Patrick Mercer: Empty gestures like Syria strike are not a military strategy or defence policy

Should Theresa May have deployed the RAF in Syria?
Should Theresa May have deployed the RAF in Syria?
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IT’S almost 15 years since George W Bush proclaimed ‘mission accomplished’. That phrase told us that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had been brought to heel and that he, as President of the United States, would conquer all.

What a mistake. The war dragged on and many Allied troops died long after the mission had been ‘accomplished’. Bush’s enemies – and many ‘friends’ – punished him for those words.

And now President Trump is saying exactly the same thing. It’s a bit like watching a boxer whom you support bragging and prancing about the ring, goading his opponent and showing off to the audience. You may want him to win, but his hubris makes you hope that he’ll get a bloody nose in the process.

Now Theresa May seems to have joined the same team of pugilists. The trouble is that she doesn’t have the training, the fitness or even a proper pair of boxing gloves: to continue the analogy, she’s punching above her weight. So, two weeks ago today, a handful of British aircraft were sent to bomb Syria’s chemical plants in concert with a clutch of French planes and a great wave of American ones.

Mr Trump told us that this was a one-off – a single, sharp stroke of the cane for Bashar al-Assad while Britain joined in like a timid child being taken along for the ride. I’m certainly not doubting the courage and determination of our RAF crews, but I am horrified at the way that they are being used. We’re all very familiar with ‘gesture politics’, but ‘gesture warfare’ risks lives and is particularly repugnant.

My thesis is simple. To sit at the top, strategic table you need troops, ships and aircraft and you have to have the resolve to use them. If you can’t contribute guns and guts, don’t even ask for a place at that table.

This is a serious point: many countries no longer try to compete and have diverted the money that they would spend on their forces to other budgets. Nations with fine military records now keep just enough troops under arms for internal and, perhaps, UN duties while using the money saved elsewhere; look at Canada.

Similarly, it was depressing to watch Parliament’s reaction. First, there were howls of
outrage when the Government decided to deploy our bombers without first seeking the permission of MPs. Do these people really think that surprise and speed should be sacrificed in order to massage their self-importance?

Then, in her speech, the Prime Minister took a swipe at Russia by suggesting that any form of chemical attack anywhere was unacceptable. She’s right, but to conflate the Skripal affair with Russian support for Assad’s regime is nonsensical and craven.

If our Government is entirely convinced that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury incident (despite the Foreign Secretary’s contradictions) and that we need to stand up to President Putin, then let us 
do so boldly and not just snipe from behind Donald Trump’s coat-tails.

For example, Russia has developed new, long-range artillery with sophisticated ammunition while Britain’s AS90 howitzer regiments have been cut to the bone. Such regiments should have 32 guns apiece yet they can barely muster eight. They need to give several weeks’ notice before enough guns can be found for all the batteries and they depend upon Reservists who are not trained on these weapons to bring them up to strength. As one gunner said to me: “Next, they’ll be telling us to borrow boots from another unit before we can deploy!”

And talking of deployments, there are very ugly rumours about the amount of live ammunition that the British battle group recently sent to Estonia has to hand. The troops are there, of course, to deter Russian aggression. Yet shells and bullets are said to be in short supply. If I’m hearing that, you can be sure that our potential enemies know too. Surely, if we are going to send troops anywhere as a deterrent, they have got to have the resources and the political muscle behind them to do the job?

Meanwhile, the Chief of the General Staff has been immersing himself in the all-important business of scrapping his organisation’s logo. Apparently ‘Army, Be the Best’ is elitist and doesn’t fit with an inclusive image. It’s refreshing to hear that the Defence Secretary has thrown this snowflake nonsense out, but while there aren’t enough bombs in the Baltic, shouldn’t both men have their minds on more important matters?

It’s time to take serious decisions about both our foreign policy and our defence.

The Brexit vote suggests that most people wish us to be a sovereign nation and sovereign nations are firm with those who do not wish us well.

If we’re going to step into the ring, our forces must have the guts and guns to accomplish their mission.

Patrick Mercer OBE served extensively in Northern Ireland before becoming an MP and Chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee. He will be writing a monthly column for The Yorkshire Post.