Beware The Short-Termism Of Those Who Fail To Prioritise Defence Spending

HMS Queen Elizabeth

 

As Britain heads toward an incredibly hard-to-predict general election, nearly everything about our country seems up for discussion – everything except Britain’s declining level of military spending, our long-term national defence strategy and our commitment to the armed forces we are quick to call heroes but grudgingly slow to fund.

James Forsyth, writing in The Spectator, talks about the bear in the room:

You wouldn’t know from this election campaign, but Europe is in crisis. On its eastern border, the threat from Russia is as great as at any point since the end of the Cold War. Crimea has been annexed and large parts of eastern Ukraine are under control of Russian-backed forces. Russian aircraft have even been taunting the RAF in the English Channel. The Baltic states are increasingly fearful that they will be next to suffer from Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassert Russian dominance on its doorstep.

On Europe’s southern border, Islamic State continues to cause death and destruction — the recent decapitations in Libya were filmed along the shore to make the point that the jihadis have reached the Mediterranean. More worrying, perhaps, is the number of Europeans fighting for it. Last weekend, Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, warned that the number of Europeans who will have taken up arms with Isis may treble to 10,000 by the end of this year. As these radicalised youths return home, the terrorist threat in Europe will rise exponentially.

But neither of these subjects features with any prominence in the election campaign. Isis and the Russian threat are deeply inconvenient truths that don’t fit into the party leaders’ scripts. The Tories’ six-point long-term economic plan doesn’t have room for foreign entanglements. Labour wants to talk about the National Health Service, not international security.

These are sobering words. There has been a worrying tendency of late in the Tory-friendly press to excuse David Cameron’s various failings and oversights – be it refusing to champion the conservative case in the televised leaders’ debates, or failing to ringfence defence spending during a period of global turmoil – in order to help push the Conservatives across the finish line on 7 May. It is good to see The Spectator taking a firmer stance on the issue of defence, at least.

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On Armed Forces Day

 

Saturday 28 June is Armed Forces Day in the United Kingdom.

Of course we should all take a moment to express our gratitude to the men and women who serve on the cutting edge of our nation’s defence and foreign policy projection capability – they toil and risk their lives for far less material reward or public recognition than many of us receive for doing far less.

But one day of public praise is not enough. Our armed forces are suffering significant cuts and capability reductions because of the coalition government’s refusal to protect the defence budget from spending cuts. These cuts include the compulsory redundancy of many long-serving, experienced veterans who deserve better from their government.

Britain is not like the United States – aside from our nuclear deterrent and pared-back blue water navy, we do not enjoy an advantage of many multiples over most of our current and potential future enemies, in terms of manpower or total defence spending. What advantage we have comes from our high-tech skills base, strong defence sector and the extraordinary professionalism of the people who serve our country in uniform.

All too often, people (particularly those on the left) suggest that defence spending should be pared back even further (“Shame on us for not investing more in schools while we build two new aircraft carriers”, etc.) It’s easy to say such things while quietly and ignorantly enjoying the fruits of Britain’s peace, prosperity and place in the world, which is underwritten by the very things that they want to see cut back or abolished. But in reality the opposite is true – having a powerful, effective and deployable military is crucial if Britain is to defend her interests, hedge against the unknown and be taken seriously on the world stage.

The introduction of Armed Forces Day has done a lot to promote greater knowledge, awareness and respect for the role that the armed forces play in our national life. But Britain still has a long way to go until serving soldiers and veterans are accorded the daily respect and acknowledgement that they deserve. Here, we can look to the United States as an example of giving the military a more prominent, respected role in society: from simple acknowledgement at places like airports, through discounts at stores and restaurants, up to incorporating more patriotic rituals – and yes, British Values – into the fabric of our national life.

And most importantly of all, we can put our money where our mouth is. In that spirit, Semi-Partisan Sam has made a small donation to veterans charity Help for Heroes, in support of the great work that they do supporting our wounded veterans.

Whatever our party allegiance or political differences may be, on this Armed Forces Day we should all be able to show our appreciation for those who fight our fights and wear the uniform.

 

End The Scandal Of Squalid Army Accommodation

Catterick Garrison

 

An overlooked article in the Telegraph reveals that serving British soldiers continue to endure crumbling substandard living accommodation at a time when the political elites in London are more focused on averting a tube strike and pandering to the whims of the RMT union and its overpaid train drivers than looking after the welfare of those who do a truly difficult and irreplaceable job.

The article quotes a complaint written to the letter’s page of Soldier Magazine, detailing conditions that should rightly cause many red faces at the Ministry of Defence:

The letter from an unnamed soldier complained: “We are constantly without hot water, have only three showers per platoon and not all of them work.

The rooms at Somme Barracks in Catterick are “falling to bits”, the soldier wrote.

“We have made every attempt to make them bearable to live in, but their poor condition is now starting to affect the lad’s morale.”

The response given to the soldier by the Ministry of Defence spokesman is breathtakingly dismissive and arrogant, and is worth quoting in full:

The accommodation at Somme Barracks is not condemned. The MOD has already invested some £1.2 million in improving the site in 2011 and 2012, redecorating and upgrading a number of areas including flooring, toilet facilities and utilities rooms.

We will continue to invest in the barracks and are replacing boilers supplying hot water to blocks 11 and 12. This work should be finished by May 2, 2014.

Comprehensive maintenance service is provided but occupants must report any problem promptly to the help desk or repair work may be delayed.

Essentially, the government’s response to a serving soldier’s complaint about appalling accommodation is to call him a liar, boast about supposed renovations that clearly delivered no noticeable improvement when they were completed two years ago, and then to blame the squalid conditions on the soldiers themselves, claiming that they did not report the issue to the help desk as one would a malfunctioning BlackBerry.

Compare the serving soldier’s description of substandard British army accommodation with this grim account of army housing in backward-sliding Russia, taken from the excellent book “Putin’s Russia” by the late journalist Anna Politkovskaya:

[The soldier’s] home is a dreadful officers’ hostel with peeling stairwells, half derelict and eery … The windows of many now uninhabited flats are dark … We go up to the second floor, and behind a peeling door is a squalid, spartan room … There is no hot water, and it is cold, draughty and uncomfortable.

It is a much overlooked outrage that some in the British army live in accommodation that can be described in very similar terms to Russian army lodgings, the Russian army being synonymous with mistreatment of its soldiers. The comparison is even more galling when one considers the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff earns £250,000 per year, and the Permanent Undersecretary of Defence an impressive £185,000 for his bureaucratic skills.

The story has gained very little traction in the media aside from the Daily Telegraph story, and with much of the national media’ attention focused on the upcoming European elections it is unlikely to do so. But even if the Conservative-led coalition government remains committed to its policy of diminishing Britain’s military capability though underinvestment and spending cuts, ministers could at least ensure that all serving personnel have the dignity of adequate housing.