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Jack Pershke: Can we mend our military?

Picture_2_2 Jack Perschke served as an Infantry Officer for seven years before spending two years in post-conflict countries supporting aid programmes. He now works for Ernst & Young advising clients on the delivery of complex change programmes and is also the Conservative PPC for Derby South. Here he argues that the damage inflicted on the military by Labour can only be corrected by a Conservative government willing to be honest about the state we're in and courageous enough to take the radical steps needed to change it.

Accepting credit and avoiding blame is one of this Labour government's most abhorrent features.  There is no clearer example of this vice than the way they have treated our armed forces.  Our soldiers, sailors and airmen have been devastatingly mis-managed, alienated and emasculated.  Yet when, against the odds, our armed forces succeed and swell our nation's chest with pride, Labour's front bench crowd into photos and delight in the reflected glory.  However, when outcomes are not as rosy, they paint our military men and women as fighters empowered by government and boldly punching above their weight as they fall victim to unassailable external factors.  These positions are both wholly false and damaging to the long-term future of our military.

The truth, that until recently so few have dared to say, is that our military has tasted failure on recent operations and this has been largely avoidable, controllable and the consequence of poor performance at multiple levels.  This government has allowed the previously unimaginable concept of failure to grow like a cancer within our armed services.  To cure it, a future Conservative administration will have to act as doctor to our military and convince an understandably reluctant patient that it's in their best interest to undergo some radical treatment.

To understand why this must happen it is important to be clear that over the last 10 years the government has stretched expectations of our armed forces beyond reality whilst, simultaneously, contracting resources beyond credibility.  This has led to resignations of high-flying officers, damning reports from groups of former senior officers and even critical comments from serving officers.

However, the most damaging symptom of all this is a military that doesn't trust its political leadership and doesn't have the capacity with which to improve performance on the basis of operational experience.  All of this has been highlighted by an internal army report leaked to the press in 2006 entitled 'UK Stability Operations in Iraq Op TELIC 2-5'.  This report analysed the iterations of deployments to Iraq and identified that the army was failing in many key performance areas and not learning from this experience.

In the coming months, as the final withdrawal from Iraq occurs, there will be more reports and a number of books published about the army in Iraq.  It seems clear that they will contain some very uncompromising comments. Having served in the army myself, and having observed its operations in Afghanistan whilst a civilian, I am privileged to have friends that confide in me.  Their stories about shortcomings and errors have shocked me. These include the absence of a coherent information management system on operations, the loss of key documents for crucial continuity and the abysmal pre-deployment training facilities.  All this before we even consider tactical mistakes such as the publicly admitted occasion on which hard-captured and important insurgents were swopped for visiting relatives thus allowing them to escape.

The other two services have similar problems.  Who can forget the humiliation visited upon the Royal Navy by lightly armed Iranians in speedboats? And many of us will remember the outrage expressed by Mark Lancaster MP at RAF failings when, as a serving TA officer, he was called-up on operations.  None of these insights should be brushed under the carpet in the name of respecting the service of our military men and women.  Respect must, of course, be afforded but the military also needs mending.

What will that mending involve?  Well, there will have to be some radical and potentially painful restructuring.  The smallest arm of the US military, The Marine Corps, have more tanks, soldiers, ships and aircraft than our three services combined.  Yet their structure produces the kind of unified, flexible and efficient fighting unit that our anachronistic and disjointed system cannot match.  This must be put right.  We cannot continue to lose operational capability as the services cat-fight over who owns what and who should be allowed to play with which toy.  Ask a soldier why the Army use the "Watchkeeper" Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and they'll tell you that, in essence, it's because the RAF didn't want them to encroach in their strategic remit by using the much more capable "Predator" UAV. 

The military also has to get IT competent.  Its junior ranks still have limited access to IT and all the benefits it offers for personal development.  The operational and administrative capabilities of IT have not been harnessed by our military in the same way that they have abroad and we continue to procure the large systems slowly and inflexibly.  Finally, there are softer reforms that are needed too.  As Prince Harry so ineloquently highlighted recently, lack of diversity in the officer corps is now getting critical.  With under 3% of officers coming from black and ethnic minorities, we are failing to connect with key parts of our community and loosing the insight, skills and capabilities that they offer.  This is not helped by an officer selection system that recruits in its own image and an institutional reluctance to promote from within the ranks.  This not only weakens the gene pool of officers but also disincentivises recruitment and retention of high quality 'other ranks' from our increasingly graduate and ambitious population.   

Therefore, should a Conservative government come to power in the near future, neither a resurrection of old policies nor an (unlikely) injection of funds will suffice.  A focused and dynamic military revolution is required. Failure to act decisively in this manner will condemn our armed forces to the kind of agonising slide into systemic failure they experienced at the end of the 19th century.  However, this will require a change of tack for our party.

We can no longer view the armed forces as a kind of venerated Holy Order, exempt from meaningful examination.  The Labour government has ingrained too many institutional problems and undermined too much of the old relationship between soldiers and politicians.  Difficult decisions will have to be taken and examinations will have to be conducted.  As the new political regime, we will need to demonstrate the courage to lead, the commitment to support and the honesty needed to rekindle the trust that allows our military institutions to flourish.  This will be a complex balancing act, but achieving it will be one of the most valuable services a new government can offer the country.


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