Defence misunderstandings and miscellany

18 Feb 2014. In a recent ‘Times’ article the historian Antony Beevor suggested that the required policy in relation to Army reductions from 102,000 to 82,000 may just be but a first stage within a much larger plan to take numbers of serving soldiers down toward 65,000. Many will be concerned should this suggestion eventually prove to be correct whilst others no doubt will be content to accept that making even larger cuts in Army personnel numbers could be sound policy provided that the actual number of soldiers trained, ready and available for front line duty within this figure was increased from the current low level.

One counter argument to this narrative is that if Army numbers fall too far, the UK could find itself in a situation where the existing troop resource pool proves insufficient to staff our Special Forces contingent; a capability held in high regard by our allies, especially the Americans. Such a view is probably not without merit.

In a separate press report over the weekend I note that former Chief of the General Staff, Lord Dannatt has warned that the £1.8bn plan to create a 35,000-strong reserve force for the Army by 2018 will need a ‘minor miracle’ to succeed. I am no particular fan of Dannatt but in this case there is more than a degree of truth in what he says and that goes rather against the air of confidence and optimism one hears on the subject of reserves within the MOD. Another article, this time in the ‘Independent’ went so far as to say that so-called experts have calculated that at the current rate of recruitment it will take four hundred and thirty-three years for the Future Reserve 2020 to meet the target that Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond has pledged to achieve by 2018! I am in no position to judge whether a seemingly spurious calculation such as this has merit or not but it does strike me as rather odd that we appear to be burying our heads in the sand on the issue of Army reserves.

In the meantime I live in hope that the ‘buck’ on the Army Reserves problem is not being conveniently avoided on the basis that it can be safely passed onto the next Government to sort out following the General Election due in May 2015. That would certainly not be the right way of running UK defence.

That being said I do not believe that the Army is being put under far too much pressure to cut personnel numbers and capability; having been required to place so much resource into Afghanistan over the past few years the Army was entitled to be behind the curve in scaling back resources as required under SDSR 2010. However this is not a permanent excuse. For too long evidence of waste in Army policy has stared us in the face and I wish to hear no further reasoning as to why personnel and equipment capability cuts in the Army should not be accelerated. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we continue to maintain an ageing and costly fleet of Challenger Tanks – warfare and technology have both moved on and so too has the matter of affordability.


Inter-Service Rivalry


I absolutely loathe and detest inter-service rivalry wherever I see it. Not only is it unedifying and unproductive but it also plays into the hands of those at the top of the MOD who have persistently used it as a get-out-of-jail-free card to blame mistakes they make on the military. Apart from the politicians – no one wins when inter-service rivalry is rife. It saps respect just as it eats away and corrodes the very nature of what the military is supposed to be. It is also true to say that inter-service rivalry damages public perception; destroying the necessary confidence that the public should have in the military. Professionally therefore, I like to stay clear of the slurry pit and hope others will refrain from throwing mud to the detriment of all.

However my restraint and better judgement was sorely tested last week when I read the rubbish penned in ‘letters to the Times’ by ex-navy personnel who suggested that air defence should be handed back to the Royal Navy (who were tasked with this role until 1918) as independent air forces are no longer necessary, affordable or effective. Such remarks are not only an insult to the intelligence of most whose professional activity is built on defence but also to those RAF personnel who have lost their lives in the service of our country. Air power is not only crucial to the defence of a nation but it is, along with maritime capability, the most important deterrent we currently possess. (This is not to be confused with the separate nuclear deterrent capability which I will talk on later).

The air power component of defence together with Royal Navy maritime strength may be described as necessary ‘visible’ deterrent capability; both have helped to ensure peace and stability since WWII via NATO and through independent British sovereign action. One should also note that remarks by former Royal Navy officers, suggesting that Typhoon and Tornado GR4 platforms are devoid of tasks upon their return home, completely ignore the role the aircraft play within the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) which is operational 24-7. No wonder Winston Churchill remarked once that “air power was the most difficult facet of armed conflict to define and measure”.

Control of the air or is not only an enduring requirement in times of war but it is also an enduring requirement in peacetime too. Air superiority provides dominance and long may it present the aura of superiority to our potential enemies.

Enough, suffice to say be on your guard against the internal forces of military self destruction. To the satisfaction of many I can at least say that idiotic remarks made by former Royal Navy personnel (eager to put there force forward as being more deserving than the rest) have been successfully ridiculed by those that matter – long may common sense prevail.


Why Strong Defence?


On a not dissimilar subject, it is worth remembering that our Armed Forces as a whole are not only there to defend the realm, our dependent territories and support our allies via NATO, they also further British foreign policy objectives.

As both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have demonstrated in recent months, our armed forces are also there to provide international disaster relief support when they can and to be in readiness to assist when disaster strikes closer to home. This past week has seen the Royal Marines, the Royal Air Force Regiment and the Army lend a huge hand of support assisting those devastated by flooding in Somerset, the Thames Valley and Worcestershire. Even if they could not make the floods go away the very fact that they were there working alongside local authorities, police, fireman and others was of import in minimising the potential damage.

The Royal Marines need no further commendation by me; the skills they have are truly awesome. So too are the skills of the Royal Air Force Regiment who so brilliantly engage in Force Protection wherever the Royal Air Force goes. Of course, our Armed Forces are not specifically trained in any form of flood relief operations and I suspect that Wellington boots have not been issued to members of the armed forces since the Iron Duke’s day!

The real point from the domestic flooding events is that something needed to be done and our armed forces, as they always do so brilliantly, just got up and did it. Force morale may be low as our servicemen and women live through the Armed Forces’ sacrifice at the altar of affordability, but this has not affected their performance. All that I can say is very well done to all those involved.

As a brief addendum to this section I would like to highlight the issue of training. This key component of warfare is ripe for debate as – after thirteen years of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – there is evidence to suggest that we might have forgotten some basic war fighting, survival and soldiering skills. So much contemporary effort is invested in our immediate security needs that it seems we have financially neglected core capabilities such as CBRN training .


War Weariness 


It seems that left-wing newspapers have latched onto our supposed ‘war weariness’; a phrase regrettably uttered by Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond in front of the Defence Select Committee last November.

There is no doubt that politicians are ‘war weary’ but one should stop and ask the obvious question – why? One possible answer has little to do with the role that we have and continue to play with our allies, or whether it is right that we should engage in somebody else’s war. It has far more to do with the constant stream of bad PR focused upon the military and the antics of coroners/media in wanting to only ever present shortcomings in political and sometimes military direction.

There is progressively less acceptance and understanding that military life is, as the late General Sir John Hackett once said, one of unlimited liability. No-one likes to see injured soldiers and body bags being brought home. In the past those who died for their country were most often buried close to the place they fell. There was no question that they would be brought back as all effort was concentrated on saving those injured. ‘War weariness’ is not as straightforward as it might seem. Yes, there is a degree of war weariness within a too well informed public. But that is of less concern than the very evident ‘war weariness’ amongst our political leaders and those that decide future defence policy. It is this that is of most concern especially as it is misunderstood and under-analysed.

We need to rebuild our faith in defence and to instill a new sense of national pride. We need to find and nurture a new sense of direction for the military, to rebuild missing confidence, to cease incessant talk over affordability and see our politicians embrace defence.


Trident Replacement Capability        


So what might be next in the great battle of wits fighting for adequate UK defence capability? I suspect that very soon the Army will be pushing more of its big guns toward the Royal Navy with particular regard to the cost of maintaining and replacing the existing Trident nuclear deterrence. Although I have long believed replacement cost should come outside of the annual MOD budget I am totally supportive of the Trident replacement plan and the current development stage programme for the nuclear submarine design replacement being led by BAE Systems. Four existing Royal Navy Vanguard submarines need to be replaced by – four new submarines.

And if you doubt the purpose remember that nuclear deterrence is (as the late Sir Michael Quinlan, whose grasp of defence policy and particularly Britain’s deterrence posturing was second to none, so ably put it) guaranteed second strike capability.


Low Morale


It would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge and observe strong evidence of low morale within the armed forces. Far too many senior officers that I have spoken too of late appear to be hacked off due to a broad range of factors; lack of manpower and specific personnel capability, implied additional workload and changes of tasks, pension changes, lack of incentive to stay, poor forward career visibility and reductions in quality of life. I suspect it is true to say that while force numbers and capability have been cut following SDSR 2010, too many of the ‘wrong people’ have and continue to be resigning.

Many of these are the best trained people that we have; many are being enticed abroad. It is a sad sight and one I feel we will live to regret. Of course the RAF remains a force to be reckoned with but sagging morale is a serious issue that must be addressed.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785


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