If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, you’ll recall the depiction of the waning days of Rivendell, the civilization where nobody dies and the home of Arwyn (Liv Tyler), the love interest of major character Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). Director Peter Jackson created an ambience of a civilization in slow, constant, decline by showing autumn leaves always blowing through the outdoor colonnades and walkways of the palace,
This describes my thoughts upon finishing British Generals in Blair’s Wars – a remarkable edited volume with accounts by 26 (mostly) retired British military officers, most of them generals. There’s a chapter on Northern Ireland, one on Kosovo, and one on Sierra Leone, but justifiably most of the book deals with Iraq and Afghanistan. Inadequate money, numbers of men, and equipment, and a deep sourness in civil-military relations, are the four dark threads running through every chapter, creating a grim account of contemporary British military history. It was inevitable that Britain would assume the role of a second-tier power after World War II, but I was struck by the challenges Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have in managing even the tactical level of war, having already been forced by drastic reductions in size to all but abandon the operational level. For example, Brigadier Justin Maciejewski, who was a division operations officer in the invasion of Iraq and led an infantry battalion in Basra in 2006-2007, notes that when the US was considering, and eventually beginning, its Iraq Surge of five brigades, the British Army was able to send only one battalion plus part of another to Iraq – about 1,000 soldiers to reinforce the overmatched British brigade in southern Iraq. The book also reveals that reasons the British decided not to embed Military Training Teams (MiTTs) with Iraqi forces in its area of operations. Author Colonel Richard Irons, who was the chief British advisor to the Iraqi commander in Basra from December 2007 to November 2008, writes that the reason was that “we were so short of troops we could not provide them dedicated support at the same time as running our operations.” (p. 190) Its officers are clearly competent and experienced, but there is only so much one can do without the necessary resources. As such, this former second-tier power struggled to simultaneously deploy and support one brigade in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. If the British Army was, in proportion to its population and economy, the same size as the U.S. Army, it could have easily met much larger commitments in both theaters, but the U.K. government, and the people who elect it, clearly have opted for other national budgetary priorities.Adam, in response, asked a simple question
How did this happen?My hypothesis would be that the UK Government has entirely lost track of what it intends for the military to achieve. Since 2000 British Armed forces have been involved in multiple actions, not least Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Kosovo. There is an exciting degree of sabre rattling over Gibraltar, The Falklands and potentially Syria, a conflict David Cameron has repeatedly indicated he would dearly like to pitch in on.
Despite this significant rise in the level of operations since 2000 military spending in the UK has risen only modestly, and forward looking spending is increasingly constrained. This has led to tough and possibly unwise choices being made. The decision to significantly reduce the armed forces was coupled with a commitment to enlarge the Territorial Army, but can any reasonable claim that the Territorial Army can step into the gap?
We desire an expeditionary military, but are only willing to pay for a small force, because British public opinion is not geared towards the "Support our Troops" mindset so prevalent in the USA. Our focus on our armed forces often begins and ends with the yearly Poppy Appeal, which is intended to generate funds for services directed towards service personnel, most famously those injured in combat. Whilst the American mindset is directed towards actively serving troops, ours is more focussed on those who have been killed or injured in combat, with the implicit desire that we should minimise these numbers above all other objectives.
In my (admittedly limited) discussions with politicians and civil servants around the topic of defence, there is a tenancy to wax lyrical about the great threat of the day. Some years ago it was EMP, now it is cyber warfare and the dronification of everything. These fantasy concerns dominate the mindsets of those who have their hands on the purse strings, and stretch still further the requirements of the British Armed Forces, who must prepare for every scenario that Daniel Suarez can dream up. The requirements grow as funding shrinks. We must do everything, and spend nothing.
We lack an strategic narrative to determine how we will use military force, where we will use it, and why we would use it. It is not clear why certain conflicts are worth intervention and others are not, nor is it clear why only American led conflicts are worthy of intervention. The world is full of conflict, and those we involve ourselves in we seem unable to explain our rationale beyond a brief nod to the morality of the situation.
I have yet to meet a British soldier, of any rank who wasn't capable, intelligent and dedicated. Our political class, and its desire to act as a mini America (without being willing to dedicate nearly 5% of our GDP to the military, British spending sits at about half that) leads us down a dark path.
Money is not the only solution to this problem, we also need clear strategic direction for our armed forces, and our wider foreign policy. Currently this is extremely limited, with foreign policy determined far more by the latest crisis than overarching strategic direction. If we had that, we would be able to identify far more rationally the amount of spending necessary to achieve our goals, and the types of soldier we need.