Hot on the heels of Gordon Brown’s appearance at the Iraq Inquiry, two former heads of the Armed Forces have described his evidence as ‘not true’ and ‘disingenuous’.
Lord Guthrie, Chief of Defence Staff between 1997 and 2001, said “The whole defence budget was extremely difficult to run in his time. For Gordon Brown to say he has given the military all they asked for is not true. They asked for more helicopters but they were told they could not have any more.”
Lord Boyce, his successor from 2001 until 2003, said “He [Gordon Brown] is dissembling, he’s being disingenuous. It’s just not the case that the Ministry of Defence was given everything it needed. There may have been a 1.5 per cent increase in the defence budget but the MoD was starved of funds.”
The Prime Minister had stated in his evidence to the Iraq Inquiry that the Armed Forces were given everything that they had asked for before and during the Iraq War. After Guthrie and Boyce’s comments a Downing Street Spokesman claimed that no ‘request for equipment had ever been turned down’.
This is hard to believe in the extreme. It is the job of the Defence Staff to ask for what they need. It is also the job of the Chancellor and the Treasury to try and keep down exenditure. Somewhere in the middle should be negotiations that lead to a workable budget. It might sound good to say defence should get a blank cheque, but we must be realistic about this – you shouldnt write cheques that you cannot cash. But by the same token, you shouldn’t expect your forces to do what you want without equipping them properly.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, who retired as head of the British Army last year, said that “Defence inflation runs higher than normal inflation so when additional money has gone to defence over the years, the spending power of that money has reduced… in 2003, the Treasury reopened an agreement on funding it had with the Ministry of Defence and effectively cut £1bn out of our budget year on year.”
Dannatt also claimed that while Brown was right that Urgent Operational Requirements were usually accepted, there were underlying problems due to long-term underfunding of the Armed Forces. History would appear to prove him right. Ever since the end of the Cold War Governments have sought to keep defence spending as low as possible.
The current situation has striking parallels with the funding of the Armed Forces between 1918 and 1939. After the mass slaughter on the western front, naturally enough Britain hoped that she would never again have to fight such a devestating war. And as for many years there was no visible prospect of another world war, Defence Spending was drastically cut. The Royal Navy declined in size.
The Conservative Government of the 1920’s played a conspicuous part in leaving Britain woeufully under-prepared for war in 1939. A policy was put in place that assumed that the country would have to take part in no major war for at least 10 years. The ’10 year rule’ led to a lack of long-term investment in defence. Such a long-term inertia takes a long term to turn around.
This was shown not only in the numbers of men and units in the forces, but also their equipment. In particular, British tanks were hopelessly inadquate when compared to the German Panzers. Britain was forced into pressing into action makeshift weapons such as the the Sten Gun, as it was quick, cheap and easy to produce, even though it had very mixed results.
The irony is, that from their accession to power in 1933 until war broke out in 1939, it had only taken six years for Europe to slide to war. Clearly 10 years was far too long a period to look into the future. When in the mid 1930’s it seemed that war with Germany was inevitable, Britain was already playing catch up. As a result she had to rely largely on american lend-lease equipment, and fighting the war left her essentially bankrupt. There are some historians who argue that Britain’s appeasement policy prior to 1939 was her only option, given how unprepared she was to fight.
Much as a lack of investment in the 1920’s and 30’s led to the British Armed forces being wholly unprepared for war in 1939, so a lack of investment since the end of the Cold War seems to have left them struggling to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 onwards. Much of the equipment the Army have used in Iraq and Afghanistan was designed for fighting in the Cold War, on the North German plains – the Warrior Armoured Vehicles in particular.
The lesson is clear – long-term under-investment in the armed forces has effects out of all proportion to the relatively small savings that can be made. Usually, the mad scramble to prepare for an unforseen war ends up costing more anyway. Surely that fact that so many Urgent Operational Requirements are needed at all is evidence of the problem?
By the way, who was the Chancellor who set in place the 10 year rule?
A certain Winston Churchill, no less.