Defense of the Realm: Britain's Armed Forces Crisis

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Eros Hoagland / Redux

Battle Politicians say troops in Afghanistan deter terror at home. But the war is unpopular

Three casualties sprawl in
 the mud, unnoticed amid a confusion of gunfire and sweet, choking smoke. "Get a move on! They're bleeding to death," shouts commanding officer Major Emily Greenwood. The assault — against a nest of "Maliban" insurgents — is a simulation in Wales, the wounds faked. But Greenwood's urgency is all too real. Within a year of completing their training this month, some 60% of these officer cadets from Britain's élite Royal Military Academy Sandhurst will deploy to Afghanistan. There, says Greenwood, "the pace of operations is so fast and there's constant enemy contact. We have to make sure they're ready."

Rebecca Marsden, a 25-year-old cadet, says there will be no problem with that: "We can't wait to go to Afghanistan." But it's not just the Taliban that Sandhurst's alumni will have to worry about. As it prepares for a general election on May 6, Britain is having to come to terms with a grim reality: its armed forces are in a state of crisis. Soldiers are profoundly battle weary. Grim statistics tell one part of the story: 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009; 280 lost to the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001. Silent crowds gather to pay respects each time casualties are repatriated to an air base on the edge of a town in southwest England called Wootton Bassett, but displays of public sympathy for the troops mask plunging support for British involvement in faraway wars.

Politicians continue to justify the adventures in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where British troop levels now stand at 9,500, in terms of national security. Britain, it is said, must take the fight to the bad guys to keep its citizens safe. Yet as the list of rickety states and terror havens has continued to expand, defense spending has failed to keep pace even as equipment costs have spiraled upward. The prospect of lean times as Britain reins in its budget deficit has pitched army, navy and air force commanders into open turf wars. Lower down the ranks, the endemic overstretch expresses itself in a stark statistic: according to Britain's Ministry of Defence, 1 in 5 troops is unfit for frontline duty, often as a result of injury or psychological damage. Officials from France and the U.K. have discussed burden-sharing, including the possibility of joint nuclear-submarine patrols, and a Feb. 3 Green Paper recommended Britain's cash-strapped military seek "greater cooperation" with the French. That didn't go down so well everywhere. "The pride of our forces has finally been surrendered with our leaders admitting we can no longer afford to go to war — without going cap in hand to our historic enemies," spluttered mass-market daily the Sun.

Britain's jingoistic press always likes to revisit the Battle of Waterloo, but such fulminations obscure the deeper significance of the Green Paper and the Strategic Defence Review it foreshadows. The SDR, expected this autumn, will be the first such exercise in 12 turbulent years. Any decisions Britain takes on the future role and capacity of its military — on exactly what the country expects of those bright-eyed Sandhurst cadets — will help determine the way Britain is perceived in the world. And that will determine the way Britons see themselves. The biggest challenge for this once great imperial power lies not on distant battlefields but at home, in reaching a long overdue accommodation between past glories and present realities, between lofty ambitions and diminished global sway. Can Britain, whose military has for many years been considered one of the best in the world, make the leap?

Who Dares Whines
"All I could make out in their language were the words Mr. Bean. They were laughing at me ... making me feel about three inches tall." That was the lament of Arthur Batchelor, a 20-year-old seaman seized in 2007 by Iranian guards in disputed territorial waters on the Iran-Iraq border and held for 12 days along with 14 other British service personnel. In a newspaper interview, Batchelor also confided that he'd "cried like a baby" during his captivity.

To understand the impact on the national psyche of this and other high-profile setbacks suffered by British forces deployed to Iraq, you must first appreciate the luster of Britain's military heritage. More than 60 years after World War II, Britons still grow up marinated in tales of their nation's wartime victories. By no means the world's most richly resourced fighting force, nor its largest, the country's military has long provided an international role model. Smart, flexible and cohesive, the services have been seasoned by working in contrasting terrains and in conflicts with a wide range of allies against myriad opponents. The guerrilla war against the U.K.'s colonial administration in post-World War II Malaysia and the stubborn conflict in Northern Ireland endowed British commanders with invaluable expertise in counterinsurgency. They learned different lessons in the Falklands, Bosnia and Sierra Leone.

Sandhurst's program of officer training, compulsory for all British army officers, is a distillation of centuries of accrued knowledge combined with a rigorous practical regime. It attracts applicants from all over the world including China and the U.S., and has stiffened the sinews of the heads of state of eight countries plus a clutch of royals, including the British princes William and Harry. "When I was in Sierra Leone meeting a 
 Kenyan battalion, it was exactly like being back at Sandhurst," says Major General Andy Salmon, former commandant general of the Royal Marines, the last British commander of British coalition forces in southeastern Iraq and now head of force readiness at NATO's Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe.

The confidence that comes with Britain's heritage helps explain the insouciance with which Brits strolled into Basra in 2003 unhelmeted while their U.S. counterparts kept a wary distance from the Iraqis they had liberated in those heady early days of the Iraq war. And at first, it did seem that Britain, very much the junior partner in terms of numbers and resources, could teach the Americans a thing or two about how to deal with the manifold challenges of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. "Great Britain's relative success in Basra is due in no small measure to the self-assurance and comfort with foreign culture derived from centuries of practicing the art of soldier diplomacy and liaison," Vietnam veteran Major General Robert Scales told the U.S. Congress in 2004. Late the following year a British officer, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, submitted a scathing critique of U.S. tactics to the U.S. army's own in-house magazine, Military Review. American "cultural insensitivity, almost certainly inadvertent, arguably amounted to institutional racism," he wrote.

In return for such wisdom, the sparsely equipped Brits called on the richer U.S. forces for material assistance. Major General Patrick Marriott, who since last September has been commandant of Sandhurst, led British troops alongside U.S. Marines during the 2003 Iraq campaign. "The Americans called us 'the borrowers,'" he says. "When we ran out of field kitchens, which we did because we were underresourced, the Americans delivered in a split second and it was magnificent. We've been underresourced in our history on numerous occasions. But within the psyche, we cope. Americans fix and we cope."

But there's something to be said for the American way. In 2008, after thinly spread British forces had effectively lost control of Basra to Shi'ite militias, the Iraqi army turned to the U.S. for support to drive out the insurgents. The British, though nominally heading up the coalition forces in the region, played a subsidiary role and, according to some reports, only found out about the operation once it was under way.

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