What are our Armed Forces for?
Seems a simple question. They are for fighting wars? Defending the nation? Doing what our government tell them to do?
It is of course all three... but mainly the last one. They do what our government tells them to do. After all "war is a continuation of politics by other means"... It means that our soldiers, sailors and airmen exist to put into action the policies of our government - and by virtue of our parliamentary democracy - our wishes. Basically their job is to do what we want them to do.
And of course they do it bloody well. It is not just a cliché to say that our Forces are the best in the world. They are. I have been one, so I might be biased - but I have seen, in action, in the ground in some of the worst places in the world, just what the average British soldier is capable of. They do what they are told because they live for the job they have chosen. And they love doing it. And they are good at it. Bloody good.
But time after time, over the past decades they have been undermined. They have been let down by government after government of all colours. They have been cut, cut and cut again. And each time they have shrugged, shouldered their packs, and just got on with the job that they were told to do. Defend the nation. Enforce government policy.
But now they face further cuts. Even though they are currently in the middle of a massive re-organisation that is dealing with a 20% cut to the Army, we hear that more Treasury-led cuts could threaten their numbers. Ok, fine. Cut more tanks, scrap a few more aircraft. Sell off a couple more ships. Make more men redundant. Cut their numbers, reduce their support units and mothball or retire more equipment. Reduce our capabilities again if you want.
But two policies are now fighting each other. Balance the nations books is one. Be a player on the world stage is the other. And the dissonance between these two leaves Ministers with a dilemma. Are our forces actually capable of doing what you want them to do? Do our forces, their levels, numbers, equipment and support facilities, match up with the foreign policies that drive them? Because at the end of the day, the policies of our government are the things that actually tell the troops what they should be doing, and how they go about doing them.
And if you want to be a world power, you have to have the ability to back that up. If you want to blunder from one regional conflict to another, trying to project your influence on the world stage, they the troops - the ones who actually end up being the ones who ultimately enforce that policy - need to be capable of doing it.
Sadly, we are no longer that world power. We may have once 'owned' a quarter of the world in our empire, but that has gone and we are left as a nation which wants to be a player on the world stage, and has the people capable of doing so, but facing the future of not having the capability of it.
It's time the government looked again at our Armed Forces. Not just with a view to saving money, but actually thinking about what we want them to do and if they are able to do it. The recent defence review was a sham. It didn't take a strategic view of our forces and didn't match them up with the roles we were asking of them and it didn't match up with the policies of the government. All it did was look at where savings could be made. The strategic level of actually deciding where we want to be in the world and how we want to go about that are not aligned.
We have leaders who want to be world statesmen, but they want to do it on the cheap. If they want to keep cutting our forces, they need to realise that eventually they will have weakened our forces to the point where they can't actually keep on doing what they want them to do. There comes a time when the capabilities don't match the policies. And that time is coming very soon, particularly if we keep cutting our troops and their equipment without actually understanding what it is we want them to do. Where are the battlefields of the future going to be? Who are our potential enemies? Where and how will the fighting take place?
We can cut troops again, but if we do, then we have to seriously consider retiring from the world stage, bringing our aspirations back into our own island. And facing up to the loss of esteem that our leaders will suffer. That our nation will suffer. But we can't keep asking our soldiers to continue doing what they have always done with less and less, because there will come a time when our forces on whichever battlefields of the future they are going to fight on will fail - and in the confusing, difficult and dangerous world we live in, it won't just be a loss of esteem that our leaders will have to cope with. It'll be the loss of our people's lives.
But that doesn't matter does it? The poor bloody infantry will still do the actual fighting, and because they are the best in the world, they will still get the job done. Won't they?