Britain’s armed forces: the future of war | Editorial

Next year the UK could be at peace with the world after a century of conflict. What is the role of the military now?

For at least a century not a year has passed in which British soldiers have not been off fighting somewhere in the world. Churchill’s “rattle of musketry” reverberates down the decades. From the wars of late empire to the conflicts with Germany and Japan, the brush wars of the cold war period, and the interventions and expeditions of the era now passing, our armed forces have been almost continuously deployed.

Our survey of this long and bloody history may startle some who believe that the British resort to force only in exceptional circumstances, and only in self-defence. In fact, we do it all the time, as recent histories of imperial wars have demonstrated in often chilling detail. Could all this be about to stop? Our writers suggest that a combination of war-weariness, the diminished effectiveness of our forces after yet another round of spending cuts, the failures that marked the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the difficulty of building popular support in a society that now has substantial minorities hailing from the potential battle zones, mean that 2015 could be the first year with no British shots fired in anger. Officers call this “a strategic pause”. Certainly, the prospect of it should prompt discussion about the purposes of our armed forces.

The nations of Europe spend close to €200bn annually on defence and keep one and a half million men and women under arms, with another four million in reserve, and paramilitary forces. What are they for? They are not for colonial control. They are not (after the end of the cold war) for defence against the Warsaw Pact. They are not (after Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and in spite of Mali and the Central African Republic) for major interventions outside Europe whether in conjunction with the Americans or separately.

They are not (given the nature of asymmetrical conflict) for fighting “terrorism”. Intelligence-led operations and, very arguably, drones are the preferred choice of our governments for that problematic task.

They are not (we must hope, and after partial settlements in Ireland, Spain, Corsica and the former Yugoslavia) for suppressing European rebels and separatists. They are no longer (with the end of conscription in most European countries) a means of consolidating national unity through an obligation of military service binding on all (at least on all males).

They are clearly of value in border control, maritime patrol, fisheries protection, piracy patrol, anti-smuggling measures, as general-purpose forces in emergencies such as major floods, fires, earthquakes, or nuclear accidents, and as providers of contingents for UN peacekeeping operations, including technical back-up for less well-equipped troop donors.

Yet are these useful functions best met by forces that have been expensively trained for combat against other sophisticated armies or for use in insurgencies? Arguably, many of their skills are redundant and much of their equipment irrelevant. That goes especially for …read more    

Floods: soldiers deployed to Wraysbury forget their wellies and waders

Trumpeted by the prime minister as proof that the flooding crisis was under control, the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was ill-equipped to leave its vehicles

Military boots hit the ground in the flood-hit village of Wraysbury on Tuesday, but it quickly transpired they were the wrong kind of boots.

As more than a hundred soldiers from the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers marched through the Berkshire village that has become the latest frontline in Britain’s battle against rising water, there were neither wellies nor waders in sight.

Here were the men from the military trumpeted by the prime minister as proof the flooding crisis was under control, but residents in the Thameside town complained that when the water got deep, some of them couldn’t even get out of their trucks.

One platoon – supposed to be checking on flooded residents on the embankment – couldn’t get down because the water was so deep. They ended up just sitting in the back of the lorry while locals went about in hip-high rubber boots.

“They were not allowed in the water,” said Ian Yorke, 50, an operations manager at British Airways who lives on the flooded street. “They had no waders, nothing. They didn’t come prepared. It is all window-dressing.”

Other soldiers ploughed in wearing lace-ups, but the situation seemed to sum up the frustration of the residents of Wraysbury, which started going under water at the weekend for the second time this year, but only saw its first concerted official help .

The day began in confusion as the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, told residents he was surprised a team of soldiers and police had not delivered sandbags yet and that he believed they were nearby. When local organisers checked, it became clear they were not.

When the troops finally arrived from their base at Tidworth in Wiltshire, they received no more than a grudging welcome from residents who had been mounting their own rescue operations and patrols of the village for several days and had not slept much.

“The first thing that was on the national news last night [Monday] was Wraysbury and all of a sudden today it is madness,” said Kerry Willoughby. “It is just crazy: too little, too late. Too many people have lost a lot of things and it shouldn’t have had to come to this. And all of these vans are more of a hindrance than anything else.”

“This is ridiculous,” added Beverley McCauley. “What are they doing here today? I just don’t know what they are going to do. The damage is already done. I think they have to be seen to be doing something. I’ve seen three truckloads of sandbags go in, when there were none yesterday or the day before.”

The commander in charge even acknowledged they had arrived well after the recovery operation had begun.

“I wouldn’t say the work has been done, but it was very much under way when we arrived,” admitted Major Jim Skelton. “One of our roles today is to help fill sandbags and fill them …read more    

UK floods: David Cameron pledges unlimited public funds

Prime minister seeks to assert his authority over natural disaster with promise of wider army role and more money

A resolute David Cameron vowed to marshal the forces of the state to tackle the flooding crisis, pledging a wider role for the army and unlimited public funds to protect families.

After two days of Whitehall infighting and mixed messages, the prime minister returned from visiting stricken communities in the south-west to hold a Downing Street press conference at which he sought to assert his authority over the natural disaster.

In words that may yet come back to haunt him, Cameron said: “My message to the country today is this. Money is no object in this relief effort, whatever money is needed for it will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary”. He insisted “we are a wealthy country and we have taken good care of our public finances”.

With many communities complaining about the lack of help from official agencies, Cameron claimed that the emergency Gold Command system was working well, but he added: “It is clear the military could play a bigger role.”

He explained that 1,600 personnel will have been deployed, and thousands more were available.

Downing Street over the past 48 hours has been concerned that soldiers have so far been underused and confined to working on flood defences, rather than helping out exhausted volunteers struggling to save local communities.

Hard-hit communities along the Thames and on the Somerset levels were warned last night to expect further heavy rain and strong windson Wednesday.

There were 121 flood warnings in place, 16 of which were severe, including warnings for Chertsey and Wraysbury, which have already been heavily affected. So far about 1,000 properties have been reported as flooded over the past week.

Paul Leinster, chief executive of the Environment Agency, said there was potential for more significant flooding. “Stormy weather will continue to threaten communities this week, with further flooding expected along the Thames in Berkshire and Surrey,” he said. “River levels are high across south-west, central and southern England.”

Aware that his qualities as a national leader were under scrutiny, Cameron refused to sugar the pill about the likelihood of the crisis ending soon, telling the country to prepare for the “depressingly long haul” that lay ahead. He said: “There is absolutely no sign of this threat abating, and with further rain and strong winds forecast throughout the week things may get worse before they get better.”

He said that recovery in the south-west of England would take time, saying the broken rail line at Dawlish – where he had visited in the morning – would take at least six weeks to rebuild.

Regarding the flooded Somerset levels, he said new pumps were in action; they were removing 3m tonnes of water a day. He said this also would take time, depending on the rain levels.

The prime minister said he was cancelling a trip next week to Israel so as to take personal charge of the relief operation.

Ed Miliband also confirmed he would cancel a visit to …read more    

MoD IT consultant paid £2,000 a day to cover civil servant’s job

Yvonne Ferguson brought in as chief information officer during cost-cutting period where 50,000 jobs have been axed

The Ministry of Defence is paying an IT consultant £2,000 a day to cover the job of a civil servant at a time of cost-cutting that has already led to 50,000 civilian and military jobs being axed, the Guardian can reveal.

The appointment of Yvonne Ferguson at the MoD is thought to have made her one of the most highly paid staff in Whitehall – with a pro rata salary of more than £500,000 pa.

Ferguson has been drafted in to help streamline the department’s myriad IT systems, but the appointment has caused concern among some senior colleagues, who have seen staff axed because of deep cuts to the defence budget.

The MoD says it has had to pay Ferguson the market rate for her services – she was recruited from Capita, the government’s support services provider.

It is understood Ferguson is on a short-term contract and a member of the civil service will eventually take over the post, at a much reduced salary. But it is not clear how long she will be in the role, and the tasks she has to undertake are huge, long-term projects.

For the foreseeable future the MoD will pay £10k a week for her to take over as the MoD’s chief information officer – she had similar jobs at Transport for London and at Royal Mail in 2010.

An MoD spokesman said: “A new chief information officer is being appointed to transform and modernise our information systems in both the military and business environments. The MoD has for many years been criticised for its inability to track information, run a proper inventory management system and integrate its information systems.

“The new CIO is not directly employed by the MoD, but her services are contracted in through an agency, at the market rate, for skills required to deliver IT solutions in a highly complex operating environment.”

Announcing her appointment before Christmas, the MoD said she would become the department’s new three star CIO – the civilian equivalent of a Royal Navy vice admiral, a lieutenant general in the army or an RAF air marshall. Those roles usually come with a salary of about £150,000 pa.

Ferguson’s salary is understood to reflect the complexities of the job, which includes moving the MoD to a new computer system and developing a new IT strategy for the military.

The MoD said of her: “Yvonne has a proven track record of delivering large and complex transformational programmes and of strong leadership, having been CIO at Royal Mail and Transport for London.

“Yvonne has the energy and drive necessary to move the MoD towards its vision for information systems that are agile, secure and robust, and meet our operational and corporate needs.”

But other defence and treasury officials have been taken aback by the size of the salary, which is high for a department that already has some of the best paid mandarins in Whitehall. Some technical and engineering contractors are known to command a …read more    

UK flooding crisis: who makes the decisions?

Officials insist confusing network of emergency and relief organisations is working to tackle flood crisis

With its language of gold commanders and strategic co-ordination groups, the official response to the latest flooding can sound deeply confusing. Those involved, however, insist the system works well, even if the notion of who is in overall charge remains a slightly elusive one.

“It’s like a collective,” a Surrey police spokeswoman said when asked who ultimately led the response to floods around the Thames. “Each of the agencies has a representative and they sit on a strategic co-ordination group. It is chaired by the police, but each representative is responsible for their area of business.”

Whatever the criticisms of locals who feel abandoned by emergency services, this system came from a period of genuine chaos during events such as the fuel protests in 2000 and the foot and mouth outbreak the next year. The subsequent Civil Contingencies Act dictates what happens during emergencies and tries to ensure various authorities co-ordinate.

With the Thames floods, the process began with the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC), jointly run by the Environment Agency and Met Office, whose alert at the weekend prompted a series of conference calls with government departments.

The next step was a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee, which has discussed little else in recent weeks. John Curtin, head of incident management for the Environment Agency, has attended 17 Cobra meetings in the last month and a half. As with all attendees, Curtin is not allowed to discuss who attends or what is discussed but called them as “a team, collective effort”, rather than a top-down dissemination of orders.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office, which administers Cobra, described it similarly: “It is a mechanism, if you like. Round the Cobra table are all the key people that need to be there to be able to make things happen – ministers, senior officials, people from outside government. Things are discussed there and they can immediately take it away.”

The scope of Cobra can be far reaching, ranging from David Cameron, who chaired yesterday’s meeting on the floods, to emergency services commanders on the ground via telephone.

It is the latter, the spokeswoman said, who ultimately decide what happens: “The people who are in charge are the ones on the ground. They know what’s happening in their area. They know what resources are required. Cobra has a much higher-level role in ensuring that if there are resources that they need and it needs a government department or another organisation to bring that to bear.”

Efforts on the ground are organised using a method initially devised by police, with so-called gold, silver and bronze commanders. The gold level has seen top staff from the Environment Agency, police, fire service, local councils, and the military, meet regularly – often several times daily – at strategic co-ordination groups, usually chaired by the police command.

Those involved insist the system has worked well in the Thames floods. But people in Wraysbury, the partially submerged Berkshire village, talked bitterly of …read more