In recent days significant differences of opinion have been emerging between the heads of the Army and the Royal Navy over the future of Britain’s Armed Forces. Intense debate is already foreshadowing the impending Defence Review, which will take place after this years general election and will almost certainly entail difficult choices and cuts.
The Army view
The Army is currently leading the fight in Afghanistan. The head of the Army, General Sir David Richards, has spoke recently about a need to spend less on expensive jets, tanks and warships, and focus more on manpower. Richards’ argument seems to be that current and future threats will come in the form of asymetric warfare, such as terrorism, and that state vs. state conflicts would be unlikely. He has also argued that states are far more likely to fight fight conflicts by proxy, such as with Iranian support for Hizbollah against Israel. Nimbler, more flexible and specialised forces are needed to fight these kinds of wars. Against that background, the Army has long felt that it is doing most of the fighting, whilst receiving little of the Defence Budget.
The Navy view
The head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, has offered an almost polarised view. Stanhope argued recently that the UK’s international influece depends on a fleet that can operate globally. He has also cited the Falklands conflict as an example of the kind of unexpected strategic shock that can occur out of the blue. Stanhope strenuously denied that the Navy was not making best use of expensive equipment, citing its role defending British interests at sea around the globe.
The head of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, is believed to broadly agree with Admiral Stanhope’s assesment that state vs. state wars are not a thing of the past. The Navy and the RAF, however, rely largely on expensive equipment – such as Eurofighters, Aircraft Carriers. Projects which are vulnerable to budgetary cuts.
The current debate between the Service Chiefs has strong historical echoes. General Richards has argued that the policy choices facing the UK are alike the “horse to tank” transition, comparing it to the revolution in military tactics during World War I. For years it was clear that horses were being eclipsed by tanks, yet Cavalry regiments were allowed to keep their horses for far too long for sentimental reasons. The ineffectiveness of British armour in the Second world war was the result. Another parallel is the reluctance of naval officers to adapt to air power, clinging on to their big-gun battleships until Prince of Wales and Repulse were destroyed in the water off Singapore.
It could be argued, however, that low-intensity warfare is not new and is merely a progression on from the wars that Britain fought during the withdrawal from Empire and in Northern Ireland. What is new is the element of extremism and fundamentalism involved. Richards does in my opinion appear to be pertinent in suggesting that states are now more likely to sponsor proxies to do their bidding, rather than gamble on all-out warfare. Richards has experience of command in Afghanistan and is known as a ‘thinking mans soldier’.
Divergence between the Armed Forces is also nothing new. As the junior service the RAF has historically been fiercely protective of its independence. The armed services rotate in primacy as different enemies and threats materialise. This does seem to suit the Government, who can then play divide-and-rule with the armed forces. Long gone are the days where service chiefs actual control policy. Neither is Defence a real priority for voters when it comes to the ballot box.
Making an argument can go too far, however. Allan Mallinson’s recent article in the Sunday Times seemed to argue for stripping back the RAF and the Navy, an argument that owes more to his background as an Army officer than anything else. Indeed, the Conservative party has a strong contingent of former soldiers and serving territorials who are bound to influence defence policy accordingly.
To put things into perspective, it is hard to see that the opinions of the heads of the Armed Forces will actually have any effect on Government policy. The overwhelming priority for any incoming Government will be cutting costs and keeping them down. The current perilous state of the British Armed Forces comes is a legacy of years of poor political leadership and incompetent procurement. Lessons should be learnt.
Where the Government is faced with difficult choices – as it undoubtedly will be – perhaps the understanding has to be arrived at that the UK cannot be all things to all people in Defence and that some capabilities will have to be dropped. It is no use trying to plan for all eventualities if we cannot afford to act on them in any case. This would require a level of pragmatism from all involved in shaping policy, but do service loyalties allow a ‘UK Defence’ minded pragmatism?
These debates will shape British Defence for the next decade, and probably beyond then. With the present Chief of Defence Staff being an airman, it is likely that either Admiral Stanhope or General Richards will be promoted to be Britain’s senior serviceman.