this hollowing out goes further than just people with it also affecting many of the unseen and unglamorous corners of defence.

Ben Wallace said at a Conservative conference: "We have to make sure that whatever money we get, we are first and foremost fixing the hollowing out of our Armed Forces.

He added: "We need to be properly ammoed up, we need to invest in our supply chains, we need to fix dry docks and cranes and things like that".

He explains that without investment in seemingly "dull" maintenance and infrastructure, "you won't be able to run your submarines and your ships and your tanks".

'We need at least five years' notice of a Russian surprise attack'

The Government often points to the military's world-class equipment and its huge budget – the second largest in Nato. 

But General Barrons says even that is not enough to overcome the damage that has been done by decades of underfunding.

"The Army at current rates of investment needs at least five years, and more likely 10 years, to be rebuilt in terms of a deployable division, with the people, the equipment, the training and the stocks, to be effective in the face of a confrontation with Russia.

"In other words, we need at least five years' notice of a Russian surprise attack, and that's not a comfortable place to be in the world we now find ourselves."

Watch: Forces News spoke to defence industry analyst and former Army officer Nicholas Drummond, about how the defence plan may change.

UK is facing a 1939 moment

The Government will soon publish an update to 2021's Integrated Review, and Ben Wallace has reportedly asked for £11bn in extra funding for the next two years. He is expected to get just £4-5bn. 

General Barrons says plans to cut the Army and its tank fleet need to be reversed and the military reserve needs dramatically boosting. 

This period – he says – is very similar to the 1930s when Britain re-armed just in time to protect itself from Nazi Germany.

"In the days of the Battle of Britain, no-one knew that was going to turn out well, and really what we need to do now is to take the decisions to reset our defence with our friends in Nato so that we don't have to contemplate a, sort of, digital age Battle of Britain in the future because we've got our act together in enough time by taking what are very hard decisions."

General Barrons added: "Frankly the jury is out as to whether we are going to do that or not."

Image ID 2NH7M1Y Rt Hon Johnny Mercer MP Minister for Veterans arriving for cabinet meeting 21022023 CREDIT Bridget Catterall,Alamy Stock Photo EXP 22022024.jpg
Veterans' affairs minister Johnny Mercer said it is "not credible" to say money has not been put into defence (Picture: Bridget Catterall/ Alamy Stock Photo).

It has to be said not everyone agrees with Ben Wallace, Veterans minister Johnny Mercer says it is not a credible description given the money the MOD has had. 

But many in the forces will undoubtedly recognise it and, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, General Barrons says Britain's military needs urgently reconfiguring.

Having an impressive shop window while the shelves inside are empty is no longer an option.

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