Times Article on Gen Richards

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  1. Arms and the Man
    The new head of the British Army takes over at a time when Afghanistan and a tight budget must prompt a radical rethink of Britain’s defence policy

    General Sir David Richards takes over as head of the Army at a critical time for British defence policy. The war in Afghanistan is claiming lives at a dangerously accelerating rate. The Government has come under sharp attack for not providing the equipment, the manpower or the commitment needed for victory. Public opinion is increasingly questioning the strategy and even the underlying reasons for British troops being there. And senior military figures, including Sir David’s outspoken predecessor General Sir Richard Dannatt, have felt compelled to voice concerns that Whitehall has not understood the scale of demands now being placed on defence.

    Many of these concerns will become explicit during General Richards’s watch. Some time after the next election there will be a much needed strategic defence review. And in the run-up, the Government will publish a Green Paper early next year that is intended to collate all the views and demands on how Britain’s future defence policy should best be formulated and delivered. It must ask questions on what sort of Armed Forces are needed, what their likely use will be and what will be needed to protect this country against threats both clear and unforeseen.

    The top priority will clearly be Afghanistan. General Richards is well placed to understand the political and military importance of getting this right. He took command of Nato’s International Security Force (Isaf) in 2006, at a time when it was preparing to expand into southern Afghanistan and begin the new, more dangerous, phase of operations. He recognises, as do Britain’s diplomats, that Afghanistan is a long-term commitment, and one that will probably demand the presence of combat troops for at least five years. That has implications for all three Services, especially if the future mission will need to concentrate more on training and mentoring the Afghan Army rather than combat operations.

    With money remaining tight for years to come, the Green Paper will have to be ruthless in setting priorities. Every aspect of spending must come under scrutiny (though that does not include Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which is a separate issue that will not be covered by the strategic review). This will include the two aircraft carriers, earmarked to be built at great cost. If, as seems likely, Britain decides that it must have such a mobile base from which to project force, it must then decide whether both are needed. And neither the Royal Navy nor either of the other two Services must be allowed to try to ringfence their own needs. All three Service chiefs must work together and look at all future capabilities.

    General Richards must also insist that any cuts should not try to do the same with less, as now seems to be the assumption. It is no longer possible, as Iraq and Afghanistan have made painfully clear, for Britain to do the same as America only on a smaller scale. Instead, the Green Paper should focus on those areas where British expertise will still be essential in future joint operations To try to make do with the present arrangements on an ever decreasing budget is a recipe for disaster. In Afghanistan, it would mean failing either to equip the troops for their mission or supporting a mission too small to be effective, thus prolonging its difficulties for years to come. To cut tank numbers from 300 to around 100 might look tempting, but that should not lead to a consequent reduction in troop numbers. General Richards’s absolute priority must be to stop the Army’s strength falling below the present minimum of around 98,000. Downsizing does not work. Change needs vision, strategic thinking and a readiness to reassess the role of force in protecting Britain’s global interests. Those are the qualities that the Army and the nation are looking to find in the new Chief of the General Staff.