A lean, mean, skills-and-training machine

The new British military seems to be ready for everything - except fighting a full-scale war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Which British institution describes itself as a ‘broad-based, diverse, people-oriented organisation’, whose central aim is to ‘develop network-enabled capabilities designed to achieve a range of strategic effects’; as a ‘major provider of training and education’, which ‘makes a substantial contribution to the government’s drive to raise standards of education and skills’; as an ‘exemplary employer in improving the literacy, language and numeracy skills of its personnel’? An educational body, perhaps? Some local council?

In fact it’s the Armed Forces, as described in the Ministry of Defence’s white paper Delivering Security in a Changing World, published yesterday. The paper is a review of Britain’s defence policy and calls for making British forces more flexible, so they can ‘face the challenges of the increasingly complex security environment which followed the ending of the Cold War’. Commentators claim the paper is little more than a fancy hook for cutbacks in equipment and personnel that the MoD has been planning (and talking about) for years – and no doubt there’s some truth to that. But it also exposes a dearth of purpose and mission at the heart of the Armed Forces.

The paper says that Britain is unlikely to launch full-scale invasions any time soon, and certainly not without the USA. ‘The most demanding expeditionary operations, involving intervention against state adversaries, can only plausibly be conducted if US forces are engaged’, it says. This looks like a striking admission that there will be no Falklands Wars in the foreseeable future, no all-out missions launched by Britain in the defence of British interests. It also suggests that one of the primary reasons Britain followed the Bush administration to Iraq – action that was deeply unpopular at home – is because it simply cannot afford to lose that connection with the USA, without whom it could not ‘plausibly’ fight a war with another state.

Instead of carrying out ‘demanding expeditionary operations’, Brits will focus on international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Most British operations are ‘likely to be counter-terrorist missions’, the paper says, while other units will seek to stop the spread of ‘chemical, biological and radiological weapons’. So the kind of counter-terrorist ops that were previously the preserve of small, secretive military outfits, and the checks on weapons-selling and weapons-smuggling usually carried out by arms control groups, will now form the backbone of British defence.

The paper says that British forces will focus as much on preventing conflict, as on dealing with it when it arises. ‘Religious and ethnic tensions, environmental pressures and increased competition for limited resources cause tension and conflict’, it says. The MoD will work ‘with other government departments, particularly the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, to ensure that military effects-based planning complements wider strategic planning and the cross-government effort on crisis prevention and management’, by helping to tackle ‘root problems’ such as poverty, hunger and ethnic tensions. Where America has a policy of pre-emptive war to see off threats from distant lands, the British seem keen to act as pre-emptive social workers.

The white paper outlines no imperial mission for Britain’s armed forces, and doesn’t have a great deal to say about combat and war; even the previous decade’s emphasis on Western-armies-as-the-harbingers-of-humanitarianism is in short supply in this new vision for the British military. Instead, the paper says that one of the military’s main aims is ‘To deliver security for the people of the United Kingdom and the Overseas Territories by defending them, including against terrorism’.

Britain’s armed forces sound less like a military machine and more like a crack-squad of crisis-managers and troubleshooters, which will occasionally venture abroad in ‘flexible, responsive units’ to impart some crisis-resolution as a means of keeping the homefront safe and secure. ‘The Ministry of Defence’ – for so long a misnomer for an institution that was in the business of going on the offensive and launching wars – might finally live up to its name, with its new focus on defending Britons from big bad threats from over there.

This increasingly non-militaristic view of the British military is reflected in the paper’s proposals for improving the recruitment of new personnel. It recognises that the armed forces are finding it difficult to get the requisite 25,000 new recruits a year, and to retain them for any long period of time – and it pins the blame for this on various ‘social factors’. ‘The number of 16- to 25-year-olds that the services especially need to recruit is set to tail off after peaking in 2009…. Increasing numbers of young people are staying on in education…. There is a decline in general levels of fitness….’ All of these things may be true, but what about the military itself; what is it offering to young people that might make them want to sign up for the fighting life?

The paper proposes flagging up to potential recruits the educational opportunities they will enjoy in the military. ‘High-quality training and education will be both a key recruitment and retention tool’, it says, pointing out that ‘for the individual we will need to offer a range of educational and vocational opportunities throughout their career’.

When it comes to retaining servicemen and women, the paper says the military must make them ‘feel confident that they are individually valued and respected, that complaints from them will be dealt with effectively and fairly, and that harassment and bullying have no place in service life’. Instead of winning recruits by convincing them of the military’s mission (whatever that might be), and retaining them by forging a sense of camaraderie and solidarity, the MoD highlights the individual opportunities that individuals will enjoy and assures individuals that they will be protected from other individuals in their unit.

With its emphasis on education, education and vocation, individuals’ self-esteem and codes of conduct against bullying and harassment, the military makes itself sound like a further-education establishment, like a polytechnic with guns. In an attempt to compete with post-compulsory education, which is where the majority of young people are recruited to these days, the military seems to be selling itself as a ‘major provider of training and education’, which can offer young people ‘very marketable skills’.

This might encourage a few extra people to join up, but it is unlikely to encourage them to stay. Why shouldn’t they leave once they have developed their educational and vocational training and try to market their ‘very marketable skills’ elsewhere? And what happens when these young skilled-and-fulfilled recruits are expected to fight a war? It is almost as an afterthought that the paper mentions maintaining ‘the highest standards of professionalism among men and women imbued with fighting spirit’.

Given that the military now presents itself as a skills-and-training provider for the young, who will then go out to prevent and manage crises in small, flexible teams, it is little wonder that it finds itself being audited by the National Audit Office (NAO). Better known for ‘scrutinising public spending on behalf of parliament’ by keeping a check on hospitals, colleges, libraries and the like, the NAO has now turned its attention to the military. On the same day that the MoD published its white paper, the NAO published ‘Operation TELIC: United Kingdom Military Operations in Iraq’, its assessment of the success or otherwise of Britain’s Iraqi venture.

The bit of the NAO’s report that hit the headlines was its complaint that the military failed to provide troops in Iraq with ‘basic body armour and desert camouflage’, and gave them ‘ill-fitting biological/chemical weapons suits to protect against WMD’. The NAO says this ‘adversely affected morale’, causing some disillusionment among servicemen and women. In fact, as I argued on spiked at the time, the kit problem did not cause low morale among troops; rather, it became a means through which soldiers could express a broader frustration and anxiety about the war in Iraq (see These boots were made for talking about).

After all, today’s young troops are hardly going to feel buoyed up about going into battle, when they signed up to a people-oriented organisation that promised them a good education and training and said little about bombs and bullets in far-off lands.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

spiked-issue: War on terror

Delivering Security in a Changing World, Defence White Paper, Ministry of Defence, 11 December 2003

Delivering Security in a Changing World, Supporting Essays, Ministry of Defence, 11 December 2003

Ministry of Defence: Operation TELIC – United Kingdom Military Operations in Iraq, National Audit Office, 11 December 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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