A British Army for the Roman Empire?

Alexander Pannett 11.30am

The announcement in recent weeks of the British Army 2020 reforms has raised a lot of arm-chair generals analysis of the historical context that will see the regular army reduced to 84,000 personnel.

Smallest army since the Boer War” has proved one particularly incendiary phrase.

Whilst the reforms are inevitably connected with the wider austerity cuts to public services, they also comprise a fascinating re-structuring of the army into two distinct forces; a rapid-reaction fighting force and a larger stabilisation force. A fighting element and a nation-building element that can work symbiotically to defend vulnerable states from the threat of extremist insurgency.

It is here that I would like to throw my “historical geek analysis” hat into the proverbial ring. The proposed restructuring of the British Army does not make it comparable to its Boer War predecessor but more to the reformed Late Roman Army under Constantine I in the early 4th century AD that ended the legionary system and divided the army into mobile field armies, comitatenses, and stabilisation forces, limitanei, that maintained security amongst diverse ethnic populations situated near the exotic borders of the Roman Empire.

The reforms of the Roman Army under Constantine were in response to the changing threats that faced the Roman Empire. Similar to Western militaries of the modern era, the Roman Army could dominate other militaries on the battlefield but was susceptible to asymmetric raids and insurgencies that sapped the economic and political will of the Roman state to garrison rebellious occupied territories.

The mobile comitatenses were used for expeditionary warfare that would overcome opposing armies, whilst the limitanei pacified occupied territories with a larger but cheaper force that included recruits from local cultures and promoted empire building by bolstering trade, urban development and law.

Despite the merits of the reforms to the Roman Army in temporarily stabilising the Empire from near-collapse, there has been much debate among scholars as to whether the quality of its soldiery in morale, equipment and training suffered as a result of a split into a dual-structured army. It undeniably failed to prevent the eventual end of the Western Roman Empire and Rome was sacked by invading hordes just a century later.

Today, the British Army is being divided into its own form of comitatenses and limitanei, as it faces asymmetric foes that are far removed from its previous Cold War adversaries. Part of this change is due to budgetary restrictions, but the restructuring, in a simulacrum of Constantine’s reforms, are attempting to make the armed forces as effective as possible against the mutable challenges ahead. As tactics and technology constantly evolve, it makes sense that the British Army should maintain as many capabilities as possible.

Professor Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI, summarised in a recent article that the reforms of the British Army are “designed to give the country a rapid-reaction brigade that can kick the door in if the need arises, and an ‘adaptable force’ and supporting elements who, if necessary, can precede its operations, back it up, and do a range of other training and support jobs that will be increasingly important in the coming era.” Such commentary would not have been out of place in Constantine’s time.

The supporting force will be particularly useful in being able to concentrate on peacekeeping, engineering and nation building projects, all aimed at winning diplomatic capital and projecting soft power amongst a potentially disaffected population in developing and unstable parts of the world. This can be as much about providing humanitarian relief and meeting our UN commitments as it is about fighting terrorism.

However, whilst the Army 2020 reforms may help the British Army fight future insurgencies such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not actually help the UK meet its strategic goals of the 21st century. This is mostly because the UK’s strategic goals have not been established yet.

Since the end of the Cold War, our foreign policy has too often looked inconsistent, even hypocritical. At times inspired by abstract notions such as ethics, human rights and international law. At other times, obsessed with more economically tangible benefits such as energy resources and trade. It would be far more effective for the UK to first determine what it wants to achieve with its foreign policy over the next few decades and then mould its armed forces accordingly. Rather than creating the tools before you have made the plan.

It is also questionable as to whether there is any political or public will for any more small wars, let alone the money to pay for them. There is hardly much clamouring to intervene militarily in Syria at the present. Even Libya was met with skeptical resignation.

Army 2020 struggles to adequately address major threats that the UK will continue to face. UAV drones and special-forces are the most effective weapon against terrorist networks, as demonstrated in Yemen and Pakistan. A twin-structured army will not complement these assets whilst military occupations encourage further anti-Western extremism, even if such occupying forces are better trained for nation building. Cyber warfare will pose a huge threat to the advanced economy of the UK and cyber-defences are woefully under-resourced.  Energy security would be better served by mending diplomatic relations in the Middle East and Russia rather than by starting wars there.

The risk is that the reforms will divert precious resources away from the real capabilities that the UK will need in the coming decades and create a two-tier army that will undermine morale and standards and be of little use other than for ceremonial duties for tourists.

Whilst the military reforms of Constantine could not save the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire prospered for over a thousand more years. Its survival was as much to do with effective social and economic policy than to military prowess. This is the real lesson that the architects of Army 2020 should learn from their Roman predecessors. Whilst Constantine arguably increased the military effectiveness of the Empire, his major contribution to its continued survival was in protecting and cultivating the Empire’s most productive economic regions by moving the capital to the new city of Constantinople, located on the richest trading route in the Empire.

Constantine had a strategic vision for his Empire and understood the economic basis of that vision. His ambitions dictated his military reforms, rather than the reforms determining his goals. Until the UK establishes a holistic approach to its strategic and economic aims, any reform of the armed forces will be ineffective and anachronistic. They should not react to the errors of the past but act on their hopes for the future.

The UK’s strategic aims for the immediate future should be that it is safe from cyber crime, economic espionage and terrorism, that it has re-built its diplomatic capital in resource-rich regions, secured its energy supply, freed its trade routes from piracy and is crucially not engaged in any more costly wars for little strategic gain.  Any reform of the armed forces would be considered a success if it achieved these goals for 2020.

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