The lesson of Kosovo is: more troops, not air power

Planners have learnt the limitations of many weapons systems when operated from 15,000 feet

JUST 12 months after George Robertson's much-acclaimed strategic defence review, the overstretching of our armed forces is worse than ever. As the lessons of Kosovo are taken on board, the Ministry of Defence has some hard choices to make. It will need more than minor adjustments to its current plans.

The primary issue is whether Nato air power is now so powerful that we can safely relegate ground forces to the role of heavily armed policemen, whose task is merely to enforce any future peace settlements. The argument runs that the Gulf War was almost totally an air operation, with just a brief follow-up ground operation required to confirm victory. The lessons from that were applied to the Kosovo campaign and, as a result, air power alone was able to achieve the required end. Yet there is still great uncertainty as to what it was that caused Milosevic to cave in.

It certainly was not the destruction of his forces in Kosovo, since we now know that they emerged relatively unscathed. It may have been the cumulative effect of the strategic targeting of Serbia, but there was little sign of popular unrest during the bombing. It may have been the damage to the wallets of his close supporters, both through bombing and through freezing of assets. Yet the territory of Kosovo was a vital national interest to Milosevic, and his change of heart coincided with the first indications that an Allied ground operation before winter was being seriously contemplated.

The planners will have learnt the limitations of many weapon systems when constrained to operate from 15,000ft altitude in an area with murky weather. So long as such operations are dominated by the Americans, the safety of their forces will be an overriding operational factor.

We need more weapons that can achieve the necessary precision to minimise civilian casualties, yet can be launched in any weather from a safe distance. For the UK, this will mean not just replacement of the submarine-launched cruise missiles that were used, but also, perhaps, other launch platforms armed with cruise missiles to make a much greater number available. It will mean an emphasis on weapons guided by satellite navigation systems to overcome the drawbacks of laser designation in poor weather. It ought also to mean questioning over the balance of investment in fighters as against bombers. Nations were all too ready to provide air defence aircraft, which allowed them to claim a contribution to the air campaign but had little effect on the outcome. Once the mission statistics are released, governments will spin their contribution in terms of total sorties flown, when what matters is how many weapons they successfully placed on target compared to the US.

George Robertson's review has been tested before it has had time to be implemented. It was reckoned to be one of the better thought-out attempts to balance commitments, capabilities and resources.

One year on, the commitments have increased, the capabilities need rebalancing and the resources are tighter. On the commitments side, Kfor has been added to Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and the Falklands as another major operational task for the armed forces. As the permanent lead nation for the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, we can take pride in having craggy British General Mike Jackson running the show; but this comes at the price of an extra commitment of resources.

In the last year, we have seen Tony Blair pushing the UK into the lead on European defence. Proposals at St Malo for Europe to do better in defence matters, and this week's Anglo-Italian declaration on European capabilities, are significant changes, since the defence review assumed a traditional Atlanticist approach to foreign policy. Robin Cook last month reversed our reluctance to allocate forces to the UN on anything but a case-by- case basis. UK rapid reaction forces will now have a formal UN task to add to their portfolio.

The rebalancing of capabilities for air systems in the light of Kosovo will not come cheap. However, the real winner of the air campaign in budgetary terms is likely to be the Army. The limitations on policy options of an Army that, at 110,000-strong, is now numerically small, must have been brought home to the Prime Minister during Kosovo. The increase in Army establishment by 3,300, as part of the defence review, will be insufficient for the tasks envisaged. But the problem is made more acute by the shortfall of some 5,000 soldiers against the current establishment. Recruiting is reported as buoyant, which must mean that retention remains poor.

Repeated back-to-back tours of operational duty far from families take their toll. The short-term solution will doubtless call for retention bonuses, which pay soldiers to stay on a little longer. In the long term, overstretch can be solved only by fewer commitments or more manpower. Nor is it only the Army that has a manning problem; the RAF has difficulties in sustaining its aircrew numbers, given the level of operational deployments and the disappearance of its expensive, but useful, cushion of pilots in non-flying appointments.

Manpower costs are likely to rise steeply. Resources are never easy in defence. Predicting the costs and timing of expensive military equipment is at best a black art, as the National Audit Office exposes with some relish every year. The Strategic Defence Review initiated a startling number of new schemes to improve effectiveness and reduce costs. Smart procurement, centralised logistics, joint force structures, rapid land sales and the use of public-private partnership funding all need to deliver their promise to balance the budget. It would be surprising if such an adventurous agenda were able to deliver all it promised on time, even without the interference of real world events.

Mr Blair wants to capitalise on the UK's pre-eminence in delivering professional military capability. Those returning to their desks at the Ministry of Defence after their holidays will be trying to find a way to meet the new policy commitments, implement the lessons of Kosovo and make the books balance. That is likely to be impossible without a real increase in defence expenditure of perhaps as much as pounds 2bn. Gordon Brown may need to start preparing his fortifications.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden was the assistant chief of defence staff responsible for the defence programme for all three services from 1992 to 1994

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