Michael Rose: America's forces got their money. Ours have been betrayed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

While Commandant of the Staff College at Camberley in the early 1990s, I used to lecture young officers on the moral component of fighting power. I would explain that the military ethos was very different from that which existed in the civilian workplace: soldiers had to be willing to sacrifice their lives, not merely risk them, for a common cause. Soldiers therefore had to have different disciplines and values from civilians both in peace and war if they were to sustain this essential component of fighting power. I used to end my lecture with the exhortation to remain vigilant and militant in pursuing the interests of soldiers rather than those of politicians.

I was concerned about civilian practices beginning to undermine the military chain of command and that successive defence cuts and deficiencies in equipment and manpower were reducing combat capabilities. I hoped that the officers who passed through the Staff College during my tenure would in future stand up for what they knew was right, rather than roll over before their political masters. In the intervening years, a number of these officers have reminded me of my words. It may be no accident, therefore, that the present generation of senior commanders in the military are refusing slavishly to accept flawed strategies and inadequate resources.

In return for being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, our servicemen and women should expect to be better supported by the country than they have been in recent years. Without such support, the necessary bonds of loyalty and trust can never be sufficiently developed between soldiers and their commanders. Both politicians and commanders will be seen by their subordinates as selling them short.

It has therefore been tremendously heartening for servicemen and women today to see their present bosses standing up for them, saying in public what junior officers and soldiers have been saying privately for years. This is, of course, that our Services are not only massively underfunded, but that the military ethos is being dangerously undermined by health and safety and equal opportunity laws, and "risk management". In my view, good command and effective military tactics are better vehicles for these concepts than imposed civil law. As Lord Esher observed in 1904 after the Boer War, the Army is in danger of becoming, "tied up and bound in the toils of excessively complex and minute regulations drawn up without any regard to the essential requirements of modern war".

When President Bush declared war on global terrorists in 2001, he immediately increased the US defence budget, the Army budget rising from $67bn to over $100bn. He upped the regulars by 30,000 men and set about equipping and manning the National Guard and Reserve to the same standards. In short, President Bush put his money where his mouth was, and the US was seen to actively support its troops.

This positive approach is quite the opposite to that taken by his blood brother Tony Blair. In the past six years, the Prime Minister has presided over a near-catastrophic decline in defence spending which has put our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan at considerable, and quite unnecessary, risk. Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, tells us that there has been an increase in defence spending in the past three years, but this has mostly gone on technical programmes such as Trident replacement or advanced aerial surveillance systems. But for fighting insurgencies such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, we need, rather, large numbers of soldiers on the ground, proper protection and tactical mobility, including helicopters. The infantry is the vital combat arm in insurgency warfare, yet manpower has continued to fall.

The scandalous shortages of proper equipment for those on the ground is well documented. The politicians say these problems are "being addressed". If true - and I'm sceptical - why only now? Many of these shortfalls were identified after the first Gulf war. Responsible statesman do not embark on such wars unprepared. Certainly they do not open up a second front, as Blair did in Iraq, without winning the first war in Afghanistan.

Today our forces are fighting on two fronts with forces that can barely sustain one. The situation in Iraq, as a result, has become a humanitarian catastrophe in which 1.8 million people have fled the country, 1.6 million are internally displaced and up to 660,000 people have been killed. The trial and execution of Saddam Hussein has been an irrelevant freak show, a diversion from the terrible things happening in Iraq.

Meanwhile Bush and Blair try to evade responsibility by saying that it is the insurgents, not the coalition forces, who do the killing and destabilise Iraq. They tell us it is the Iraqi government which now runs the country. This is disgraceful handwashing, for they know that under the Geneva conventions, they were responsible for the disastrous breakdown of law and order in the country they invaded.

The main responsibility for security still remains, effectively, with the US and UK forces. Early on, both countries failed to deploy enough resources to enable them to preserve peace. Bush grossly misunderstood the situation on the ground in Iraq; Blair ran out of troops.

By not increasing defence expenditure in 2001, Blair has betrayed the soldiers that he put in harm's way. At ease on his Miami sunbed as our soldiers patrol the dangerous streets of Basra and frozen plains of Helmand province, perhaps he should reflect on the words of Captain Liddell Hart, that scourge of British governments during the interwar years. He wrote: "Morale is apt to decline if the weapons are inadequate, and the strongest will is of little use if it is inside a dead body."

Blair should also perhaps put aside his latest poolside thriller, and read that excellent Army pamphlet No 71642, "The Military Covenant". Fewer British soldiers would be killed in future if he did so.

General Sir Michael Rose is former commander of UN forces in Bosnia