Blood on a budget: our soldiers betrayed

By Williams Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 27/08/07):

From August 10 the Ministry of Defence imposed a gagging order on the Armed Services. Members of the Forces are no longer allowed to discuss any matters relating to defence through any public means of communication. They cannot speak at public meetings, write letters to the press, write blogs or even take part in surveys. This gagging order applies to men and women of all ranks.

Can I ask two questions: Why now? For whose benefit? The new censorship is a reaction to low morale in the Services, which extends from top to bottom, from general to private. The people protected are the politicians, who are responsible for the crisis in morale.

Soldiers do not object to being sent to war as such. They do object to having to fight without the best equipment and support, and without being given clear objectives. They recognise the failure of the Government to back its strategy with expenditure. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, has spoken of the overstretch of the British Army, having to fight a difficult war on two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan. The soldiers experience this overstretch in almost every detail of their lives, and on the risks they are expected to take.

One example can show the relationship between expenditure and soldiers’ lives. With modern body armour, soldiers have an excellent chance of surviving serious injuries. We, the public, are told about the deaths, but injuries, however bad, are not usually reported. Survival depends on getting to hospital quickly and that depends on helicopters. British forces are short of helicopters, but the Americans are not. After five years, the Treasury has not agreed to pay for all the helicopters that are needed. Treasury parsimony can cost lives.

The funding for the Armed Forces has been run down progressively over the past ten years. As a percentage of national income, defence expenditure is lower than at any time since the early 1930s. It is not surprising that the Forces were being “downscaled” in the early 90s, immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when a global threat had been removed. Yet the rundown continued, even after Britain had been committed to a war on two fronts in the Middle East.

The Afghanistan war is now in its sixth year; it has lasted longer than the First World War and almost as long as the Second World War. Yet there has been no surge in funding to match the surge in commitments.

Throughout the Iraq war, our Forces have been short of suitable armoured vehicles. For years, the Basra palace run had to be performed in vulnerable Snatch vehicles; these have only recently been replaced by the Warrior, which is itself vulnerable to roadside bombs. Unlike American vehicles, the Warrior is not air-conditioned and can get unbearably hot in the sun.

The Royal Air Force has also been kept short of funds for essential equipment. There have been too few helicopters, too few fighters and too few transport aircraft; some of the aircraft have not been updated to the US level of defence technology.

British dependence on US air power has had a price, not only for the injured. Naturally, British troops have better coordination with British airstrikes. The risks of casualties from friendly fire are greater when liaising with the US Air Force. That is not the fault of the Americans. British forces ought to have their own air support.

Soldiers and their families feel that they have been neglected at home. Much of the housing in England for the Armed Forces is a disgrace, as the adjutant-general, Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers, has admitted. Soldiers have complained of living conditions at the famous Catterick Camp. They report leaking toilets, no heating, damp rooms. Half of the accommodation for single men and women is “of the lowest quality”; married quarters are often no better. Apparently, £5 billion ought to be spent on defence housing over the next ten years, but it has not been spent so far.

One measure of the state of morale is the ease of retaining trained soldiers and recruiting new ones. It has been difficult to persuade senior NCOs to sign on for further service, despite the offer of bonuses. Too much reliance has been put on the Territorial Army, some of whose members have gone into combat only half-trained.

The Middle East war has had to be fought inside political constraints. At a time when the Basra palace was being hit by 40 to 50 rockets a day, the soldiers would have liked to sort out the people firing the rockets. In practice, there were political inhibitions against such action. Junior officers felt that there was a total lack of clarity about objectives.

Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were lurking convictions that our troops were not fighting to win, but for some sort of draw, with withdrawal or the realignment of local crimes as the real objectives. In this respect, American tactics were probably more effective.

Tony Blair was responsible for the original decision to support the US invasion of Iraq, but Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, was an assenting party. He accepted the arguments for the war – as many of us did – but would not agree to pay for it. Now his attitude as Prime Minister has been shown by his extraordinary decision to retain Des Browne as Secretary of State for Defence, while simultaneously appointing him as Secretary of State for Scotland, a highly sensitive political post.

British objectives need to be clarified and realigned with those of the Americans, who suspect that Britain is going to let them down. The strategy also needs some guarantee of future funding. We shall not get any of this from Mr Browne. In such circumstances, the post of Secretary for Defence cannot remain a part-time job for a modest minister of the middle rank.