Operation Overstretch

David Ramsbotham

Thirty-eight years ago my regiment was ordered to Sarawak, in Borneo, to help in the defence of Eastern Malaysia, which was under threat from President Sukarno of Indonesia. This ‘Confrontation’, as the conflict was known, had begun three years earlier with an attempted rebellion in Brunei and incursions across the Sabah and Sarawak borders. In contributing to Malaysian self-defence, we were honouring the terms of a treaty that formed part of the UK’s national defence policy. The same applied to the soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who served alongside us. The United States was, at the time, preoccupied with Vietnam, to which Harold Wilson declined to commit British troops.

The Borneo campaign was won largely by our domination of the immediate area of the border with Indonesia. There were a series of operations across the border to attack Indonesian military bases and communications. None of these received any publicity, not least because no journalists could visit our remote jungle bases without being flown in by the RAF. This was in the days before satellites and instant communications, and I have often wondered what would have happened had our modus operandi been widely known at the time. Remarkably, its subsequent disclosure attracted little or no attention. We were conducting what is now called ‘pre-emptive defence’.

Almost the first question the future Lord Carver asked me when he came to visit my company was how I persuaded my riflemen that it was right for them to violate an international frontier. The ‘party line’, which came into play if we had a casualty across the border, was that we had been there because we were following up an incursion. The incursion might have taken place some time before, but the border was a strip several kilometres wide, not a line drawn on a (pretty poor) map. By operating in this way we were taking the initiative from the Indonesians, who could not move in the area without fear of being attacked or ambushed. The results appeared to justify the method; there were few, if any, Indonesian incursions. At my level I was concerned with short-term operational success, and positive operations, with successful outcomes, are far easier to sell to soldiers than those in which there is a suspicion that the initiative has been surrendered to the enemy. Now far larger numbers of our Armed Forces face the possibility of being ordered to violate another international frontier – Iraq’s. This, too, is being described as pre-emptive defence: not, however, as a low-level tactic within a national self-defence operation, but as the strategic purpose of the operation as a whole.

Until the end of the Cold War, our Armed Forces were used to being given very clear and specific aims for any military operation. (Northern Ireland was an exception.) Since then, however, the Army in particular has been sent on a number of ‘missions without end’. Currently almost 18,000 troops, deployed in the Falklands, Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, as well as in Northern Ireland, require regular replacement. Now almost the whole of our single Armoured Division, based in Germany, together with our only Air Assault Brigade and a large number of reservists, have been committed to the Iraq operation. Thanks to the damage wreaked on Army numbers by the 1990 defence review, Options for Change, itself followed by a bewildering succession of further reviews and alterations, there are no more where they came from, so their replacement on a unit basis is impossible. As in the Gulf War, a considerable number of reservists have had to be called up to fill gaps created by previous cuts. They can only be employed for a limited time, making the date of their release a factor to be added to the problems caused by the excessive heat of the coming months, when deciding on the launch date for any operation. It all sounds very similar to the situation of the Union Army in the first year of the American Civil War; the US Army today faces the same problem.

In the days of the Cold War, the size and shape of our Army was largely dictated by the demands of the Brussels Treaty, which required us to maintain not fewer than 55,000 troops in Germany to defend our nominated 65 kilometres of Inner German Border. It was comparatively easy to make a ‘threat-based’ appreciation of what was required, and this could be presented to ministers. That ended with the Cold War, and Options for Change occasioned a fight to obtain sufficient troops for a ‘contingency-based’ order of battle, no one having any idea what those contingencies might be. The sums worked out by the central staffs and agreed by ministers required the Army to be cut by a third, from 156,000 to 104,000. Curiously, RAF strength was initially kept at 85,000, but that is another story. The Army had no grounds for arguing what we felt sure was the case: that this was unlikely to be a sufficient number in what was bound to be an uncertain world. Worst of all were the swingeing cuts made to the medical services, rendering them unable to provide the accustomed level of support to any deployed force of the size that took part in the Gulf War of 1991.

The Gulf War demonstrated the validity of our case. In order to be viable, every armoured, artillery, engineer or infantry unit had to be reinforced from the remainder of the Army. This denuded the units from which reinforcements were drawn, and would have caused immense knock-on problems if the original units had had to be replaced. Transport and workshop repair units had to be formed by putting individuals and small groups, again drawn from existing organisations, under the command of ad hoc headquarters formed for the purpose. Medical units were borrowed from elsewhere – from Canada and Romania, for example. The problems were forcefully pointed out by the troops on the ground when John Major went to visit them in Kuwait after the war. He said that Options for Change would not be implemented until the lessons of the war had been analysed. However, Tom King, then the Secretary of State for Defence, had already promised to give the outline to Parliament before it broke up for the summer recess, and we still live with the consequences.

The ‘coalition of the willing’ that came together to achieve the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 included Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, together with Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf and Arab states. The aim accomplished, all went home, with the exception of those required to mount air exclusion, maritime patrol or humanitarian operations. They were followed by UN weapons inspectors.

Now the whole scene is different. Quite apart from the endless round of operational tours, soldiers have currently to provide cover for striking firemen, who are said to be paid more than the soldiers replacing them. Some of these had to surrender leave earned during a six-month tour of Kosovo, to train to be firemen before training for Iraq. We used to try to ensure that there was a 24-month gap between operational tours, so that soldiers could have time to spend with their families and to train, both operationally with their units and individually in pursuit of their careers. We never achieved it even then: now, for some, the gap is less than 12 months. Such a degree of overstretch cannot be sustained, and cheers will have rung round the Armed Forces when the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, had the courage to say this publicly to his Secretary of State.

The latest forecast is that, after the departure from Iraq of the 27,000 troops committed to whatever fighting takes place, 15,000 will be required to secure and police the country. Where will they come from? Are some commitments to be given up? In 1977, the year of the previous firemen’s strike, the increase in charges levied on troops for food and accommodation exceeded their 1 per cent pay award from James Callaghan’s Government. Some commanding officers resigned rather than have to tell their regiments the prescribed lie that ‘this is a good award.’ Many other people left in disgust, leaving a hole that had not been filled by the time of Options for Change.

Now, on top of the overstretch, there are reports of tanks whose engines failed during the Gulf War and have still not been properly filtered, rifles that still jam in desert conditions, communications equipment that is well past its sell-by date, and a shortage of boots. I well remember finding many soldiers during and after the last Gulf War equipped with the vastly superior American camp bed, which they had exchanged for our rations (we did get something right).

Two questions must be asked in connection with the use of the word ‘affordable’: ‘Can you afford it?’ and ‘Can you afford to give up what you have to give up in order to afford it?’ In the case of a one-off troop deployment to Iraq, the answer to the first question is yes, because you can raise the numbers required from elsewhere. However, the answer to the second question is far from straightforward because there are deeper considerations of the kind that Field Marshal Carver raised in Borneo.

When Israel knocked out Iraq’s nuclear installations in 1981, acting in pre-emptive self-defence after receiving clear intelligence warnings, it was roundly condemned by Mrs Thatcher: ‘Armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified. It represents a grave breach of international law.’ She was to use the same words less than a year later in connection with the Argentine attack on the Falklands, to encourage UN and world support for our operations to evict them. Now George Bush and Tony Blair are suggesting that a pre-emptive armed attack on Iraq, far from being a grave breach of international law, is justified because it is aimed at preventing Saddam Hussein from making weapons of mass destruction available to terrorist organisations. We are told that Mr Blair is using all the influence he has on Mr Bush to encourage him only to take action following specific UN direction. Both no doubt bear in mind that were they to suggest that the purpose of an attack was to remove Saddam Hussein from office they would be in breach not only of international law but of the UN Charter’s principles concerning non-interference in the internal affairs of another nation.

So what is the military aim to which elements of our Army seem likely to be committed? Pre-emptive defence as part of a wider self-defence operation? Who is being threatened? Not the United States or the United Kingdom directly. Israel? Israel has already demonstrated that if it feels itself threatened it takes unilateral action, at once and without question, to eliminate that threat. Iraq’s Armed Forces took a severe mauling in the Gulf War. Many WMD were destroyed by UN weapons inspectors between 1991 and 1998. So what justifies the escalation of Iraq to the top of the list of threats to world order?

I agree with those who suggest that it falls a long way below international terrorism of the al-Qaida variety, North Korea, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Indo/Pakistan arms race, Southern Africa, international crime (including the drugs against which Mr Blair declared war before he did so on terrorism) and conservation of the environment. We are still involved in post-conflict reconstruction in former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. What has resulted from all the rhetoric about the vast quantity of detritus, including land-mines, which scars so many countries that have experienced civil and other wars? In other words, can we afford to give up all the unfinished business which, only recently, we felt to be of such national importance and interest that it demanded our full commitment, in favour of something that is, at best, marginal? Iraq is by no means the only potential supplier of WMD to terrorists, and has no proven link with the most dangerous of them.

Furthermore Iraq has been subjected to such a degree of international scrutiny since 1991 that it would be difficult for the Iraqis to take any action that was not almost instantly detected. Saddam Hussein’s reported games with weapons inspectors can be challenged without having to go to war over them. It isn’t in any way complacent to say that Iraq is already under a modicum of outside control, which can be tightened. Deployment that provides a ready attack option is part of this process. But, however much he may be deplored, it is up to the Iraqis to remove any ruler who abuses them.

‘Pre-emptive defence of world order’ looks a little thin as an explanation for the deployment of so many of our overstretched Armed Forces. Should we look for an explanation from the US and ape any US point of view, since our Prime Minister is committing our forces in their support? This is even more dangerous ground. Soon after the end of the Cold War, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle proclaimed that the strategic aim of the US should be to prevent any peer competitor to the US emerging anywhere in the world by means of unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority. This doctrine was amplified by Colin Powell, who said that the US requires sufficient power ‘to deter any challenger from ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage’.

Announcing the adoption of the doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence in a speech to US Army officer cadets at West Point, President Bush said the principle was to ‘take the battle to the enemy; disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge’. There is danger here for the future prospects of any country that appears to defy the national self-interest of the only remaining superpower: a superpower that condemns Iraq for failing to comply with one UN resolution, but abstains when Israel is condemned for disregarding dozens; a superpower that attacked a country which harboured terrorists who committed the terrible outrage of 11 September, but then declined to commit troops to peace enforcement because they might be unpopular following the US bombing; a superpower that is now alleged to be suggesting that the UK should secure and police Iraq because it has other national self-interests to pursue; a superpower that is prepared to risk the future of the United Nations if it does not follow a timetable that seems to be determined as much by the problems of reservist availability as by the difficulty of agreeing on a programme that could carry world support; a superpower that unilaterally supports Israel over the issue of Palestine and the Palestinians, the main cause of friction and fragility in the Middle East.

Of course we would not forgive ourselves if, later, it was confirmed that a catastrophe could have been prevented by taking pre-emptive action. But that is all the more reason for, in addition to all the wider questions that have to be answered, the Prime Minister to come clean to the Armed Forces on a number of issues. What about all the unfinished business in which they are involved? Why are they being committed to yet more overstretch, despite all the warnings that he has been given about what this means for individual servicemen and women? Why, if he is so keen to use them around the world, does he not ensure that they are properly equipped? Why is their automatic loyalty and ability to rescue him from situations such as the firemen’s strike not better rewarded by improvements to pay and conditions?

If he doesn’t take note, he risks destroying the finest army in the world (this is not the nostalgia of an old soldier, but the considered judgment of many international experts), and then he will not be able to punch above his weight on the world stage. But perhaps our involvement in such a deliberate breach of international law will so change the world order that much wider rethinking will anyway be required.