Mark Corby laments the degraded condition of the British Army.
A close-up view of a British SA-80 fully assembled.
As a direct result of the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies, it appears that all is not well with the British Army. Firstly, the frankly mawkish attitude to casualties has shocked earlier generations. Whilst every casualty is a personal tragedy for those involved, 378 dead in Afghanistan in ten years is an infinitesimal figure from a nation with a population of 62.3 million. In fact, it is this sort of hysterical overreaction that makes Britain a world leader in this field. If the military chiefs – recently referred to as ‘medalled buffoons’ by Matthew Parris in The Times – seriously believe this is war, they are in for a rude shock. For when the ‘drum begins to beat’, we must expect many times these insignificant figures.
Fully automatic fire
Secondly something retrograde has happened to the infantry ethos. The infantry used to pride itself on taking aimed single shots at clearly identified targets. This system reached its apogee in Northern Ireland with the use of the semi-automatic LIAI SLR Rifle. In the mid-80s, the SLR was replaced by the infamous SA80 rifle with full automatic fire capability.
The adoption of fully automatic firepower should have been anathema to the infantry, as it negates proper fire control and allows the individual soldier to spray the battlefield liberally with wildly inaccurate shots. However, nothing was done to prevent this, and, almost by stealth, the British infantry began to resemble the American – with the astonishing result that some battalions have fired over six million, mostly wasted rounds during a seven-month Afghan tour. So bad has the situation become, due to what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’ – the killing of innocent civilians – that a doctrine of ‘courageous restraint’ has had to be introduced. What that entails is anyone’s guess. Yet not so long ago, it was axiomatic that aimed shots and only aimed shots would do.
Too many chiefs
Thirdly, the ratio of senior officers to men on the ground is simply staggering, and must be unsustainable in the current climate of austerity. Whereas the Americans can get by with one senior officer for every 3,261 men, the British Army indulges itself with a ratio of one senior officer for every 467 men! In other words, we seem to need seven times as many ‘chiefs to indians’ as our American allies.
Fourthly, the Army attempts to portray the Afghan insurgency as one of a conflict between equals, which is patently not the case. A more unequal conflict is hard to imagine. For example, what airpower – strike aircraft, drones, attack helicopters – does the Taliban have? What tanks or armoured vehicles? How many NATO aircraft have the Taliban shot down?
Frankly, besides small arms, rather impressive beards, Home Made Bombs (HMBs) – or what we now call Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – they have virtually nothing. Their courage and motivation are not in doubt, but their standard of training is abysmal. As one paratroop officer recently remarked, ‘if they could shoot straight, we would be in trouble’.
Thanks to previous adventures in Afghanistan – 1839-1842 (MT1), 1878-1880 (MT3), and 1919 (MT4) – a sort of distorted Kiplingesque myth has descended on the Taliban, equating them with the grizzled old Pathans of the ‘Great Game’, picking off subalterns at 500 yards with an ancient jezail. In fact, they are simply trying to defeat the hated invader by any means at their disposal, just as we would if the Cotswolds were swarming with Pashtuns!
Fifthly, the issuing of medals has become absurd. No doubt it is symptomatic of modern society where ‘everyone gets a prize’, but the plethora of medals now on display is simply ridiculous. Whereas no one would doubt that the Falklands Campaign deserved a separate medal, was this true of the First Gulf War? In the past it would have a warranted a rather attractive General Service Medal (GSM), or a bar to that medal if the recipient already held it. Bosnia, Second Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan should also have warranted a GSM and/or bar, thus avoiding the embarrassing spectacle of many young men looking like Christmas trees.
Infantry not generals and bureaucrats!
What to do? As the Army faces major cuts and reorganisation, now is the chance to cull many of the superfluous senior officer posts, disband the many obsolete heavy tank regiments, and concentrate on boosting infantry numbers and equipment. Relying on making up any shortfall by boosting the TA is surely a false economy. If politicians and senior commanders are still worried about the casualties, they could always raise three divisions of Ghurkhas and let them take the strain.
However, for an Army that still regards Dunkirk and Arnhem as victories, this will be difficult. Perhaps the root of the problem is the MOD, without doubt the most incompetent, inefficient, and worthless department of state that has ever existed. MOD reform is axiomatic if things are to improve, but it is doubtful if any politician has the will to achieve this.
Mark Corby is a Former Guards Officer and a member of the Military Times Editorial Advisory Board.