Tuesday 19 January 2010

A thinking General

If one equips more for the type of conflict we are actually having to fight, while significantly reducing investment in higher-end war-fighting capability, suddenly one can buy an impressive amount of "kit". So says General Sir David Richards, speaking to the IISS yesterday. He adds: "One can buy a lot of UAVs or Tucano aircraft for the cost of a few JSF and heavy tanks."

If I had a mind, I could link to all the pieces written on this blog, which said the same thing, going back many years – but try this, written in March 2007 and then again in April 2009 - when we specifically mentioned Tucanos, for the umpteenth time.

However, to have a CGS tell us that "hi-tech weapons platforms are not a good way to help stabilise tottering states" it is music to our ears, especially when he adds, "nor might their cost leave us any money to help in any other way - any more than they impress opponents equipped with weapons costing a fraction. We must get this balance right."

Despite our enthusiasm for a General who is finally talking our language, there is still though a sense of weariness when we read: "...too much emphasis is still placed on 'exquisite' and hugely expensive equipment." Been there, done, that one – a tired, somewhat disillusioned blogger. But now a General is saying it - years later - so it must be right.

Paraphrasing the man, and cutting out some of the impenetrable jargon that the military feel compelled to use, we then see him saying: "...the type of conflict we are fighting requires mass - numbers - whether 'boots on the ground', riverine and high speed littoral warships, or UAVs, transport aircraft and helicopters. And that must come at the expense of "high-end" kit.

We could argue with a little of that, but we won't. The point is that the right kit for the sort of wars we are fighting today is a lot cheaper than the high end kit, so we can afford much more. For the price of one JSF, we could have something like 16 Tucanos. For one FRES utility vehicle, we can have eight top-range MRAPs.

Richards, however, does not just talk about kit. He stresses the need for high quality, adaptable personnel and also talks about the nature of warfare. "Conflict today, is principally about and for people – hearts and minds on a ass scale," he says. "At the press of a button, an embittered diaspora can be inflamed with a mission and furnished with the knowledge of how to construct a cheap but hugely effective weapon."

We've aid that as well, pointing out how insurgents have converted the internet into a weapon of war. Richards seems now to recognise that - I'm not sure Dannatt even knew what the internet was.

Dealing with wars fought through internet proxies, the General says, requires a cultural shift in our understanding of and approach to conflict. We must, therefore, respond "more ruthlessly" to ensure that our armed forces are appropriate and relevant to the context in which they will operate rather than the one they might have expected to fight in previous eras.

Here, he is certainly right, but I'm not sure that the military could cope with the type of culture you need to take on the internet "bandits". The sort of person who could best fight that war is not the sort of person that would find a home in this man's Army. He may wish for a culture change, but he is unlikely to get it, and wouldn't like it if he did.

Even then, what he has said – for a CGS – is extremely daring. The blue jobs – dark and light – will already be plotting their counter-moves, while the defence industry will be sharpening up their lobbying, to make sure the big bucks keep coming their way.

Richards tries to head them off, pre-empting the squawks that will have it that this would leave us defenceless. "Can we take the risk?" he offers rhetorically. Well, he says, we have to take risk somewhere or run the far greater one of trying with inadequate resources to be all things to all conflicts and failing to succeed in any.

Good answer that – at least according to his nostrum, we have a chance of success in one of our ventures, which would make a change.

Nevertheless, Richards is not proposing that we get rid of all our more traditional military capability. It is still needed to deter a war fought by such means from becoming an asymmetric attraction to an enemy and because the requirement to fight and win hard battles will not disappear.

But what he does do is question the scale. Future wars of mass manoeuvre are more likely to be fought though the minds of millions looking at computer and television screens than on some modern equivalent of the Cold War's North German plain.

Thus, we have to prioritise and take perceived risk somewhere, says the man. We must move away from accepting today's defence budget, carved up broadly as it always has been, as a "norm" and establish what we need before we establish what we can afford. If, as is likely, there is a gap, we can then have this recognised as a risk which the government is – or is not - prepared to carry.

Then, in a necessary but nonetheless statement of the blindingly obvious, he tells us that, to determine what we need, we must firstly establish what UK interests are, how we can best protect those interests, and what we need to do so. These interests can be opportunities to exploit or threats to resist, he says.

Taking inter-service rivalry head-on, he asserts that this is not a matter of where the balance of investment should lie between the Services. Rather this is about ensuring we achieve a balance, across all three and with allies, between our ability to fight a traditional war of air, maritime and ground kinetic manoeuvre and being able to conduct a far more difficult one amongst, with and for the People.

This re-balancing could result in more ships, armoured vehicles and aircraft not less. But they will not necessarily be those we currently plan on. In sum, he tells us, we must find the vision and the resources needed to re-balance out of being prepared for old conflict and into being prepared for new.

Making these choices is the basis of command, says Richards. Whether as a platoon commander or chief of the Army, you can't have everything and will have to choose if you are to succeed.

On that, he is right. You can't please everyone, and you cannot – with our defence budget, or indeed any amount of money, prepare for every possible eventuality. But, with that speech, Richards is going to upset more than a few.

His primary audience, of course, is the incoming administration, which one assumes will be led by David Cameron. Whether there is anyone on his team with the brains to understand what Richards is saying, and with the determination and skill to take on the ranks of vested interests, is moot. But at least we have a General who is in part living up to the description on his tin – he was advertised as a "thinking general", and he is certainly that.

Give him a few more years and he might get round to understanding that, even with his bold ideas, he is still going to lose the war in Afghanistan. The answer to that lies in high politics, way above his pay grade, and beyond even the ken of our revered leader, Gordon Brown.

But, at least with General Richards at the helm, we might be spending less on obscenely expensive kit and, with more appropriate kit in theatre, we might lose a few less men before we have to pull out, proclaiming our "victory", the word "defeat" – as in Iraq – having been abolished. For that, at least, we should be grateful.

The pic, of course, is a Tucano. When we see a couple of squadrons of those flying in RAF colours, in Afghanistan, I'll know the General is winning his battle.