Richards takes over as army chief with promise to focus on soldiers' welfare
Troops and their families are the army's most valuable asset, says General Sir David Richards, as he replaces General Sir Richard Dannatt
* Michael White
* guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 August 2009 14.26 BST
General Sir David Richards, the new head of the British army, with members of the Gurkha Rifles in June this year. Photograph: Ian Nicholson/PA
The new military head of the British army promised today to combine a firm focus on the Afghan campaign with renewed efforts to look after "the army's most valuable assets" â its soldiers and their families.
General Sir David Richards, a former head of the international force fighting in Afghanistan who is close to its beleaguered president, Hamid Karzai, today formally succeeded General Sir Richard Dannatt, whose outspoken criticisms of equipment shortages has put him at loggerheads with Gordon Brown's ministers.
Richards, who admitted that Dannatt would be a "hard act to follow", is thought to share his misgivings about the persistent overstretch in the military budget arising from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has led to shortages of kit â now largely rectified, ministers insist â but also had an impact on living quarters at a time when army families face the uncertainties of heavy casualties far from home.
"In a squeeze the army always chooses extra kit over improving its housing stock, though we have done a lot," one Labour ex-defence minister said this week. The army counters that, as chancellor, Gordon Brown refused to fund his own government's widely-admired 1998 strategic defence review (SDR)â and is unsympathetic to the armed forces.
The new chief of the general staff, Richards, 57, an artillery officer by background, is expected to pick his way more delicately than Dannatt did through the minefields of policy and equipment priorities â where the shortage of funds has exacerbated traditional rivalries between the three services.
"As part of the defence team, I will continue to focus on what is needed to meet the government's aims in Afghanistan and the region, and ensuring the army achieves the tasks laid upon it," he said today.
"The army's most valuable assets are its people: it is essential that we continue to look after our soldiers and their families, especially those injured or affected adversely through conflict," the general added.
One of the main challenges he will face in Whitehall is the upcoming SDR as the navy and RAF seek to protect their share of the military budget from the urgent needs of the army. All three main parties are pledged to review priorities â but only after the coming election, which the pro-defence Conservatives are expected to win.
But even they know they face severe budgetary constraints which have prompted some Tories to suggest they must make a major strategic sacrifice, perhaps even cancelling the Trident nuclear upgrade, and stretching the life of existing submarines.
Richards said: "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 globalised era."
John Hutton, Labour's last defence secretary, commissioned Bernard Gray, a former MoD adviser and co-author of the 1998 SDR, to examine defence procurement â the equipment orders on which much of Britain's remaining hi-tech industries depend. But his successor, Bob Ainsworth, has not yet published it, leaking to speculation that it is too embarrassing for a government 12 years in office and to leaks of its contents.
They have shown that familiar complaints about bad decisions and cost overruns â familiar to all armies â have not been cured. In particular it has emerged that a vital order of Chinook helicopters, central to force protection in Afghanistan, has been grounded for years because of costly procurement errors.
The problems long pre-date Labour, but as the Northern Ireland conflict unwound â freeing up troops â Labour has engaged in military interventions in Europe, Africa and Asia unknown since the 1960s.
Dannatt, who will acquire a new pulpit as chairman of Whitehall's military thinktank, the Royal United Services Institute, used his last official speech to urge that the SDR focus on the current campaign in Afghanistan the point also made by Richards.
Dannatt said: "We must have what we absolutely need for the short-term and limit our ambitions for the medium and the long-term to what we can afford." Behind such generalisations lies the concern of strategists as to whether such "hybrid" conflicts â part conventional warfare and part counterinsurgency â are the wars of the foreseeable future or aberrations. Strategic equipment misjudgments in the past have led to major disasters as wars took unexpected directions â Hitler's innovative use of tanks in 1939-40 being a notorious example.
In a farewell message to his troops, Dannatt said: "It has been a tremendous honour and privilege and a deeply humbling experience to lead you all for the past few years â you are truly outstanding people. As I march into the military sunset I do so confident that the army's determination, professionalism and reputation remains where it should be: second to none."
Military gossip has suggested that, for all today's friendly handover, Dannatt, a heavy infantry officer, did not approve of an artillery officer taking over the top seat â and did his best to block Richards's promotion.