On the coast of West Africa this week, staying next to the Libyan Embassy, astride one of the 15 countries that did not support the United Nations General Assembly vote on Ukraine, I am struck by two related questions.
Why are fearful migrants still dying in the Mediterranean Sea and why have we withdrawn our British Army forces from arguably the most important security operation in Africa (Mali)?
Part of the answer to this question lies in Merthyr Tydfil with the Ajax programme that the Defence Secretary has been speaking about. It should have entered service with the British Army five years ago, giving our combat troops a credible modern armoured capability and replacing outdated equipment that not even Ukraine would want. Just because we have started paying General Dynamics again does not mean the programme is back on track. It has been put on a completely new schedule and the reliability problems have not been solved, so I don’t understand why the Media has reported that all is well.
I was delighted this week when the Defence Secretary echoed my description of the British Army being hollowed out in his pronouncement about the need to increase Defence Spending.
The implied financial attack on the Chief of the General Staff’s budget comes from three directions. First, the other Services (Royal Navy and Royal Air Force) which have done very well in the past decade as long range stand-off weaponry has been politically more acceptable than close combat. Second, the Intelligence budget (including GCHQ, Cyber capabilities and counter-terrorist programmes) that has absorbed a huge chunk of the money destined for the Armed Forces. And third the rival domestic departments, including the Health and Education that have squeezed the allocation of money that previously was spent on Foreign Policy objectives.
Standing above all this is the Treasury, which scrutinises departmental spending and plays one off against the other. They have special agents inside the Ministry of Defence and many of these RP staff are contemptible for the way they cut programmes on a whim. I was involved in several fights for money between 1994 and 2014 and was astonished how badly some uniformed officers behaved when it came to hollowing out Defence capabilities. The truth is that it was 2005 when the Army could no longer afford its planned activity; I had to write the Review Year Study that year, which was based on the Key Equipment Issues List; an outstanding computer modelling system which was closed down soon afterwards for telling it as it was.
Rather than preparing wisely for the future, the Government now prefers to pay for emergencies through its Contingency Fund (Royal Air Force for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Royal Navy for the migrant problems in the English Channel and British Army for training Ukraine soldiers on the front line). Due to this poor management, our leadership of the NATO Reaction Force is on the line and it’s no wonder that the Chief of the General Staff has been reported as threatening to resign!
Challenger Main Battle Tank – When The Army Was Fully Supported
My twice postponed (once for Lockdown and once for Her Majesty’s funeral) talk at Dartmouth House on the last WWI British prisoners of war in Moscow has now been confirmed for the evening of Tuesday 11th April.
I am delighted to announce that a few of the children and grandchildren of those who served in Siberia, or suffered imprisonment in Moscow are joining the audience for the evening. We will be discussing how the prisoners survived their horrendous ordeal with their pet puppy and why their incarceration became such a hot political issue in 1920. Tickets and more information about the talk are available on the English Speaking Union’s website at: https://www.esu.org/event/churchills-abandoned-prisoners-with-rupert-wieloch/
Two of the British Prisoners of War in Siberiain 1920
It is reported that a prominent US general has told the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, that the UK is no longer a ‘tier one fighting force’ and the British Army has a ‘diminished war-fighting capability’.
This does not surprise me one iota. The US Defence capability has been forging ahead in the past decade and we have been left behind through deliberate neglect and bungling mis-management. A classic example, which I have regularly written about, is the procurement of the next generation armoured vehicle, known as Ajax. This light tank was due to be in service now, replacing the antique Scimitar, which I operated in Norway, Denmark, Germany, England and Bosnia and is well past its sell-by date (despite several brilliant upgrades for Iraq and Afghanistan).
It is not just our equipment that has been hollowed-out. We have tremendous Special Forces and the Household Division can still put on a fantastic show, but the overall standard of physical fitness, mental toughness and commitment to the team has dropped significantly, according to senior soldiers at training regiments, who I have spoken to in 2022.
The seeds for this situation were sown before the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Unfortunately, it is not just money that will get us back to Tier One, but at least we have not yet plummeted to the depths of the 1930s, when according the late, great, Brian Horrocks the British Army at home had been reduced to a flag basis and young officers wondered whether the German Army understood that a green flag represented an anti-tank gun!