Shaykh Daoud’s Blog

Just what are Her Majesty’s Forces for?

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On Sunday evening, 12 July 2009, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, made some stinging remarks about the lack of leadership and direction given to the Armed Forces by the New Labour government. He also made some robust remarks about the manning levels and equipment provided to the British Army.

And Lord Owen called on Monday, 13 July, for the sacking of the lightweight Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who has seemed more interested in pleasing the politicians and fighting the RAF’s corner in the perennial war with the Treasury.

There has also been serious criticism about the vehicles provided, in particular an overpriced new purchase of 262 Huskies – rejected twice by the US Army as unsafe – to replace the Snatch Land Rovers in which so many British servicemen have died.

The problem faced by the soldiers is IEDs – improvised explosive devices. Yet just why the vehicles supplied are still so inadequately protected against these is to me a complete mystery.

The Taliban attack on Friday, 10 July, that killed five riflemen of 2Rifles was virtually a carbon copy of the PIRA’s 1979 Warrenpoint incident that killed some 16 soldiers of the Parachute Regiment and the Queen’s Own Highlanders.

In the long counter-guerrilla wars in southern Africa, the Rhodesian Army and the South African Defence Force were constantly beset by IEDs. As a solution, the South African company Krygskorps/Armscorps developed the Ratel armoured personnel carrier designed in such a way as to deflect the blast wave of an exploding device.

Would this design have provided a key to dealing with Taliban IEDs? Or is the merciless liberal vendetta against Rhodesia and white South Africans now being carried on into a new century and another world, to the extent that even their ideas are anathema? If so, it’s our servicemen and women who are actually paying the price for these vicious people’s smug self-indulgence.

On Monday, a senior officer, having called for a properly resourced army, made the pertinent observation that we “need the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to explain to the British people, as they have never convincingly tried to do, why we are in Afghanistan and what we are trying to do there.”

If we reflect for a moment on this, we come up with several general political questions, each connecting with the others. Let us consider, thus, the overarching questions of the United Kingdom’s defence profile in the early decades of the 21st Century. In other words, just what are Her Majesty’s Forces for?

Forget, although it is painful to say it, for the moment about the government’s persistent betrayal of the unstated and unwritten compact with the military not to send them into illegal wars, not to squander their lives wantonly, to look after their wounded, to care for their families, and to do the right thing by the veterans.

And also put aside the lying and deceit that Anthony Charles Linton Blair, James Gordon Brown and their cronies used to involve Her Majesty’s Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan on behalf of George Walker Bush’s imperial ambition; and thus the questions about the legality of these two wars.

It can be said that in making the United Kingdom into a satrapy of the USA, New Labour has directed the attentions of America’s enemies at us, making them ours too. Is this wise, and does it serve our real best interests?

Any defence profile derives from a dispassionate assessment of who might conceivably attack us, or more probably, our “interests” in Lord Palmerston’s usage. This is called a Threat Scenario. The trick is to reduce the number of threats on it so that countering them is manageable and affordable.

Certainly by involving ourselves in the ambitions of countries other than our own militates against this. We don’t need to add the enemies they create to those on our Threat Scenario.

Surely, the role of HMF is the defence of the realm and the protection of British interests, and not minding other people’s business? Where have all the Tories gone, because these were a traditional Tory posture?

Our ‘interests’ for a long time meant keeping good relations with those people we traded with, and ensuring the safety of the sea-lanes to the UK ports. This led, for various reasons many of which were specific to those times, inexorably to Empire.

However, this ‘arrangement’ does not necessarily apply to today’s world, and it should be possible to ensure the free-flow of trade without resorting to an imperial behaviour, pace the contemporary policies of the United States of America.

Worryingly, however, there is no sign that any of our politicians is reviewing not only the role of HMF and our defence posture, but also the general foreign policy that constrains it.

It is particularly concerning that no parliamentary debate is happening; but, furthermore, that decisions are being taken that will affect the lives of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen and women by people who have never served in the Armed Forces of the Crown and who can have no imagination as to what it is they are asking of these young men and women.

If ever there were a case or time for Robert A. Heinlein’s “qualification for citizenship” in Starship Troopers this is it (incidentally, Heinlein earned his place in the sun through his service in the US Navy).

Especially in the wake of the financial crises that blew up earlier this year, we urgently need to review our spending and one of the targets for cuts is inevitably going to be the Armed Forces.

If cuts are imposed on them, then they should be realistic according to what they are expected to do, and not eat away at the necessary equipment and training while deploying them in situations where those very things were vitally necessary.

Thus there needs to be a root-and-branch reappraisal of what we want them to do, how we are going to equip them to do it, and what is the best and wisest way of spending taxpayers’ money?

There is no evidence that any such strategic thinking is going on. So, what should be happening? Let us look at the Armed Services Act 2006 as a window into this world.

The Armed Forces Act 2006

On 1 January this year, the Armed Forces Act 2006 came into force to be fully implemented by October, replacing the various service acts that preceded it – including the Armed Forces Act 2001, which was specifically a revision of the Army Act 1955 and others.

The Preamble to the 2001 Act stated on 11 May 2001:

“An Act to continue the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957; to make further provision in relation to the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence Police; and for connected purposes”.

Mr Kevan Jones (Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Minister of Defence) wrote in a written ministerial statement on 7 October 2008 about the 2006 Act (Hansard):

“The legislation will be brought into effect in October 2009. We do, however, plan to maintain momentum by making the necessary legislative changes to enable the director of service prosecutions, created under the Armed Forces Act 2006, to prosecute all cases under the existing Service Discipline Acts from 1 January 2009. We will bring before Parliament in the autumn the necessary secondary legislation to achieve this.”

There are two extremely serious flaws in this new Act and the thinking behind it, one of which is implied in the Preamble quoted above.

These flaws are, firstly, the virtually complete absence of a fresh appraisal or new thinking about the defence posture of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in the 21st Century from the underlying assumptions of the 1950s-era service acts; and, secondly, as the Emplaw website ( commented on the 2006 Act:

“One of the most important purposes of the Armed Forces Act 2006 is to establish a single permanent Court Martial, covering all three Services, to replace the one-off courts martial that have previously had to be convened for each trial. The intention is that there should be “a single, harmonised system governing all members of the armed forces” (see para 16 of the explanatory notes to the 2006 Act (pdf version))”.

Mr Jones had commented in the statement quoted above:

“When it is implemented, the Armed Forces Act 2006 will allow us to replace the three current Service Discipline Acts and other armed forces legislation with a single system of service law. The Service Discipline Acts, which have provided the legal basis for discipline in the armed forces since the 1950s, will be repealed in due course.”

The implications of these seem to have escape comment by the “Tribunes of the People”, which further vitiates any claim to a cosy status as Lord Macaulay’s “Fourth Estate of the Realm”.

Second Flaw

To take the second flaw first; this appears to be a further capricious twist to New Labour’s revolutionary assault on the Common Law and Magna Carta.

Enshrined in these was the principle of the judgement of one’s peers, most clearly expressed through trial by jury.

The form of that peer judgement that evolved for the armed forces was the court martial, and the serviceman – and latterly woman – could rely on the panel of officers who made up the court being chosen from those who had faced the conditions, or similar ones, in which the indicted offence occurred.

The prosecuting officer was one who was serving in a similar deployment, and the accused’s “friend” also came from just that environment. So everyone knew and had experienced what was on trial, and was as far as possible an expert in those matters.

All officers had to study the Manual of Military Law – or appropriate other service law – and King’s (or Queen’s) Regulations so as to be ready to serve either as prosecutor or defender. Professional lawyers were rarely involved, and when they were they tended to be servicemen themselves unless the offence was under the catch-all provision for “civil offences” – Section 70 of the Army Act 1955.

It would have been unthinkable to have the commanding officers of infantry battalions sitting in judgement on a naval captain whose ship had been involved in a collision, let alone civilian justices who had never served considering a refusal to obey under fire what the accused claimed was an unlawful command.

A simple, yet specific, conflict that might exist between civilian and military concepts can be illustrated by a vehicle accident. Who is in charge of the vehicle? The civilian court holds that it is the driver. Military Law quite specifically says that it is not the driver but the “vehicle commander”. Which should prevail? Or is the whole concept of military discipline to be overturned to satisfy the ignorance of the drafters of parliamentary legislation?

Yet these potential travesties are all too likely in “a single permanent Court Martial, covering all three Services, to replace the one-off courts martial that have previously had to be convened for each trial”.

And there are the additional dangers of senior officers detailed to this permanent Court Martial getting out of date (rapidly so in war time) and lacking experience of the actual current situations facing the servicemen and women – which would be prima facie unjust; and of letting loose professional lawyers into this world that is incomprehensible to the average civilian at the best of times.

There were, indeed, travesties that occurred under the “old” (pre-2006 Act) system.

A famous one was the Court Martial of Lt Harry “Breaker” Morant of the Bushveldt Carbineers in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and his subsequent execution at Pretoria Jail on 27 February 1902 by a firing squad provided by the Cameron Highlanders.

There were others where Military Law was used in an insurrectionary situation such as in Ireland in 1916-21.

In all probability, the IRA men who were shot would now be covered by the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention 1977 (APGC1977): assuming that is that the UK, unlike the USA, still abides by the Geneva Conventions.

It is relevant that later revisions and amendments of the Army Act 1955 stipulate quite unequivocally that all service personnel are bound under the Act by the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 which it incorporates.

It is to be hoped that this is preserved in the Armed Services Acts, and that the dangerous claim of Dr John Reid when he was Secretary of State for Defence that the Geneva Conventions were ‘out of date’ in the era of the Global War On Terrorism has been disregarded and scorned.

This point leads to the consideration of the First Flaw.

First Flaw

The Army Discipline Act under which Martial Law was being applied in the Ireland of the time of the Easter Rising 1916 had been passed in 1913 (and that in turn was based on the Army Act 1881).

It has been pointed out that the particular provisions of that were not repealed or modified until 1930, when the death penalty was removed for all offences other than mutiny and those civil offences for which capital punishment could be applied.

This is germane. The 1930 Army Act is the basic document out of which the 1955 Army Act grew.

The Armed Forces Acts 2001 and 2006 are virtually word-for-word the Army Act 1955. Can the flaw be seen, now?

The 1930 Act was the legal code under which the British Army conducted itself during the Second World War, the opening stages of the Vietnam War, the Partition of India, the early years of the Malayan Emergency, the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus, and the Korean War.

But the world that Her Majesty’s Forces were functioning in 50 years ago was very different from today.

The Korean War (1950-53), a sort of aftershock from World War II, had just finished when the 1955 Act was being drafted.

British forces had not long before (1948) left Indo-China where, under Major General Douglas Gracey commanding 20 (Indian) Infantry Division they had been involved in the initial phase of the Vietnam War, before handing over, reluctantly, to the French colonial authorities in the person of Admiral Darlan.

India had become independent in 1947 and had been partitioned into India, Ceylon, and Pakistan on Independence. There had been the dramatic escape of HMS Amethyst down the Yangtse River in 1949.

The Empire was metamorphosing into the Commonwealth, but quite considerable parts of it were yet to gain independence.

There were counter-insurgency wars going on in Cyprus, Kenya, Aden, and Malaya. The Suez Crisis (1956) had yet to happen, and British troops were still in occupation of the Canal Zone (the last troops didn’t leave until June 1956).

Sir Harold Wilson’s call for withdrawal from “East of Suez” didn’t take place until after he took office as Prime Minister in 1964.

There should therefore be an active, informed, and possibly spirited debate in Parliament as to whether the terms that might have been appropriate for the drafters of the 1955 Act are still a desirable means of describing the role of Her Majesty’s Forces today.

The British Empire was at its height, by many criteria, in 1940. We didn’t finally finish leaving the Empire until the mid-to-late 1960s. Some would quibble that we still haven’t left the last vestiges, such as Belize and the South Atlantic Dependencies, and there are many Irishmen who would point to Ulster.

Be that as it may, why is the role and posture of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in the opening decade of the 21st Century being conditioned by thinking that might have been original in the closing decades of the 19th?

To state it baldly. The Army Acts of 1881, 1913, and 1930 were promulgated when Britain had that Empire upon which the Sun never set.

The thinking which they enshrined was suitable for an Army that was policing and defending such an Empire, and the Navy Acts of similar years were framed for the Royal Navy that was keeping the seaways safe for that Empire.

The Army Act 1955 still contains the underlying philosophy of Empire. And the Armed Forces Act 2006 is virtually word-for-word the same Act. Therefore, the concepts and assumptions which the new Act promulgates are, effectively, those of 1955, which were those of 1930, which were those of 1913, which were those of 1881.

Rorke’s Drift

So today’s Armed Forces are constrained by thinking that was fresh two years after the 28th Regiment of Foot (the South Wales Borderers) – ancestors of today’s Royal Regiment of Wales – had fought the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, immortalised in the film Zulu.

But – let me put it simply for any parliamentarians or central government bureaucrats who might read this – in 2009 Britain does not have an Empire. We have not had an Empire for about 50 years.

And Rorke’s Drift was 130 years ago.

So why do Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have an Imperial defence profile? Is it so that we can supply auxiliary legions for the USA?

There needs to be a fundamental – a root-and-branch – reappraisal of what HMF are for, and on which services most money needs to be spent. Which raises the serious and urgent question yet again, what, precisely, are Her Majesty’s Armed Forces for in 2001 and the rest of the 21st Century?

It should be contended that they have a number of key functions:

Firstly, the Defence of the Realm, that is the protection of the integrity of the United Kingdom, Crown Dependencies, and Dependant Territories from actual foreign attack and from domestic insurgency. Much of that defence posture can be done by the Territorial and Reserve Forces, recapitulating the role of the Militia of yesteryear and familiar from the novels of Jane Austen. The Army should not be being used to prosecute illegal wars of aggression against far-flung places.

Secondly, humanitarian aid and disaster relief. This has been identified as an area in which the military is uniquely well equipped for giving effective and instant support.

Thirdly, the protection of British interests at home and abroad.

Fourthly, the old activity of keeping the sea lanes open and protecting British sovereign waters. We need to keep the seaways safe for our trade and for the support of the dependencies.

The third and fourth functions mean an emphasis on the Royal Navy and Royal Marines – they also imply a key role for the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force.

And within this simple statement of what HMF should be doing, it should not be beyond the wit of bureaucrats and politicians (although it may cause considerable strain to it) to produce a viable and affordable non-Imperial defence posture.

Any other roles need to be examined carefully and be constantly monitored by Parliament, but it should be stated clearly that breaching the historically accepted “laws and usages of war” and the Nuremberg Principles are not to be countenanced.

And although Coalition Defence has been an accepted posture since the founding on 4 April 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Zhdanov’s Warsaw Declaration in 1947 and the Zhdanovishchina that followed, this does not mean that HMF can be used as proxy troops in someone’s imperial ambitions nor that NATO has a continuing role.

A new century needs fresh thinking, yet there is no evidence that this is taking place. It is not good enough for parliament and civil servants simply to keep resurrecting ideas and postures from the time of the end of the British Empire: that was over 40 years ago – practically two generations.

The Gallipoli Option

However, there is certainly one idea from the time of the Empire that could usefully be incorporated in any new thinking, and that is a “Conscience Clause” – what I have termed elsewhere a “Gallipoli Option”.

In his book on the Gallipoli Campaign, perhaps one of the best and most readable on the subject, Dr Robert Rhodes James wrote:

“On May 1st [1915],… the 29th Indian Brigade had disembarked. The Brigade consisted of the 14th Sikhs, the 69th and 89th Punjabis, and the 1/6th Gurkhas, but the 69th and 89th Punjabis contained two companies of Mahomedan troops, and General Cox [Maj Gen H. V. Cox] declined to accept responsibility for their loyalty against the Turks. The men were accordingly detailed for supply work on the beaches…” (James, Robert Rhodes, Gallipoli, B. T. Batsford, London, 1965, p 148).

69th Punjab Regiment was subsequently deployed to France, where it served in the line around Arras next to 1st/4th Black Watch.

The text is confusing. Each Punjab Regiment would have had two rifle companies of PMs (“Punjabi Mussulmans”) and the Support Company and Headquarters Company would have been mixed Sikhs, Hindus, and PMs, so the total numbers of Muslim all ranks involved would have been higher than Dr James initially implies. He seems to correct this impression when he continues “and the strength of the Indian Brigade was reduced by a quarter”.

Nevertheless, the point is valid and leads to a sensible policy.

There is no apparent reason why Muslim troops should not serve in a hostile environment in a Muslim country providing they are not engaging in direct armed operations beyond the carriage of weapons for their own protection and those they are guarding. In such circumstances it would be possible to reassign them to duties at aid posts, base hospitals, airfields, supply depots, and other rear area facilities.

This could be developed into a general Conscience Clause for all service men and women where religious considerations prevent their engaging in hostilities against their coreligionists as a serious moral dilemma.

This is separate, and distinct, from another variant of the Conscience Clause which allows service personnel to declare a conscientious objection to a particular Operation and opt (or request) to be deployed elsewhere instead – thus freeing up other personnel who do not have a similar objection to serve in the Operation.

Both of these should be considered by Parliament, and, in my opinion and advocacy, incorporated in any new Armed Forces legislation. There is no reason why either of these should be objected to, whether by military or civilian commentators, as they would be entirely in keeping with the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Let’s see some independent thinking by our Parliamentarians, and some evidence that they are not in thrall to American neo-conservatism, which is a singularly inappropriate ideology for any British Labour, Liberal-Democrat, or Conservative politician and supporter.

© D Rosser-Owen 2009 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

July 15, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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