I have been fortunate enough to meet General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff, several times and I have always been impressed by him. He is an intelligent man – a real thinker – who chooses his words carefully.
With this in mind, when General Houghton delivers a stark public warning about the state of our Armed Forces – as he did in a major speech this week – we should all listen attentively to what he has to say.
General Houghton, who is not prone to idle threats, delivered his first annual Christmas lecture to an audience of defence experts at the Royal United Services Institute on Wednesday evening.
One newspaper headline, attached to a report of General Houghton’s speech, was rather misleading. The Financial Times carried the headline “UK losing ‘courageous instinct’, warns general”, which some could have wrongly taken to be a criticism of the bravery of our Armed Forces.
In fact, General Houghton’s speech was all about championing the merits of our Armed Forces and his message was firmly directed at our politicians, not our servicemen.
As someone with a lifelong interest in gallantry, I have always considered that politicians, like those serving in the military, need to be courageous because of the hard decisions that they have to take. As Sir Winston Churchill, our great war-time Prime Minister, noted so astutely: “Courage is rightly esteemed to be the first of human qualities…because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”
In his hard-hitting speech, General Houghton delivered a warning that the UK needs to fund and use its Armed Forces properly. He said that he feared our nation was at risk of stepping back from its responsibilities – and needs – on the global stage. In what appeared to be a veiled reference to the UK’s abortive threat of military intervention in Syria and its pullback from Afghanistan, General Houghton warned against a “creeping aversion to risk”.
“I have recently observed with some admiration the relative ability of French forces to operate with a mindset of aggressive risk management,” he said. “We must be careful as a society and as a professional military not to lose our courageous instinct since it is one of the things which keeps us in a class apart.”
The backdrop to General Houghton’s comments is that UK’s Armed Forces are due to be reduced in numbers by thousands of personnel by 2020. The Army will lose some 20,000 soldiers, the Navy 6,000 personnel and the RAF 5,000. General Houghton warned that the UK risked suffering from a “critical deficiency” in its capabilities as cuts to troop numbers begin to hit home. He also warned against a “hollow force” – well-equipped, but understaffed.
“Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it,” General Houghton said. He added that the Royal Navy was “perilously close” to such a situation. Of course, we live in an age of austerity and the Ministry of Defence must, like all departments, accept some cut-backs. The Coalition Government will no doubt point out, too, that it is planning a significant increase in reserve forces to counter-balance some of the reductions in full-time personnel.
However, I instinctively share many of the concerns aired so vividly this week by General Houghton. It is rare for any senior serving officer – let alone someone as naturally cautious as the current Chief of the Defence Staff – to give such a blunt public warning that further cuts could damage our fighting capability. We would be foolish if we did not heed his warnings over the years ahead.
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