Out of Step?
Are our armed forces no longer fit for purpose?
With good reason UK British soldiers, sailors and airmen are respected as amongst the best and most capable in the world. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the professional head of the Army, has recently expressed fears that the Army may be broken by the pressures of fighting two wars and pointed to the need for society to honour the military covenant - the contract between the nation and service personnel and their families who make personal sacrifices in return for fair treatment and commensurate terms and conditions of service. Whilst the General is right to point to the need for society to better understand and support the armed forces, increasingly this sounds like an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for taking difficult decisions and putting their own house in order. Recent research for Demos suggests that tradition and hierarchy within the armed forces are preventing them from responding to new challenges in security and society.
Defence planners have been preoccupied with the acquisition of expensive, high technology military equipment, which has diverted resources away from where they are really needed in the defence structure - specifically in areas such as pay and terms and conditions of service, training, recruitment and the welfare support (including housing) of the armed forces. Senior commanders need to recognise that without service men and women who are well trained, highly motivated and willing to serve, there is no future for our armed forces - however well equipped they might be.
On behalf of the nation, our armed services are being deployed more frequently and in a larger number of theatres than ever before. This means that the MoD's own ‘harmony guidelines' are regularly breached. These guidelines aim to ensure that only 20 per cent of army personnel are on operational tours of duty with no less than 24 months between deployments. This is a key element of the MoD's duty of care to ensure an appropriate balance between the time of service personnel on deployment and time at home with families. Recent research from the King's Centre for Military Health shows that where the harmony guidelines are breached, there is an increased risk to the health of our service personnel. Despite the launch of a Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, the care offered to injured soldiers willing to lay down their life for the nation remains a national scandal. This cannot continue. There must be a copper bottom commitment to those willing to lay down their lives and this must include acceptance that the armed forces' duty of care does not end with active duty but is a commitment for life.
Service chiefs need to place the duty of care at the forefront of their priorities. They need to work out what is fundamental to the operation of the services and what is simply custom and practice, and use this knowledge as a progressive tool to shape change. The Future Army Structure is one such example, but it is only the beginning of a wider set of reforms that are needed to ensure the army is fit for purpose. General Dannatt has recognised the strength of feeling and started to respond. Other senior military commanders must now live up to the high demands placed upon them by service men and women and the expectation that, in the words of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst's motto, their senior officers should serve to lead.
Professor Anthony Forster
Dean of Social Sciences and Health
Anthony Forster is Professor and Executive Dean of Social Sciences and Health and Honorary Professor of Politics in the School of Government and International Affairs. His most recent publications are Out of Step: The Case for Change in British Armed Forces, London: Demos, 2007. (with Tim Edmunds) and Armed Forces and Societyin Europe (Palgrave, Macmillan), 2006.