Overstretched and over there

Britain's armed forces are still formidable in battle, but undermanning and public indifference point to an institution under strain. It is too soon to declare the military covenant broken, but repair work is certainly needed
October 24, 2008
Until two years ago, when the army's senior soldier, chief of the general staff Richard Dannatt, popularised the phrase in a now famous interview in the Daily Mail, most people had never heard of the "military covenant." Considering that the military covenant does not, technically speaking, exist, this is forgivable. The legal definition of a covenant is a sealed, written contract. Yet apart from an oblique reference or two in army doctrine, the military covenant does not exist in writing, and has no basis in law. Despite this, since 2006 an important national debate about the military's role in society has coalesced around the phrase.

The covenant means different things to different people but its primary meaning is clear enough: the compact of trust, honour and respect between the government, the armed forces and the public whose interests they serve. Dannatt worries that the military covenant is "out of kilter," and argues that unless balance is restored, the armed forces could eventually "break," with potentially huge consequences for Britain, Europe and the world. This summer he renewed his attack, with a stinging comparison between the basic salary of a traffic warden (about £20,000) and a private soldier (£16,277). "I think, given the insecurity in the world today and what the armed forces of this country are being asked to do, then probably a slightly increased share of the national wealth going to defence would be appropriate," he said. He may have a point. Our military haven't had to fight on two fronts at once—southern Iraq and Helmand—for more than half a century, and they have been continuously engaged in Afghanistan for longer than the whole of the second world war.

The theme of military "overstretch" has become a media staple since the start of the Helmand campaign two and a half years ago. Meanwhile, all three services are struggling to retain their talent or to recruit replacements. Latest figures show that, with a trained strength of 173,000, the armed forces are collectively undermanned by 6,000 personnel. More than 20,000 quit last year, a modern record. Exit rates for officers have increased in each of the last five years. The air force (40,000 people) and the navy (35,000) both have major shortages, although not as significant as the army, which at 98,000 is short of 3,500 personnel: a whole brigade's worth. The only regiment that is truly up to strength is the Gurkhas.

Are things as bad as these figures suggest? Could our forces really "break"? With British troops dying on an almost weekly basis in Afghanistan—August was the deadliest month since the campaign began—the debate has become emotional, and is often distorted. Yet there is no smoke without fire. Stuart Tootal, the battle group commander during Operation Herrick 4—Britain's initial, spectacularly violent deployment to Helmand in the summer of 2006—resigned last November after attacking the ministry of defence (MoD) over poor pay for soldiers, lack of equipment, the standard of army housing and poor medical treatment afforded to his soldiers. I recently spent some months interviewing troops who took part in Herrick 4, and found that while problems were often exaggerated—the squaddie's capacity for whingeing is legendary, after all—the complaints were seldom without some justification.


article body image

In the field, the main concern was the standard of certain key pieces of equipment, which often compared badly to that of our coalition partners. This is an old British story. The situation is not quite so bad as it was during the Crimean campaign of 1854, when the commissariat department, the body responsible for supplies, sent a consignment of left and right boots in separate ships—and one of the ships sank. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that in 2006, the household cavalry in Helmand were expected to operate in Scimitar light tanks without air-conditioning. Temperatures in the high fifties were the norm inside the vehicles—and higher still in the driving seat—and heatstroke soon became a serious problem. On one occasion, a trooper's core temperature rose to 41.7 degrees Celsius; 0.3 degrees cooler than the temperature at which an egg starts to whiten in a frying pan. His life was saved by the brigade's token attachment of Estonians, one of whose six-wheeled, Russian-built "Sisu" vehicles happened to be nearby. Their machines were 20 years old, but they had air-conditioning.

Such stories were common. My personal favourite concerns Paul Hollingshead, a 24-year-old lieutenant from Merseyside, whose platoon of Gurkhas was ambushed near the small Helmand market town of Now Zad. Their only hope of salvation was to call in air support on the platoon's one radio. Having risked his life to retrieve the radio from his hastily abandoned Snatch Land Rover, Hollingshead was unable to raise a signal on it. "It was a Clansman 351, VHF only—an old one from the 1960s," he recalled. "I thought it was broken, but then we noticed this piece of white mine-tape that someone had stuck on it that said 'Dodgy, but workable.'" Still under fire, Hollingshead and a colleague spent frantic minutes stripping the radio down, thumping it like an old television set and scratching the terminals with a penknife until it was coaxed into life. "I won't ever forget the feeling of relief," he said.

The MoD usually has answers to such horror stories. Rudimentary air-conditioning has now been introduced into Scimitars. The programme to replace old radios with the new Bowman model has been accelerated. Snatch Land Rovers, bitterly criticised since 2004 for their lack of protection, are being replaced by a new generation of heavy armoured personnel carriers. Some £10bn has been spent on new kit in the last three years.

Equipment in the field isn't the whole story, however. In 2006, the media opened a new front against the MoD: Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, the main receiving hospital for injured personnel returning from overseas. Medical care for our heroes, it was said, was not as good as it should be. Soldiers placed on public wards were reportedly asked to remove their uniforms for fear of provoking civilian Muslims. The problem, it was argued, was that the country's dedicated military hospitals had almost all been closed for reasons of cost.

Outraged questions were asked in parliament, yet the Selly Oak story was almost all media hype. The injured soldiers I interviewed who had been there were unanimous in their praise for the staff. The only adjustment they asked for—which they soon got—was the establishment of military-only wards that might allow them to recover from their wounds in a more empathetic environment. It turned out, furthermore, that the country's dedicated military hospitals had been closed not for mealy mouthed financial reasons but for sound practical ones. Military hospitals tend to be busy only in time of war. They therefore struggle to retain the best doctors and surgeons, who need to keep practising if professional standards are to be maintained. Integration with the NHS in Birmingham—long acknowledged as a national centre of medical expertise—made good sense.

The government—despite the often-remarked absence of any direct military experience among cabinet members—is neither insensitive to the sacrifices of British troops, nor deaf to the concerns of the top brass. In July, the MoD published a "command paper" designed to help rebalance the military covenant. The headline-grabber among its many measures was a doubling of compensation payouts to injured servicemen, up to a new maximum lump sum of £570,000. Provided they are fulfilled, promises of assistance with mundane matters such as preferential NHS dentist treatment, or easier access to school places for service children, will help too.

The command paper was broadly welcomed by service personnel, but does it go far enough? Not according to the opposition. In March, David Cameron set up a "military covenant commission" under the chairmanship of Frederick Forsyth, the bestselling author, outspoken commentator and ex-RAF pilot. His report will be ready at the end of September, and is unlikely to pull punches. Sub-standard kit is "a particular bugbear" of Forsyth, he told me. He estimates that "crap equipment" is responsible for the deaths of between 50 and 60 servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What about pay? The MoD rebuts the accusation that recruits are underpaid. It has created an online armed forces pay calculator, in which every private can see for himself how, in reality, he can receive substantially more than the basic £16,277. Soldiers themselves point out that they never joined up to get rich. Pay is unspectacular throughout the ranks: a company major, who on operations is responsible for the lives of perhaps 100 men, is paid just £50,000. Even a brigadier receives less than £90,000. There were once fears that the army was losing too many of its most experienced soldiers to private security in Iraq, where, at that industry's peak in 2004-05, six-figure salaries were commonplace. But when a worried MoD looked into this question, they found that while a few units, notably the SAS, had indeed lost men, most of the 8,000 or so ex-British soldiers joining contractors were leaving the army anyway.

Another line of attack has proved harder to repel: the state of large parts of the military's housing stock, some of which the Commons defence select committee considers to be "disgraceful." One can imagine the effect on a young soldier's morale, forced to leave his family behind in housing that any council would condemn as unfit for habitation. Decades of underinvestment are to blame. Government sources privately acknowledge that many barracks projects launched during the Blair years were not well served by Labour's insistence on the private finance initiative funding model. With admirable lack of partisanship, Frederick Forsyth points to the "grievous mistakes" made during the Thatcher years, when £1.4bn of MoD real estate was sold off, of which just £14m was used to refurbish the retained stock.

A government adviser explained to me that housing has always been at the bottom of the priority list—"and not just politicians' lists. It's true of many regimental commanding officers too." The adviser felt that the military themselves could do more to ease the problem. "There's always a lot of perfectly serviceable accommodation standing empty… part of the trouble is that there is no outside pressure on the military to put their own budgetary house in order."

Overall, the 2007-08 defence budget stands at £33.4bn. Senior army officers and opposition politicians such as Liam Fox, the shadow defence minister, like to remind us that this represents just 2.5 per cent of GDP, the lowest proportion since the 1930s. It was 5 per cent only 25 years ago during the cold war. Yet these figures do not tell the whole story. MoD officials counter that proportion of GDP is no way to measure military spending. They point out that the armed forces are a third smaller than they were in 1990, and that British GDP has grown sharply since then. And £33.4bn is a lot of money. It is the fifth highest military budget in the world, after the US, China, India and Russia. Des Browne, the defence secretary, insists that the present budget is the result of the longest period of unbroken growth in military spending since the 1980s. His critics counter that any increases are cancelled out by defence industry inflation, which is commonly put at 7 per cent. And so on: the row about military spending is not likely to end any time soon.


Spending more on the things ordinary soldiers care about—better housing, pay and compensation, as well as better basic kit such as body armour—is sure to help morale, but it would be wrong to think that money alone can rebalance the military covenant, or indeed solve the military's recruitment and retention problem, the most meaningful indicator of the covenant's health. A career in the armed forces is far from being the prospect that it once was. Most obviously, it has become much more dangerous. A generation ago, the chances of a new recruit seeing action were slim. There was always Northern Ireland, of course, but for many soldiers who joined up in, say, the early 1980s, the most excitement they could expect was on training exercises in Germany. Iraq and Afghanistan have put paid to that. These days, action is virtually guaranteed. Every teenager's decision to join up now is a weighty one, and seems unlikely to be swayed by the promise of better access to dentists. Half a million pounds for a serious injury sounds generous, but who among us would choose to sell an arm or a leg at any price?

The experience of Lee Phillips, a 41-year-old captain in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who joined up when he was 19, sums up how dramatically his profession has changed. Before Helmand, Phillips told me, he had fired just 11 shots in anger in 22 years, all of them in Northern Ireland. In 2006, however, he was sent to help garrison Now Zad, where he fired more than that in his first hour. For Helmand, that was nothing: one of his colleagues, 20-year-old machine-gunner Dean Fisher from Nuneaton, fired more than 40,000 rounds at Now Zad. The Royal Statistical Society later calculated that British soldiers in Afghanistan were six times more likely to be killed than their colleagues in Iraq.

Make no mistake: our soldiers are still magnificent. They seem unlikely ever to "break" in the literal, tactical sense. This is still the army of Rorke's Drift. Senior officers who worried that the "iPod generation" were not up to the rigours of hardcore combat were emphatically silenced by the troops' performance during Herrick 4 and the operations that followed. Company commanders point out repeatedly that they have never been defeated by the Taliban in a straight fight. Although one or two British garrisons came perilously close to being overrun in 2006, none ever was, and the risk of such a calamity has since retreated, now that troop numbers in Helmand have almost tripled and the insurgents have abandoned frontal assaults in favour of booby traps and other asymmetrical tactics.

British troops in the field still feel, and look, invincible. In year three of the southern Afghan campaign, morale at Camp Bastion, their billion-pound Helmand headquarters, remains extraordinarily high. Magnus Linklater, the former Scotsman editor, who recently spent time with Scottish soldiers in Helmand, was amazed not just by their "phlegm," but by their physical prowess. The average squaddie is a seriously fit human being. At Bastion, Linklater reported, many men's idea of rest and recreation was to strip to the waist and pump iron in the glare of the summer sun.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. The "breakage" that Richard Dannatt worries about is seldom visible during a combat tour. Action and adventure, after all, are what most soldiers join up for. The problem, often, is what comes after. Six months after their return to barracks, eight of the 128 Fusiliers who went to Helmand on Herrick 4 had reported to the medics with symptoms of suspected post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—and the company major feared there were more to come.

The psychological consequences of engaging in state-approved homicide are notoriously hard to quantify. As one army doctor, David Baxter, explained to me, the symptoms of PTSD, which include depression, alcohol and drug abuse, flashbacks and nightmares, take an average of 13 years to appear, and there is no predicting who will suffer from them. Among the slew of articles accompanying the 25th anniversary of the Falklands campaign last June was one claiming that 300 veterans had since committed suicide: 50 more than died in the conflict itself.

Equally disturbing is a study published recently by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), which showed that one in 11 prisoners—8,500 people—are former members of the armed forces: double the proportion just five years ago. The vast majority are guilty of drink or drug-related offences. Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary, blamed the absence of any "systematic availability" of stress-related counselling for ex-servicemen at the point of discharge. The MoD insists that counselling is freely available to all veterans. But there is little doubt that ex-servicemen are not being looked after as well as they could or should be. Veterans are entitled to priority NHS treatment, but often do not receive it. A survey by the Royal British Legion showed that three quarters of them didn't know they were entitled to it.

According to Robert Marsh, a spokesman for Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare charity, the fighting in Helmand represents a "mental health timebomb" because the combat has been so intense: General David Richards famously described Herrick 4 as the most "persistent, low-level dirty fighting" undertaken by the British since the Korean war. Another factor is the type of fighting. In the phrase coined by retired general Rupert Smith, author of the influential book The Utility of Force, the army is engaged now in a "war amongst the people"—an environment bringing special psychological pressures that were absent in past conventional wars.

It does not help that the MoD's so-called "harmony guidelines"—according to which soldiers should have a 24-month interval between each six-month operational tour abroad—are now routinely ignored; a state of affairs that can only get worse if commanders get what they want and the present, 8,000-strong mission to Helmand is increased by another brigade to 12,000. According to standard army practice, for every brigade in the field, another should be in training to replace it and—in theory—a third at rest. But Britain only has eight combat brigades, including one of Royal Marines. There is no question of skimping on training for a theatre as dangerous as Helmand. The only option will be to bite ever more deeply into soldiers' period of rest.

The abandonment of the harmony guidelines is particularly tough on soldiers with families. "In the last 15 months I've seen my kids for a total of three," a Fusilier sergeant told me. All the units I spoke to had high levels of divorce. The fusilier sergeant's battalion had had six of them, and ten separations, within a year. When Ed Butler, the brigadier in charge during Herrick 4, resigned his commission earlier this year, he told the media that he was no longer prepared to be an absentee father. David Baxter, the army doctor, said that sentiment was common among the infantry. "Lots of people join the army to have a fight, but they've got that now; they've done it," he said. "They tell me, 'I'm out now. I've killed someone, and now I'm off to become a good dad.'" Even the paratroopers, among the most dedicated and professional soldiers in the army, are not immune. Several members of 3 Para, who formed the nucleus of the battle group during Herrick 4, announced their intention to quit soon after that operation, according to a sergeant major.

Simply put, Britain's armed forces are exhausted. Thanks to the Blair doctrine of interventionism, Helmand is the fifth time they have been sent to war in a decade. And there is no sign of respite in Afghanistan. The ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, says our military engagement will last for 30 years. No wonder many soldiers are thinking twice about staying in. A recent MoD survey found that 47 per cent of servicemen regularly contemplate resigning.

The battle to fill empty places is already altering the make-up of the army. As Frederick Forsyth points out, new recruits can make up numbers on paper, but they cannot replace the "thousands of years' worth of experience" represented by departing seasoned NCOs. Moreover, it has been harder to fill those empty places. Some say the recruiters' woes have been exacerbated by the recent amalgamation of local regiments into "super-regiments." This modernising move was designed to make the army more efficient, but it has inevitably weakened regimental identities. Famous Scottish regiments, such as the Black Watch, have been subsumed into the Royal Regiment of Scotland, for instance. Critics say that local recruiting traditions, where sons once almost automatically followed fathers and grandfathers into the same county regiment, have been badly affected.

What is not disputed is this: of Britain's 98,000 ground troops, 6,600 have been recruited from Commonwealth countries—up from just 300 a decade ago. The British army is not as British as it once was, a change that worries Richard Dannatt so much that last year he considered limiting the intake of Commonwealth recruits to 10 per cent of the total. This summer, nevertheless, a new recruitment drive was reportedly under way in Jamaica.


Perhaps the ethnic or national make-up of our armed forces does not matter. But it would be a great pity if operational pressures were allowed to destroy the values that traditionally underpin the British military. "The reason that politicians successively fall in love with the forces is their famous 'can-do' spirit," said one senior defence official to me. "In Whitehall, you're constantly being given a hundred reasons why you can't do something, but the military never say no to a task: they always find a way. My greatest fear is that, one day, because of overstretch, because of the military covenant being out of kilter, they will turn around and say 'we can't.'" Frederick Forsyth agrees. "How many more tasks can we ask our forces to take on? If they were needed somewhere else now, closer to home, we'd be in deep trouble. Even a piece of elastic slips eventually."

There is one other highly significant factor in the assault on the military covenant, one which the government is powerless to control: the public's ambivalence to the military. On the one hand there has been a marked increase in, for example, welcome-home parades for local troops returning from Afghanistan. There has been an upsurge of support, too, following television documentaries by the likes of Ross Kemp, the former EastEnders actor who embedded himself with the Royal Anglian Regiment for Sky TV. Prince Harry's Afghan adventure last winter also raised awareness of the Helmand campaign.

On the other hand, according to many veterans of Afghanistan, large sections of the public remain ignorant and uninterested. The most notorious example of indifference—and the one that still raises hackles in every Naafi bar—came last year when the military hospital at Headley Court, near Epsom, applied for planning permission to convert a nearby house into lodgings for visiting family members. Local residents—83 of them—objected, claiming the conversion would "adversely impact the quiet, peaceful nature" of the area, and the application was turned down. The objectors' self-interest was widely condemned, and planning permission was eventually granted, but it still grated. Headley Court's history shows how much times have changed. In the 1940s, the house and its pleasant grounds were bought for the nation entirely with donations from the public in grateful tribute to the injured pilots of the RAF.

Several explanations have been offered for this drastic change in attitude. The days when almost every Briton had some social or family connection to someone in the forces have long gone. In 1947, Britain had more than 1m men under arms, five times the number now. The end of national service converted a people's army into a professional one, which was bound to be more isolated from the society from which it was drawn. Society's values have also changed markedly since the 1940s: more liberal and pacific, and consequently less comfortable with the male, martial virtues of the past. But most of all, the reputation of the forces has been damaged by association with the unpopular war in Iraq.

Government can only do so much to rebalance Richard Dannatt's covenant. There is unlikely to be much more money. And any proposals Forsyth puts forward have to be "affordable and feasible." Since, by his calculations, the army needs "an extra £4bn to £5bn," the only option, he says, is to reallocate funds earmarked for the other services. This would mean fewer Eurofighters for the RAF, or fewer new destroyers or submarines for the navy. Such a reallocation would bring a bitter three-way fight between the services, but Forsyth, despite his RAF background, is convinced it is necessary: "For the kind of wars we're fighting now, the future is the army."