Friday, October 17, 2014

Send in a gunship

In the jingoistic days of the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, it was apparently standard practice to send in a gunboat if there were local disturbances.  It's not clear how that might have worked in, say, Afghanistan, but let's move swiftly on.

It's tragically true that in the last few decades the the super powers has shown how easy it is to win a war but not the subsequent peace, whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq.  Short of conquering and holding the world, a notion both morally unacceptable and impossible in practice, it becomes necessary to decide a practical approach to containing threats.

This is, at least in part, where governments of the last few years have proven inept.  Our national defence forces have been reduced to the point where famously tight-lipped military leaders have started to raise alarms.  A few examples:
  • We are building two aircraft carriers.  Yet we have just six Type 45 destroyers in the Royal Navy: how will these defend the carriers while carrying out other missions at home and abroad, and allowing time for refitting and training?  (The original plan was for twelve Type 45 destroyers).
  • Our army has been shrunk so much that it is less than half the size of the forces evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940.  The Siege of Basra, where British forces had to withdraw from the city under attack from militias, shows how weak our forces have become.  The situation in Helmand province in Afghanistan was similar.  Smaller forces have meant that the Army has been assigned tasks with inadequate personnel and equipment.
  • The RAF has fallen below 40,000 personnel, its lowest level in decades.  Questions remain over the future of military aircraft: manned vs unmanned (remotely piloted vehicles); fighter vs helicopter; transport aircraft and heavy lift helicopters.  An indication of lack of UK military capability is that the Anglo-French effort to support the freedom movement in Libya depended on US armed support.
The new gunboat?
This is not to decry what our forces have achieved.  There are notable successes in the recent past but typically these have been in smaller, well-defined missions rather than prolonged conflicts; for example, Operation Barras in West Africa in which hostages were rescued in a classic operation.

As I have written this blog entry, I have become increasingly puzzled as to what we could actually use our armed forces for.  Are six destroyers and thirteen frigates enough to defend the UK, especially given their planned roles in foreign seas?  Can the RAF deploy enough power fast enough to turn a major conflict to the benefit of the UK?  Is the Army large and well-equipped enough to win convincingly against a significant foe and in counter-insurgency situations?  Can we fight and win wars rather than just battles?

The answers to these and similar questions are likely to be secret.  As a UK citizen, however, I would like to be confident of three things: that our armed forces will only be deployed where there is a vital national interest that cannot be secured by peaceful means; that our forces will be deployed in such means and numbers as to win overwhelmingly at minimum risk; and that those members of the armed forces (and their families) harmed in the course of duty will be properly cared for.

And if today's version of a gunship is an Apache helicopter rather than a frigate, so be it.

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