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Patrick Mercer speaks out on undermanning

#1
Independent
Patrick Mercer: For every Tom, Dick and Harry
The Government has kept our troops perilously short of aircraft and vehicles
Published: 29 April 2007

Patrick Mercer MP is former commanding officer of the Sherwood Foresters and a former shadow security minister

The Union Jack that covers a soldier's coffin is designed to be a stark reminder of duty, courage and selflessness. Recently, though, we've been reminded too much. Whilst headlines have been made by affairs in the Gulf and Prince Harry's martial future, in April alone 11 of our youngsters have returned under just such flags. It has to be asked, how long can the British Army continue to accept these sorts of casualties, and how long will morale (the intangible steel at the heart of any army), hold up?

The whole business of Harry's being allowed to fight is more complex than it seems. Certainly, he and those around him will be targeted and any loss would be catastrophic, but this must be measured against the prestige that his presence on the front line would give to the Army. The very real pride that the Household Cavalry and the Army have for Harry is important, and to clip his wings would be a real blow.

When I was commanding an infantry battalion I reckoned we could do anything as long as we had enough time to recover between operational bouts. That is why we should be so suspicious of the Government's claims that troop reductions in Iraq are a real sign of progress. A quick analysis shows that as the Defence Secretary announced less troops for Iraq, so the numbers in Afghanistan increased. Thus,fighting troops are getting no real pause in deployments. Secondly, as we are reducing, so US forces are "surging". If we are both succeeding, why are our approaches so different? Well, both powers must recognise that the game is up in Iraq, but, having learnt the hard way in Vietnam, US commanders know that a withdrawal is the most dangerous phase of war and that more troops, rather than fewer, are the only insurance policy. So why doesn't Britain do the same? Well, the answer is simple, even if we had the political will, we don't have the troops.

Whether it comes from politicians or the MoD itself, we seem to gloss over the fact that our Army and Navy have never been so under-manned and there can be no more confidence-sapping factor than a lack of people to share the risks and the work. Consider this, HMS Cornwall had a helicopter armed with a heavy machine gun, but there was no gunner to fire it! Similarly, an infantry battalion in Basra is so short of men that one of its companies has none of its own troops to dismount and fight from its Warrior vehicles. As well as a lack of manpower, the Government has kept our troops perilously short of aircraft and suitable armoured vehicles. While by no means invulnerable, helicopters provide mobility and deterrence and are loathed by the insurgents. But there are not enough of them. Also, it has taken the MoD an extraordinarily long time to get the new generation of armoured patrol vehicles to Iraq. The Army rumour website shows just how much the troops have resented being told to patrol in unarmoured vehicles. Land Rovers and lightly armoured "Snatch" patrol vehicles (designed for more benign work in Ulster) have had to do. Every day we hear of more attacks by Iranian-designed anti-armour weapons that wreak terrible damage on our vehicles and soldiers. It is so hard for our regiments to do their job confidently when they see US forces in much better protected vehicles.

The officers and soldiers to whom I talk always mention the deep frustration of the type of operations that they have conducted. Many question the validity of the whole operation, citing the fact that they are cooped up in camps under frequent bombardment and seldom allowed to patrol. More worryingly, I have heard many talk about the fact that Basra has been surrendered to the local militias and that the British are there simply to save political face.

The difficulties of having to train local forces always come up. As Iraqi forces are expected to take the strain as British units withdraw, it is devastating for our men to realise that many of the men that they train are actually part of the insurgency. To a young British soldier the situation is impossibly difficult to gauge.

For instance, in Camp Sparrowhawk recently, insurgents in Iraqi uniform tried to abduct an officer. Similarly, when a Warrior from 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment was attacked a couple of weeks ago and four soldiers were killed, the first reaction of the troops was to arrest Iraqi policemen. This situation is desperately bad for morale.

As rogue militias strive to fill the perceived power vacuum in the south, hoping to control not just the political spectrum but also the wealth that oil brings with it, so the British find themselves as the meat in the sandwich. Friends of mine with endless tours in Belfast and Bosnia still say how difficult it is to fight this war with one hand tied behind their backs. If it is a challenge for matured officers, how much more unpalatable is it for lads fresh from the depots? Whilst there have been infrequent cases of brutality by our forces - that cannot be tolerated - we must, from the comfort of England, try to empathise with the frustrations that operations like these impose.

Another crucial factor is any doubt in a soldier's mind about his family at home. Wives, mothers and girlfriends are deeply influential and with email, mobile phones and webcams, they have access to the men at the front as never before. There is no quicker way to alienate a soldier than to make him feel that his family is neglected. The Government must not neglect families.

The Chief of the General Staff said recently: "We should get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems." While this isundoubtedly true, it has been difficult to balance against the need to motivate troops in a dangerous, unpopular campaign. But in my experience most soldiers take a less strategic view and concentrate on the job in hand. A private of The Staffordshire Regiment, just back from Basra, told me: "I just get on with my job and as long as I have got the kit I need and the sergeants and officers in front then I am fine." No problem with morale there, thank God, but the Government needs to remember how crucial and brittle a quality it can be. They tinker with it at their peril.


http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article2494154.ece

Shows how stupid the Tories were to sack him.....
 
#2
hansvonhealing said:
Shows how stupid the Tories were to sack him.....
Apparently not for long.
 
#5
OldRedCap said:
Being thatMercer is the bloke Dopey Dave sacked just shows how his judgement is faulty and closes his book as potential PM for me.

Having served under him I assure you he'd be great for the forces if given a proper chance.
 
#6
fingers_1661 said:
OldRedCap said:
Being thatMercer is the bloke Dopey Dave sacked just shows how his judgement is faulty and closes his book as potential PM for me.

Having served under him I assure you he'd be great for the forces if given a proper chance.
Let's us hope he is then. Cameron take note.

You could actually have someone on your Front Bench who knows about Defence. (Note to self - has nobody though of that before - consider patenting the idea) :D
 
#7
Mebbe, though it's probably just my own personal conspiracy theory, any govt will deliberately avoid giving anyone a brief they actually understand.

How often do we see former teachers at Education, former doctors or nurses at Health, former coppers at the Home Office, etc?

Perhaps, in the Westminster Village, they think it gives you some sort of perverse objectivity to be made responsible for something of which you have no experience?

There's one thing for sure, 21st century defence policy would be massively different if more politicians had military backgrounds. Go figure :twisted:
 
#8
If, as some here suggest, he does end up as Defence Minister of a Tory government, it is to be hoped he keeps a framed copy of this article on his desk - it will help him remember how he thought before the 'cares of Office' intruded...
 
#9
Well we know the Tories read this site, David, wake up MAN, if you want our backing, give this man a front bench voice!
 
#10
Cameron was right to sack Mercer over his clumsy comments regarding race issues in the Army, that said, this article by Mercer is refreshing and brutally honest. I am sure that if he maintains this form he will be back on the books very soon. I see no criticism of the New Labour "Top Brass" though, the very people who lamely agreed to every cutback in manning desired of the Govt and disastrously agreed to fight on 2 fronts. The Brass willingly agreed to fight on 2 fronts and signed off the plans in support of the Govt. They should hang their heads in shame for the current crisis in the armed forces and their failure to make the very case that Mercer is forcefully doing. Utterly, utterly,......
 
#11
rickshaw-major said:
fingers_1661 said:
OldRedCap said:
Being thatMercer is the bloke Dopey Dave sacked just shows how his judgement is faulty and closes his book as potential PM for me.

Having served under him I assure you he'd be great for the forces if given a proper chance.
Let's us hope he is then. Cameron take note.

I hope DC will take note. Mercer has too much ability to be kept out of things; and, as many of us predicted, he's already on his way back.

You could actually have someone on your Front Bench who knows about Defence. (Note to self - has nobody though of that before - consider patenting the idea) :D
He might begin with a Defence portfolio; but Cabinets and Shadows are shuffled so regularly that he's unlikely to stay there.
 
#12
Hmmm...a certain Labour defence secretary was allegedly appointed as SOSD because he was renowned for his interest in...brass bands!

Patrick Mercer is obviously the real deal and a top leader. It almost follows he would make a good minister doesn't it therefore. Unfortunately he stands out head and shoulders amongst his colleagues on green and red benches because so few of them are fit to be 2i/c of a Fire Picket under adult supervision.
 
#14
KhakiCrab said:
Mebbe, though it's probably just my own personal conspiracy theory, any govt will deliberately avoid giving anyone a brief they actually understand.

How often do we see former teachers at Education, former doctors or nurses at Health, former coppers at the Home Office, etc?
Perhaps, in the Westminster Village, they think it gives you some sort of perverse objectivity to be made responsible for something of which you have no experience?

There's one thing for sure, 21st century defence policy would be massively different if more politicians had military backgrounds. Go figure :twisted:
Unfortunately the chancellor knows that if they put the right person for the right job they will tell him how much money they really need to get the job done properly. Hopefully one day we could get some one in charge of their departments who knows what we need and gets the job done in Defence, Education, Immigration and Health.
 
#15
KhakiCrab said:
Mebbe, though it's probably just my own personal conspiracy theory, any govt will deliberately avoid giving anyone a brief they actually understand.

How often do we see former teachers at Education, former doctors or nurses at Health, former coppers at the Home Office, etc?

Perhaps, in the Westminster Village, they think it gives you some sort of perverse objectivity to be made responsible for something of which you have no experience?

There's one thing for sure, 21st century defence policy would be massively different if more politicians had military backgrounds. Go figure :twisted:
Oh, l don't know, remember John Prescott didn't he use to be a Bar-steward pulling things.................... Now, thats what NEW LABOUR calls experience, and l do believe you can actually get NVQ's /STD's from it; allegedly - just ask Tracey!
 
#16
It will be interesting to see what a new bunch do with defence and the rest of the country for that matter, if they get in.

Got to say though, it seems a bit overcooked on the rhetoric front (one of Mercer's failings perhaps?). Is he seriously suggesting that the morale of the British Army is going to collapse over Iraq? This being the same army that survived the Crimea, Spion Kop, the Somme, the Kaiser's Offensive, Mesopotamia, Dunkirk, Singapore, Market Garden and lots of messy post WW2 end-of-empire conflicts? And that's without looking at the history books. In victory and defeat, we stand on the shoulders of giants.
 
#17
Ah - but it isn't the SAME Army is it? There were no Deepcuts even as recently as WWII; no one complained at the way they were treated. The idea of a BAFF would have been laughed out of exist5ence (notto say we do not need one now). Those who cracked up/lacked moral fibre were shot at dawn. Boots were worn from day 1. Etc Etc. The whole way of life of the young man then was far tougher than today has ever seen. I left in 1974 and do not recognise much of the Army I read of in these pages. There are acts of bravery and sacrifice but the day to day life as related here is far easier. I'm not even going to compare 15 people in Iraq/Iran with, say, guys who stood up and argued with Japanese in Changi or on the railway.
 
#18
OldRedCap said:
Ah - but it isn't the SAME Army is it? There were no Deepcuts even as recently as WWII; no one complained at the way they were treated. The idea of a BAFF would have been laughed out of exist5ence (notto say we do not need one now). Those who cracked up/lacked moral fibre were shot at dawn. Boots were worn from day 1. Etc Etc. The whole way of life of the young man then was far tougher than today has ever seen. I left in 1974 and do not recognise much of the Army I read of in these pages. There are acts of bravery and sacrifice but the day to day life as related here is far easier. I'm not even going to compare 15 people in Iraq/Iran with, say, guys who stood up and argued with Japanese in Changi or on the railway.
Wouldn't necessarily disagree with you, but it misses the point. This is about how the government and senior command treat the army, not whether today's soldiers are lacking in moral fibre. Historically, we can see that any British Army (and Navy, Airforce, etc for that matter) that went to war did so without the men, logistics and (all too often) the leadership it needed. Wellington's most protracted battle during the Peninsular War wasn't with the French, but with Whitehall for the resources he needed to fight successfully.

PS I think there have been lots of 'Deepcuts' over the years. All that has changed is the likelihood that they will come to the attention of the wider world. Remember Russell and the Crimea.
 
#19
OldRedCap said:
Ah - but it isn't the SAME Army is it? .
No: standards have increased now, I hear you have to have a BMI of 30 to get in these days. I only had 3 GSEs

WRT Mercers non-PC comments: My view is that he was telling it like it is, clearly with no prejudice or offence intended and was taken out of context.

If Dave is going to make snap decisions like that over an open and honest comment from a rare politician playing with a straight bat; then what hope if he is elected, when somene tells him WMD are ready for use on 60 minutes?

IMHO he is as "spin centered" as the other lot.
 
#20
HAVE to have BMI 30? That is where obese starts. Back in the ricketts and TB world of 14-18, there were as many obese in the Chums army as at Belsen when we got there.
 

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