Back in 2001 I, like many of you, watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell in the United States. I felt shock, anger and fear at the time. The one thing I knew was that we, the International Community had to do something. We had to reply, a kind of ‘fire with fire’ scenario if you like. Fast forward a few months and Britain’s Armed Forces found themselves in Afghanistan, albeit ‘light’.
Fast forward another few years and we, (the West) invaded Iraq. I won’t labour the rights and wrongs of that decision. What I know is that the one constant throughout this period, pretty much since 2001 to date (2011) is that the UK’s Armed Forces have been heavily engaged against our enemies on the battlefield. No one said it would be easy, no one said it would be quick. The one thing people have said is that war has a cost, on both our people and resources. Military action requires funding, political support and plenty of resources, not to mention a plan.
I had the privilege of speaking at a Stop the War Coalition debate last year before the general election, along with the TaxPayer’s Alliance, BBC and wrote briefly in the Crossbow spring edition about Britain’s role in Afghanistan. My point was clear: this was a regional operation involving the UN that would not stop because we wanted it too. Moreover, and most importantly our troops had not been resourced properly for far too long.
If we take some basic facts, the MOD budget was frozen from 1997 at 0% increases for five years (a real terms cut). Thereafter it saw extremely minimal increases in funding and these only came from the special reserve. However, during the height of the Iraq conflict in 2005, military chiefs were ordered by the Treasury to cut – yes, that infamous word we now associate with the BBC, cut – defence spending. Whilst the left may have rejoiced ideologically, the reality was our men and women in uniform (from all backgrounds) suffered as a result.
To those of who saw these cuts, alarm bells started ringing. Consider that this was back in 2005, with our forces heavily committed in Iraq, and shortly after being re-directed to Afghanistan. Without being political, these cuts were started by the previous government (independent commentators acknowledge this fact). Take the example of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet of Destroyers & Frigates. It was substantially cut in 2005/6, along with the Sea Harrier – taken out of service completely. This didn’t include numerous front line Tornado squadrons, the Canberra PR9, the Jaguar, the list goes on… not to mention the restrictions placed on Army recruitment, making it impossible to maintain manning levels (I won’t even mention the helicopter situation).
Fast forward again to June 2010, some near nine to ten years after we first went to war, and hope had arrived. The UK finally held a Defence Review, the first for over a decade. Plans were finally put in place to tackle the huge budget deficits affecting all departments, a massive debt, and an MOD in some disarray, employing more civil servants than found in the RN/RAF combined; one could argue the UK Armed Forces had finally been ‘saved’.
The Government has addressed the strategic issues facing the UK, whilst ensuring that the Armed Forces are on course to be equipped with the best possible equipment, whilst reducing the huge fiscal imbalance that the department and country currently faces.
It is not an easy task and those who seek to manipulate people’s emotion to attack the Government are opportunistic at best, limited in imagination at worst. I have spoken to many in the defence community who also agree that the single most important priority of a nation is its economic security. Defence and National Security come a very close second.
Whilst it has been painful to see some spending reductions and equipment withdrawn from service, it could have been far worse. If the department had carried on spending on a ‘credit card’ that was vastly overdrawn we would now be talking about bankruptcy and even more difficult reductions in capability.
Put in context, I am optimistic about the Forces and although some have said Labour should apologise for their inability to fund and ‘look after’ the Armed Forces this past decade, I will leave that decision to the politicians; although I would note the Defence Secretary’s predecessor did make huge strides in improving medical care and improvements to basic equipment.
What I can say is that Britain appears to be in a far stronger position. We have seen huge improvements these past months: front line troops given the pay they deserve, holidays starting when they arrive back home, equipment requests for the front line in Afghanistan and looking after those who return wounded from the battlefield put to the top of the list.
Someone asked me the other day why I was so confident about the future of the Armed Forces. I replied: because for the first time ever, we have a plan in place – plain and simple. It is a plan that will address the strategic issues facing the UK and is the right one. Furthermore, the long term viability of the Armed Forces has been addressed and will lead into positive territory as will the nation’s finances. We all wish we had unlimited budgets, but that would be dreaming – facing up to our economic situation, is the single best tonic we can give the future of Britain.
I conclude with the Chinese proverb: ‘The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed during war.’
Our men and women in uniform are not expendable, so let us hope and pray that they never find themselves so starved of support ever again. The green shoots of recovery are on the way, let us get behind and support the Government as it seeks to put the ‘Great’ back in Britain’s Armed Forces once more.