This is a transcript of the 'essay' by an anonymous serving officer which was read by an actor on The World This Weekend on Sunday 10 Oct 2010:
I am a serving officer in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. I’m not allowed to talk to the press without permission. I don’t have that permission because I haven’t asked. I haven’t asked because I know the answer already – and so I write this article anonymously. The fact that I, a mid-ranking officer, cannot make public utterance is more than just a curtailment of my right to free speech. It is actually an erosion of democracy, since it leaves the British public open only to the views of senior officers, civil servants and politicians. If all the rumours about the Strategic Defence and Security Review – the SDSR – are right, then the British public is not being well served, nor is being well informed. So I run the very real risk of disciplinary action to offer an alternative view.
Home truths about the armed forces
First, the Armed Forces are not bloated. For most of my long service, we have had to make do. The well-publicised equipment deficiencies of Iraq may have been embarrassing to politicians and a surprise to the public, but they are simply a continuance of what we’ve had to deal with for years. Because of that, we have adopted a ‘can-do’ approach to our business where often from little or nothing, we have found a winning solution. When everyone else fails, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces do not. The fire-fighters’ strikes, emergency relief and Blair’s wars have all been undertaken successfully as a result of our people, if not our kit. Our officers are not public school toffs; our men and women are not oiks rescued from inner city depravation, although to be sure, many have had a tough start in life. We come from every strata of British society. But once trained and imbued with pride and loyalty, the UK’s Armed Forces are the best in the world.
Dysfunctional Ministry of Defence
But the Armed Forces are supported by an organisation that understands cost, not value. This organisation is riven with petty factions, parochialism and career rivalries. Add in political meddling and an entrenched diversion to risk and you have an organisation that exists in a place far removed from the jungles of Sierra Leone, the deserts of Iraq or the poppy fields of Helmand. That organisation is the Ministry of Defence. But here is another home truth. The average civil servant is a friend of the forces. They work hard for often mediocre salaries. But that is not to say savings can’t be made. There are more training courses on office safety and equality and diversity than on defence procurement. That tells you much. But it is not the average MoD employee I criticise. It is those receiving massive salaries and, when they depart, honours and awards. It is the senior Civil Service that has utterly failed to manage our budgets, that has got us into the mess in which the world’s greatest Armed Forces now finds itself.
US colleagues called us 'the Borrowers'
Our infrastructure – particularly our IT – is dreadful. Laptops, which one might buy in the High Street for a few hundred pounds, routinely cost many times that. It’s often better to ignore the system and buy cables, software and circuit boards over the internet, paid for on your own credit card. As I write this, I sit at my desk and strain to read printed documents because I do not have the money in my budget to replace toner cartridges. Not for nothing did our US colleagues christen us ‘the Borrowers’. Yet at every level, I am scrutinised by a system of overseers who hunt every single penny of waste. Their talent for generating paperwork of the most excruciating and time-consuming nature is surpassed only by their ability to miss the millions of pounds that are frittered away by the MoD itself. The British public is rightly outraged at the cost of the aircraft carriers currently being built. But that does not mean we do not need carriers – we do – just not stupidly huge ones for which the rest of the Royal Navy will have to be completely sacrificed. We also need an Air Force and an Army, but not ones equipped by Harrods - off the shelf is just fine.
We need armed services ready to meet the complexity of 21st century conflict
But more than anything, we need armed services that are ready to meet the complexity of conflict in the 21st century. We don’t have that now and I fear the SDSR will not produce it. The SDSR looks to me and to every single officer I’ve spoken with like a salami slicing exercise - period. The service chiefs must take their share of the blame. Their careers have been built on an ability to never say no and now, at the pinnacle of those careers, few have had the courage to say enough is enough. Others have chosen to snipe only once retired, as if they had not played some substantial part in the whole mess themselves. There exists an odour to their hypocrisy - and then there are the politicians. It pains me to say, but I actually have a modicum of sympathy for them as they enter an utterly dysfunctional organisation in which common sense and clear thinking drowns in a tidal wave of process. To be sure, they are not blameless, but some have really tried.
Let’s be quite clear. We have to save money. As servicemen and women, we understand that. But if what I hear on the grapevine is true, the SDSR has the potential to be a monumental disaster. But sadly, it is a disaster that has been years in the making – and those that will suffer most will be the men and women at the bottom who give their all and sometimes their lives.
- Listen on BBC iPlayer - The World This Weekend - Sunday 10th October 2010. Fast forward to 19.50. Only available until the weekend.
- Transcript source: PPRuNe