- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A British military expert who wishes to remain anonymous says the RUSI Journal article by Patrick Little that I spotlighted yesterday was good as far as it goes, but understates the parlous state of the UK armed forces.
- Little’s broadly correct. It’s a very welcome piece.
- It’s still very hard to get officers to speak out. Officers speaking off the record give testimony that bears no resemblance to some of the stuff that gets aired in the press. It’s practically impossible to get anyone to go on the record with their criticisms, even in fora where the only people who are going to read the stuff are in the defence community. It’s telling that Little is not a currently serving officer. There’s been some progress, but if you compare what we’re seeing coming out in this country with Military Review in its reforming pomp, we’re nowhere.
- The forthcoming SDR is potentially an excellent opportunity to undergo a much needed strategic “re-boot”. However, my early feeling is that the signs may not be good. The individual services have turned against each other in a fight for what are going to be limited defence funds and there’s a massive “can’t do” attitude on the part of too many of the civilians. It’s feels like people have had the fight beaten out of them before they’ve even started. This is unfortunate, as my view is that SDR may be one of our last chances to get things right and if it falls flat there’s a good chance it will taint much of what happens afterwards.
- The press over here are largely terrible. Defence journalists who don’t know much about defence (there are, of course, honourable exceptions) and generalists who are just lazy as all get out and regurgitate stale talking points they’ve seen regurgitated over the wire services. None of this debate is percolating through into the public sphere. We’ve heard some stuff creeping in about how maybe, just possibly, all is not well in the uniformed services, but it’s very minor stuff. All they’re interested in is bashing the government. Not that the government doesn’t deserve a good bashing, but the picture is a lot more complicated than one might think just from reading the papers and, especially, watching the television news.
- Officer education is a mess. Never mind the anthropology stuff. We’ve got a distinct lack of decent strategists. Large numbers of our senior officers have no proper strategic education.
- Little is correct in flagging up the disgraceful fact that nobody in the Army has been fired. We tend not to fire people as readily as you chaps (more fool us…) but the extent to which known mediocrities and jobsworths have been able to continue to coast their way up the career ladder borders on astonishing. Meanwhile, Majors and Colonels with extensive campaign experience are getting stifled by the system and heading for civvy street. Where’s the British Petraeus? Well, maybe he’s out there, but as likely he’s probably working in a bank somewhere or farming chickens, having got pissed off and voted with his feet. Retention has been helped somewhat by the troubled economy meaning there aren’t many alternative jobs to go to, but we’ve lost too many good people through a system that rewards ticking the boxes and knowing when to keep one’s mouth shut.”
I agree with his assessment of the British media, which generally seems to revel in its ignorance of military matters. One test of this: What was the last good book written about military affairs by a British journalist?