Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Army: Use it and Lose it

It used to be the case that our army just sat there; or it sat somewhere else, mostly in Germany. In Northern Ireland, soldiers patrolled the streets in a quasi-policing capacity, partly because, unpopular though the British army was with the Nationalist community, it was less unpopular than the RUC. But there weren't any wars worth fighting. The army was there, just in case: just in case the Russians invaded West Germany (never a particularly likely prospect) or just in case something rare and improbable occurred, such as Argentina invading the Falkland Islands. Once the Islands were recaptured, it was assumed, the army could go back to sitting around waiting. It was good at that.

That's what you want an army for, ideally: to sit around, to be there just in case something awful happens. There was another army, the Territorials, that didn't even sit around. It was a sort of Combined Cadet Force for grown-ups, enabling youngish professional types to indulge their inner Rambo at the weekends, a more socially acceptable paintball. Few TA members actually expected to be called up for actual fighting. It was a terrible shock to many of them when they were. Because that wasn't really part of the deal. Legally, yes, but not implicitly. Because if you have an slightly overstaffed army whose primary purpose is to sit around waiting for something to happen that almost never does, the prospect of the nation calling on its reserves is faintly preposterous. The army are the reserves.

But not any more. Somehow, this country got into the disastrous situation of having a shrinking, overstretched, almost manically over-engaged army dependent upon reservists to cover basic functions. Somehow, we got to have an army that actually did things, despite having neither the numbers nor the financial resources to do them. This was not a good idea. For any modern country that isn't the United States and which isn't a military dictatorship, the cost of maintaining the army in a state of readiness and technological capacity is only supportable if it isn't being used. If the ammunition and missile stocks aren't constantly being depleted through use, if the soldiers aren't being flown around distant theatres of battle, needing to be fed and treated for injuries, if aircraft aren't flying expensive sorties. It's not a case of "use it or lose it". It's more a case of not being able to have your cake and eat it.

A fearsome-looking military makes a great deterrent. But the chief value of a deterrent lies in its not being used. The nuclear "deterrent" would be disastrous for all concerned were it ever actually to be employed. An army isn't quite like that: it does need to be used from time to time, because vital national interests are occasionally threatened. It's like the fire brigade, whose effectiveness does not depend on there being a certain number of fires to put out. But with the possible exception of Argentina, modern Britain has no more natural enemies than does Switzerland. The French aren't going to invade us, nor are the Germans. We are too far away for the Iranians to bother attacking us. Now that Northern Ireland is more-or-less settled, with Martin McGuinness making the time-honoured transition (so much seen in the declining days of the British Empire) from terrorist rebel to having tea with the Queen, our army ought to be sitting around playing soldiers. We don't, come to think of it, really need to have an army at all, except perhaps as a marketing tool for BAe.

I blame Tony Blair for this. Yes, there was the Falklands, an unavoidable diversion that was over in a few weeks. And there was Gulf War I, again a short, necessary response to an act of international aggression, swiftly remedied. But after those interludes, the army returned swiftly to its peacetime role of dolce far niente. But then Blair came along and had the quite disastrous thought that the army should justify its existence by being fighting as many wars as possible, while at the same time being cut to the bone to pay for grandiose and ruinous PFI schemes. So we entered the modern phase of over-extended, over-used and underfunded armed forces, dependent upon civilian reservists to fulfil basic operating functions, churning out physical and mental casualties that both the government and much of the public would rather forget about.

Today's announcement that the army is to be cut by 20% wouldn't be so bad if it were to be accompanied by a determination to stop fighting wars, to return to the peacetime status quo. The fact that a reduced military must perforce do less might, of itself, help to reduce the current (and historically anomalous) political mania for foreign intervention. Alas, it will probably take more than that. Unless there's a big change in the way politicians and the press think about the army, a smaller force will find itself deployed overseas almost as much, there will be more unconscionable pressure on regular troops and reservists alike, and the overstretch will be even greater.

Here's Con Coughlin, for example, complaining about the proposed cuts:

I very much doubt he [Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary] has given any serious consideration to the Army's ability to deal with the many threats to our national security we are likely to face in the years ahead....

In the past decade it has twice been necessary for Britain to deploy a division-strength military force, to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. And on both occasions it was necessary to maintain a sizeable military presence for many years while efforts were made to stabilise the security situation.

But whatever the politicians and top brass say about the new, highly flexible and adaptable Army that is envisaged in the proposals outlined by Mr Hammond today, the Army's ability to sustain demanding military operations over any length of time will be severely curtailed.

To which I say: good. It was not "necessary" for Britain to deploy either to Iraq or to Afghanistan, and curtailing the army's ability to sustain operations over time would be a small price to pay for such operations to be avoided. Of course, it would be even nicer to have the capability and not to use it. That worked fine in the past. But post-Blair such sensible counsels do longer prevail. The only way to avoid using the army, sadly, is to not have one. Which is why I think these latest cuts go nowhere near far enough.