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RUSI Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture

30 November 2005, 17:45
General Sir Michael Walker delivered his last annual lecture as CDS to the Royal United Services Institute.

Like me, many of you will no doubt have been able to see the moving BBC Series ‘The Last Tommy’ that was screened recently.  In this year in which we have turned our attention to commemorating the victories at the end of World War 2 and at Trafalgar, it brought home that as well bringing about momentous strategic shifts in world affairs, war is also an intensely personal business. 

Of the 5.5 million that fought for Britain in World War One, only a few survive.  Similarly, our World War Two veterans are declining in number and most of the National Service generation are now eligible for their free bus pass.  And with fewer than 200,000 serving in today’s Armed Forces, those with an intimate experience of military operations make up only a small and diminishing fraction of the population of this country. 

But with security such a prominent feature of our lives today, those of us that lead the Armed Forces bear a special responsibility to ensure that we communicate effectively to the public, politicians and the press what we are about and the things that matter to us. 

So I am grateful to the Royal United Services Institute for providing me with a platform to set out our stall, and in this, my last annual address to the Institute in my capacity as CDS, I intend to focus on the things that matter most to me: our people, the men and women that lie at the heart of our fighting capability.  

People are also at the heart of our vision for defence.  Our fundamental purpose remains to defend the United Kingdom and its interests, to strengthen international peace and stability, and to act as a force for good in the world. 

We do this by working together to produce battle winning people and equipment that are fit for the challenge of today, ready for the tasks of tomorrow and capable of building for the future.  Our strategy matches new threats and instabilities, maintains flexible force structures and seeks to reach out into the wider world.   Realising that vision is our core business.  So how are we doing and where do our people fit in to all this?  

Our primary objective is to achieve success in the military tasks we undertake at home and abroad.  An overview of our current military tasks gives an indication of the wide-ranging nature of our operations and how much we ask of our people. 

This year the men and women of the Armed Forces have continued operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, to help ensure peace in the Balkans; they have continued to protect our overseas territories, including in the South Atlantic and met ongoing commitments, with forces based in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.  They have supported UN operations in Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cyprus, Georgia, Sudan, and Liberia; and responded to natural disasters in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, Louisiana and Pakistan. 

They have provided practical support to conflict prevention work from Indonesia to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Africa.  The have also contributed to a permanent NATO standing naval presence in the Atlantic and Mediterranean; maintained the UK's independent nuclear deterrent and continued to protect UK airspace and waters. 

Closer to home, they have continued to provide routine support to the civil authorities on search and rescue, fishery protection, bomb-disposal and counter-drugs activities; and over recent weeks, provided emergency fire fighting support to the civil authorities. 

Throughout the year about one-fifth of our regular military personnel have been deployed on operations and other military tasks at any one time.  Reserves have been fully integrated into a number of these operations and continue to play a vital role.  But it is our continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that, naturally, continue attract the public greatest attention.

Our operations in Iraq will remain a politically charged issue, but my job is to ensure that we have the right military strategy and to see the job through.  Helping the Iraqis to improve the security environment remains our top priority.  Our objective is to build Iraqi capability to deliver law and order. 

Working in concert with the Iraqi Government and allies, and synchronised with the political, economic and wider security dimensions, our aim remains to deliver a stable, united and law abiding Iraq, within its present borders, co-operating with the international community, no longer posing a threat to its neighbours or to international security, abiding by all its international obligations and providing effective, representative and inclusive government all its people.

Despite the efforts of insurgents to derail the process, we remain on track to meeting that objective.  As Rupert Smith said recently ‘we ain’t beat yet’: I would simply reinforce this by saying that, far from being beat, we are making steady incremental progress and we won’t flinch from doing our duty and seeing the job through. 

In case that sounds trite, perhaps I should elucidate.  The conditions that will permit the transfer of security responsibility to the Iraqi Security Forces will be defined by the Joint Committee to Transfer Security Responsibility and are based on four broad categories: an assessment of the insurgents’ threat level; Iraqi Security Forces’ ability to take on the security task; the capacity of provincial bodies to cope with the changed security environment; and the posture and support available from Coalition Forces.

We will not make significant changes to the UK’s force posture in any province in Iraq until we, coalition partners and, in particular, the Iraqis are confident that the conditions set out by the Iraqi led Joint Committee to transfer Security Responsibility are met.

There has been considerable debate about our strategy in Iraq, much of it well informed and balanced, some of it less so.  Let me assure you though, that if the Chiefs of Staff and I had doubted that we were on the right strategy, we would not hold back from saying so.  There is no question that we would needlessly risk the lives of the men and women that serve for a strategy that we did not support.  The loss of every Service man and women on operations is felt deeply across the country, but even more acutely by those of us with direct responsibility for those commitments.

Much of the debate has hinged around the so-called exit strategy.  Against our strategy of a conditions based handover, some commentators have called for an immediate withdrawal of multi-national forces, while others have suggested that we should set a timetable for withdrawal. 

I think there is a broad consensus, both nationally and internationally that that an immediate withdrawal would present serious dangers, not only for Iraq and the Iraqi people, but the whole region and across the world.  The risk of Iraq descending into chaos and falling prey to extremists and terrorists following a precipitate withdrawal would be ruinous. 

And I simply do not accept the argument from doomsayers who claim such an outcome is inevitable in any case, so let it come sooner rather than later.  Leaving the country in chaos would not only be a serious ignominy and dishonour the sacrifices we have made, but a premature withdrawal would, in the words of Iraq President Talabani ‘be a disaster for the Iraqi people and a victory for terrorism.’ 

Those that argue for us to set a timetable for withdrawal suggest that it would make it clear to insurgents that we had no long-term ambitions to remain in Iraq and would bolster the transitional Government.  But it remains the case that progress will depend not on reaching certain dates, but on achieving certain conditions.  This has been our experience in counter-insurgency campaigns from Malaya to Northern Ireland and from Cyprus to Kenya.  

That said, our assessment at this stage is that we could reach the conditions for transfer of responsibility to Iraqi civilian authority in a number of provinces over the next 12 months or so, which in turn would enable us to draw-down multi-national forces in those areas.  Much will depend on the Iraqi Government, and the Coalition will be supporting their efforts to establish the right conditions.

So what is the nature of the insurgency?  The first observation is that it is complex and multi-faceted and not a single monolithic threat.  The factions have widely differing motivations, from nihilists and jihadists seeking to establish ungoverned space from which to cultivate a caliphate, to ardent nationalists seeking to foment sectarian divisions and settle old scores. 
The frequency and ferocity of attacks on the population show that it is no longer, if it ever was, motivated solely by the presence of multi-national forces.   Our judgement is that the insurgency is primarily a Sunni Arab phenomenon and is not a national movement; it has a very narrow base in the country.  It continues to comprise semi- and fully autonomous groups with a variety of motivations.  Insurgent numbers are a very small fraction of Iraq’s population.  Measuring the strength of the insurgency in terms of numbers alone, however, does not provide an adequate assessment of insurgent capabilities.
The vast majority of attacks occur in 4 of the 18 provinces located in the centre of the country.  The Southern provinces in which the majority of British forces are based remain relatively peaceful, although a number of bomb attacks over recent months are a serious concern.  The emergence of new types of explosive devices in these attacks show all the hallmarks of links to Lebanese Hezbolla or Iranian elements.  We spare no effort in seeking technology, tactics, techniques and procedures to overcome this threat, but we will not hold back from bringing those responsible for these attacks to account.
So our work in Iraq remains challenging, but there are signs of real progress. Despite the insurgency, progress in the political arena has been encouraging, not least the 79 percent endorsement of the constitution last month, with a turnout of more than 60 percent. It was a greater success than most had anticipated, and it built the confidence of the Iraqi people in the ability of their own security forces to allow democracy to happen. 

There are now over 210,000 trained and equipped Iraqi Security Forces.  A few leading Iraqi units are now fully capable of conducting independent counter-insurgency operations.  It will take time to bring the capability of all the ISF up to the required level, but as Iraq prepares to elect a government under the terms of the new constitution in two weeks’ time, our priority is to ensure that those brave forces are trained to undertake all security operations in their country. That is the key to a peaceful and democratic future. 

Our emphasis now is on developing the quality of the capability rather than numbers, particularly in the key capabilities – leadership, command and control, intelligence, logistics - which will enable the Iraqis to take over control of security themselves

I once again pay tribute to our armed forces working in Iraq. I am proud of the work they do. They remain one of the most disciplined, most professional and most effective forces in the world. 

But there are others working for peace and security in Iraq, including diplomats, civil servants and contractors, many of whom face the same dangers.  British policemen in Iraq have trained almost 15,000 Iraqi police and will end up training about 25,000, and there are many unsung British heroes who are helping in other areas.  We can be proud of them all.  I also recognise that media have a vital role to play, often at considerable personal risk.  While we may not agree with all they have to say, they work with bravery and professionalism bringing independent assessments and valuable insights that have enormous influence on public opinion around the world.

[Afghanistan]  This forum will need no reminding of the depth of our commitment to Afghanistan   Since 2001 we have been at the forefront of international effort to defeat terrorism, to rebuild Afghanistan, and to free it from the grip of warlords and drug-traffickers.  We do not underestimate the size of the task confronting us, but working with international partners and the increasingly effective Afghanistan authorities, we have seen real signs of progress.

Since 2002, Britain has provided more than £37m in support of security sector reform.  In September the first parliamentary and provincial council elections for 36 years were marks of real progress, providing previously disenfranchised people with a stake in the administration of their country. And this has been backed up with substantial advances in economic growth, in healthcare, and in education.

Since 2001 there has been a 60 percent increase in the number of functioning health clinics and 2,000 schools have been built or rehabilitated.  There has also been significant progress in building up the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police Force. To date some 23,000 soldiers and 40,000 police have been recruited and trained.  But for all the progress that we are making there, much remains to be done, especially in spreading the authority of the central government throughout the country.

Operationally, our Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the North of the country, operating out of Meymaneh and Mazar-eSharif, working with a truly international and multi-agency team have made a real difference to people’s lives in the area.  Likewise, our units based in Kabul have helped provide security and supported other essential tasks to keep the international airport running.  And a detachment of GR7s operating from Kandahar have provided vital close air support to troops in contact and invaluable reconnaissance for both ISAF and Coalition forces.  The reach, flexibility and effectiveness of the GR7 in the close air support role, employing both precision guided bombing and direct fire rockets, has been an outstanding success and a major contributor to coalition success in defeating a number of insurgent attacks.

Removing the narcotics industry remains a very significant priority, contributing as it does to lawlessness and instability, not to mention the narcotics trade worldwide. We have helped to seize significant quantities of narcotics, made a number of important arrests.  The challenge now for the international community and the Afghan Government is to bring about sustainable change, including helping the opium farmers to find alternative sources of livelihood.

Our goal is the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan. We believe that the best way of achieving this is an enhanced role for NATO, operating not just in the north of the country, but expanding into the south as well, where we hope to see an ever increasing coordination and integration with the US lead coalition effort.  We want to accelerate the ability of the Afghan forces to take control of their national security, and this will be best achieved if they have a single and cohesive point of reference for security assistance. That is a desire shared by the coalition and the Afghan government.

The deployment next year of the British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Headquarters to take command of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, is part of that effort.  We are working closely with NATO partners on the detailed planning for that expansion, to which we aim to contribute a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand Province, supported by other forces, the size and shape of which will be guided by a thorough assessment of the likely tasks and threats it will face. 

[Bosnia] Developments in Afghanistan and perhaps more acutely in Iraq have tended to overshadow progress in our third major operational zone – Bosnia – where NATO handed over peacekeeping duties to an EU force last year. These past 12 months have represented a test case not just for Euro-Atlantic military relations and the Berlin-Plus arrangements, but also for the British leadership of the Force, and since July this year, presidency of the EU.

We have just passed the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord that brought together the conflicting entities in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and invited NATO's peacekeeping force into the country. It is an anniversary that deserves to be celebrated. In July a landmark agreement was signed between the two entities and the Defence Reform Commission, including the terms for a single Bosnian military force and military budget.

That development has brought Bosnia still closer to our long-term aim, whereby it qualifies to join NATO as a 'Partner for Peace'. The EU force is making a substantial contribution in that direction, providing a co-ordinated application of police, judicial, developmental and economic civil instruments to the stabilisation of Bosnia. Bit by bit, the Bosnian civil authorities are developing their ability to undertake the security role for themselves. It is demonstrating well the way in which an EU force can complement and enhance the work of a NATO force.

Our armed forces continue to play a prominent role in the Balkans. Of the 6,600-strong EU force, the British Forces have about 850 centred round Banja Luka with Multinational Task Force North West. Tackling organised crime and fuel smuggling occupies much of their time, but there is still work to be done on building solidarity between the two Bosnian entities.

[Kosovo] Stabilisation also remains the keynote for our forces in Kosovo, where we provide a highly effective force able to deploy across the whole of Kosovo as part of the NATO mission supporting the United Nations Special Representative.   But there will no doubt be considerable challenges through the status process in the coming months.

[Policy] While our current military tasks are often at the forefront of our consciousness, we must also be ready for the tasks that might arise in the future and to continue build our defence capability.   Futures analysis is a very inexact science.  The challenges of International terrorism, WMD, failed and failing states, energy shortages, climate change, infectious disease, organised crime and population movement mean that in defence we must keep our wits about us and make sure that we continue to maintain the skills and capacity in our Armed Forces as well as our access to industry, science and technology that will enable defence to respond to rapid changes in the external environment.

So it is against the threats that we have been modernising the Armed Forces along the lines I outlined last year.  We needed to be leaner, more agile and more rapidly deployable and we need to make the best of what is technologically available both in hardware and software terms to glue our capability together and allow it to produce the effects we want.   And we have to say goodbye to some of our legacy systems that are no longer effective.  

It is not just about sustaining our asymmetric advantage at the high-end of war fighting; we need capabilities to deny the terrorists and insurgents gaining an asymmetric advantage over us on the unconventional battlefield as well.  Tactics, techniques and procedures will continue to play a vital part, but we need to ensure we can leverage technology to react quickly to new threats as they emerge.

[Defence Industrial Strategy] This is why the Defence Industrial Strategy that we are finalising is so important. We are modernising the Armed Forces to make them more flexible and agile, but that flexibility and agility is dependent − among other things − on getting the best and most appropriate equipment to the front line.  We need those who design and manufacture this equipment to have a very good idea of our technical requirements as we tackle the unpredictable strategic environment that confronts us today.

During over 40 years as a soldier I have seen our military equipment develop in speed, in sophistication, in effectiveness and in accuracy. Global positioning systems and network-enabled capability have transformed the battlefield, and opened up military possibilities we would scarcely have dreamt of when I joined up. 

There are already tangible signs of positive progress: 12 Mechanised Brigade recently returned from its tour in Iraq with positive feedback on the Bowman digital radio system, after its first use on operations. And earlier this year approval was given for the Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle system that will provide the key to battlefield surveillance in future. But this greater complexity requires us to be that much better at communicating our precise needs to industry, if we are to expect kit that meets those needs. That is where the value of the forthcoming Defence Industrial Strategy lies.

The relationship between MoD and industry has grown much closer in recent years, to the point where contractors now deploy into theatres of operation, embedded in military units. This blurring of distinction is now a vital element of providing fast-moving support during high-tempo warfare. Equipment that has broken is returned to the frontline that much quicker.

I would like to see this relationship growing yet closer, with industry involved at an earlier stage of equipment planning, and developing its understanding of the challenges faced by our Servicemen and women in the field. Increasingly technological requirements in defence will draw on developments in the private sector, and jointly we will need to identify, understand, and access these new technologies, and integrate them into current and future equipment.

In fact I would go further and say that we are involved in a race against time; a race to keep the technological edge over our adversaries. Over the past year the MOD’s new Acquisition Policy Board has worked hard on speeding up the entry into service of certain key equipments, across the organisational boundaries. This has been music to my ears as Chief of the Defence Staff, knowing as I do that the morale of our people in theatre hinges on − among others things − the knowledge that they have the right equipment with which to engage the enemy.

Furthermore we need internationally-compatible equipment that raises our ability to fight alongside the armed forces of other countries, and often that will mean opening up contracts to international competition. It is essential that we source equipment for the battlefield that represents long-term value for money. If we buy something from a British supplier where an equivalent, cheaper alternative product is available abroad, – or at the same price a better one - the Armed Forces will either get less, or worse, equipment than they deserve.  Unless there are valid Defence reasons – such as retaining operational sovereignty - for taking a broader view of the relative value for money none of us should accept this. 

The Defence budget cannot be a charity for underperforming parts of UK industry.  But if UK industry rises to the challenge then we will be able to invest more resources in the network-enabled capability that will raise our effectiveness on the battlefield and they will be better placed to sell battle-proven technology to our allies.  We owe it to the men and women of the Armed Forces to ensure that defence resources are used to give them the capability they need.

[People] For it is these very people, the men and women of our Armed Forces, that remain fundamental to our military capability.  Future operations will continue to be manpower intensive and require high degrees of competence and discipline.  

Ultimately it is clear that Armed Forces will only last beyond the opening salvos of battle if they are built and run as a collective, with a sense of duty as the glue that binds together its working parts.  To achieve this we face two pressing people dilemmas. First, how do we reconcile, on the one hand, the paternalistic business of training, using and caring for our people with, on the other hand, maximising their opportunities to enjoy the fruits of a society broadly at ease with itself. Secondly, how do we empower the individual while safeguarding the pre-eminence of the collective – of which Armed Forces are textbook examples?

Over the course of the last year you will have seen and read much about the military justice system. The small number of cases to emerge from Iraq has had a very high profile.  You will understand that I am constrained in what I can say for obvious reasons, but I thought I would try and bring a different perspective to it all.  This is vital ground for us, but our troops have never been above the law and the maintenance of discipline is essential to the effectiveness of the Armed Forces.

I stress up front that the Chiefs of Staff and I are very proud of the role British Armed Forces play in the world.  They do an exceptional job in very difficult circumstances and operate to the very highest standards, as the British public rightly expect.  So it is important that allegations that our forces have failed to maintain these high standards are investigated, and charges are brought where an independent prosecutor decides that they should be.  Some facts: Over 80,000 servicemen and women have served in Iraq.  There have been 184 incidents involving the death, injury, or alleged ill treatment of Iraqi civilians by UK Service personnel, of which some 100 involved UK forces returning fire.  Only 5 cases, which have been or may come to trial, involve allegations of deliberate abuse.

It remains the case that anyone accused is innocent until proved guilty.  It is for the Courts Martial to consider the evidence in any case that is brought to trial and reach a verdict.  Only one case sent to Service Prosecutors to consider trial by court martial has been referred, exceptionally, to civilian authorities, and that with the agreement of the Army Prosecuting Authority.  And one other – Trooper Williams - never reached the Service Prosecutors at all, and the CPS decided to prosecute, later to abandon the prosecution

I acknowledge that there has been considerable disquiet about the process, much of it well intentioned and motivated by heartfelt support for our Armed Forces.  But to suggest as some have that the chain of command have stood aside and acquiesced in political interference with military justice is not only completely wrong in every respect, but does, to say the least, a great disservice to those who have served, and continue to serve with great distinction, loyalty and an enduring sense of responsibility for those they command.

It is important that our system is thorough, independent, fair and expeditious.  While we would all wish to see as swift a process as possible, complex investigations in the most testing of circumstances do take time.  Our Service Police, who, in gathering the evidence in an area like Iraq, have an immensely difficult task and carry it out with a professionalism and dedication equal to any.   We should also be clear about the position of the military prosecuting authorities.  They approach their difficult task objectively and independently, reaching their prosecutorial decisions on the basis of their assessment of the evidence.

We also recognise the need to ensure those under investigation or accused are properly looked after and provided with the necessary support and guidance before, during and after any investigation and trial.  This includes entitlement to independent legal assistance and access to the full range of welfare and wellbeing support.  We also need to ensure we communicate effectively both to our own people and to the wider public. 

I have no doubt that recent media speculation has caused concern and there is a serious risk that uninformed and unbalanced comment can raise question not only among the public, but more importantly among our people on the front line.  They have enough to cope with as it is, without the additional burden of anxiety fuelled by groundless scaremongering.

Tomorrow the Ministry of Defence will take an important step forward by publishing an Armed Forces Bill that will ensure that the British military justice system is appropriate to the Armed Forces of the 21st century. It will unify the individual systems for each of the Armed Forces into one system to reflect the increasingly joint nature of the work of the Royal Navy, Army and RAF, and the more frequent use of multi-service units. It will remedy the potentially confusing situation that exists, whereby service personnel engaged on the same task are subjected to different legal systems.

The provisions of the Bill will furthermore ensure that commanding officers continue to be responsible for discipline within their military units, an inherent function of command that is vital for morale and cohesion. Whether on operations or not, the commanding officer in particular must be able to exercise discipline quickly and effectively. 

The Bill will also ensure that we continue to fulfil our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.  Those who face disciplinary action will continue to have the freedom to choose to be dealt with by court martial; and those who agree to be dealt with by their commanding officer will retain the unqualified right to appeal to the Summary Appeal Court.  The introduction of the new Bill in no way undermines the vital role of leadership in the whole process.
 
For justice to be served, it must be timely and consistent, for we cannot afford to jeopardise the enduring excellence of our Servicemen and women. It is they who − beyond equipment − maintain the reputation of the British Forces as a force for good. 

No matter how hard we work at modernising systems and kit, it is − as it has always been − the very hearts, minds and souls of our excellent men and women that ultimately secure successful results.  As they continue to serve as force for good all over the world and in so many different ways, we should never forget the value and dedication of their brave endeavours.

That takes me back to the Tommys.  Like their gallant and stoic predecessors, today’s servicemen and women have not been found wanting and they have risen to every challenge thrown at them.   They have conducted themselves with dignity, courage and compassion in operations across the world.   I have every confidence that they will also face the challenges of the future with the same success.

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