Dan Byles: The Government's appalling treatment of our armed forces shows no sign of abating
Dan Byles is the candidate for North Warwickshire and a former Army officer. He served as a staff officer in the MOD during the Iraq invasion, and at the age of 27 was the then youngest serving Major in the Army.
Last week, three British soldiers in Afghanistan were killed in a friendly fire incident. In the same week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that opium production in Afghanistan has doubled in the last two years and now accounts for 93% of the world’s opiates.
I am a realist when it comes to the horror and confusion of war, and I refuse to join the usual America-bashing over these tragic deaths. Mistakes happen on the battlefield, and British lives are being saved daily by American close air support. I am less forgiving, however, when it comes to sending British servicemen and women to war with equipment that is known to be inadequate.
The lack of an effective ‘battlefield identification system’ was highlighted five years ago by the Public Accounts Committee, and again in May of this year. Like the requirement for off-the-shelf Cougar armoured vehicles, which was identified as an urgent operational requirement in 2001 but took five years to implement, it seems that nothing is done until enough soldiers have lost their lives.
British soldiers are dying in a foreign war with no clear aims or objectives, while Helmand province has become the world’s largest drug producer.
Over the past year, I have watched with sadness and mounting anger as the death toll among British soldiers mounts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001 we have lost 244 soldiers in both war zones, and in recent months the death rate has if anything increased. In Helmand Province in Afghanistan, fighting is so intense it’s estimated soldiers serving on the front line have a one in 36 chance of being killed. This is the Operation that John Reid (former Defence Secretary) claimed British troops would leave “without firing a shot.”
British troops are being overstretched and under resourced by a Government that has no real understanding of the Armed Forces, and is offering no effective leadership whatsoever. Not one of the present Cabinet has served in the military. Like many current and former servicemen and women, I find the appointment of Des Browne as a part time Secretary of State for Defence an insult to our troops. I cannot remember a previous Defence Secretary who shared this vital job with another cabinet position (Des Browne is also the Secretary of State for Scotland). Yet at a time when British Forces are fighting the bloodiest high intensity war since Korea, Gordon Brown doesn’t think we warrant a full time Minister in charge!
Perhaps this is unsurprising given the contempt with which Gordon Brown treated our Armed Forces during his time as Chancellor. While Blair committed British troops to wars around the globe, Brown actually cut the infantry by four regular battalions. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen, even as the number of soldiers dying in the sand has been rising. Blair loudly proclaimed that British forces in Afghanistan would have whatever equipment they needed, but Brown’s budget squeeze has left us with insufficient battlefield helicopters to do the job properly. Urgent operational requirements take five years to implement. And incredibly, only two months ago, the Government announced a cut in the training budget for the Territorial Army – a key part of our deployable capability – of £5 million. What planet are these ministers on?
The Armed Forces are fighting two vicious wars well in excess of Labour’s bureaucratic ‘planning assumptions’, and yet thanks to Brown’s military spending squeeze:
- The Regular Army is the smallest since The Battle of Waterloo (1815)
- The Territorial Army is the smallest since it was created in 1906
- The Royal Navy is the smallest since the Battle of Trafalgar (1805)
- Defence spending as a percentage of GDP is the lowest since the 1930s
- A fully trained soldier is paid £10,000 less than a fully trained policeman, and almost half what a fully trained fire fighter earns
Traditionally, senior military officers refrain from criticising the Government in public. The current crisis facing our Armed Services has forced General after General to break this tradition:
General Sir Michael Rose:
“In the past six years, the Prime Minister has presided over a near-catastrophic decline in defence spending which has put our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan at considerable and quite unnecessary risk.”
General Dannatt (Chief of General Staff):
“We now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected… reinforcements for emergencies or operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are now almost non-existent.”
Col Clive Fairweather (former deputy commander of the SAS):
“It is the fault of Gordon Brown's Treasury that the Army is under-resourced. We don't have enough aircraft, troops or equipment.”
Our soldiers are dying daily in two wars on the other side of the world. They are not properly paid or resourced, and there are not enough of them. Despite this, they do a sterling job that should make us proud, but as a nation we should also be ashamed of how badly we treat them.
Where is Gordon Brown on this issue? Can he tell us exactly what our soldiers are fighting and dying for? Can he tell us when we will have a full time Secretary of State for Defence, who will devote his time entirely to fighting the corner for our soldiers against the penny pinchers at the Treasury? Can he apologise for his part in running down our military capability, and promise to start committing the necessary resources to our soldiers from now on?
This government has treated our Armed Forces appallingly. They are a precious asset that must be valued, adequately resourced, used with reluctance and treated with respect.