Tag Archives: NATO

Deal signed for armed forces new boots

The MOD ann0unced yesterday that it had just signed a new contract for the supply of new boots for servicemen in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. The contract, worth £80m, will provide servicemen with a new range of brown combat boots. The name of the succesful contractor has not been divulged, but according to the pictures from the MOD it seems to be HAIX, a german company.Troops will have the choice of five different types of footwear:

  • Desert Combat, to be worn by on-foot troops, undergoing high levels of operations in heat of up to 40 degrees (such as Afghanistan)
  • Desert Patrol, as above but designed for mounted troops, such as drivers and armoured troops
  • Temperate Combat, for wear by dismounted troops in temperate climates (such as North West Europe)
  • Patrol, as above but to be worn by mounted troops
  • Cold Wet Weather, for dismounted troops in temperatures down to minus twenty degrees (for example the Falklands)

Each of the five types of boot come in two different styles – what styles these are the MOD have not announced – and in two different widths, so for the first time women can choose a boot that fits them more closely.The new boots were chosen after trials involving 2,000 personnel in Kenya, Cyprus, Canada and the UK.

In the pictures supplied by the MOD the Temperate Brown Boots in particular look very much like the hill walking boots you might buy from a brand such as Brasher. Black boots will still be work by ‘non-camouflage’ units, such as much of the Royal Navy and the RAF, and with full dress uniform – eg the Guards Regiments when on ceremonial duties in London. 

The history of combat boots is actually a pretty interesting one. Of course, soldiers operate on their feet. And on your feet you wear shoes (or boots!). If your boots aren’t good enough, you can’t move. And even in the twenty first century, and army that can’t move on its feet isn’t much good to anyone.

For years troops had worn hobnailed boots, or ammunition boots. With the advent of technology, and in particular the growth of outdoor pursuits such as hill walking, more advanced boots gradually became available.

Yet, in the Falklands troops actually suffered cases of trench foot, as the DMS boots then in use were completely unsuitable to fighting in cold and wet conditions. One supposes that having fought much of the last 50 years in places like North West Europe, Northern Ireland and potentially against the Warsaw pact, boots designed to fight in extremely hot or extremely cold places were not a priority. The DMS even still had toecaps. Initially there for reinforcement, they were beloved of Sergeant Majors as they were ideal for bulling – that is, polishing to a mirror-like state. British soldiers even took their regular fitness runs in DMS boots for many years, until someone inevitably realised that running long distances in unsuitable boots caused injuries.

After the Falklands the MOD introduced BCH – Boots, Combat, High – boots in a very simialkr fashion to those worn by practically every other NATO army for some time. A reliable source once told me all about these famous British Army boots that used to melt in the heat – as seen during exercises in Oman in 2001. I’m not sure about what exactly happened, but it sounds as if the MOD tried to upgrade the boots issued to the forces, but in going for the cheapest option – and potentially buying British – ended up buying a sub-standard product that didn’t do what it needed to do. SA80 mk1, anyone?

With the Army fighting two medium-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attention has turned once again to finding a style of boot that is comfortable, durable and can work in different climates. At one stage in the Iraq and Afghan deployments it was well known that troops were purchasing their own boots from companies such as Meindl, Lowa or Altberg. Obviously this situation is pretty ridiculous and led to the MOD putting out a tender in 2011, resulting in todays announcement.

In terms of most military equipment, I am of a functional mind – first and foremost, get something that does the job, and well. Buying sub-standard usually ends up costing more in the long run. And ceremonial considerations such as what they look like should come a distant second to operational matters.

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War Graves desecrated in Benghazi

I’m absolutely appalled by the footage of armed men desecrating British war graves in Benghazi in Libya. Click here to watch.

Footage on the BBC website shows a large group of armed men – accompanied by what appears to be a reasonably professional film crew – smashing numerous CWGC grave stones. A man is then shown climbing a ladder to try and damage the cross of sacrifice that is present in all larger cemeteries. One gravestone is clearly seen to be engraved with a star of David, denoting that it is the grave of a Jewish serviceman. At no point does anybody seem to stop them, least of all the camera crew. The group act calmly and casually – this is not the work of a few idle youths.That it was filmed does suggest that it was organised. Of course the Libyan Government has condemed the attacks, but did they do enough to stop them? Will they do enough to stop them in future? I’m intrigued about who exactly the film crew were.

War graves in Libya have been pretty inaccessible for many years, since Colonel Gaddafi came to power. One Portsmouth man is buried in Beghazi – Bombardier Henry Herbert, aged 22 who was killed on 8 January 1942 serving with 51 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The CWGC have confirmed that graves have been damaged, and will be carrying out a full survey soon.

Desecrating war graves is a particularly cowardly thing to do. Especially considering British servicemen have done a lot to help ordinary Libyans, both during the Second World War when the Eight Army fought to push back both the Italians and the Germans, and in the past year or so when NATO forces helped the overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. It is a cowardly thing to do, because the man buriede beneath the gravestone cannot fight back. And more important than that, a war grave is deserving of respect, no matter who is buried there. A person who died doing their duty deserves dignity and peace regardless of the uniform that they wore, or the mistakes of their political masters.

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The Armed Forces of the European Union 2012-2013 by Charlie Heyman

Something that doesn’t seem to appear on many strategits or analysts radars if the growth of the European Union as a military infrastructure and a regional power. Since the end of the Second World War, NATO dominated military planning in western and central Europe. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, however, NATO has found itself at something of a loose end.

The EU, on the other hand, appears to be a rising presence on the world stage. The 27 members have a joint population of 498 million people, a joint defence budget of 182bn Euros, and a total of 934,600 soldiers, 223,770 sailors and 331,450 airmen. 5,325 tanks, 7 aircraft carriers, 69 submarines, and 140 Frigates and Destroyers. A mammoth 2,088 combat aircraft, 603 transporters, and 77 air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

It would be wrong to assume that the EU is the same as NATO. Although many members are the same, there are exceptions. Ireland, Sweden, Finland,  Austria and Cyprus are members of the EU only; while Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Albania and Turkey are members of NATO but not the EU. Denmark is a member of both, but has an op-out clause where EU defence policy is concerned.

The co-ordination and integration of European militaries could be seen by some as a move towards European federalism – after all, one of the hallmarks of a ‘state’ is a military, and with a permanent European military staff, it does herald integration like never before. But what an EU military does reflect, is a Europe endeavouring to work together without needing a cross-Atlantic input. NATO is still important as an underpin to the western hemisphere’s unity.

The EU military commitee is nominally made up of the CDS of each nation, but in practice is formed by a representative seconded from each respective armed forces. The chairmanship rotates every three years and is a 4-star post. The current commander is a Swedish General, and I think it is very important that the Committee is not necessarily always commanded by those with the most muscle. There is an EU ops centre in Brussels, that can command a relatively small force of about 2,000 troops. Other national operational centres have been placed at the EU’s disposal, including PJHQ at Northwood, and its equivalent in Paris, Potsdam, Rome and Greece.

There are a number of non-NATO, EU based multilateral structures:

  • Eurpean Air Group (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK)
  • European Airlift Centre (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK)
  • Sealift Co-ordination Centre (Netherlands and UK)
  • European Amphibious Initiative (France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK)
  • Standby High Readiness Brigade (AU, DK, SU, IRL, I, LIT, N, NOR, PL, P, SLOVENIA, E, SV)
  • SE Europe Brigade (Greece, Italy, Slovenia)
  • Nordic Co-Ordinated Arrangement for Military Peace support (Finland, Sweden, Denmark)
  • EUROCORPS – Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, France, Luxembourg
  • EUROFOR – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain
  • EUROMARFOR – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain

EUROCORPS in particular is a credible structure, with a Franco-German Brigade and a Multinational Command Brigade permanently attached, and up to 9 other Brigades earmarked. Other national, multinational or international units could be made available – the British led ARRC, for example.

The most interesting development, for me, is that of the EU battlegroup. Whilst European nations between them have a sum total military that appears formidable, at present it is limited in its deployability. The reliance on national forces and ad-hoc arrangements every time a threat emerges does not tend to engender long-term planning. In my opinion, officers, staffs and forces are bound to work better together in a crisis if they work together when there isn’t one too. And whilst it might seem like an excuse for cost-cutting – much the same as ‘jointery’ does in the UK – there is no doubt much duplication among 27 militaries that could be avoided.

On paper, the national forces of the EU have 120 Brigades that are deployable. However, many smaller countries do not even have forces of that level. Even if, for example countries like the Baltic states – have one or two Brigades, deploying them would repesent a herculean effort. Why not, therefore, combine and send a battalion each? In terms of ships also, whilst Britain, for example, might have one Albion class LPD available, if more were needed for an appropriate task, why not add-in a Rotterdam or Galicia class ship? Some countries have plenty of escort ships but no carrier, in which case integrated battle groups could work dividends. Many smaller nations have no transporter aircraft, but others do. Another example, for me, is in sealift. Obviously, countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic have no sealift capabilty. Fine, drive to Rotterdam or south to a Med port and load up on a borrowed ro-ro there instead!

There are a total of 17 EU battlegroups available. Many are comprised solely of national Brigades (including the UK battlegroup), but others are a combined group. Some are based on geography (Spain and Italy’s amphibious battlegroup, France and Belgium, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia) while others are a little strange (Germany, Netherlands and Finland; and Ireland teaming up with Nordic and Baltic countries). The aim is to have two battlegroups on high readiness at any given time.

Of course, such close intergration only works if countries are genuinely prepared to do their share when the prverbial hits the fan. But all the time countries are working together, they’re less likely to be fighting each other, and more likely to be more effective when called on to fight alongside each other.

Suffice to say, I found this book very thought provoking indeed!

The Armed Forces of the European Union 2012-2013 is published by Pen and Sword

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Anglo-French alliance – does history matter?

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill (in his a...

Churchill and de Gaulle: the uneasiest of allies (Image via Wikipedia)

Not many of you might know this, but the Anglo-French Defence Agreement was due to be signed onboard HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth. Until she was hatcheted in the Strategic Defence Review, cue a new plan to spare Dave C any embarassment. Even though the SDSR itself was one big embarassment.

Anyhow, on to my main point. When it comes to the UK and France working more closely together, does history matter? As one of my lecturers told us at Uni, ‘we spent most of the eighteenth century at war with the  French, one – because they deserved it, and two – because they needed the practice’. Even though in recent times Britain has been allied with France and Germany has been the more recent enemy, you cannot help but feel that the man on the street has very little time for our cheese-eating cousins across La Manche.

Anglo-French rivalry begins in earnest in 1066, with the arrival of William the Conqueror. After his death his realms in France and England were divided amongst his sons, sparking a rivalry that led to frequent wars between English Kings and various French Kings, nobles and other factions for hundreds of years. The Plantagenets in particular built up an impressive cross-Channel Angevin Empire, through dynastic marriages and conquest. Battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt heralded British military superiority during the Hundred Years War.

During the reign of Henry VIII we once again gain of feeling of Henry trying to outdo his French ‘cousin’ King Francis, both in war and in chivalry. The Field of Cloth of Gold was nothing more than an elaborate attempt to outwrestle each other, literally at one point. Early modern international politics saw Kings one moment allying with each other, the next trying to attack each other. Later, after the English Reformation and the coming to the throne of Charles I, his French - and Catholic - Queen was the source of much suspicion, particularly for Puritans who suspected a French-backed scheme to re-impose Catholicism. After the accession of the house of Hanover, attempts to re-install Stuart Pretenders to the throne were more often than not launched from France.

Things really hot up during the eighteenth century. Increasingly Imperial rivals – especially in India – Britain found herself at war with France in the middle of the eighteenth century during the thirty years war, and then in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1787 and 1815. This ‘War of wars’ defined modern European, and really was a titanic struggle between a France buoyed firstly by revolutionary fervour and then by Napoleon Bonaparte; and on the other hand a number of coalitions of European nations, bankrolled by British finance. Rather cleverly, Britain refrained from using her land forces in Europe for much of the period, preferring instead to rely on a naval blockade of European ports which strangled French trade. Although Napoleon marched all through Europe, he could not defeat the Wooden Walls bearing the White Ensign.

After co-operation during the Crimean War, the mid to late nineteenth century was again hallmarked by suspicion, with a min-arms race, involving ironclad warships such as HMS Warrior, and the new rifled, breech loading guns requiring whole new lines of fortifications, such as Palmerston’s Folly’s around Portsmouth. Therefore the Entente Cordial, signed in 1904, came as something of an oddity in Anglo-French relations. Forced into an alliance by German expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and France have none the less been uneasy bedfellows since.

Although nominally on the same side in the Second World War, there was much acrimony between both sides. After the fall of France many felt that the BEF had turned tail and ran. I’m not sure quite what else they expected Gort to do; he was following French strategy after all, which had caused the problem in the first place. Even the free French who fought under allied patronage were prickly, particularly de Gaulle, who only really thought of himself, let alone France. In 1940 the Royal Navy was forced to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent it falling into German hands. The incident still causes high feelings even today. Whilst the French might have promised not to let their ships fall to the Germans, this was a promise they were unable to make. I’m not sure what else they expected us to do.

Even after being liberated in 1944, the French had a bizarre way of showing gratitude. Gaullism brought about a fiercely independent outlook, which vetoed UK entry into the EEC for many years, and also withdrew France from NATO – a nonsensical decision during the Cold War, which left the western world highly vulnerable, all for the sake of French pride. During one famous argument, the French Foreign Minister ordered that all US troops were to leave French soil at once. Quick as a flash, his American counterpart enquired whether that included those that were buried there. In a funny kind of way, Gaullism is an example of how a sovereign state should look after its own interests, but its belligerent manner – personified by one Jacques Chirac – has probably caused France more problems than anything else.

So, co-operation with France is very much against the historical grain. Even in recent history where France has nominally been an ally, relations have been uneasy. It will probably take a lot of effort on behalf of the Sarkozy Government to change French domestic thinking in favour of closer military co-operation. Put crudely, the French will have to show more ‘backbone’, and stop building walls between themselves and the rest of the world. During the Cold War France was not part of the military structure of NATO, although French forces were in Germany facing the Warsaw Pact, and also in Berlin. These units were not allowed to plan with their NATO colleagues, meaning that if the balloon went up allied planning would have been in a vacuum. Lunacy indeed, dictated by French selfishness.

Personally, I am more in favour of European military co-operation being on a ‘cluster’ basis. Take for example the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Britain is the framework nation, providing the Headquarters, signals units, etc. When required, NATO state will assign Divisions to the Corps. Several nations have units designated for quick allocation, and this took place in Kosovo in 1999. Britain has long had a fruitful link-up with the Dutch amphibious forces, with Dutch ships and Marine Battalions operating in an integrated manner with the British Commando Brigade. In this case the synergy is definitely there. During the Cold War, the commander of the British Army of the Rhine also served as NATO’s Commander of the Northern Army Group, with Dutch and German troops under command. Again, the synergy was there, as it had to be. But is that synergy there with the French? Does it make sense for two of the largest militaries in Europe to spontaneously and bilaterally tie themselves together with no planning regarding other states?

Before I finish off this post, let me share something that I found on a well-known British forces discussion website, which gives an idea of how the French military is regarded…

 

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Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam - the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts revisited

British Royal Marines in the Falkland Islands ...

An image we ever want to see again? (Image via Wikipedia)

The parallels with 1982 are all to worrying. An aggressively-sounding Government in Buenos Aries (even though technically Democratic), a newly elected but unpopular Conservative Government seeking to slash public expenditure, and economic problems in both countries.

In 1982 the Secretary of State for Defence had just implemented a Defence Review the previous year. It was conducted in the context of economic problems, a Thatcher-led desire to slash budgets, and a Soviet build-up during the era of ‘reaganomics’. Nott’s solution was to concentrate almost solely on Britain’s role in NATO. The purchase of Trident was confirmed. The British Army of the Rhine, although the centrepiece of British defence within NATO, was to be limited to 55,000 men. The Royal Navy was to lose one fifth of its 60 Destroyers and Frigates. Aircraft Carriers were to be phased out, with the sale of HMS Hermes and the newly-built ‘through deck cruiserHMS Invincible. Amphibious ships were to be scrapped too, meaning the end of HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless. Essentially, the Navy was to become an anti-submarine force to operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. The ability to act independently out of the NATO area was effectively being given up. And amongst other things, the Royal Navy Dockyards were to be drastically wound down and privatised, meaning thousands of redundancies. One of the lesser-known items in the review was the withdrawal of the antartic patrol ship, HMS Endurance.

These proposals were underway when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The kind of crisis that the Nott review hard ruled out had happened. Reportedly MOD Civil Servants were most upset that the Falklands War had scuppered their beautiful review. When the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, obtained permission from Margaret Thatcher to assemble a Task Force, apparently John Nott went as white as a sheet. He knew that his career was finished. Somehow I cant help feeling that for a lot of people their careers were more important than the fate of British Citizens in the South Atlantic, and the fate of the men sent to fight for them.

The upshot of the Falklands War was that almost everything that had been offered up as savings was rescued at the eleventh hour. Hermes was sold, but the three Invincible Class Carriers -as we are allowed to call them now – were retained. Fearless and Intrepid were reprieved, and replaced with HMS Albion and Bulwark recently. HMS Ocean has also added to the Royal Navy’s expeditionary capability. Endurance was also reprieved, and replaced in the early 1990′s with a modern vessel. The Destroyer and Frigate fleet was pegged – in the short term – at 55 ships.

The cost of the Falklands War – financial, human, and material – has been far in excess of the relatively meagre savings sought by Nott. The hundreds of lives lost in 1982. The ships sunk, aircraft lost, ammunition expended. The cost of a sizeable garrison, and building a military base at Mount Pleasant. The Falklands Island has had a patrol ship,  a Frigate or Destroyer on guard, and auxiliary vessels since the war. The running cost – to this day, and still rising - must be incredible. All inspired to save a few quid. Evidence, if any is needed, that Defence cuts can be shortsighted and a false economy. Argentinian sources suggest that the decision to invade, although largely spurred on by domestic unrest, was further emboldened by the Nott cuts. The Junta’s reasoning was that if the British were cutting their forces – and the ice patrol ship in particular – not only would they be unable to respond to an invasion, but they obviously did not care about their overseas posessions enough to defend them in the first place.

Fortunately, British resolve was restored by the war. Although it is tragic that in the modern world we even need to resort to force, had Britain capitulated in 1982 we would, in Henry Leach’s words, have been living in a very different country were words counted for little. Britain’s role as a force on the world state was maintained, a brutal military dictatorship fell, and the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact received a timely reminder of the quality of NATO standard troops. But all by the skin of our teeth, and if Nott’s cuts had been fully implemented, we would have not been able to act.

Whilst Mrs Thatcher received plaudits for her handling of the Falklands War, more searching inquiries suggest that the war needn’t have happened in the first place. If only the Foreign Office under Lord Carrington had not been so clueless, the Defence Secretary not so subservient, and if Thatcher had not been so single minded and ideological in wishing to strip public spending. Worryingly, the upcoming Defence Review may once again remove Britain’s ability to react adequately to any crisis in the world, particularly in the South Atlantic. This cannot have been lost on the Argentinians. Do we really trust David Cameron and ‘Boy’ George Osborne to sort things out for us if their cuts go badly wrong?

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Plan for Britain and France to ‘share’ Carriers

FS CdG11

FS Charles De Gaulle (Image via Wikipedia)

Rumours regarding defence cuts have reached a new level of lunacy, with reports that the Government is considering talks with France to share aircraft carriers.

The plan would see the two countries co-ordinate refit cycles, so that at least one aircraft carrier would always be at sea. In effect, what we would see is an Anglo-French task group. Which is all very well in theory when both countries are agreed on action, but what if – say, like with Iraq – there is disagreement about intervening? The UK would be powerless to contribute an aircraft carrier if Queen Elizabeth happened to be in refit.

Take, for example, the Falklands. If Argentina were to invade again, any task force to reclaim the islands would need air cover – which means an Aircraft Carrier. But imagine if Queen Elizabeth is in refit, are the French going to let us ‘borrow’ Charles De Gaulle? Very unlikely, in my opinion. In effect, this would mean a French veto on UK foreign and defence policy.

Even IF the plan could be made to work, it is unlikely to be very popular with either country, particularly the British and French sailors. There is nothing wrong with inter-state co-ordination (take, for example, the Anglo-Dutch Amphibious Group, a model joint poject), but it only works if the constituent parties are willing to work closely together and can rely on each other. Would a British Task Force get the same effective cover from Rafale’s flown from De Gaulle as it would from a Queen Elizabeth class with F-35′s? I doubt it. In any case, the CDG has been riddled with technical problems throughout her service life – a French former President even referred to her as ‘half an aircraft carrier’. The consensus seems to be that she is neither reliable nor effective.

Politically the French are unreliable. Long term enemies of Britain, the twentieth century may have seen France become an ally, but it has none the less been an uneasy entente cordiale. There is still animosity over Britain’s withdrawl from Dunkirk (I don’t know quite what else they expected us to do) and the destruction of the French Fleet in 1940 (again, what else could we have done?). De Gaulle made for a very uneasy bedfellow during the war (somehow managing to gain a status as a French hero without actually doing anything), and his withdrawal of France from NATO could have had disastrous results if the Warsaw Pact had rolled across the Iron Curtain. French Foreign policy – and Defence policy- is invariably governed by what is good for France, and not much more.

I’m not against co-operation, far from it. But it has to make sense and be workable. I did read a suggestion in a well-known warship magazine for closer co-operation amongst Commonwealth navies, which is something that would make a lot of sense. Not only do countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share a head of state, but they also share much culturally, politically and linguistically. Such countries almost always find themselves co-operating in coalitions, alliances and operations. The only fly in the ointment might be public opinion in countries which are keen to assert their independence of the ‘mother country’.

Make no mistake about it, this is an accountant driven plan. It would enable the MOD to either make Prince of Wales a Commando Carrier, sell her to another country, or scrap her completely. Yet the cost to British Defence capabilities would far outweight the potential savings, which in any case might not be as much as hoped. And militarily, it makes about as much sense as the UK offering to sell Argentina the Bulwark or Albion LPD’s. But that is exactly what the French ARE trying to do – sell the Argentinians one of their landing ships…

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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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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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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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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, News, politics