“I think the Services can be rightly very upset at the continuous series of defence reviews which the Government has been forced by economic circumstances—and maybe economic mistakes too—to carry out…”
Rt. Hon Denis Healey MP, Secretary of State for Defence 1964-1970
Alphen, Netherlands. 25 July. His name is Jim. Jim is British. He is also an experienced non-commissioned officer in the British Army. Still, given Jim’s story, he could also be called Francois, Jeroen, Jurgen or increasingly Heidi, Karin or Yvette. Jim has twenty years’ service to his name and is the backbone of the force of which he is part. Year after year of defence cuts have left Jim the only survivor of the little band of brothers which whom he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some were killed, others invalided out, but most simply left for better jobs in ‘Civvy Street’. On many occasions, Jim has thought about following them. Even though his wife has to work to make ends meet and the Ministry of Defence housing inflicted on his family is falling apart consumed by damp and faulty plumbing, as a member of the poor bloody infantry the time never seemed quite right.
A couple of years ago Jim received a modest pay rise which did little to offset the years of Whitehall imposed pay restraint. Year after year Jim has heard his senior commanders promise new equipment and new investment, but somehow it never came to pass. When it did the ‘kit’ on offer did little to convince Jim and his mates that in a full-on firefight with an enemy which knew its business they would last very long. Behind the shiny metal things London liked to show to give the impression the British Army was still a fighting force to be reckoned with there was Jim’s reality. Jim’s reality was endless reviews with shiny names like Army 2020 but which in fact always meant the same thing of making do with what was available, coping with never enough spares, far too little ammunition and even less training and exercising because it was deemed too expensive by the budgeteers.
Still, to Jim and his mates the budgeteers were not the real enemy. They were the ‘fuckwit’ politicians who in one breath would announce that Britain had the finest armed forces in the world, then in another breath announce yet further cuts. The latest round of cuts had gone under the wonderfully euphemistic name of the ‘Defence Modernisation Programme’ which as far as Jim could see threatened to ‘modernise’ the British Army’s spearhead out of existence. Perhaps that was the aim. At times Jim thought he was part of an armed aid delivery service rather than the cutting edge of a fighting force so capable its very existence would deter any enemy.
Jim would admit that once he had looked down a bit on his colleagues in other European forces. They were not THE British Army with its fighting traditions and ‘can do’ ethos. They were Bonsai militaries full of part-timers playing at soldiers led by politicians who seemed to believe everything could be left to the Americans. The British, Jim thought, were different. Britain would always fight and if he and his mates were to die doing it they would do so knowing that at least his commanders and London had their backs. Not anymore.
Britain it seems was just like any other strategically-detached European country led by weak politicians surrounded by think tanks and policy lobbyists hell bent on convincing these kings and queens of the short-term that defence was passé and that the defence budget was little more than a reserve cash cow to fund the National Health Service, social care and social security. Even if Jim and his mates did not understand the specifics Jim wondered why his brand of decent patriotism and his willingness to serve and if needs be die for his country was sneered at by one half of the political class and under-valued by the other half. A government who seemed so obsessed with balancing the country’s books in the short-term that they were prepared to risk Britain’s security to do it.
Jim was a decent soul who welcomed the growing contingent of foreigners in the Army. If they were willing to fight for his country alongside him and they could take a joke that was fine by Jim. He also wondered why so many of his senior commanders seemed willing to defend the repeated cuts in uniform but once retired seem all too happy to appear on TV telling all and sundry that the state of the British Army was so parlous it would be defeated in a trice by an enemy with any military capability. Deep down Jim hoped they were saying the same things whilst in uniform to the prime minister as they seemed so willing to say out of it. Frankly, he doubted it. In any case, these were questions way above Jim’s pay grade. So, Jim did what he always did and focus on his unit, his men, his ‘oppos’, for when it came to the crunch it was for them and with them he would fight.
Jim gets the call
It was high summer when it started. Jim got a text message on holiday to report back to barracks immediately. For days now he had been on leave laying on a Cornish beach, building sand-castles with his twin five year old boys and enjoying an occasional bit of body-surfing off Fistral Beach. He had wanted to go abroad on holiday but the family could not afford it. He had been vaguely aware that something was ‘up’. The newspapers and TV were full of ‘experts’ warning about the build-up of Russian forces on NATO’s eastern border. This was not the first time he had heard such ‘stuff’ so Jim had let any clouds of concern he might have drift on by under the high summer sun. Still, something nagged at him. For the past two months, the Americans had been embroiled in a full-scale crisis with the Chinese in Asia. As a front-line combat soldier Jim was a member of a battalion that was part of one of the Army’s new strike brigades, halfway between a ‘light’ and a ‘heavy’ force. Jim knew that in an emergency he would be one of the first to go, after the Hereford Lads (SAS), the Bubbleheads (SBS) and 16 Air Assault Brigade.
Jim left his worried wife with the usual assurances that it was just another scare and that he would be back in no time. But this was different. When he got back to base it was clear he was walking into a full blown crisis. There was none of the usual ‘let’s tick the box’ go through the motions exercise nonsense. This was for real. Very quickly Jim’s force was joined by other battlegroups being rapidly embarked in Portsmouth for shipment to Germany. Jim quickly learnt that the original plan had been to trans-ship the force across Europe by rail. However, Europe’s rail system was simply not up to the job of getting even a moderately large force forward deployed quickly enough and the decision had been taken by the ‘brass’ to use requisitioned civilians ships and escort them to Bremerhaven for onward dispatch.
With tensions so high this was a risky course of action. Taking a British-led naval task group into the Baltic Sea with the bulk of Britain’s land strike force to a possible war was replete with danger. He could see the concern on the faces of his senior commanders, most notably the Royal Navy officers charged with escorting the force. The ‘RN’ simply lacked the anti-submarine and air defence ships and submarines to properly defend such a large and vital convoy. Worse, Britain’s much vaunted new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales were deemed too vulnerable (and too expensive) to be risked given they were so lightly armed and armoured. The simple truth was that the Navy could either escort the convoy or the carriers but not both. French, German and Dutch ships would also help defend the convoy but the ships of the German and Dutch navies, in particular, lacked vital defensive weapons systems.
At least the politicians were still talking and, as ever, Britain would muddle through as it always did, or so Jim thought. Once embarked and underway Jim and his men settled down into a sort of routine. Constant weapons checks and exercising on deck were interrupted for ORP or operation ration packs. They engaged in friendly and not-so-friendly banter with the Royal Marines. As for the Scots…. Still, Jim could smell the apprehension. Some men talked too much, others too little.
In fact, the voyage to Bremerhaven went surprisingly smoothly. The problems for Jim and his mates began when they arrived. The Americans had spared what force they could and sent four more armoured brigade combat teams to Europe. The British force arrived just after the Americans such was the disorganisation created by the emergency. The British force was also under American command because Washington had made it perfectly clear that such was the nature of the emergency and such were the pressures faced by US forces that no way would the Americans rely on that ‘talking shop NATO, as the American president had called it.
For two days Jim and his mates sat off Bremerhaven waiting to disembark. Sitting ducks. When they finally got ashore they waited a further two days before they set off eastwards into Poland. As they made their way along EU-funded Polish motorways none of which had been designed with military mobility in mind the mood darkened. News was that the emergency was now a full-blown crisis with war imminent. Like all soldiers on the eve of combat there was anticipation and resolve allied to a mix of boredom with the journey, uncertainty as to what lay ahead, and the adrenalin-edged smelly expectation that fear generates. Would it happen? Could it happen? Will I survive? What about my family? Above all, will I let myself and the lads down? Over and over again Jim’s mind mulled what soldiers had mulled since time immemorial. It was a relief simply to go through another drill or check weapons again and again as the monotonous northern Polish countryside lumbered by. Every now and then he would linger for an already nostalgic moment on the last images he had of his wife and kids on that peaceful Cornish beach.
Jim never saw or heard the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile that killed him and destroyed his column. The MiG 31 that fired it never even left Russian airspace. Years of cuts had rendered force protection of forward deployed British forces utterly incapable of dealing with such a dangerous adversary in the absence of American forces in strength. They were busy elsewhere. Jim never even got to fire his SA80 L85A1 rifle. Jim just died.
Why Jim died
There is a gnawing predictability to the downward spiral that is British defence policy. Yes, London may have been politically-savvy getting more defence bad news out on the last day of parliamentary business before the long Brexit-laden summer recess. In Westminster, it is known as ‘take the trash out day’. Yes, the usual apologists have been ushered out of the woodwork to suggest another retreat from defence reality is in fact much-needed further rationalisation of the ‘defence base’. Yes, it is sad that RAF Scampton, home of the famous Red Arrows and the even more famous Dambusters is to close. History must not be allowed to warp contemporary and future policy, strategy and requirement. No, the politicians can do that all on their strategically-illiterate lonesomes. Still, there is something fittingly poignant about the closure of Scampton and it what it says about the defence ambition of Britain’s leaders.
You see none of the above grips the essential truth that Britain’s failure to close the £20bn plus funding hole in the British defence budget puts the British people, allies, and above all the ‘Jims’ in uniform at ever greater risk. Even those responsible for the cuts admit the world is demonstrably becoming more dangerous by the day. A world in which deterrence might well in future rely on novel ‘hybrid, ‘cyber’ and quite possibly applications of artificial intelligence, but which right now rests on sufficient cadres of capable armed forces properly-equipped by the democracies they serve. That is now demonstrably NOT so in Britain’s case. This week thus marks perhaps a definitive retreat from realising the baseline force that even as recently as the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review was deemed to be the minimum force necessary given the threats Britain faces.
As such, the much-vaunted Defence Modernisation Plan is nothing of the sort. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson failed to convince either Prime Minister May or Chancellor Phillip Hammond that significant extra funding was needed simply to fulfil the 2015 baseline. It now means that the real Jim and his mates if they ever have to be used at the higher end of conflict will do so at a far higher level of risk than should be the case. Instead, the ‘DMP’ has become yet another of those now many metaphors and euphemisms Westminster and Whitehall employs for politics before strategy defence cuts. The ‘we recognise only as much threat as we can afford culture’ that Hammond has imposed on British defence because he fails to realise there is a world beyond the Treasury that try as he might refuses to fit neatly onto his spreadsheet.
In the wake of this further retreat exercising and training will be adjusted to test only those things Britain’s tiny force can do, rather than the things it might be called upon to do. Worst-case analysis and scenario planning will be abandoned for ‘let’s hope for the best’ planning. Consequently, the hollowed out force will get ever smaller, and the smaller force will get ever more hollowed out.
So, whilst much of the population and all of the chattering class are slumbering on the corner of some foreign beach that will be forever England the spin doctors and news managers in the Ministry of Defence and across Whitehall will be congratulating themselves on a successful piece of news management. That the minister has been protected from the media for another week even if such ‘protection’ comes at the expense of Britain’s fast-declining influence and the abandonment of the first duty of the state – to properly defend its citizens. Naturally, and true to form, Secretary of State for Defence Williamson in an attempt to mask this latest chapter of political shame announced fantastically that Britain would build a 6G fighter called the Tempest. But, of course, it won’t.
You see ‘Jim’ was not killed by the Kinzhal. He was killed back in 2018 and in the gap the politicians created between the strategic reality Britain’s leaders should be confronting and their repeated and collective refusal to do so. Jim and his mates died trying to close that gap. You see major wars have started unexpectedly because unaccountable illiberal leaders have miscalculated. Faced with the extreme consequences of their own extreme policies they have convinced themselves that accountable liberal leaders are too politically weak to make the choices that need to be made, even if those choices are not the ones they want to make. Shame on them, but shame also on our own leaders for creating the environment where such folly happens.
Thank God there is always the Americans?