The idea will be a fantasy until the Armed Forces are properly funded
“Where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” Theresa May asked the Commons yesterday. She joined a number of high profile Conservatives, including Liam Fox and Jeremy Hunt, in lambasting the government during the week Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Well, where is ‘Global Britain’?
It’s a mirage, a soundbite. You might hope the current defence secretary, head of the defence select committee and the former PM might understand the diminished capabilities of the Armed Forces but all three have radically different interpretations of what the Army and RAF can achieve. Ranging from the bizarre proposition to use fighter jets to help with evacuations, to re-invading the country without the US, they share the same delusions about the current capabilities of Britain’s armed forces.
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These lazy ideas are also accompanied by disturbingly poor forecasts from the top echelons of the military. Less than two weeks ago the Chief of the Defence staff implored Times readers to “not write off (Afghan security forces) yet” as “its security forces are beginning to show the sort of defiance that’s needed to win this battle.” Barely a week later, the Afghan National Army collapsed, arguably not without reason, having suffered appallingly high casualty rates over the last few years.
The RAF, which has had to pull aircraft from routine operations to conduct this last minute dash out of the country, faces further cuts to its strategic airlift component as a result of the Defence Command Paper, published earlier this year. While some new capabilities are being developed, such as a British Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capacity, there have been massive cuts to basic services. The RAF is set to lose the reliable C130 transport fleet (admired for its versatility by the special forces) leaving a smaller fleet of C17s and A400s. Despite huge deficiencies across European militaries when it comes to strategic airlift, there are no plans to increase the size of the RAFs workhorse fleet or replace much needed lost capabilities.
Barely being able to scrape together the resources for an airlift is just one of many problems that would become clear when attempting to unilaterally sustain even a small operation, never mind the permanent presence suggested by Ben Wallace. The Army is seeing its numbers cut to 72,000, and the financial demands of the Iraq and Afghan Wars have completely gutted the budget to maintain what should be the primary role of the British Army — a combined arms force capable of defeating a modern, peer force.
The Royal Artillery in particular had necessary equipment upgrades shelved to pay for vehicles to protect against IEDs. The result of these campaigns is an Army which is outgunned by the Russian Armed Forces. The artillery, an essential component of modern warfare, is stuck with less than 50 platforms which can fire half the distance of thousands of Russian platforms.
The Army pretended during the worst years of the fighting in Afghanistan that all that was required was the will to stick it out, not understanding the complexity of the task at hand. Parliament spent a full day yesterday doing much of the same, rather than asking hard questions about the cost it would take to undertake such a task. This ambitious but lacklustre debate comprehensively shows Britain’s politicians are not interested in providing the basics to its military before asking it to do things they should know fully well it cannot do.