Max Hastings

How to lose the battle for Britain

Never in the field of human conflict has so much money been wasted by so many on so little, says Max Hastings

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Now that Mr Geoff Hoon has put his Hutton embarrassments behind him and emerged shining like a new pin, some of us hope that he will address his day job. Britain’s defence planning is in a dreadful mess. Unless the Secretary of State acts effectively, the services face a grim future — and they know it.

Curiously enough, the issues have nothing to do with Iraq and the alleged equipment shortcomings which have attracted so many headlines since a critical National Audit Office report was published. It was indeed tragic that Sergeant Steve Roberts lacked the latest model of body armour when he was killed. But in the big picture, the British army fought its Iraq campaign with fewer equipment problems than it has experienced during any war in its history. These are the wrong charges to throw at Geoff Hoon.

The real issues — which amount to a major scandal — concern the continuing funding of the armed forces, amid a grievous current spending gap which the Treasury has no intention of filling; and weapons programmes for the next generation, costing tens of billions of pounds. The National Audit Office revealed last month that the biggest projects are more than £3 billion over budget. Some of these contracts are for systems as relevant to Britain’s 21st-century needs as a fleet of dreadnoughts.

Foremost is the Eurofighter, of which we are committed to buy 232 examples at £80 million apiece. This aircraft is a Cold War interceptor, for which no conceivable rationale any longer exists. What threat, precisely, are Eurofighters going to engage? Will President Bush and the Prime Minister shortly tell us that Osama bin Laden has sneakily acquired Stealth bombers? What will Eurofighters do, beyond provide employment for their pilots and ground staff? I know no one, even in the Royal Air Force, who can offer a credible answer to this question. Whitehall apologists for the project suggest that we need a force of interceptors for a rainy, or perhaps mushroom-cloudy, day when there is a resurgence of Russian aggressiveness. Others urge the importance of sustaining aviation high technology on this side of the Atlantic. They remind us that Airbus’s decision to take on Boeing was denounced as an act of hubristic folly 20 years ago, yet today seems triumphantly vindicated.

Airbus, however, builds good aircraft. No one, save its manufacturers, believes in the Eurofighter. And £20 billion seems an insanely large premium for keeping British Aerospace and its European counterparts happy. Apologists demand: ‘Surely you don’t want us to give all that money to the Americans?’ Yet the best answer is not to spend cash on such planes at all, but dramatically to cut the size of the Royal Air Force.

The only reasons for persisting with the Eurofighter programme are diplomatic and political. Frightful ructions with our German, Italian and Spanish partners become inevitable if the contract is ditched. Of more concern to the Cabinet, if the RAF does not accept its share of deliveries, substantial job losses must follow in the British aircraft industry. Yet whatever the difficulties of cancellation, it is blind folly to proceed. Britain is embarked upon equipping the RAF with a costly short-range aircraft unsuitable for any plausible 21st-century task, and especially unfit for deep-penetration ground attack. It would be more logical to buy Spitfires. Audiences at air displays would like them — and at 1940 prices, they cost only £5,000 apiece. It is remarkable there has not been an outcry in the media and in the House of Commons about waste and mismanagement on Eurofighter’s grand scale. One suspects that Tory silence reflects the fact that it was a Tory government which committed Britain to the programme. But that was at another time, when the world looked very different. Tories are unwilling to sacrifice their traditional reputation for being ‘strong on defence’, yet a credible modern defence policy must involve sacrificing some forces in order to strengthen others.

The Eurofighter albatross represents a critical test for European diplomacy. Surely we could get together with our partners in the programme and agree that all the nations involved will be huge losers, unless we get out of this. Persistence will signal the triumph of inertia and reckless disregard for the real interests of European defence. It can only feed the cynicism of Europhobes about the follies which seem inseparable from shared Euro defence projects.

The same logic applies to the Royal Navy’s destroyer programme. No sensible maritime strategist sees a case for Britain any longer to possess anti-submarine warfare vessels, or big, expensive anti-missile ships, when both threats are more economically and effectively addressed by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The only uses of the new Type 45 destroyers, which will cost almost £1 billion each, are as prospective targets for terrorists (remember the USS Cole in Yemen), venues for cocktail parties, and to maintain the critical mass of the Royal Navy. ‘The most plausible threat the navy faces today is from funny-looking people in mud-coloured speedboats’, observes a uniformed friend of mine. The money being spent on destroyers — a total commitment of more than £10 billion — seems a huge price to pay for the amour-propre of the service, to avoid the inevitable tabloid outcry: ‘NELSON’S NAVY THREATENED; ADMIRALS SAY BRITAIN’S SEA LANES AT MERCY OF U-BOATS AND MESSERSCHMITTS’.

It is vital for the Royal Navy to get its two new aircraft carriers; to continue modernising its amphibious capability; to secure a credible replacement for the Harrier aircraft; perhaps also to acquire more cheap floating platforms for helicopters; and to maintain its minehunters and some submarines. The rest, however, is for the seagulls. I love and revere the Royal Navy, yet the Type 45 destroyer programme seems a folly indistinguishable from that of commissioning the new battleship Vanguard in 1945. If you won’t take my word for it, read an excellent article in the current Prospect by a recently retired young naval officer named Lewis Page.

The British army will overwhelmingly dominate our fighting forces in the future. Resources must be concentrated on troops and their kit. All future chiefs of defence staff should be soldiers, because the navy and air force will be deployed only in support of land operations. In a rational world the RAF would become simply the flying branch of the British army, though today this seems a political bridge too far. To secure its future, the army needs some serious TLC. The first casualty of incessant economy drives and chronic unit overstretch is large-scale formation training. Exercises cost a lot, yet are vital to maintaining the quality of the land forces. British troops need more of them, both at home and abroad. Yet Geoff Hoon is widely suspected of wanting to dispose of the army’s most prized training ground, near Calgary in Canada.

The logistics organisation, which was run down in the 1990s by both the Major and the Blair governments, is now creaking at the seams, and almost collapsed altogether in the Gulf (notwithstanding my earlier remarks about equipment quality). Many vehicles are absurdly old — some more than 20 years in service. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole war machine is perilously close to breakdown — and that is before the latest cash alarm, as public spending faces huge pressures. The army’s current housing arrangements, in antiquated barracks, are a disgrace and a serious disincentive to recruitment. It is necessary to reshape the way soldiers live, in the new world where for the first time for hundreds of years 70 per cent of the army is based in Britain, but must be ready at any time to deploy overseas as part of expeditionary forc es.

The Army Board’s new, and plainly sensible, policy is to create ‘military communities’ each based on a brigade, a key fighting module of the modern army, of which Tidworth in Hampshire is designed to be the first. The ideal is to create, over the next 20 years, a network of seven or eight such hubs, to replace the current absurdity of 250 core military sites scattered from one end of Britain to the other. The army has hitherto lagged behind the other services in relocating its bases in the wake of the Cold War. It needs to move rapidly to catch up. The objective is to create a lifestyle within these communities which will make service life seem at least as attractive as, and perhaps more so than, a parallel existence in the civilian world. Most commanders do not want their soldiers based within a few minutes of their home towns. They say that this creates too much risk of contamination by local civilian drug culture. They want men to be based three or four hours from their homes, near enough to travel at weekends. The ‘military communities’ policy is designed to maintain the army’s status as a bastion of social standards significantly higher than those of modern civilian Britain. The generals seem to deserve all the help they can get to achieve this objective.

Prosperity and falling birthrates ensure that recruiting will remain a chronic problem. Over the past three years, numbers have markedly improved, but it remains easier to recruit men and women for some specialist technical roles than as fighting infantry, communications or intelligence work: ‘They want to join REME [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers], we want them to be riflemen,’ as a general puts it laconically.

Somewhat to the army’s bemusement, the recruiting problem is worst in Scotland, where the six Scottish regiments are lamentably undersubscribed. Flying in the face of their great military tradition, Scots simply don’t seem to want to fight any more, unless against each other or the English.

The army perceives a sharp change in the attitudes of the ‘millennium kids’ from whom it must find its new soldiers. Unexpectedly, say senior officers, this generation shows more interest in the concept of service than the 1990s crop, who were decisively committed to the doctrine of material self-interest, and were thus exceptionally hard for the forces to reach. The newcomers seem surprisingly susceptible to the notion of ‘doing something worthwhile’ through military service. Recruiting campaigns have begun to tap this mood.

The army’s greatest concern is the welfare and fitness for action of its units, rotated relentlessly between postings because of operational overstretch. Today, as usual, the soldiers are making do. But there is widespread concern for the future, if this government persists with the traditional policy of spreading resources thin, and pain even-handedly, between the three services. Service rivalries are so familiar that it is easy to suppose some of the arguments above are driven by mere selfish concern for one arm, at the expense of the others. I do not believe this is so. The strategic case for a ‘rebalancing’ of the three services seems overwhelming. Will it happen? This seems very doubtful. It requires a Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and Chief of Defence Staff prepared to fight battles, take flak and push through measures that must upset the Royal Navy and RAF. General Sir Michael Walker, the CDS, is a likeable figure, but shows no sign of having the stomach for radical change, and for the frightful rows it would provoke.

Here is the familiar problem, to which successive governments of both political parties have surrendered. It is far less troublesome and risky for everyone’s lives, careers and comfortable routines to carry on as we are than to embark on the political bloodbath involved in scrapping the Eurofighter or drastically cutting the navy’s surface fleet, threatening jobs in a string of marginal constituencies. Mr Geoff Hoon has been saved from the political graveyard by a whisker and nice Lord Hutton. It is hard to imagine that he will want to launch himself into another public controversy this side of retirement. Defence policy is these days a focus of little interest and less knowledge among the body politic, the media and the public. It is less bother to keep buying the wrong weapons, even at vast expense, than to face an avoidable public bust-up which gets all the old Spitfire pilots out of Cheltenham and into a rage.

Hoon and the chiefs of staff will alike be in their dotage when today’s chickens come home to roost, 20 years on. They ask themselves what is the point of doing things that will cause the permanent undersecretaries to utter those dreaded words: ‘That’s a very bold decision, Secretary of State/Sir Michael.’ Yet the real interests of the armed forces cry out for boldness. This issue is much more important to Britain’s security than appointing Whitehall’s most notorious apologist to cauterise the government’s sores about Iraq’s vanished WMD.