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Are the Royal Marines being sacrificed to try to save the new carriers ?

How many times have you read a story in a paper on a subject about which you have some knowledge and realized that it is almost completely wrong? How many times have you heard politicians talking about defence – and known that what they are saying is, once again, a load of old cobblers? But how many of you then ask the question about why they are making these statements? Who briefed them; who approved the message: and who thought they could get away with it?

Perhaps it is this last point that causes so many service personnel to start to lose faith in the “system”, knowing that so much of what is being fed to the public by way of press releases or backroom briefings is simply not true. The only explanations are that either the politicians do not know what they are talking about, or they don’t care and are casually peddling untruths to save their careers – or those of their masters of course.

Most service types will have their own stories about how cuts have affected them or their ships, squadrons, battalions etc. Reduced track-miles, lack of training ammo, too little paint (unless a VIP inspection is due of course), too few personnel for the task on hand, and so on. And so often we soldier-on, absorbing the extra hassle in the interests of the service.  But should we do so? Should we simply turn a blind-eye to the blandishments of the politicians who seem to have no compunction about glossing over the shortages which can lead to troops going into action with insufficient ammunition or inadequate equipment?

In a recent conversation with some DS at a training camp, one of them commented on the fact that they have been told that they had to pass everyone on the course, regardless, in order to help meet manning levels. He said that it was a “double whammy” because those at bottom of the table soon realized they were not going to be back-squadded so tended to relax, and those at the top were outraged by that fact – and especially as they then had to help the DS “carry” the others in order to prevent the whole course from falling apart.

And so one has to ask why no-one in power has cottoned-on to the fact that this is going on. There is an old carpenters’ saying  in the States: “Putty and paint makes what ain’t”. It just about sums up so much of what is going on today. Ships that don’t have adequate crews.  Aircraft carriers that don’t have escort ships. A shortfall of some 8,500 regulars, with particular shortages in trained engineers (most notably in the Navy), pilots and intel specialists.  All funded by a defence budget that has been fudged to meet the 2% NATO target by adding in pensions etc.

And yet, when questioned about this you hear an MOD spokesman smoothly saying:

“The military has enough personnel to meet all its operational requirements, including being active on 25 operations in 30 countries throughout the world,”

To be fair, the UK is not alone in all of this. The German armoured forces were recently likened to a mobile scrapyard by a visiting US official. German politicians are also increasingly worried: “It’s a real disaster for the Navy, it’s the first time in history that there will not be any submarine operating for months.”  We read of many other navies where ships have not been to sea for years, or inadequately-trained submarine crews inadvertently and tragically sinking their own vessels. But though these examples might, at some level, provide comfort to UK politicians, they are not an excuse for any form of self-delusion in this country.

Technically marvellous – operationally impracticable ?

Our nuclear deterrent is said to be heading for a £20bn funding shortfall during the course of the deployment of the new Dreadnought-class subs. The new carriers (and their aircraft) are subject to horrible cost-overruns and are critically dependent upon the availability of increasingly scarce resources such as crews, pilots and trained technicians.  Some reports now suggest that a single carrier task group will absorb 27 per cent of the Navy’s fleet by tonnage and 20 per cent of its personnel. Indeed, the NAO says it is time to start to plan for these shortages as:

“Currently, the Navy carries out multiple operations concurrently using single ships. This means the Navy will need to change fundamentally how it operates and make judgements on priorities.”

In other words, and setting aside the question of the nucelar deterrent, the Navy has a choice. Carriers or a conventional surface-combatant fleet; but not both.

Are our own military leaders to blame at all? The answer has to be a qualified “Yes”. Why did the Navy press on with the carrier programme when it must have known the impact it would have on its budgets? Why has the CGS pushed for perhaps the most expensive 8×8 available today for the new MIV project?  Why did the Army select a hugely expensive, tank-sized AFV to replace the CVR(T) series? How has the RAF got into a positon where its new F-35 fighters are reportedly going to double in price to (an unofficially-acknowledged) £150m a pop ?

Can we really afford these if they actually each cost £150,000,000 ?

Philip Hammond amazed people when he recently commented that he thought we could reduce the Army’s strength to 50,000. Perhaps he was putting a political toe in the water to gauge the reaction to a strategy to be realistic for once about our capacity to support our armed forces. Perhaps we can only fund a small army, a single carrier group (just) and a few fighter aircraft. If that is the case then let’s be honest about it and scrap the nuclear subs – or whatever else is necessary, in order to do the remaining tasks properly.

As a commander reputedly once said to his boss:  “General, either say “go take that hill” and allow me to choose the troops and tactics, or give me the troops and let me decide if I can take the hill. Don’t do both.”

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