Friday, 26 June 2009

Let battle commence

Recalling the recent defence debate in the Commons, when, at one time there were only twelve MPs in the chamber of which only one was a Labour backbencher, it is encouraging to note that the much-needed debate on our defence capabilities is nevertheless under way.

In this respect, The Daily Telegraph is to be applauded for leading the way, with a long feature by Thomas Harding, responding to the speech by General Sir David Richards at RUSI this week.

With defence affairs on the cusp, and the campaign in Afghanistan very much in the balance, a wide-ranging debate is both timely and necessary, rendering the contribution of the incoming CGS of considerable importance. It is of some significance, therefore, that The Telegraph remains the only newspaper of substance to take on board and develop his views. And, taking the political blogs at their own estimation of their value, their silence on this intensely political issue should not escape attention.

That is not to say that the media as a whole is silent on defence issues, with The Times also offering a lengthy opinion piece today. Unfortunately, this paper has chosen for its author Patrick Mercer, former infantry officer and currently Conservative MP for Newark & Retford.

In writing on defence issues, Mercer tends to be a one-trick horse, beating the drum for more resources and more "boots on the ground". His arguments tend to be one-dimensional, lacking the depth of strategic thinking that we see, for instance, in Richards' recent speech. It is a measure of the poverty of the general debate, therefore, that The Times believes his views are worth publishing.

Similarly, The Guardian has an offering, this one by Simon Jenkins , one of such unremitting negativity that it encompasses just one idea – that the US and British forces should quit Afghanistan.

In the real world, however, we are committed to Afghanistan and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And since the best outcome is to succeed in creating a stable, prosperous nation, capable of governing itself without external intervention, then the task at hand is to determine how we can achieve this, with minimum cost and bloodshed, all within the constraints of our own budgetary limitations and broader defence requirements. The debate, therefore, should be on how to win – an issue neither Mercer nor Jenkins address.

It is here that Harding, in his Telegraph piece is actually different and welcome. Whatever its limitations – and nothing short of a lengthy book could ever do justice to the topic – the theme is that the nature of modern conflict means our Armed Forces urgently need a major overhaul.

Harding thus "anticipates a battle in which the Army must triumph." There is a campaign that needs to be fought, he writes, not against the Taliban, but between the dinosaurs and Young Turks in the military. The outcome will determine whether the Armed Forces are left burnt out in the wadis of Helmand or evolve into a sharpened and highly effective tool to fight the wars of the future.

As a healthy antidote to the leaden mantras of "overstretch" and “under-resourcing" that have so far dominated the defence debate, the piece starts with a recognition of the reality: "It is becoming clear that there is simply not enough money available to fulfill the separate aspirations of all three Services." This relies on the views of Gen Richards, who articulates that reality, paraphrased as "we can do many things inadequately or a few things well, but to try both will end in failure."

Thus has Richards "adroitly opened the debate on the future of our Armed Forces", this occurring at a time when both major political parties appear bankrupt of defence policies. And, in getting to this point, he has gathered around him some of the most dynamic military thinkers (and not just from the Army) to thrash out the immediate future of defence. They know that its experience in Iraq has left the Army shattered in body and mind and that Afghanistan could prove more burdensome still.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that we are, in dealing with the counter-insurgency battles of the kind being fought in Afghanistan, facing that "horse and tank moment, where it is clearly evident that existing structures, strategy, tactics and equipment are not working. We need a revolution in our thinking, the seeds of which, writes Harding, first appeared in the US earlier this year.

This was the famous episode when US defence secretary Robert Gates announced that the modernisation of non-nuclear forces "should be tied to the capabilities of known future adversaries – not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary, given unlimited time and resources".

The message to the Pentagon was clear: fight today's war, not one against some imaginary enemy of the future and, if the speech was poorly reported over here, it has nonetheless lodged heavily in the thoughts of some strategic thinkers, Richards amongst them.

This, of course, opens up the tri-service debate, where each of the Services have their own views of what is necessary for the defence of the realm, a taste of which is to be found in the letters column of The Daily Telegraph, and in particular from Major-General Julian Thompson, victor of the Falklands. He writes:

Britain is an island, reliant on importing goods by sea. With fewer warships (report, June 25), our trade would be vulnerable to the type of attacks being mounted by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The war in Afghanistan is important, but the bottom line is that after only a few weeks without imported oil supplies and food, we would starve.
Richards, in fact, addresses that issue noting that any future operations of any significance are going to be conducted as part of an alliance – not least in dealing with piracy in the Indian Ocean, where we have operated as part of a combined Nato force and (unfortunately) within an EU detachment.

Here we confront that other reality. The UK is no longer a global power and the Royal Navy does not rule the seas. In the Far East, where the Navy once maintained a powerful fleet, the US Navy roams free while Australia and India are important regional powers, developing substantial navies of their own. We protect our interests now not by flying the White Ensign but by diplomacy and forging alliances, as partners rather than rulers. Thus, while opinions vary – and there are strongly-held views on such matters – inconvenient questions must be asked and honest answers given.

But, writes Harding, where does this new mindset leave the three Services in Britain? Unfortunately, with a limited pool of cash the laws of survival apply, and the Services have reverted to unhelpful tribalism. The RAF will not give up its attachment to strategic bombing and the Royal Navy ardently clings to its aircraft carriers, advanced destroyers and fighter wing. There are many unglamorous parts of the Air Force that quietly go about achieving a great deal – from air transport to helicopters and surveillance. But those leading the RAF are fighter pilots who are loath to yield to the realities in front of them.

Then we address some of the detail. It's a big ask, adds Harding, but the idea of putting fighter pilots in a single engine, turbo-prop aircraft such as the Super Tucano has to be contemplated. Aircraft like the Tucano are cheap, low-tech and highly effective, as many South American drug barons have discovered. They provide surveillance, along with an armament of bombs and machine guns and an ability to loiter overhead for a long time, and they are also easy to maintain.

It will take courage for someone in the RAF hierarchy to advocate using the Tucano (cost £6 million) over the Eurofighter Typhoon (cost £65 million) but it is the type of thinking now required. The problem today is the RAF's attachment to fast jets. Either it goes for the Typhoon or for the US-made Joint Strike Fighter, but the defence budget cannot sustain both.

Harding raises many other such issues – very many of them having been discussed on this blog - and while neither he nor I could pretend to have explored them fully, much less come up with definitive answers, the very fact that they are being discussed is an advance on the previous sterility of the defence debate.

The ultimate problem though, which Harding identifies, is the "bed blockers" at the top of the MoD and in the military establishment, who do not seem to recognise the need for change. Perhaps more optimistically than we would allow for, Harding concludes that, "once they are removed and once a new government is persuaded that the Ministry of Defence is aiming to fight the wars of today, we are likely to see major changes in the configuration of our Armed Forces."

We hope that is the case. The current paradigm cannot continue and now is the time to face reality and decide honestly, clearly and with candour, what it is we want our Armed Forces to do, and then to make the changes necessary to ensure that they can succeed in what we ask of them.