North Korea isn’t ‘one for us’, warns Gen­eral

Gen­eral Lord Richards says we are well short of men and equip­ment to cope with threats

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Harry Yorke

COM­BAT­ING the grow­ing threat posed by North Korea is not “some­thing for us” to deal with, the for­mer Chief of De­fence Staff has said, amid claims that Bri­tain can do “very lit­tle” in the event of war.

As the pariah state’s dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un con­tin­ues to ratchet up nu­clear tensions with the West, Gen­eral Lord Richards has said that Bri­tain’s role in any con­flict would be neg­li­gi­ble.

His com­ments fol­low days of mount­ing con­cern in the Pa­cific over the mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the North Korean regime, which fired a se­cond bal­lis­tic mis­sile over Ja­pan on Thurs­day night.

The “highly provoca­tive” tests have height­ened fears that the US and its al­lies will be forced to in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily in the re­gion. But ac­cord­ing to Lord Richards, Bri­tain’s role in any fu­ture con­flict with North Korea would be “laugh­able” be­cause its wan­ing mil­i­tary power is com­pa­ra­ble to that of a “ba­nana repub­lic”.

Speak­ing in an in­ter­view with The Sun­day Tele­graph, Lord Richards adds that with­out “sig­nif­i­cant” in­vest­ment in de­fence, Bri­tain will no longer wield the in­flu­ence it once did. “I think Kim has no in­ten­tion of pro­vok­ing a war,” he con­tin­ued. “But my worry is that he mis­cal­cu­lates, and Amer­ica is forced to in­ter­vene.

“This is not some­thing we could any longer become in­volved in. This is not one for us. For Bri­tain, with its Army of 78,000 and its Navy of 20 frigates and de­stroy­ers to have the con­ceit to think it can fight a war in the Far East is al­most laugh­able.”

His com­ments come af­ter The Tele­graph re­vealed that 13 of the Royal Navy’s 19-strong fleet are un­able to be de­ployed due to a lack of man­power, fuel and sup­plies.

Lord Richards claimed that as the Gov­ern­ment ne­go­ti­ates Bri­tain’s with­drawal from the Euro­pean Union, the Royal Navy’s in­abil­ity to wield more than “12 to 14 de­stroy­ers and frigates” does not “look good”.

“It hardly fits an im­age of a pros­per­ous Bri­tain with size­able Armed Forces that can in­flu­ence other na­tions,” he con­tin­ued. “If our am­bi­tion is to be the se­cond mil­i­tary power within Nato… then we are in a pretty sorry state.”

In one of Lon­don’s grand­est mil­i­tary clubs, its walls hung with por­traits of mus­ta­chioed gen­er­als and field mar­shals evok­ing an age when Bri­tain’s Armed Forces were per­haps the finest in the world, Gen­eral Lord Richards and I dis­cuss how well the coun­try is de­fended to­day. De­spite David Richards’s mea­sured tones, it is an un­set­tling con­ver­sa­tion.

He re­tired as Chief of the De­fence Staff, a post he had held for three years, in 2013. Be­fore that, he had been Chief of the Gen­eral Staff. Lord Richards saw plenty of ac­tion. He did three tours of North­ern Ire­land and com­manded the 4th Ar­moured Brigade in Ger­many in the Nineties. He served in East Ti­mor and Sierra Leone, where his ini­tia­tive pre­vented rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies from over­throw­ing the cap­i­tal, Free­town, in 2000. He then com­manded Nato’s rapid re­ac­tion force, and the in­ter­na­tional force in Afghanistan, be­fore be­com­ing Com­man­der-in-Chief, Land Forces. He brought a high level of prac­ti­cal sol­dier­ing to the CDS job, and it still un­der­pins his think­ing.

I ask him if the world has become more dan­ger­ous since he re­tired. “I think it’s at least as dan­ger­ous, and po­ten­tially more,” he says. “I give ad­vice on geostrat­egy to gov­ern­ments around the world, and if I were to look at Bri­tain, I’d say it’s a par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous time for a coun­try that’s steer­ing an un­known course postBrexit and has global pre­ten­sions.”

North Korea is one such dan­ger. “I think Kim [Jong-un] has no in­ten­tion of pro­vok­ing a war,” he says. “He knows it would be the end of him. My worry is that he mis­cal­cu­lates, and Amer­ica is forced to in­ter­vene. The re­sult of a mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion will, in the short term, be aw­ful. There should be a diplo­matic out­come in which Rus­sia – or, more likely, China – is the ma­jor in­flu­ence.”

And what could Bri­tain do? “Very lit­tle. This is not some­thing we could any longer become in­volved in. Even if the new air­craft car­rier were up and run­ning, why would we send it all the way over there to add a few planes to the Amer­i­can ef­fort? This is not one for us. For Bri­tain, with its Army of 78,000 and its Navy of 20 frigates and de­stroy­ers, to have the con­ceit to think it can fight a war in the Far East is al­most laugh­able. Our prac­ti­cal role should be con­fined to Nato, Africa and the Mid­dle East. We lost all other ca­pa­bil­ity not in the re­cent cuts, but in the cuts of the early Nineties, at the end of the Cold War.”

A year af­ter Lord Richards ceased be­ing CDS, he com­pared Bri­tain’s de­clin­ing ca­pa­bil­ity with that of a “ba­nana repub­lic”. Now he says: “I ex­ag­ger­ated for ef­fect. We’re cer­tainly not at the ba­nana repub­lic stage but the runes are not good. The na­tion’s ap­par­ent am­bi­tions are not go­ing to be met with­out putting sig­nif­i­cant amounts of fresh money into de­fence.

“At a time when we are leav­ing the Euro­pean Union and there’s much talk of be­ing global, and with a Navy that ef­fec­tively can­not get out more than 12 to 14 de­stroy­ers and frigates, even if you look just at the mar­itime com­po­nent of mil­i­tary power, things don’t look good. It hardly fits an im­age of a pros­per­ous Bri­tain with ac­tive, vi­brant, size­able Armed Forces that can in­flu­ence other na­tions.”

Some of the de­ci­sions that cut the Forces were taken on Lord Richards’s watch. “I do feel guilty in that I was part of a process that led to very dis­ap­point­ing out­comes,” he says. “In 2010, when I took over as CDS, the de­ci­sions on the Strate­gic De­fence and Se­cu­rity Re­view had been taken. Even David Cameron said it hadn’t been very sen­si­ble to let an­other CDS be the ma­jor in­flu­ence on this. I should have owned the process. The way I ra­tio­nalised it was that the coun­try was in a hell of a state. We agreed to a 7.8 per cent cut, but were given all sorts of prom­ises that, come 2015, things would im­prove: and I think, to be fair to David Cameron, he meant to de­liver. But there was an­other cut the fol­low­ing year, and in 2015, while there was in the­ory a one per cent in­crease in equip­ment, over­all there was a cut. So the Army to­day is far smaller than I signed up to as CGS, which I think was 94,000. My suc­ces­sor agreed to a cut to 82,000, and it’s only 78,000 to­day.”

A plan to use re­servists to bol­ster the num­bers has failed. “I’m afraid it hasn’t been able to de­liver, and never will, be­cause of real com­bat ca­pa­bil­ity. How­ever pro­fi­cient they are, a part-time sol­dier can­not be as ef­fec­tive as some­one who’s de­voted his life to it and puts on a uni­form ev­ery day.”

De­spite Kim’s in­sta­bil­ity, he thinks ex­trem­ism in all its forms, no­tably ji­hadism, is the big­gest threat. “I don’t buy the idea that Rus­sia need be the big threat ev­ery­one says it could be,” he says. “There are regimes – and North Korea is ob­vi­ously one – that could be pitched into do­ing things they per­haps don’t in­tend to. One day you can find your­selves fight­ing a war you didn’t ex­pect, and I sus­pect we are nei­ther psy­cho­log­i­cally nor phys­i­cally ready for that to hap­pen.”

I press him about Rus­sia. “I think we’ve mis­han­dled Rus­sia since the end of the Cold War. I think good diplo­macy, of which mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity is a part, and clear red lines will en­able us to have a good re­la­tion­ship. We share many things in com­mon, not least a con­cern about ex­trem­ism. Rus­sia doesn’t need to become a threat. In any case, we’re all de­pen­dent on Amer­ica for any ef­fec­tive re­sponse to Rus­sian ag­gres­sion.”

The Libyan in­ter­ven­tion also hap­pened un­der Lord Richards: he says it was prompted by Down­ing Street say­ing that “we can­not have a Sre­brenica on our watch”, re­fer­ring to the mas­sacre of Mus­lims in Bos­nia in 1995. “Bear­ing in mind we had no plan for what came next, I had the temer­ity to say: ‘This is an op­por­tu­nity to pause and ne­go­ti­ate with Gaddafi’. But it had become a regime change op­er­a­tion, and there was a view in Paris and Lon­don that we were on a roll and ought to fin­ish the job off. Ask­ing what the plan was then was an in­con­ve­nient ques­tion. You shouldn’t go to war un­less you have a good plan that you are con­fi­dent in for the day af­ter.”

He adds: “Even in 2011, Bri­tain and France could not run a war against a pretty mi­nor dic­ta­tor, be­cause of the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of a mod­ern mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion. We needed Nato, be­cause we needed Amer­ica. That should have been an­other les­son.”

Nor was Libya the only prob­lem. “Back in 2012, I gave the Gov­ern­ment a plan to deal with As­sad. There was no in­ter­est in it. We did enough to keep the war go­ing, but not enough to give our pu­ta­tive al­lies there a chance to win. I said if our Gov­ern­ment were not pre­pared to do this then it would be best to let As­sad win and win quickly, be­cause oth­er­wise we were fo­ment­ing all sorts of other prob­lems fur­ther down­stream – but that was po­lit­i­cally un­ac­cept­able. So we let it drag on. Then Rus­sia in­ter­vened and demon­strated the de­ci­sive use of the mil­i­tary in­stru­ment. And now we are tac­itly sup­port­ing As­sad, be­cause the real en­emy is Isil.”

He claims the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Le­vant was not a huge chal­lenge then. “They could have been dealt with in weeks,” he says. “Now there are five to 10 mil­lion Syr­i­ans dis­placed, their lives ru­ined, hun­dreds of thou­sands killed. Much of that could have been avoided by early de­ci­sive ac­tion. But we couldn’t con­trib­ute the sort of force we had in 1990-91, or in 2003.

“If our am­bi­tion is to be the se­cond mil­i­tary power within Nato, and to be con­spic­u­ously pro­fi­cient so that the Amer­i­cans see us as their part­ner of choice, then hav­ing a navy of 19 ships, 12 or 13 of which might be avail­able, but even some of those pre­vented from leav­ing har­bour be­cause of fi­nan­cial con­straints, is a pretty sorry state.”

He feels his own ser­vice is strug­gling. “The Army, which has made a gal­lant ef­fort to re­tain all its skills, can’t do so be­cause it can’t re­train sol­diers to the high­est de­gree. The Chal­lenger tank be­comes ob­so­lete in four years. The War­rior ve­hi­cles are Seven­ties de­signs. There’s a lot of ges­ture strat­egy – putting 200 or 300 peo­ple in some­where. We’ve got 350-500 peo­ple in Afghanistan now, but there’s a de­bate about whether we should do more, as Amer­ica now is. It’s a prime ex­am­ple of how our forces can fight ex­trem­ism. If Afghanistan col­lapsed to­mor­row, be­cause we haven’t fin­ished the job prop­erly, we’d have to start again and sort it out. We couldn’t leave Afghanistan as a mas­sive rogue state ex­port­ing ex­trem­ism around the re­gion and to us.”

He be­lieves the Army is des­per­ately short of sol­diers. “I think mass mat­ters hugely. That’s why the num­bers of ships in the Royal Navy and the num­ber of planes in the RAF are so im­por­tant, too. A ship can only be in one place at a time: and an ex­am­ple of where we are caught short through and ab­sence of ships has been the hur­ri­cane in the West Indies. It’s not just fight­ing wars, ex­trem­ism or in­sur­gen­cies in which you need mass.”

Mass, of course, costs money. “Our am­bi­tions and the re­quire­ments of the var­i­ous chal­lenges we are con­fronting can­not be matched by the ca­pa­bil­i­ties we have.” The new air­craft car­ri­ers, which he op­posed, are hav­ing a “huge dis­tort­ing ef­fect” on the rest of the de­fence bud­get. “Now we have them we have to make them work. But you make them work at the ex­pense of the rest of the Navy, the RAF and the Army.” He says we may have to re­vert to be­ing “a mar­itime na­tion with a good lit­tle Navy”, with the Army put on the back burner and used in very selec­tive ways. “If we go on as we are, we won’t even de­liver on the Gov­ern­ment’s goals for de­fence.”

He be­lieves morale is “frag­ile” now. “There’s a con­sen­sus that join­ing the Forces, whether you’re heir to the throne or the son of a dust­man, is a good thing. If the Gov­ern­ment breaks that con­sen­sus by not look­ing af­ter the peo­ple in the Armed Forces prop­erly, word will get out. It will af­fect po­ten­tial recruits and those we wish to re­tain.

“These peo­ple aren’t idiots. They know the sums don’t stack up. Re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion are very dif­fi­cult. I think there’s a ques­tion about the Gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment, not­with­stand­ing the much-vaunted mil­i­tary covenant, to peo­ple rather than equip­ment.” He is con­cerned that mar­ried quar­ters aren’t prop­erly main­tained, with no com­mit­ment to their pro­vi­sion long term. The Ma­jor gov­ern­ment sold them to the pri­vate sec­tor, and from 2021 the own­ers can charge a com­mer­cial rent. “It all cre­ates doubt and worry, and so peo­ple take the chance to leave when they might pre­vi­ously have con­tin­ued a ca­reer with the Armed Forces.”

He hopes an el­e­ment of de­fence spend­ing might soon be in­cluded in our over­seas aid con­tri­bu­tion, to pay for more “mass” – and he knows min­is­ters share his frus­tra­tion that it isn’t al­ready. “I think Gov­ern­ment must con­duct a cam­paign with those who write the rules, and if that does not work, ex­tract them­selves from the process. To not be able to in­clude mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tion to over­seas aid is ridicu­lous.”

But then, he con­cludes: “There is an ab­sence of grand strate­gic think­ing in White­hall. Where is Bri­tain try­ing to po­si­tion her­self in the world in 20 or 30 years’ time? And where is the plan to get us there?”

It sounds like a chal­lenge to Sir Michael Fallon, the De­fence Sec­re­tary, who rarely al­lows the present CDS to speak in pub­lic on such mat­ters, and only then when he has vet­ted the re­marks. Grand strat­egy, like our first-world de­fence ca­pa­bil­ity, seems al­ready a thing of the past: and Lord Richards is un­likely to be alone in ex­press­ing the con­cerns that such a vacuum in­evitably raises.

‘We’re not at the ba­nana repub­lic stage but the runes are not good’

‘There is an ab­sence of grand strate­gic think­ing in White­hall. Where is the plan?’

Far trav­elled: sol­diers from the 2nd Bat­tal­ion The Duke of Lan­caster’s Reg­i­ment re­turned in the sum­mer af­ter de­ploy­ment across three con­ti­nents

Point­less: HMS Queen El­iz­a­beth should not be sent to North Korea, says Lord Richards

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