Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Army’s new breed of officers in Iraq earn their spurs in line of fire

Operation Telic in Iraq was supposed to be about liberating a repressed people and rebuilding a nation, but it turned into a war of attrition that put the Northern Ireland experience in the shade. The impact on the British Army has been profound. Every assumption made by senior military commanders based on the prevailing intelligence and political judgment at the time was turned on its head.

As a consequence, the doctrine of warfare taught at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and at the staff colleges had to be rewritten, and the Ministry of Defence was forced to beg for funds from the Treasury to provide equipment off the shelf to cope with the unexpected and unprepared-for surge of violence in southern Iraq.

Sandhurst went from being a renowned academy that prepared young officer cadets for regimental life, big-picture wars and peacekeeping operations to a production line for almost instant deployment to Iraq once the Sovereign’s Parade was over.

Second lieutenants armed with their classroom proficiency certificates were thrust into battle training on Salisbury Plain and within months found themselves on the streets of Basra and al-Amarah, leading platoons in the face of an increasingly competent and well-armed enemy.

One moment they were dining in New College at Sandhurst with pictures of great generals around them, the next they were immersed in full-scale combat and making lifesaving decisions that few of their senior officers had faced in their careers.

Operation Telic and then Operation Herrick in Afghanistan created a generation of extraordinarily experienced young officers who have had to fight for their lives and for the lives of the men under their command. These are the generals of the future, men who have never needed to know what it was like to plan for a Soviet invasion or even how to keep the peace in Northern Ireland.

Their experience, and the combat roles of the non-commissioned officers, against the Shia militia in southern Iraq and the Taleban in Helmand province will be the marker for how the Army will be run in the future.

Already, the selection for the next Chief of the Defence Staff has been dictated by the two campaigns. General Sir David Richards, who was in charge of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan in 2006-07, is to be head of the Army in August.

Lieutenant-General Sir Nick Houghton, who was Deputy Commanding General of the Multinational Force in Iraq in 2005-06, is to be promoted to Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff in the summer. Both are front-runners for the top appointment when it becomes available in 2011.

How the British Army will evolve depends partly on the results of the reappraisal of doctrine that the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre is carrying out. The emphasis will surely be on developing the sort of high-tech weaponry and surveillance assets needed to stay one step ahead of the enemy, whether in an asymmetric war or a conventional conflict.

The experience of Operation Telic has proved that the size of the Army is too small. When he was Defence Secretary, Des Browne told The Times in December 2006 that if the tempo of operations continued for any length of time, the Army would have to increase in size.

Even though Operation Telic is now drawing to a close, and the Northern Ireland mission has been reduced to a normal garrison strength, the campaign in Afghanistan is going to tie up much of the Army for many more years. John Hutton, Mr Browne’s successor, is thought to agree that the Army is too small but he will have a battle with the Treasury if he tries to seek more money for his budget, even though recruiting extra volunteers for the Army is likely to be less challenging today because the economic recession is encouraging young people to consider a military career.

For the British troops, the counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq produced some shocking moments, such as the image of two soldiers with their combat fatigues on fire, climbing out of the turret of their burning Warriors in Basra in 2005.

There have also been some extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice, often shown by soldiers and Royal Marines in their teens and early twenties. The gallantry awards issued have revealed examples of bravery that have proved beyond argument that the new generation of infantrymen can fight with the same unselfish determination and the same unswerving commitment as their forbears.

No one can fail to remember the accounts of courage in the medal citations for Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, awarded the Victoria Cross, and the two George Cross holders, Captain (now Major) Peter Norton, and Trooper Christopher Finney who was only 18 when he won his medal.

There were, however, some serious lapses in discipline during the earlier stages of Operation Telic, none worse than the fatal beating of Baha Musa at the British detention centre in Basra in September 2003. That incident, to be the subject of an independent public inquiry by a retired judge, exposed the Army not only to uncomfortable and embarrassing headlines but also revealed a basic failure in the training of soldiers for prisoner-handling.

The blame for the death of Mr Musa lay not just with the soldiers who took part in the beating and abuse but also higher up — those who failed to underline to all units departing for service in Iraq that it was their solemn duty to protect prisoners of war and to observe the Geneva Conventions.

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