January 31, 2009 — January 31, 2009 - Some marched smartly down the high streets of garrison towns, to cheers from bystanders waving union flags. Some, wounded, stood uneasily on crutches to receive decorations in their parade squares. Many went to church to give thanks for their safe return and remember fallen friends. For the men and women of 16 Air Assault brigade, returning from their latest tour in Afghanistan, the past months have been a homecoming like few others. There will be more cheers this summer when British troops come back from Iraq for good. On June 27th Britain will begin to mark a new Armed Forces Day.
British forces have been at war for the past seven years. But it is only recently that, following the example of American parades, the public has been encouraged to honour them. Such displays are a surprise to many soldiers who, for decades, were largely hidden from view in Britain, coming out of their barracks in civvies in order to avoid attack by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Television documentaries and a quick-fire burst of books with titles such as "3 Para: Afghanistan, Summer 2006. This is War" have also publicised the deeds of Britain's fighting men and women. Despite the qualms about Iraq and Afghanistan, and instances of soldiers being abused, support for the troops is high. According to an Ipsos MORI poll published in November, 81% of Britons regard them favourably; most agree with their prime minister, Gordon Brown, that Britain's armed forces are "the best in the world".
But are they? For all the public recognition, the armed services are going through unusually difficult times. This is challenging Britain's belief in itself as a fighting nation with an important role in the world. The severe strain of waging two wars in faraway countries has been aggravated by undermanning and equipment shortages. More serious still is a new mood of self-doubt. The invasion of Iraq was controversial and its occupation inglorious; the campaign in Afghanistan is going badly. British commanders have belatedly realised that they have much to learn, or rather relearn, about fighting small wars in distant lands. "We have lost our way," says one general.
Underlying this malaise is concern about Britain's relationship with America, its most important ally. Generals worry that the United States is losing confidence in Britain's military worth. Some Americans have indeed been expressing doubts: policymakers ask whether British leaders are losing the will to fight, soldiers whether their British counterparts are losing the ability to do so. There is talk that Britain is becoming "Europeanised", more averse to making war and keener on peacekeeping. Britain remains America's closest and most able ally; its special forces are particularly prized. But one senior official in the former Bush administration says there is "a lot of concern on the US side about whether we are going to have an ally with the capability and willingness to be in the fight with us". He is bemused by the "tyranny of the lawyers" who constrain British military operations and dumbfounded by how "you only see British officers wearing their uniforms when they come to visit Washington, not in London."
Jack Keane, a former vice-chief of the American army and a driving force behind the surge that sharply reduced violence in Iraq, reckons the relationship with Britain has "frayed" over recent years. Ordinary soldiers are blunter: a popular quip among Americans in Afghanistan is that ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan which prominently includes the British forces, really stands for "I Saw Americans Fight". After the death of 320 British soldiers in America's "war on terror" (see chart 1 on the next page), such jokes are especially wounding.
This change of mood is striking. The British may have less military brawn than America, but they have prided themselves on often having more brain; with a history of empire and the experience of Northern Ireland, British soldiers saw themselves as masters of that particularly messy kind of warfare from peacekeeping to counter-insurgency--"war among the people", as some put it. In the early days in Iraq, British soldiers patrolled Basra as they did Belfast: on foot and wearing soft berets. They were aghast at how the Americans, by contrast, tore around Baghdad in armoured ve-hicles, obsessed with "kinetic" operations to kill and capture enemies. This is, of course, something of a caricature. The Americans were operating in a more hostile area, and British soldiers too would have to don helmets as Shiites later turned violent in Basra. Still, as American commanders struggled to stop Iraq's spiral into civil war, Mr Keane was among those who pushed for the British to move into central Iraq in order to help the Americans do a better job.
In 2005 a British brigadier, Nigel Aylwin-Foster, penned a critical analysis of the American army: he accused its soldiers of cultural ignorance to the point of "institutional racism"; of having a "predisposition to offensive operations"; and of displaying a "moral righteousness" that could "distort collective military judgment". His controversial reproach had the support of influential Americans who wanted their army to learn the art of counter-insurgency that it had abandoned after Vietnam.
Three years on, however, the same people think it is time for American commanders to speak out about Britain's shortcomings. It has not yet come to that. But Daniel Marston, an American military historian who taught at Britain's military academy, Sandhurst, hit a nerve when he said last summer that British policy was "close to humiliation" in Iraq and "almost destroyed" in Afghanistan (although Britain has latterly performed better in both).
David Kilcullen, until recently a counter-insurgency adviser to the American government, says both America and Britain misunderstood Iraq: America thought it was dealing with a terrorist problem rather than an insurgency; Britain thought its job was peacekeeping rather than imposing control. The subsequent bloodbath pushed the allies in opposite directions. Britain gave up the fight, cut a deal with militias terrorising Basra and got out of the city centre where soldiers were dying almost daily. As the junior allies, British officers felt they could do nothing in Basra to change the course of a war being lost, they thought, by American troops in Baghdad.
But American forces could not bear another Vietnam-style defeat. In 2006 they wrote a counter-insurgency manual that drew partly on Britain's colonial wars. Its watchwords were "clear-hold-build": clear an area of insurgents, hold on to the gains rather than move on, and build up government and the local economy. General David Petraeus, the doctrine's leading proponent, was sent to Iraq with more troops to put it into practice, to striking effect.
The result was that, as the Americans were building up in Iraq in 2007, the British were drawing down (ostensibly to give Iraqis space to find their own solutions). If Tony Blair had misread the problems of occupying Iraq, his successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, misread America's determination to put them right. Matters came to a head last March, when the Iraqi forces unexpectedly moved to retake Basra. Their troops took a beating at first, yet the British stood aside (their commander was away skiing). The Americans then helped win the day by sending their troops, training teams embedded in Iraqi units and a separate headquarters. It took five days for the British to change course and insert their forces into Iraqi units too (as they had done previously).
To many Americans, "Charge of the Knights", as the operation was known, exposed the failure of the British; to others it showed their readiness to adapt. Either way, it saved British face, allowing Mr Brown to announce in December the withdrawal of the remaining 4,100 British troops and claim, plausibly enough, that "we leave Iraq a better place." One British general puts it differently: "We are lucky that just as we were getting tired the Americans decided to change their strategy."
Britain's slow retreat from Iraq was justified, in part, by the need to concentrate on Afghanistan. But here, too, the British have had acute problems. When their troops deployed to Helmand in 2006, 16 Air Assault brigade was parcelled out in "platoon houses" across the province. Paratroopers fought pitched battles against the Taliban. The British later withdrew from an outpost in Musa Qala, in theory ceding control to loyal tribal elders; instead, the Taliban took control. Once again it was the Americans who led the way in retaking the town in December 2007, deploying a batta-lion alongside Afghan and British forces.
Basra and Musa Qala--not to mention the capture of British sailors and marines at sea by the Iranians in March 2007--have fed American worries about British forces. In the absence of an updated counter-insurgency doctrine of their own, British officers have been using General Petraeus's manual. Other factors too conspire against the development of a coherent plan of action. British troops rotate every six months (American army units every 12, down from 15), and change tactics endlessly. The first brigadier in Afghanistan fought pitched battles in fixed positions; the next favoured raids through the desert; another preferred to keep sweeping through the same areas without holding them. Some Americans complain that British troops are too quick to ask for air strikes; British officers accept that American ground forces have more fighting power, and are often more daring.
Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence staff, says "there is nothing wrong" with allies operating in different ways but he admits Britain had become "too complacent" and "smug" about its experiences in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. "You're only as good as your next success, not your last one," he says, but things are being put right: new doctrine will be published this year and key staff will serve longer tours.
There is a sense that the American student has surpassed the British master. But the lessons are not all one way. General Petraeus recognises that the first contacts with Sunni tribes in western Iraq, which led to the "Anbar Awakening" that drove out al-Qaeda, were led by a British general, Graeme Lamb. He helped win over American sceptics by recounting how he had overcome his own revulsion at dealing with the IRA for the sake of peace. A second innovation started in Afghanistan and exported to Iraq--the creation of military-led provincial reconstruction teams to build up the local government and economy--was the brainchild of a British colonel (now major-general), Nick Carter.
Britain's shortage of men and firepower, coupled with a different level of political commitment ("The Americans are at war, but we are on operations," one British officer says), goes some way to explaining why the British have been inclined to limit their ambitions. Yet the relationship with America is central to Britain's defence policy and position in the world. Its military forces are designed, in part, to maintain its influence with America and its place at the international top table: powerful enough to be taken seriously and ready to fight on"day one" of a war alongside America. This means having a nuclear deterrent, a deployable army division, a blue-water navy with two aircraft carriers, and an air force with fighters and deep-strike jets.
Defence ties with America bring big benefits: intelligence is shared and Britain has preferential access to some American technology, not least the Trident missiles that help make Britain's nuclear deterrent cheaper than France's. But close ties bring dependence and obligation. In 2002 Mr Blair accepted that Britain had to pay a "blood price" for this special relationship. At moments of crisis, he said, America had to know that Britain was "prepared to be there when the shooting starts".
British forces are organised to conduct, at the high end of operations, either one relatively brief "large-scale" war (requiring an army division, or about 30,000 men) or two simultaneous "medium-scale" campaigns (brigade-sized, involving around 4,500 men apiece). In the latter case, one operation could be a long-term peacekeeping mission and the other a short war; they would not both last longer than six months or involve prolonged combat.
But since 2006 Britain has run two protracted and often intensely violent operations. Units routinely breach guidelines designed to give them time to minimise battle stress. The strain on soldiers, says General Sir Richard Dannatt, the army chief, is "unacceptable". Britain has struggled to maintain two long supply routes, dividing scarce helicopters, engineers and medics. Aircraft are wearing out faster than planned. "The British army is like an engine running without oil. It is still going, but it could seize up at any moment," argues Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank.
These troubles are made worse by a chronic shortage of manpower. On October 1st the trained strength of the British armed forces was 173,270. This is 3.2% below the official requirement, but it understates large gaps in some areas--especially infantry units. Most battalions are 10-20% short of their required numbers; if those deemed unfit to deploy (due to, say, battle injuries) are factored out, they are as much as 42% under strength. So when battalions are preparing for war, they often regroup soldiers from their four scrawny companies into three, and then bolt on a fourth from another unit. To support current operations, the army has cut back training and lowered readiness; instead of having roughly a brigade at high readiness to deal with a crisis, sources say, there is "less than a battle-group" (a 1,500-strong formation).
Withdrawing from Iraq will relieve some of the strain. But operations in Afghanistan alone, involving some 8,000 British troops, arguably are already more demanding than the structure permits--and many expect Britain to send another battle-group to support the American reinforcement there. Generals want the army to grow. Yet it struggles to recruit, train and keep enough soldiers to fill its existing quota. An acute problem is the large "wastage" of recruits. Last year 38% of those in training either gave up or were thrown out--a bigger share than in the American army. Britain gets by in part thanks to foreigners: Commonwealth citizens (who made up more than 6% of soldiers in 2007), Irish recruits and Gurkhas. The top brass hopes the recession will encourage more to join and fewer to leave. But more soldiers cost more money, and that will be in even shorter supply in a downturn.
Plainly, Britain's military resources do not match its commitments. Three ex-generals have said that Britain's "unusable" nuclear weapons should be scrapped. But Sir Jock reckons that any money saved would almost certainly go back to the Treasury, not the conventional forces.
On December 11th the government announced a delay of one or two years in building big new aircraft carriers, and the deferral of a new family of armoured vehicles. Even so, insiders say there is still a £3.7 billion ($5.2 billion) hole in the budget for military equipment over the next four years and procurement costs are still rising. The bill for the 20 biggest weapons projects is now £28 billion, or 12%, over budget.
Heavy spending on kit for the navy and air force leaves little for the army; one source says it will receive less than 10% of all spending on defence equipment between 2003 and 2018. The government notes, however, that better-protected transport vehicles and other things are being rushed in separately using the Treasury's reserve funds; the force in Afghanistan is now the best-equipped that Britain has fielded (though it still trains with old kit).
How much should Britain spend on defence? At around 2.6% of GDP, its defence budget is high by European standards but below America's 4% (see chart 2). Defence spending has lagged behind other government expenditure (see chart 3). One general says: "You cannot have a first-division army, navy and air force--and a nuclear deterrent--for £34 billion a year."
Britain badly needs a wholesale review of its defence policy. Two questions must be answered. Should the British continue to aspire to a global military role? And what sort of wars is the future likely to bring? If it is long messy ones like the fight in Afghanistan, the structure and equipment of the armed forces must change. One general complains: "We are acting as if Afghanistan is just an aberration. We are in huge danger of preparing for the wrong war."
The stakes for Britain are high, not least in terms of its relationship with America. Barack Obama, the new president, plans to send up to 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The British will be scrutinised, especially when a British general takes overall command in the south this autumn. Some British officials think the Afghan mission is hopeless: better to start extricating Western troops than to redouble the military effort. But others, especially in the army, insist Britain must do a better job. "We have to prove to the Americans and the other allies that we are still a capable nation militarily," says one general. The army may like the homecoming parades, but it has no desire to stay at home for good.