Far away from Afghanistan, another war involving the British military has broken out. This war is being fought in Whitehall, in think-tanks and in the press. The three Services are battling to ensure that their interests win out in the first strategic defence review in more than a decade. So the RAF is championing fighter jets, the Navy capital ships and the Army more soldiers.
The Army claims that it is shouldering the burden of operations in Afghanistan — and this should be reflected in a review — while some in the other two Services argue that Helmand is merely an aberration, not the signpost to what future warfare will look like. Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, said yesterday that “we must look beyond Afghanistan ... we must be prepared for surprises and strategic shocks. The Falklands war was such an event. It came in from left-field.”
We cannot discount the possibility of a conventional war with a foreign power, but it is unlikely. Future conflicts will look increasingly like Afghanistan. But the prejudices and self-interest of each Service risks obscuring the extent to which current and future conflicts have changed. There is a real danger that the Ministry of Defence will end up equipping and structuring the Armed Forces to fight the wars of the past.
In too many quarters of the MoD there is a marked reluctance to recognise that the Cold War ended in 1989. This is reflected in the costly and inefficient procurement of ships and aircraft designed to fight the Soviet Union, which, believe it or not, are still coming into service.
The hugely expensive Typhoon fighter, which recently entered service with the RAF, has not flown a single combat mission in Afghanistan. Developed for high-altitude combat with enemy fighters, even when it does make its debut it is unlikely to be the weapon of choice for the soldiers that it will support, compared with the less sophisticated, but effective US A-10 aircraft. The A10, designed for close air support, is not only more relevant for places such as Afghanistan, but also considerably cheaper than the £64.8 million cost of each Typhoon. Yet despite squeezed budgets we still intend to buy hundreds of them while more useful kit, such as drones and helicopters, is in short supply.
Sticking to these projects reveals a lack of vision about the changed nature of conflict. Conventional armies facing each other in open battle has been replaced by intra-state conflict in failing states, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, where many of the fighters are guerrillas or terrorists, rather than soldiers marshalled by the government. Avoiding battle with technologically superior conventional forces, they hide and fight among the civilian population, using terror, IEDs or suicide bomber; the ultimate low-tech and low-cost human cruise missile. The tactics of insurgents are hard to counter with tanks and fighter jets designed to fight on and above the West German plain.
Today’s conflicts have been described as war among the people, as irregular fighters also exploit the global communications revolution to spread their message, gather information, co-ordinate activities and rally support. This is not only war among the people but also war for the people — a battle for their hearts and minds.
Success in places like Afghanistan require our Armed Forces to be equipped and structured to take on guerrillas. This means, above all else, boots on the ground — enough soldiers to dominate and hold difficult terrain, operate among the people, provide them with security and to be able to earn their support. It also means more surveillance systems, such as drones to locate the insurgents, and helicopters to avoid IED-strewn routes.
Additionally, it requires development aid to help to strengthen indigenous governments in places such as Kabul to bring security to their people without external support. Traditionally the military takes a subordinate role in delivering aid projects, but if those who are currently charged with doing it cannot operate in countries such as Afghanistan, then the military must be given the resources to allow it to take on a greater role.
None of this is cheap, but it could be affordable if some more expensive conventional programmes were sacrificed. This was a point made by General Sir David Richards, the Chief of General Staff, this week. “We get more bang for the buck in soldiers that can fight one moment, and help others the next, than in ‘exotic’ capability that is rendered irrelevant by advances in technology.” He did not rule out conventional war in the future, but argued that states themselves would eschew costly conflict and adopt asymmetric tactics, such as cyber attacks.
Over the past three and a half years, the difficulties in Afghanistan have brought about only slow, piecemeal changes when what is needed is a revolution in military thinking and planning; not only to succeed in Afghanistan, but also in future wars. General Richards’s understanding of the strategic landscape demonstrates that he is a senior officer with vision at a time when that is desperately needed.
Whether he likes it or not, he is the obvious candidate to become the next Chief of Defence Staff to oversee fundamental reform. He has the added advantage of being the only senior officer of his rank from across the three Services who has the necessary experience of operational command in Afghanistan.
I’m a former army man, so perhaps, I can be expected to champion one of my own. But it is the Army that has borne the brunt in Afghanistan; and it is army commanders who have learnt the new fundamentals of conflict the hard way. Afghanistan — and the modern era of conflict — is impossible to understand unless you have fought and bled there.
Stuart Tootal. Colonel Stuart Tootal served in Afghanistan as commander of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. He is author of Danger Close.