New U.K. Army Chief Faces Two Battles: Taliban and Resources

New U.K. Army Chief Faces Two Battles: Taliban and Resources


When Gen. Sir David Richards takes over as head of the British army on Friday he inherits two battlefields: the war in Afghanistan, and a battle for resources between the U.K.'s military and government.

On both counts Gen. Richards, a respected soldier who earned his stripes in the jungles of Sierra Leone, faces tough challenges. As the second-biggest contributor of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan, the U.K. has suffered high casualties, sapping public support for the war at home.

A Fight on Many Fronts

A Chinook helicopter brought in fresh supplies to U.K. forces in Helmand Province in mid-July.

One reason for that, according to some critics in the U.K., is that the army is hampered by a lack of resources after decades of cutbacks by Downing Street. Gen. Richards may soon hit the same quandary his predecessors struggled with: trying to play the role of a superpower with a military that hasn't been funded to play that part since World War II.

The U.K. has found it difficult to adapt its military hardware, within a budget, for conflicts that have morphed from the Cold War to peacekeeping operations to insurgency over the past 20 years. That problem will get harder as the U.K. faces budget cuts to battle its record debt, a situation that is heightening tensions between military and political leaders.

"Gen. Richards steps into the role when the military has become both a heated political debate and at an important stage in the Afghanistan campaign," said Professor Theo Farrell, of the department of war studies at Kings College, London. That debate, he adds, will intensify as the U.K. nears a general election that must be held by June.

Gen. Richards also assumes the role ahead of an expected strategic defense review, an overhaul of military priorities. In it, he will need to defend the army's interests against not just politicians, but also the heads of Britain's navy and air force, which are just as ravenous for resources.

The U.S. faces the same problem, but has more money to throw at a solution. Last year U.K. defense spending was equivalent to 2.8% of its gross domestic product, compared with the U.S. spending almost 5% of an economy more than five times the size, according to Jane's International Defense Review.

Gen. Richards, in a statement ahead of taking over from Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, acknowledged the challenge. "Looking to the longer term, I will be focusing on making sure that the Army is geared up for future conflict as it evolves in this highly interdependent and globalized era," he said. Gen. Richards declined to be interviewed for this article.

Gen. Sir David Richards, who earned his stripes in the jungles of Sierra Leone, takes over as head of the British army on Friday.

Since 1997, when the current Labour government came to power, the number of people in the U.K. armed forces has been cut around 20% to fewer than 175,000. During that period, Britain has fought in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and maintained a presence in Germany and in former and current colonies such as the Falkland Islands. Because the U.K. is the U.S.'s biggest military ally in Afghanistan, Gen. Richards will be a key player in the conflict going forward.

Those who have fought alongside Gen. Richards say he is suited to play both military and political operator.

"He is a very charismatic, popular leader, who has a balanced appeal as a field soldier to soldiers," says Stuart Tootal, who in 2006 led 1,200 soldiers into Afghanistan's restive Helmand province under Gen. Richards's command. Mr. Tootal said Gen. Richards also "will be a highly capable operator" when it comes to dealing with the Ministry of Defense.

Gen. Dannatt earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of what he saw as the army's overstretched resources. He once warned that the strain of fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq could "break" the army. In July 2008, as casualties in Afghanistan mounted, he sent a "shopping list" of equipment to the Ministry of Defense for the fight against the Taliban.

Last month, Gen. Richards told the Times of London he won't be presenting a "shopping list" to Downing Street. "Dave Richards will say what needs to be said, but he will do that internally," said Mr. Tootal, who is now an author and security expert.

Gen. Richards is widely credited with persuading former Prime Minister Tony Blair to send British troops on a successful operation to free British peacekeepers held hostage by a gang of rebel militia in Sierra Leone. Mr. Blair then ordered a successful military operation under then-Brigadier Richards to end the civil war there.

The 57-year-old Gen. Richards joined the Royal Artillery in 1971 and saw stints in Asia, Germany and Northern Ireland. In May 2006, he became the first head of the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan, making him the first British general to command American troops since World War II.

His personal experience in Afghanistan may give confidence to an army that on Tuesday saw its casualty list rise to 207 deaths. The U.K. has lost more soldiers in Afghanistan than any nation but the U.S.

In the field "he was hugely respected, and thought of as being a smart cookie, a bright guy," said Patrick Hennessy, who commanded a platoon of Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. Richards, who cites British military history as one of his hobbies, has said he never feels pressure and believes himself "genetically" suited to carry out the role of commander. In a 2007 interview, he told how he was visited in Sierra Leone by then-Chief of Defense Staff Charles Guthrie, who explained the difficulty of the young brigadier's job and the pressure on his shoulders. Gen. Richards said he remembers thinking: "My God, I was simply enjoying it."

Write to Alistair MacDonald at
And this from the BBC:

Gen Dannatt gained a reputation as a plain speaking soldiers' general.

His successor is more likely to use Whitehall black arts - cultivating opinion formers, using his international contacts, and undermining the case of the other two services in the forthcoming Defence Review.
Although I think the WSJ journal could have found a photo of the new CGS that didn't make him look like an accountant who's just been goosed by the new temp.