Salus populi suprema lex esto

The PM on Defence (2) [edited transcript]

When this steering group last met I spoke of the inevitability of conflict, which I consider the platform for the expansion of our defence industry, one of the key costituents of our new export drive.

To remind you: War is coming. A nuclear conflict between major states may perhaps be less likely than a conventional one between the interests of a major state and one of the crime syndicates whose rapidly expanding financial strength exceeds, we know, that of many small countries, and indeed interstate war may be rather less likely than network warfare between a nuclear-armed fundamentalist religious grouping and a notionally religious but apathetic Western alliance, but war with massive loss of life, greater than that of the last century, triggered by the accelerating shortage of non-renewable resources, is the threat that we must face, ultimately, when we recognise that we cannot show the historic trend to have changed. To meet this future we need strong Armed Forces with adequate numbers, the best equipment we can produce, and high morale — this last being a factor shamefully neglected by our predecessors and one to which we must pay special attention immediately. Additionally, to support the front line, and to prepare for network warfare within the British Isles if the extremist Islam threat materialises here, as we fear may be unavoidable, we must obtain a substantial increase in the reserves, and especially in a renewed Territorial Army, to protect installations and facilities crucial to our wellbeing.

We shall be told by the news media and perhaps by some of our constituents that we should ignore the wider world, and should concentrate on our European relationships, because within Europe war is now impossible. Is it impossible? Our natural resources are diminishing, populations are on the move, climates which have fluctuated throughout time will continue to vary, Angela Merkel’s supporters are dying faster than her new ones are qualifying to vote for her, and fifty years from now our sparsely-populated Scotland might appear extremely attractive to an Islamist government in Germany seeking lebensraum. It is not impossible that Russia might then call on us to help defend Moscow. Who knows? I don’t and you don’t, but what we do know is that British artillery in 1914 had insufficient shells even for counter-battery fire, that we just failed to lose the war in 1940 because Hitler made a strategic error, and that we would have lost the Falklands if the Argentine Air Force had been better trained in the art of bombing at low level. Who can guarantee we shall have sufficient time to recover when next we are called to fight where or when we did not expect? In past years, when we escaped, we could train a recruit to have a modest competence in six weeks, but, with our present and future technology, that is now, and will remain, impossible.

There is much discussion insisting that we must first settle Government Policy, but that in fact is not the emergency priority. First must be calculated the irreducible minima for the capabilities irrefutably essential, because without this information policies will be proposed on the basis of non-existent resources. Machiavelli warned that “the great majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances, as though they are realities, and thus are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.” This has been true for many years in the composition of Defence policy, and we are now to stop it. A submarine nuclear deterrent that is, as has been suggested, occasionally unavailable is not a deterrent on which policy may be based. A policy for a reliable projection of British power intercontinentally cannot depend on a calendar during which crucial assets are available for only two-thirds of the time. An Army reduced in infantry strength to below its critical mass, that is (among other criteria) to the figure at which skills cannot be passed from one generation to the next, does not provide a platform for the creation of long-term foreign policy. Thus competent and experienced analysts (not politicians, nor arms manufacturers, nor wishful dreamers, nor journalists) must advise us on the conflicts for which preparations must be made. The assets necessary must then be selected. Then the personnel necessary for the employment of those assets must be numbered. It is only then that we may use this information to devise policies that do not conflict with our principal responsibility, the security of the nation. Salus populi suprema lex esto. Those policies, fed back to the military, will facilitate agreement on how much more than the minima will be necessary.

The current state of the UK’s Armed Forces is catastrophic. Rectification of this by conventional means would require an immediate provision of all the money that had been required and refused during the last two decades, plus the money now required to repair the damage inflicted by the lack of that money, plus the new money required to maintain the Armed Forces with the operational skills and assets necessary to ensure a successful defence of the British Isles and our overseas interests. As the company bequeathed to us, UK plc, now teeters on the brink of insolvency, such a massive sum will perhaps require an unconventional approach, but first it is essential to stop the routine and incomprehensible waste of the existing budget.

Its many well-publicised procurement failures have lost the MoD all the credibility it feels is its due. Israel can launch more air strikes in 36 hours and field more armour in the same time span than any other country (including the USA), and Israel’s procurement is managed by a staff of 400. Here in the UK our MoD’s procurement procedures have apparently historically required a staff above 20,000 (now being reduced I’m pleased to say) – which in part must explain why programmes meet extensive delays and exceed their budgets by vast amounts (as Parkinson tells us). “Efficiency savings” have only ever cynically introduced politically acceptable inefficiencies encumbered with the hidden long-term costs our predecessors kept off the balance sheet, but now the intellectual honesty the post-Brexit situation demands will ensure the removal forever of that term from the political lexicon.

Major surgery within the procurement system should produce substantial savings with a drastic reduction in staffing levels, while the implementation of restructured acquisition procedures will save billions of pounds. The current system produces flexible specifications that attract competitively low tenders, but then once accepted the Consensual Incremental Extortion (CIE) begins, with agreed amendments to the initial specifications warranting disproportionately large price increases. A supplier might suggest a modification that will produce a marginal improvement in performance, perhaps of one per cent, and then the total price may be increased by two per cent or by five per cent or by whatever percentage is expected to slip past without controversy. Later, when measure-countermeasure inflation kicks in, the exponential curve, starting from this heightened base, heads for the stratosphere. CIE has destroyed the UK’s Armed Forces’ ability to wage war against ill-armed and uneducated tribesmen — that is the measure of the MoD’s procurement failure. Michael will henceforth prevent this by insisting that suppliers meet exact specifications or face penalties, just as when they deal, for example, with civil airlines.

Intelligent savings need not be restricted to the inevitable staff reductions. The cost of low-intensity wars can be reduced by introducing the disciplines of careful asset selection which require cost-effectiveness in the choice of weapon selection. It is, for example, absurd for Tornados at £33,000 per hour to be used for tasks that can be done equally well, and sometimes rather more efficiently, by smaller and far less expensive aircraft at a cost less than one per cent of that figure, and yet I understand there are plans for all the Tornados we used in Afghanistan to be replaced by Typhoons modified at huge cost for close air support. Greater financial disciplines are desirable anyway, but for the Middle East, which may require our presence for perhaps the next half-century, or even longer, they are essential. Effects-based targeting is fine; I want effects-based spending, too.

Now I should like you all to read Lady Hodge’s book, Called to Account, so that you clearly understand how the MoD has wantonly wasted the Defence funds. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee she dug deep into the mire, and we must all learn from what she unearthed. You should all read also Bullingdon Defences, because that reveals the cost to morale inflicted on our Armed Forces by the MoD’s catastrophic carelessness and neglect. It’s your baby, Michael, but we all must share the responsibility for ensuring there will be no repetition.

We shall meet at the same time next Thursday.

We have been unable to confirm the authenticity of this leaked text, but shall leave it online until it has been formally denied.

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Si vis pacem, pare bellum

The PM on Defence (1) [edited transcript]

Not all the public understands primus inter pares, and now I am Her Majesty’s First Minister I am not sure I do either.  As I am the one who takes the rap when any one of you falls down, we are most certainly not equal, and it is that thought which now inspires what I intend to say to you today.

At our first plenary session I reminded you all that UK plc is not only a trading company that must trade to survive, a truth we all recognise, but also that it must survive if it is to trade, a simple reality some of our predecessors have neglected.  The situation in which we find UK plc today is catastrophic, and with the discovery almost every day of more hidden data we must conclude that severe measures are essential.  Fortunately we now have with Brexit a new opportunity that will in the public mind excuse severity and justify innovation.

While discussing our international trade I made the point that in common with all companies in distress UK plc must examine every escape mechanism, and this means looking carefully at the elimination of waste, at borrowing, at raising more capital, at downsizing, at vastly increased efficiencies, and at new expansion.  We shall have committees to examine all these measures, and more, but this committee is to concentrate on expansion in the one department where we have no choice but to expand.  That department, colleagues, is Defence.

Why have we no choice?  The Government’s first duty is the Defence of the Realm, and as our predecessors neglected it we have much to repair and replace.  Let me try to quantify the problem.  During the 1960s, when the greatest danger to the nation appeared to be that of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and the dreadful war that would have followed, our average Defence spend was around 5.8 per cent of GDP.  During the next decade this dropped to 4.8 per cent, and then during the 1980s it dropped further to 4.5 per cent.  With perestroika there came the declaration of a “peace dividend” and the spend was dropped to 3.2 per cent of GDP until a Labour Government took over and dropped it first to 2.5 per cent and finally to 2.3 per cent.  Since then our immediate predecessors have planned to reduce it, if we refuse to fudge the definitions, to below 2.0 per cent.

That “peace dividend” was fictitious because it was supposed to represent money being saved by no longer having to defend ourselves against the Soviets with only conventional weapons, but in reality we were never able to defend ourselves with conventional weapons alone.  NATO would have been forced to go nuclear on the third day, and perhaps even earlier.  You and I and our constituents may not have known that, but the Governments of those days did.  So the baseline for the calculation was false.

Not only was there no “peace dividend”: there was a failure to understand that with the collapse of the bipolar stability the Americans and Soviets had created, a new instability required larger and more powerful Armed Forces to defend our interests and to enforce peace with different equipment and new skills.  During the bad days of the Cold War it was rare for the UK to fight.  We had Korea as part of the United Nations Force, and an insurgency in Malaya, but thereafter we experienced only comparatively minor post-colonial problems with little loss of life.  Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, however, our conflicts overseas have been frequent — the Gulf War in 1991, Bosnia in ’92, Kosovo in ’99, Sierra Leone in 2000, Iraq from 2003, Afghanistan which, I fear, has no end in sight, and, of course, the Falklands whose security from invasion will remain a serious worry for both the near and distant future.  Accordingly, and especially because the weaponry we produced for a possible high-intensity war here in Europe was so often quite unsuitable for low-intensity conflict elsewhere, the investment in national defence should have been far higher — at least double.

Today we face a situation in which our predecessors planned to invest in the coming year a percentage of GDP that is little more than one third of the 5.8 per cent that was insufficient for conventional defence anyway.  Moreover, this small increase does not compensate for several decades of underinvestment that have reduced our defence assets substantially in both number and quality to the point that the men and women of our Armed Forces no longer trust our Defence Ministers’ judgment, a serious detriment to the morale already suffering from the poor housing provided for their families (and for which all pay unjustifiably high levels of rent).  You are well aware of the scandalous waste of money owed to seriously flawed MoD decisions, so I shall not list them now, but we must recognise the consequences — the financial drain of the horrific PFI contracts; the helicopters we need but do not have; the helicopters we have but cannot use where we need them; the Potemkin destroyers sent to sea without their defence systems; the 14 Type 45 destroyers agreed as the bare minimum yet reduced in number to 6, several of which are for one reason or another currently in dock and awaiting engine modifications to allow them to operate in tropical waters; the EFA Typhoon fighters that first had a gun, and then didn’t, and then did after all but could not fire it, and now is to have one to fire in support of the troops, but at a cost of many millions of pounds per aircraft; and the lack of a genuinely cost-effective aircraft for Close Air Support (needed in Afghanistan where the Tornado cost an unaffordable £33,000 per hour, plus fuel, to operate).

In summary, then, the ministry for which you have accepted responsibility, Michael, is a total financial disaster.  To begin to repair the damage our various predecessors created we shall need in the forthcoming financial years access to funds at a level of five per cent of GDP plus a margin — say around £80billion.  Across-the-board cuts cannot be applied to this situation, Philip, for the Defence budget has been cut already, as it has been every year since the 1960s, from 5.8 per cent (which was always insufficient anyway) down to the current insane, inadequate two per cent.

Well, I assure you, the UK will not commit suicide on my watch.  War is coming — not perhaps a state-on-state conflict during the term of this present Parliament, although that will come during our lifetime and we must prepare for it now — but insurgency and terrorism are coming into the British Isles now, during the term of this present Parliament, and on a scale that can be classified only as War.

The technical ability to kill large numbers of humans has improved in every century during the last millennium, and every century the death toll has increased accordingly to reach about 150 million for the last one.  With the population of the world expanding quickly, as is natural, and with the pressure on key resources such as water now beginning to threaten disturbances, who will gamble on this thousand-year trend being reversed?

War is natural to Man, and preparation for war has been Man’s principal activity all down our long march.  Machiavelli warned us that Man is more inclined to do evil than to do good, and the history of the last five hundred years has not contradicted him.  The Great War of 1914-18 was the war that was to end all our wars; remember?  The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 were the weapons that would end wars forever; remember?  And yet after 1945 we had Korea, Viet Nam and the Falkland Islands, and the horrors of Pol Pot, Rwanda Burundi, and the Balkans.

History has decided.

Well, I’ve given you something to ponder.  I should like to see you all again at three o’clock on Thursday, to hear your ideas on how we may proceed in solving the problems of Defence finance.

We have been unable to confirm the authenticity of this leaked text, but shall leave it online until it has been formally denied.


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Do you truly understand your Prime Minister?


“Do you understand your Prime Minister?” the General asked me.  “Have you seen the news from BAE Systems?  It’s a picture of his new peaceship.  The First Sea Lord says it’s designed for ‘humanitarian and disaster relief work around the world’, but just look at it.  It’s not built for the North Atlantic, not with that hull it ain’t (look at the flare), but it’s painted North Atlantic grey to make it look stealthy.  Very fashionable, stealth.  If it’s to run around the world doing good as the SDSR tells us, the Prime Minister will want people to see it, won’t he?  So it shouldn’t be coloured for stealth – it should be painted vividly in highly saturated fluorescent red, white and blue.”

Type 26 GCS Peaceship 

“Yes,” I said, “but this is the Type 26, the new Global Combat Ship.  It’s going to be in combat against pirates and drug runners.  That’s why it’s grey.  Not exactly stealth, but ‘low observability’.  Look, it has a gun.”

“A gun!” he said.  “You call that a gun?  When I was a toddler I had a cowboy suit with a bigger gun than that.  Matelots used to know how to cover their rear, but they can’t here with that, can they?  A Somali in a skiff with an RPG could approach from astern and sink it.”

“Yes, if it could get near enough to use an RPG, but there’s a helicopter to look after the rear.”  But only one, I thought, and that might be a Merlin even if they plan on an updated Lynx.  And how often would a Merlin be serviceable in 2020?

“Six years ago, in the Gulf, HMS Cornwall had a chopper but it couldn’t even defend the cabin boy’s iPod.  D’you see there are no rails?  A rough sea swamping the deck and stealth will be destroyed by a trail of sailors washed overboard.  No davits for the lifeboats. No lifeboats.  I can see only two cells for launching missiles – perhaps there are more astern – but it really doesn’t look like a warship, does it?  It’ s a peaceship. What’s it actually for?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “They plan on it coming into service in 2020, so …”

“2020!” he interrupted.  “It’s a BAE Systems contract commissioned by the MoD, for heaven’s sake.  And it’s for the Royal Navy, which is still governed by tradition.  That means it will be vastly over budget, too expensive to fully equip, and years late, years late.  We’ve been sending ships to sea without their missiles ever since that lunatic Brown decided missiles were unnecessary so long as our ships were actually capable of putting to sea with missiles if they had any, so having no missiles because we have no money is the tradition we must now follow.  (The current Deputy Prime Minister is pushing that as the new Naval doctrine.  He even says the Vanguard submarines should go to sea without their Trident missiles!  It’s called LibDem Duality.  That means having a deterrent that can’t deter.)  Forget 2020.  That date was chosen for PR reasons because the first new carrier is due to go to sea then – without aircraft, of course, because we can’t afford the ones for which it was designed, and those will be tactically useless anyway.”

“Well, it’s not really that bad,” I said.  “When the peaceship does eventually come into service, it will be basically a new type of frigate.  Our admirals insist on having a destroyer-frigate navy.  That’s what they understand.  They can cope with aircraft carriers, but they don’t really like them.”

“Yes, you’re right,” he said, “and that’s the problem.  A destroyer-frigate navy.  The frigates are there to defend against submarines, and the destroyers against air attacks, but the submarines the frigates once fought successfully were diesel-powered.  They can’t fight nuclear subs.  Only other nuclear subs can do that.  Helicopters could sometimes, perhaps, but I doubt it for the future.  The destroyers might do point defence against some incoming missiles, but not against crossing targets, and not against the existing supersonic surface-skimming cruise missiles heading for the carrier – and by 2020 new hypersonic anti-ship missiles will have put this Type 26 Global Combat Ship out of business, and the carriers, too, of course.”

“Perhaps you have a point,” I admitted.

“I’ll tell you what’s behind this,” he said.  “By the target date of 2020 the carriers, even if they are ready, won’t have the strike aircraft their designers intended, and they will be far too vulnerable to put to sea in a war.  But they will have hospitals and helicopters and large kitchens they call galleys, and hangars full of Red Cross and Red Crescent parcels, so that they can run around the world ‘doing good’ in crisis areas, droughts, tsunamis and earthquakes.  The same goes for the new Type 26 GCS alias frigates, which also will be far too vulnerable to expose to actual warfare.  It’s all in the subtext of the SDSR.  And why?”

“Search me,” I said.  “I don’t understand my Prime Minister either.”

“It’s his ‘Soft Power’ theory,” he said.  “Someone told him of the ‘fleet-in-being’ doctrines developed by Lord Torrington and Admiral Mahan that allowed the Royal Navy to rule the seven seas while staying safe in port, and then he coupled those to Brown’s lunacies about it being sufficient to have unarmed ships so long as they are capable of being armed, and then he realised that if the Royal Navy remained unarmed and also stayed in port the MoD would be able to reduce its personnel by half.  So this ‘Soft Power‘ idea was initially about saving money to fund the International Aid budget he had ringfenced.  It’s the same strategy he’s used with education.  If there are to be no grammar schools it’s not possible to educate modern youth, and if you can’t educate modern youth you don’t need to spend the money trying.  I know that doesn’t work, but neither did he until he tried it.”

“Hold on,” I said.  “That’s absurd.”

“Of course it’s absurd,” he said.  “You know that and I know that, but he doesn’t.  Now watch the Army.  It’s fighting wars with inferior equipment and as its morale drops the lads queue up to leave and ancient regiments cannot find new recruits.  So then he disbands the regiments because they’re undermanned, and suddenly we find we have an army which is no longer an army, just a collection of 82,000 extremely unhappy men and women with capability consistent with ‘Soft Power’.  We can’t fight a war with an army of only 82,000.  It’s not possible.  And we can’t fight anything with ‘Soft Power’.”

“What about the RAF, then?” I asked.

“He followed his predecessors and took orders from Brussels.  We had to agree to buy 250 Eurofighter Typhoons.  That was twenty-odd years ago.  We now plan to have in 2017 only 107 of them and they will cost us three times what we were told would be the price.  To pay for them we first took a complete and fully operational attack wing of Jaguars offline and scrapped them, and more recently we decommissioned all our Harriers (and then, not having any Harriers to fly from the through-deck cruisers he decommissioned those too and scrapped them).  Now we are told that these wonderful Typhoons won’t do the job the Jaguars did because they cannot integrate their computer software with the weaponry software.  That’s why the Typhoons attacking Libya needed Tornados to fly alongside them to aim their bombs for them.”

“Yes,” I said.  “I knew that.”

But as we had only eight pilots capable of flying those Typhoons, it was all a nonsense anyway.  Having the Tornados fly all the way from Norfolk each day in order to help the Typhoons work as simple bombtrucks must be the most bizarrely uneconomic arrangement in RAF history, and it was all done in an attempt to hide the stupidity of decommissioning the Harriers and scrapping HMS Ark Royal.  And then, after all this unnecessary expense, and after the failure to hide from the world the Typhoon’s inadequate ground attack capability, the operation was claimed to be a huge success that justified the SDSR decisions.  What cynics call spin, older judgement describes as blatant dishonesty.

It is dispiriting to think back to the Second World War when in 1940, still suffering from the lack of preparation, we could yet launch, just, enough fighters each day to defend us against very large fleets of well-escorted bombers, and then later to when we could send, each night, raids of a thousand bombers flown by a thousand pilots to attack the enemy factories, and then to appreciate that there were only eight pilots to fly the RAF’s shiny new frontline fighter-bombers against Libya.

And the cost of all this?  When a representative of the MoD told the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons that the Typhoons were costing only £72 million each, one of the committee members told him that if we divided the full programme cost by the 107 Typhoons we would have accumulated by 2017, then we were paying £186 million each.  Ah, yes, but for that figure, he was told, it was necessary to include the cost of research and development.  One wonders who he thought was to pay for that.  The tooth fairy or the taxpayers?

This fundamental incompetence in the interpretation of the numbers pushed around in the MoD has been well illustrated with the decommissioning of the Harriers and their sale to the US Marine Corps, with which they are planned to remain in use for several years, and for even longer if the F-35B, their theoretical replacement, fails so badly that even the White House must recognise it.  No one knows how much the F-35B will cost the Royal Navy, nor even how many will be bought, but the price will not be less than £125 million each.  This means that the sum received by the MoD for the sale of 72 Harriers plus spares plus support equipment, £110 million, is less than the currently forecast price the MoD will pay for one F-35B, one single F-35B without spares, in whose performance independent aviation defence analysts have no faith, absolutely no faith at all.

“You know what I think,” said the General.  “I think it started with the Typhoon and the scrapping of the Jaguar attack wing.  That was in the same continuum that is planned to end with the Armed Forces cut to the bone and unable to fight a war alone for British interests.  Our frontline ships will be too vulnerable and too few to fight, the RAF won’t have sufficient aircraft or pilots to operate, and the Army won’t have sufficient men to field a brigade for an overseas campaign.  That is the ‘Soft Power’ that can be provided for pennies so that the pounds can be spent on International Aid.”  He paused to pour the remainder of the Glenlivet into his glass while I recalled the Jaguar stupidity.  In 2004, the MoD decided to retire the ground attack Jaguar aircraft early (although it was eventually delayed until mid-2007) and to spend £119 million to install ground attack upgrades on early Typhoons to cover the resulting capability gap.  The MoD thus took offline a fully operational attack wing, long before its life was over (the Indian Air Force is to continue flying upgraded Jaguars for another twenty years), in order to fund an overdue aircraft it could not afford, and then made that overdue aircraft even more unaffordable by upgrading it at great expense to do the work of the proven and splendidly efficient operational aircraft taken offline to help fund the newcomer that was supposedly replacing it.

“Think of the continuum as a flexible hose,” the General continued.  “At one end, before the Berlin Wall came down and our lords and masters were burbling on about imaginary ‘peace dividends’, we had Armed Forces that could defend our national interests.  Now we do not.  One end of the hose was in Westminster back in 1990, and the other end is in Brussels in 2020 when the ‘Soft Power’ will ooze into the EuroForce to become its ‘Soft Power’ element – to operate peaceships, air ambulances, and stretcher bearers.”

He emptied his glass and turned it down.

“Sic transit gloria mundi,” he said. 


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Humiliation Avoided ~ the Tory rebels saved the Prime Minister


Has there ever before been such a debate as that in the Mother of Parliaments on August 29th?  Conceived in error, promoted promiscuously, supported speculatively, and culturally iconic, the wide range of incoherent opinions its result produced were to be modified, contradicted and restructured by their possessors within minutes of them leaving the chamber.

Mr Cameron was grievously wounded, or his reputation enhanced by his integrity; the British nation was now an international joke, or its democratic virtues universally admired; Labour had won a stunning victory, or Mr Miliband’s conduct was disgraceful; the ‘special relationship’ with our closest ally was destroyed, or the American people would gratefully follow the example the British had given.

And at the centre of this confusion a “humiliated” Mr Cameron played the alpha male, basking in the admiration of those who claimed, or who were about to claim, or would later claim, that what he had done in seeking the approval of Parliament was right, while he reflected on the unhappy revelation that the 272 whipped votes he had captured might not actually represent the views of the British Christians he had for several months been hoping to take to war in support of Islamist terrorists fighting a tyrannical régime, and butchering minorities, including Christians, in a Muslim country.

From the cacophony monitored by the news media emerged substantial criticism of Mr Cameron, some eloquent, some barnyard, but in general it was justified.  “He doesn’t do numbers, they’re not important, just detail,” and for this debate, certainly, it appears he neglected to calculate what might happen if Mr Miliband was as unreliable as Mr Cameron’s colleagues have been trying to persuade the voters.  A loyal Tory said,  “He’s not a chess player.  He never thinks more than one move ahead.”

Another comment on a similar theme was, “The pawns are the soul of chess!” –  a quotation resuscitated from an 18th century French musician of Scots ancestry (the de facto world chess champion) that recognised Mr Cameron’s weakness in forever concentrating, as of course did Mr Blair, on what is big, appears simple, and feeds the ego (e.g. the unaffordable HS2, the vulnerable aircraft carriers, and the uneconomic wind farms rolling out across the countryside to smother our children’s heritage).

But what if Mr Cameron’s supporters had numbered 282 instead of 272 and he had won the vote against an opposition of 275?  Would we now be at war?  Was that the plan?  Was there a plan?  Or did we not need a plan because we were going to war only to support the Americans?  The Americans, of course, had produced the plans for the war against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the plans for the destruction of the Afghan Taliban, and the plans for the introduction of democracy to Libya, so with such experience Mr Cameron could safely leave these mundane matters to Washington, could he not?  Well, he did.

So what was Washington planning for Syria?  Who knows?  Washington doesn’t, and whatever it might be it failed to win the support of General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), a fact well known in the USA but not so in the UK.  General Dempsey is the equivalent of the British Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and both the current CDS and his predecessor advised against going to war with Syria – so at the military level, at least, there was some agreement.  (The boast of a ‘Special Relationship’ continues, naturally, despite the post-debate hysteria, because it is and has always been the correct way to describe the protocol governing our exchange of Intelligence with the American agencies.  The term has never legitimately described any other arrangements.)


We have a fair idea of what was initially in President Obama’s mind, a punitive operation that would degrade President Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again, and we have a rough idea of how this transmuted into a larger and more intensive offensive that by destroying the Syrian government’s military advantage over the insurgents would reduce its resistance to entering negotiations, but what ideas did Mr Cameron have?

If we start from his oft-repeated claim to military power based on the UK’s defence budget being calculated as the fourth highest in the world, then we know we are in trouble.  That is Bullingdonism.  (Did he believe that when his night out with his club cost him £1,000 he had therefore eaten the best dinner in Oxford?)  Does he not understand that Israel, whose defence budget is a fraction of ours, can within 36 hours field more armour and launch more aircraft strike sorties than the whole of European NATO including the North American contribution here in Europe?  Money wasted is no measure of military power (scrapped Nimrods, unused Chinooks, short-range Tornados, Eurofighter Typhoons at triple the forecast price, and currently the vulnerable aircraft carriers and the ‘jump-jet’ Joint Strike Fighters, the F-35B, whose performance falls a long way short of that agreed in the Joint Operational Requirements Document and yet have a price soaring with every new estimate).

Has Mr Cameron learned nothing from the many months it took to defeat Libya, a nation of six and a half million at war with itself, after he had removed the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier and its Harriers from the fleet, and had to rely on the six RAF Typhoons for which we had operational pilots, each of these aircraft needing to be refuelled in the air three times while transiting between the UK and its target, and each needing a Tornado to fly alongside to help it drop its bombs?

An informal coalition of Generals and Admirals together with the current CDS and his predecessor explained to him the limitations owed to the legacy of Mr Brown’s years in power and exacerbated by the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 (SDSR2010).  He knew that he could not use the RAF to strike Syrian targets, for the Tornados would be easy meat for the Mig-29 fighters Russia promised (which might have been flown by Russian ‘instructors’), and with the Army kept at home by the “no boots on the ground’ promise, a British war on Syria would have had to be a naval affair.

But the UK no longer has a navy.  We have a few warships left, certainly, but their number is now well below critical mass.  We cannot deploy in all the areas in which we have maintained a British presence for centuries.  We cannot even watch all the key problems we have monitored in more recent times, and we are continuing the tradition established in the Brown years of sending our ships to sea without their armament.  The Royal Navy that once ruled the world is no more.  In sum — Mr Cameron should be grateful to the Tory rebels who defeated him in the debate, for they pulled him off the hook on which his braggadocio had impaled him.

What then of the Americans?  If Congress had approved (as Congress had to if President Obama’s explanation in 2007 was correct), would the action have been restricted to the US Navy and its cruise missiles?  The four destroyers now in the Eastern Mediterranean have around 150 Tomahawks available, sufficient for a token strike perhaps, but not to inconvenience very much an enemy who has been given adequate time to disperse his crucial assets.  (The destroyers would not launch all their Tomahawks ~ a substantial number would be retained because a resupply cannot be loaded at sea.)  The American warships would be standing well offshore, outside the range of Syrian anti-ship missiles, but that means the Syrians, alerted by Russian reconnaissance whenever Tomahawks were launched, would have had half an hour or more of Tomahawk flight time to move sensitive assets away from the target sites recorded by American reconnaissance and programmed into the Tomahawks by the warship operators.

In area, Syria is a little less than one and a half times the size of England, and a Tomahawk will carry either 1,000 lbs of high explosive against a fixed target, or a load of light-weight scatterable submunitions for an area target – so we are talking about a gentle slap on the wrist.

Would the US Air Force have stood idly by while the US Navy had all the action and therewith earned a larger slice of future budgets?  Targets for air attack were chosen, and if the MiG-29s, whose delivery from Russia had been delayed by payment problems, had been lent on approval, then American aircraft would possibly have fought with MiG-29s in Syrian colours but flown by Russian ‘instructors’.  (The MiG-29 may not be Russia’s best fighter, but it is well proven and its missiles are good.)  If Iran had then joined the party, Israel (capable of launching 2,500 short-range strike sorties per day) might have done so also, seizing the opportunity to eradicate Hezbollah establishments and Hezbollah forces in the field, while also prepared to pre-empt possible Iranian responses against Israeli population centres.

At that point, as the Middle East erupted, British politicians would have been claiming that the world had gone mad, American politicians would have been pleading that they really hadn’t wanted this to happen, and French politicians would have been demanding that the US and the UK take the blame and stop the fighting.  But it would have been too late.


The First World War, ‘The Great War’ as we used to call it, was the awful price we paid for having national leaders who stumbled blindly towards catastrophe while retaining and ignoring their own ability to stop and sit down and talk.  It began 99 years ago.  What did it teach us that our present generation of politicians can remember?  The French had great faith in their magnificent Army, the Americans had a moat 3,000 miles wide and little concern for minor squabbles in Europe, and the British were confident that the war would “be over by Christmas,” and that the Hun would “be taught a lesson.”  So our leaders stumbled onwards, just as Messrs Cameron and Hague stumbled last month, oblivious to the consequences of making war unnecessarily with inadequate resources, but uncaring because they are truly ignorant of war.

Is it not ironic that, contradicting what we have been led to expect, it is President Putin who has demonstrated a statesman’s maturity, reluctant to be seen to act until he was ready to accept the applause, manipulating the players from behind the curtain.  We knew his objectives – protection of Assad to ensure Russia’s use of Syria as a strategic naval base; defeat of the insurgents (a threat also in his own country and thus one to be discouraged violently); a demonstration of diplomatic superiority over the American president; and neutralisation of the American threat to attack – and he must be fairly well satisfied at what he has achieved so far.  Mr Kerry has been out-manoeuvred, for if the speed of Syrian chemical disarmament drops below that agreed, it will not be possible for Mr Obama to say, “It’s too slow, so we are going to kill a few people with our missiles to encourage faster progress.”

The Tory rebels may or may not have “humiliated” their leader (this blog believes not), but in addition to persuading Mr Obama to think twice, they probably saved the UK from humiliation.  Yes, we may assume that our Typhoon fighters would perform well against Syria’s ground attack aircraft, and even against the MiG-29 fighters, but Ayios Nikolaos (part of the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area), our Middle East GCHQ colony in Cyprus, could not be protected from the Syrian Scuds launched from short range as a legitimate and catastrophic response to a British act of war – or to an American act of war fed with GCHQ intelligence.

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