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Whitehall and lack of moral fibre in the defence of the realm


IT’S NOT been a good year for the Ministry of Defence. At sea, one £3billion aircraft carrier broke down while the other carrier launched a £100million F35 that had not been properly checked pre-flight and duly crashed on take-off. These are unacceptable maintenance errors that have cost the taxpayer a fortune and show a real weakness in command. So far no one has been flogged or brought to book; perhaps the service needs reminding of the fate of Admiral Byng who was given what was generally reckoned was an impossible task with a clapped-out, inadequately manned fleet and duly lost the Battle of Minorca. He was court-martialled, found guilty of not doing ‘his utmost to destroy the enemy’, and executed by firing squad. Current commanders seem to be doing less than their utmost to protect their shiny new kit – paid for by us.

Things are worse on land. The troubled Ajax programme continues to be a disaster area, not least because of the flawed concept. Apparently the Army is to have (yet) another review. Previous ones were ruined by the assumption that tanks were passé, something  that the war in Ukraine has effectively disproved. Worse, as I have written before, it’s becoming obvious that we only have an armoured brigade and a bit, despite pretending it’s a full division which we have promised Nato. The frantic shuffling of deckchairs doesn’t address the hole in the hull of our military Titanic.

As if to eclipse that folly, last week the RAF took the biscuit, or rather 30 pieces of Chinese silver. Retired RAF fast jet pilots are now training the Chinese Air Force, despite China being identified as a major threat in the 2021 Defence Review. While the UK MoD says that this is not a breach of the Official Secrets Act, and it may well not be, it is simply astonishing that former officers, all of whom have sworn allegiance to the Sovereign (which does not expire on retirement) are now training a foreign power that is a threat to the UK and has been identified as such. It’s a character and leadership issue.

During the Cold War, when fast jet pilots sat at readiness in nuclear-armed bombers ready to fight World War Three at about five minutes notice, the RAF was very concerned with the moral fibre of its aircrew. Lack of it was career-limiting, or even -ending. Yet in today’s world the RAF seems to be more concerned with meeting diversity targets. As any servicemen will tell you, armed forces are ultimately about people and leadership is about character and integrity. The RAF seems to have a problem.

In these circumstances it’s perhaps to be welcomed that the latest Chancellor is taking a dim view of the massive increase to the defence budget pledged by the two previous Prime Ministers. Ben Wallace was feted within the MoD for replicating the NHS’s ability to extract funds from the Treasury (actually, given the deficit, from our unborn grandchildren), but without specific, credible delivery targets he’s not achieved much value. PowerPoint and jargon-infested press releases do not constitute combat power.

It’s not entirely his fault, it’s Whitehall. Platitudes trump policy, supported by Potemkin villages if possible. If the MoD is a newcomer to this and the NHS a past master, let’s not forget the Home Office – unable to secure our borders or even, it seems, prevent numpty climate protesters from blocking traffic. Or BEIS, driving the (still un-costed) Net Zero agenda without checking that we can keep the lights on. The Department for Transport can’t run a railway yet continues to build HS2 to solve a problem no one ever had. The financial regulators didn’t spot the LDI problem (despite many assurances that it had all been stress tested).

When confronted with inadequacy the usual response is to blame Brexit, although of course the Blob hasn’t delivered that either. Ignoring for a moment the inept presentation and ill-considered economics, Truss and Kwarteng’s approach was (rightly) seen as an attack on the Blob. My, how it has responded, with the usual second-rate players’ adage of ‘if you can’t play the ball, play the man’. The only referee in this contest is the public, who are being distracted by the Blob’s supporters in the BBC, the FT, the Economist, the trade unions, the SNP and the Labour party. The anthems include ‘It’s because of Brexit’, ‘you’ve broken the economy’, ‘tax the rich’ and the perennial favourite ‘I hate the Tories’.

The cliché is that the defence of the realm is the first priority of government. Patently successive governments, captured by the declinism of an institutionally leftist Whitehall, have abandoned this, their foremost of duties.

It’s time for reform. Until that is delivered there is little sense throwing good money after bad.

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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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