For three years, I organised the annual RUSI land warfare conference at the beginning of June, when the latest British Army concepts were presented to a discerning audience of international military officers as well as government officials, journalists and representatives of Defence industry. The main focus during my time was the digitization of the Army, the introduction of unmanned aircraft and the protection of individual soldiers on the front line.
The weekend before the event, the Chief of the General Staff always warms up with an interview that outlines the topics for discussion. In preparation for this year’s conference, which begins on Wednesday, the current Chief has focused thinking on the technological changes that are happening in the aftermath of the recent Defence and Security Review. However, the big strategic issue is the diminishing public support for war and the low tolerance for British casualties. These and other moral dilemmas facing the British Army in the 2020s are much greater challenges than teaching soldiers how to use modern equipment. I hope they are not brushed under the carpet this week.
The Royal Navy is about to embark on a global cruise, exercising its right to navigate around the world and visit British allies along the way.
The aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will act as the command ship for a task force that includes American and Dutch ships and provide organic air power against ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
The mission has been criticized by two former Chiefs of Defence, Lord Houghton and Lord Richards. Their angst goes back to the Strategic Defence and Security Review, when the Government backed the Royal Navy’s view of the future, rather than the Army’s proposals. At the time, there was a behind-the-scenes internecine war between the Services as the Treasury reduced the amount of money available to the Armed Forces by boosting the domestic security capability and playing a game of “divide and rule” with the Service Chiefs (a theme covered in my forthcoming book).
The grand tour of the world has not yet become a focus for the environmentalists. However, I am sure some activists will pick up on the fact that the carrier alone carries over 8,000 tonnes of fuel to support the ship and her aircraft. This is enough to power the average family car to travel to the moon and back twelve times.
Whatever the criticisms, it is wonderful to see the Union Jack at sea, leading the way out of the Lockdown with the accompanying diplomatic and trade opportunities that HMS Queen Elizabeth will provide.
It was very good to see, after my post last week, that a few newspapers ran feature articles on British military operations in Mali, highlighting the tremendous work of the Light Dragoons on their lengthy desert patrols. However, this is not the only major military deployment that is happening in May this year.The British army is also participating in one of the largest NATO exercises in Europe since the Cold War. Stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans, the coordinated deployment of nearly 30,000 multinational troops is a meaningful statement to President Putin that he cannot intimidate his neighbours.
The British capability, which includes parachute and infantry companies, complements the Enhanced Forward Presence stationed in Poland and the Baltic States. The UK Battle Group in Estonia that includes challenger tanks and AS90 self propelled guns, is incredibly popular and yet the British newspapers provide little coverage of what our troops are doing to reassure our friends and prevent conflict.
Perhaps the most meaningful contribution is in Albania, a NATO Member since 2009. The strategic port of Durres is host to important sustainment operations with 104 British logistics support brigade heavily involved in developing the systems and processes. It is not quite on the same scale as the Reinforcement in Germany exercises which involved up to 50,000 British troops in the 1980s, but it is still a significant measure of military capability. Hopefully, we will see a bit more about this in the national media before the exercise ends on 2nd June.
The little-known operation in Mali, (code-named Newcombe) is probably the most challenging of all the current British Army deployments in 2021.
The war began when I was in Libya after the remnants of Gadhafi’s army arrived in Timbuktoo with a huge quantity of weapons. They were welcomed by the Tuareg tribes of the Azawad (Northern Mali), who promptly rebelled against the central government in Bamako and established a strong liberation army, which was unfortunately linked with terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. The international community, led by France, propped up the government and went to war in the desert.
British special forces have operated with the French counter-terrorism forces since 2013, but last year, the National Security Council also agreed to send a task group with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission, known as MINUSMA. This Long Range Reconnaissance Group, comprising infantry and armoured troops, is based at Gao, which is 250 miles east of Timbuktoo.
Mali is designated as one of the United Nations least developed countries, where poverty is rife and mortality rates are among some of the worst in the world. The people desperately need Aid, but the delivery of medical support, food, supplies and education depends on the security provided by UN peacekeepers.
At this time of the year, the roasting heat of the desert makes for a horrendous environment, but the month-long patrols are only a repeat of what the Long Range Desert Group did in the Libyan desert eighty years ago. It would be good if the British media could find some space in their newspapers to report on the magnificent work of the Royal Anglians and Light Dragoons to bring peace and security to the people of the Sahel.
On Saturday 8th May, the former Defence Minister, Johnny Mercer is leading a protest march to Westminster on behalf of the elderly veterans, who are under investigation for alleged crimes in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.
Hopefully, by then the trial against the two soldiers charged with shooting an IRA officer responsible for the deaths of 15 British troops, will have collapsed. The Judge in Belfast has already condemned the prosecution’s case against by ruling that the statements given in 1972 are inadmissible and criticizing the lack of new evidence.
We have to remember that 1972 saw the worst levels of violence in Northern Ireland. At 0400 hours on Monday 31 July, the Government launched Operation Motorman against the IRA safe havens in Derry and Belfast. The security forces expected an intense firefight, but the work with local communities and restraint on the part of the soldiers ensured that heavy civilian casualties were avoided. This operation lasted until December that year and was a notable success for not only demonstrating that the rule of law would be applied in all places, but also for catching many of the Provisional IRA commanders. It was also a key turning point in the campaign as the IRA changed their tactics from insurgency to terrorism.
The 200 soldiers sent into the fray by the government 50 years ago, who are now under investigation, were doing their duty to the best of their abilities and deserve our tributes, not our censure.