Bob Stewart: Navy losing battle of Whitehall politics

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SIGMUND Freud suggested that denial can be a psychological defence mechanism by which a person, faced with facts too uncomfortable to accept, rejects them and instead suggests such matters are simply not true, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I saw such denial when, as United Nations Commander, I reported genocide in Bosnia during 1992-93. Many international politicians preferred to ignore the clear evidence given to them and avoid facing up to the fact that something had to be done.

I fear the dangers of denial are at play once more. We are consistently reassured that our Armed Forces are operationally fit for purpose. They are not, despite the fantastic bravery, quality and efforts of our service personnel in their various ships, units and squadrons.

It is now clear that the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review is not working well enough. It has gone wrong in some parts at least, yet the Ministry of Defence persistently maintains that all is well when it is clearly not.

I am not being personal here. Friends of mine run the Ministry of Defence and I know them to be deeply honourable, patriotic and decent. I understand when they say they must listen to current advisers, not voices from the past or people who are not involved in defence directly.

I might say the same if I was in their situation. I have never held high office, but I wonder whether people in such positions can escape the shackling political requirements of their responsibilities.

In the MoD, for both senior civil servants and generals, I suspect it could easily be career suicide to suggest that a plan is going wrong. In the battle of Whitehall bureaucratic politics, it is always safer to give the boss good, rather than bad, news.

As a military commander, almost every single plan I carried out went wrong from the start. Is it not a well-known military truism that plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and need constant tinkering and revision from the moment they begin? Have such adjustments happened to the SDSR 2010? I do not think so, but I urge that such adjustment is necessary.

The direst manning situation in our Armed forces is within the Royal Navy. The Navy’s manning overstretch is manifestly affecting its operational capability. For instance, highly trained and highly motivated people are simply leaving the service, because in their view they have no choice.

The 2020 plan for our Navy is that it should be about 24,000 strong, with two aircraft carriers and about 19 frigates or destroyers. Admiral Jellicoe had 80 destroyers at Jutland! In the circumstances, I just cannot see how we are truly going to be able to man, equip, sustain, protect and fly from one aircraft carrier, let alone two.

Last year, HMS Bulwark, second of the Albion-class assault ships and currently flagship of the Royal Navy, was on operational deployment for 272 days out of 365. When she returns to her home port, many in her crew are required to stay on board to carry out essential maintenance.

I recently spoke to two female petty officers, both highly qualified and trained engineers aboard the ship. They told me that even when they were given leave, the chances were that they would be recalled, sometimes to fill crewing gaps in ships other than their own. They said they had very little chance to have a social life, let alone get married and have a family, which they both wanted to do. As a consequence, they had no choice but to leave the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy simply does not have enough sailors for the commitments it has to fulfil. My firm belief is that the Navy must increase its size by at least 6,000 service personnel, putting it back to roughly the same size it was before 2010.

The undeniable truth is that we are simply not spending enough on defence, and our sailors, soldiers and airmen are suffering in consequence.

As one defence attaché put it to the Select Committee on Defence, in defence terms the United Kingdom wants a Champagne lifestyle but has a budget only for beer.

We not only have to sustain spending on our armed forces at two per cent of GDP; we should increase it, if we really wish to have the very best sailors, soldiers and airmen in the world.