Defence is at a crossroads – with no signpost

A fifth of the infantry is hors de combat. According to the Ministry of Defence, almost 5,000 soldiers and officers are not available for combat duty.

As ever with MoD figures, it is not that straightforward. Some of these combat troops cannot be deployed because they are about to be discharged. Others are excused from action on compassionate grounds. But there are more than a thousand soldiers recovering from wounds or other incapacity sustained on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is a sobering thought, the human price of foreign policy and homeland security; but an even more worrying one to senior officers trying to gear the Army for not only the long haul in Afghanistan, but also for the unforeseen contingencies that Harold Macmillan so pithily summed up as “events”.

These statistics ought to be a wake-up call. Last summer Operation Panther’s Claw showed to a dozing Whitehall that the Army was unquestionably at war. These figures show the true manpower attrition — and the overstretch — of an Army that is not only fighting a serious campaign in Afghanistan but is continuing with global commitments such as in our garrisons in Cyprus.

But why is the Army struggling? For a start, it took the MoD too long to recognise that we are at war in Afghanistan — it was similarly slow in facing up to the huge insurgency in Iraq. It failed to see that the nature of war is changing, and its limited resources need to be concentrated rather than spread thinner and thinner. Last month Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, at last announced a shift in priorities, making Afghanistan “the main effort” (what on earth could the main effort have been before?). But this was a short-term budgeting decision as much as anything. What of the longer term?

The MoD is preparing a Green Paper on Britain’s future defence requirements, ahead of a full-blown strategic defence review after the election. But the indications are that, rather than drawing ruthless conclusions, the MoD is still preoccupied with “balanced Forces” — the desire to do everything from fighting Cold War-type battles on land, sea and air, to fighting every manifestation of the War on Terror.

With such an approach, all we shall end up with is armed forces that are balanced between themselves — equal pain for all — but not against the actual threat, which requires boots on the ground in Afghanistan and, likely as not, elsewhere too. Defence is at a crossroads: but we are lost exploring the by-roads.

It would be easy just to blame this Government. Gordon Brown’s notorious disdain of defence while Chancellor has, in truth, scarcely abated during his time at No 10. His continued beggaring of the Forces was finally exposed when spending cuts were announced in December.

But although ministers, with their civil servants, decide the priorities (though they have singularly failed to take those decisions these past ten years), they are advised by uniformed officers in the MoD.

In evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers spoke of “amateurism” among ministers and officials in the planning for the Iraq war. But was there not amateurism among the men in uniform? Some of the evidence to Chilcot does not give an impression, in the run-up to war, of the incisiveness and grip expected of senior officers. Everything seemed to depend on events going one way only, as if hope were a principle of war.

That unwillingness by some of the top brass to confront inconvenient truths looks all of a piece with the unwillingness these past ten years to face the facts of a decreasing defence budget and the eye-watering growth in the cost of big equipment projects, let alone the changing requirements of modern conflict. Without crystal clear advice and a sense of priorities, we get short-termism and suffer unnecessary casualties — just as we are now seeing.

The strategic defence review will take place at a time of even less money for defence. There are some instinctive defence truths that ought to be reflected in it. One is “want of frigates”, which Nelson said would be found engraved on his heart. The Navy must put on ice its obsession with capital ships. The Iranian hostages affair in 2007 and the recent hesitancy in coming to grips with piracy shows just how far that glorious service has slipped from the time of Napoleon’s lament that wherever there was a fathom of water, there you would find the Royal Navy. Recovering the real essence of the Nelson spirit ought to be the First Sea Lord’s greatest priority.

The RAF, too, must transform itself from a fast-jet flying club into a tactical air force. It must shift its focus to helicopters and transport aircraft, whose pilots are the real light-blue heroes of current operations. But instead the Eurofighter, a ruinously expensive air-superiority fighter, is being subtly rebranded as a “fighter-bomber” — that’s like putting a roof-rack on a Ferrari and calling it a family car. This is no way to deliver fire support to ground troops.

The Army, bearing the brunt of Iraq and Afghanistan, has to its credit been refocusing itself. Everything not related to current operations has rightly been put on hold. But it is just too small; even while we were still fighting in Iraq, several infantry battalions were cut. It is now, for instance, 4,000 under strength in corporals and ranks below (two battalions’ worth in the infantry alone); the very men needed at the sharp end.

Yet the recruiting tap is being turned off because there is no money to train and pay the men queuing to join. The Army needs its strength raised by at least 10,000, with an additional margin to take account of training and casualties.

No senior military heads rolled over Iraq, nor is there recognition that the mess into which the defence programme has descended is at least in part to do with poor military judgment. With a revolving door on the Secretary of State’s office these past five years, what minister would have noticed? We need to root out amateurism everywhere.

We used to be ruthless in identifying failure and taking corrective action; it was one of the reasons that our relatively small Armed Forces had disproportionate effect. Even success could be followed by savagery, as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding discovered in 1940, sacked after winning the Battle of Britain because Churchill was persuaded that others could have won it better. We need that spirit back, and quickly.

Allan Mallinson, the author of The Making of the British Army, and a former army officer.