Ben Wallace is the latest in a long line of British Defence Secretaries who pander to the Chiefs of Staff and the armaments industry. He was born into a military family and educated at Sandhurst, Britain’s principal military college. He served in the army as a junior officer.1 Wallace isn’t independent. He’s an advocate for the pressure group, which masquerades as the Chiefs of Staff.
All discussions about the army are driven by the fantasy that Britain is a global military power. Wallace, like other Defence Secretaries, ignores military history and economic realities. He’s hynotised by Britain’s supposedly glorious military history and desperately wants to regain the glory days when Britain was a superpower. One outcome of this is that Britain has been at war every year since 1945 – apart from 1961. Britain is a warrior nation.
The British army’s last significant military victory was the Boer War, 1902. The Irish war of Independence, 1919-22, ended in stalemate as did the northern Irish Troubles, 1968-98. Colonial wars, after India and Palestine were lost in 1948, have been a series of dismal defeats. British imperial territories were lost after vicious campaigns, the worst example of which was the defeat in Kenya, 1952-6, where the campaign developed into crimes against humanity and war crimes.2 Recent colonial issues have been decided peacefully with constitutional changes and the replacement of the Queen as head of state.
British military failures aren’t unique. The USA was defeated after 18 years in Vietnam, the USSR lost in Afghanistan after ten brutal years. The Soviet failure in Afghanistan was repeated by the USA, 2001-21. That Afghan war was coterminous with Iraq 2003-11 where Britain shared the USA’s defeat at the hands of a Third World country. 46 years of failure and no sign politicians, or their Chiefs of Staff, have learned anything. Technically superior weapons don’t guarantee victory in asymmetrical wars.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, 2019-present, described the role of the army as one, “…. [that] will now be reorganised to operate on a continuous basis, fielding all the relevant capabilities for this era of constant competition and persistently engaged around the globe….crucially, it [the army] will also be an army designed for genuine warfighting credibility as an expeditionary fighting force that will be both deployable and lethal when called upon to fight and win”.3 (my emphasis)
Wallace believes the British army will, “operate on a continuous basis, … persistently engaged around the globe… [as an] expeditionary fighting force.” The last 77 years has been disastrous for Britain. Defeat has followed defeat. There have been no conflicts where British involvement tipped the balance into victory. Only the 1990 Kuwait war resulted in a win for the USA’s coalition. This was the only occasion the USA followed the precepts of the 19th century military-philosopher Clausewitz, which said campaigns should have an exit strategy, in brief that, ‘You know what you want’ and stop when you’ve got it.
The Afghan and Iraq wars revealed that the British army relies on obsolete, strategies. Asymmetrical wars are fought using tactics which inflict heavy casualties on traditional armies. The British response was a £5.5 billion procurement programme for sophisticated reconnaissance vehicles. Contracts were signed for 589 vehicles in 2014 after four years of planning. The Ajax vehicle is being built by General Dynamics for delivery in 2017 at a fixed price. The design was predicated on deployment in Afghanistan and was combat specific. Delivery times have been extended to 2030, eight years after the war finished.4
The Public Accounts Committee have written a scathing report on the Ajax programme, “The Department’s management of the programme was flawed from the outset as the programme was over-specified and the Department and General Dynamics did not understand the scale of the technical challenge. We have seen similar failings again and again in the Department’s management of its equipment programmes”. (my emphasis)
(If Ajax is ready in 2030 will there be a version of the Afghan war where Britain is an active participant? If there is, then we’ll be ready with excellent equipment.)
Wallace, and virtually every British politician, colludes with the Chiefs of Staff in a delusion, which is that Britain has a global role.5 They even have a desire to be the ‘World’s Policeman’ as though the British Empire is alive and well. The British army ought to be subsumed into a permanent international coalition with joint Chiefs of Staff. At present Britain is impoverishing itself and utterly failing as a military power.
2 Caroline Elkins Britain’s Gulag: the brutal end of empire in Kenya 2005
3 Defence Secretary announces Future Soldier for the British Army – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) For Ben Wallace This hubristic viewpoint is also that of the Chief of the Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlines our core purpose to protect the UK by being ready to fight and win wars on land,” he said. (my emphasis) British troops must prepare to fight in Europe once again, says new head of Army (msn.com) Considering he served in both Iraq and Afghanistan he’s remarkably untouched by failure in ‘wars on land’. In 2021 the army’s war games had to be ended early because they’d run out of ammunition in eight of the ten days allocated. British Army ‘ran out of ammo in eight days in online war simulation’ | Daily Mail Online
4 Delays to Ajax armoured vehicles risk national security, MPs warn – BBC News For the parliamentary scrutiny see Armoured Vehicles: the Ajax programme – Committee of Public Accounts (parliament.uk) The previous vehicle had upgrades to cope with Afghanistan but clearly add-ons and made the vehicle situation-specific See Up-armoured vehicles begin Afghanistan operations – GOV.UK (www.gov)