Tooth and Tail

Mark Urban

  • Brassey’s Defence Yearbook 1995 edited by Lawrence Freedman and Michael Clarke
    Brassey, 396 pp, £35.95, April 1995, ISBN 1 85753 131 0
  • Broken Lives: A Personal View of the Bosnian Conflict by Bob Stewart
    HarperCollins, 336 pp, £6.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 00 638268 1
  • Looking for Trouble: An Autobiography by Peter de la Billière
    HarperCollins, 449 pp, £19.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 00 255245 0

Throughout the Cold War, the British Army poured most of its resources into training and equipping for ‘the big one’, the day the Red Juggernaut would come rumbling across Europe and bring with it the most destructive warfare imaginable. The fact that British soldiers were fighting and dying at various times in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and the Falklands was an annoying detail to many senior officers and planners in Whitehall, a distraction from what defence was meant to be about. Now the Soviet threat is gone, defence policy consists very largely of preparing for those distractions, the limited wars which once claimed only a small percentage of the budget. In the Defence Yearbook Michael Clarke repeats what everyone knows: although ‘the Army, in particular, may lament the fact that Bosnia – like the Northern Ireland commitment – detracts from the real business of training for a major war, the fact is that the prospect of major war is now very low and the likelihood of more Bosnias is becoming higher.’

The British Army, with its experience of so many small wars since 1945, may be in a better position than most to adjust to this new landscape. Its generals, however, find the current uncertainty profoundly unsettling, not least because it threatens to undermine their notion of what the Army should be like. A future consisting only of Bosnias would soon tempt the Treasury to axe cherished projects for the most sophisticated weapons, which are of no use in peace-keeping operations. ‘If we lose that war-fighting capability,’ Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge remarked in a lecture last year, ‘I believe the British Army will be on the road to becoming a sort of gendarmerie which can provide a battalion here and a battalion there but frankly has lost its ability to go to war.’

It is almost inconceivable now that the Army will have to go to war again, as it did in 1939, in a struggle for national survival. What the Field Marshal had in mind probably is a conflict like the Gulf War, the only occasion on which Britain has deployed an armoured division in earnest since 1945. Defence chiefs now hold that any major conflict would be fought, in Field Marshal Inge’s words, ‘as part of a coalition, either with Nato or with some other coalition of the willing’. A Falklands-style ‘go it alone’ national effort is no longer an option as far as Whitehall is concerned. Under such circumstances, preparing the Army for a major war means keeping it sufficiently large and well equipped to make a respectable contribution to any alliance. Within a large coalition, however, it may be hard to distinguish who is making the real effort and who are the passengers – each nation will regard its own effort as being especially significant.

British politicians and generals believe that this country’s contribution to the Gulf War was second in significance only to that of the US. But few would suggest that the outcome would have been any different without Britain’s armoured brigades. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria all fielded more tanks than Britain, the Saudis more combat aircraft. The problem for the Army and the other Forces is that coalitions allow politicians to cut expensive projects since, when something like the Gulf deployment does occur, they can choose what forces to contribute. But coalition efforts as big and elaborate as that are likely to be rare; the Army is more likely to find itself in the Balkans or elsewhere engaged in peace-keeping or possibly peace enforcement. Britain’s experience of counter-insurgency in the years of decolonisation led its generals to formulate principles of minimum force, well-suited to the new strategic landscape. In this they differ from many US officers, for whom, as Clarke points out, ‘the potential to apply overwhelming force – even in UN operations – remains the essential rationale for the military instrument.’ The American penchant for Clausewitz, especially the notion that ‘in war, moderation is a logical absurdity,’ is greater than that of their British colleagues. When the first British combat troops were sent to Bosnia-Hercegovina, their commander, Lt Col Bob Stewart, quickly mothballed his mortars and antitank missiles on the grounds that ‘they would have little if any impact and most certainly would escalate the seriousness of the situation.’ Recent experience in Bosnia, though, suggests that in self-defence even artillery fire can be compatible with traditional British notions of minimum force and peace-keeping. General Sir Peter de la Billière, commander of the British forces in the Gulf, is more obviously a Clausewitzian, arguing that ‘once they have taken a decision to send service men and women to fight for their country’ politicians ‘must commit all available resources and finance, and give the fullest political commitment, to ensure that their military forces have everything they need to win as quickly as possible.’ The general was not referring to a peace-keeping mission, but these principles are unlikely to obtain in any future British Army expedition.

Bosnia, the Gulf and Somalia (where the British Government declined to send troops) suggest that the conflicts in which the Army is likely to participate in the coming years will, above all else, be limited: Britain’s contribution will be limited; the use of its most powerful weapons may be limited; and perhaps most important, the commitment to remain in a multinational task force in the face of mounting casualties may well be limited by lack of public support. Neither the Gulf nor Bosnia could hope to capture the public imagination – or stretch its tolerance for casualties – to the same extent as the Falklands campaign, with its elemental appeal to national self-respect. The ‘Options for Change’ review, announced in 1990, produced cries of anguish from several parts of the country where doomed battalions were raised. Hearing in Bosnia that his regiment, the Cheshires, had escaped the cuts, Lt Col Stewart was delighted: ‘To loyal regimental soldiers the end of over three hundred years of the regiment’s existence could barely be contemplated, it was the equivalent of death. Now that such a death sentence had been removed it was hardly surprising that we were over the moon.’

The subsequent Ministry of Defence money-saving exercise, ‘Frontline First’, was based on the principle that the ‘teeth’ of Britain’s Armed Services should remain but the support ‘tail’ should suffer. The message of both the Gulf and Bosnia, however, is that the balance has already shifted too far in favour of the teeth. Ministers’ fear of cutting famous regiments has for years meant that crucial areas of support have suffered instead. Royal Artillery units heading for Saudi Arabia had to scrounge ammunition from the Belgians and Dutch because so little remained in their own stores. The British Army of the Rhine, as it then was, sent only a quarter of its artillery to the Gulf, but even so had insufficient 155mm shells for them to fight. In 1990, it became clear that had the Russians invaded, our gunners would have run out of ammunition in a matter of hours. The British force deployed in Saudi Arabia had just two fighting brigades (a total of between seven and eight thousand troops), sustained by between twelve and fifteen thousand supporting personnel. The absence of more fighting units was determined largely by a shortage of ammunition and spares for tanks. The distances involved in supplying troops in Saudi Arabia were much greater than those the Army had planned for in Germany, and because so many of the main weapons were British-made purely national logistic lines had to be maintained.

In Bosnia two battalions (usually about 1300 troops) have been scattered over large tracts of mountainous country and have required more than two thousand supporting personnel. Much was made of the success of the Warrior infantry fighting vehicles sent with the Cheshires in 1992. But when a second battalion was sent the Army concluded that it could not support two units equipped with Warriors. Small-scale deployments such as the Bosnian one are, as Clarke points out, ‘more expensive to supply, more vulnerable, more in need of off-shore protection, and possibly more prone to serious mission failure’. The newly formed Royal Logistic Corps and the Royal Engineers are not as prestigious as the ancient county regiments and can be cut back with less public outcry. The Army’s inability to axe infantry battalions so that resources can be redirected into back-up forces means that future participation in coalitions under the UN or any other flag will be limited to the ‘battalion here and battalion there’ which alarmed Field Marshal Inge.

De la Billière describes an incident in the Korean War where he threatened to shoot one of his own men who would not obey an order. He also describes his SAS patrols during the Fifties in Oman, when ‘once we were up in the mountains, pretty well any Arab was fair game.’ This kind of behaviour wouldn’t be very easy to get away with now – one can imagine what kind of press coverage it might attract. In Broken Lives, Stewart discusses the work of the officers able to speak Serbo-Croat and concludes that ‘UN duties are primarily officers’ wars.’ In Bosnia, commissioned and non-commissioned officers find themselves part diplomat, part social worker, running around trying to defuse tension, putting up with abuse that one could scarcely imagine any British officer tolerating in the Age of Empire, or come to that, in the Omani Jebel. Looking good on television may now be a key skill on UN missions. As Stewart remarks, ‘surely there are no real secrets when working on a humanitarian or indeed peacekeeping mandate ... therefore the press can have almost unlimited access.’ One consequence may be that people with a vocation for armed international social work rather than for the ‘maximum violence’ of the old school will gravitate towards the Army. ‘Sensitive types’ tend to be much quicker at learning obscure Balkan languages and to have a better manner when handing out bandages in destroyed villages.

During the Gulf War, de la Billière spent as much as an hour a day on the telephone to Tom King, the Secretary of State for Defence, discussing the public relations aspects of the campaign. ‘I had done my best to persuade him,’ the General says, ‘that politicians should not intervene in any military chain of command; and although he had taken my point, I knew he found it difficult not to become involved in day-to-day decision-making.’ That is probably how it will be from now on. It is easy for British generals of the old school to laugh at the Americans, as they do in private, for pulling out of Somalia after the loss of 19 soldiers in one disastrous ambush and the ignominy of seeing a dead helicopter pilot being dragged around the streets, or the Belgians for quitting Rwanda after a smaller but equally traumatic loss, but they should consider what the reaction of Major or Blair would be if 20 British soldiers died in a single day on UN duties in a country which most Britons could not find on a map. Defence Secretaries are bound to yield to what de la Billière calls Tom King’s style of ‘micro-management’ when at any point they can be summoned before backbenchers to account for a disaster.

What will the British Army look like in twenty years’ time? Field Marshal Inge said last year that the ‘forward equipment programme’ – the multi-billion pound programme for new armour and combat helicopters – must be safeguarded. Army chiefs will need to maintain cadres of experts in armoured warfare and other skills for purposes of national defence. How many, and at what cost, will continue to be a subject of contention, but the small number of armoured brigades that now remain appears to constitute a sensible minimum. However, the political imperative to prop up ailing defence industries means that it costs far more than it should to retain this capability. The latest British tank purchases represent a speed of replacement roughly double anything the US or Germany would consider normal, and reflect the need to keep suppliers turning over with a steady stream of orders. To put an end to this situation requires discipline on the part of the generals and the political will on the part of governments to favour companies with significant export successes, such as the Rapier missile, and abandon the rest. It is time to buy cheaper foreign weapons – either American or European, but not the current chaotic mix – so reducing support costs and reaping the potential rewards that follow from Whitehall’s conviction that we will no longer go it alone in a major war.

The generals’ belief that the British Army is an organisation capable of conducting large-scale warfare more or less independently persists even so; and there is bound to be a great deal of ‘denial’ – assertions that the Army’s cherished way of doing business is compatible with the new order and that the taxpayer must continue to foot huge bills for equipment. But the generals, too, are going to have to kill some sacred cows, including regimental cap badges and prestige weapons.