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Keeping Up Appearances: how MoD profligacy cloaks our military impotence

In today’s Telegraph journalist and former RN officer Lewis Page has written a stunner of an article advocating the break-up of the RAF. Well, he hasn’t really. I suspect the sub-editor pointed his argument to that conclusion, and guided by his own service bias, he went along with it. What Page is really arguing is that our armed forces are scandalously under-resourced yet phenomenally expensive, so we should can our indigenous, subsidized arms industry and just buy US material. And you can make a very compelling argument about that.

We should cancel our order for A400M European transport planes, and buy more C-17s and C-130s cheaply from the US.

The Navy should not be allowed its new frigates: instead it should purchase basic ships to act as floating bases for helicopters, Marines and Tomahawk missiles. The Army should likewise move away from tanks and artillery, and towards integrated air support. If the soldiers really feel a need for Apache helicopters once they have F-18s and Reapers, we could replace them: but we should buy straight from Boeing this time, rather than a job-creation scheme in Yeovilton.

The utter incompetence of MoD procurement is legendary, but most senior officers (of whom there are far too many), all senior civil servants, and the entire political class are in cahoots to cover up the dire state of Britain’s military. They have long conspired to present the illusion of military power to the public, and justify it by pretending they are really presenting that self-same illusion to our enemies, a la Sun Tzu. It’s a dishonesty that kills British servicemen and wastes billions of pounds of public money.

This is why, for example, the Navy are about to take ownership of two typically overbudget aircraft carriers, but have no VTOL jets to put on them. And on a personal level, I have long been fascinated by the exquisite awfulness of the SA80. The same army that used the Brown Bess musket, the Lee Enfield, and the FN FAL, fine firearms all, has wielded one of the worst rifles in the world for twenty years. The SA80 was designed and manufactured in Britain, but the only military to have imported it is Bermuda’s (in Bravo Two Zero the author Andy McNab descibes the SA80 as “the Rolls Royce of rifles” and says it is far superior to the M16; it’s one of the clearest signs that the MoD were granted editorial influence over the manuscript).

Page’s argument makes complete sense overall, even if he picks rather unfairly on the RAF. It’s an argument that has been made numerous times by all sorts of qualified people ever since the Options for Change review in 1990. But every time this argument is made a crucial point is missed: if we abandon our flailing, useless, indigenous arms industry our relationship with America becomes transparent. We will have to admit, and the world will plainly see, we are simply a client state. Like Saudi Arabia. The unipolar nature of the world will become glaringly obvious.

In reality it is not national pride that compels Britain to squander so much of its national wealth on crappy, home-grown materiel. It is realpolitik. It hides the extent to which we rely on American support. Indeed, it is only American support which has kept us on the UN Security Council these past few decades.  Our stupid rifles and rented nukes and empty aircraft carriers and dead soldiers and dodgy arms deals obscure the reality that we are, in effect, a Yankee vassal. Once the British and American military begin to look identical (same uniforms, same weapons, same vehicles) this truth becomes inescapable, and diplomatically, this limits America’s freedom to maneuver. Furthermore, any change to the line-up or structure of the UN SC would be globally destabilizing, and not in a way that British or American governments would like (the rest of the world might feel differently).

Any American general knows full well the reality of the situation: they are the military superpower, and we are a foreign policy fig leaf. Since the end of the Cold War, our role as an American ally has provided no military benefit to them, but rather the opposite: it makes their operational theatre more difficult to manage. Britain is a landing strip and a diplomatic lever. In terms of American domestic politics, we are a helpful, bleeding extension to the echo chamber. Ponder that the next time some shoddy kit kills a British soldier. It is all an illusion, and one that disadvantages Britain above all.

Americans have complained vocally about the latest round of cuts to UK defence spending. Whenever they have complained in the past, it has usually been because they want to boost their own war budgets back home. This time they are rather more worried, but not for the stated reason. Our current defence cuts do not threaten our effective military capability: Britain lost that years ago. It’s gone. We could just about manage a little police action, like Operation Barras, but that’s about it. What worries the Yanks now is this: we can no longer afford even the illusion of military independence.

That’s a difficult line to sell in sentimental old Blighty, where we cling to our poppies and tattered imperial dreams, but the Americans can see things without the rose tint. As far as the British public are concerned, Tommy Atkins don’t need no fancy jets or decent bullpups or poncy armour, because he’s the salt of the bloody English earth, and the finest fightin’ soldier that the world has ever seen.

Help for Heroes indeed.

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