White Flag? An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott

This important and timely book brings a forgotten subject within reach of the general reader. The defence of the realm has slipped far down the order of political priorities, eclipsed by the civilian preoccupations and gargantuan budgets of the Departments of Work and Pensions, Health, and Education, any one of which counts for more in electoral terms.

Defence is often left as the province of specialists, employing technical language and writing for the benefit of other specialists, with no attempt to render the subject comprehensible to the wider public, or to relate detailed findings to the wider picture.

Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott instead offer us, in under 400 pages, a picture of the whole scene. They have interviewed the specialists, and better still they have visited many different theatres, or potential theatres, of war, and have spoken to a large number of people at all levels, from the highest to the lowest, within the armed services, the Ministry of Defence and far beyond. Gavin Williamson, the present Defence Secretary, has talked at length to them.

An early chapter is devoted to life on the frontline in Ukraine, a story which for most of the time is too undramatic to catch the attention of the world’s media:

“It is not immediately obvious that this is a war zone. There are no bodies lying in the rubble or fighter jets roaring overhead. In the small town a kilometre or so from the frontline, where the former community centre has been turned into an army base, civilian life just about goes on. The roads are line with pretty apricot and apple trees in blossom. A small child plays in a dilapidated playground; an old woman totters to a faded grocery store; stray dogs skitter in the dust.

“But the birdsong is mixed with a more ominous sound: the faint thud of mortar attacks in the distance… What is happening in this part of the former Soviet Union matters not just to the people of Ukraine but to everyone who would prefer to contain President Putin’s regime. It is a showcase for the fate that can befall places he considers weak.”

So it matters to the United Kingdom: “In an initiative called Operation Orbital, British troops have been training thousands of members of Ukraine’s armed forces in 14 locations outside the contested Donbas region. More than 1,300 British servicemen and women have been deployed since 2015.”

Is Vladimir Putin going to push things, or will he keep them low-key? Even he probably does not know the answer to that question. On his northern flank, the authors of this book visit the 800 troops from the Ist Battalion the Royal Welsh who are stationed in Estonia, in a deployment sometimes known, informally, as “Operation Tethered Goat”, for with their ten tanks, they could be rolled over by the estimated 22 tank battalions which the Russians could send against them.

According to Major Tomas Balkus, a director at NATO’s Strategic Communications Headquarters in Riga:

“Most observers say that Russia is not ready for a big conflict with NATO. I agree. But Russians are crazy, so even though they are not ready, it doesn’t mean they won’t do anything. In the world wars, men didn’t have anything to eat and would attack with one rifle per ten soldiers. That’s OK for them.”

The audacious incompetence in recent months of Russian agents in Salisbury and other parts of Europe suggests indeed that the Russians are crazy, or at least that they think in a way which is incomprehensible to the western liberal mind. A former Polish Special Forces commander who led NATO troops in Afghanistan is quoted saying that he and his colleagues ignore intelligence from the West which tells them not to worry about a Russian invasion:

“They don’t understand how Russia thinks. We’ve been occupied by them, so we know. Russia is not a country – it is a state of mind. They don’t care about their economy or society. They want to be a great nation that is feared and respected.”

If things went really wrong on NATO’s eastern flank, American reinforcements would have to pass through Germany to get there. But in January 2017, when the Americans tried to transport a brigade of 3,500 troops and 87 tanks from Bremerhaven to Poland, they found that a shortage of trains able to carry heavy military equipment, and a German bureaucracy which insists on at least ten days’ notice for any military movement of more than four vehicles, made this impossible to achieve with any kind of rapidity.

It is, in a way, a relief to read about our NATO allies’ incompetence rather than our own. For much of this book is devoted to the monstrous incompetence of our own politicians and officials, as they over and over again order more equipment than the Treasury is prepared to pay for, and then keep changing the specification, so it becomes more expensive still.

In 2010, David Cameron entered Downing Street and was dismayed to discover that cancelling the contract to build two aircraft carriers would cost more than pressing ahead. The carriers had also doubled in size, and an appallingly expensive row had developed about the take-off and landing technology for any aircraft which might actually fly off them.

The price just for the ships had already increased from the original estimate of £2.14 billion to £5.2 billion, and looked as if it was heading for £8 billion, when a showdown took place over dinner at the headquarters of BAE Systems, where Sir Bernard Gray, the MoD’s Chief of Defence Materiel, made clear he believed the figures provided by the constructors were complete fantasy: “To make matters worse, he was teetotal, so there was no question of plying him with drink.”

They promised the cost would not go above £5.4 billion, so he called their bluff and offered them a fixed fee of £5.8 billion, which they at once refused. In the end, after a lot of brinkmanship, agreement was reached on a fee of £6.2 billion.

To deploy a carrier, you need not only the fighter jets and helicopters which fly off it, but submarines, frigates, destroyers and tankers. You need, in fact, pretty much the whole of what is left of the Royal Navy, when you discount the ships which are laid up in port having their engines replaced.

And the Chinese have developed a ballistic missile, the Dongfeng-21D, which “is said to be able to close on its target at ten times the speed of sound, making it almost impossible to intercept”, of which 1200 can be constructed for the price of one aircraft carrier, which in turn could be vulnerable to attack at a range of 2,000 km.

So in order to provide work in Scottish shipyards – for Gordon Brown, a prime reason for building the carriers – we have put an awful lot of our eggs in one rather vulnerable basket, or at best in two of them.

To read the whole of this book in one go would be a rather dispiriting experience, for it describes a dreadful series of appallingly expensive and highly questionable decisions on the procurement side of things, including the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

The authors are still able to say, at the end, that our armed forces “are among the best in the world: professional, disciplined, reliable, committed and brave”. But this book tells a story of hollowing out, with the clear risk that we shall end up as a paper tiger, quite unable to defend ourselves.

One consolation (if that is the word) not touched on here is that we have a long history of military weakness and incompetence. Think of the Crimean War. Think of the pitiful disorganisation and dishonesty in our forces at the start of the Second World War, laid out by J.K.Stanford in his memoir Tail of an Army, and forgotten once defeats like Dunkirk had been passed off as triumphs.

The authors remark that “the British Army, once feared and revered all over the world”, could soon be half the size of the French Army and smaller than the armies in Italy, Spain and Germany too.

The British Army has not always been feared and revered. It has usually been so small that any kind of continental campaign was inadvisable unless our allies did the larger share of the fighting. Now that NATO is, as General Sir Richard Barrons puts it here, “a political alliance with a demobilised military arm”, we are far more vulnerable than we realise.

White Flag? tries to sound the alarm. Will anyone listen?