12 Aug 15. Two extremely important and very useful days for me spent at RAF Marham in Norfolk and I return fully refreshed in terms of both knowledge and understanding of Tornado GR4 Force activities together with infrastructure plans for F-35 JSF Lightning 11, the first of which aircraft is due to arrive on base during August 2018. However, there being so many regular ‘Commentary’ readers away enjoying well-earned summer vacations I will return to both these important and exciting subjects at a later date.
The usual sequence of defence papers will restart during early September but having been the guest of 1X (B) Squadron at RAF Marham and who will shortly deploy to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, taking over the UK ‘Op Shader’ Iraq strike mission role from 12(B) Squadron, it would be very remiss of me not to say that it has been both an honour and pleasure for me to spend so much time with a group of individuals whose professionalism and dedication stands them proud.
Air power in all its various forms and particularly in the role of establishing control of the air remains the most vital aspect of national and international defence. We are very fortunate to have such highly trained and dedicated individuals and also the teams of engineers and others who provide the vital support that is needed to support the role that the Royal Air Force is required to play. It is of course to air power that we so often make the very first call for assistance in conflicts and who remain today the front line force of both UK and NATO defence. The Royal Air Force is always ready.
I have written about the regrettable delay in publication of the Chilcot Report before and I share the frustration and anger of those seeking to get to the bottom of what we did or did not know about the events and political decision making process that led to our joining US and other allied partners in the resulting 2002 Iraq conflict. Those who have long been criticising delay in issuing the report are absolutely right – it is a national disgrace. Today we see more pressure being piled on to Sir John Chilcot in the form of unambiguous threats by the families of some of those who presumably lost members of their families as a result to make a High Court legal challenge if the report is not published by the end of the year. When I last wrote on the subject I feared that the report may never see the light of day but I do think that a challenge such as this could well change the course of events from here. If, and I do not presume to have sufficient legal knowledge on the subject, that part of the problem is that the door has been opened for perhaps too many of those criticised by Chilcot in his report to challenge, answer and maybe even make a legal challenge themselves then surely the easy way out for everyone is that this opportunity should be removed by changing the law as it applies to this particular event. I am sure that if the Prime Minister, someone who has been one of many senior politicians criticising Sir John Chilcot for delay in publication of the report, was to ask a backbencher to put forward a quick ‘Bill’ that protects Chilcot and others from future legal challenge this would, when pit to the vote, receive all party backing. I will await someone to tell me why this could not possible happen!
Iraq and Syria
It is always interesting for me to observe concerns that others have over defence strategy and policy. Taking Q&A is one of the delights of speaking engagements and one question that comes up regularly at defence related events outside of SDSR 15 concerns is whether and if so, when will there be a vote in the House of Commons that seeks to allow the UK to take part in wider air strike missions against ISIL in Syria. Very soon is my answer, either just prior to the party conference season meaning between 7th and 17th September, the latter date being when the House goes into recess for four weeks to allow for the party conference season or shortly after the 12th October when the House returns for business again. Will, assuming that they do go for a vote on this, Prime Minister David Cameron win the day meaning that the Royal Air Force would expand the area of strike missions against ISIL of Syria? I hope that he and believe that he probably. Here let me repeat words used by the outgoing US Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno who retires Friday after nearly forty years in uniform who made the following observations: “ISIS” he said “had been blunted somewhat by airstrikes and both Kurdish and, to a lesser extent, Iraqi forces on the ground but I think right now that we are in a kind of stalemate”. He suggested that it was important to continue rebuilding the Iraqi military. The innuendo from this is that the US needs to put more troops on the ground in Iraq to support the 4,000 that are already assisting in Iraqi forces training.
Taking a similarly negative stance that he saw little if any possibility of reconciliation between Iraqi Sunni and Shiites he pointed a finger toward the possibility that we may yet need to consider partition of Iraq back into the three original states – Mosul, Bagdad and Basra – but not yet. For now the emphasis he said must be on fighting ISIL wherever it is in Iraq and Syria.
Defence, Diplomacy and Politics
Another question frequently aired is why when we so often appear to have a satisfactory military strategy during conflict that we often leave a conflict with no political or post conflict strategy. Often it is because it is not a decision for us to make but I do believe that it is a fair criticism to make. Conversely I would remind that insofar as any criticism may apply directly to ourselves one defence is that of the past near two dozen conflicts that UK armed forces have been involved the notice that we have had of potential engagement is weeks and days as opposed to months and years. I hope that we and our allies will learn from past mistakes also recognise, as we seemingly failed to do in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that it can take a century or more to establish democracy. Democracies are best left to evolve and they last rather longer than if someone attempts create them. Democracy is not always the right answer but as Churchill famously observed, “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
Speaking of wars and equally of Tony Blair I see that the former Prime Minister who is at the centre of the Chilcot Report has suggested that the Labour Party risks annihilation if it elects the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Using expressions such as “the party is walking over the cliff’s edge” if it elect Corbyn in an article published in the Guardian today we are now just a month away from knowing who ‘members’ of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions will elect as the next leader. Ordinarily I would not involve myself in the matter of Labour choosing a new leader but I am afraid that in terms of defence let alone the economy it does matter very much who Labour chooses. For a start Corbyn is against Trident replacement. Should he become leader it seems more than likely that the decades of combined Tory and Labour support for the nuclear deterrent would be broken. With a Conservative majority in the House of Commons does that really matter? Yes it does because there can be no guarantee that the Tories themselves will wholeheartedly support the next stage of Trident replacement programme to go through Parliament and we can be sure that the SNP and few remaining Lib Dems will oppose.
Further to the aspect of Corbyn being dangerous for defence is that he says that he would push for Britain withdrawing as a member of NATO. To the best of my recollection no serious Labour politician either left-wing, right-wing or left or right of centre has ever before suggested that Britain should not be a member of NATO. For someone to suggest that as an island race and one whose very survival depends on having adequate defence and as the sixth largest global economy to play our part in defending not only ourselves but the freedoms of others and that we should leave NATO is reprehensible in the extreme. Isolation would lead to our heading back to the dark ages.
Deep down I can hardly really believe that Corbyn really wants to be elected Labour Party leader at all. Is this a prank that has gone badly wrong I wonder? I suspect that even though it is clear that Corbyn has a head of steam running he never expected things to get this far. I might even guess that he might even like to be in a position to walk away and say gosh, I just had a dream that somehow I just became leader of the Labour Party. So be it but make no mistake, even if Labour is in opposition for the next five, ten or maybe fifteen years it can, with Corbyn at its rusty helm, still make a huge noise in terms of swaying already much damaged public opinion.
CHW (London 13th August 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785