Bruce Anderson: The British army is the best in the world, but we must be willing to equip it properly

Tony Blair never tried to reconcile his new enthusiasm with the need to pay for it
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The Independent Online

We British are more emotional than we used to be. In a previous generation, a young man fighting for his country would not have aroused anything like the same excitement, even if he had been a prince. One can imagine the laconic comments of yesteryear: "Always said the boy'd come good." "Great uncle of mine served in Afghanistan. Absolute hell hole."

Even so, we should not complain about the brouhaha, for it could bring benefits. First, it should efface a hideous memory: last year's national humiliation after the Iranians seized 15 sailors. For a few ghastly hours, the Royal Navy forgot how to behave. Senior officers in the Senior Service seemed ready to acclaim their personnel as heroes, because they had cosied up to their captors.

That was the lowest moment in modern British history and it was made even worse by commiseration from American friends. They did not mean to rub it in, but they did: "We'd expect this from our people, not from you Brits." That hurt.

Now, it is as if Prince Harry had recaptured the regiment's colours from the barbarians. Although the national pride may be overdone, it is good for a nation to feel proud. We can only hope that this is not a transient feeling and that it has practical consequences. The second benefit from Prince Harry's exertions should be a renewed respect for our armed forces – plus a willingness to pay for the right to feel proud of them.

During the Falklands War, officers in all three services had to be ordered to stop harassing those in charge of postings. The latters' phones never stopped ringing and the conversations were always the same. "When I took this job, I got your predecessor out of a hole. Though there may be nothing written down, there was a clear understanding. If there was a show like this, I'd be in on it." It seemed as if every serving officer was trying to wangle his way to the Falklands, and the same would have been true of the other ranks if they had been able to persecute posting departments.

Despite a quarter of a century of cutbacks since the Falklands, that martial spirit is undiminished. The willingness of so many of our finest youngsters to volunteer for hard training, hardship and danger is humbling and awe-inspiring. Especially as his tour of duty had to be cut short, Prince Harry was embarrassed to be singled out for so much attention. He would have preferred to share it with every serviceman in the Afghan theatre.

That is understandable and commendable. But the rest of us ought to feel embarrassed. As Afghanistan has proved, we have the best army in the world, man for man: much better than we deserve, given the way we pay and equip it.

A nation which sends its young men to war has a duty to minimise their casualties. That duty has been criminally neglected. Young men have died in Afghanistan because their body armour was not good enough, while their armoured vehicles were hand-me-downs, designed for much earlier conflicts and no longer fit for purpose, even against guerrillas. Other soldiers have died because there were not enough helicopters. Today's army is entitled to today's technology.

The cutbacks began under the Tories. By 1997, the Treasury had received a generous peace dividend. There were already worries about overstretch and the ability of our smaller forces to sustain high-intensity warfare. After all, the air was not resounding with the clamour of swords being beaten into ploughshares: still less, with the purring and bleating of lions lying down with lambs.

Tony Blair arrived in office with little knowledge of military matters and, it then appeared, less interest. That quickly changed. He discovered that he wanted to do things which required troops. He also found that servicemen are wonderful at getting things done. But he never tried to reconcile his newfound enthusiasm with the need to pay for it. He did nothing to help the armed forces in their constant battle with their most unrelenting foe: the Treasury, especially under Gordon Brown.

But the armed forces have a new ally. Although subalterns rarely influence high policy, Cornet Wales may be an exception. His example might encourage the public to put pressure on the politicians to honour the military covenant. The money is there. The Government is now spending nearly £600bn a year. For just one per cent of that we could have more servicemen, better equipped and better paid.

This could also solve the problem of recruitment. It is noteworthy that two of the seven members of Prince Harry's squad were Fijians. Nothing wrong with that: they make magnificent soldiers, as many regiments – and many opponents – have discovered over the years. But the regular media reports of low pay, inadequate equipment and more cutbacks to come have deterred some British youngsters from joining the forces. They have also encouraged seasoned officers and NCOs to leave. At times, the retention problem has been even greater than the recruitment problem.

There is a solution. We should, as it were, harry the politicians of all parties. If any of them try to wrap themselves in the Flag without advocating higher defence spending, there is an obvious retort: "You were only prepared to pay enough to exploit men in battle instead of equipping them for battle. So leave that Flag alone. It will be needed to drape a soldier's coffin."

Yet there remains one problem, which Prince Harry can do nothing to solve. Indeed, the praise which has been heaped on him and his comrades may have helped to obscure it. Our troops are doing magnificently in Afghanistan. As incoming fire is always the best training, the Afghan conflict should endow the British army with a generation of superb officers and NCOs.

When he was Chief of the General Staff, Charles Guthrie had a rule. The important commands should be filled by warriors. His reading of military history had taught him that at the beginning of every conflict it was necessary to sack the generals who had become so used to commanding desks that they had forgotten how to inspire men. Afghanistan should ensure that Lord Guthrie's successors have plenty of warriors to choose from.

This does not answer the basic question. What are we doing in Helmand? Our troops have shown that they can stabilise the situation, to the extent that the Taliban are unable to regain control of the Province. Ultimately, however, this is a sticking plaster when surgery is required. We need more troops so the towns and villages which are cleared of Taliban during the day are not re-occupied after darkness. We need a hearts and minds operation to provide wells, medical facilities and other evidence that the allies are not just in Afghanistan to kill people. Above all, we need a solution to the poppy. Why cannot large amounts of the crop be bought for pharmaceutical purposes?

It would appear that Prince Harry has done as well as a young officer could. That does not relieve senior officers and their political masters from thinking through the methods and purposes of the Afghan mission.