Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

Richard Dannatt has probably been Britain’s most controversial General since the end of the Second World War. Not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, he received the support of his men and officers, but at the same time became the scourge of the Brown Government. Not only for his public criticism of Government defence policy, but also for agreeing to advise the Conservative Party whilst he was still technically on the Army payroll.

Dannatt joined the Army in the early 70’s, becoming a subaltern in the Green Howards, a famous Yorkshire Regiment. The early 1970’s were a busy time for the army, with heavy commitments in Northern Ireland. Dannatt served several stints in the province, winning the Military Cross – something which he almost breezes over. Remarkably, Dannatt also suffered a major stroke in his mid 20’s. And even more remarkably, he managed to make a full recovery and serve on to have a full army career afterwards. A picture emerges of somebody who was no doubt a very brave man, with plenty of resolve. Dannatt also served as a senior commander in both Bosnia and Kosovo. All three operations, which involved fighting in and around people and dealing with security and reconstruction, gave a strong understanding of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Dannatt also gained a Bachelors Degree in Economic History – an interesting subject for an army officer to study. This obviously gave him a better understanding of budgets than most Generals ever manage to obtain! He also served in the Ministry of Defence several times, which ensured that he had a good understanding of how the Whitehall machine worked when he reached the top of the tree – again, not something many Generals master. This probably explains his clever use of media interviews to get his point across, rather than constantly banging ones head against the Whitehall ‘wall’.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his work to restore the Military Covenant – the unwritten agreement of support between the armed forces, the Government and society. Within several years, homecoming parades for returning troops are packed. Charities such as Help for Heroes are raising millions for troops welfare. You cannot help but feel that the armed forces matter more to people in Britain more than they have done for a very long time, and this is a real and lasting achievement.

It was undoubtedly a mistake to agree to advise the Conservative Party, particularly as when asked Dannatt was still a paid member of the British Army, even though he had stood down as Chief of the General Staff. Dannatt explains that he had hoped to keep the announcement secret until he had left the Army, but that it seems to have been leaked for mischievous political reasons. Dannatt then changed his mind, deciding not to join the Conservative ranks as a Defence minister. As he quite rightly states, it would have undermined the serving Defence Chiefs to have one of their retired counterparts undermining them from a tangent. It was a rare naive moment for somebody who strikes me as a very astute man. The political management of Defence is in something of a strange situation – we have a scenario where politicians are appointed to head a department, usually with no experience of defence at all – and who are nominally in charge or ordering around older, senior commanders who have 30 years of experience behind them, and have fought and led in wars. It is a strange set-up indeed, and I cannot help but think that the new National Security Council fudges the issue even more.

The Memoirs of Dannatt’s predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, gave the impression of an officer who – although no fool – was definitely one of the lads. Dannatt strikes me as someone who, although keen to stand up for his men, is more of a thinker. This is shown by the last chapter, which is really Dannatt thinking about loud about what he calls ‘the future’, and where we need our armed forces to be to face threats that might – or might not – transpire. He quotes from General Sir Rupert Smith‘s utility of force, going further to suggest that modern wars will not be just amongst the people, but also about the people. And if we think about it, this is exactly what has been happening since the end of the Second World War. Yet still people hanker after a Cold War style armoured clash, the kind of war they would like rather than the kind of war we are faced with in the real world. The Army spent years doing this sat in Germany, until Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leonne and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan forced a change in thinking. We still have, however, the RAF longing for dogfights over the white cliffs of dover, in much the same fashion.

As somebody who was in charge of Defence ‘Programmes’ political parlance for buying equipment – Dannat has some strongs words to say about Defence Procurement. In particular, he repeatedly questions the RAF’s need to buy and maintain lavish numbers of fast fighter jets, when it is hard to see when exactly we will need them. Meanwhile, the Army struggled by for years with sub-standard vehicles and equipment, for wars that were happening in the here and now. Published before the Defence Review, it was sadly prophetic, as the RAF triumphed once again. Helicopters are one of Dannatt’s keen interests – as Colonel of the Army Air Corps, he earnt his Army flying wings at a relatively advanced age for a soldier! He sees the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command as a fudge, as it placed Helicopter support in an area where it was owned by no-one, and ripe for cuts. At a time when the Army needed as many helicopters as it could get.

This is not perhaps as readable or exciting in its own right as Mike Jackson’s memoirs, but in terms of explaining the past three years – some might argue much further – of political-military development, this book is crucial and will have a firm place in the historiography of the British Army. It’s certainly got me thinking.

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29 Comments

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29 responses to “Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

  1. John Erickson

    In this modern, politically-driven era of equipping military forces, an Economic History background is good to have. Between the politicians’ love of cutting (what they see as) expensive building programs in favour of monetary pandering for more votes, and the military’s mindset of fighting the last war, a knowledge of economics, and how they played out through history, could help prevent a number of “penny-wise pound-foolish” decisions, such as sharply limiting the number of F-22s built on this side of the pond or the FAA dropping of Harrier in favour of the Tornado on the east side of the pond. And since, in this country at least, we go through alternating pendulum swings of “conservative spend liberal cut” in appropriations, an experienced military man with an economics education would be a tremendous asset. It’s a pity that instead of such a “double threat, both our governments seem to end up with politicians with poor economics’ sense and NO military knowledge. Maybe our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan can give us a new generation of military-experienced politicians. Heaven knows both the UK and the US need SOMETHING better than the current crop with which we’re plagued!

  2. I suspect Gen Dannatt may have had a hand in the SDSR – claiming that certain capabilities (carrier aviation) can be kept in extended readiness, despite having no understanding of the skills and personnel issues involved.

    Despite his criticism of RN/RAF legacy assets the Army’s own “Cold War leftovers” such as tanks and heavy artillery – are retained. And who was responsible for cutting the budget of Joint Helicopter Command? It wasn’t th RN or RAF, as the command is part of LAND….

    Is the fact that the British Army was defeated by the Shia militias in Southern Iraq get a mention?

  3. James Daly

    Dannatt is relatively supportive of aircraft carriers in the text – certainly more so than Richards has been. If he is critical of anything it is the lead times of big equipment projects. The RAF’s Fast Air gets a lot of flak, excuse the pun.

    He does state that he argued repeatedly to draw down the Cold War remnants of the Army in Germany, where most of the heavy armour and artillery is based. He doesn’t mention that JHC comes under Land…

    Interestingly, Dannatt suggests that the British Army was not defeated in Basra – he talks about being able to walk along the banks of the Tigris in civvies. What the truth is is hard to substantiate, and none of us can go to southern Iraq and find out for sure, and after all it suits certain people to argue various points that may or may not be true.

    What he does mention is how the Iraqi Government apparently made a bit of a foul-up with Operation Charge of the Knights, by switching a Division that had been in the area for a while and prepared for the Operation for one from the north. And Maliki then wondered why it didn’t go to plan.

  4. Hmm. He is still on record as stating that it is perfectly feasible to mothball capabilities – not just ships/aircraft/vehicles, but entire capabilities, and then pick up the baton when needed..

  5. x

    WEBF is right JHC comes out of the Army vote. But I am not sure how it works. That is to say does Land pay for everything or bits? That is to say if a Sea King needs a gearbox who pays? Or does Land just pay for Avcat and new tyres?

    • John Erickson

      Okay, time for stupid Yank questions again. How does an organisation handled by Land deal with naval assets? Over here, the Navy takes care of everything to do with their helo maintenance, even though an increasing number are (originally designed for the Army) Blackhawk models. JHC paying for naval helos would be like the US Army paying for MH-60Rs and MH-60Ss for the US Navy. That would start a WAR in the US Dept. of Defense! (Forgive my ignorance.)

      • x

        RN helicopters belong into one of four groups. ASW, AEW, SAR, and Commando. It is the latter that is part of JHC. You have to remember that we British don’t have as many helicopters as the US. And our force structure isn’t as straightforward as yours (in some senses.) So where the US Army would operate everything from a Kiowa up to Chinook in the UK is it different. The Army would operate the attack and small liaison helicopters. The big transports (Puma, Merlin, Chinook) belong to the RAF. Because of the needs to maximise our assets it was decided that Commando helicopter force would be lumped into the mix (this means Sea King.) So if you are a British soldier in Afghanistan going on a long ride you may be going courtesy of Crab Air or FAA. Nearer the sharp end you will be riding in an army helicopter. You can add into that mix helicopters flown by RM, but then it gets complicated.

        The RAF’s helicopter squadrons are called “Army Co-operation Squadrons.” Frankly I find that title a bit silly.

      • John Erickson

        I didn’t realise the transport helos were under RAF control. That explains a lot. Thanks as always, X! :)
        (By the way, our A-10s, flown by the USAF, are sometimes referred to as Army Co-operation craft. Could that be a partial explanation for calling RAF helos Army Co-Operation? Just a thought.)

        • x

          Well this a parallel there with the A10 as the ‘Hog was borne out of US Army’s needs for CAS. I think I am write in saying Congress got involved to stop the Army trying to acquire its own fast air.

          To my mind “co-operation” implies a mutual benefit. I see what the Army gets out of the helicopter squadrons but not what the RAF gets. And that is the nub of the issue really. All organisations are made up of people therefore they act like people. This means certain things will be preferred over others. There is a school of though that runs here that helicopters would be better run by the service that needs them. And not a service that is run predominantly by ex-fast jet. How far this argument runs is debatable, but heck people are people. The supporting argument is how the RAF neglected FAA when they were responsible for naval aircraft prior to WW2. Of course this has to be set against the big gun boys club that ran the RN during that time. You may like to know prior to 1948 the RN had several office lists. So engineering officers couldn’t command “sailors;” only stokers, mechanics,etc. In many ways the engineer was a civilian in uniform. This can be contrasted against USN practice whose officers learned about all parts of the ship in depth.

          One more thing about British helicopters. Apparently who flys what between the RAF and the Army is decided by weight. There was a great debate a while back about a supposed tranche of some 60 Blackhawks that were available if the Army wanted them. It is a confusing story. But one of the things that scuppered the deal (if there was one) was that Blachawk was too heavy to be flown by the Army. Even though the Blackhawk in US terms is one of the smaller birds. The RAF let the Army for the super heavy AH64. What I have never been able to pin down is when this agreement was drawn up. And I have never seen it or even talked to somebody who can point me to copy……..

          Oh yes. The Army lets NCOs and WOs fly helicopters while the RAF and FAA it is officers only.

          All good clean fun.

        • John Erickson

          The US Army/USAF helo “division” by Congress was to stop argument, based on nuke delivery systems, between the new Air Force guys who claimed anything with wings was an airplane (think of the load points on an AH64), and the Army who wanted the AH56 Cheyenne. Great attack bird, and fast with a pusher prop and small load wings (and thus the problem). The Army/AF hate fest got so bad that funding bills were getting hosed, and the Congress stepped in and said enough, giving rotors to the Army and wings to the AF, canceled the truly wondrous Cheyenne (FAR better than the AH-1 it was to replace), and had absolutely no long term effect, other than screwing the Army out of the Cheyenne. (Gee, an Osprey isn’t a rotorcraft? The Apache ain’t got wings?) See, it isn’t just the British military who can screw their own service members over! ;)

          • James Daly

            My feeling about the JHC is that it was allowed a lot of un-necessary duplication to be cut – that can only be a good thing. On the other hand, the command/funding/stakeholder structure is so complicated that it is rich pickings for the MOD to cut as it sees fit, as no one really ‘owns’ it outright enough to defend it, or to care enough to defend it. Personally I like the idea of helos being taken out of the RAF’s control, as they’ve never really been bothered about them anyway…

            • x

              Young man how dare, how dare you suggest that the RAF give up anything?

              Researchers have calculated that if the NHS was staffed to the same levels as the RAF an extra 3 trillion people would be needed…… :) ;)

  6. The RN was the big loser under the SDSR. Why was that?

    • James Daly

      My feeling before, during and after is that the RN failed to make its case properly to the public and the politicians. It was the same old story – the RAF lobbying cleverly to get on over on the RN. The Army was always going to get away relatively lightly due to the prominence of Afghanistan, and the number of ex-Army officers in the Tory ranks. The RAF has always been astute at fighting its corner, and the CDS during the review was an Airman. All this seems to have left the Navy pretty adrift. Added to the fact that the general public is seablind – and the RN does little to change this – then the naval inventory was ripe for cutting.

  7. John Erickson

    Off-topic – Anybody see the BBC News coverage tonight? I loved seeing the period fire engines commemorating the 70th anniversary of the London firestorm. And (sigh) I suppose you guys got some nice, long feature on the anniversary, as opposed to the 30 second blurb we received? Enough of this “BBC America” nonsense – I want my BBC!

    • x

      Bless! You silly Yank. The BBC is the broadcast wing of the Labour Party, it is pro-EU, pro-Euro, pro-Islam, anti-semitic, anti-US, misandrist and so on. We don’t get more coverage than you do. Heck if they could get away with not covering Remembrance Day, the Royal Family, the Tory Party, etc. etc. they would do.

      • x

        John some of this silly, but as in all things there is some truth here,

        http://biased-bbc.blogspot.com/

      • John Erickson

        Well, you know what, X? You’ve found me my New Year’s resolution. I want to help you learn how to express your feelings more clearly. After all, you keep bottling up your feelings, you’re going to do permanent damage! You just HAVE to learn how to let other people know how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking! Now come on, tell me REALLY, how do you feel about the Beeb? C’mon, open up, you’ll feel better, really!
        :p :D

      • John Erickson

        And trust me, I know about bias, we ARE the home of Fox News, remember? (“We Distort” … oops … “We Report, You Decide” is their motto.) The best US news is to watch CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. If they all report on the same story, it’s true. Likewise the Beeb, CBC, ABC, Deutsche Welle, Buenos Aires Herald, the Polish “News Today” and Pravda. Get them to all agree, then it actually happened! That’s why I’m on 7 different US Defence related Email lists – the more the sources, the more reliable the conclusion. Besides, I’m in redneck country, we don’t allow no stinkin’ pinko commie left-wing liberals NO how! ;)

  8. I think that Gen Dannatt, the Tories’ defence adviser, gave advice (and frequently comments) on things he has no experience or knowledge of. Why the hell did they get the idea that it is feasible to put the carrier capbility into extended readiness (sic) for a decade, and then suddenly pick up the baton and carry on?

    Yet, allegedly, the Government recieved advice saying that it must retain heavy armour as th crews will lose the skillls. Go figure!

    The Harrier decision was made personally by the Prime Minister – someone with no experience of anything other than bing in the Tory Party (every other PM has had a career before Politics), in just a few minutes.

    • James Daly

      I’ve long thought it a problem that Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals have next to no knowledge or experience of anything outside of their own comfort zone. This is even more of a problem when we have a CDS from one of the services for 3 year terms – basically it means that the CDS’s own service is laughing. Whilst tribalism in the armed forces is great for loyalty and identity, it causes untold problems for ‘purple’ minded thinking. Is the answer to second officers more between the services, where possible and where appropriate?

      I can’t imagine that heavy armour takes too long to learn, not compared to operating flat tops at any rate. Look at the old arms plot – the estimate was that it took Battalions a year or so to re-role, which could be ramped up in an emergency.

      DC really is the least qualified, least experienced and most inept PM we have had for a very long time. He’s seen nothing of the real world top base any of his decision making on.

    • John Erickson

      Unfortunately, we’re having similar problems over here. The bean counters are trying to destroy the F-22, despite the fact that would leave us reliant on F-15s that are so old, their wings are cracking. The F-35 is only clinging to life based on foreign sales. And the crowning event – the choice to build BOTH versions of the Littoral Combat Ship, despite them being radically different ships, and there being no assurance the “mission modules” (which are the ships’ primary attraction) will be interchangeable. In the US, it’s not the military that pushes purchasing decisions, it’s the politicians and lobbyists. It sound like both our countries need to ask the rank and file service members what they need, rather than chasing dream projects of private industry hacks, or following advice of desk bound High Command officers.

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