Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya & The UK Military

The UK is not only involved in the no-fly campaign against Libya but PM Cameron seems to be desperately pushing to specifically topple the regime and kill Gaddafi. Just the other day a specific attack against him was called off at the last minute because of the presence of the press at the site. In fact, the government is now involved in a public spat with their top General on whether or not such a thing is even permissible.

The fact that the UK is even involved in Libya is of major concern to me, and not only because it seems to be a badly conceived, poorly defined mission with no clear objectives or command structure. My main concern is with the men and women of the UK military and the effects that another war will have on them, especially since the government has recently taken a machete to the military budget. Under the auspices of the Strategic Defence Review, the government has slashed spending, slashed jobs and slashed our nation's capability to wage war. The Independent described the spending review as meaning that the UK would be 'unable to launch major military operations overseas'. Which, let's face it, is precisely where you want to launch military operations.

The problem with this is that the SDR was not driven by the needs of the military nor based on the realities of the dangerous world we live in, it was driven by a need to cut spending and damn the results. Not only did the recent Strategic Defence Review not mention N. Africa once- no hint of turmoil anywhere in what is now one of the most volatile areas of the world- it takes no account of having to wage an air war in the Mediterranean or of having ground forces in the desert kingdom of Libya. In short, the paper upon which we're basing our future defence needs did not even have the foresight to predict major unrest a handful of months after its publication. Given that the military procurement process and training process moves at an almost glacial pace, it's important that our future needs are carefully considered. Skill sets do not appear overnight. If we lose a skill or a capability due to redundancies, we cannot simply regain it overnight when needed- it can take months or even years for the skill to be re-acquired and then for trainers to pass that skill on to the men who will take it into battle with them. And re-learning skills during a war is a sure way to get people killed. If we scrap a particular piece of equipment now, we not only lose it but the men with the ability to use it, plus the skills of those who maintain it. If at some later date we discover that actually we do need it, we not only need to re-purchase it but we need to re-learn and re-train a whole new generation of soldiers in its care and use. Not to mention the integration of the equipment/skill with the wider military.

Right now, 800 Royal Marines are on stand by to go to Libya, as the air war threatens to expand to the ground, and the SAS & SBS are already in country. But the UK has no aircraft carrier to stand off the coast and no Harrier jump jets to provide ground support- our new aircraft carriers won't be ready until 2016 and won't be able to carry planes until 2019. Incidentally of the two we're buying, only one will ever be operational- that's right, we're buying two but can only afford to run one.

Our armoured vehicles and artillery have been slashed (we've lost 40% of our tanks alone) - because when will Britain ever be involved in the flat, open expanses of desert where they are essential? Given that tanks not only provide the ability to project power against the enemy but also provide ground forces with a great deal of protection this makes no sense to me. Especially since other nations, for example Canada, are currently using them to good effect in Afghanistan.

Our number of soldiers has been drastically cut too so that we could not even mount another conflict like the Falklands without the help of other nations. Given that Argentina recently made noises about reclaiming the islands because of the oil there one has to ask who in government thought it was a good idea to make our future defence of the islands dependent on other nations. Who precisely? The US remained essentially neutral in the last conflict and the French, our current allies, supplied the Argentinians with Exocet missiles to attack our Navy. If Argentina moves to take the islands again, who specifically does the government see as helping us protect them? Who is going to lend us a fully functioning aircraft carrier? Perhaps this is a question someone, say an elected representative, should have asked before now. As it stands the new cuts mean that not only are we unable to launch a major offensive we will not be able to fight wars in more than one country at a time- only 30,000 men are available for a major conflict while 45,000 were needed for the initial invasion of Iraq for example. In a smaller conflict like Afghanistan we will only have a pool of 6,500 men- down from 9,500. If the no-fly zone fails to topple Gaddafi, how many troops will be needed and/or available to go in? What will that mean for the mission in Afghanistan? It bears mentioning here too that of all the foreign fighters in Iraq, the majority were from Libya- will they turn their guns on Allied troops once Gaddafi is gone?

At the time that Cameron was still threatening his intervention in Libya 170 nearly fully trained RAF pilots were made redundant, in addition to two whole Tornado squadrons (and all of our Harrier jump jets)- because when will Britain need pilots to enforce a no-fly zone or provide ground support to troops facing tanks?
Cameron has not only crippled the military with short-sighted cuts, his intervention in Libya now threatens to put servicemen at greater risk than they would have been only a year ago- in fact, the SDR specifically stated that there would be no wars of "liberal intervention" in the near future. The whole basis of the review was that Britain's future conflicts would look an awful lot like Afghanistan- it did not once take into account an action like Libya or any other potential hotspot around the world- back in October the thought of going to war against Libya was not even a possibility and yet here we are today on the verge of getting sucked into another ground war.

Basing future military needs on the actions we're currently involved in is not only short-sighted but it puts the lives of servicemen and women in danger- have they forgotten already how many died because British troops had Land Rovers and not armoured vehicles in Iraq? How many were killed because they had no body armour? In Afghanistan, troops have even needlessly been killed or maimed because they aren't even issued portable ladders so that they can enter walled compounds safely. Ladders for goodness sake- we can't provide troops with a simple item like that in the war that's already been going on for almost ten years and here we are starting another one.

Why is it always that the politicians who slash the military's capabilities are the same ones who so eagerly send them to war?

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