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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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Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, KCB, CBE,...

Image via Wikipedia


I’m in two minds over the Sir Richard Dannatt issue. On the one hand, if I was a squaddie and I heard the top boss sticking it to the politicians on my behalf I would probably think ‘nice one!’ – theres nothing better for military morale than to see politicians having a hard time. But at the same time, Dannatt’s complaints have never been of just a military nature, they have always taken on a distinctly partly political overtone. Even if not necessarily pro-party, they are definitely anti-party (which you could argue is virtually the same thing).

There is nothing wrong with military leaders having an opinion. We live in a modern democracy, everyone has an opinion. I don’t even think that it is necessarily wrong to express them in public – if they’ve been expressed in private and not listened to, and you think its important enough, make it a public issue. Some things the public deserve to know, regardless of whether it is comfortable for the politicians. And in the modern era of spin, politicians and their ‘special advisors’ are prone to treating the military as they do any other department – keeping ‘on message’ is more important than doing a good job.

But while Dannatt was raising valid points, at the same time it was also couched in an anti-Labour, and somewhat pro-Tory feeling. Military officers should be apolitical – at least in public. The job of the armed forces is to do the bidding of the elected Government of the day, regardless of what colour that Government represents. Its that party political tone that really is the problem. You get the feeling that Gordon Brown pretty much blanked Dannatt as he was seen to be politically unreliable. This is a dangerous precedent, for politicians to shun Generals based on their politics. Ability to do the job should be the over-riding factor.

If Richard Dannatt‘s memoirs are to be believed, his relationship with Gordon Brown became so fractured that they did not meet for 6 months towards the end of his period in command, and had to resort to ambushing the Prime Minister on Horse Guards Parade. It’s pretty poor that both of them let their relationship get so bad. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t agree with. But you just have to make the best of it. The people of Britain, and the Army in particular, deserved better. Mike Jackson might have been seen as being tamed by New Labour, but the General cannot pick or choose with politicians he gets to choose with, so might as well get on with it as best he can.

Dannatt’s ‘beef’ with the former Labour Government seems to be that while the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 set down guidelines for how the armed forces should be structured, Gordon Brown then refused throughout the coming years to fund them properly. This is pretty hard to argue with – the state that the Army found itself in 2003 before it went into Iraq is well known, no matter what Brown might argue.

Essentially, the armed forces were caught between Blair and Brown in their fractuous relationship, that has been well documented. In order to safeguard his own position as PM Blair handed Brown unprecedented control over public spending, and refused to confront him. So if Brown was in charge of the purse strings – and, in effect, in charge overall – what the hell was Blair doing? Why did we have a PM who was willing to espouse wise words internationally, but would not put his foot down with the bloke next door? Very strange for the two most powerful men in the country to be so disfunctional.

Sadly Labour’s record on Defence was disappointing. The initial 1998 Strategic Defence Review set a sensible framework, and the Blair Doctrine of humitarian intervention was well thought out. But 9/11, Blair’s willingness to follow Bush’s hawkish foreign policy to the end of the earth, combined with Brown’s unwillingness to fund Defence properly or to work properly with his Army chief made for a deadly combination.

Nobody emergest with any credibility from this fiasco. And the row is only likely to get worse, with Dannatt’s memoirs ‘Leading from the Front’ due to be released later this month. Of course, you can look forward to a full review here.

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Brown’s Iraq evidence ‘disingenuous’: a historical perspective

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.

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Fierce debate over UK Defence spending

The Prime Minister had denied that he ‘guillotined’ the Defence budget while British forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ex-MOD civil servant had earlier made the claim while giving evidence at the Iraq Inquiry.

Conservative Leader David Cameron said: “Isn’t it becoming clear from the Chilcot inquiry that the government in general, and you in particular, made a series of bad decisions that meant our armed forces were not equipped properly when they were sent into harm’s way?”

Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit called the £1bn cut “arbitrary”, and that “I think it’s fair to say that the Treasury as a whole didn’t want us to get as much as we got.” It would seem increasingly that the Government was willing to make huge commitments, but not to fund the armed forces to carry them out.

It is also broadly accepted that Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, had more control over public spending than any of his predecessors. Not only was he able to control spending, but Government policy by default. Gordon Brown’s denials come after a stream of witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry have stated that preparation for the war was severely hampered and inadequate.

It would not be in the Prime ministers interests to admit that he did not fund the armed forces properly: politicians are rarely blessed with honesty over such matters. But why ignore the clear findings of an Inquiry, that he ordered, before it has even finished?


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Afghanistan in the News

Theres has been renewed intensity in the reporting of British forces role in Afghanistan recently.

Only on Monday the Prime Minister announced that 500 more troops would be deployed, taking the total number of British personnel deployed in Afghanistan to over 10,000. This comes in line with the US committing an extra 35,000 troops to the country, in a move not dis-similar to the ‘surge’ in Iraq seveal years ago.

As well as the 500 British troops NATO countries have pledged 5,000 troops, among them Turkey, Slovakia, Georgia and Portugal. There are still, however, some notable large European countries who seem unwilling to let their troops do anything too dangerous.

In announcing the new deployments, Gordon Brown spoke of dealing with the Taliban threat at its source – on the Pakistan-Afghan border. This strikes at the heart of the issue of why we are there. To pull out and leave a vacuum would be naive in the extreme. A lawless Afghanistan would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear country that already has a multitude of internal problems. Meanwhile, to the west Iran is becoming incresingly belligerent. This is a region that cannot afford any more problems than it already has. And this is before we talk about the amount of heroin on Britain’s streets that floods in from Afghanistan.

Attitudes about the mission in Afghanistan are generally quite wrong. People labour under the misapprehension that we are somehow trying to conquer Afghanistan, which is clearly not true. Or, perhaps, they have fashionable but ludicrous and completely unfounded views that we are helping the US to exploit Afghanistan and that our troops are ‘babykillers’. It does not suit the UK, the US or any other country to be there one day longer than they have to be. Besides, there is nothing in Afghanistan to exploit. The goal is clearly to secure the country, fend off terrorist elements and enable the Afghans to take care of their own country. Reconstruction is the key. Help make Afghanistan peaceful, secure and prosperous, and we eliminate the Taliban’s raison d-etre and our own reason for being there. When countries collapse more often than not dangerous regimes fill the vacuum.

Ill-informed commentators draw comparisons between earlier wars in Afghanistan, but to even try to compare them is a grave mistake. Huw Davies makes an excellent case for this. The modern army is one that is used to working with civilians, fighting terrorists, and keeping the peace. Even in 1841, the British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, merely to secure it as a strong from against Russian threats to India. The same kind of issues have been discussed in a recent Osprey guide, which I reviewed earlier this week.

Comparisons are useful in history, but not when there is no common ground at all. The only similarities between the nineteenth century wars in Afghanistan and today are the terrain, the conditions, and the culture. History gives us some valuable lessons in this respect. Protesters vaguely talk about earlier failures, which were in fact nothing of the sort – merely difficult campaigns that eventually achieved their objectives. Afghanistan is not a war without an end – people frequently said the same things about Northern Ireland and Iraq. Maybe there needs to be better information about what exactly our aims are, and the Afghan Government needs to do its bit too, as well as notable NATO countries who could contribute a lot more.

Whereas the war in Iraq was badly handled (particularly the immediate post-war phase), distracted attention from Afghanistan and had dubious effect on us here in the UK, it would take a naive person indeed to argue that the Taliban coming to power would have no effect on stability in the region or on our safety here in the UK. It is a very unpleasant business and it would be much better if we didnt have to be there at all, but history shows us that sometimes to stand back and do nothing solves nothing.


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