Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Operation: Overstretch - 19th February 2003, 23.13

David Ramsbotham, an adjutant-general during the Gulf War and her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons, 1995-2001, provides an overview of the corners cut in the British Army in order to meet the demands of any possible war in Iraq. Whilst the article is more lucid and thoughtful than most of those critical of the deployment of troops, Ramsbotham does not address the damage that would be caused to britain's international position by withdrawal at this late stage in the game. Such possible damage must be factored into any assessment of the risks Britain is undertaking by going to war or staying out.

Now the whole scene is different. Quite apart from the endless round of operational tours, soldiers have currently to provide cover for striking firemen, who are said to be paid more than the soldiers replacing them. Some of these had to surrender leave earned during a six-month tour of Kosovo, to train to be firemen before training for Iraq. We used to try to ensure that there was a 24-month gap between operational tours, so that soldiers could have time to spend with their families and to train, both operationally with their units and individually in pursuit of their careers. We never achieved it even then: now, for some, the gap is less than 12 months. Such a degree of overstretch cannot be sustained, and cheers will have rung round the Armed Forces when the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, had the courage to say this publicly to his Secretary of State.

The latest forecast is that, after the departure from Iraq of the 27,000 troops committed to whatever fighting takes place, 15,000 will be required to secure and police the country. Where will they come from? Are some commitments to be given up? In 1977, the year of the previous firemen's strike, the increase in charges levied on troops for food and accommodation exceeded their 1 per cent pay award from James Callaghan's Government. Some commanding officers resigned rather than have to tell their regiments the prescribed lie that 'this is a good award.' Many other people left in disgust, leaving a hole that had not been filled by the time of Options for Change.

Now, on top of the overstretch, there are reports of tanks whose engines failed during the Gulf War and have still not been properly filtered, rifles that still jam in desert conditions, communications equipment that is well past its sell-by date, and a shortage of boots. I well remember finding many soldiers during and after the last Gulf War equipped with the vastly superior American camp bed, which they had exchanged for our rations (we did get something right).

Two questions must be asked in connection with the use of the word 'affordable': 'Can you afford it?' and 'Can you afford to give up what you have to give up in order to afford it?' In the case of a one-off troop deployment to Iraq, the answer to the first question is yes, because you can raise the numbers required from elsewhere. However, the answer to the second question is far from straightforward because there are deeper considerations of the kind that Field Marshal Carver raised in Borneo.

Serious consideration of these arguments leads one to ask if Blair can continue supporting Bush's campaigns without a policy of rearmament and expansion of the armed forces. Or events might force this upon us, anyway.


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