British army chief warns over negligence lawsuits

Litigation threat over ill-equipped troops will not affect decisions made in heat of battle, says General Sir Peter Wall

A supreme court ruling which made military commanders liable for prosecution if ill-equipped soldiers came to harm will not affect decisions made “in the heat of battle”, the head of the army has said.

The court last week ruled that during military operations abroad, British troops could be protected by human rights law and sue the Ministry of Defence for negligence. The MoD is expected to be sued by families of soldiers killed in Iraq in lightly armoured Land Rovers and by friendly fire.

It was unsurprising, Wall said, that public aversion to risk had increased as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wore on. He added: “But on contingency operations, for example a rapid intervention operation, the licence of the operational commander to take operational risk to seize and maintain the initiative will often be decisive in determining the outcome of a campaign”.

In a speech on Thursday, General Sir Peter Wall separately made clear changes were required in the way British soldiers were trained. They needed a better understanding of different cultures and languages if they were to intervene successfully in future conflicts, he said.

Speaking at the start of a conference on the future of land warfare organised by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Wall said defence chiefs had yet to determine the full impact of the supreme court judgment on combat immunity. However, he continued: “I can reassure the audience that the ruling will not affect decisions made in the heat of battle. We can proceed on this basis with some confidence.”

Wall said military commanders, and the government, had learned lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’ve experienced the difficulty in conducting ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns in cultures inimical to our own,” he added.

“We should empower local forces to deal with local situations, preferably taking account of regional considerations. This approach calls for bilateral relationships whether ahead of, during, or after periods of conflict because, like it or not, we seem to be in a period of enduring confrontation with extremism.”

It was essential, he said, that military commanders – and, by implication, their political masters – understood the consequences of intervening in a conflict. “For in extremis, if we do need to intervene in support of partners, we’ve got to understand the context, locally and regionally, we’ve got to know the key people – political and military, and we’ve got to be familiar with the culture and language”, the head of the army said.

Wall has overseen severe cuts in the army – down to 82,000 soldiers by 2018 from more than 100,000 three years ago. Gaps between military resources and planned capabilities caused by spending cuts “could become quite dangerous, quite quickly”, he said.

On Thursday he described this week’s spending review – in which the overall defence budget was cut by just 1.9%, while a real terms increase of 1% will …read more