This week’s main security and defence new has centred upon allegations against British troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guardian reports that Prime Minister Theresa May has told senior commanders that every effort must be made to stop British soldiers from falling victim to “abuse of the legal system” by lawyers representing Iraqis who allege they were victims of war crimes during the occupation of their country. It comes amid mounting criticism of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which was set up to investigate allegations of murder, abuse and torture by British forces. Former soldiers have claimed they have been hounded through the courts on unfounded claims and there are growing calls for IHAT to be shut down. Reports claim more than 1,200 cases of alleged abuse will be dismissed in the next three months following the collapse of a single law firm, Public Interest Lawyers, after it was stripped of legal aid funding over a failure to come clean about conflicting evidence in a case against British forces.
Against this backdrop, The Independent reports that the MoD is facing a judicial review over alleged lack of support for troops facing accusations of abuse during the Iraq War. A firm of solicitors have been instructed by a number of service personnel facing allegations of misconduct. However, The Daily Telegraph reports that in an apparent attempt to head of such action, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has announced that soldier facing investigation will have their legal fees paid by the Government.
In a linked development, The Daily Telegraph reports that British troops are facing a fresh wave of criminal investigations into alleged abuse after the MoD quietly set up a new inquiry into soldiers’ actions in Afghanistan. Figures obtained by the newspaper show that more than 550 historic allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan are now under investigation by a special police unit set up by ministers. The Afghanistan inquiry was initially staffed by 60 Royal Military Police officers but the number deployed by the MoD to the investigation has more than doubled to 124 in recent months. A new headquarters has been established to house the unit – code-named Operation Northmoor – on an airbase in Cornwall.
An MoD spokesperson said “An independent investigation is the best way to make sure that innocent personnel are not dragged through the courts without cause. Since this investigation began over two year ago, none of the op Northmoor allegations investigated have been referred to the Service Prosecution Authority.”
The issue of British troops facing prosecution for their alleged actions in Iraq and Afghanistan is now approaching a level at which it is politically intolerable for the Government – particularly given that it is clear the vast majority of claims are without foundation. It is likely that the Government will in the near future move to make such prosecutions more difficult.
Claim that Britain’s ‘withered’ forces not fit to repel all-out attack
The Financial Times reports that the recently retired head of the country’s Joint Forces Command has warned that Britain’s Armed Forces cannot defend the UK against a serious military attack and have lost much of their ability to fight conventional wars. General Sir Richard Barrons, who stepped down in April as one of the country’s four service chiefs, has said a series of “profoundly difficult” strategic challenges are being sidestepped as Whitehall focuses on “skinning” budgets and delivering costly but increasingly redundant big-ticket military projects. His 10-page, private memorandum to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon is the most forthright criticism of defence policy from the UK’s senior military leadership to have emerged publicly in years. It came just months after the last spending review handed the MoD a significant funding boost despite widespread cuts to other departments.
In the correspondence, a copy of which has been obtained by the Financial Times, Sir Richard states:
· There is no military plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict.
· A Russian air campaign would quickly overwhelm Britain
· Navy ships and RAF planes are often deployed without adequate munitions
· Small numbers of hugely expensive pieces of military equipment make the UK’s capabilities “extremely fragile”
· Manpower across all the forces is dangerously squeezed
An MoD spokesperson 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.”
General Barrons is only the latest recently retired member of the Armed Forces to outline the inadequacies of the UK’s Armed Forces. However, whilst entirely correct, his comments will be devalued by the fact that he failed to speak up whilst still an Armed Forces member.
MI6 set to recruit 1,000 extra staff
The Independent reports that the UK's Secret Intelligence Service MI6 will take on a further 1,000 staff by 2020 in response to the increasing importance of the internet and digital technology. MI6 will grow from 2,500 to just under 3,500 to provide extra security for their operations and staff. The boost to the service's staff numbers is part of a wider commitment by the Government's 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review to recruit 1,900 extra personnel to the intelligence services. The remaining 900 new personnel will be split between MI5 and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
Earlier this week, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Alex Younger, spoke of the challenge facing the MI6 in Washington DC: “The information revolution fundamentally changes our operating environment. In five years' time there will be two sorts of intelligence services – those that understand this fact and have prospered, and those that don't and haven't. And I'm determined that MI6 will be in the former category.”
Canterbury Cathedral and Lakeside to get armed police patrols
The BBC reports that armed police are to patrol routinely in Kent, in locations including Canterbury Cathedral, Dover port and the Bluewater shopping centre. The move follows recent terrorist attacks in Europe, but is not in response to specific intelligence. The armed presence is intended as a deterrent and to allow an immediate response in an emergency, police said.
The move comes amid high national threat levels and Kent Deputy Chief Constable Paul Brandon said it would enable police to react quickly if necessary. Mr Brandon, who has described the terror threat facing the county as “unprecedented”, said officers were currently being redeployed from other tasks and the number of firearms officers would be increased over the next 12 to 18 months. “There are officers at this moment going through a very stringent selection process,” he said.
Defence Select Committee report criticise campaign against Islamic State
The Times reports that the Defence Select Committee has said that Britain needs a “grand strategy” to defeat Islamic State, promoting stability and reform in the Muslim world as well as military action in Iraq and Syria. The committee said that any gains being made in the military campaign risked being undermined by a lack of progress on the political side. It warned that the Islamist group, like al-Qaeda before it, could transform into an international movement if squeezed out of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
The report said: “The UK and coalition’s strategy to counter Daesh is predominately focused on Iraq and Syria and relies on the removal of territory from Daesh in order to eliminate it. That is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy. [If] Daesh is defeated in the Middle East but then grows strong in Africa, the current strategy will require major revision.” The report concluded that the military campaign against the Islamic State was bearing fruit in Iraq, where territory had been reclaimed by Iraqi government forces working in close co-ordination with British, US and other coalition warplanes. The situation was “much less certain in Syria”, the MPs said.
Transgender soldier is first female to serve on British Army frontline
The Guardian reports that a transgender soldier in the British Army has become the first female to serve on the frontline. Guardsman Chloe Allen said she hoped to inspire others to be themselves, after speaking out about beginning the process of gender reassignment. The 24-year-old, who is in the Scots Guards, said it was a relief to talk openly about it and said her family had been accepting of her decision. Allen, who joined the Army four years ago as Ben, has now officially changed her name and started hormone therapy. “I’d love to inspire people to just come out and be themselves,” she said.
Until July, historic rules banned women from ground close combat units, but the then prime minister, David Cameron, accepted a recommendation by the head of the Army, Gen Sir Nick Carter, that women should be able to serve in frontline combat roles.