Russia is not about to invade
Eddie Ford does not want British armed forces ‘fit’ for fighting a world war - instead they should be replaced by a people’s militia
It is almost a universal axiom that generals are never happy with their lot: they always feel under-resourced and under-appreciated by the ‘out-of-touch’ and possibly treacherous ‘political class’.
This was near perfectly illustrated by comments last week from the retired general, Sir Richard Lawson Barrons, that were splashed over the front pages of several newspapers, with the Financial Times running the headline: “Britain’s ‘withered’ forces not fit to repel all-out attack” (September 16). Oxford educated Barrons was head of the Joint Forces Command up until April and saw “distinguished services” in Northern Ireland, Kosova, Iraq and Afghanistan - and is also the author, interestingly enough, of The business general: transform your business using seven secrets of military success.1 Everyone’s got to make a buck or two.
Anyhow, the FT somehow got its hands on a ‘private’ 10-page memorandum sent by the general before he retired in April to the defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon - the reasonable suspicion being that Barrons leaked the document himself, especially as it came only months after the government’s decision to increase defence spending overall by nearly £5 billion by 2020-21 and thus technically meet Nato’s target of 2% of GDP. In the memo, the general complained - you guessed it - that Britain needs a lot more money, equipment and personnel.
Indeed, according to Barrons, the UK has lost much of the ability to fight a conventional war. Counter-terrorism, it seems, is “the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory”, and there is “no top-to-bottom command and control mechanism, preparation or training in place” for the armed forces to “defend home territory” - leading the good general to worry that a “concerted” Russian air campaign would “quickly overwhelm” Britain. The British army is just not sufficiently equipped to fight a rival land force, says the general: it is seriously “outgunned” by Russia, as it has got used to “operating from safe bases … against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale, have no protected mobility, no air defence, no substantial artillery, no electronic warfare capability, nor - especially - an air force or recourse to conventional ballistic or cruise missiles”.
Barrons points out that Britain has significantly cut back its armoured warfare capabilities over the years, whatever the increase in the military budget. A Russian brigade contains two or three artillery battalions, yet a British brigade contains just one - with the focus on fast, lighter vehicles making the UK especially vulnerable, he contends. Even worse, British tanks are grossly substandard compared to the Russians’ - whose new Armata tanks outperform anything the UK or Nato can field, having an active protection system that will reduce the effect of British anti-tank weapons by between 50% and 90%. On top of that, the UK’s aerial surveillance assets are severely stretched. On any given day, just one or two of the British six-plane AWACS fleet can be used to provide long-range radar and command functions for British forces. These aircraft are so antiquated that their capabilities are “substantially” below their French and US equivalents and are “certainly” not going to give the UK a “24-hour presence”.
Furthermore, writes Sir Richard, small numbers of hugely expensive pieces of military equipment make the UK’s capabilities “extremely fragile”. For example, it is “unlikely” that Britain’s two aircraft carriers - which cost over £3 billion each - will ever be sent within 300 kilometres of the Chinese coast as, absurdly, “we operate platforms that we cannot afford to use fully, damage or lose”, as it would “take years to repair or produce more”: in other words, weapons of war that are too precious to use. As for manpower, it is “dangerously squeezed” across all the forces - particularly when it comes to naval engineering, intelligence and medicine.
The UK’s entire strategic thinking, argues the ex-general, is based on the assumption it could fight wars on a “discretionary basis”. That is, modern conflict is “ordained to be only as small and as short term as we want to afford”, which “could matter a very great deal if even a few of the risks now at large conspire against the UK” - a reference, needless to say, to Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine and supposed expansionist tendencies. Sir Richard concludes by accusing Whitehall of “skinning” budgets and delivering costly but “increasingly redundant” big-ticket military projects - meaning capability that is “foundational” to all major armed forces has been “withered by design” - the ministry of defence has tried to “preserve the shop window”, while critical technical and logistical capabilities have been “iteratively stripped out” behind it. We are just not properly defended.
Of course, there are elements of truth in what Barrons says. The government is increasingly prone to back white elephants, which arguably serve no rational purpose. Thus at one point it wanted to cancel the second proposed aircraft supercarrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, as the cost was getting out of control. However, forking out the compensation for all the broken contracts would have been even more expensive, so in the end it was forced to build the damned thing anyway - it is now scheduled to be launched around 2017, followed by commissioning in 2020 and service thereafter. But watch this space.
Then we have the amusing spectacle of aircraft supercarriers with no aircraft on them. Yes, you might have thought you saw a F35 Lightning II on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth when it was launched in July 2014 at Fife’s Rosyth dockyard in a ceremony attended by the great and the good, including one Alex Salmond.2 Alas, your eyes deceived you - it was actually a plastic, life-size model. Not surprising really, when you consider that F35s cost £100 million each: the MoD ordered 138 of them and then in an attempt to save money abandoned plans to buy the ‘cats and traps’ (catapult launch and arrester wire landing) version of the F-35. Some defence commentators have claimed that the short take-off and vertical landing version chosen is not as capable as the ‘cats and traps’ variant - it cannot fly as far or carry as many weapons - and, moreover, French jets will not be able to use the British carriers, as originally planned.3 Someone must have fallen asleep at the meeting about the new UK-French defence cooperation treaties.
But, regardless, the first batch of 24 will not be ready until at least 2023 and it will not be until the 2030s before all 138 aircraft are in service. In fact, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is the most expensive military weapons system in history at $1.5 trillion over the 55 years from inception to final planned retirement - its many critics argued that the plane is “plagued with design flaws”4 due to the dodgy procurement process, and by 2014 the programme was $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.5 Same old story then.
Nor should we forget that it takes years to train pilots to the skill level required to proficiently operate an F35, hence general Barrons’ sarcastic remark in the memo that you do not have to go the hassle and expense of actually shooting down Britain’s F35 fighter planes - instead, “only to know how to murder in their beds the 40 or so people who can fly them”. You could also legitimately ask why the government claims it needs so many F35s. The answer is fairly obvious, the technology involved is so advanced it requires constant maintenance, repairing and updating. So if you had 40 aircraft, realistically you could only deploy about six at any one time - hardly enough to counter a massive aerial assault from squadrons of Russian Tupolev Tu-95s (‘Bears’) determined to flatten the UK. The same ‘logic’ applies to Trident - just one submarine has enough hellish firepower to destroy many cities, with its multiple, independently-guided warheads and so on, but the other three are always in dock for refits, etc.
Having said all that, however, it is truly bizarre that the general is trying to pitch Russia against the UK in this way. Is he seriously predicting a major ,‘old-style’, conventional land war between Russia, on the one hand, and the UK on the other? If so, his scenario is utterly ridiculous - more the thing you expect from an escapist computer game, such as Homefront, which imagines the US invaded and occupied by the forces of a unified Korea.6 Sorry, general, but the armed forces of the Russian Federation are never going to launch a full-on attack on Britain - get real.
No, the straightforward reality is that Britain is a junior partner of the US - its entire military infrastructure is integrated into the US system and could not function otherwise. All you need to do is look at the UK’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent - Trident’s D5 missiles are made and designed in America, and have an America finger jointly on the button. For all effects and purposes, Trident is an US deterrent - the same more or less going for the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales, and all the rest of the crap. For all the slightly crazy ‘Britain versus Russia’ wargaming by the general, he is expressing more a personal grievance about the fact that his empire-building was frustrated by the government and MoD.
Meanwhile, another general has been engaging in war games of his own - Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain. In a relatively lengthy article for the Morning Star, he talks of the need to side with Jeremy Corbyn over Trident, and writes: “This means emphasising the need not only to safeguard employment for workers currently engaged in the arms industry, but also to use their skills for other valuable purposes, including conventional defence” (September 12, ‘We must now forge a new position based on new realities’).
We do not want to see anyone thrown onto the scrap heap. But contrary to Griffiths, however, we do not think that manufacturing conventional weapons for British imperialism is “valuable” work - though general Sir Richard Lawson Barrons would doubtlessly disagree (maybe he has a subscription to the Star). We do not need or want F35s. Rather, defence workers should be retrained and reskilled to do genuinely valuable, or socially useful, work - not misuse their abilities to develop the means of destruction.
More importantly still, why on earth should we place any faith in the deeply authoritarian British army? Here we have a sadistic institution which depends on inculcating unthinking obedience amongst the ranks, and is run by an insufferably arrogant caste of officers, who are trained to command from public school to Sandhurst, as if it is their inherent birthright. And, naturally, the British army swears loyalty to the crown - the constitutional monarchy being an ever potent symbol of bourgeois rule and, perhaps even more crucially, a permanent pretext or excuse for a legal coup. We have already had rumours about various unnamed members of the top brass “not standing for” a “maverick” Corbyn government and being prepared to take “direct action” - like staging a “mutiny” if he tried to scrap Trident or pull out of Nato, or announces plans to shrink the size of the armed forces.7 An army, remember, which has fought brutal imperial and colonial wars in Malaya, Kenya, Oman, the Yemen and whose “valuable” work includes splitting Iraq asunder and meting out repression across the Irish Sea on the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Communists do not want such an army to be “fit” for war or anything else - we want it to be scrapped and replaced with a universal people’s militia. We should not spend our time envisaging a land war between Britain and Russia, but rather a people’s defence against counterrevolution, whether internally or externally - the main emphasis being on the internal. A democratic defence policy that guards the people, not the ruling classes and their property.