Thursday, May 23, 2024
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£2m for service veterans – another spurious Sunak soundbite


IT’S NOT news that this government is desperate for a decent headline and keen to secure its support amongst what it thinks of as its tribe. So Mr Sunak has just announced £2.1million of support to veterans leaving the armed forces. Cue happy picture of him and Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer. Unfortunately and predictably, the logic doesn’t stack up.

For a start many, if not most, companies already actively seek armed forces veterans for their work ethic, experience, leadership and integrity. According to the government, veterans employment is at 89 per cent, an all-time high. So this is not exactly a pressing problem. Even if it were, with 15,000 or so leaving the armed forces in 2023, £2.1million comes out at £140 per head. That’s not game-changing for anyone – except for the PM who has an increasingly rare friendly headline.

To be clear, this funding is separate from the funding of the veterans’ mental health service, Operation Courage, which works within the NHS with a budget of some £6million per year. Whether that’s sufficient, since some 30,000 veterans have used it, is a different question for another day.

The real problem Mr Sunak should be addressing is the fact that in 2023 the armed forces recruited 5,400 fewer than the number who left. That’s a 3.5 per cent reduction in strength. Worse, those leaving are the ones who have the experience that creates the institutional knowledge of an effective force. Not only are our armed forces getting smaller, they’re losing quality.

Why are experienced people leaving? Some reach the end of their careers, some reach their promotion ceiling and some seek a change. Many tire of being treated badly and their families suffering poor housing: 25,000 service personnel (that is more than 15 per cent) live in accommodation deemed deficient by housing inspectors. Recent plans to alter the allocation of service housing caused such an uproar that they were halted (although no solution has yet been found). No doubt some leavers are sick of enforced, increasing and protracted separation from home caused primarily by equipment failures. The recent record six-month submerged patrol by HMS Vanguard is nothing more than a symptom of tired equipment (the normal patrol length was half that, for good and obvious reasons). The fundamental problem is that the armed forces can’t recruit enough of the excellent young people they need. They also can’t keep the ones they have trained, at considerable expense. It’s too early to tell if allowing beards in the Army is going to make a difference, but I’m not holding my breath. Like so much else in government, behind the froth of the headlines and quotes is nothing of substance.

That particularly applies to the recently launched Labour Defence Policy. Sir Keir Starmer has committed to the Trident nuclear deterrent (big news for lefties, common sense for everyone else) and to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP ‘when that is economically possible’.  As the economy is stagnating, government spending is consistently over £100billion more than the tax take, and we spend over 5 per cent of GDP on servicing the debt that Westminster has inflicted upon the country, finding £5billion to £10billion more for defence is a challenge. (Of course in the lunatic world of Hunt’s Treasury a £6billion cash injection for the NHS is somehow easy to find, but that’s not the point).

Setting defence spending as a proportion of GDP is idiotic in the first place. GDP varies widely as a result of economic variation. As most defence procurement takes around a decade, the funding for any programme is at risk at least once during its life and usually more often. That gives the MoD the choice between delaying the delivery programme and milestone payments, probably incurring penalty fees, or skimping on something else, often training (the easiest budget to cut). After decades of this idiocy it’s no surprise that we’re barely a Tier Two military power.

How to change it?

Start by listing the military capabilities that we need. A nuclear deterrent, an armoured division for Nato, lots of warships (with crews and propellers). Then look at what we’ve got and figure out how to bridge the gap. We have only one armoured brigade – do we build two more or negotiate with Nato in the hope of persuading them that one is enough?

This will be a brutal process. For example, the last time the British Army went to war by parachute was 1956 in Suez. That ended badly (emphatically not the fault of the Paras). So do we need them now? Do we need ten battalions of light-role (i.e. foot-borne) infantry? It’s hard to justify – either they need vehicles or they need to go. Do we have enough frigates? Certainly not. In the age of air-to-air refuelling are our aircraft carriers necessary, or merely an ego trip?

This of course will involve politicians (our representatives) asking brave, challenging questions and cutting through the inevitable flannel. (You’ll get an idea of the latter from comments on this article made by members of the parachuting community). That is what they are supposed to do. Whether likely future Prime Minister Starmer’s proposes strategic defence review will achieve that is an open question, as is why his several predecessors have failed to deliver one.

While the politicians fiddle about, Tommy and Thomasina Atkins are voting with their feet.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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