Cost versus benefit – should role of the Gurkhas be widened?

(First published on C4 News website)

The manpower of the British Army is now at its lowest level for more than 200 years. At around 82,000 soldiers this is fewer than during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the Ministry of Defence hopes to retain its capabilities and its tempo of operations. That is a questionable and ambitious goal given the volatile nature of the world today.

In recent times, some 21,000 British soldiers have been cut from the order of battle: men and women from Scottish regiments, historic English regiments — some of the oldest infantry units in the army.

The strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas has remained virtually undiminished since those recent cuts. However their numbers were drastically cut in the 1990s when the army as a whole was restructured from the Cold War footing of the years before.

These men (there are no women, though this is set to change) have served the Crown for 201 years. Native (Nepalese-born) Gurkhas have won 13 Victoria Crosses and are rightly viewed as a model of loyalty; an institution within an institution. And it is another British institution — the actress Joanna Lumley — who long fought to secure rights for the Gurkhas that were commensurate with other soldiers who serve the UK. Chief amongst those rights were pension entitlements.

Ms Lumley secured her victory. In 2007 the government said that it would put Gurkhas on an equal pension footing and backdate this allowance to 1997, the point at which the Gurkhas’ home base moved to the UK. Some ex Gurkhas have complained that the equitable provision should pre-date 1997 but their claim was dismissed this September by the European Court of Human Rights.

Ms Lumley’s efforts were clearly in tune with the Great British public. But have her achievements actually weakened rather than strengthened the long-term future of the Brigade of Gurkhas as a core part of the UK’s military offering?

For while the cost of employing a Gurkha has risen, his flexibility has not.

Each man who joins the Gurkhas goes through a rigorous selection process in Nepal (paid for by the MOD). The successful candidates are then transported to the UK (paid for by the MOD) undergo military training which includes English lessons (paid for by the MOD). After five years they are entitled to what is known as long leave, six months at home in Nepal, during which time they are again supported by the MOD (though this too is set to change). Of course the MOD is not spending its own money. It is spending taxpayer cash. Our money.

So what do we get in return? Obedience and bravery, unquestionably. The fighting record of the Gurkhas is second to none. And yet in modern times soldiering has not been limited to warfare in far-flung places. And this is where the Gurkhas limitations are revealed, for what they don’t possess is utility.

The Northern Ireland conflict dragged on for 30 years yet not one Gurkha unit served on what was known as Op Banner. Nor did they turn out to help with the fire strike in 2002 that drew in 18,000 military personnel. And they were also absent from the Foot and Mouth disease front line. In fact they have not and never will help with any task that supports the UK civil power. Why? Because the memorandum of understanding with Nepal prohibits it. Simply put, if the Gurkhas were the last troops on the island when civil order broke down they would not deploy to restore it. To that end they have less flexibility than your average soldier.

What the Gurkhas do possess is the ability to recruit and recruit quickly. Having reduced the size of the military to an all-time low, by keeping the Brigade of Gurkhas the British Army can be rapidly enlarged should the need arise. But retaining these men of honour has meant that other men of honour, men from the UK, have found themselves out of a job.

I am Northern Irish. I served in an Irish regiment. That regiment was once the largest in the British Army. Now it is the smallest. There are more Gurkhas currently serving in the British Army than there are Irishmen. In total, Irish-born service personnel have won 188 VCs (of 1,355 awarded) yet that illustrious history counted for nothing as we were decimated in similar style to all those other units that have their roots in the UK.

If the Gurkhas really want equality then their usefulness should be subjected to the same objective scrutiny lavished on other regiments and corps. In the interests of fairness, surely no one — Ms Lumley included – could disagree with that?

FROM TUMBLEDOWN TO THE TALIBAN – THIRTY YEARS OF THE INFANTRYMAN

Things were different in my day“, say the old soldiers and they would be right. For while the veterans of the Falklands share the same courage and tenacity as those who have come in the thirty years since, there are a million things that would be unrecognisable to the infantrymen who shed blood, sweat and tears on Tumbledown, Goose Green and Wireless Ridge.

Yet it is what happened on those rocky outcrops in the southern Atlantic that lead to much of what has changed, not all of it for the better. Even as the UK’s armed forces – and the nation with them – celebrated the raising once more of the Union Flag over Port Stanley it was clear to many senior military figures that victory had been secured despite significant operational and technical weaknesses: hence the review which took place in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

It is true to say life would never be the same again for the ‘poor bloody infantry‘.

An early casualty of the review was the SLR, a rifle that had been in service for the best part of 35 years. The rifle was heavy, inaccurate, had no automatic capability and couldn’t utilise the NATO standard ammunition of the time. The SLR was replaced by the SA80, which, though itself was not immune to problems, is now a seriously good weapon to go into battle with.

The old DMS boots – complete with cloth ankle wraps known as putties – were also put out to pasture in an attempt to finally eradicate immersion foot (or to give it its more common name, trench foot) a miserable affliction suffered by generations of soldiers over hundreds of years.

For the infantryman it seemed as if everything was going in the right direction. The transformation of mechanised infantry to armoured infantry with the introduction of the Warrior IFV and the change from British standard equipment to NATO standard both had positive effects and by the end of the 1980s the tri-services were regarded as amongst the best in the world, a product of their military successes and increasingly good equipment.

But as the last decade of the 20th Century opened soldiers started to suffer a crisis of confidence. No longer was their mission simply to ‘close with and kill the enemy‘. ‘Our boys‘ were increasingly being parachuted into volatile and complicated intra-national conflicts, not to wage war but to keep the peace. Despite valiant efforts from all concerned it was often a sure-fire way of generating confusion, engendering frustration and fostering a sense of impotence. Across the Balkans there was more than one British soldier who felt guilt in the face of ethnic atrocities, not because of what they had done to help, but what they weren’t allowed to do.

Yet for your average serviceman there would be little time to dwell on these perceived failings. Early in the new millennium everything changed again with the attack on the Twin Towers. The War on Terror quickly followed and if things weren’t busy enough, in 2003 we decided to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

What defined these conflicts as much as anything was the scrutiny they received amongst the general public? Armchair generals came into their own. Sitting back in their seats they were bombarded with a fusillade of rolling news, comment and uncensored footage appearing on outlets such as Live Leak. The military struggled to stem the flow with seemingly as much time being spent on the media plan as the battle plan. One consequence of the unrelenting spotlight and the horrors it too often portrayed was a growing sense of risk aversion amongst the political class. Soldiers have always known that in war ‘shit happens‘, only now that shit is on view to one and all and not everyone is comfortable with what they see.

One of the other things the unblinking eye of the camera also picked up was the sheer number of skills your ‘ordinary‘ soldier now needed to function adequately in the face of the enemy.

More than cannon fodder, troops might better be described as technicians, familiar as they are with 6 to 8 weapons systems and numerous types of signals equipment including satellite communications. They are also trained to near-paramedic standard in field medicine and can drive various complicated vehicles. On top of that they need to be master tacticians, great diplomats and able to display excellent cultural sensitivity, not just to the population of the nation they are campaigning in, but also to the cohorts of international forces they will invariably now be fighting alongside.

They do all of this encumbered by body armour akin to the protection a knight of the fifteen hundreds might wear. Sacrificing mobility as a method of force protection with cumbersome equipment, which was far easier for politicians to explain to a nervous public.

Yet for all the advances over the past three decades there are some things which would be depressingly familiar to the infantryman of the 1980s, most of them welfare related.

In some cases, rather than mark time, things have taken a step backward. The introduction of Pay as You Dine a simple example. If nothing else the Falklands veteran could be sure of getting three square meals a day, essential for the rigorous travails regularly endured. In 2012 there is many a young soldier who is foregoing meals either because they have failed to budget correctly and have no cash, or else consciously decide to spend their earnings on things other than sustenance. It could easily be argued that soldiers have no more right to a free lunch than anyone else yet if we expect our soldiers risk their lives at the whim of politicians the least wean do is ensure they are adequately prepared for the hardships and dangers they must face.

Throw in sub-standard accommodation, an issue the MOD are making massive efforts to address, and it is easy to see why some men actually relish the prospect of going on operation because they know that the housing and the grub will both be as least as good as back home and more importantly it will free. On top of this an extra ‘battle bounty’ or ‘operational allowance’ allows him to save for things he couldn’t normally afford.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our men to fight: through financial inducements? When I joined the army, one month before the start of the Falklands War, I knew my pay would be poor, conditions harsh and I might die cold and lonely in a country I knew little about.  But in the good old days it was all about the moral component, a reason to fight, a country and people worth fighting for. Today it seems money is the motivation. And that is something no one who served in the Falklands would regard as progress.

%d bloggers like this: