From foot and mouth to Covid, the military’s role in domestic crises needs to be placed on a more formal footing.
Since the Government’s Integrated Review of foreign, defence, security and development policy was published in March, the emphasis has been on the away leg of this global match. The re-shaping of our Armed Forces to deliver the vision of a Global Britain has seen increased expenditure on new technologies in space and cyberspace, the Royal Navy’s carrier strike programme and its associated protective capabilities, and the Royal Air Force’s fast jet programmes. This has come at a heavy opportunity cost to our land operations capability.
This reduction is not just to the size of the Regular Army, but to the airlift capabilities required to move forces rapidly. Embedded within the changes is also an incoherence in our armoured warfare capability. Modernising the Challenger main battle tank but cancelling the upgrade to the tracked Warrior infantry fighting vehicles leaves a manoeuvrability differential for which it will be impossible to compensate on future battlefields.
It is an unfortunate truth that Treasury ministers and defence planners must accept that much needed investment in new technologies and capabilities cannot entirely be at the expense of older technologies and equipment.
A glance around the world in the last days of 2021 shows opportunism from China threatening not just Hong Kong but now Taiwan, Russia menacing not just the Baltic States but Ukraine too, and Iran side-stepping meaningful discussions on the nuclear issue. Meanwhile, the precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan has produced a humanitarian disaster on a huge, but totally avoidable, scale.
The truth is that all these scenarios, to a greater or lesser degree, stem from an absence of leadership, clarity of purpose and determination by the West – an absence that originates from the three most recent occupants of the Oval Office.
Barack Obama campaigned to be the president who stopped wars. Donald Trump tried to develop security by offering deals unbacked by diplomatic and military resolve, which – in the case of the deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan – Joe Biden then disastrously delivered on by translating his campaign slogan to end the “forever war” into a nightmare operational reality.
In the face of these errors and weaknesses, our opponents have sought to take advantage.
It is within the context of this international reality that the Integrated Review – entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age – must be seen and the contribution that the United Kingdom seeks to make, analysed.
The Integrated Review may have set out four national objectives, but this country also has international obligations, not the least being permanent membership of the UN Security Council, membership of the G7 and G20, and as the leading European member of Nato.
The pandemic may have been a distraction to our government driving towards its objectives with the vigour that the Review authors envisaged, but it also sheds a particular light on one of those objectives, which is to become more resilient to domestic threats – the home leg of this global match. It is within this context that the reduction in the numeric size of our Armed Forces, especially the Army, begins to look suspect.
A quick backward glance reveals the crucial role that military planning and manpower has played in helping the nation through foot and mouth outbreaks, fire and fuel strikes, and flood relief, not forgetting the 2012 Olympics and now the coronavirus pandemic.
Quite properly, the Armed Forces recognise themselves as the nation’s strategic reserve of trained manpower, willing and able to react to whatever the Government of the day and necessity demand. However, it should be remembered that in the past the Armed Forces contributed military aid to the civil authorities at home from its spare capacity, the size and structure of the Armed Forces being driven by the requirements of overseas operations.
The clearly stated objective in the Integrated Review to become more resilient to threats at home now places an increased emphasis on the tasks that the Armed Forces may have to fulfil within the United Kingdom itself, including protecting our borders. These cannot be met in the future purely from spare capacity. They must be recognised as force-driving tasks in their own right and resourced as such.
This is not just a question of financial expenditure. Changes to the legislation empowering our increasingly large reserve forces need to be addressed in order to enable local reservists to be formally mobilised to help their own communities.
Moreover, the current review of civil contingency legislation and procedures needs to take full account of what the military has to offer. The pandemic is a stark example of how all the resources of the UK must be woven together in the best interests of the people of this country. Clear thinking and strong leadership are needed to bring this about.
General The Lord Dannatt is chairman of the National Emergencies Trust and a former chief of the general staff
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