27 October 2006

What is important?

In the 30 months that this blog has existed, the world has changed more than we believed it ever could in such a short period. Many of the changes have been triggered directly by the cataclysmic events leading to and following 9/11 but, of more relevance to this blog, by the failure last year of the EU constitution.

Strangely though, while the damage caused by that failure was obvious and public, less so has been the more serious damage done to the whole of the European ideal by its main actors, France and Germany, ruling themselves out of key parts in what has been called the "war on terror", and specifically the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, while individual European countries have been represented, "Europe" as a political entity has been a mere spectator and, as a result, almost entirely lacking in influence and importance.

Strangely, therefore, what we saw in the run-up to the constitution now no longer exists, even as a dream. Then, there was the prospect of a political Europe, which seemed to be on the verge of creating an independent entity with its own foreign policy and eventually its own armed forces. But this was not to be.

Because in what are essentially shooting wars, what brings influence to the table is military power – boots, guns, aircraft and all the other paraphernalia of war – EU influence has waned to the extent where, as an actor on the world stage, the organisation is no longer important. It may still preen and posture but, in any of the recent major events in the world, from Darfur to the current crisis in Afghanistan, no one has been beating a path to Brussels.

This has very much been reflected in our coverage of events. When we changed our strap line, which became, "To discuss issues related to the UK's position in Europe and the world", the EU was still an important part of that world. But, as time has passed, it has become less and less so. Important it might still be in the internal affairs of the UK – something which still affords us great irritation – but, in Britain's "position in the world", the EU is possibly less important than it has been since we joined the Community in 1973.

Contrary to the hopes and expectations of the Euro-enthusiasts, it is not Britain's membership of the EU that has brought it power and influence on the world stage, or enabled it to keep its position on the world stage. To the chagrin of many, it is the fact that our government is prepared to put men with guns in key hot-spots, with instructions to kill people. It is for that reason alone that the UK - with its now minuscule and dangerously over-stretched armed forces - has been able to punch above its weight.

But, if the gains made are real, they also look like being temporary. It is becoming increasingly likely that our armed forces will have to beat an ignominious retreat, first from Iraq and then, quite possibly, from Afghanistan.

If these retreats come to pass they will, to some considerable extent, have been occasioned by the failure to devise, structure and equip armed forces which are capable of dealing with the very special and difficult conditions of a counter-insurgency against an enemy that has very different moral and cultural values.

The truth of the matter is that those forces were originally geared to fighting a battle against the might of the Soviet Union, across the plains of northern Germany. Latterly, they also acquired some skill and experience in dealing with low-level and restrained terrorism, as in Northern Ireland, while also dealing with public order and other issues throughout the world. But the fact is that the forces went to war against terror equipped to fight a conventional war against a conventional enemy.

It has to be said – and has been argued closely on this blog – that the failure to equip the forces for the actual war they were to fight is responsible for their lack-lustre performance and will be – if it happens – largely responsible for their ultimate failure. And there is no shame in that. No army can be expected to prevail when given the wrong equipment for the wrong war.

Now, if it is too late to do anything about this state of affairs – at least in sufficient time to have an influence on immediate events – there is both time and the opportunity to do something about the way the armed forces are equipped (and structured) for future conflicts.

And no one who has followed this blog - or who has otherwise acquired even the vaguest understanding of the relationship between the performance of the armed forces and they way they are equipped – will be in any doubt that this is important. In many respects, it could well be far more important than our membership of the EU, not least because, long after the EU has ceased to be, we could still be having to live with the decisions made that affect our armed forces.

What brings this to the fore, however, is our own parliament or, to be more specific, the Defence Select Committee. Under the chairmanship of the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, it has decided that it is to hold an inquiry into the MoD's FRES programme.

This, as we never tire of saying, is – at £14 billion - the largest single procurement programme in the history of the Army, representing a complete revolution in the way the Army is equipped and structured. It will define for the next twenty years or more the capabilities of the Army and, crucially, what it will not be able to do. Thus, it is absolutely essential that we get it right – and that includes asking whether FRES is the right system and whether it should go ahead at all.

Unfortunately, the odds are already stacked against an impartial or effective inquiry. The Committee is describing FRES as a programme "to provide the Army with a medium-weight armoured vehicle capability" yet, as we know, it is much, much more than that – as the price tag of £14 billion indicates. It will be the British entry into the arcane and still untried world of net-centric warfare.

Further, from the notification of the inquiry, it does not appear as if the Committee is prepared to look anew at whether FRES is the right move. It tells us that it will focus "on progress in delivering the FRES programme." It will examine "the operational requirement for FRES and how the MoD and industry plan to meet it", and it "will consider how the programme has been managed so far, its current status and the anticipated in-service-date."

Additionally, we are told, the Committee "will explore how other nations are seeking to meet the requirement for medium-weight armoured vehicles and what lessons could be learnt from their experience." And then it will also consider how the MoD will manage any capability gap between now and the FRES In Service Date including any implications for the FRES programme of the MoD's recent announcement to procure additional armoured vehicles for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (such as the Mastiff, pictured above).

What makes this so worrying is that, although FRES has emerged as the MoD's favoured option for re-equipping and re-structuring the Army, the concept has never been tested or debated in the Houses of Parliament and thus, the government is committing massive expenditure and the whole future of the Army to an untried concept which has never even been discussed, much less approved, by MPs.

This cannot be right and it cannot be right that the Defence Select Committee is so restricting the scope of its inquiry. It must look at the system anew and it must give a lead to both Houses and the nation as to whether we should embark on this potentially dangerous experiment.

And that, unlike the EU, really is important.