The Defence debate rumbles on and it is heartening that after a generation of cuts some members of the House and senior officers are standing up to state the case for steadiness in the Defence budget. Whether anyone is listening is another question. The Prime Minister apparently said this to LBC when he was asked about the complaints from senior figures, ‘Obviously, they have their own book to talk – sometimes quite literally a book to talk – and sometimes they just want to make their views known,’ and former Defence Secretary now Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond’s reported quote to Tory MP’s “there are no votes in Defence,” is nothing but disgraceful.
Without going over much travelled ground about new and growing threats to our security may I just ponder on one thing, for today at least.
n 1914 many people expected war with Germany but most assumed it would be at sea. That left most of them untroubled given the Fleet was twice the size of any other two navies at the time combined. The pesky Kaiser had other ideas and soon the Expeditionary Force under Sir John French, a small well trained and well led force of professional soldiers 100,000 strong was dispatched to France.
The Kaiser wasn’t at all happy about this insolent move and regarded it as a 'treacherous' decision by Britain to go to war against Germany. In fact, he issued an order that Sir John's 'contemptible' little army be defeated forthwith.
Army Order Issued by Emperor William II, 19 August 1914
It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present, upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army. Headquarters, Aix-la-Chapelle
Unfortunately, that is exactly what they did. By the end of November 1914 the original BEF had ceased to exist and most of the original 100,000 were casualties, exhausted and overwhelmed.
The pre war British Army was equipped, trained and experienced in expeditionary warfare throughout the Empire. The current British Army is positioned in pretty much the same way. The default Government decision for any global stress point is send in a troop of Special Forces, send in some training guys for whoever is perceived that week to be on our side and if pushed, send some non-lethal equipment. Then, if things start to warm up do not very much for as long as possible giving the bad guys time to embed themselves, perhaps have a debate in the House of Commons and hope to lose and if pushed to the limit, ping off a few fast jets (if we have any spare), or fire off some Cruise missiles from a far away sub. As soon as is then practical pull everyone out, hand out a new medal and move on, thanking “the best Forces in the world.”
I know its kind of unbelievable but that really is the way some highly placed politicians and their non-military advisors think. They genuinely believe that anything other than light intervention is unthinkable in the modern environment.
Of course, that approach is all very well and works, right up until we walk into an enemy every bit as well equipped, trained and led as are we. That's mostly what happened to the old BEF. Then, all the metrics change. It’s at that point that we face an elevated risk of high casualties. When we don’t have enough replacement troops to rotate to give those on the ground proper rest. When we don’t have reserves to call upon. When we don’t have enough kit in our war stores to replace the damaged and lost. When other enemies attempt to exploit our focus elsewhere but when we’re not resourced to contain more than one situation.
We were very lucky not to suffer more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were many situations when sub units came close to being overwhelmed, (unfortunately a Military Police patrol in Iraq was). If this Government, and whoever is the incumbent after May, continues to play fast and loose with Defence there will be a consequence and that consequence is pretty simple to anticipate; more dead soldiers, a potential repeat of the military and political humiliation of Basra or possible worse..... much worse.
There is a school of thought incidentally that having failed twice in ten years, arguing over an Army strength of 82,000 or 50 odd thousand is rather irrelevant given 82,000 is just too small to offer a credible force for anything other than operations with a small Division. There is also a reasonable criticism of Army leadership both from outside and from within that it did little to offer politicians good guidance before recent conflicts and were in denial during them but are busy rewriting the recent past and its context. There is some truth in all of that.
Nonetheless, nobody likes a man who argues about the bill with a waiter who can’t talk back. Kind of the same with politicians and soldiers.