Category Archives: debate

What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960′s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.

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‘But I was only following orders…’

I’ve noticed something striking, and dare I say it, sadly ironic, whilst browsing wikipedia of all places.

1999… Kosovo… British Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson is in command of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a NATO formation in the process of moving into Kosovo to implement a peace agreement. All is well apart from a Russian armoured column moving towards Pristina Airport from Bosnia. Jackson’s superior, Supreme Allied Commander Wes Clark, orders Jackson to block Pristina Airport to prevent the Russians flying in troops. Jackson considered it a dangerous order, and refused, saying ‘I’m a three star General, you cannot give me orders like that… I will not start World War Three for you’. Jackson phoned the British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, and stated his objections. Guthrie agreed, and called his counterpart in the US – General Hugh Shelton – who also agreed. Their opinion was passed on to Clark. In the end Jackson flew up to the Airport and met with the Russian General, and over a bottle of Whisky, smoothed things over. Crisis averted.

1946… Nuremberg… Numerous Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg War trials – and indeed, at many other war crimes trails after the defeat of Nazi Germany – claimed that they were innocent, as they were ‘only following orders’. The Nuremberg trials went on to establish the precedent that it is an inadequate defence to claim that you were only following orders, and that the individual has a responsibility, if they feel they are given a dangerous, immoral or criminal order, to not carry it out. The crux is, that military discipline and obedience does not trump all – humanity and reason, however, does. We live in democracies, after all.

But what really distubed me, was to read that shortly after the Kosovo War, a US Senator branded Mike Jackson’s refusal to carry out Clark’s orders as ‘insubordination’. General Hugh Shelton has also called it ‘troubling’ (which is strange, seen as he agreed with it at the time). In effect, US Senators and commanders are advocating an ignorance of the Nuremberg protocol, and suggest that any and every order should be followed without question. The realities of coalition warfare are somewhat different. While serving under NATO command each national contingent commander has a link to his own Government, and has a right of appeal to his national superiors. What makes a good coalition commander – such as Wellington or Marlborough – is to get to know all of the national peculiarities involved, such as who can do what, and work within them. Not to just blindly expect everyone to follow your orders.

I don’t think there will be many historians or military historians who disagree with the fact that setting up a blocking force on Pristina Airport would have been provocative and un-necessary. Of course, there wouldn’t have been an issue if Clark hadn’t given such a ridiculous order in the first place. In Jackson’s memoirs he records that Clark was often jumpy and acted strangely, and that he seemed to have a Cold War mentality, particulary where the Russians were concerned. At one point he ordered the US Admiral commanding naval forces in the region to block the Dardanelles, when right of passage through them is governed by international treaty. He also asked a senior German General, during a video conference, if German soldiers ‘had the spirit of the bayonet’.

Troubling stuff from an alliance commander indeed. But, also, a reminder of why History should never be too far away from the mind of any General…

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Defence Review – the rumour mill gathers pace

The mudslinging and inter-service squabbling regarding the Strategic Defence review has reached an undignified level in the past few days.

Firstly, Colonel Richard Kemp was quoted in the Sunday Express as saying that he would rather see an end to the three independent services than see the Army lose a single Infantry Battalion. Its probably worth pointing out that although Colonel Kemp is usually quoted as ‘former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan’, this was quite some time ago, prior to the current Helmand deployment.

In the Portsmouth News today Read Admiral Chris Parry stated that Kemp’s idea was ‘silly’, and that “No one in the services would go for it. The Canadians tried it and it was disastrous from a morale point of view and they couldn’t do their jobs properly.” Parry’s comments sound very much like a hissy fit. And whilst morale is very important, I wonder if the average sailor would be hugely bothered? I wonder whether the Canadian Forces structure is really as bad as Parry suggests – I doubt it.

These retired officers have clearly never heard of the dictum ‘when the armed forces argue, only the Treasury wins’. Will no-one poke their head above the parapet and at least say something constructive and realistic about UK Defence as a whole, rather than arguing their own corner and to hell with everyone else? No-one wants to go down in history as the commander who sold their service down the river, but once again the bigger picture seems to suffer.

By being so partisan and parochial, serving and retired officers are unwittingly making themselves into even juicier targets in the long-run. If they cannot come up with reasonable proposals for restructuring, then there is more chance that the Treasury will simply impose cuts arbitrarily.

This all comes as details emerge of possible cuts in the armed forces as a result of the Defence Review:

Royal Nacy Cuts

  • 2,000 personnel
  • 3 Amphibious Assault Ships
  • 2 Submarines

Apparently the Bay Class Landing Ships are seen as most vulnerable, and there has been talk of mothballing one of the Albion Class LDP’s. Both possibilities are ever so slightly ludicrous – the Bay Class ships have been great value and flexible platforms – landing ships, aid, disaster relief, transports, mother ships… Cutting Amphibious capability severely limits power projection. The possible cost of the 2 new Aircraft Carriers is all too evident now.

Army Cuts

  • 2,000 front line troops, plus 5,000 from Germany by 2015
  • 40% of Tanks, tracked artillery and Warrior armoured vehicles
  • Territorial Army cut from 32,000 to 15,000

It seems that the plan is to draw down the Army’s presence in Germany – this has already been slowly happening since 1990, and recently with the move of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps from Rheindalen to the UK, and 4 Mechanised Brigade from Germany to York. British Forces in Germany are in the main armoured, a legacy of the BAOR of the Cold War. Eventually the Army’s presence in Germany will probably consist of use of the huge Sennelager training area. Most commentators agree that in the current climate the Army is too armour-heavy, although whether 40% is the right level to cut remains to be seen. Cutting the TA by more than 50% is also likely to raise eyebrows.

RAF Cuts

  • 7,000 out of 42,000 personnel
  • All 120 Tornado Fighters/Ground Attack Aircraft
  • Combat Aircraft cut from 250 to less than 200
  • Joint Strike Fighter buy cut from 150 to less than 50

The early retirement of the Tornado before it has been fully replaced will undoubtedly leave a huge gap in the RAF’s inventory, with only a few Squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoons currently in service. In addition, the proposal to buy less than 50 JSF would seriously reduce the RAF’s close air support capability. And what it means for the Fleet Air Arm’s JSF plans, who knows? As with the Aircraft Carriers causing the loss of Assault Ships, it seems that the need to operate Eurofighter comes at the expense of other combat aircraft. Thankfully, there is no mention of any cuts to the RAF’s transport aircraft or helicopters – functions which the junior service has neglected somewhat in the past.

It should be added of course that there has been no indication of where these details actually came from… of course it could be a load of rubbish someone has made up… or, on the other hand, it could be something that the MOD has floated out to gauge opinion?

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UFO’s

For some years now the Ministry of Defence has been looking at reports of Unidentified Flying Objects over Britain. This is strictly from a Defence perspective, in that any unidentified objects flying in UK airspace have to investigated, whether they are flying saucers, wayward airliners or Soviet Fighters.

The files regarding UFO’s are deposited with the National Archives, and are made available to the public periodically. The latest batch of documents released comes from the period 1995 to 2003, and includes all kinds of letters, drawings, parliamentary questions, and even a 100-1 bet on alien life forms.

I can’t say I’ve ever been into the whole Sci-Fi, UFO thing… I find the realm of the real and known more interesting than imaginary spacemen and flying apparitions. But in the interests of research – and knowing that the National Archives get a lot of queries from UFO enthusiasts, I thought I would take a look at the documents that have just been released.

My overall impression is that the Ministry of Defence seems to get inundated with letters from UFO-hunters and, for want of a better term, sci-fi geeks convinced that ‘the truth is out there’. Frequently letters seem to allege that the MOD is part of a cover-up, or is somehow hiding evidence, and much of the Ministry officials time seems to have been spent explaining what exactly their role is. Primarily, this is that as long as their is no threat, then the matter is not investigated further. A common misbelief seems to have been that the section of the MOD tasked with assessing unidentified objects – the Air Staff – was a paranormal investigation unit, like Mulder and Scully. Some people even wrote in enquiring about ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, that hardly fit under the UFO description.

In most cases – in fact, all cases, come to think of it – the only hard evidence is one or two people having seen strange visions in the night sky. However you like at it, this is hardly reliable concrete proof of anything.

Some of the letters received by the Ministry are – even allowing for individuals and their interests – nothing short of laughable, along the lines of ‘I am interested in UFO’s and I want to know more about them, please tell me all about them’. One correspondent wrote to the MOD, and stated ‘I hope you received my last letter. However, I never received a reply’ perhaps the MOD was busy with more important matters, maybe?). Some letter writers kept on replying, refusing to accept the MOD’s answers. Some determined individuals even addressed their letters to Cabinet Ministers, then no doubt wondered why they did not get a reply direct from them. One couple even forwarded some drawings from their 7 year old son, who they claimed had worked out how UFO’s could fly.

One letter was received from the ‘Birmingham UFO Society’, complete with spaceship letterhead. It listed 7 sightings in the Midlands over a period of several months, and asked the MOD for any information. Another writer stated that it was his ‘lifes ambition’ to find the ‘true origin of UFO’s’. One correspondent from South Wales asked what the MOD’s policy was on alien abduction. The answer? ‘human abduction is a matter for the civil police’! The Thameside UFO Study Group entered into a lengthy correspondence with the MOD – which must have had the civil servant concerned pulling his hair out – which ended with the UFO enthusiast writing ‘PLEASE TELL ME!’

Another letter was received by a Gentleman from Gosport, a former RAF serviceman. Walking home one night in 1960 or 1961, he saw a strange, cigar shaped object hovering over ASWE on Portsdown Hill, bathed in lights. Then, nearer home, he saw two Gloster Meteor jets flying low over Gosport. As he rightly mentions, jets do not ordinarily fly low over built-up areas, so was this some kind of emergency? He rang Thorney Island RAF base, and was told that he had NOT seen a UFO, or any jet fighters! The MOD were unable to shed any light on this incident.

One interesting set of statistics in the file I looked at is the total number of UFO reports in any one year. There were very few in the 1950′s or early 60′s, but in the late 60′s and 70′s they peaked at 750 in 1978, before falling again. Is it a coincidence at all that this came when psychadelic drugs and sci-fi appeared on the scene?

It’s hard to escape the fact that there was, and indeed is, no hard evidence of UFO’s being some kind of alien life form. Whilst some people interested in the subject were no doubt genuine, a large proportion seem to have let their interest get carried away and believed that the X-Files was real. What makes me really sad, however, is that they were wasting a large amount of time of a department tasked with running Britain’s Armed Forces – surely civil servants and officers based at the MOD have better things to do than chase up stories about little green men?

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Shedding light on Second Word War Servicemen

I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.

For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.

The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.

For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.

Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.

If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.

There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.

Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.

A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.

Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?

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History, Teaching and Britishness

I’ve just seen an interesting article on the BBC website about the debate raging in Education circles about proposed changes to the History syllabus. Having come through the full gambit of history teaching in the Britain over the past 23 or so years, I’ve got some interesting experiences to pass on.

On the whole, my experience of History teaching in schools has been pretty uninspiring. My abiding memory is of working on a particular time period or civilization – the ancient Egyptians, The Tudors, the Victorians, etc – and doing it to death for a few months. You got the feeling the teachers were doing it by rote, because its what they were told to do. Most of the worksheets were so heavily photocopied you could tell that they had been used for the past 10 years! Even as a young person in school, i enjoyed history, but what we learnt in school bored me to death. Its hard to see exactly what the point was.

I guess the problem is the national curriculum. Granted, there has to be some kind of structure involved in teaching, but I cannot help but feel that its so rigid that it leaves no space for lateral thinking from teachers. There is so much pressure in terms of getting children ready for exams and in terms of results that teachers don’t have much choice but to forcefeed children in classrooms. Theres simply very little time for an kind of innovative work, let alone taking groups out of the classroom.

I cannot help but be surprised that most people’s memories of history in school are of extreme boredom. I enjoy history, but I found it pretty boring too. How many dull and inspiring history lessons have turned people off learning about the past for life? Much like the word ‘Museum’ has a negative stigma, does ‘History’ carry the same kind of baggage?

So, History needs to be fun, it needs to be innovative, and it needs to be delivered in a young people friendly manner. But what of the subject matter itself? My parents generation will remember learning about 1066, and endless lists of Kings and Queens and the dates of their reigns. Its hard to see what exactly the point of this ‘great man’ school of history was, but an overwhelming emphasis on monarchs and grand political events suggests that it was meant to imbue children with a sense of national heritage, but also a ‘know your place’ sense of identity.

With the coming of the national curriculum things changed a bit. There was still a lot of focus on royalty and politics, but social history began to creep in. In some senses, there was almost a revisionist strand – in all my time in school we never studied wars directly, only in passing. I cannot help but feel that this was due to a naive liberal assumption that if we teach about wars then children will want to blow each others heads off – our experience shows that in fact, the opposite is true. For my GCSE History I studied Cowboys and Indians, Medicine through time, Portchester Castle and Apartheid, all of which seems to have been inspired by political correctness. The emphasis on methodology, learning lessons and cause and effect was refreshing, however.

So what do we want History to be? What is it for? Is it for imbuing children with identity, in the manner of citizenship, or as a social science? There have been calls to teach more British history, as young people know so little about World War Two for example – no doubt a result of the apparent embargo on military history. People should be able to grow up knowing where they come from, being able to understand their own heritage, and to be able to ask questions about life in general.

But kneejerk edicts from politicians about what exactly history lessons will involve are not the answer. How exactly do politicians expect teachers to transform history teaching when most schools can only afford it a few hours of lessons a week? Due to the obsession with English, Maths and Science all other subjects have become poor relations.

School history needs to tacke important issues in British history, it needs to be done in a way that is young people friendly, and teachers need to be given enough latitude to innovate, to use technology and to take children out and about – the classroom is the least suitable place to learn about the past.

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For Queen and Country

I’ve just been watching this pretty interesting documentary on BBC iplayer. It follows the Grenadier Guards as they prepare for the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony. The Grenadier Guards took centre stage in the parade only weeks after returning from Afghanistan, a tour of duty in which they suffered a number of fatalities, including their Regimental Sergeant Major. There are two ways to look on this – firstly, it shows how resilient and professional the Guards are, but secondly, also how hard stretched they are in having to Troop the Colour so soon after returning from a hard tour.

I’ve always thought – patriotism aside – that no-one does ceremony quite like the British armed forces, and the Guards are the best in the business. But in the hard pressed and cash strapped modern environment is there a role for public duties? Whilst their shouldn’t be any sacred cows in the Armed Forces, we should not underestimate how important the Household Division is to tourism and Britain’s image. Their professionalism shines throughout, both in public duties and on operations. The Sergeant-Majors are terrifying, and the London Garrison Sergeant Major is the closest thing to God in the British Army.

How in the modern climate can the Army adapt to ensure that ceremonies such as Trooping the Colour still take place? Firstly, it might have to look beyond it being just a Guards event. Although the Guards at the Royal palaces are usually Foot Guards, occasionally other Regiments take a turn – why not use the same policy with trooping the colour? Long gone is the time when the Guards were THE elite of the British Army – nowadays the whole Army is an elite in its own right, with some regiments such as the Paras and the Rifles have their own elite status. It would also relieve the pressure on the Guards Regiments. Might it not make a better showcase for the Army to show different Regiments in this way, particularly with the lack of a broader event such as the old Royal Tournament?

Just a thought…

Click here to watch the Documentary on BBC iplayer

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What next in Afghanistan?

With the onset of President Obama’s surge, and a change in Government in Whitehall, 2011 could prove to be a pivotal year for the future of Afghanistan, as this article on the BBC website suggests.

History shows that the only way peacekeeping forces can leave any country in which they are engaged is by enabling that country to look after itself and stand on its own two feet. Until that point, critics will be able to look upon foreign forces as ‘occupiers’, whether this is the nature of their involvement or not.

Progress in Afghanistan does seem to have been slow, bearing in mind that US and coalition forces first entered the country in 2001. Admittedly for several years the country was overshadowed by Afghanistan. But quite rightly questions are now being asked about whether enough progress is being made by the Afghan Government and security forces in moving towards taking responsibility for their own future.

The usual allegations about the US and NATO being imperialistic do not wash where Afghanistan is concerned, as there is nothing in the country to be imperialistic about. Much as in Britain’s Afghan wars in the Nineteenth Century, the aim is secure and stabilise the region. Afghanistan’s turbulent past shows that it is not a country where any foreign forces should want to linger any longer than they have to. Of course it would be great if we lived in a world where no countries ever failed, but sadly on occasions countries do become a threat to regional and global security.

But by the same token, we should be wary also of bailing out on a country before the job is done. If Saddam Hussein had been deposed in 1991 when the coalition had much broader support than in 2003, years of harmful sanctions would have been avoided – and not to mention the fracturous effect on world politics.

Its not difficult to see that pulling out of Afghanistan before it has a strong and stable Government would leave the country as a vipers nest that would only cost many more lives in years to come. A collapse in Afghanistan might endanger Pakistan, where the border region districts are controlled by either the Taliban or tribes. With Iran on the other side of the country the region is in danger of bubbling over into insecurity, and Afghanistan could be the first domino. And not only is interational security a big concern, but more needs to be done to knuckle down on the poppy growing trade, and the effect that it has on international crime and drug addiction.

Therefore the role of international forces has to move to words enabling as soon as possible. The problem with this is the state of the Afghan Government – can Karzai do enough to tackle corruption? Much rests on the ability of the Afghans to take over their own security, and to make it possible for ISAF to take a back seat and then eventually leave.

History has shown also that sooner or later the Afghan Government will have to sit down and talk with the Taliban, especially its more moderate elements. After 1945 in Germany many former Nazi party members played a role in rebuilding the country. In Northern Ireland progress was only made with the peace process once Sinn Fein was brought to the negotiating table. By contrast in Iraq after 2003 the US disbanded the Iraqi Army immediately, and embarked on strict de-Bathification,and chaos reigned.

As a recent British Army booklet on irregular warfare stated, the trick is not the defeat the enemy, but to make it impossible for them to win and thereby force them to the negotiating table. To do that ISAF and the Afghans will have to demonstrate that they can provide a more stable and peaceful future, thus cutting off the Taliban’s grass roots support and making their armed stuggle impossible.

But as General Mchrystal so rightly mentions in the BBC article, often in military history the turning point in a war ends up being competely unexpected. Thats why it wound be unwise to set any target dates for withdrawal based on domestic pressure.

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Records show profound decline in UK fish stocks

Bream

Me and a tiny Bream caught off Southsea last summer

I’ve just read a pretty interesting article on the BBC website about the decline in fish stocks in the seas around the Britsh isles.

The history of fishing combines two of my interests – history, and fishing (funnily enough!). I’ve did some research on fishing in Portsmouth in the Eighteenth Century for a presentation at Uni, and I have spent many an hour sat on the local beaches. And it doesnt take a genius to work out that there are a LOT less fish in British waters than years ago.

Apparently the researchers for this study looked at data from the late 19th Century onwards. FOUR times as many fish were being landed 100 hundred years ago as are today, with catches peaking in 1938. The Victorians were obsessive about setting up various inspectorates, committees and the like, and in the 1880′s the Government appointed fishery inspectors in large fishing ports to report on catches being landed. Not only did this give the Victorians a very accurate picture of their fishing industry, it also gives us some brilliant data to look back and compare with.

Stocks of fish such as Halibut, Turbot, Haddock and Plaice are severely depleted, largely caused by prolonged intensive trawling of the seabed. Aside from taking fish out of the sea, this also wrecks the seabed, and doesnt give it time to recover.

One of the major findings of the report, however, is that it takes seventeen times more effort to catch the same amount of fish that were being caught in the 1880′s. This really is ironic – technological changes and the move from sail to engine power meant that boats could fish in all weathers. As catches rose but then fell, boats could go further offshore. This in turn depleted offshore stocks too. And hence fishermen have to work that much harder to catch the fewer fish in the seas.

Reaction from the fishing industry has been predictably dismissive. The so-called expert in the BBC article who called the use of historical data ‘old news’ really is missing the point. Long term trends do not lie. Low fish stocks undoubtedly stem from poor fisheries management, whether it be from Europe, the UK Government or more locally.

Historically, the importance of fishing to Portsmouth has been overlooked. Granted, Portsmouth has never been anywhere near the same league as Hull or Grimsby, but all the same, throughout history fishing has ben an important part of Portsmouth’s economy. As early as 1710 local documents refer to turbot, brill, cod, whiting, bass, mullet, sole, plaice dab and flounder in local waters. Mackerel abounded off of Hayling Island. Records show that in 1725 an Emsworth fisherman sold 48lbs of bass and mullet to a Gosport sailor at 4d. per pound. Fish was sold in the High Street, where stone cooling slabs were fitted in the public market. And during the late Eighteenth there was a short-lived attempt to set up a local Fishery company, with a whole range of local people as shareholders – merchants, businessmen, councilors and aldermen, Admirals, Dockyard officials, and even the Governor (1).

It would not take a genius to work out that fish stocks have declined dramatically. In the twenty-first century, no-one could claim that the Solent is ‘teeming’ with fish, as they did in the Eighteenth Cetury. I can think of a few local examples. The Flounder fishing in Langstone and Portsmouth Harbours has been decimated by fishermen taking them for pot bait. But when theres no more Flounder left, what then? By the same token, the Bass Nursery areas have been a real success. Also the local Smoothound fishing has been brilliant, largely due to Anglers returning fish alive, and that the Smoothound is not a particuarly good eating fish.

These facts surely tell a story, much like the historical data.

(1) Information in this section is taken from James H. Thomas, The Seaborne Trade of Portsmouth 1650-1800, Portsmouth Paper 40, Published by Portsmouth City Council (1984).

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Pompey debts hit £119m

So according to a report published by the administrators, Portsmouth Football Club’s debt levels now stand at £119m, and could rise even further.

Several issues jump out from the report.

The people I really feel for are the smaller creditors – the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who are owed money, ranging from a few pence to thousands of pounds. Most of them are prominent local businesses – caterers, shopfitters, florists, plant hire companies, and such like. If Pompey’s debts to them have to be written off, several at least may go to the wall. The knock-on effect locally may well be huge. Even if debts are paid, may companies have already got a lot of un-welcome publicity.

Yet the FA and Premier League have to shoulder part of the blame, for creating an industry where football debts have to be paid up first. This means that non-footballing creditors are seen as of a low priority. People like players, former owners, agents like Pini Zahavi, are not going to go bankrupt over Portsmouth’s state. But several smaller businesses may well do.

The report also puts beyond doubt the assertion that those running the club did nothing to solve the problems. OK, so players were sold. But PFC were still living extravagantly, spening money they didnt have, knowing full well that a time might come where businesses may go bust because of it.

The FA’s role in all of this is also rather odious. It is not good enough for people like Richard Scudamore to shrug their shoulders at the mess. OK, so financial mismanagement was taking place, but how was it allowed to go on? Why were there no checks and balances? In all probability, because all Football Clubs – and Football itself – run in the same way. It just so happens that Pompey are the first club to go to the wall.

It does seem as well that the football authorities are not overly concerned by the fate of Pompey. A small, provincial, unglamorous club, you cannot help but feel that they cannot wait for us to disappear, having never wanted us in the limelight in the first place. West Ham are probably in a far worse position than Pompey are, but no-one would dare make them – darlings of Fleet Street – go into administration. ’66 and all that, you see!

As for the issue of European qualification, its also clear that the FA do not want Pompey in Europe, and that other clubs have lobbied to make sure that it does not happen. Funnily enough, if Pompey are not allowed to enter the Europa League, Liverpool are one of the teams who stand to qualify instead – fancy that!

All this shows just how rotten the institution of English football has become – corrupt, ill-scrutinised, insolvent, bent on success, and centred on the big, rich and glamorous clubs with everyone else there to make up the numbers.

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Time Magazine article on the British armed forces

Thanks for Think Defence for drawing my attention to this link. Its an article in the prestgious American magazine Time. Its a very interesting read indeed, looking at the history of Britain’s military and its current position. A perfect example as well of how the past and the present relate to each other. And, as is often the case, an outside view is devoid of the usual baggage and partisan perspectives.

The article is quite right in highlighting the firm divide between supporting the troops and opinion about the war in Afghanistan. Public shows of support, such as at Wootton Bassett, and appeals such as Help for Heroes, are more prominent now than at any time since the end of the war, with the exception perhaps of the Falklands in 1982. Yet defence is virtually a non-issue when it comes to the upcoming General Election.

It is hard to argue that British defence is not in crisis. Equipment costs are spiralling, defence spending falling in real terms, commanders are engaged in turf wars for profile and funding, and the Government is looking at burden-sharing with the French – a prospect that has not gone down well with the forces or the public at large. But while the British public might balk at the prospect of our armed forces fighting under the Tricolor, and are proud of their military history, they are also savvy enough to know when they are being lied to, and when their servicemen are being let down.

The upcoming Defence Review is perhaps the most crucial crossroads for the British armed forces since the end of the cold war. And in many ways, the review will have to deal with many delayed hangovers from the Cold War, particularly in the mindset of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals. There is undoubtedly a gap between how Britain perceives itself, and the reality of what it can afford. The world is clearly a far more uncertain place than 20 years ago. Therefore, there need to be some earnest questions and honest answers about every facet of the armed forces – something that has been avoided since the end of the Cold War.

“All I could make out in their language were the words Mr. Bean. They were laughing at me … making me feel about three inches tall.” So spoke Royal Navy Seaman Arthur Batchelor about his ordeal being held captive by Iran in 2007. Such an image does not sit well within British naval history. British forces have long been held up as role models on the international scene. In 2003 British forces strolled into Basra wearing Berets, while their US counterparts treated Iraqi civilians with extreme caution. British forces have unrivalled experience and expertise of a wide range of scenarios. But incidents such as the capture of sailors and marines by Iran in 2007, and the inability to tackle pirates in 2009, undermines the morale of Britain’s forces and their global standing.

The recent Iraq inquiry, however, has identified that while there is a wealth of capability within the armed forces, the real problem with British Defence policy lies in a serious lack of defence expertise within the politicians of Whitehall. There is undoubtedly a gulf between the military and the Government, illustrated clearly by the almost open warfare between Gordon Brown and General Sir Richard Dannatt during the latter’s time as Head of the British Army. Can former lawyers and union leaders really govern the armed forces properly? It is no wonder Generals become politicised when they are treated as shabbily as they have been by the current Government.

British defence governance, leadership and culture clearly needs a serious reconfiguration, as Time suggests. In fact, in many ways it could be argued that the cultural and political issues are bigger than that of funding. It is almost reminiscent of the ‘frocks and hats’ divide during the First World War. As funding is inherently determined by the culture and government of the military, it makes far more sense to square this problem before talking about whether we need aircraft carriers or whether we have too many eurofighters.

We should have a much clearer picture after 4 May…

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Calls to reduce voting age to 16

The major think tank Demos has suggested that the voting age should be reduced to 16, according to BBC News.

According to the Demos report, one million people aged 16 and 17 are disenfranchised by outdated attitudes. Demos Director Richard Reeves said that young people aged 16 are old enough to work and pay tax, but are not allowed to vote in an election. This is despte the fact that the Government and the country as a whole faces fundamental choices that will effect young people for years to come.

An increasingly ageing population will tip the voting demographic even further. This means that older people are likely to form the most powerful voting block in future elections. Demos’s research suggested that if 16 and 17-year-olds could vote, 41% would vote Labour, 30% would vote Tory and 21% would vote Liberal Democrat.

As Richard Reeves quite rightly states, of the first 100 British servicemen to die in Iraq, 6 were not old enough to vote. Therefore we are in the bizarre and nonsensical situation where a young person can put their life on the line for their country, but is deemed too immature to vote for the Government that will commit them to war in the first place.

Whilst it is great that more people are living longer, the changing nature of the British electorate could have negative effects on British politics. Increasingly politicians will pander to older people, which may not neccesarily be a positive thing for the future of Britain. I could imagine more funding and priorities going in this direction, as parties seek to buy the ‘grey vote’. Lowering the voting age to 16 would counterbalance this.

Not only that, but we often hear moans and groans about ‘the youth of today’. No wonder we have trouble involving young people in society if we disenfranchise them and cut them off. Lowering the voting age to 16 should go hand in hand with stronger citizenship lessons in school -not as token easy lessons but as a subject in its own right. That way young people will be educated about society and the choices that they face, and can put that knowledge into practise.

Young people aged 16 and 17 are more empowered and more involved in society than ever before. The voting age of 18 was set at a time when it was deemed that if you were not 18, you were not an adult. We only have to look at the progressive electoral reforms since the 19th Century – votes for women, for example – to see that the age limit of 18 for voting is the last great prejudice in electoral policy.

In my opinion there is no sound reason to keep the voting age at 18, apart from antiquated prejudice based on age old fears that young people aged 16 and 17 are too immature to make sensible choices – look at how some so called adults in politics behave! Not only that, but young people have a way of cutting through the bullshit.

If you are old enough to work, pay taxes, drive a car, get married and fight for your country, then you should be old enough to vote.

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teachers union: ‘pupil voice being manipulated’

I was very interested to read this report on the BBC news website, and subsequently how it has been reported by various news channels and newspapers.

As Leader of Portsmouth Youth Council – back when I was actually young! – I spent a lot of time having to try and teach adults that the old ways of ‘do as I tell you, because I say so’ are no longer good enough. The world has changed. No longer is it right to expect young people to ‘respect your elders’. Respect should be earnt, not demanded based on age alone.

Unfortunately, I cannot escape the feeling that the teaching profession is having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century when it comes to a more pupil-centric approach. Schools are NOT about teachers, teachers are NOT the most important thing about a school. Its like a hospital where no-one gives a damm about the patients, or a library where no-one is allowed to touch the books – what would be the point?

I cannot help but feel that opposition to the student voice programme is based more on fears that the age-old uberlord status of the teacher as an authority figure is changing, than any genuine concerns. If anyone goes into teaching because they like the thought of being some kind of unassailable lord of the classroom, I think they are in the wrong job. If you can’t work with young people constructively, then you shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, countless examples of how work that empowers and involves young people is the most rewarding.

If the reports given by the teaching union are true then it looks like teachers and pupils alike need to be given a lot more training in precisely how involving students in running schools can work. While its quite wrong for anyone to be asked to sing in an interview, thats not about the young people themselves, thats poor facilitation. Examples need to be made of good and bad practise, and more research needs to be produced, and guidance disseminated. Sadly, we in Britain are far behind most of the rest of the word in involving young people.

As for fears that pupils reporting on teachers performance might undermine teachers confidence, I almost can’t believe what I’m reading. If I was a teacher, I think I would want to know what pupils think of the way I was teaching. If I was struggling, I would want to know, and why Just because they are children, it does not lessen the importance of their views. In a lot of ways I would suggest that their views are more important than OFSTED.

Of course its always going to be difficult making such a massive culture change to any profession. But the problem is that for years Schools have stuck to an almost Victorian mode of teaching, where the adult is god, and the child is half a person. Such an approach might have been OK in 1867 (read the Parliamentary Reports into the condition of schools, that led to the Education Act in 1870), but in 2010, its just not good enough.

Maybe the problem is that many in the teaching profession are still expecting young people who have the internet and ipods to conform to Nineteenth Century principles?

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High-speed rail plans announced

The Transport Secretary Lord Adonis today announced plans for a new high-speed rail network, featuring trains travelling at up to 250 miles per hour.

The recommended route for the new network will run from London to Birmingham, with a future possible expansion into Northern England and Scotland. A Y-shaped extension could take the network to Manchester on the one and and Sheffield and Leeds on the other. The London Terminus will be at Euston Station. The exact route will be subject to public consultation, and work is unlikely to start before 2017 at the earliest.

Lord Adonis said the project would create 10,000 jobs and yield £2 in benefits for every £1 spent, and that the first 120 miles between London and the West Midlands would cost between £15.8bn and £17.4bn. The cost per mile beyond Birmingham is then estimated to halve, taking the overall cost of the 335 mile Y-shaped network to about £30bn.

The real problems centre around party politics and the economic situation. Whilst the Government are announcing plans now, who knows who will be in Government in the years when difficult decisions will have to be taken over funding. Public Spending is under intense pressure as it is. I cannot help but think that it is a political ploy and a typical New Labour solution to a problem – throw money at it, and worry about the cost later.

Local Consultation over the route will also be a minefield. I can well imagine nimby’s along every part of the route protesting because it spoils their view, knocks a tiny bit off the value of their house, or there is a rare species of millipede living nearby.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said: “We welcome any move to expand the rail network and to bring more passengers on to the trains. However, development of HSR in the UK has been left in the slow lane because of our fragmented, privatised system which puts short-term profits first and long-term, strategic planning a very poor second.”

Wise words indeed from Mr Crow. It is very sad that Britain’s once fine railway network has been sacrificed on the altar of Thatcherism. If the rail system had been updated over the years when it should have been we wouldn’t need to be looking at a new-fangled High Speed network now. Even though the high-speed system will be a godsend for those travelling long-distance, it should not excuse the woeful neglect of the existing main and suburban lines. My other concern is the cost. It needs to be affordable and accesible to all, not an exclusive club for the well-off. It will need to compete with low-cost airlines and coach operators.

I still feel that the philosophy behind Britain’s rail network is fundamentally flawed. The Thatcherite idea of handing the railways over the private business hasn’t worked. No private company was ever going to invest a penny more than it had to, and shareholders were always going to be more important than the customer. Especially when the customers are relatively captive and can be taken for granted.

I cannot for the life of me see why countries such as Holland and Germany can run cheap, fast, efficient and reliable train services, as a public service, while Britain – the country that led the way with developing the Railways – flounders in the dark ages.

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Guthrie: cuts ‘essential’

A former Head of Britain’s Armed Forces has warned that the Ministry of Defence is not fit for purpose. In a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank considered the options for the looming Strategic Defence Review, due after the General Election.

Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff during the last Strategic Defence Review in 1998, and thus has much experience of working through the trying process of a Review.

Guthrie outlined three options:

  • to give the defence budget a large increase (unlikely)
  • to make large cuts, particularly to equipment programmes, and ruthlessly to prioritise
  • Third to do nothing (impossible)

Guthrie said, “The second option is the only realistic choice. There is actually a very good case for increasing defence spending although alas there appears very little hope of this happening whatever Government appears after the next election.”

Like all other Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, Guthrie advocates his own service. This is not un-natural. The key thrust of his speech seems to be that the Army must be protected at all costs, as current and future threats point to a need for more troops, not less. In Guthrie’s opinion, savings should be found in ‘nice to have, but non-essential’ assets such as the huge purchase of Eurofighters, 2 large new aircraft carriers and the need to renew the Strategic Nucear Deterrent. While the Admirals and Air Marshals will cry foul, in hindsight (always a wonderful thing) they set themselves up for cuts by ordering such expensive programmes at all.

I believe that Guthrie is correct with his ‘nice to have, but not essential’ theory. It would be nice if we could a vast fleet and an air armada, but in challenging economic times we cannot afford to be all things to all people. In the same manner, we cannot afford to plan accurately for every future threat that we may face, and we should especially not try to do this at the expense of current conflicts. The irony is, that failure in current conflicts would seriously affect the future wars in any case.

Aside from talking about the Armed Forces, Guthrie also posed serious questions about the MOD itself. “Dr John Reid, when he moved from Defence to the Home Office questioned whether it was fit for purpose. Could he have asked the same question about the MoD?” The mishandling of procurement in particular does suggest that large parts of the MOD are unfit and inefficient. And if the ‘front-line’ services have to face cuts, surely the MOD should contract in line with them?

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