Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:04 pm on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Bramall Lord Bramall Crossbench 1:04 pm, 22nd November 2007

My Lords, I am sure that our caring and concerned Ministers at the Ministry of Defence would subscribe to the view that our Armed Forces are behaving magnificently and gallantly, are doing their duty under difficult circumstances and deserve all support in terms of equipment and backing that this country could possibly give them. Indeed, I am sure that those Ministers are anxious to provide that support.

I, too, greatly regret the departure of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, who mastered how to make the complex MoD procurement system work to its best advantage and to the benefit of the Armed Forces. He forced things through and really made a difference to the equipment programme. His successor, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, with all her parliamentary experience behind her, still has a mammoth and urgent task ahead of her. Naturally we wish her well.

The trouble is that you do not have to look far to find out why it is that on occasions in the past—and, I fear, why it will be on more occasions in the future—support for the Armed Forces does not measure up to what is needed and deserved. First, over the past three years or so there has been no coherently joined-up foreign and defence policy in which military force could be deployed and operate with complete confidence about the real aim of the operation or about how the broad strategy and design for battle would develop in the future.

The Helmand area in southern Afghanistan has proved to be a truly excellent battle-training area. Every self-respecting soldier, from commanding officers down to the rank and file, is eager to go there to prove their prowess as a professional under pressure and to show how good their regiments are. I do not want to write down the value of that on the Army's overall effectiveness and efficiency in the future, but it has been that aspect, along with their loyalty and sense of duty, that has motivated our soldiers and produced undoubted high morale on the ground rather more than any clear idea of where it is all leading in the longer term.

No military operation can be pursued with vigour, confidence and success over time without a clear-cut political aim, and it is up to the Government always to provide it. There are some signs that this is starting to happen, with the penny perhaps dropping at last that there may be ways of dealing with al-Qaeda and other forms of international terrorism—and indeed of producing more stability in the Middle East in which countries can co-exist with one another within a realistic and sustainable balance of power—other than simply a prolonged and open-ended battle of attrition against the Taliban or maintaining a permanent western military presence in Iraq, as the Americans seem to have in mind. I hope that we can look forward to a properly joined-up foreign and defence policy with more dynamic diplomacy backed, supported and strengthened, as it always must be, by military force, although not invariably led by that force—a policy that means resources and commitments can more easily be matched.

The second restraint impeding the Ministry of Defence—and this is now urgent—is the vast funding gap that exists and is likely to continue to exist between, on the one hand, the aspirations of the Government and the real needs of the services and, on the other, the resources that are planned to be available over the next three to five years. It is no good the Minister denying that such a gap exists; the whole ministry knows it to be so after the recent results of the spending review. Every defence correspondent worthy of his name knows it as well. The Minister will have heard the most powerful assessment by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, on the subject. There is no doubt that that gap is there.

The Government have expensive ambitions for a successor to Trident, all apparently to come out of the defence vote. They are committed to two fleet carriers, which, however satisfying and useful they will be for the Royal Navy to possess and man, will hardly pull their weight without funding not only for the aircraft to fly off them and give them an offensive capability but also for adequate numbers of smaller craft, both to give the carriers outpost protection under a war threat and to carry out the myriad other maritime tasks that fall to the Royal Navy in peace and war such as patrolling sensitive areas, protecting our trade routes and shipping and projecting power and commitment at short notice.

In all conflict situations worthy of the name, eventual control of the airspace is vital to the successful conduct of any battle on land or at sea. In fact that great military commander, Field Marshal Montgomery, added a 10th principle of war: "First, win the air battle". That, particularly in prolonged conflict, often comes down to numbers as much as it does to new technology.

As for the land battle, Afghanistan is already revealing glaring weaknesses. Although the equipment is good—no one is accusing the Government of not procuring good equipment; I hope that the Minister realises that—the problem is invariably one of numbers and utility, the result of cuts in past programmes and shortages of spare parts, all sacrificed as a result of salami-slicing over the years. The chickens come home to roost when all this leads to inadequate flying hours when they are most needed. There are still not enough helicopter gunships or troop-carrying helicopters, and the Puma that tragically crashed yesterday was very old. The light tanks are the same as those that we used in the Falklands war 25 years ago. Some of the armoured personnel carriers date back as far as 50 years but are now more underpowered because of the extra protection that has to be grafted on to them. All the transport is quite simply wearing out as a result of the extremely harsh conditions and may need replacement.

As far as manpower is concerned, the present tactic of engaging and killing Taliban—to say nothing of civilians when superior firepower, including air support, is used—and driving them out only for them to return at a later date, will lead to no satisfactory and stable outcome. Unless there can be sufficient troops to hold and protect the ground that has been cleared, it will not be possible for vital aid development constructively to take place in a way that will enable us to win essential hearts and minds in the tribal areas. The recent "Panorama" programme made that perfectly clear. So far, local forces have shown themselves unable to achieve this stability by themselves.

If operations in southern Afghanistan are to be as successful as they could be, extra troops will be needed. To achieve that and many other objectives, as well as to correct overstretch—not only during operational tours but between them—and the enforced curtailment of training in recent years, the Army is clearly not large enough, probably to the tune of several thousand men. Such numbers are required to fill out and sustain the units of all arms, to prevent the unsatisfactory fragmentation of units and to bring them up to a proper war-fighting establishment. The Army will also need as soon as possible an all-purpose fighting vehicle, known as FRES, which will have strategic—that is, air portable—and tactical mobility, as well as proper protection against modern munitions. FRES's original delivery date of 2005 has already been postponed well into the future.

All those things, as well as honouring the covenant in terms of badly needed housing, proper medical care and proper pay and conditions of service, cannot be provided by the money allocated in the spending review. There will not be enough to go round. Nor is it any good, as the noble Lord, Lord King, made clear, for Ministers continually to shelter behind claims of sustained growth. The figure of 1.5 per cent growth in real terms that is promised for the next three years, but which is more like 0.9 per cent in practice, starts from the lowest possible baseline after 15 years' decline and represents 2.5 per cent of GDP. It is nowhere near enough, as the noble Lord, Lord King, said, to compete with inherent defence inflation. The previous period of sustained growth, which the Government like to use as a comparison, was for nine years, from 1979 to 1988. It started with the Callaghan Government and was consistently at 3 per cent in real terms, representing 5.5 per cent of GDP. I know what I am talking about because I was on the Chiefs of Staff Committee for seven of those nine years.

Big decisions—the Minister will no doubt say "tough and courageous decisions", although some would call them "disastrous"—will have to be made to cut back the programme and squeeze it into the money available. That can happen in one of three ways. The first is salami-slicing—and we know all the dangers of that. The second is by cutting out a complete capability; if so, the House is entitled to know what capability the Government have in mind. Would they do it on a European basis and, if so, how? The third is by responding to public and political pressure and concentrating on short-term responsibilities at the expense of those of the longer term, which would have disastrous consequences in 10 to 15 years, if we assume that Governments can be persuaded to think that far ahead, as they must in the equipment cycle. If they do not, the Armed Forces will arrive, as did the BEF in 1940, in the most appalling and parlous state to fight.

The only way in which one of these three options, which would bring such disastrous consequences to the Armed Forces' ability to carry out their role in the short or long term, or both, can be avoided is if the Government readjust their thinking and are prepared to initiate a surge in what this country spends on its most important responsibility, the support of its foreign policy. They should spend up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. That would make a profound difference. It would have a sensible rationale in insurance terms and what the country ought to be able to afford. It would certainly prevent the current position from getting worse; it would enable all the most important parts of the defence programme to be properly funded; and it would control the Treasury's insatiable appetite for ensuring that whatever sum is allocated to defence is not in practice made fully available to be spent at the time. It would also send a clear message, which does not exist at the moment, to those thinking of joining the services or staying on in them, that the Government are really serious about their responsibilities and will match resources to the Armed Forces' real needs and commitments, which our foreign policy believes are in the national interest. If there is no surge at all, the situation will become infinitely worse.


Tina Newell
Posted on 28 Nov 2007 6:12 pm (Report this annotation)

On reading the comments made by Lord Bramall (Thursday 22nd November), I would just like to say how pleased I am that we have such an experienced member supporting our Armed Forces, who are doing a wonderful, but difficult job, much of which goes unnoticed; and taken for granted by many of our citizens in the United Kingdom. (Indeed some of our MPs would do well to take on board much of what is said on the subject in the House of Lords).
Moreover I would like to wish Lord Bramall well in his work. I am very proud to say that I had the honour of working for him whilst serving in the Armed Forces in the early 80s and know him to be a hard working man who is very knowledgeable and passionate about our Armed Forces; and will no doubt draw on his vast experience in this matter. Needless to say the concern I have for my nephews fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq at present are eased with the knowledge that Lord Bramall is fighting their corner here.


Tina Parkes