UK Armed Forces: Plummeting International Reputation Deserved? Does it Matter?

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by Andy_S, Dec 3, 2010.

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  1. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer

    The Wikileaks material just the latest in a depressingly long list of recent military humiliations - humiliations that are an unpleasant and unusual for a nation that used to prize its martial assets and heritage.

    US officials have been saying:
    - UK Army under resourced in Helmand
    - Thank god we are deploying our marines there to sort it out
    - UK Army not up to the job

    Perhaps more damningly, Afghan officials and civilians have been saying:
    - UK troops are less aggressive than US troops in combat
    - UK troops in Sangin simply sat in bases rather than connecting to populace
    - They would rather have US than UK troops deployed

    And as has been noted here before: Contrary to some posters’ opinions that Helmand was always the worst and most dangerous province in Afghan, it was relatively peaceful before UK troops arrived in 2006.

    And none of the above is new. They come on top of:
    - The RM and RN humiliation at the hands of the Iranians
    - Allegations by UK special forces that UK infantry in Southern Iraq were risk-averse and unmotivated
    - Criticism from all sides (including internally) that the UK military is unable to do COIN operations, despite an enviable heritage of it
    - Army being forced to retreat from Basra by a rag-tag militia, requiring to the Iraqi Army to recapture and assert control over the city (reasonably successfully, it now appears)
    - An apparent lack of brainpower in the brigade-level-and-up leadership in the Army on what the goals were in Helmand, and how to achieve them with the resources available.

    Yet the reaction of other posters on this forum seems to be:
    - How dare those Americans criticize us! (A reaction which overlooks the fact that these docs were confidential, and never meant to seen in public - ie this is what the Americans really THINK, but have not SAID)
    - We should never have been working alongside the Americans in the first place. (Alas, the Armed Forces do as they are ordered by the elected government of the day)
    - Let’s leave Afghan ASAP (OK, but let’s call it what it is: Not a “pullout” but another defeat/retreat to add to Iraq.)

    Of course there are the issues of:
    - Our kit was not good enough (Perhaps, but UK troops have suffered for this in many – perhaps most – recent wars, yet still came out with reputations intact; Korea springs to mind)
    - We did not have enough men. (Clearly, but where does this leave the concept that the UK Army “punches above its weight?” Moreover, why is the army only able to sustain one tenth of its strength on active service at a time?)

    So: Have the UK Armed Forces ("The Best in the World") in the late 1990s and millennium lost the combative edge which was so widely respected internationally from the 1950s-1990s?

    - Did - bar the Falklands operation - the forces grow too used to peacekeeping and operations in the 1990s?
    - Did the MOD overly prioritize deployment of paras and marines on kinetic operations in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving line battalions to wither on low-intensity and peacekeeping operations?
    - Is the current UK too casualty-sensitive, leading to risk aversion among officers and troops?
    - A retired general of my acquaintance tells me that the Army now does not trust its leadership beyond the battalion command level. Is this true? If so, what is the solution?
    - Is the current British soldier or officer up to the standards of the current US soldier or marine in terms of gear, fitness, motivation, training/education?
    - Same question re our other commonwealth and European allies? (I have heard US marines praising Estonians in Helmand, but declining to pass judgment on Brits. Likewise, US SF have said to me they think the Aussies are the best SF units, not ours.)
    - Speaking to two group of Americans soldiers and marines in November, they seem to believe in the mission in Afghan. Does the British soldier?
    - Man for man, or unit for unit, is the British Army “the best in the world”? And was it ever?

    Perhaps the most important questions are:
    - If we do pull out, draw down or leave Afghan without any significant achievement on the ground (the latter is a real possibility), can the UK afford to be seen by our international partners as fair weather friends?

    Alternatively, is a military reputation no longer as important as it used to be in global affairs? We retreated from Basra, and the Spanish retreated from Iraq – have these defeats sullied or otherwise damaged our national reputations?

    And if the answer to the latter question is “no” – should we be spending as much as we do on the Armed Forces? Is it time for 21st century UK to radically de-prioritize the forces?
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  2. You don't seem to have mentioned the role of politicians in all of this.Without their interference,and "money saving",would we be better placed?
    Having said that.Was a "victory" in Afghanistan ever possible?
  3. No need to mention the politicians, look to the woeful uniformed leadership within UK armed forces. The generals and air marshals who agreed to the deployment to Helmand in 2006, who are seemingly unable to say no to politicians with no military experience. Be interesting to discover why they felt compelled to go along with the politicians, precious careers at risk, per chance?

    Absolutely no criticism should be aimed at the guys on the ground who were "parachuted" into a nightmare deployment, not enough troops, helos, support, poorly defined mission aims. Tootal was on the telly last night, he seemed unable to recognise the s**e planning that went into this deployment. NEVER fight a war on two fronts. Oh no, we know better........
  4. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer


    This thread is not about politics per se, nor really about victory in Afghan, although they are both certainly related.
    It is about the falling rep of the UK's Armed Forces, whether it is deserved (frankly, I hope it is not, which is why I would like to see some good argument, with reasons stated) and whether it matters to the country as a whole in the 21st century.

    Blaming it ("it" being "everything" nowadays) on politiicans is easy, but it seems pretty clear to me that the rot goes deeper than that.

    And with all due respect, there are a million threads on this forum blaming politicians for the Army's woes. I'd be grateful if posters could stick to the wider topic at hand.
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  5. If the Yanks and Ahghans think so lowly of us... maybe we should pack up and fcuk off. Right now, today. Last man out turn out the lights and deny anything that is left.
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  6. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer


    So, if we retreat from Aghan, what does this do to our armed forces' rep, and our rep as a nation, with both our allies and our enemies?

    Moreover, if we retreat, does it matter - this being the 21st century, the century of wars of ideas and economics, not the 19th century, when military prowess was part of national survival - that our nation's military is consistently unable to carry out its assigned tasks?
  7. My analogy may not be the finest, but if you sent the very best THREE footballers in Great Britain to play against eleven from say Holland or Italy, would the result be predictable?

    If the 'Head of Footballers' in GB said he would not send another TWO of the very best footballers in order to save money, and, if the 'Head of Footballers' in GB declined to equip the THREE footballers he did send, with two boots each, then yet again would the outcome be predictable?

    I totally agree however, that the compliant attitude of the 'top brass' in 2006 and subsequently, is hugely to blame for any perceived inadequacies in performances on the ground. The arrant nonsense of appointing an airman - a 'yes man' to boot - to head up the entire military whilst a savage war was being fought on the ground, may explain some of the perceived inadequacies complained of by the Americans and the wholly corrupt Afghan regime.

    The largest heap of 'blame' for any under performance of the peerless troops on the ground, must be laid in front of the recalcitrant, inept, spiteful, inadequate, psychotic oaf Gordon Brown and his grinning 'spiv' of a predecessor, Blair.

    This rambling post can be summed up:

    BLAIR - a posing idiot, a war-mongerer and a failed prime minister.
    BROWN - a dangerous and hopelessly awful Chancellor and prime minister.
    STIRRUP - Grossly over-promoted beyond Wing Commander level.

    As ever, it is the poor bloody infantry that gets killed - and gets the blame!
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  8. Bouillabaisse

    Bouillabaisse LE Book Reviewer

    Just picking up on this one, can we articulate what our mission is? I consider myself militarily and politically aware but I would be hard-pressed to write a mission aim for our presence in Afghanistan. And given the different cultural, political & religious outlooks between us and the Americans do we have the same mission?
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  9. We were hardly ever 'the best' were we? Continuing to labour under the belief that the United Kingdom possesses the finest military force in the world will result in upset when the mask actually slips as it seems to have done over the past few years. We have, at best, a slack handful of capbadges that are the ish but who on a large scale convential battlefield would be turned into dog food in the opening 48 hours.

    In my personal opinion the faults were always there, its just an unfortunate fact that media exposure now strikes through every facet of military operations like a ****ing lumicolour.

    Where ever the fault lays we are midway through a steady decline in our abilities and of how we impact on the world stage and it may be just about the right time to recall the troops, lock our doors, close our borders and lick our wounds until another set of lunatics start chopping each other to bits somewhere within a 2 hour flight from Brize.
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  10. Are we in Afghanistan (and Iraq before that) for our own national strategic objectives, which just happen to coincide with those of the USA? Or are we there because our national objective IS to be with the USA and attempt to influence their decisions (long term) in our favour? If the former, then whilst the criticism hurts, it's not particularly relevant, we do what we think is best to achieve our own independent objectives. If the latter, then this really is a disaster - there's a whole generation of mid-to-senior US officers, diplomats and politicos who really don't rate us, and won't allow our contribution, or lack thereof, to influence their decisions as they move up the ranks.

    I also think that it's been easy for us to delude ourselves as to the real quality of our forces in the post-war era because we've generally either been able to 'hide' our inadequacies within a US-dominated coalition, or we've been fighting small groups of guerillas thousands of miles from home and generally out of sight of the media. The exception, or course, is the Falklands. Yes, ultimately a great victory, but the simple fact is, if the Argentines (hardly a major world power) had fused their bombs correctly, they'd have won.
  11. I read a while ago that the last UK govenement beleived that sending more menpower in to an area such as Sangin would only result in more casulaties, not less. They may have just looked at the number of US troops lost in Iraq, with considering it as a percentage of their overall deployment, but who knows.

    I do however think that the critisms laied at the feet of the British fighting man are massivly unfair and biased. To say that Brit troops are less fit, less aware and less aggressive than our US counterparts is a little hard to swallow. I have worked with some US troops, on Ex and on tour and they are good at what they do but they are not super soldiers. We are good at what we do, we jst do thigs a little differently.

    I know these are meant to be interal documents and I'm sure that if things were the other way round, and we were taking over Sangin from another, smaller force we would have said similare things. Does it matter? In the short term it makes us look bad, but i don't think its as bad as its made out to be. There is no way to win there, and the Biritsh military as a whole needs to pull back from ops, regroup and rearm. It's shitty but lets be honest the MoD is on it's last legs and things are getting worse as the money is being taken away. I'd rather we look bad for a bit but not lose anymore lifes.
  12. It is not a question of are our soldiers good enough but a question of are there enough of them/enough equipment. It really is that simple. "Quantity is a quality of its own"

    And blaming Generals for doing what they are paid to do, exactly the same as what all other ranks are paid to do - receive orders and follow them - is just plain ignorant.

    Where do the unrealistic orders come from? Government. It is not military ability or will that sees us fail time and again, it is political will. If we were serious about all this, the defence budget would be growing with other budgets such as wellfare and the NHS paying the price. The nation is at war but where is the impact on the average UK citizen. Unemployment is rising but the size of the Army is shrinking. NOT the fault of anyone in uniform! (Not even the over promoted RAF chappy who stuck around/ was allowed to stick around longer than he should have)
  13. There will be a lot more of this to come, caused by a wilful and obstinate denial of reality by very senior officers. The last government gave them unachievable goals, inadequate forces and not enough money. They saluted smartly and cracked on, refusing to admit that we were doomed before we started. We shouldn't be surprised that New Labour didn't get it, the average Army Cadet understands the forces more than all of them put together.

    And now that we have spent blood and treasure to get nowhere any criticism of our inadequate performance is smeared as criticism of those killed and maimed by those who are really responsible. It is a terrible thing to look at the killed and maimed so far and realise that they suffered and died and made ... no real difference. But we must, if we are to reform ourselves to make sure we don't do this next time. That's a very British thing of course, as anyone who has looked at the reforms post Crimea and Boer War will see. But I don't see a Caldwell or Haldane anywhere.

    The US is not perfect, but anyone who has seen their military recently knows they have adapted in contact in a logical, ruthless and commited fashion. We haven't, and deserve their criticism.
  14. Any review or inquiry should look at the decision making made by the individual services. I am quite sure that the RAF felt the need to go along with their gung ho colleagues in the british army, obliged even. For a number of years, purple has led to strange decision making in the air force. When the nimrod exploded over helmand, the RAF commander, allegedly, ordered nimrod crews back up in the air within days of the tragedy. His reasoning, that the air force must be prepared to take the same casualties as the army. I assume his career weighed heavily on his decision making. As we have seen, the gung ho approach can have severe drawbacks...

    FORMER_FYRDMAN LE Book Reviewer

    Yes and yes.

    My glorious military career was a two-parter with a considerable interlude between the parts. Initially nurtured by the old BAOR and in the post-Falklands glow, the British Army was very different to the beast I rejoined ten or so years later.

    There was no doubt that the Army was fitter and the officers seemed to be of a higher standard across the board. What was missing however was that leavening of independently minded, professional uber experts who were unshakably loyal but could be as prickly as hell, had to be led not managed and who were the CO's inevitable 'go to' man when disaster struck. It was also clear that the time available for young officers to mature as personalities and not just professionally had been considerably reduced. Everything was pressure, pressure, test, assess, and with a near crippling fear of cocking up hanging over every head.

    On top of this, the OJAR process seems to have been refined and elevated to a remarkable degree. I'm sure the originators intended this to make things more equitable but they actually delivered a method to winnow out the invaluable awkward squad to those so inclined; the weaker souls who were more managers than leaders and valued conformity above performance. In the wrong hands, it is a system which can make moral cowards of anyone with the slightest bit of ambition and the greatest flaw is that it is an appraisal by superiors only - an open invitation to the vilest sort of careerist. It is not a system which encourages reflective and constructive criticism of the system and yet no organisation can progress, let alone maintain standards, without that questioning thoughtfulness.

    In terms of reputation, even back in the Eighties, I often felt that large chunks of the Army, myself included, were clinging to the coat tails of better men. Sandhurst seemed hellbent on convincing the cadets that they were some sort of supermen and a cut above everyone else without any real basis for this. Even if it was true, it is an appalling state of mind to go soldiering with. Perhaps it was meant to instill confidence but, more often than not, it simply instilled arrogance. It was almost as if we lost sight of the fact that Goose Green, the Iranian Embassy etc happened, not because of who we were, but because of the dedicated effort of the units and individuals involved. As the British Army basked in the reflected glory of the achievements of certain units, perhaps we forgot what it took to get to the top and stay there.

    For GW1 I was doing other things but I had a ringside seat for GW2 which was undoubtedly the most appalling professional experience of my life and which I carry with me to this day as an example of how not to do things.

    Leaving aside the shortcomings of the politicians which are undoubtedly a factor, the logisticians should have been encouraged to desert to the Iraqis and, if one believes the adage that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics, that in itself should be an indication of how far we have fallen. Nor can we blame the politicians for the inability of senior commanders to say 'no'. They are our people and it is our system which produces them. I am the first to agree that the various Labour Governments would have best served the national interest by lining a shallow grave, but no-one at the time was prepared to suffer the consequences of telling the truth to Blair et al as they were professionally obliged to do. No wonder the operation was flawed from the start.

    Away from the Battle Groups, who, from what I saw, functioned with exemplary efficiency and were extremely generous to their less fortunate brethren when called upon for help, the British Army was an unco-ordinated mess. Div HQ abounded with Lt Colonels (a frightening amount of whom were temporary appointments - why?) cutting and slashing about the place and the only war they seemed interested in fighting was a turf war with other Lt Colonels. Specialist units were commanded by non-specialists with little idea of what they should be doing or how they should be doing it but who were determined to stamp their authority on their little fiefdoms. From what I could see, there was no attempt to co-ordinate Intelligence with Info Ops, Civil Affairs and Media Ops which, going into an extended COIN phase, was grossly incompetent. For me it all came to a head watching the goblins driving their loot over Bridge 4 when Basra fell, whilst a handful of British soldiers looked on helplessly. This was noticed by the locals. If you want to know when we started to lose in Iraq, that moment is as good as any.

    Finally, there were the ill-advised and toe-curling utterances by Regular SO1s and 2s to anyone who would listen, including the world's press, about how wonderful we were particularly when it came to COIN Ops and how we'd show everyone else, included those poor Americans. These creatures would occasionally vary the diatribe to explain how awful the TA was, further generating a spirit of togetherness, before returning to their plans to swim in the Shatt-al-Arab wearing soft head dress. As we know, the Americans just got on with things quietly, too polite to remind us of the supplies and support they'd given us because our own logistics chain had failed. They made mistakes but they learned from them - whilst we ended up slinking out of Basra behind a smokescreen of blather just in time to repeat the whole sorry mess in Afghanistan.

    In closing, I would like to say that I realize that the above is an eclectic and subjective set of recollections. I have wanted to write something like this for seven years but I have not enjoyed doing so. I loved my time with the Army and I consider commanding soldiers to have been the greatest honour and finest experience of my life. To be where we are today is heartbreaking. I hope that when the fighting's over, we retain and promote enough of those officers who have seen hard frontline service, regenerate and restructure intelligently and show the humility required to learn the lessons as our American cousins did after Vietnam. The innate quality of the British soldier is demonstrated daily. I hate where we are today but I believe that it can be turned around and, as a humble former fyrdman, I fervently hope that it is.
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