The UK armed services, what next?
The new top man in the army, General Sir David Julian Richards KCB,CBE,DSO,ADC, inherits a position founded on tradition. In his first interview as top man Gen Richards has also told us he thinks the UK military may be in Afghanistan for 40 years. Very often expats, like immigrants, have a memory of the country they left conditioned by: the date of leaving, the frequency of return visits and their willingness to absorb the changes taking place back home. In other words, unless careful, they are soon stuck with time-warped half truths. The tradition in soldering is that you spend a lot of time abroad; how up to date is Gen Richards? For a start perhaps someone should tell him that the UK is not, financially speaking, the country it once was; can the UK afford a 40 year campaign?
The UK broadsheets have in recent weeks carried a number of letters from retired military men letting the enemy have a broadside in the form of their opinion. So who was the enemy? Well often it was the other two services! This may have come as a bit of a shock to some but fear not, this is perfectly normal! Anyone who has taken an interest in the military will have spotted this, the equipment procurement process reinforces the prejudices. Even so there have been a few people trying to debate the way to go, starting with the deliberately provocative question “Do we need an RAF?”
The cynic-cum-humorist's reply might be that, as far as the UK goes, yes we need the RAF. This creates a three cornered fight between them and the Navy and Army and is good for morale. Naturally each service will need its own special kit which will keep it distinct - cost is irrelevant. The Navy needs more aircraft carriers yes, but the real need is for them to be built in Scotland to help employment statistics. The RAF needs the Eurofighter as it makes a wonderful noise at airshows but the real reason for it is to cement relationships with our EU partners. It's the same with the Army, they must have expensive, inadequate foreign made vehicles; yes it's a pity soldiers are killed but soldiering was always more dangerous than office work.
Some civilians may have found this a good deal less than funny in that they are taxpayers. But the UK armed services' high rankers don't seem to notice costs, in that respect they have little shame. Tony Blair loved military action, alas Nulabour failed (again!) to balance the desire to intervene with the politics and the wherewithal to pay for it. As the UK is to remain mired in debt for years to come, if the politicians get the costs wrong then there will be limited sympathy from the taxpayers when the military asks for more.
The UK military effort in Afghanistan may prove to be pivotal here. For, as the death toll rises as the general election approaches, voters will be looking for answers to questions. The first question is why? “Why are the UK troops in Afghanistan?” So far the reasons given are that our military action will stop terror attacks in the UK and that we have some kind of duty/ moral obligation to be there.
The first assumption is just daft. It's like saying that if the US military had been in Saudi Arabia, the 9/11 attacks involving many Saudi nationals would not have occurred. But the idea of military action abroad to prevent terrorism at home has never really been tested in debate. The loyal UK public simply accepted the notion and now, many years on, feel resentful that they are still at this stage. So, rather than the question: “does it work”? We increasingly hear from the public: “it does not work.” Only some political and a few military people seem to be aware of this subtle but critical shift in public attitude from question to statement.
It's the same with the duty/ moral obligation to be there. The use of the word 'duty' fits well with the military concept, but that's all; the public won't buy that for much longer. The reason is, if the moral obligation from the UK is matched alongside the quality/morality of the Afghan government then it's the latter that's found wanting. The UK public has every right to suggest Hamid Kahzai is morally suspect just like most of the Afghan authorities. Many of them have spent years as Warlords without our help, they continue to act this way with our help, where is the morality in that?
But back to the three way fight between the RAF, the Navy and the Army. One of the best sources of information is HERE. The forum will usually contain vast amounts of opinion and data from service personnel and a great deal is written in an acronym soup impenetrable to outsiders, but do try. Soon it becomes clear that the real enemy is not the other two services but the very military ethos, “do but don't ask.” Some things are done well but much is done badly, occasionally this is hinted at. But seldom will anyone question costs and never the prime purpose, “why are we there”? Thus the politicians have the armed services over a barrel.
The services will wail that this is their 'duty'. But the taxpayer however no longer sees it as his duty to foot the bill without query. When the politicians talk of government cuts this is what the public want to hear. Getting rid of politicians is easy, don't vote for them. The public will leave it to an incoming government to deal with the armed services and reduce costs in doing so.
And now back to Gen Richards, why did he say the military will be in Afghanistan for 40 years? The spin in the broadsheets is along the lines that he is a man who could have been a diplomat. So what? He is a soldier, is the man muddled? It's not for him to stretch the military mission in Afghanistan either in a military, political or any other way. His predecessor, Gen Dannatt, got into a bit of trouble with Richard North the creator of Defence of the Realm because North saw Dannatt's love affair with FRES (see below) as dangerous. Perhaps Dannatt saw it as an insurance policy. In today's world the head of an organisation has a natural tendency to expand that organisation so flirting with all matters EU was, for Dannatt, an obvious thing to do.
The downside? Well it all depends on how you see the defence of the UK in respect of the expansion of the UK military part of the EU; clearly Dannatt had chosen his path with an expansion of both in parallel. With Gen Richards he, with his 40 years' concept, seems to be keen on the 'world's policeman' role. This sounds very Blairy and is in its own way also parallel with EU policy.
So, let the voter decide more of military policy? That would frighten the horses! After all the government failed to keep its promise on a referendum for the Lisbon Treaty so no doubt would be in fear of giving the voter the opportunity to express an opinion here. But if the politicians and military assume that the voting public will meekly go on funding absurd foreign policy and the military dimension of it without demur then they are wrong. A word of advice to both, in view of the last 10 years of joint activity without success, Iraq and Afghanistan, don't take on a battle with public sentiment, you will lose. Oh and good luck Gen Richards, you will need it!
The vehicle in the picture above right is called a Springer, it's nothing more than a converted dune buggy. Similar vehicles are used by hill farmers in Wales, but in Afghanistan? It's not mine resistant and each one, there are 75 on order, cost the UK well over £90,000. Kawasaki do similar vehicles for about £8,000!
FRES =Future Rapid Effect System. This is a Defence vehicle procurement mechanism that comes with a hefty EU component. Critics say its only function is to be the Defence vehicle route for the EU army.