UK

UK military ill-prepared to defend an attack, says retired chief

General Sir Richard Barrons pictured in Bahrain in November 2015

The armed forces are ill-prepared to defend the UK against a serious military attack, a senior commander has warned the defence secretary.

In a memo before he retired in April as head of Joint Forces Command, Gen Sir Richard Barrons said key capabilities had been stripped out to save money.

He said Whitehall was "preserving the shop window" with items like aircraft carriers, the Financial Times reports.

Defence officials said Sir Richard had backed the last defence review.

The FT said it had obtained the 10-page private memo, which had been sent to Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon.

It followed the government's decision to raise defence spending by nearly £5bn by 2020-21 and its pledge to meet Nato's target to spend 2% of GDP on defence for the rest of the decade.

Sir Richard said: "Capability that is foundational to all major armed forces has been withered by design."

He said critical technical and logistical capabilities had been "iteratively stripped out".

"Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory," he said.  

"Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort."

'Dangerously squeezed'

The Army "has grown used to operating from safe bases in the middle of its operating area, against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale", he said.

Manpower in all three services was dangerously squeezed and Navy ships and RAF planes had become used to depending on US support, he said.

Image copyright MOD
Image caption The RAF has taken delivery of its first two 14 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters

"Key capabilities such as radars, fire control systems and missile stocks are deficient," he said.

"There is a sense that modern conflict is ordained to be only as small and as short term as we want to afford, and that is absurd...

"The failure to come to terms with this will not matter at all if we are lucky in the way the world happens to turn out, but it could matter a very great deal if even a few of the risks now at large conspire against the UK."

Sir Richard served as head of Joint Forces Command between 2013 and 2016, a role that saw him in charge of more than 20,000 military and civilian personnel across all three services.

It is not the first time a senior British military commander has spoken against defence cuts.

But BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale said other criticism had not contained so much detail or been expressed as starkly.

A defence source has questioned the motive behind the release of the memo, wondering if it was "sour grapes" as Sir Richard had been one of the candidates put forward for promotion as head of the armed forces but was turned down.

'Conventional fighting'

Major General Tim Cross, who served in the British army for 40 years, told BBC Radio 5 live that the UK was no longer prepared to fight a "conventional war".

And he said any suggestion of sour grapes on Sir Richard's behalf was "wrong and unfair", and that he was "simply highlighting a reality".

Gen Cross added that in recent years the UK has "gone through a period of what's called the wars of choice - in other words, we've decided whether we want to engage or not".

"The concern today, and it's not a new concern, it's been emerging over the last few years, is the re-emergence of Russia, of China, and the need to be capable of fighting a conventional war in the old style sense, as opposed to those in Iraq, Afghanistan and counter-terrorism.

"There's no doubt that we need to look at the issues Richard has highlighted, because the problem is the equipment for this sort of campaign is hugely expensive."

Gen Cross also told the Today programme that Sir Richard had established the "hugely important" Joint Force Command, which "looks pan-defence", examining areas such as cyber warfare, medical, logistics, information and surveillance.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Our defence review last year put in place a plan for more ships, planes and troops at readiness, alongside greater spending on cyber and special forces. That plan was backed by a rising defence budget.

"And, crucially, it was backed by all of the service chiefs, who were heavily involved putting it together."

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