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…