Monday, 5 November 2007

Unravelling the Blair legacy

Demos, the decidedly Leftish think-tank, has moved into ground normally occupied by the Right and published today a serious report on defence.

Entitled, Out of step – the case for change in the British armed forces, the 97-page document leaves the Conservatives floundering in their policy-free zone, their best efforts so far being confined to Dame Pauline Neville-Jones's "commission report", which managed a mere 32 pages of unfocused aspirations, the best of which was that there should be a "defence review".

In much the same territory, though, the Demos report, written by academics Timothy Edmunds and Anthony Forster, calls for a "wider debate … about the type of complex missions that our armed forces fight, the contribution of British armed forces to our security, and the risks they face on our behalf."

The pair then write that the UK government should "instigate a review of the role of our armed forces and the organisation of the Ministry of Defence in protecting national security".

However, the report then goes much further, doing what Neville-Jones failed to do, in pointing out some of the key areas where attention should be focused. And in this, one of its recommendations – at first sight - goes to the core of the concerns of this blog:

Defence planners have been preoccupied with the acquisition of expensive, high-tech military equipment, which has diverted resources away from where they are really needed in the defence structure …
And then it bombs. The paragraph continues:

… specifically in areas such as pay and terms and conditions of service, recruitment and training, and the welfare support (including housing) of the armed forces. Without service men and women who are well trained, highly motivated and willing to serve, there is no future for our armed forces. We believe that while high-tech equipment is important more attention and resources should be channelled to the human dimension of armed forces.

One could, of course, recognise and accept the general premise that the treatment of personnel could and should be improved, and it is of course a given that the forces are "people" organisations. But, it also has to be said – and such is self-evident, that without the right equipment, the forces cannot function. Not only that, in even trying, they can be put unnecessarily at risk.
However, the report does improve. It goes on to say that, from being organised primary for large-scale war fighting in continental Europe and the North Atlantic, the forces are being reconstructed "to produce greater flexibility and deployability," with the emphasis on "force projection and strategic mobility".

But it then notes that this is tempered by the effect of maintaining major procurement projects with their origins in the Cold War (such as the Eurofighter), while there have been no new resources for defence.

Crucially, the report moves on to revisit the government's own policy statements, reminding us that – in the context of future operations being conducted in a multinational context, that the aim of the armed forces is to "maximise our ability to influence at all levels the planning, execution and management of the operation and its aftermath, in support of our wider security policy objectives".

It is there, though, that there is a further conjuncture with sentiments expressed in this blog, when the report states that, "Instead, resources are to be concentrated on those capabilities most suited for expeditionary warfare…".

Later, the view – with which we would also agree – is expressed that "the impact of the expeditionary model on the UK armed forces has been consistently underestimated," with "much of the focus" having been "on expensive, high-tech equipment programmes, of questionable relevance to the current and future security environment".

One straightforward answer to the problem, we are subsequently told, "would simply be to spend more on defence" although the conclusion – realistic enough – is that "any solution to the armed forces' problems will have to take place within broadly similar spending parameters to those of today".

It would now be unrewarding to delve too much further into the detail of the report (the number of readers who finish reading this post being inversely proportionate to its length) so we therefore need to content ourselves with what seems to be the most important statements in the entire text:

…the UK government's approach to reform has not seriously addressed the difficult organisational dilemmas that lie at the heart of the armed forces' current crisis. While the current programme of military reorganisation in the UK has been important it continues to represent a compromise solution, one whose ambitious goals have not been matched by long-term solutions to the underlying problems facing the armed forces.

This situation is not simply a product of Iraq and Afghanistan, though both of these operations have helped to expose and exacerbate the dilemmas at the heart of British defence policy. Instead, it stems from an unresolved question of what the mission of the armed forces is in the twenty-first century, what they can realistically be expected to accomplish given the various constraints they currently face, how they should be best equipped to do so, and what the organisational implications of this will be for the three armed forces themselves.
That really is the nub of the issue, and one which remains unresolved. At its heart, we would suggest, lies the conflict between developing a "rapid reaction" expeditionary capability, to deal with "future wars" and the need to win the counter-insurgency operations of the here and now in Iraq and, as the emphasis has shifted, especially Afghanistan.

Thus does the report declare that, while the primary requirements have been for infantry forces to be employed in a variety of roles, from policing to counter-insurgence, the ambiguity in defining the role of the armed forces …

…is not simply an anomaly associated with the armed forces' current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is an accurate picture of what the expeditionary warfare model more broadly defined actually means in practice. It is the high and specific demands of this kind of operation that current defence policy and resource provision underestimates, and which has led to the current overstretch in the UK defence sector.

The organisational requirements of the conflicts in which the armed forces are currently engaged have been consistently downplayed relative to wider defence planning goals. Regrettably these have tried to maintain the three services and their prestige procurement projects, within the context of high-intensity expeditionary warfare. This bias has been most apparent in the rapacious equipment demands required by this role. For example, many of the procurement decisions outlined in Future capabilities are premised on providing the armed forces with some of the most advanced military technology available, in order to prepare them for a potential "worst case" scenario of a conflict with a technologically equivalent opponent.
However, it adds:

…the equipment demands of recent missions have not been for more cutting-edge technology, but on the rapid introduction of less advanced equipment. Indeed, in the present security environment, land forces – and the operational requirement for "boots on the ground" – require a greater focus and priority on the needs of the Army over the needs of the other two services.
That, in our view, is the core of the report – one barely recognised in the bulk of the media coverage, which is hardly worth visiting. For instance, The Times headlines its coverage with, "Armed Forces 'are so overstretched they will need a decade to recover'", The Guardian goes for, "Soldiers need more support, think tank warns ministers," and The Scotsman tells us, "Troops may soon be 'not fit for purpose'".

None of those things adequately convey the core detail of the report and, in that respect, while the authors call for a "wider debate", their plea has already fallen on deaf ears.

But there, is one underlying thesis which is not explicitly stated by the authors, but is central to the issues they rehearse. Questioning the emphasis placed on expeditionary warfare, they go to the heart of Blair's 1998 St Malo agreement with Chirac, which led to the further agreements to create the European Rapid Reaction Force.

This expeditionary concept lies at the heart of our military co-operation with the European Union and is now being questioned by a Left wing think tank. The Blair legacy is beginning to unravel.