Lieutenant Mark Evison was shot on the 9th May 2009 at Nad Ali about half an hour’s drive west of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. Searching for reception on his malfunctioning Bowman Radio, he had stepped into the exposed doorway of a compound and was hit. Bleeding heavily, Evison was carried by his men through a web of ditches and across a canal to Haji Alam Fort. There he lost consciousness, 7000 miles from home, waiting for a helicopter. He never woke up.
No helicopter was dispatched until 39 minutes after he was shot. Probably no helicopter was available. In Helmand fewer than thirty helicopters were supporting nine thousand soldiers. At any rate, Camp Bastion hospital was 15 kilometres away and Evison bled heavily for an hour and a half before reaching it. He deserved better.
Gordon Brown’s 2004 decision to scrap a £1.4 billion fund allocated to purchasing more helicopters probably contributed significantly to the shortage. The Chicot Inquiry discusses the decision’s impacts in Iraq at length but not its implications for operations in Afghanistan. The Bowman Radio was originally rejected by the Army’s Director of Infantry who called it was ‘totally unsuitable’; Bowman was three times heavier than its predecessor, had a dangerously short battery life and its range in Helmand province could fall to as low as a few hundred meters. By Spring 2009 failures of this type had driven Brigadier Tim Radford to privately consider handing central Helmand to his less stretched American counterparts. The national humiliation would have been too great so Radford and his men kept calm and carried on.
The Ministry of Defence denies that equipment failures played any role in Evison’s death.
British involvement in Afghanistan is a closed chapter but the bipolar approach to defence embodied by Evison’s tragic death lives on. The introductions to British defence reports are characterised by assurances of the UK’s continued global relevance and ambitions. By contrast the bodies of most reports are composed of capabilities we allegedly no longer require. At some point rhetoric and reality inevitably collide.
The Royal Navy now has 19 frigates and destroyers where in 1998 it had 34. The UK has fewer tanks than Switzerland. The British MOD leads the world in operating at the extreme edge of the possible.
Our current defence strategy is largely premised on not having to defend ourselves. The lifecycle of the defence systems and equipment procured today is up to 45 years. Forty-five years ago, in 1971, the Iron Curtain was as firm as ever, Deng Xiaoping was yet to take power and introduce China’s transformative market reforms and Osama Bin Laden was merely a wealthy Saudi teenager. By historical standards these strategic shifts are reasonably minor. Nevertheless government strategic analyses generally assume the relative stability of the last 15 years will continue indefinitely; the 2010 and 2015 defence reviews inexplicably argues the UK will no longer need the capability to deploy an expeditionary force of the size sent to Iraq or to conduct two simultaneous medium sized operations as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully the 2020s are indeed an exceptionally peaceful decade, but premising our defence policy on an unstated and unjustifiable assumption they will be appears unwise.
Three illusions aid this approach to defence. Firstly over-dependence on Trident; if we continue to rely so heavily on our nuclear capabilities some scenarios will confront us with a choice between launching an immoral first-strike nuclear attack or doing absolutely nothing. Secondly over-dependence on NATO; the British Army is intended to act as an interoperable auxiliary to a much larger US force. Perhaps the US will remain highly committed to the defence of Europe, but Donald Trump is cheered when he denounces NATO and Newt Gingrich has publicly dubbed Estonia to be “a suburb of St Petersburg”. In 2012 Obama’s (largely rhetorical) pivot to Asia attempted to shift the US’s strategic and economic centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In this political environment, it would be unwise to have no plan for US disengagement from Nato. Finally, British defence planning tends to assume lost capabilities can be regenerated rapidly in the event of a crisis. Given the extraordinary logistical hurdles which confronted the Ministry of Defence in the run-up the Invasion of Iraq, a scenario consistent with defence planning assumptions, wide scale attempts to regenerated lost capabilities would probably be impossible except in the long-term.
Fundamentally only a very few voters have any personal contact with the military. Servicemen and women are constitutionally forbidden from protesting. The Ministry of Defence is therefore at a crucial disadvantage in interdepartmental budgetary warfare. Parliamentarians have a duty to compensate by holding the government to account. Of course there is no shortage of Conservative MPs who would favour higher defence spending but they face the challenge of highlighting less deserving areas of spending to cut instead.
In the aftermath of Brexit the UK faces a fundamental choice. Does a ‘Global Britain’ merely mean that we allow the world to come to us or that we should remain active in every-corner of the globe? The UK will opt for continued international ambition; our ambition must be reflected in defence spending or ‘punching above our weight’ will come to mean sending young people to their deaths with inadequate support.