Britain’s armed forces are beset by bureaucracy and big willy syndrome

By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 02/08/07):

Britain’s armed forces greeted Gordon Brown’s arrival in Downing Street with a shiver of apprehension. As chancellor, he displayed relentless scepticism towards defence spending. The army has been obliged to fight Blair’s wars with threadbare resources. Treasury parsimony has cost lives. The word from Westminster was that soldiers, sailors and airmen would find no friend in the new prime minister.Yet last week, to the delight of the Royal Navy, Brown announced the government’s commitment to the £4bn carrier programme. Following his chilly visit to Washington, there are hints that Britain could soon pull most of its troops out of Iraq. If these prove true, it will be the army’s turn to rejoice. Soldiers hate the place, where scarce resources are wasted and lives lost for no recognisable purpose save to show willing to a discredited US president.

Thus the new prime minister has gained some unexpected goodwill from the services. He will gain even more if he announces a full-scale defence review. Debate in this country about security policy is shamefully primitive, exemplified by the headline much reprised in recent months: Could Britain still fight a Falklands war? This is about as sensible as asking whether the army still possesses a capability to form squares to defend the ridge of Mont St Jean at Waterloo.

Tory interventions are at the same simplistic level. Liam Fox, the shadow defence spokesman, last week in the Commons welcomed the carrier commitment, but complained about threatened cuts to the frigate force, which he suggested would leave the big ships without adequate escorts. This reflects a 1942 vision of naval warfare.

Contrarily, the opposition failed to make a fuss when it was badly needed, after the March fiasco over the Gulf captives, for which no one was sacked, and the MoD’s internal report was classified in its entirety. Neither ministers nor the navy should have been allowed to get away with this.

The government has done the right thing by ordering the carriers, which are almost indispensable to support land operations overseas. But massive problems persist over how to reconcile commitments with budgets. These cannot be resolved by muddling along, chopping a few million here and a few million there, seeking to distribute kit and pain even-handedly between the three services. Some big ambitions must be forfeited somewhere. A coherent vision is needed, such as is lacking today, and that only a defence review can provide.

The navy needs more ships – not expensive hi-tech exhibits like the Type 45 destroyer, but economy models which can provide landing platforms for helicopters. A thinking secretary of state would tell the admirals that, having got their carriers, they must now change the habit of centuries and start building cheap, simple boats.

One soldier observes: “The most credible threat to the Royal Navy in the next generation is posed by men in rubber boats.” Al-Qaida is unlikely to acquire submarines. It is possible the west will face a confrontation with China or Russia a generation hence, but defence planning demands choices and priorities. It is not realistic to pretend we can equip our armed forces to fight the Chinese.

In all last week’s excitement about the new carriers, amazingly little attention was given to the vital linked issue of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is supposed to fly off them from 2014. This US-built plane, now christened the F-35 Lightning II, will cost more than the carrier hulls. In the Commons in June, armed forces minister Adam Ingram confirmed Britain’s intention to buy the F-35, but remained vague about our exact commitment, for which “we will take the decision when the project is sufficiently mature”. It would be absurd to go ahead with the carriers, even with 10,000 jobs to be gained in Labour constituencies, unless Britain also buys appropriate aircraft to fly off them. It would make no more sense to build these huge ships and then use them as helicopter platforms than to acquire a Bentley for carrying builders’ materials.

I suspect there will be more tears before bedtime about the JSF programme, as the day approaches when cheques must be written for it. Somebody, probably the tenant of 10 Downing Street, will ask why we need this plane in addition to spending almost £20bn on the RAF’s Typhoon, once called the Eurofighter. With both the F-35 and the Typhoon, a decade or two from now Britain will have too many fast jets and far too few transport aircraft.

The problem derives, as so often, from a big willy syndrome. Airmen measure their virility in terms of combat aircraft, and fight like tigers to maintain a large inventory. A rational defence review would oblige the RAF to face the reality that it needs a very small number of high-altitude interceptors and a modest force of ground-support aircraft.

The Typhoon is being modified for the latter role, on rather the same basis that a Lamborghini can be adapted as a people-carrier. But it is an aircraft created for air-to-air defence, a function that has become redundant – indeed, the era of the manned fighter is almost over. In a democracy where security was properly debated, the Typhoon programme would long ago have been recognised as a scandal. As it is, ministers endorse this euro-folly as another fantastically expensive BAE job-creation scheme in marginal constituencies.

Meanwhile the army struggles to run its wars with too few people, especially infantrymen, and too little helicopter lift. Morale remains high among those doing the fighting in Afghanistan, but there is a deep-rooted belief that those making policy in the Ministry of Defence have scant sympathy with realities at the sharp end.

There are constant complaints that decision-making is too centralised and cumbersome in the hands of the huge corps of MoD civil servants. These people have embraced management-speak in a fashion that promotes fantasy rather than efficiency. The MoD’s formal mission statement describes Bill Jeffrey, the unimpressive permanent secretary, as “not only leading the workstream process, but driving it”. This gobbledegook is characteristic of a mindset preoccupied with process rather than the pursuit of clear objectives.

Gordon Brown as chancellor was right about one thing concerning the MoD. It is still a metropolis of waste. Lord Drayson, the procurement minister, is a success story aboard what is otherwise an unhappy ship, but he is wrestling with a bureaucracy capable of seeing off Solomon. The service chiefs of staff possess much less executive authority and policy-making influence than the top civilians, most of whom know little or nothing about the armed forces or war-fighting. The Defence Management Board has become a chronically unsatisfactory instrument for decision-making.

There is room for a good argument about how Britain’s armed forces should be configured for the generation ahead. But it should be entirely unacceptable to continue making policy on the hoof, lurching from one budgetary crisis to the next. Only a properly conducted defence review can force the sort of hard choices which are needed. Anything less amounts to more fudge, a betrayal of those risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who-knows-where-next, not to mention the hapless taxpayer.