What’s to become of the British Army?

The UK announces its army will draw down to a historically low end strength.

The British Army defeated Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler, but it was no match for David Cameron.

The Conservative Prime Minister’s government announced Thursday that it plans to cut some 20,000 troops from the British Army by 2020, leaving an active-duty force of only about 82,000 troops. The Ministry of Defence was quick to add that it will also have 30,000 reserve troops, and they’ll be “closely integrated” with the active force to give a full end strength of about 112,000.

That, if you’re keeping score at home, is a fraction of the size of the U.S. Marine Corps, the smallest of the Defense Department’s military services — even after the Marines’ own planned drawdown from 202,000 back to about 182,000.

In fact, the roughly 82,000-soldier active end strength of tomorrow’s British Army is about equal to the 80,000 American soldiers now planned to draw down from the U.S. Army over the next five years.

In a report accompanying Thursday’s announcement, the MoD tried to keep a stiff upper lip, sounding a lot like our American defense leaders. The end of Afghanistan would’ve brought about the need for a strategic reassessment anyway, MoD’s report said, so we took that and ran with it:

The need to maintain an Army which is structured and trained for an enduring operation is shifting to that of one held at graduated readiness for use in extremis on contingent operations, but persistently engaged at home with UK society and especially overseas, to deliver the full spectrum of upstream (conflict prevention) and downstream (post-conflict) engagement.

And even though the British Army of 2020 will be about 41 percent the size of the British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 — our math, not the MoD’s — the official view is that for its size, it shall be the best damn army in the world.

Army 2020 is an imaginative and practical response to an extreme challenge: that of confronting an era of strategic uncertainty, exacerbated by economic austerity, with smaller land forces. It will provide a range of capabilities that can be adapted to the nation’s security needs at home and overseas, re-setting the Army to meet the unexpected and deal with future contingencies.

The British Army will be a leaner and, more agile organisation that is valued by the nation it serves, whilst remaining the most capable Army in its class. Importantly, it will continue to offer a hugely challenging and varied career which continues to attract the nation’s talent.

MoD is not just blowing smoke — the British Army’s new “class” puts it above Nigeria, which fields about 80,000 troops, and below Nepal, which fields nearly 96,000, according to stats from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ “Military Balance.” There’s no question that the new smaller British Army will be much, much better trained and equipped than either of those two services, and probably will keep an edge over armies much larger than itself.

Still, aside from the bubblegum card number-crunching, what is the British Army of 2020 actually for? Along with its siblings the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the army will have shrunk to the point that it might not be able to do very much. It would be fascinating to see the campaign plans the MoD has drawn up for its new force, because not many plausible scenarios spring to mind.

It could still send a detachment to eject invaders from the Falklands — if the Royal Navy had enough ships ready enough to take them, and F-35B Lightning IIs to provide air cover. The British could probably reinforce their garrison on Gibraltar just to irk the Spanish, and they could continue exchanging units with American counterparts to train in the U.S. and the U.K.

There’s a case to be made that the shrinkage of the British Army is just an acknowledgement of reality: Once the U.K. has high-tailed it out of Afghanistan with the rest of ISAF, it will do its absolute damnest not to get into any more nasty wars. Its corner of the world is pretty peaceful; it probably will not have to fight a Continental or distant war again. (Let’s hope.)

At most it may kick in a few brigades to join another U.N. or NATO crusade somewhere down the line, but only as a supporting power. The painful lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent, Libya, will probably stay with European and American leaders for a long time.