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UK could not be protected from Russia attack, retired general warns

Published 17/09/2016

General Sir Richard Barrons said armed forces capability had been withered by design
General Sir Richard Barrons said armed forces capability had been withered by design

Britain's armed forces would not be able to protect the country from a full-scale attack by Russia or another serious military power, the recently retired commander of Joint Forces Command has warned.

General Sir Richard Barrons, who left his post in April, delivered a scathing assessment of the UK military in a 10 page private memorandum to Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon.

It comes despite the Government's decision to increase defence spending by nearly £5 billion by 2020/21 and to meet Nato's target to spend 2% of GDP on defence for the rest of the decade.

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

He went on: "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."

The document, seen by the Financial Times, gives a withering judgment of the country's ability to defend itself against a full-scale military attack and singles out Russia, a country seen as more dangerous and unpredictable since its annexation of the Crimea and incursion in Ukraine.

Sir Richard said: "Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory ... there is no top-to-bottom command and control mechanism, preparation or training in place for the UK armed forces (to defend home territory) ... let alone to do so with Nato."

On Britain's ability to defend itself from aerial attack, he said: "UK air defence now consists of the (working) Type 45 (destroyers), enough ground-based air defence to protect roughly Whitehall only, and RAF fast jets.

"Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force - let alone both concurrently - could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort."

Sir Richard said the Army's recent experience does not include conducting full scale wars, which could be a disadvantage.

"The current Army has grown used to operating from safe bases in the middle of its operating area, against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale, have no protected mobility, no air defence, no substantial artillery, no electronic warfare capability, nor - especially - an air force or recourse to conventional ballistic or cruise missiles," he said.

Sir Richard also raised concerns that Britain's armed forces are dominated by small numbers of expensive equipment such as new aircraft carriers which "we cannot afford to use fully, damage or lose" and bemoaned a lack of manpower across the military.

Major General Tim Cross, who served in the Army for nearly 40 years, rejected suggestions Sir Richard's comments were a case of "sour grapes" because he was overlooked for promotion.

Maj Gen Cross said such assumptions were "unfair and wrong", and that Sir Richard was an "extremely capable operator".

"Like all commanders, and I did this myself when I handed over command of my division, what Richard has done is produce what we call a haul down report," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"A haul down report is a state of the nation, it's a final shot to say to the system - in this case the Secretary of State because Richard was a four-star general - 'this is my command, this is what it looks like, these are my concerns', and he's laid those out.

"He's speaking truth into power and it's a normal thing to be doing."

The UK National Defence Association backed Sir Richard's comments and called on the Government to increase defence spending to 3% of GDP as 2% is "not sufficient".

Chief executive Andy Smith said: "General Sir Richard Barrons was right to warn Michael Fallon earlier this year about continuing military capability gaps, especially with our air defences, which have not yet been fixed.

"I'm afraid the fact is that the recent increase in the MoD budget, brought in after last year's Strategic Defence & Security Review, was too little too late.

"A huge amount of damage was done to our armed forces by cuts made by the Labour and coalition governments, and the Conservatives urgently need to repair this damage with a significant boost to our forces."

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