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

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Missions Impossible
In Afghanistan, British troops confront unrest, devastation and chaos every day, and the vast majority do so with bravery and honor. Most of Britain's contingent is based in the southern province of Helmand. Deployed among a desperately poor population and struggling to bring stability to an area largely devoid of civil structures and institutions, the troops face an insurgency that is fluid and increasingly deadly.

But before the start of the U.S. surge last summer, morale among British forces was undermined by mounting casualties — three-quarters from improvised explosive devices — and public skepticism about the NATO mission. Operation Moshtarak, this spring's offensive led by U.S. troops, has helped buck up spirits but misgivings remain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied that the decision made at a January summit in London — to offer cash to insurgents to lay down arms — amounted to a bribe. But the idea is a hard sell to soldiers who saw colleagues killed providing security last year for presidential elections stained by fraud and intimidation. Another key task, training the Afghan army and police to take over from coalition forces — the only plausible exit strategy for the coalition — is fraught with danger from Taliban infiltration, especially among police recruits. In November, five British soldiers mentoring police training were shot dead by a member of the Afghan national police.

It's hardly surprising that some soldiers question their presence in Afghanistan. "When we went to Kosovo, we knew what we were there to do — to drive out the bully boys. I didn't know what we were supposed to be doing in Iraq," says one army sergeant who asked that his name not be used. Now in Afghanistan, he considered leaving. "But then I'd have lost my job, my friends," he says. Ferocious loyalty to their comrades and regiments sustains soldiers in the teeth of dangers and privations. "We are going into the heart of darkness," Lieut. Colonel Matt Bazeley told his troops at Camp Bastion as they prepared for the first phase of the Moshtarak push. "It is bloody dangerous out there. This is real. This is it. This is what you have been trained for."

Serve to Lead
"We all want to make a difference," says Stephanie Manning, 23, spattered with mud at the conclusion of the Welsh exercise. Manning worries that strengthening public opposition to Afghanistan may thwart her ambitions to serve there and brushes aside the risks such service would entail. "You can't have a job with such great highs without great lows as well."

The more wars Britain engages in, the greater the spike in applications to join its armed forces. (The economic slowdown has also boosted interest in military careers.) But some of those potential recruits are going to be disappointed: the army is only 570 troops short of its mandated full strength of 102,070. On March 22 the Ministry of Defence announced a "rebalancing" of the army that will see some soldiers discharged and troops with appropriate specialisms brought in to replace them.

Nobody expects overall troop numbers to be boosted any time soon. On the contrary, a January report by defense analyst Professor Malcolm Chalmers for the Royal United Services Institute predicts cuts of 20% to military personnel over the next six years. Political leaders justified the last cutback of this scale, the replacement of the British Army of the Rhine in 1994 by a standing force of less than half its size, as a "peace dividend" arising from the end of the Cold War. But with failed states on three continents giving cause for concern, the chance of a new peace dividend seems remote.

General Richard Dannatt, head of the army from 2006 to last year, says a lack of resources had left the military conducting operations "with at least part of one arm tied behind one's back." Facing brutal decisions about priorities across the services, the army, navy and air force are now turning their fire on the government and each other. Afghanistan is "not the only show in town ... We must remain prepared for surprises and strategic shocks," declared navy chief Admiral Mark Stanhope in a recent speech.

Army chief General David Richards countered with a swipe against "hugely expensive equipment" of the kind procured for navy use. The spat highlighted a fundamental problem for defense planners: nobody knows where future conflicts will erupt or what kinds of resources they will demand. Governments set the aspirations of their military according to best guesses. "We've got to think through much more carefully whether Britain should get involved in a foreign conflict, and if so, how to cope with the consequences," said David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader campaigning to win the upcoming parliamentary elections. "Britain will have to reduce the scope of its ambition," says Chalmers.

Until that happens, Sandhurst is overseeing a production line of officers who must expect to be plunged quickly into the complexities of modern missions. Captain Matt Woodward left Sandhurst in April 2002, and deployed to Iraq the following year. "On my first tour my squadron leader was 50 miles away from me," he says. "I was running a town of 40,000 on my own with a troop of 16 people. I went to Iraq with some armored vehicles and they said, 'Right, here's your town. There's a police force here that's largely ineffective, there's no law and order in the city. Make it work.'" Now a grizzled veteran of 30, Woodward is back at Sandhurst preparing cadets to encounter similar challenges in Helmand.

The dawn assault at Druid's Ridge in the Welsh mountain range known as the Brecon Beacons was the culmination of an eight-day maneuver that forced cadets to survive the claggy cold without cover and on minimal sleep. The physical exertions are complemented by intensive academic study of military history and strategy. "Where we are fundamentally different from our peer academies at West Point, Saint-Cyr and Dresden is that we are a military academy that has a significant intellectual, academic component. They are military universities that do military training," says Colonel Tim Checketts, Sandhurst's chief of staff. The academy is uniquely placed "to develop character, intellect and professional competence." He adds: "At their age [the cadets] are all wonderfully optimistic. We do give them some intensive lessons in the realities of war."

If the cadets look around, they may spot amid the splendors of Sandhurst's 1812 Old College and its New College, completed a century later, another sobering lesson in the realities of the career they have chosen. Sandhurst's iconic buildings, like the armed forces, are showing signs of wear and tear. Britain's soldiers remain a focus for national pride, and the fresh-minted officers being turned out by Sandhurst embody a grand tradition. But unless Britain's politicians find a way of reconciling the U.K.'s reflexive desire to take a leading role on the world stage with the nation's straitened circumstances, they risk letting down those brave and tough young men and women so eager to exchange the simulated battlefield for the real thing.

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