Christopher Lee

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Don’t be fooled, the British military chief’s very private remarks this week were for very public consumption

17th November 2012

Here in Whitehall, the heart of Britain’s governing elite, officials and lawmakers are stumbling over remarks from the head of the armed forces this week.  General Sir David Richards told a group of political scientists at Oxford University that British politicians had, in effect, weakened the nation’s military structure through a series of cuts in defence spending during the past two years.

His damning view was that the nation’s military could no longer guarantee to do what the politicians asked.

The rationale is very simple: a couple of years back the government gave the military a budget for resources to carry out tasks.  Today, the resources are the same but there are more tasks. The original task list, including Afghanistan operations was considerable anyway. Today the politicians have added, for examples, advisory forces for Mali, border contingents in Jordan, protection against possible Iranian action against Gulf allies and of course, contingency plans for Syria.

If any of these items were on the Defence Department’s radar at the time of its 2010 spending review, then they were only pencilled in. So same resources but more jobs cannot be done is effectively what the Chief of the Defence Staff is saying.  It gets more complex when major assets and programmes within the Department are not up to standard.  As another example, the Astute-class nuclear powered submarine has major operational problems that have thus far stopped the vessel and future boats in the class coming up to full operational standard.  The MOD says this is normal teething.  The naval experts say this is not so.  It matters not who is correct, the fact is that the vessel does not work as originally advertised and so is not, and is unlikely to be for years, in General Richard’s inventory.

The general’s remarks were said by is private office and those supposedly in the Whitehall know to be privately voiced and not for public.  This seems unlikely.  A man of such seniority and obvious wit as Richards surely knows that whatever he says, especially on such a subject, is going to become public.  There we have to assume that he wanted it to be known that British forces cannot do what the politicians are telling them to – or not for now.

It is already argued in Whitehall, that British forces will be given an accelerated withdrawal programme from Afghanistan and that this will help resolve the differences of resources versus tasks. It is very likely that we’ll hear hints during the coming few weeks that forces could come out earlier. After all, the Liberal defence and foreign affairs spokesman, Lord Ashdown said this week that their should be an early withdrawal because the Afghanistan operation – apart from seeing off al Qaeda – is mo re or less a failure so why should any more soldiers be killed?

Out early from Afghanistan will indeed release resources, especially in terms of logistics and equipment wear and tear.  But the general has a longer view.

Physically, even an accelerated withdrawal would not much advance the existing pullout date and what will happen to plans to stay in the country in a training role and the size of the force protection needed for that. But the greater difficulty the general sees is a coincidence of dates. The official 2014 pull-out date coincides with the run-up to a UK general election and a projected Bank of England further economic decline.

Therefore, the general sees that in an election period the major issues for the voter will be lack of money for educating their children, looking after their parents and the elderly in a spiral down National Health Service plus reduction in infrastructure projects that could otherwise have provided jobs and training.

That same voter, by then having suffered uncertainty and economic decline for a full decade will look at the Defence Ministry budget – the second biggest in the country – and vociferously demand to be told why it should be so huge when the Afghan affair is over.  The cancellation of the aircraft carrier project with its accompanying surface and sub-surface units could pay for the upgrading of every school in every city for a decade to come.

In other words, Richards and his colleagues are about to be hit with even bigger cuts just at a time when the government is handing out more military tasks.  Something will have to give.  Richards knows that and that is why this week’s strictly private remarks were very much for public consumption.

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