John Glen is MP for Salisbury and a member of the Defence Select Committee.
Yesterday the Defence Select Committee published its first report in this Parliament on operations in Afghanistan. In essence, we found that our excellent UK Forces were deployed in Helmand for three years from 2006 without the necessary personnel, equipment or intelligence to succeed in their mission. The reason for this, was a failure in military and political co-ordination. Though we acknowledge that our forces have done an amazing job and achieved the best tactical outcomes in the circumstances we also make the point that the decision to move UK Armed Forces into the South of Afghanistan in early 2006 was not fully thought through.
It appears as if the MoD did not anticipate that the presence of the Armed Forces in Helmand might stir up a hornets’ nest, especially as much of the intelligence was contradictory. We hope that this report will stimulate an analysis of the way senior military officers in Whitehall interact with Ministers. I believe there needs to be a bit more “Not, unless”… rather than always “Yes” when new missions are considered. Honest military advice that gives a full and accurate account of what is really happening on the ground is paramount if we are to avoid decision making where optimism in Whitehall triumphs over grim realities in theatre. No armed forces are invincible if deployed in inadequate numbers in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We will also publish our report on the SDSR in the very near future. This report is the culmination of several months of evidence-taking in the Select Committee. I won’t reveal the contents here but what I can say is that I have not yet met one constituent or analyst who welcomes the conclusions from the perspective of net impact on MoD; but equally I have not met one person who has given a coherent perspective of how they would have spent the same envelope of money differently (i.e. how the same pot of money could have been spent more effectively within the department).
What is clear across the MoD is that the challenges facing it are immense: discerning the full extent of future procurement liabilities and gaining control of these programmes; developing an industrial strategy that enables SMEs to provide cheaper alternatives for those less complex elements of our armed forces' requirements; delivering Lord Levene’s sensible reforms to the structure and organisation of the MoD itself… whilst we are fighting in Afghanistan, playing a major role in Libya and the department is taking an 8% cut in their budget. Today we anticipate further announcements about the future structure of the army and the reported adoption of US and Australian models for using reserve forces to enable reductions in the numbers of regulars.
The Prime Minister indicated in the SDSR announcement in October 2010 that real terms increases in Defence spending after 2014 will be required if the aspirations of the SDSR for 2020 are to be achieved. It is hoped that the determined work of Liam Fox to reform the MoD will minimise the need for extra resources and allow us to track future expenditure and measure the impact of this investment. Nevertheless, the complexity involved in this work is enormous and the parallel tracks of change will not lead to an easy period for the Ministry of Defence.