Sunday, May 17, 2009
The head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, on Friday delivered his starkest warning yet to the government about pressures on his soldiers, describing the defence budget as "unbalanced" and "heavily skewed" in favour of hi-tech, expensive platforms irrelevant to present conflicts such as Afghanistan.
In a clear reference to such projects as plans to deploy expensive US jets on two new large aircraft carriers and buy new Eurofighters for the RAF, he said: "We have an absolute obligation to understand their needs and to provide [British troops] with the tools and training to do their jobs, and not squander our increasingly scarce resources on those things that are not relevant to today's and tomorrow's absolute requirements."
Noting that just 10% of the existing defence equipment programme was being spent on the army, he continued: "History will not judge our decision-making kindly if we duck the difficult decision and just muddle through. We are at the cross-roads."
Dannatt said the armed forces were likely to be engaged in "intervention and stabilisation operations". "We are in an era of persistent conflict. Iraq and Afghanistan are not aberrations, they are signposts to the future. We risk becoming irrelevant if we do not adapt right across the board."
In a speech to the Chatham House thinktank, Dannatt called for a major rethink of Britain's military capabilities – much of which was still the legacy of the cold war. The threat of an attack on Britain by a hostile state had diminished; the danger now was of an "age of upheaval" characterised by a "kaleidoscope of conflict" involving terrorism, insurgency, and piracy.
He said the fight against al-Qaida-inspired extremism was "probably the struggle of our generation – perhaps our thirty years war" and that many of Britain's existing capabilities were of "questionable relevance".
The British were criticised by some in the US for failing to support the Iraqis more effectively when they took control of Basra from the militias after British forces had withdrawn from the city.
"Credibility with the United States is earned by being an ally that can be relied on to state clearly what it will do and then do it effectively.
"Credibility is also linked to the vital currency of reputation and in this respect there is a recognition that our national and military reputation and credibility, unfairly or not, have been called into question at several levels in the eyes of our most important ally as a result of some aspects of the Iraq campaign."