The May 2006 Lecture: ‘The Fork In The Road – Sorting Out The UK’s Defence Policy Debacle’

Lord LothianMichael Ancram MP, GSF’s founder Chairman, gave our inaugural lecutre on Tuesday 9th May 2006.

“I make no apologies for what I am about to say. It will be unpalatable to many both in Government and Opposition who take the view that there are no votes in defence. I write it because after four years as Shadow Foreign Secretary and six months as Shadow defence, necessarily restricted by the doctrine of collective responsibility in relation to spending commitments, I can no longer stand back and watch while the well-being of our armed forces and the safety of our nation are being compromised in the way that they currently are. The sentiments I express here are not so much my own as a distillation of the very strong if private feelings I have encountered amongst serving members of our armed forces and others with a deep understanding of these issues over the past few years.

All governments mislead the public about defence. It is part of the nature of the politics of defence that a programme of disinformation is perpetrated by politicians, refined by Treasury mandarins and ‘loyally’ articulated in public by serving Defence Chiefs. It is a conspiracy constantly to pretend that our defence capabilities are improving and our objectives succeeding when the reverse is the case. Never has that conspiracy of disinformation been as great as it is today. And no Government has been more blatant in advancing it than our current Government.

They would have us believe that they are increasing defence resources, streamlining and improving our defence forces and that those same defence forces are more than able to meet the very substantial military commitments which this government has imposed upon them. Talking privately to our forces on the ground, as I have done recently as shadow defence secretary, makes clear that nothing could be more dangerously further from the truth. Our armed forces are more overstretched, more under-equipped, more over committed and more under-trained than at any time in the last fifty years. In their weakened state they are ever more frequently being asked to respond to unforeseen and unexpected new commitments such as Afghanistan in 2001. This is no theoretical point. It is factual and it goes to the very heart of the safety of our troops in carrying out the increasingly dangerous tasks they are being asked to do.

The Government has been able to get away with this because the growing challenges to our armed forces are not uppermost in the public mind and therefore that same public – other than the immediate relatives of serving military – are blissfully unaware of the shortfalls in support to our armed forces as they meet these challenges. There is little public appreciation of the strains of peace support, peace keeping and peacemaking all coming together (as today in southern Afghanistan) with insufficient equipment and a growing dearth of vital training. Because so many of today’s challenges are overseas there is a distinct absence of a sense of being threatened here at home. It is a false absence when by the nature of them today’s threats to our domestic security increasingly require overseas actions to deter them.

It will not be easy, but it should be the responsibility of government to bring to bear on the public consciousness the realities of those threats and then to take the actions necessary properly to meet them. This quite simply is not being done, and we have finally reached the point of crisis. The problems of retention are practical illustrations of the military reaction to this crisis.

In defence terms we have finally reached a clear and unavoidable fork in the road. Either we scale down our international security role or we commit significantly greater resources to maintaining and strengthening our armed forces. At stake is our effective leadership of the European dimension of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, our ability to influence international action by our effective participation in it, our moral leadership of the Commonwealth and our leverage within the European Union.

The Prime Minister currently lectures the world on the importance of our international influence working alongside America. The aspiration is in my view a laudable one. Yet our military strength has never been so compromised and our national determination to do anything about it has never been so weak.

We have the worst of all worlds; ambitious commitments unmatched by resources, armed services undermined by falling recruitment and morale at an all time low – not least because our government has increasingly abandoned serving soldiers to the legal wolves applying civilian legal standards. We simply cannot afford to underestimate the devastating effect on morale that current legal proceedings arising from the conflict zone of Iraq are having, not just on those immediately affected but the whole way down the chain of command.

The crisis is however deeper. Today we cannot even be sure that we would have the resources effectively to defend our own homeland if it was seriously under threat. We almost certainly can no longer defend many of our essential interests overseas. The idea of pursuing an ‘activist approach’ internationally is becoming increasingly laughable.

Before I am accused of overstatement, let me set out the facts.

Our Senior Service is being increasingly beached. Discounting submarines, since 1997 the Royal Navy has been reduced by two fifths. Only one out of three aircraft carriers is currently operational. We had 12 Destroyers; we now have 9. We had 23 Frigates; we now have 17. Other surface ships have been cut from 68 to 44. In the last year alone the total number of naval vessels including submarines has dropped from 94 to 78.

We now have a Navy which is smaller than the French! It is unthinkable that we could ever mount another Falklands exercise were we to need to do so. It was difficult enough in 1981. Indeed it came about because Argentina did not believe that we had the will or capability to respond to their aggression. At least immediately after that war our success acted as a deterrent against further such aggression. Today our clearly diminished capability could once again encourage potential aggressors against our interests to have a go. We are having to choose between flexible warships and aircraft platforms when we need both. The irony of the Carrier programme is that it is designed to support flexible rapid deployment overseas, but at the expense of the defensive capability of our Navy nearer to home. On top of that our Sea Harriers were withdrawn in March leaving our fleet dependent on US air defence.

When China for the first time in generations is building a ‘Blue Water Fleet’ to protect their supply routes we are moving in the opposite direction. We are now seeing the deliberate dismantling by stealth of the Royal Navy. It is worth reminding ourselves that the traditional role of the Navy is to patrol around our shores and further afield. That capability is now increasingly compromised.

The Few are getting fewer and our skies are no longer safe. With the ending of the Cold war and of set piece front lines it was inevitable that the number of aircraft required by Nato would substantially diminish. But the government has gone well beyond that. It has forgotten the traditional and essential role of fighter aircraft in providing home defence. Since 1997, long after the ending of the Cold War, the number of RAF squadrons has been cut by almost a quarter from 41 to 32. Frontline aircrews are to be reduced from 210 to 170, and the Jaguar force will be drawn down two years earlier than planned. Our frontline air capability defence force will be reduced from 80 to 55. Rapier anti-aircraft missile launchers will be reduced by half from 48 to 24 fire units. Fast jet training flying time has been reduced. Airfields are closing, total battlefield helicopter spending has been reduced by a quarter since 2000 and cannibalisation of the helicopter fleets has increased threefold. On top of that 8 brand new Chinook helicopters are grounded because the software is considered dodgy. No wonder RAF morale is at rock bottom. And on top of that there will be a resounding gap between the withdrawal of Jaguars by 2007 and the introduction into service of the Eurofighter Typhoon by 2010. And Lift capability is now seriously hampered by clapped out transport aircraft.

Our Army is melting away. Manpower is being reduced from 108,500 to 102,000. Infantry battalions are being reduced by 4 from 40 to 36.

Recruitment is in crisis. In the army recruitment has fallen from 16,610 in 2002-03 to 11,609 in 2004-05. In the Navy and the Marines it has fallen from 5220 in 2002-03 to 3690 in 2004-05. In the RAF it has fallen from 4450 in 2002-03 to 2180 in 2004-05.

Training, so vital to effective and responsible soldiering, is under increasing pressure. Due to the increasing tempo of operations and budget constraints 20% of training exercises were cancelled during 2004-2005. The types of training that have been suffering include all-arms urban warfare training and aspects of Joint Operations, especially Air-Land integration. Indeed we now learn that many members of the Parachute Regiment cannot jump because there are no longer an adequate number of serviceable planes available to train them.

Our reservists are knackered. More than a quarter of the reserve force – 13,400 – has resigned since April 2003. From a strength of 56,200 in 1998 it now stands at some 36,200. Every branch of the reserve forces are currently below strength. The TA numbers 31,260 out of a requirement of 38,430, the Naval Reserve musters 2,460 when the requirement is 3,400, the Royal Marine Reserve strength is 240 below its requirement of 990, whilst the Auxiliary Air Force can only draw on 1,390 out of a requirement of some 2,120. At its peak the Reserves provided some 18% of the total of UK forces in Iraq, even today the average stands at 11%. These reduced numbers and increased levels deployment create a dangerous combination.

Our equipment is a shambles. 25% of the Armed Forces helicopter fleet is grounded. Much of it needs lengthy overhauls. Out of a fleet of 569 helicopters 121 are in repair and 79 have been classified as unrepairable. One third of new Merlin helicopters are in repair. Half of the Sea King helicopters are undergoing refits or have been written off. And never have they been so badly needed as currently in both Iraq and Afghanistan where movement by air is becoming increasingly essential.

More than 50% of our armoured vehicle fleet is not fit for service because of mechanical problems. Less than half of the Army’s 328 Scimitar combat reconnaissance vehicles are in working order. Only half of the Army’s Samaritan armoured ambulances could currently be deployed on operations. Units equipped with Sturgeon or Salamander combat reconnaissance vehicles have none in working order. Only 169 out of 622 Saxon vehicles are working. The overall picture is a scandalous one of deliberate over-commitment and under- resourcing, under-manning and under- equipping. In a less cynical age it would be a scandal.

It is hard to imagine a blacker picture, yet the false propaganda that everything in the garden is rosy continues.

The voices of the recently retired officers however begin to reveal the truth. Colonel Tim Collins put it starkly. “In Iraq we have reached the milestone of [over 100] dead… This is no time to be cutting defence. The cuts that are being made, be in no doubt, aren’t to make anything better or fix anything that is broken, they are to produce money for the Treasury and that is not a good enough reason.” Even before he retired, the former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West opined that the Royal Navy was now too small to perform the tasks demanded by the Government. “We need 30 destroyers and frigates for what the Government wants us to do.” As we have already seen, we have far less.

This criticism is not new. Our former Chiefs of the Defence Staff have not minced their words since they hung up their boots. “The two immediate problems facing our Armed Forces are very significant under-funding and serious over-stretch, which are leading to the loss of some very important skilled people. The fundamental problem is that our Armed Forces are too small for the many operational tasks placed upon them.” The words of Lord Inge on 15 May 2002. Since then the operational tasks have increased and our armed forces, as we have seen, have got even smaller.

Lord Guthrie in the same House of Lords debate was even more blunt. “The level of commitments has continued to rise. The Armed Forces are now seriously under-funded for what they are being asked to do. The world seems to have become a more dangerous place and we cannot afford to be complacent about the levels of hollowing out within today’s forces. Recruiting targets are not being met; ships and regiments are not properly manned; training is being reduced; and equipment is ageing and often not available. So far as defence is concerned, there has been, in effect, disinvestment. All this has been happening at a time when to many of us it appears that the threats to our security are becoming ever greater.”

Then, perhaps, most trenchantly Lord Guthrie continued in that same debate “The Chancellor and the Treasury do not understand, do not listen, and show little or no interest in trying to understand one of the few institutions in this country which is still admired both at home and throughout the world. It may not be so admired for much longer if there is no increase in the defence budget.”

The stark and bitter truth is that in military terms we simply no longer have the wherewithal to fulfil the ‘cure the world’ aspirations of the Government. We may in due course have to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, not because the respective ‘jobs are done’, or in the case of Iraq because the onset of a civil war requires it, but because we will not have the resources and manpower effectively to continue!

This situation has not arisen overnight. It has been in the making for the last six years when the remarkably robust Strategic Defence Review carried out by this Government was, through a mixture of financial cuts and insufficiently thought-through new commitments, savagely undermined by that same Government almost from its inception. For all Mr. Blair’s love of foreign adventure, the will has never been matched by the resources, and the Treasury has finally won.

I have to confess that as an Opposition we did not condemn this systemic failure loudly enough. At the last election we promised a little bit more money (£2.7 billion), not so much to strengthen our defence as to protect battalions and frigates under threat. Our failure to win the subsequent election has meant that even these have now gone or are in the process of going. With the benefit of hindsight, our extra spending commitment was no more than a finger in the dyke. It was not a real attempt to face up to our national and security responsibilities. The truth is that we were wary of pledging the level of resources which our armed forces required because ‘there are no votes in defence’. I do not look back on my own role in advancing that position with any pride.

Perhaps fortunately, that de minimis path is now no longer open to us. Our national defence is now seriously compromised. We can no longer just shout from the sidelines and hope that a sceptical and innately anti-military Treasury will come up with the goods. We have got to face realities and make hard decisions. We need to decide whether in the years ahead we are to abandon our leading military role to become a Belgium and leave the military leadership of Europe to France, and of Nato to America and Canada.

It must be said in passing that the concept of a discrete European defence capability is laughable. Current EU members’ defence budgets are lamentably inadequate and it is a lesson of recent ‘multinational military initiatives’ that without sufficient numbers and a clear chain of command the operation risks becoming fragmented and the outcome dangerously uncertain.

We need to resolve whether our days of world influence are over, both within Nato and beyond, or whether we still believe that we have a ‘force for good’ role to play. We need to consider whether we still want our permanent place on the Security Council of the United Nations, a place which would be immediately at risk if we were to choose the Belgian route. Above all we need to start playing fair by those who lay, often quite literally, their lives on the line for us, the loyal professional and courageous men and women of our armed forces whom we are letting down.

We have indeed reached the fork in the road. I cannot believe we will take the minimalist route; that we will turn our backs on our history, our moral responsibilities, our duty to defend this realm and its people, and our historic destiny. If we do take that road, never let us again hear from the likes of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown protestations of pride in our country and our Britishness when it is he who has used the national purse strings to strangle the armed forces!

If we believe in Britain, then we must provide her with the armed forces to do the job. We must conduct an audit of our current and likely military commitments- not least the defence of our own country – and then pledge the necessary resources. We must understand that the current funding shortfall has not suddenly arisen but is the result of serious underfunding of our armed forces over a long period of time – and certainly since the end of the Cold War. That means not promises of marginal increases in defence expenditure but a serious and properly costed financial proposal based on a realistic analysis of what we need in terms of manpower, equipment and backup to fulfil our chosen role. And we must then show a clear determination to prise open the Treasury to provide the necessary resources. That means big bucks, probably in the region of £10-15 billion more than is being spent on defence at the moment – exclusive of the cost of replacing Trident. I hope that the Conservative Party in opposition will have the courage to propose this, and in Government to provide it.

It is an historic truth that the first responsibility of government is the defence of its citizens and their interests, and if that defence is lacking or is compromised then little else will be of consequence. I believe that if we are prepared to make the case strongly enough the people of this country will respond.

That is why we are faced by the fork in the road. We can procrastinate no longer. We have to make a choice.”




He welcomed what Michael had to say. Michael’s lecture was not overstated and it was to the point.

He hoped that it might send a message to the people who do not understand the very serious situation the armed services are in today. He believed the present state of affairs to be the most serious situation he has witnessed in all his 44 years or so of experience in the army.

This fact was often obscured, because in many ways, the Forces are their own worst enemy. They have a ‘can do’ attitude and succeed against the odds. They relish challenges and this is how their political masters have got away with the current situation to date.

Nevertheless, the armed services are in trouble on a number of fronts: firstly, on the financial side. Secondly, they are also involved in a war in Iraq which is unpopular with the country. Thirdly, the venture into Afghanistan is ‘a difficult operation for us to undertake and I am not sure that we are doing it for the right reasons.’

When the [Berlin] wall came down in 1989, many people believed a peace dividend should accompany it. But since 1989,‘we have taken far too large a peace dividend.’ At that time, it was popular in some circles to say that there would be no more wars, but you only have to look at what has happened since to see how far from the case that has proved to be: Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq to name a few – and he has no doubt we would be involved in Darfur, if we could be.

The world has not broken out in peace and there is no reason why we should imagine that things will get better – in fact, they have reason to get worse.

The phenomenon of globalisation means that we get involved in countries where we never thought we would. Twenty years ago, it was unthinkable that we would be involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are. Now it still seems unlikely that we would get involved in somewhere as far afield as Taiwan – but we could in the future.

Despite this, we are not taking a strategic approach. Technology does not replace soldiers. It helps them but it does not replace them and it doesn’t mean that their numbers can be cut. ‘I cannot think of a time when we needed more infantry, more “boots on the ground.” It is a serious mistake to have got rid of so many.’

When it comes to defence, the Europeans are ‘hopeless.’ They are quite good at benign situations of peace-keeping, but not beyond that. They have yet to be proved in situations when they are up against it and sustaining heavy casualties. He hoped that Afghanistan would not prove to be such a situation.

He was very concerned about issues of national control and chains of command in European-led operations, which make it very difficult for commanders on the ground and is a huge problem.

In short, anyone who says we don’t need so much defence capacity because we have allies and we have European Defence is ‘living in cloud-cuckoo land.’ Underneath it all, European defence really means an excuse for individual nations to pay less for their defence.

Currently, it is a very depressing picture.

‘Political gestures without the forces to back them up are extremely embarrassing.’ He hoped that Afghanistan would not prove this point.

‘We cannot pursue successful foreign policy on ‘soft’ power alone – [that is, just through diplomacy.] ‘Soft’ power is always best wielded when backed up by ‘hard’ power.’

In his opinion, it is not clear how long we can go on failing to face up to this fact.


COMMENTS -in summary – BY LORD INGE:

Most of the British people see defence as a fringe activity. The public do not understand how much pressure the armed forces are under, both financial and otherwise.

We have to project military power in order to look after our national interest. In the 1970s, the armed forces went through a similarly bad and demoralising period. But now, despite being retired, he finds himself contacted by many people who are deeply worried by the direction we are going in and he fears the loss of many of our best servicemen and women.

If we think Europe can solve our problems, we are ‘absolutely deluded’. Europe can put together ad hoc forces, but this requires a level of training and leadership that we haven’t seen for a long time.

If the operation in Iraq and Afghanistan go pear-shaped, the damage done to our armed forces will be ‘tremendous’.

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