Eric Grove: Ignore this whingeing old soldier: we need a realistic policy for the defence of our nation

GENERAL Sir Richard Dannatt, the previous Chief of the General Staff, has publicly criticised his former political masters for both strategic errors and underfunding the Army. He has taken the opportunity of his retirement to mount a heavy attack on both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, especially the latter – whom he criticises Blair for not dismissing to make sure his strategic adventures could be properly funded and carried out.

Even while he was still serving, Dannatt pressed the boundaries of constitutional propriety in his public criticisms of policy. His announcement as soon as he retired of his intention to become an adviser to the Conservatives caused more than a few ripples in Whitehall. Interestingly, now the Government has changed, he has not played the leading role that he expected.

This may well reflect the new approach that the coalition is taking to defence. Every impression I have picked up in Whitehall since May is that the new Government views the war there as the last government's war. It does not see this conflict as necessarily the paradigm for the future, as Dannatt and the Army in general has been arguing.

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Wisely, the coalition seems to recognise the necessity to invest in capabilities to allow flexible and adaptable responses to the challenges of an uncertain world. This requires platforms such as aircraft carriers and combat aircraft rather than specialist vehicles to cope with the kinds of mistaken strategic embroilments that have been the focus of British military activities for most of this century.

The Army may be responding to the strategic truth that the best form of defence is attack, for it has many vulnerabilities in any review of Britain's defence. It is by far the largest service with over 100,000 personnel, including 3,500 Gurkhas. In comparison, the Royal Navy, including the Royal Marines, amounts to 34,650 and the RAF almost 40,000. And what do we get for this investment in khaki personnel? About a tenth of it deployed on operations.

Questions must be asked about whether the Army's way of doing business would pass muster in any other context. Reportedly, about 40 per cent of the Army's strength (a personnel equivalent to each of the other services) is tied up in training. The rest is at various stages of being rotated through short deployments in Afghanistan. Over twice the number of troops in Afghanistan remain in Germany, a relic of the Cold War.

The Army still has almost 400 Challenger II main battle tanks, vehicles that have been, perhaps thankfully, conspicuous by their absence in Afghanistan. There are about 30 Warrior infantry combat vehicles in Afghanistan, out of a total of 575. Where are the rest?

The Army's requests for vehicles more suitable for the Afghan environment were eventually answered. Delays were naturally frustrating to those in the front line, but this was as much the Army's fault for still being equipped for the Cold War as it was the fault of Treasury cheese paring or Governmental failure to recognise requirements.

It is all too easy to blame lack of equipment for the Army's problems in Afghanistan. There is another side to the story, a story of service assurances to Ministers that the move south would not involve combat operations. This led to the Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, to make his infamous statement in March 2006 at the time of the move to Helmand that "if we came for three years here to accomplish our mission and had not fired a shot we would be very happy indeed".

That statement, it must be repeated, was based on service advice. That it did not go that way has been ably recounted by James Fergusson in his excellent book A Million Bullets. He shows how an overly "kinetic" approach by 3 Para, the core of the first British battle group in Helmand, converted a peace-keeping mission in support of reconstruction into some of the heaviest fighting British ground forces have endured since 1945. It is clear that the escalation in 2006 was unexpected; that was not the fault of the politicians but of mistakes made by the Army on the ground.

It is understandable, therefore, that senior generals should shift the blame on to the discredited shoulders of the leaders of the last government. They can also exploit the natural feelings of sympathy for the families of those soldiers who have paid the price of their profession But we should not let them get away with it.

It is only to be expected in the bear pit of Whitehall that officers should use every weapon to sustain the interests of their service, but with the retired Army officer corps and their journalistic supporters baying for blood over the carriers and aircraft programmes, it is necessary to make a plea for balance.

After 2006, Afghanistan turned into a quagmire that was, at least in part, of the Army's own making. To make this the model for future defence policy and a framework for the Army to continue in its wasteful ways would be a national disaster.

There is every sign that the coalition Government is seeing through the whinges of Dannatt et al and is producing a defence policy that reflects Britain's real needs as an island nation and one that fits her for the unknown defence challenges of the future.