Monday, 20 May 2024
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UK politics

The MOD recently completed a review of its policy which excludes women from duties in close combat. The review was published on 29th November. The service chiefs made all of the right noises about gender equality and empowerment, but still stand on their view that close quarter combat is no place for a lady.

One might think this is commendable, but a moment's reflection on the nature of modern war, as characterized by "war among the people" style counter-insurgency will show this conclusion to be rather old fashioned. If we are to believe that high intensity warfare is low on the threat level, it doesn't follow that close quarter combat is also a low risk. There are no front lines nowadays. Today 17,900 women serve in all three armed services, 9.1% of total manpower. In the airforce women can serve in 96% of posts, including fast jets. In both the navy and the army the figure is 71%.

The unsubtle message is that women are believed to dislike killing; or rather in our society we don't like the idea of recruiting women killers. It is often noted that in the naval and air forces people man equipment, while in the army men are equipped. All very true, but all a bit reminiscent of the 1940s. In other armies women do serve in "front line" roles, such as the U S and Israeli armies. So what makes British women different? In World War ll Russian women pilots flew fighter aircraft in the "night witches" squadron.

The language of the related MOD press release is instructive on this matter. "There was no evidence to show that a change in current policy would be beneficial or risk free and so a decision was made to take a precautionary approach and maintain the current position." So fall out all those women in risky posts, such as rescue pilots who get the DFC for evacuating wounded under fire; or medics who get the MC for providing first aid to comrades under fire.

Of course there is a difference between performing a life saving, or mission critical duty under fire and actually killing someone. Isn't there a self selecting process when people freely choose to join the military? History is replete with examples of women who have been able to kill, even in biblical times. The MOD press release produces another excuse:

"The key issue is the potential of having both men and women in small teams. Under the conditions of high-intensity close quarter battle, team cohesion becomes of much greater importance, and failure can have far-reaching and grave consequences." So the message is clear ladies you are too weak and feeble for this ugly business. Leave it to the chaps!


By Ian Shields, Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

Much is being written at present about defence, about security, about Britain's place in the world, and the extent to which we need (note need rather than do not need) military power. But before we can determine how we are going to undertake defence, and in particular what force structures we need, we should first establish where the threat comes from: that critical link between defence and security. The conventional approach is to look at threats to the country from state and non-state actors, placing everything in the realm of International Relations, within the state-to-state construct. This essay will approach the issue from a more individual level by considering first insecurity, which then allows the focus to be applied to security and hence to those defence apparatus that afford security. It will do so by first exploring why we presently feel insecure, then propose a different approach to achieving security, before exploring some of the practical implications that such an approach would require, and finally summarising.

There appears to be considerable concern both at Governmental level and for the man in the street about the threats the country and its citizens face, leading to a growing feeling of insecurity. Why is this, is it rational, and what actually are the threats? In many ways security is now far harder to define, and to achieve. In the present era of globalisation, we are more interconnected than ever, more interdependent for food, energy and information. Events on the other side of the world can have a far greater impact on both the country and the individual than before: one thinks of the impact of the Volcanic Ash cloud earlier this year and the disruption it caused. Moreover, our borders are, compared with a century ago, far less inviolate: we have little real say over satellites passing over head, the advent of aircraft have brought a new dimension and a new challenge to securing our borders from a determined foe (and this is the 70th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain), while the invention of the nuclear weapon, and inter-continental delivery systems, brought an entirely new paradigm to the threat to security. Moreover, near-instantaneous global communications and the advent of the 24/7 media have not only shrunk the world in a new manner, but by beaming images of violence and disaster around the world direct to citizens' homes, have arguably increased the feelings of insecurity of the citizen.

And yet the world is no more dangerous in terms of natural disasters than it ever has been, the threat of state-on-state attack against the UK is, by historic measure, very low, and the vision of extinction from a massive nuclear exchange faded with the end of the Cold War; compared to most of our history we are in a period of marked peace. And yet we feel less secure, have introduced draconian legislation that limits individual liberties to counter what is, compared with history, a very minor threat; in doing so have further reinforced the feelings of insecurity within the populace. Do terrorists really threaten our vital interests? A little, maybe, but compared with the threats of much of the twentieth century, hardly. The capacity for terrorists to inflict crude but large-scale attacks on Western interests has already been largely curtailed, and they have never had the capacity to undertake complex and more meaningful actions. The gravest threat from terrorism is its ability to provoke unwise over-reactions on our part.

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The following is a transcript of the full speech given by the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff

Two weeks ago was a busy week for the UK government, with the publication of three key documents. On the Monday we published our new national Security Strategy. Tuesday was the document we're here to talk about today the Strategic Defence and Security Review. And Wednesday was the Spending Review which sets budgets for all government departments. Taken together these three documents represent three of the essential elements of strategy: the policy ambition (on Monday) the military capability (on Tuesday) and the financial resources (on Wednesday). The fourth essential element is that the three are in coherent balance (but that is not the work of a single day).

Indeed, to me, the maintenance of that coherence between policy ambition, financial resource and military capability is the art of strategy. Because coherence is not the natural state of things. The fundamental elements of strategy are more like helicopter flight inherently unstable needing constant recalibration. So our SDSR is a start point not a finish.

Some have accused the UK government of having conducted a somewhat rushed process. I do not hold to that. The UK Ministry of Defence has been preparing the intellectual ground work for a Defence Review certainly for the past two years Particularly with work on Global Strategic Trends and Future Character of Conflict.

We also recognised that the military instrument of national power entered a strategic review in a difficult or more accurately vulnerable position. I say this for 3 reasons.

First, the UK fiscal position was acute. And the government's determination to close the fiscal deficit in a single parliamentary term added to the challenge of curbing government spending.

Second, an existential threat to the UK in hard defence terms seems increasingly unlikely. The SDSR, therefore, correctly conflates defence and security for the first time. And many correctly question the relevance of some of our traditional military capabilities.

But third and I would doubt that this is a particularly British condition the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have bequeathed an immediate legacy of political caution and societal nervousness over the purposes to which the military instrument of National Power has been most recently been put.

The British are in one of our typically ambiguous mindsets where our Armed Forces have never been held at least recently in such high regard but the purpose to which they have been put has never been so seriously questioned.

So, the military instrument of National Power entered our Defence Review in a vulnerable position with many in the Whitehall village viewing it as big, dangerous, expensive, and attended by unforeseen consequences.

Given that context I believe that defence has emerged from the process remarkably well. Its resource position has been defended. Its utility to the strategic context is actively being reshaped. And the political context for its utility has significantly matured.

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By Victoria Dawson

The Military Covenant, traditionally sealed by the payment of a shilling to a soldier, between the Nation, the British Army and the Soldier, has as its core principles from the 'Army Doctrine', which holds that; 'soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices including the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the Nation.  In putting the needs of the Nation and the British Army before their own, soldiers forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces.  In return, soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals.  In the same way the unique nature of military operations means that the British Army differs from any other State institution, and must be sustained and provided for by the Nation'.

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By Lee Bruce

One of the most compelling myths propagated in public life is the presentation of the UK as an American 'poodle'. Before hammering the nails into the coffin of the UK-US partnership, politicians and their public should not dismiss the sheer historical resilience of the relationship, nor avoid the immutable limitations of an integrated European defence platform. Co-operation between the transatlantic partners will be essential given the potential for a rapid and game changing deterioration in the security context either in Europe or perhaps as a consequence of an extension of the conflict in Afghanistan. Assuming British statesman wish to play a role in stewarding an international system broadly sympathetic to UK interests they need to hold close to the US. Dispelling the 'poodle' mythology is essential if Britain is going to rediscover a credible defence posture and emerge from the terrible mess many believe her grand strategy to be mired in. The forthcoming Strategic Defence Review (SDR) is an opportune moment for the new government in London to demonstrate this subtlety of hand and save Britain from being relegated to a third rate power.

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By Dr Robert Crowcroft

It has, sadly, become a common observation that Britain's strategy for defending her security is in a permanent mess, and only one crisis removed from meltdown. That is hardly to be wondered at when the sheer scale of the contradiction which exists between the two great departments of state charged with advancing UK interests the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence is laid bare. Such is the size of this gap that, if London is not careful, Britain might well tumble into it. A lack of effective leadership, the paucity of strategic analysis, and the incoherent worldview of the FCO has left Britain on the brink. Whichever party forms the next government will have to deal with the consequences of years of woolly thinking.

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By Dr Jeffrey Bradford, Director of  Research, U K Defence Forum

Pity UK defence. In the grand scheme of political priorities - across the spectrum - the defence enterprise sits squarely in fourth place (at best) behind social security, health care and education. All politicians wish to be seen looking strong and striding the world stage in exotic locales surrounded by a professional military and a willing press entourage. They will the ends, but do they will the means?

If only the pressure placed on the health service procurement budget were given the same level of scrutiny by the Treasury, NAO and media. The incoming Labour Government of 1997 conducted a highly praised foreign policy led Strategic Defence Review. One of the principal outputs was reform of the defence procurement system known as 'smart procurement' - echoing the Olympic ideals of smaller, faster, better (and obviously cheaper).

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With the UK General Election campaign under way, what impact will defence and security issues have on voting intentions? Public opinion polls conducted by MORI between February and March suggest that defence and security are less of a concern for voters than the economy. When MORI asked what is the most important issue facing Britain today, 55% of respondents considered the economy as the most pressing concern. By comparison, 14% regarded defence, foreign affairs and terrorism as the most important issue facing the country.

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Viewpoints' recent article on the use of chemical, biological and radiological (CBRN) weapons by terrorists could not have been timelier. On Monday three separate reviews of the United Kingdom's ability to prevent a major terrorist attack were published. The Government published an update to the National Security Strategy, the annual report on the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy and a third report concerning Britain's strategies for countering the CBRN threat. The findings of these reports can be summarised accordingly:

-          The UK continues to face a serious and sustained threat from terrorism. Networks and individuals that pose a terrorist threat also continue to share an ambition to cause large numbers of casualties without warning.

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By Guy Birks

The proposed trial and creation of a National Citizen Service in the UK marks a bold attempt by the Coalition government to try and implement a form of national service. The stated intention is to introduce young people to the concept of civic responsibility through a kind of non-military national service. For some, however, this proposal does not go far enough. In the UK a significant section of the press and a large number of people frequently call for a military national service. In particular, it is believed that a national service scheme carried out within the military will help tackle anti-social behaviour and youth disaffection. The problems with this view can be highlighted by looking at national service elsewhere in other European countries.

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By Louise Edge, Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner, Greenpeace UK.

In the aftermath of the Conservative party conference, it's clear that in the run up to the UK General Election they plan to put the issue of spending cuts high on their agenda. But post-conference will the Conservatives have the courage and vision to open up a debate about cutting back on Trident?

It's now clear that the scale of the UK's debt crisis is likely to lead to cuts across all government departments. The MoD faces particular challenges. Heavy demands on existing forces, a long list of major defence projects in the pipeline, and a reported 35 billion pound black hole in the defence procurement budget mean that they are already dangerously overstretched, even before any budget cuts are made.

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I say, there's an iceberg ahead.

Shall we tell the Captain?

He says we're unsinkable.


Do you think the danceband has the sheet music for "Nearer my God to thee" or do you think they'll busk it?

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Labour MP Eric Joyce has resigned from his post as parliamentary private secretary to the defence secretary. Here, in full, is his resignation letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"As you may know, I told Bob Ainsworth some weeks ago that I intended to step down as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Defence Secretary before the start of the new parliamentary term.

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By Ian Godden

Various commentators and service chiefs are arguing over whether the UK needs large defence equipment, such as aircraft carriers, or more troops and support equipment. However, the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC) believes that this is a risky distraction, brought about by the fact that defence has been underfunded, and that defence is about to be short-changed again.

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By Elayne Jude, Great North News Services

Somewhere in Afghanistan a man kneels in front of an open suitcase. He's a figure of some power and influence locally; may be the village headman, or the patriarch of a particular clan. The suitcase been handed to him by an American. Inside, row after row of crisply banded dollar bills, of a denomination that can be usefully brandished in the world's sixth poorest country.

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By William Pomroy

This week saw the fourth meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Suicide Prevention Group which was created last November. In its short life it has already covered many important issues, including the risks posed by the internet and the need for improved reporting of suicide in the media. This week it turned its attention to the issue of suicide among individuals leaving the armed forces.

This topic was chosen for discussion in light of new research published in March this year by Professor Nav Kapur from the Centre for Suicide Prevention at the University of Manchester, and colleagues.

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

On April 8, British authorities mounted a series of raids in Merseyside, Manchester and Lancashire that resulted in the arrest of 12 men suspected of being involved in a plot to conduct attacks over the Easter holiday weekend. In a press conference the following day, Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted that the men arrested were allegedly involved in "a very big terrorist plot." British authorities have alleged that those arrested sought to conduct suicide bombing attacks against a list of soft targets that included shopping centers, a train station and a nightclub.

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By Simon Roberts

What follows is part 2 of a condensed version of the paper "A decision the next

Prime minister must make..." by Tony Edwards for the United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA) dated February 2009. A full version of the paper can be found here

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By Simon Roberts

What follows is part 1 of a condensed version of the paper "A decision the next

Prime minister must make..." by Tony Edwards for the United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA) dated February 2009. A full version of the paper can be found here

Read more...  

By David Hoghton-Carter, Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

Last month, the EU celebrated the tenth anniversary of the St Malo Declaration surprisingly quietly. Over on this side of the Channel, we saw a Ministerial meeting publicised by an understated MoD Press Release, as John Hutton entertained Herve Morin at Northwood; no fanfare, no parades, no interviews from enthusiastic politicos and Generals, at best the odd sidebar in national news coverage.

However, to deploy a little hyperbole, the St Malo Declaration may be thought of as the most pivotal moment in the history of European security since the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine. It was the Zero Hour moment when the two key European

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