Day 1 of the Daily Mail’s Serialisation of White Flag?, Lord Ashcroft’s latest book on the UK’s defence capability

  • 22 September, 2018
  • Politics
  • Publications

First published in the Daily Mail on Saturday 22 September 2018.

An army cut to ribbons, a Navy struggling to stay afloat and a tank unit so weak it’s nicknamed ‘Operation Tethered Goat’. As Putin flexes his might, a new book claims the British military is at breaking point.

  • At a time of international crisis our Armed Forces didn’t have what was needed
  • Theresa May ordered airstrikes on Syria to punish the Assad regime this year
  • British submarines were loaded with cruise missiles and dispatched

Earlier this year, Theresa May ordered airstrikes on Syria to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.

Reports quickly emerged that British submarines loaded with cruise missiles had been dispatched and were on their way to the Mediterranean.

Cue images of sleek, silent vessels powering their way underwater at top speed, the Royal Navy responding with vigour as it has done since the days of Nelson and beyond.

Not one submarine was sent, partly because Downing Street dithered but mainly because none was available. ‘We had no assets on location,’ a confidential source in the Ministry of Defence admitted to us.

Bluntly, at a time of international crisis, when the prime minister wanted to take a stand against the illegal use of chemical weapons, our Armed Forces did not have what was needed for a full-throttle response.

Naturally, ministers preferred voters to imagine that submarines were on their way to the action. The truth about our limited capability might have fuelled creeping fears that the UK has run up the white flag.

This was one of the many shocks we had during our wide-ranging investigation into the state of this country’s defence capabilities. Thanks to remorseless cuts imposed by successive governments, the Army, Navy and RAF all struggle to meet day-to-day commitments to protect this country and play their part in collective security through Nato and other defence alliances — let alone prepare for serious potential new threats.

The particular problem this time was probably down to maintenance issues.

Hulls need cleaning to stop them rusting, engines need overhauling and nuclear reactors need to be flushed.

When you don’t have very many ships, taking one or two out of circulation leaves quite a gap — in this case, one that could not be filled.

And the fact is that we don’t have enough ships any more. Or aircraft. Or tanks. Or military personnel. Not since Defence became a soft target for governments looking to cut spending.

Our Armed Forces have been squeezed to the point where they find it difficult to function as efficiently as they would like to, putting the security of our nation at risk in an increasingly troubled world.

This slimming down is happening across all the Services.

The Army was 163,000 strong at the height of the Cold War. Now — in the aftermath of the swingeing Defence Review of 2010 under David Cameron’s coalition government — its official strength is around half that figure at 81,500 regulars but many posts are unfilled, leaving a full-time force of fewer than 78,500.

And further decline is mooted. As recently as December last year, Chancellor Philip Hammond was privately arguing that it could be reduced to just 50,000 — at which point the British Army, once feared and revered all over the world, would be half the size of the French army and smaller than armies in Italy, Spain and even Germany.

Of course it’s not all about numbers. In recent years, politicians have come up with a brilliant catchword as a cover for diminishing strength. They insist that what matters is ‘capability’.

On the face of it, this is a fantastic way to neutralise arguments about vanishing regiments and mothballed ships. But size matters militarily. However good your soldiers are — and ours, we know, are very good — sometimes quantity counts more than quality.

As one senior army officer put it: ‘If you’re a small army and you go up against a big army, you’re going to get a good kicking.’

What this means on the front line is illustrated by the small but fierce battalion of 800 UK troops stationed at a remote base in the Baltic state of Estonia as a crucial part of Nato’s defences against a Russian attack. They are on their guard at all times, scouring the bleak horizon for anything suspicious.

Inside a vast metal hangar is a fleet of Challenger tanks. The Army wanted to send 18 but the MoD cut this back to ten, of which only eight can be operational because two will always be in for repairs.

Asked if this would be enough if the Russians came over the border, the men we met there shrugged and laughed. They know full well that the Russians could throw as many as 22 tank battalions — that’s more than 650 tanks — at them.

A war-gaming exercise concluded that Nato forces would be ‘woefully inadequate’ in the event of an invasion: the Russians would be in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, within 60 hours.

No wonder the men themselves refer to their assignment as ‘Operation Tethered Goat’.Hopelessly outnumbered, they would be brushed aside, sacrificed to the predatory Putin, like the goat swallowed by the T. rex in Jurassic Park.

In today’s British Army, everything is pared to the bone. Live-firing training exercises are curtailed to save ammunition costs. There is an acute shortage of tank transporters, making it impossible to move more than a few dozen tanks over long distances at a time. Basic kit is unavailable.

When, in the aftermath of the Manchester terror attack last year, 1,000 troops were drafted in to help the police, there was not enough new Virtus body armour to go around. They had to make do with kit that was rated obsolete a decade ago.

The RAF is also stretched to breaking point. It is less than half the size it was 25 years ago, yet it is trying to wage war in the Middle East.

Politicians prefer not to talk about it, but it is engaged in a long-running combat operation in Syria and Iraq, where it has been firing missiles at terror targets practically every day since the end of 2015. This is a contribution to a noble cause and we can be proud of it — but it is a struggle.

In the 2010 Defence Review, plans to expand the Typhoon force beyond five squadrons were put on hold. The Harrier jump-jet force was disbanded. The seven-squadron Tornado bomber force was scheduled to be cut to just two units.

The result is that there are just not enough aircraft, given that a significant proportion of jets are out of circulation for servicing at any one time.

In February 2017, 21 of the RAF’s 67 Tornado GR4 bombers and 43 of its 135 Typhoon fighters were in bits. The impact on operations is severe. The RAF must keep a Quick Reaction Force of fuelled and fully armed Typhoons on continuous alert to respond to threats to the UK homeland, such as incursions into our airspace.

It is a 24/7 must-do mission that gobbles resources.

A pair of RAF fighters is poised for take-off at one base in Lincolnshire and another in the north of Scotland — ready to be airborne in less than ten minutes. Approximately once every six weeks, they are called into action for a high-altitude face-off with encroaching Russian planes, at a cost of around £50,000 to British taxpayers each time.

The Armed Forces could simply abandon this tiresome and costly routine, but if they did, Russian jets would probably come a little closer each time. Finally, they would enter UK sovereign airspace, at which point it would be clear that we had given up bothering to defend our skies.

But the demand this puts on resources is immense. On both bases, a second pair of Typhoon pilots is ready to step in if the first pair is scrambled, so in effect, three of our five RAF Typhoon squadrons are locked into this Quick Reaction duty at any one time.

If there was a sudden emergency overseas, the RAF Typhoon Force would struggle to come up with the aircraft and pilots to deploy.

British soldiers, sailors and airmen have a can-do spirit by nature. Time after time they rise to the occasion — whether running security during the 2012 Olympics, scrambling jets to stop the Islamic State advance in 2014 or rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean in 2015. They are admired and revered all over the world.

But something has changed, and not for the better.

The evidence stacks up that our Armed Forces are under-equipped, underfunded and under-trained.

If peace can be relied on for the foreseeable future, fine. If not, it is a deeply worrying state of affairs.

After years of pretending everything is OK, politicans are finally coming clean. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson knows that cuts to our Armed Forces have gone too far — and isn’t afraid to say so. This is a refreshing change.

The 2010 Defence Review that hammered the Armed Forces was predicated on the notion that there was ‘conventional military threat’ to the ‘territorial integrity of the United Kingdom’.

It seemed a reasonable assumption then, but is that still the case?

Some see the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury as a dark warning of much worse to come if the UK assumes there will never be a serious clash with Russia and lowers its defences.

As part of our investigation, we travelled to eastern Ukraine, where President Putin has created a series of Russian-controlled enclaves in sovereign territory over which he has no legitimate claim. What is happening there matters to everybody who would prefer to contain the Russian regime. It is a showcase for the fate that can befall places he considers weak.

For the Armed Forces, the Russian threat, and changing character of war, present a huge challenge.

For the past two decades, they have been immersed in combating international terrorism in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The focus has been on extremists armed with Kalashnikovs and improvised explosive devices, not hostile states with professional armies and sophisticated air defences.

Defence chiefs in Britain and America believe we have now entered a new era, in which hostile states are the gravest danger.

According to U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, ‘great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security’, while General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, has singled out Russia as the most pressing state-based threat to the UK.

Yet we are woefully unprepared for a conventional war with Russia if that were to arise. For years, the enemy we have fought has been peasants in remote villages and mountains. The next adversary could be very different.

The British military’s vulnerability on this score was exposed in April last year when 160 British soldiers joined a massive war-game exercise at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

For ten days, they were required to fight an enemy that outmanoeuvred them, outgunned them and outmatched them. On more than one occasion, British troops were wiped out in one day.

What hampered them were the meticulous, tick-box MoD rules of engagement governing the use of all weapons, from aerial strikes to rifles and artillery fire. These were designed for counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. They were not suited to armies in a head-to-head confrontation.

If it came to a real-life battle, ‘by the time we’d ticked all the boxes, we’d all be dead,’ according to an army source.

Meanwhile robots, drones, cyber warfare and social media are dramatically changing the character of war. Our adversaries will not share our qualms about developing ‘killer robots’ and other terrifying military technology.

Just how far Putin is prepared to go in confronting the West is a matter for debate.

He has openly admitted that he regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling it the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century. Some believe he is locked into nothing less than a civilisational struggle with the West.

Analysts generally agree that he wants to restore what he believes is Russia’s rightful position in the world, and ensure his country is not encircled (as he would see it) by Nato member states.

Events in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine show what this can mean in practice, and there is no evidence that he has finished.

Many defence analysts believe Putin is eager to exploit what he sees as a window of opportunity because, in his view, the West is politically weak.

He sees the lack of will — the strategic failure after Iraq and Afghanistan; the battle with austerity at home; a divided Nato.

Under Obama, a president determined to end wars, not start them, Moscow sensed a shift towards greater American isolationism.

The suggestion that the Kremlin is determined to change the world order might seem melodramatic were it not for the fact that Putin’s posturing has been accompanied by sweeping rearmament.

He has presided over the wholesale modernisation of his country’s ground, air and maritime forces, investing billions in state-of-the-art hardware and new electronic, cyber, satellite and nuclear capabilities — all showcased to the world in the massive war-game he staged last week with 300,000 military personnel, more than 1,000 aircraft, 36,000 tanks and other vehicles and 80 warships.

A similar exercise last year left MoD observers worried. One official noted: ‘They are increasingly capable. I don’t think they’re a paper tiger. They’re a credible threat.’

Some well-placed observers disagree, dismissing the notion that Putin would risk a conventional match-off with Nato.

Russia, they argue, is an economic basket case and its armed forces are stuffed with reluctant, under-equipped conscripts dogged by low morale.

But others are not so confident, with politicians and defence chiefs ramping up the rhetoric about what Russia’s capabilities — and intent — might mean for the UK.

General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, likens the Russian threat to a ‘chronic contagious disease’ which, if left untreated, could ‘creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained — and we’ll be the losers of this competition’.

Nor is Russia the only worrying cloud on the Defence horizon.

A resurgent China is busy militarising the South China Seas, aggressively asserting its sovereignty over disputed territory and transforming rocks into military outposts that could be used to disrupt global free trade.

And all this at a time when IS may be weakened but has not yet packed away the black flag, and any oddball or extremist with exceptional computer skills can hack into sensitive IT systems and disrupt or cut off vital services. There is no evidence that any of these dangers are receding.

It is possible, of course, that threats from Russia and China are being exaggerated or will recede. Even so, defence analysts believe seismic global changes mean the Armed Forces should be ready for a major conflict soon.

The MoD has a ‘Futures Team’ tasked with looking at how the world is changing and assessing what it may mean for UK defence. It does not predict world peace.

There is deepening disquiet at every level within the Armed Forces at what looks like a terrible mismatch between defence resourcing and a growing likelihood we may soon be at war again.

General Carter warns: ‘The threats we face are not thousands of miles away but on Britain’s doorstep. The time to address them is now. We cannot sit back.’ Military people are used to being given a mission. At lower levels, it might be to secure a bridge, at higher levels, to neutralise an international terror threat.

Within any mission, all of those involved need to have a clear ‘unifying purpose’ and understand how they are contributing to the overall objective. And the same should go for politicians.

Except it doesn’t. They don’t seem to have a clear idea of the job they want the military to do. They don’t give enough thought to the mission and that ‘unifying purpose’.

When it comes to the defence budget, they concentrate on what they think we can afford rather than what needs to be done.

The defence secretary is determined to change this but it won’t be easy, especially as he has made enemies at Westminster. In the foreword to our book, General Sir Mike Jackson, former Chief of the General Staff, says recent governments’ approach to defence spending has been fundamentally wrong.

He says: ‘When governments alight on a relatively arbitrary figure (shaped by what is left in the public coffers after more popular causes like health and education have been given their lot) and ask defence chiefs to make the best of it, they are in danger of putting our security at risk.’

A proper defence budget should reflect the challenge to which we believe our military may have to respond. ‘Only when we have identified what we expect of our services can we begin to assess what the necessary capabilities are going to cost.’

While analysts debate whether or not Russia is a real threat, the reality is that its military activities are already a significant drain on the UK’s Armed Forces.

There are those 800 British troops stationed in Estonia to show that Nato is ready if Putin crosses the line.

Meanwhile, British Typhoon jets spent last summer in Romania defending Nato airspace over the Black Sea. This all costs money and resources that need to be found from somewhere.

But, as well as these immediate needs, there is a wider, underlying issue that also needs addressing — the position we wish the UK to hold in the world.

At present, Britain considers itself a ‘Tier 1’ military power — defined as possessing high-end globally deployable forces, trained and equipped to fight in the most intensive types of conflict. It means having credible air power, maritime power and land forces, and the expertise to bring them all together.

Along with the U.S. and France, the UK can still just about claim this status. But for how much longer, given our diminishing Army, Navy and Air Force?

As we prepare to leave the EU, this country is at a crossroads. We need to make a decision about what our role should be on the world stage in the 21st century.

The easiest option would be to limit our ambitions, accept a declining international status and adopt a new ‘UK first’ approach, in which we content ourselves with commenting from the sidelines in geopolitical crises.

It is a choice that would certainly appeal to some voters.

However, repositioning the UK in such a way would have profound political, economic and diplomatic implications. If we are going to head down this route, it does not seem right to do so by default, as is currently the case.

If we decide we want to retain our status as a world power, a very substantial uplift in the defence budget will be required.

In a recent paper, the Commons Defence Select Committee called for an increase in defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP in order to retain influence and credibility with our allies.

Historically, this level of spending is the norm: the figure was 4 per cent at the end of the Cold War, and during the 2000s was consistently between 2.5 and 3 per cent. It seems the right level of investment for uncertain times.

Whether extra money is made available is for others to decide. But our interviews with military people, academics, recently retired Ministry of Defence officials and defence industry figures leave no doubt that these matters are pressing.

The stakes could not be higher.

If we do not properly invest in defence, we will be vulnerable to adversaries who brazenly flout the accepted rules and values of the international order.

And in situations where this can be remedied only by military response, we will lose the practical ability to do so.

We will also lose global influence. This country has a reputation for stepping forward when other nations hesitate. If we appear to be in retreat, those who have traditionally looked to the UK for leadership in times of crisis may gravitate elsewhere.

Yet, for all this doom and gloom, there is much cause for optimism. We still have the sixth largest military budget in the world and are still widely seen as among the top five most powerful countries in the world, after the U.S., China, Russia and Germany.

Our Armed Forces are professional, disciplined, reliable, committed and brave. Our Special Forces, our anti-submarine warfare capabilities and our ability to fight on all terrains in extreme weather are the envy of armed forces across the globe. We have yet to run up the white flag.

But the dangers are apparent. In recent decades, British governments have had the luxury of deciding how much defence they can afford, and how they wish to use that capability.

Tomorrow, the initiative may not be in our hands. Then our Armed Forces will have to deal with problems in the way they are presented, not in the way that is convenient.

It is time for political leaders to ensure they are ready to meet that grave challenge.

Adapted from White Flag? An Examination Of The UK’s Defence Capability, by Michael Ashcroft & Isabel Oakeshott, published by Biteback Publishing on October 2 at £20. 

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