By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 08/01/07):
Like eruptions from an overstrained water main, revelations about the problems of Britain’s armed forces burst forth daily. The word “crisis” is often abused, but it is justified here. Programmes are being slashed, training curtailed and capabilities cut as the Ministry of Defence struggles to control runaway spending.Treasury officials would say: quite right, too. The MoD’s profligacy is a scandal. Why should defence be immune from pressures afflicting public spending across the board ? If we axe some warships, what does it matter? No frigates are fighting al-Qaida, or are ever likely to be.
Shis view is understandable, but misses the point. It represents folly as well as injustice to make soldiers, sailors and aircrew suffer for past hardware scandals and endless failures of procurement management. Today’s generals, admirals and air marshals are picking up bills for mistakes made by their predecessors, by Tory governments as well as that of Tony Blair, and above all by the MoD bureaucracy.
What makes the current shambles special is that the armed forces are now so small that they are close to losing critical mass – falling below a size at which they seem credible institutions, above all to those who serve in them. Morale has slumped, because terms and conditions no longer seem acceptable to large numbers of potential recruits and serving personnel.
There will be always be a few young men and women who seek adventure, and indeed want to fight, heedless of the pay. There are eager volunteers for Afghanistan, and for the SAS. Beyond aspiring heroes and the odd psychopath, however, most young men and women weigh a possible career in uniform against other options.
Today, the services no longer look good in the employment market place. A quarter of the army earns less than £25,000 a year. The infantry, artillery and armoured corps are most seriously under-recruited, because they do not teach skills relevant to a second career. The adjutant general, Lieutenant General Freddie Viggers, last week highlighted the shocking condition of barrack accommodation. Some 40% of soldiers live in unsatisfactory quarters, more than a few in slums. In an age where wives work, disruption caused by repeated operational deployments also wreaks havoc with relationships.
Many servicemen and women perceive no chance of getting on the housing ladder, which is as much an obsession in their lives as in those of civilians. Few new recruits anticipate staying on until the age of 60. Most plan a second career in their 30s or 40s. When they put aside the uniform, they see themselves as being at a serious disadvantage compared to their contemporaries.
There is a US army saying: “You recruit the soldier, you retain the family.” Disgruntled wives and partners are perhaps the foremost factor in causing key people to quit the services prematurely. Finally, of course, Blair’s wars are unpopular. Nobody is eager to die for a rotten cause or a lost one. Many parents are reluctant to encourage a son or daughter to join life-threatening Texan adventures on the far side of the world.
Field Marshal Lord Inge remarks that, when he joined the army in 1954, soldiers were happy to fight anybody they were told to. He gained a vivid intimation of the very different modern spirit when, as army chief of staff, he visited the British contingent in the desert during the first Gulf war in 1991. A sergeant quizzed him: “The country’s behind us, isn’t it, sir?”
Inge suddenly saw how important it was to that man, and to his comrades, to be reassured that they were fighting for a worthy cause. Today, of course, that is what Blair and George Bush leave many doubting.
If these are the issues, what can be done about them? First, a recognition is needed from government that whatever the arguments about warship numbers or a Trident replacement, the services must be able to recruit and keep good people. Pay and conditions must be swiftly and substantially improved. A formula needs to be found to help those serving in the armed forces to get into the housing market.
In recent years, cash has been showered on other public-sector workers. When it has become unfashionable to join the armed forces, only better terms will boost recruitment and persuade people to stay on. A senior officer said to me last week: “If politicians would only think about the investment the country has made in each trained man and woman, sometimes running into millions, they would realise that it makes hard-headed economic sense to pay more to keep them once we’ve got them.”
Leadership, sorely lacking in recent years, is vital. Most senior officers, intimidated by draconian ministerial instructions, maintain a Trappist silence until they wail unconvincingly from the safety of retirement. The recent outbreak of honesty from a new generation of serving generals has been applauded by almost everyone save the government.
The men and women of the army, navy and airforce all need to hear a vision articulated by their commanders about what they are there for, where they are going. Chiefs of staff must explain their problems and dilemmas to MPs and the media. This is not a matter of unauthorised leaking, of disloyalty to their political masters. It means educating civilian society about the armed forces, a responsibility that too many top brass shun. The services pay the price of public ignorance when they find themselves in as much trouble as they are today, because few politicians and journalists understand what is at stake.
Many civilians are today sceptical about the claim that our armed forces are the best of their size in the world. Yet even in an era when 600 soldiers – a battalion’s worth – have to be discharged each year for breaking the drugs code, and when there have been ugly courts martial for wrongdoing by soldiers on battlefields, it remains true.
The construction and the erosion of great institutions are both slow processes. It is amazing that Britain’s services have taken so long to show the strains of decades of neglect and mismanagement. Yet now they are doing so with a vengeance. Unless remedies are adopted, and confidence restored in the “military covenant” between society and its servants in uniforms, the consequences will be with for us for generations. National security requires a range of capabilities to meet prospective threats which we have not even thought of, just as 20 years back few of us imagined 9/11 or the first Gulf war, never mind the second one.
Sceptics may say: “Oh, but Gordon will never get us into the sort of messes Tony has inflicted on us in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Do not be so sure. Terrorism represents the foremost threat for 2007, but is unlikely to be the only one in 2017 or 2027. Events astonish each successive generation. Conventional wars, in some of which we may have to participate, will not be abolished merely by getting rid of Bush and Blair.
We must not vent on the armed forces our disgust about follies in Iraq for which they bear no policy responsibility, and, indeed, about which they were always deeply sceptical. We need national security, and that means we need good people to provide it for us. Unless we treat them better, or rather make the government do so, they will not be there.