Admiral Chris Parry: Without agile, balanced Forces, we will be left behind in the world

Admiral Chris Parry writes in The Daily Telegraph that:

This has not been a good week for those who care about our Armed Forces. First came the stumbling attempts to evacuate British citizens from Libya, spearheaded only by a frigate – HMS Cumberland – that is set to be scrapped under the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). And today, this newspaper reports that eminent figures have warned the Prime Minister that the cuts made to the military could place our soldiers at "considerable risk", pleading for a "rapid re-evaluation" of the entire SDSR.Even before the crisis in the Middle East, the SDSR was starting to look frayed around the edges. Full of pious platitudes, wishful thinking and promissory notes, it was a political, not a military, settlement, driven by fiscal requirements and designed to share pain roughly equally across all three Services. At best, it was a holding action until after the next election, a compromise in the sense that Margaret Thatcher understood the word: something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects.

Does the Government know what it wants – or needs – from the Armed Forces? So far, it knows that it has to arrange a dignified exit from Afghanistan; fix a dysfunctional, process-ridden Ministry of Defence; cope with a huge bow-wave of projects that were procured on the never-never; and, as an ideological imperative, force Defence to take its share of the cuts.

The problem, however, is that the Coalition is in danger of creating a deficit of its own: a strategic deficit. Our Armed Forces, stretched beyond their limits under Labour by a prolonged imbalance between commitments and resources, face the prospect of further hollowing-out. It is not surprising that morale is reported to be poor, that people are running scared at every level and that bureaucratic processes – such as summarily chopping trainee pilots and emailing redundancy notices to long-serving and long-suffering warrant officers – have upstaged leadership. Each Service is being eroded by salami-slicing and uncertainty, by short-term manoeuvres that balance the books but have no regard to long-term sustainability.

What is to be done? First, the Government needs to put in place what is often described as a "grand" strategy – a joined-up, comprehensive approach to determining the UK's interests. Defence capability does not exist in isolation: it translates directly into political, diplomatic and economic influence. One of the first questions that the Prime Minister's hosts in the Middle East will have asked him before committing to trade deals is whether Britain would come to their aid if they were threatened by external enemies. Not for nothing does France have a 500-strong base in Abu Dhabi.

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