News that Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace has summonsed the Army Board for a “dressing down” hit the media this week.
Clearly his patience has worn thin over the army’s recent performance across the board and the concomitant negative press coverage as one thing after another goes wrong, and yet nobody ever takes responsibility or the blame. His exasperation has clearly boiled over, and not before time in my opinion.
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The author, Stuart Crawford, was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that are likely to feature in the Secretary of State’s collective bollocking. First and foremost in terms of seriousness are the allegations surrounding the death of Kenyan mother Agnes Wanjiru some ten years ago when she was apparently in the company of British soldiers. As the Kenyan police have now re-opened a criminal case on the matter it is effectively sub judice and I will say no more on the details. Suffice to say, however, that Chief of the General Staff Sir Mark Carleton-Smith has said he is “appalled” by allegations that British soldiers may have been involved in her death.
Violence against women also features in the Atherton Report, the result of a Parliamentary inquiry which revealed that nearly two-thirds of women in the armed forces have experienced bullying, sexual harassment, and bullying during the course of their careers and that the British military is “failing to protect” female recruits. Sixty-two per cent of the 4,106 veterans and serving personnel who provided testimony had either witnessed or received “unacceptable behaviour”. Tellingly, the response from the MoD is still awaited.
Then consider the recent tragedy at RMA Sandhurst, where officer cadet Olivia Perk hanged herself in February 2019 because, apparently, she thought she was going to be discharged from the course on account of an alleged affair, or affairs, with two NCO instructors at the Academy. It now transpires that up to seven members of the Directing Staff there may be referred to the Services’ Prosecuting Authority for failing to carry out their duties in respect to her welfare. Aside from the niceties of senior NCO instructors having relationships with their officer cadet charges, she was by all accounts a known suicide risk. How could this possibly have been allowed to happen?
Let’s move on to equipment procurement. Words almost fail me when we look at the Ajax debacle, a litany of poor decisions by under-qualified individuals safe in the knowledge that when the sacred cows come home to roost (sic) they’ll be long gone. The recently published House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report, Improving the performance of major defence equipment contracts, makes for grim reading. According to the report, the MoD has spent nearly £4 billion of its Ajax budget by March 2021—including payments to GDUK of £3.1 billion—out of budgeted whole-life costs of £5.5 billion. It has so far received 14 vehicles, two per cent of its contractual fleet requirement.
Add to this the disastrous cancellation of the Warrior IFV upgrade programme and the pathetic decision to upgrade only 148 of the Challenger 2 fleet to Challenger 3 status and only an eternal optimist would dare assert that everything in the land equipment procurement garden is rosy. And yet they did, in front of the Select Defence Committee only a few months ago. The sight of senior officers bobbing and weaving to avoid blame and/or responsibility was not inspiring to behold.
I was going to go in hard on our current involvement in Mali, and in particular the triumphalism that seemed, to me at least, to accompany the elimination of a couple of blokes in flip-flops on a motorbike by the overwhelming firepower of one of our mounted patrols. Announcing this on Twitter with the preface “How was your weekend?” was crass and insensitive and completely misread the mood of that medium. But I suspect this was a genuine and now regretted mistake. I’m pretty sure our boys and girls are doing a fine job out there and lack of media training shouldn’t be allowed to take the gloss off a dangerous and worthwhile mission. Enough said.
But what can we say about the fiddling of allowances by senior officers, eh? Two of them – one Major General and one Lieutenant Colonel – have been sent to the pokey over the past year for fraudulently claiming Continuation of Education Allowance (CEA) (formerly Boarding School Allowance or BSA) when they should have known better. Another Brigadier is under investigation for the same offence, which he denies. These cases, I suspect, are only the tip of the iceberg, and it has been generally known that these allowances have been abused for years.
Why has this been allowed to happen? The answer, I’m afraid, is that those who should be chasing the current miscreants were probably guilty of doing exactly the same in their time. This has now transcended self-regulation and investigation. Arguably the Serious Fraud Office needs to be called in to investigate the depth and extent of the scandal which goes back many, many years. It will be squeaky bum time across much of Wiltshire and Dorset as historical cases begin to be investigated too. I have no sympathy. Fraud is fraud is fraud. If the cap fits, wear it. You know who you are.
All of this stuff indicates, to me at least, that the British army has rather lost its moral compass, or a chunk of it anyway if that’s possible. There will be many reasons and causes why this might have happened, but in the end the buck stops with the leadership. Senior individuals at the top of the chain of command set the tone, and if they’re found wanting – which they clearly have been – then we can’t really expect their charges to behave to a higher moral code.
Serious questions have to be asked. Who was in charge when that girl was murdered in Kenya and where are they now? What were the officers and NCOs doing at the time? Were any parameters set for R&R or was it just a free-for-all, do-as-you-please, anarchic carnival of hedonistic indulgence? What “Values and Standards” environment at RMA Sandhurst allowed the directing staff to think it was acceptable to take advantage of a presumably vulnerable female officer cadet? Why has no senior officer shown the self-dignity and integrity to should at least part of the blame for the Ajax and other equipment fiascos? And why did brigadiers and colonels think it was OK to fiddle their allowances?
Look at who was in charge at the time of these various fiascos and make up your own mind. There appears to be little doubt that, to paraphrase the English bard, “something is rotten in the state of the British army” and it needs immediate, firm, and decisive action to root it out. Let’s hope the Secretary of State starts that action when he meets with service chiefs next week.