Foreign policy will determine military goals

An open letter to George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, from Admiral Sir James Eberle

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DEAR GEORGE,

You will soon need to publish the Government's Strategic Defence Review. Some of the main and difficult decisions will by now have been taken. However, how these decisions are presented can have a significant impact on the reaction of the armed services and the public.

Winston Churchill wrote nearly 100 years ago: "The army is not an inanimate thing like a house, to be pulled down or changed or structurally altered at the caprice of the tenant or owner; it is a living thing. If it is bullied, it sulks: if it is unhappy it pines; if it is harried, it will get feverish; if it is sufficiently disturbed, it will wither and dwindle and almost die. And when it comes to this last serious condition, it is only revived by lots of time and lots of money."

There remains much truth in that for our armed forces of today. This, however, should not exclude the consideration of any radical options. A recent top-level management study concluded: "It is no longer acceptable for leadership to be pre-occupied with maintaining the status quo. Senior managers are ideally placed to alter established beliefs and values in advance of generally recognised requirements for change." Service men and women will accept radical change, if it is reasoned, orderly and measured.

The effectiveness of our armed forces, which is respected worldwide, is primarily based on the skills and dedication of those who serve in uniform. They are now more stretched on operational and administrative tasks than at any time during the past half-century. Our service men and women are now required to go anywhere and do anything. You need to show that you have put people first.

It is widely expected that the Review will stress the importance of the "jointness" of military operations today - that is the ability to apply force on the land, from the sea and from the air. It is, however, only on the ground that sustained influence can effectively be applied.

Although the dimensions and characteristics of today's battlefield are changing, they compromise a common operational space in which the three services must operate. Nevertheless, each element of it demands different characteristics of its people. Soldiers fight the enemy on a personal man-to-man basis. Sailors have no such climate of personal conflict. And in the airforce, only a very few are normally in direct contact with the enemy.

Each of out of three individual services have unique and valuable contributions to make in the application of military force. These contributions can however only be maximised in a concept and doctrine of joint warfare.

We are also now clearly entering an era of expeditionary warfare. That is to say, sustained operations overseas that are mounted from the UK. They are most likely to be conducted in littoral areas, where more than half of the world's population live. This requires "flexible forces" capable of being rapidly mounted and deployed. Flexibility is, however, as much an attitude of mind as it is a defining characteristic of structure.

There is now widespread agreement that the requirement for expeditionary warfare can best be met by a series of offshore mobile platforms, able to operate fixed-wing aircraft, such as the Navy's Sea Harrier 2 or the RAF's Harrier GR7, to accommodate ground troops, to provide logistic support at sea and ashore, to carry out ship-shore movement of heavy equipment and to be fitted with proper joint command facilities.

This configuration, backed by a long-range air transport force, will not look very different from the shape of the forces that successfully recovered the Falkland Islands. The indications are that the Review is broadly moving down this road. I believe that you can expect general support for such restructuring.

This exercise has been labelled a Strategic Defence Review, and it is not at all clear that some of the broad, longer-term strategic issues are being fully addressed. The European Union must address seriously the military security role that it wishes to play vis-a vis the United States. The formation of a common foreign and security policy has not made much progress - and the conduct of the recent Iraqi affair struck a further blow to its credibility.

Meaningful steps towards the creation of a European security and defence identity are difficult to discern. The restructuring of the European defence industry does not keep pace with the growing American challenge. Progress towards the stated eventual goal of a "common defence" is glacial.

If the United States is to be placed in the position that it cannot rely on Europe to respond in a coherent way to future international challenges which may call for the deployment of military force, then Europe cannot expect to have significant influence or leverage over potential American unilateralism. Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have special responsibilities for the maintenance of international peace and security. This, it can well be argued, implies that they should therefore maintain a global capability.

This means the ability of being able to operate not only in the Atlantic and Middle East areas, but also in the Asia Pacific region. Is this responsibility to be accepted?

There is also the implication that Britain should maintain a capability of being able to operate "in the front line" alongside US forces in high intensity operations. With the American commitment to maintaining technological superiority in all areas of the military field, this will become increasingly costly. Are we willing to pay the price?

I realise that these questions involve foreign policy issues that do not lie fully in your departmental area. However, in an age of continuing change and uncertainty, in which the processes by which military means can be turned into political ends are becoming more complex and more difficult, it is very important that the strategic background to your structural review is clearly laid out.

It is only thus that the Chiefs of Staff can sensibly plan the shape and size of the armed forces to support effectively our national interests. There is nothing that undermines the confidence of the military in the political process more than being asked to undertake tasks for which they have previously been told they should not plan.

Your task is no easy one. There are many who wish you well.

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