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There are plenty of votes in defence – after it all goes pear-shaped

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IN simple strategic terms we are at one minute to midnight on Brexit. Boris is fighting an election to deliver Brexit. Once Brexit happens the world is going to change very fast indeed. 

This is no time to starve the armed forces of much-needed cash, as the Sunday Times reported at the weekend, to pay for Tory bribes to Labour voters in the Midlands and North. You may kiss goodbye to voters like me in London and the southern half of the country. 

As I have written before, a party that spends only 2 per cent of GDP on the national insurance policy, and generals who suggest that an island should reduce the size of its navy so they can have a bigger Army, are not serious about Brexit, Global Britain or defence. Whoever the Sunday Times talked to sounds as though they think NATO will survive with its present membership intact, despite all the leaks coming out of Germany’s defence ministry. The previous minister is now running the EU, not to mention that the President of France says NATO is brain dead. If the generals want to read the leaks in English they need do no more than type ‘Adrian Hill former soldier and diplomat’ into Google. 

What about Sunday’s Conservative manifesto? 

At the moment we are still trapped in the EU empire. Their word, not mine. Take away Europe’s most victorious and versatile war-fighting country and France becomes the core of EU defence. Think about that, all you people tempted to vote Labour or Liberal or indeed Scots Nat. Think about that, voters. Would you rather rely on the French or our own armed forces with the Americans and Commonwealth? Because that’s the choice all parties are giving you in this election until Boris formally withdraws from EU defence co-operation in all its many disguises. 

Boris presented his manifesto with £2billion more on defence. It’s not enough, if the party is serious. 

The government made a big announcement about the next generation fighter, Tempest. What they didn’t mention was described in an excellent couple of articles in the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Journal. The project has exposed the destruction of British research and test facilities since the Typhoon fighter was designed nearly two decades ago. Now the RUSI Journal relies on the EU Commission for a large chunk of its budget and has far too many articles with an EU bias. In reality the idea floated, that we should bring the French into the Tempest programme, is a non-starter. The French will join any collaboration programme that builds their own aircraft. That’s why they built the Rafale instead of the Typhoon, and why the Italians want to build Tempest. 

It’s going to be an interesting NATO birthday party next month.

The generals don’t help their cause by attacking the Navy behind the sailors’ backs. Nor should they forget that the Army still suffers from two retreats – Basra and Helmand – and a lot of young lives and limbs lost without much to show for them. Nor did they hire the best people to recruit for them. I think it’s long past time when a sailor should become the Chief of the Defence Staff. The job originally rotated among all three services.

Professional armed forces are expensive. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are costly because of their complex equipment. The Army is costly because of its much greater manpower. There are sensible changes that both the airmen and soldiers resist. The airmen should hand over most of their heavy lift helicopters to the Army, something the Americans did back in the Vietnam War. The 101 US Airborne Division had 450 helicopters on its TO&E (table of organisation and equipment). All three services should make greater use of volunteer reserves but the Army could solve its recruiting problem and at the same time increase the amount of its budget available for equipment and supplies.The volunteer reserves should supply the numbers while the professional core provides the leadership and standards.

When Basil Liddell Hart advocated returning to professional forces in the 1940s and 1950s there was a reason. He calculated that most of the 400,000 national servicemen spent their days being trained or training others. A professional soldier who signs on for six years, 12 years or more does basic training only once. An army of 185,000 professionals could put six and a half divisions in the field. I served in the Army during the end of National Service when we trained the first regulars. We reached 185,000 when there were 350,000 unemployed, in effect full employment. The Royal Navy took very few national servicemen and the Royal Air Force needed far less than the Army in the fast jet age, given that its V bombers provided our nuclear deterrent. 

Boris, Cummings, Corbyn are not interested in defence. They claim, because they believe their spin doctors, that there are no votes in defence. They’re half right. Our enemies don’t employ London spin doctors. I write for half a dozen websites and the only article about defence that scored more than a thousand likes was one about D-Day on TCW. The best read was about Germany’s new strategy that Margaret Thatcher foresaw long ago, on Briefings for Brexit. So I don’t buy their thesis: there are plenty of votes on defence after something goes badly wrong. 

I do not say these things lightly. I belong to the last generation that knew the value of military hardware before we could read. The last generation that saw the world change overnight. Of course, my views are not in fashion, but that doesn’t make them fundamentally mistaken. Quite the opposite. Once we leave the EU we will very soon see what our European ‘partners and friends’ really thought of us. Get ready for the world to divide between those who believe in freedom of thought and action and those who do not. You will be astonished whose side nations join.

Take one future haggle – Macron will deploy blackmail by blocking any deal unless we hand France our coastal waters and EEZ. There was nothing about a fisheries patrol service in the Conservative manifesto, unless I’ve missed it, and I don’t think I have.

At least the generals have opened a debate on defence. Even if our politicians don’t know it’s happening.  

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Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill. Former soldier and diplomat, afterwards member of CBI Council and author.

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