This week, the House of Commons Defence Select committee published a damning report on the government’s defence and security review, exposing the flaws in the plan and the complacency in the Ministry of Defence.
Previously, I have written about the dire equipment programme (Ajax tank, etc.), lack of training, capability gaps and money siphoned from soldiers to spies, but this is the first official report that reveals the extent of the problem in the light of Putin’s war in Ukraine.Perhaps the most damning comment is the way the armed forces are being used to backfill civilian tasks because Whitehall departments are seemingly incapable of “responding to crises”.
This report provides a tremendous opportunity for the two aspiring Prime Ministers to stake a claim with the large military and former military community, who are part of their electorate. However, not for the first time, Defence has been relegated by politicians (and the media) to a side-show.
General Brian Horrocks provides an amusing vignette about the British Army of the 1930s, which “had been reduced largely to a flag basis” and lance corporals hung boards around their necks bearing the words “this represents a section”. We have a similar system now for our tanks, but it is hard to see the next government following the advice of the Select Committee and reversing the decline of the past 12 years…unless Putin wins in Ukraine.
NATO’s Special Forces Operations in Bosnia were mostly planned in support of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was formed by a UN Resolution in May 1993. Half the operations I worked on were to detain Persons Indicted for War Crimes (PIFWCs); the other half were designed to collect evidence for the Chief Prosecutor in the Hague.
The operations involved three groups. The local NATO multinational brigade provided the outer cordon; then the Italian Carabinieri Multinational Specialized Unit (MSU) deployed to set up the inner cordon and finally the Special Forces from one of four designated countries flew in to complete the mission.Secrecy was paramount and when a leak led to the failure of an operation, the US 3* general asked me to find the source. Everyone believed it was the Carabinieri, but I discovered they were blameless and traced the treachery to the heart of the NATO headquarters.
My deep respect for the Italian Carabinieri increased exponentially when I worked with them again in Baghdad. After the tragic attack against the MSU at Nasiriyah, which resulted in the highest loss of Italian soldiers since World War II, they did more than anyone to upgrade the Iraqi National Police until NATO pulled out in 2011. Their high standards of morality in the face of extreme provocation clearly demonstrated that they are an exemplary model of Special Forces in the modern world.
The article about the SAS in Afghanistan in today’s Sunday Times is the latest attack on Britain’s special forces by those who do not know the full story. Yes, there are always grey areas on operations. For example, the ICRC informed me in 2001 that SF soldiers in Afghanistan were pretending to be civilian charity workers as they travelled around the countryside and this was compromising their own humanitarian efforts.
However, facing an enemy that one day is tending the fields and the next is planting an improvised explosive device that will not differentiate between civilians and soldiers is like entering a boxing ring blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back. Of course, there will be times when the intelligence is not as good as it needs to be, resulting in tragic consequences, but there is a planning process whereby these operations are checked by competent people before they are authorised.
Strangely, my regiment was training police and patrolling in Helmand Province in 2012 and mentoring the Afghan Army on Operation Herrick 17, around the times of the alleged SAS killings. I visited them in Lashkar Gah in December 2012, when they were doing a fantastic job helping the local communities to resist the brutal fanatics who subjected them to terrifying treatment.
It is quite right that the Chief of the Defence Staff has said that he will not re-open the two investigations because we are yet to see any new evidence from either the BBC, or The Sunday Times.
I was very disappointed with the Panorama programme last night. Of course, if Richard Bilton has new evidence the MoD should reopen their investigation into the alleged killing of unarmed detainees in Helmand. However, what we were shown was a few bullet holes, which he alleged were caused by British soldiers 11 years ago and the testimony of Taliban sympathisers, much of it second-hand. The subsequent emails by people in London who did not know the context and the views of Australians who were nowhere near the events do not pass any threshold for a legal case.
Colonel Lee of the Royal Marines cannot be faulted for his clear exposition of some of the legal and moral rights and wrongs, but no-one explained how these operations were launched in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of British soldiers in Gereshk, Nah-e Saraj and Nad-Alieriod. Nor did anyone explain how NATO and Coalition Special Operations worked in unison with capital cities. We have all seen the imagery of the operation to lift Usama bin Laden and the level of scrutiny from the highest commanders for these sorts of operation, but Bilton provided no discussion about how many soldiers lives were saved in Musa Qala and Sangin and there was nothing about the intelligence feeds on operations of these sorts.
This subject (Morality in Asymmetric War) was debated at length in London in the aftermath of 9/11 under the “Greater Good Principle” and there is plenty of open source material such as the Oxford Research Group papers, which the programme could have used to avoid the criticisms of poor research and bias.
The venue for my talk on British involvement in the Russian Civil War this week was Holland Park, where this statue of Vladimir the Great has stood since 1988. Although he had to fight fiercely to become Grand Prince of Kiev, he became an iconic ruler and is recognised widely as a saint. His reign was marked by relative peace as he reformed some of the harsher laws in Kiev and abolished the death penalty and judicial torture.
Speaking about the British help to Russia in the First World War, which morphed into support for the White Russians, I reminded the audience of the similarities with the current assistance provided to Ukraine against the Russian invasion and identified some of the mistakes of the past. History should be used to make the future better, not worse.
Having had the honour to organise three CGS conferences for Lord Dannatt (2009), Lord Richards (2010) and Sir Peter Wall (2011) at a time when the British Army was highly respected around the world for its performance on combat operations, I understand the work that goes into these events. Having also conducted the equipment review that identified exactly when the money allocated by the government did not cover the planned activities to deliver the agreed capabilities (and still hold all the paperwork that this entailed), I know the inside story of the army’s decline from its peak.
This week’s conference for the new CGS was a complete sham as it was focused on the wrong capabilities to face Putin’s army. We have strayed too far from the fundamentals in our belief that information war, technology and security capabilities will somehow deter the Russian president. In the meantime our major combat equipment lags behind all our major competitors. It will take ten years to rebuild a half-decent armoured formation once all its equipment has arrived, but there is still no sign of the necessary fighting vehicles and training schedules. Challenger, Warrior, Scimitar and AS 90 are all 1980s technology (with a few upgrades) and need to be replaced rapidly, otherwise Putin will continue to laugh in the face of the political hogwash that will no doubt be heard at the NATO Summit in Madrid next week.