Defence secretary Liam Fox’s grip on his ministerial portfolio looks weaker with every passing revelation about his plans for Scotland’s military. Hot on the heels of the announcement on the future of military bases north of the border, details are emerging which indicate a lack of intellectual coherence and which make previous incumbents of his post look positively competent.
Having attempted to assuage both the military establishment and the SNP with a smoke-and-mirrors plan to close bases here, promise new developments there and dress it all up as an enhancement to the defence footprint, it’s becoming plain that some of the planning is expedient at best, desperate in some cases, and just false and untrue elsewhere.
Take, for example, the idea of selling off the army’s barracks at Dreghorn and Redford in Edinburgh, and the HQ at Craigiehall, and to build a brand new, modern military complex at Kirknewton. Figures published elsewhere in the media suggest that the likely sell-off price for the existing barracks might be in the region of £70 million.
The cost of building a new barracks at Kirknewton, on the other hand, might come in at £400 million – and this does not include accommodation for married personnel, who will be obliged to commute from existing MoD housing located in – wait for it – Colinton, next to Dreghorn and Redford.
This is clearly a nonsense. Predictably, the MoD has dismissed these figures as “speculation”, but equally typically it appears unable to produce figures of its own. I wonder why? I feel an freedom of information request coming on?
Add to this the recent revelation, via a leaked memo from the head of the army General Sir Peter Wall, who tells his underlings that there will have to be an additional 5,000 redundancies in the army by 2015, on top of the 7,000 already underway as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. (As an aside, why does important military information always seem to come via a leaked memo? These people work for us.)
There is the distinct impression that people are just making it up as they go along, that there is in fact no plan, just a series of finger-in-the-dyke hole-pluggings, anything to get them through the day.
Sadly, one of the ramifications of these machinations to reduce the size of the regular army might well be the demise of our very own Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, at least as a regular infantry battalion. Despite a long and glorious history, the Argylls are damned by being the junior battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRS), the deeply unloved amorphous organisation that replaced Scotland’s historic infantry regiments.
As was said at the time of their disbandments and the formation of the RRS, it is far easier, in presentational terms, to axe a numbered outfit – in this case 5 SCOTS – than it is to do away with a regiment with a proud and resonating title. And so it has come to pass.
So the Argylls seem destined to join the Territorial Army, and to provide soldiers on the cheap for a government whose defence posture seems based not on foreign policy and defence of national interests, but on how much it costs and how much they can get away with – if you’ll excuse my cynicism for a moment. And I don’t think the Argylls will be the last, either.
So, let’s just draw up a quick résumé of Britain’s recent defence policy performance. Defeat in Basra, fiasco in Afghanistan, combined deaths to date 556 and rising, with goodness knows how many wounded and psychologically damaged.
Two aircraft carriers ordered, one of which may never become operational, and no planes to fly off them since the Harrier fleet was scrapped and its replacement is not due in service for at least another ten years. RAF Kinloss closed and the Nimrod MRA4s scrapped after a £4 billion spend. RAF Leuchars to close and become an army base and, in due course, HQ to a “mobile brigade”. Possibly. And to top it all, soldiers with the Argylls and various other battalions facing redundancy after recent tours in Afghanistan. Just brilliant, isn’t it?
Whilst we can’t place all of these disasters at the door of the current Westminster government, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel to suggest they can do any better. Our involvement in Libya is in danger of becoming a running sore, without any exit strategy except the pious hope that Gaddafi will eventually sell the jerseys and the rebels will somehow, sometime, get their collective act together and impose a modicum of stability, enough to let us get out.
The defence secretary’s report card is looking pretty grim so far. Criticisms that Dr Fox is out of his depth are increasingly persuasive. It’s easy for me to say that’s what you get when you put a GP from East Kilbride in charge of national defence policy, but it’s also true. A combination of ignorant (in the true sense of the word) politicians and supine and compliant senior military officers – who seem to have eyes firmly on the next promotion and for whom the prospect of resignation on a point of principle is as likely as Aberdeen winning the SPL – is making an expensive comedy of Britain’s defence and its military.
We can only hope an independent Scotland could do better. Let’s hope we get the opportunity to prove it before too long.
– Stuart Crawford is a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Tank Regiment.