Leading article: Our military must be fit for the 21st century battlefield

It is not only helicopters we should be concerned about
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The Independent Online

Despite all the pyrotechnics it has produced, the row over the number of helicopters available to our Army in Afghanistan is simply one detail in a much bigger picture. The question of whether our troops in Helmand have enough Chinooks is eclipsed by the more basic question of whether our armed forces are equipped for the conflicts of the 21st century.

The Cold War ended almost two decades ago, yet our military is still largely geared up to fight a conventional war against a hostile Soviet superpower. The priorities of the Ministry of Defence seem to bear no relation to the reality of our present circumstances. Only 10 per cent of the procurement budget is spent on land forces. But land forces are at the forefront of our present engagement in Afghanistan, and were central to our recent involvement in Iraq.

And this emphasis on ground operations is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The jobs our forces are going to be faced with over the coming decades are putting down insurgencies, peacekeeping, maintaining security and reconstruction. What all those tasks have in common is that they will require boots on the ground. Procurement policies ought to be based on that assumption. At the moment, billions of pounds of defence spending are earmarked for Typhoon fighter jets, aircraft carriers and an upgrade of the Trident nuclear submarine programme. But the Taliban has no airforce, to be engaged by our new interceptor jets. Al-Qa'ida has no navy to be destroyed by our warships. The primary threats to our forces are roadside bombs and small arms fire. Our troops need more armoured vehicles and transport helicopters, not aircraft carriers and nuclear deterrents.

Another lesson that needs to be learned is that high-tech equipment is no panacea. The sorry saga of the Chinook helicopters which are in the process of being stripped of all their sophisticated digital systems is proof enough of that. Unmanned drone planes are increasingly popular. But these need to be handled with care. Drones are invaluable for reconnaissance, but of limited usefulness in operations like Panther's Claw, in Helmand, where the goal is to clear ground and hold it. Like high altitude bombings, missile strikes launched from drones have a tendency to go astray and kill civilians. They push the goal of winning the support of local populations further away, rather than bring it nearer.

A comprehensive rethink is called for. The Government has promised a green paper on defence early next year. And a Strategic Defence Review, the first in over a decade, has been scheduled for after the next general election. This leisurely timetable is depressing. Our troops have been in Afghanistan for eight years. These problems ought to have been addressed long ago.

But there is little point in playing a political blame game. That will not help our forces on the ground. Yet we do need honesty from the Government; a recognition that there is a problem with the orientation of our military. There are welcome signs of the US political system beginning to address similar problems. The US Senate voted this week to end funding for the F-22 fighter jet, a plane designed primarily for use against an enemy air force. And the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, announced plans to add 22,000 extra troops to the US army over the next three years.

The world's most advanced military machine is adapting to the demands of the 21st century battlefield. Britain urgently needs to do the same.