Sunday, July 25, 2004
The reception of Geoff Hoon's expected reforms for the Armed Forces have run into an increasing level of flak as the details have been opened up to greater scrutiny. The primary conclusion is that the Treasury has punished the Ministry for Defence for its inability to wield a procurement budget with efficiency and strategic perspective. Unwilling to cut projects that paint the mangy lion with gold, the reductions have been forced on all three services.

Hoon's vision included a hi-tech army that employs fewer soldiers but achieves far more with networked systems that resemble the Rumsfeld doctrine of battlefield superiority achieved through a more productive use of information technology. Prefigured by his admission that Britain would no longer fight a war without the United States, the restructuring is designed to maintain Blair's sought-after status as 'junior partner', ensuring that the Atlantic alliance is cemented. Blair's objective of maintaining a link between the United States and Europe through Britain is furthered by Hoon's reforms.
However, Britain's strengths lie in counter-insurgency warfare and urban fighting, skills learned in the Northern Ireland War. Network-centric tools do not outweigh such experience, as the United States has learned on a fast curve since April 2003 and now applies effectively. The reduction in troops is the weakness in Hoon's spin. When Blair is musing about intervention in Darfur, General Mike Jackson defends the changes as a necessary redeployment of finite resources in the Sunday Telegraph and attacks the loyalists who defend the tried and tested system of regiments, upon which the Army is based. Are there parallels with Scarlett, another servant who forsook professional neutrality for political friendship, and personally benefited from his Blairite loyalty? 
The House of Commons Defence Committee is due to publish a report damning the system of procurement as a waste of money.
Committee chairman Bruce George, a Labour MP, attacked Hoon last week, asking: "What idiot thought we could cut the infantry at a time when the pressure on it is enormous?" He will step up his attack this week and is expected to argue that UK forces are more committed than ever to overseas obligations, so "the last thing they should have to worry about is whether critical equipment will arrive on time, or at all".
These changes will not reform the armed forces or render them more capable in the short term. Due to the failures of the procurement system, it is unclear if Hoon's objectives could ever be achieved. However, morale in the armed services will deteriorate (given Jackson's role as bagman), and the overstretch will wear ever thinner. If the crucible of the battlefield heats up, that elastic will snap and, with no depth to their deployment, the risks of British servicemen dying away from home will increase. Perhaps some of that Scottish subvention could be directed away from their dependency culture towards the regiments.
Blair's Britain: Black Watch goes, Afghani hijackers stay...
(18.18, 25th July 2004)  


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