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A Bright Gleam…?

Britains armed forces
Written by Adrian Hill

Brighter news from San Diego heralding the Aukus submarine project is slightly dulled by the rather leisurely time table proposed. One understands there’s a lot to be done, starting with clearing up our nuclear waste, but if we amble, we swing a searchlight on a window of opportunity for a tall overweight Chinese gent with ambitions for global gluttony. That aside, the plan proposes exactly what people like me have been urging since decades –to triple our nuclear attack submarine force.

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Nor should we stop there,we should triple the size of the whole Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and rebuild the Army as an air portable force with artillery and tanks that we can fly anywhere on the planet.

Furthermore, let’s recognise the timely message behind AUKUS  – the first full scale war on the European continent for nearly eighty years revealed NATO at best as a coalition of the willing though proved the Anglo-American alliance vital to the continent. Germany’s imperial EU has ambitions to take over European defence – it’s all in the German Army strategic plan drawn up in 2018 when Ursula von der Leyen was defence minister –and logically that includes France’s nuclear deterrent. I wonder if Macron grasps this obvious consequence.

And yet the Germans and France have sat on the fence, hedging their bets, indeed France has given Ukraine very little help and Italy none at all. The Poles and smaller European countries have proved stalwart allies and once again stand firm against a big bully state. British military help is more than all Europe put together, second only to the United States. Even if Eurocrats and British ‘Remain’ liberals loathe Brexit, most Ukrainians probably thank God for it.

Allow me to explain my perspective. My generation look at events today absolutely differently from modern politicians. We respect history. We’ve lived through times when politicians ignored history – a bit like the shower we suffer now – and their awful results.

AUKUS is our first step towards building a global alliance of democracies from a core of the Five Eyes Intelligence sharing partners.

The singularity is the Atlantic Charter, drawn up on board the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser USS Augusta in Placentia Bay on the coast of Newfoundland during three days in early August 1941. Four months were left before Pearl Harbour. Winston Churchill and FDR began a relationship that thrives to this day.

Anglo-American secret teamwork began with sharing intelligence, atomic secrets and naval bases. This teamwork culminated in VE Day and VJ Day. After 1945 our teamwork came to an abrupt halt partly because of the Alan Nunn May and Donald Maclean spy scares. The Special Relationship overnight became rather less special. Nor was this cooling later helped when the Foreign Office and France colluded with Israel behind Eisenhower’s back during the Suez crisis in November 1956. Nuclear weapons research co-operation stopped, forcing the British to launch a huge programme that eventually produced atomic and hydrogen bombs and the V bombers to deliver them anywhere in the world. ( I had a map of our targets in my office cupboard back in 1963.) That feat brought about a thaw in Anglo-American nuclear politics and the Special Relationship was fully restored by Harold Macmillan and JFK meeting at Nassau in the Bahamas just before Christmas 1962.

Perhaps its most remarkable manifestation became the relationship between the two submarine services. As Peter Hennessy and James Jinks maintain in their masterful history of the Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 – The Silent Deep -the two services might as well be one. The US Navy pulled off an ‘AUKUS’ following the 1962 Nassau meeting. After the Skybolt air-launched missile was cancelled, both nuclear deterrents slid beneath the waves. The US Navy helped the Royal Navy build nuclear propelled submarines armed with ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.

Some ideas offered below may seem incredible to most liberals in British politics and government. Our main parties in Parliament are shades of pink, one even wears pinks as a tartan. Our diplomatic service and fast stream civil service are pinker than the telly tubbies. My views expressed here are founded on experience frombig wars, lessons learned in combat or armed truce, lessons often learned alongside the Americans – starting with building in redundancy to your fleets and formations. The South Atlantic War provided a sharp reminder that warships sometimes are sunk.

Our fleet ought to grow until reaching the same size as during the 1960s before Common Market membership. At that time we could send half the Royal Navy to the Far East for tackling Confrontation with Indonesia over Malaysia while the rest guarded against the threat from Russia close to home. China was much less a problem in those days. We should order one more large aircraft carrier, ideally two more plus the Daring class destroyers and enough Astute class nuclear attack submarines to escort them – and enough F35s to provide full strength air groups for all three or four carriers. This offers a much more flexible way of increasing or decreasing our air power anywhere in the world.

A force of frigates is required against submarines and should operate their own drone air force as force multipliers. The same goes for minesweeping. But these ships need the government to restore a real shipbuilding industry. At present the taxpayers ( voters don’t have any respect or rights in modern Britain ) are duped by the government, forking out billions for a frigate construction programme which is actually in the hands of a Spanish company while Downing Street pretends it’s all being done by Harland and Wolf. Rishi is a bit of spiv where Northern Ireland is concerned. That’s dangerous.

The Army needs to rethink itself. We are engaged at arm’s length war with Russia. Let’s keep it that way by giving Ukraine all the help they need. They’re fighting our battles. America has dangerous rumblings of a return to isolation – Trump warned the EU but they didn’t listen, he may return in two years. Our diplomats have urgent work to do – pushing Joe Biden to recognise the British effort for a start. Do Americans know how much we’ve given?

Poland not only helps supply Ukraine but is doubling the size of its army. They’ve ordered 600 tanks and a hefty number of self-propelled guns from South Korea. Contrast this with Herr Scholtz who talks big but actually does very little.

Our Army ought to make itself our quick reaction force, one that has plenty of small, fast tanks and self-propelled guns, plenty of protected vehicles and loads of smart weapons and drones. The whole lot should be air-portable to anywhere on the planet. That requires the aircraft to lift them as well.

Fundamentally the Army’s main building blocks are too weak. During April 1951 the Glosters, an 800 strong battalion of mostly national servicemen, destroyed a Chinese army 27,000 strong while holding a hill on what is now the DMZ between the two Koreas. ( The view commanded by the hill is spectacular.) Some escaped but most were captured. They had fought with bolt action ( single shot ) Lee Enfield rifles. I was trained by veterans of Korea. By 1959 an infantry battalion was 950 strong and armed with automatic rifles plus all the support weapons.

The modern all volunteer Army is the brainchild of the greatest captain of them all, Captain Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, perhaps the finest military writer of the twentieth century. Britain had 400,000 mostly National Service soldiers able to put only three-and-a-half divisions into combat. Liddell-Hart nagged the government until in 1960 the switch began to 165,000 volunteers which doubled the number of divisions to six-and-a-half ready for combat. The Army had fifty of those big battalions. Even in 1990 the Army still had forty-six although only 750 strong. The simplest way to restore that level of strength is by letting the individual infantry battalions recruit their own volunteer reserve companies – that’s an infantry formation of about 120 soldiers, half a dozen of them form a battalion.

We should reinvent like Basil Liddell-Hart, create a force that comes out of the blue and switches the military balance.

The current training programme for Ukraine is a pattern that many other countries might want to join. I ran the Commonwealth Military Assistance programme as part of my job for General George Price in the old Commonwealth Relations Office – everything from Centurion tanks for India after China invaded to supporting Sandhurst cadets from Nigeria.

During the 1960s the Royal Air Force still had Fighter, Bomber, Coastal, Transport and Training Commands. Fighter Command had sixteen squadrons of day fighters and eight squadrons of all weather fighters. Bomber Command had fifteen squadrons of V bombers – 160 Valiants, Vulcans, Victors at peak strength for our nuclear deterrent – and eight squadrons of Canberra bombers based in the British Isles. Add to this Second Tactical Air Force in Germany ( about as large as the present RAF), the Near East Air Force ( most based on Cyprus including a Vulcan squadron and five Canberra squadrons ) and Far East Air Force and that gives an idea of our global reach.

Sweden and Finland are keen to join NATO because their once strong armed forces are very small today.  We have to rebuild our defence industrial base. At the moment the British Army has three days worth of artillery ammunition.

Take all the borrowing for Covid and place it in a special fund – rather like paying for two world wars – and remove the cost of Covid from the government’s normal spending?

After both world wars our national debts were 200% of GNP but we paid over fifty years and did not use taxes. We made our final payment to the Americans in 2006. Liz Truss was on the right track, she just forgot to sell her plans before she went ahead. Please, please can we have some common sense in Parliament and the Treasury otherwise public school boys must be banned from both for life. While on this topic…..

Retire everyone in the Treasury and most of the HM Diplomatic Service fast stream over the age of forty. A similar cull may be required in other grand offices of state.

Lastly though the most essential, surely it’s now obvious that our eighteenth century Parliament is incapable of producing competent governments that we can trust. The Swiss have enjoyed direct democracy for 850 years at all levels of government. May I suggest that we catch them up and join the twenty-first century. Swiss don’t lose sleep over their politicians. The people are in charge.


The Silent Deep  Peter Hennessy and James Jinks   Allen Lane ISBN: 978-1-846-14580-3

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About the author

Adrian Hill