Patrick Mercer: Last stand of the bogey-man raises fears on Forces’ future

TO people of my generation, Colonel Gaddafi is still a bogey-man, despite the deals that Tony Blair cut with him a few years ago. The Colonel’s regime gave us Lockerbie and murdered Pc Yvonne Fletcher – I can remember this but how many of the younger generation can? And I suspect it’s this faded image that makes it so difficult to grasp exactly what is going on in Libya today.

The monstrous regime that Colonel Gaddafi established seemed to have had its teeth drawn and rapprochement with the West had become the norm – up until the last few days. Now, with Benghazi and Tripoli in flames and the good Colonel using anti-aircraft guns on crowds of unarmed protesters, the old beast seems to be back. But what are we going to do about it?

I make no criticism of our diplomats for not seeing the crisis in the Middle East and being unable to look over the horizon – who could have foretold what was about to happen? But it does worry me that whatever threats we make and aspirations that we have politically, we will not have the wherewithal to make either happen.

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First, the Prime Minister may suggest that we use ground forces in Libya as a peace-keeping force to stop Gadaffi’s further atrocities, but would we have the willpower to do so?

Iraq and Afghanistan have certainly over-stretched us militarily, while the dead, the injured and the diplomatic fallout have left a very sour taste in the mouths of the public.

It is quite simple to take sanctions against a nation or, indeed, establish a no-fly zone. That, after all, is how things started with Saddam Hussein and Iraq – and look where that led. Similarly, our intervention in Afghanistan in 2002 was almost free of casualties.

It was only when we extended our reach into Helmand that the blood started to flow. Situations like Libya have a horrible tendency to catch governments’ hands in the mangle; that is the lesson of the last decade or so.

Even if we did decide to flex our muscles with Libya, could we do so effectively? The Strategic Defence Review of a few months ago is already looking badly unbalanced. Clearly, it is very hard to foresee every eventuality, but there is a deep irony when we require sustainable maritime forces first to demonstrate our resolve and, second, to evacuate our citizens that we don’t have the ships to do it!

There seems little doubt that HMS Ark Royal would have been perfect for the job off Libya. While the Government has, quite rightly, committed itself to a carrier building programme, those two new ships will not be ready for some time and with the decommissioning of the Ark Royal there is a distinct capability gap for exactly the sort of operation that we are now facing.

Furthermore, it is a mercy that the crisis emerged when it did. A few weeks later and HMS Cumberland, which has done such admirable work between Malta and the Libyan coast, would have been bound for the scrap yard.

Then there is the much discussed “no-fly zone”. Very few people remember that the Allied air forces attempted to enforce the UN’s wishes over Iraq many years before the invasion actually occurred. Certainly, our aircraft were a deterrent and I’m not questioning the gallantry of the crews who had to face frequent ground fire.

But it is very difficult to stop helicopters or other slow, low-flying aircraft from making short trips and, possibly bombing and strafing in the process. Plenty of that went on with the Kurds, despite the no-fly zone.

And this, of course, comes at a time when we are announcing redundancies right the way across the armed forces, 5,000 of them being in the RAF.

Defence cannot be excluded from the overall need to make cuts, but it is the only department that is in the business of taking and saving lives and its area of responsibility is more unpredictable than any other discipline.

Now, there were voices raised up during the defence review saying that the only thing certain about warfare was uncertainty and that our armed services had got to be prepared for all sorts of eventualities and retain a degree of flexibility.

Well, it seems as if that uncertainty has now become a reality. There is no doubt that our soldiers, sailors and airmen have the courage and skill to deal with it – but do they have the equipment and is there the political determination to back them up?

Patrick Mercer is a former soldier and the Conservative MP for Newark.