In the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday last year General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, spoke out about the severe overstretch experienced by our Armed Forces. It was an almost unprecedented step. A senior serving military officer criticising politicians in reaction to the desperate situation unfolding before him. Naturally his words attracted the attention of the media and for a short time military matters had the ear of politicians and the public.
But with grim predictability, the furore died down. For the remaining fifty one weeks of the year we heard about our Armed Forces only via the steady flow of casualty reports or through cynical announcements on troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Naturally, as this year’s 11 November memorial approached, military issues were once again on our minds. However it struck me that the commemorations had a particular poignancy this year. Attending services in London were not only a tiny handful of survivors from the First World War and increasingly aged World War Two veterans but also a growing number of young people mourning those contemporaries lost to our modern day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Remembering the great debt we owe those who have died in our name, it was with terrible sadness that I greeted reports of Gen Dannatt’s continued concern about the way our Armed Forces are treated. A leaked top-level report to a national newspaper revealed that Gen Dannatt believes our present level of operations to be unsustainable with troops increasingly ‘disillusioned’ and the Army critically ‘undermanned’. Despite the government’s insistence that it respects and treats properly our Armed Forces, Gen Dannatt has stated that ‘the military covenant is clearly out of kilter.’
The military covenant is an unwritten social and moral commitment between the state and those protecting it in the Armed Forces. By soldiers accepting that they may be risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives by carrying out their duties, the state commits to treating them with due care and respect. To a large extent, it now seems that we civilians are neglecting our side of the bargain. In truth we take for granted the amazing work of our military.
I have always been passionate about the welfare of our Armed Forces. My father served for two decades in the Army, my grandfather retired as an Air Commodore thirty-five years into RAF service and several other relatives have been employed in the Forces outside wartime. Whilst I may have started life in the British Military Hospital in Hannover, it is one of my greatest regrets to never have carried out a short service commission in one of our armed services. I fear that the lack of military experience amongst the political class as a whole has contributed to the slipping of defence down the scale of spending priorities.
Defence is now the poor cousin of health and education. Or at least it is when it comes to public spending. As a nation we spend nearly four times more on the National Health Service than we do on the defence of our country and many other military hotspots across the globe combined. Understandably, many would view this as a sign of progress, an indication that we live in safer times where wars do not consume entire nations and continents. There is some truth to that but as long as our troops are committed to fight in two international conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) not to mention peacekeeping in most continents, and as long as they are struggling and overstretched, it will remain our duty to ensure they have the resources to fight in our name. There is nothing more important than properly equipping those who put their lives on the line for our country.
Despite the Ministry of Defence claiming the Armed Forces have benefited from the longest period of sustained growth in spending since the 1980s, spending has actually reduced by 17% in real terms since 1984. At 2.2% of GDP, our defence budget is less than that of France (2.5% of GDP in a country less engaged in international conflicts) and only marginally greater even than Romania’s (2.0% of GDP). It is estimated that the MoD allocated £9.1 billion to the frontline in 2006/07. A colossal figure? In fact it is only five times the amount issued in tax credits overpayments the year before and less than ten times the amount of money the Department for Work and Pensions lost to fraud in 2005. A £9 billion annual bill represents little more than an accounting margin for error in the national budget. Worse still, it is reported that poor spending levels have led to shortages of ammunition, serviceable aircraft, manpower and in some cases even basic kit.
Funding is not the only issue. Gen Dannatt’s report reveals that troops are becoming increasingly disillusioned over everything from delays in military inquests to poor housing and food. Work-life balance is worsening with many soldiers complaining that the number of operations they are being asked to fulfil is ruining their private lives. And back at home, respect for our troops continues to decline ? as Gen Dannatt laments, there is ‘a growing gulf between the Army and the nation’. Britain has traditionally had a small, professional military and when you look at many other countries this separation is something to be cherished. Yet this detachment has never before (save possibly for a short period during the First World War) led to such a lack of respect or vocal support for our troops. The British public is in danger of taking its military for granted, tied as the Forces are into an unpopular war in Iraq.
In fairness, not all blame can be put on the Labour government. It should be said that it was under a Conservative government in the early 1990s that the short-sighted ‘Options for Change’ policy was implemented after the end of the Cold War ? driven more by public spending than military imperatives. But a failure to grasp this issue now and look after our Armed Forces will inevitably lead to a serious recruitment problem. The military is already facing a substantial manpower shortage next year because of the serious problems in recruiting and retaining personnel. In 2006, for example, inflow to the Forces was 18 150 whilst outflow was 23 260. The Royal Navy anticipates being 10 per cent short and the RAF 14 per cent short of new officers. The unprecedented demands upon the Territorial Army are also acting as a strong disincentive to prospective recruits to that essential element of our military success.
I believe defence expenditure must become a top priority. If that requires making cutbacks in an already heavily funded, poorly performing health service or welfare state then so be it. This is not something that we can consider briefly for a week or so around Remembrance Day every year. Each day our soldiers put their lives on the line. As a nation we must provide them with the tools to do their jobs, the healthcare they deserve when they suffer and the moral support both when they are engaged in warfare and when they return home. Momentum must be maintained or senior military commanders will once again be labouring their point this time next year.