Prepare to be Called up for ‘Citizen Army’ Against Russia, Warns General

The British Army needs to be prepared to “rapidly expand” to field a “citizen army”, its top general said, praising European states for bringing back conscription and saying “we must similarly prepare”.

We are now living in the “prewar generation” and it is time to take “preparatory steps to enable placing our societies on a war footing”, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Patrick Sanders told the International Armoured Vehicles Conference in Twickenham, England, on Wednesday morning. Limited elements of the speech were trailed in the Daily Telegraph in advance, characterising them as a warning that the public faces “call-up if we go to war, military chief warns”.

The General, who is becoming known for making outspoken speeches on the need to grow the British Army to be ready to fight Russia and allegedly soon to leave the top job a year early over his public criticism of the government cutting troop numbers, has already had his speech practically disowned by the government.

In remarks that follow several other top NATO leaders in recent weeks drumming home the idea the West faces war with Russia in the medium term, General Sanders said the Army needed the capacity to rapidly expand, saying present plans to enhance the reserves and enrol recently retired soldiers in a larger “strategic reserve” talent “is not enough”. Instead, he said, the Army needed to be in a position where it could fight a “land war” against the “Russian threat”, bring “second echelon” reserves online quickly to fight, and train and equip “the citizen army that must follow” at the same time.

The Ukraine war shows how important it is to be able to expand a military quickly — as Britain did in the First World War, for instance — Sanders said, noting “Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.”

The General’s remarks pointed to the moves made in European states closer to the Ukraine war where the public have been told to prepare for war, to survive emergencies, and where conscription has either been brought back, or the matter is under discussion. Sanders said: “Our friends in eastern and northern Europe, who feel the proximity of the Russian threat more acutely, are already acting prudently, laying the foundations for national mobilisation… taking preparatory steps to enable placing our societies on a war footing when needed are now not merely desirable but essential.

“We will not be immune and as the pre-war generation we must similarly prepare – and that is a whole-of-nation undertaking.”

The Ministry of Defence — the government department which pays for the Army —  said on Wednesday that “there is absolutely no suggestion of a return to conscription”, and a spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “The Government has no intention to follow through with that”, reports the Evening Standard.

Chief of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood MP was on hand to give his interpretation of General Sanders’ remarks, telling broadcaster Sky News on Wednesday morning that society needs to “listen carefully” to the comments, and that the public should be “shocked” and worried by the events he believes are on the horizon. The Army Officer and Member of Parliament said: “We’ve had three decades since the Cold War, life has gone well. It’s now going to get more difficult as authoritarian states exploit our timidity, our reluctance to put fires out… There is a 1939 feeling to the world right now, these authoritarian states are re-arming”.

General Sanders’ speech is not the only news made at the International Armoured Vehicles Conference this year, as the latest iteration of the British Army’s Main Battle Tank was revealed for the first time. An upgrade to the existing fleet, the new Challenger 3 features a new smoothbore main gun — bringing it into line with the rest of NATO for greater ammunition cross-compatibility — a new targeting system, and new modular armour. The contract for the armour, which is said to provide “a step change in survivability” was awarded just last week.

The 148 tanks aren’t expected to be in service until 2027.

Sanders’ remarks about war being a “whole-of-nation undertaking” are redolent of remarks delivered by NATO’s most senior military officer, Admiral Rob Bauer at the alliance’s headquarters last week when he said a war between the West and Russia would be a “whole of society event”. The Admiral said it was time for society to stop considering wars as something that was conducted by professional soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and accepted they would happen close to home and civilians would be involved.

Admiral Bauer said: “if you talk collective defence, it is a whole of society event. It will not be enough to have the present military, you will need more people from society to sustain the military in terms of people.

“You need the industry to have enough ammunition, to produce new tanks, new ships, new aircraft, new artillery pieces… the big difference with a year ago is a lot of things have happened in the armed forces and defence organisations. What hasn’t happened is in our societies, the understanding that it is more than the military that has to be able to operate in a conflict or in a war. It is the whole of a society that will get involved whether we like it or not.”

Sweden ended conscription in 2010, but seeing a heightened threat environment brought it back in 2017. While all young people are eligible for conscription in Sweden, only a few thousand a year are actually called up, and the country conscripts both men and women.

The ease with which Sweden brought conscription back has proven an object of fascination for several Western states, which in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine have been frustrated to find military recruitment and retention is poor, and the trained strength is dwindling. The then-defence secretary of the UK Ben Wallace said last year he’d “love” for Britain to have a reservist model like Sweden and Finland, remarking: “I think we’re all envious of both Sweden and Finland and their reserves. Part of that is a different cultural thing, part of it is those countries have had conscription continually”.

The return of conscription is a perennial feature of media discussion in Germany now, with their defence minister Boris Pistorius talking about it in December, and a poll earlier this month finding a majority of Germans support it returning. The data on that poll tells a slightly different story, however, as while older Germans are considerably more in favour of conscription, the youngest — those who would actually face being called up to fight — aren’t so sure.

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