Thursday, May 23, 2024
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In event of war, stock up on white flags


THERE is a long history of senior officers leaving the armed forces and only then going on the record to state that all is far from well. They seldom explain why they didn’t fix it while they were serving; the few who do generally blame a lack of money – which is to say a lack of political will. 

The decline continues unabated and the ranks of the senior officers have now been joined by an ex-Minister of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, supported by the former Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. Writing in the Telegraph, Heappey makes the point we all know which is that the UK is utterly unprepared for war. 

He cites the lack of participation in exercises preparing ministers for running the country in event of war. Those scenarios include seizing land for cultivation and domestic appliances for their microchips to be made into weapons. As we see in Ukraine, not all wars end quickly and maintaining adequate supplies of weaponry is crucial to battlefield success.

It doesn’t take an exercise to demonstrate that this crop of ministers are incapable of running the country let alone leading us in war – lockdown and the rest of the covid fiasco have proved that. The disastrous impact on the economy and public health obvious to everyone – apart from Baroness Hallett and her inquiry – will continue in years to come.

Heappy’s complaint includes civil servants, who are there to advise ministers who may have little in the way of useful direct experience for their portfolio. If, as he states, they are not taking their role seriously enough, we’re in trouble. Contingency planning is a key part of government and, as the Army used to say, a plan that hasn’t been rehearsed or exercised is just a piece of paper. In action as with lockdown, test-and-trace etc, it can be a disaster. Given the warlike noises being made against Russia by the MoD, EU and most of Nato (possibly excluding the US), you would think a bit of planning and exercising would be prudent.

We know that the armed forces are not fit for purpose. I have written about this repeatedly, for example here, here and here. The Royal Navy lacks warships and can’t crew the ones it has. Even our nuclear deterrent has problems, requiring ballistic missile submarines to stay at sea for over six months – far longer than they were designed for. The Army lacks tanks, artillery pieces and ammunition stockpiles. It is haemorrhaging manpower – with which goes experience and capability. As yet Grant Shapps’s momentous decision to allow beards hasn’t changed this. The Royal Air Force still has no airborne early warning and is struggling to train fighter pilots. All of which means that as it stands the only sensible preparation for war is to requisition some white flags. If that’s not the plan, then resolute action is urgently needed.

The MoD is broken, failing to deliver but still costing a fortune. How did this happen? A decade of wretchedly poor government, including the abject failure of the opposition to oppose. If the Labour Party can’t oppose, how will it govern if, as is depressingly likely, it wins the next election? Since 2010 there have been eight shadow defence secretaries. (For interest they were Bob Ainsworth, Jim Murphy, Vernon Coaker, Maria Eagle, Emily Thornberry, Clive Lewis, Nia Griffith and the current John Healey.) Few have impressed.

Detailed in a recent speech, Healey’s solution to the current problems is yet another supreme headquarters and another new procurement directorate. Shuffling the desks in Whitehall is not going to deliver defence capability, while the armed forces lose personnel at about twice the rate they can recruit. 

The Ajax armoured vehicle procurement disaster prompted the Sheldon Review, which the MoD is already meant to be implementing. However, according to the Permanent Under Secretary, ‘a continuous effort will be required to embed these revised policies and the related behaviours in our procurement system to ensure lasting change and create an environment of psychological safety. This is an important part of the cultural shift required to support wider acquisition reform and implementation of the Integrated Procurement Model, and the department is committed to driving this forward’. 

More meaningless gobbledygook – what is an ‘environment of psychological safety’, please? Regardless, it’s idiotic for a new minister (assuming Healey gets the job under Starmer) to cease implementing one review’s lessons and create another directorate. The solution to repeated administrative failure is not more administration. Nor is the solution to political failure more politicians with zero experience of making decisions and implementing them. The problem and its solution is a cultural one that neither of the main parties is prepared to face.

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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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