'Hollow army' warning: general blows raspberry at Cameron
The Prime Minister hand-picked Nick Houghton as a malleable defence chief - how wrong he was
IN HIS lecture this week at the Royal United Services Institute, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, spoke in a style almost unheard of for a modern general: he called a spade a spade, and in public.
Suggesting that the British armed forces are in danger of being "hollowed out" is heavy stuff - it's the technical military term for not having enough people to do the job. Houghton was particularly concerned about the Royal Navy.
David Cameron will be furious. He chose Nick Houghton for the job, formally interviewing all the runners.
In military circles Houghton, at the time Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, was considered a weak candidate in that he had never been the professional head of his own service, the army. He was also controversial as a former Chief of Joint Operations (2006-2009) during the initial stages of the deployment in Afghanistan - ‘amateur hour' in terms of staff work and forward planning.
The preferred candidate was the current Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, who while not as robust with ministers as some would have liked, refused to be internally on-message.
Everyone assumed that during his interview David Cameron found Houghton the easiest option. A soldier who could preside convincingly over the evacuation from Afghanistan but who could be expected to implement the Cameron-Hammond cuts without demur.
At first that seemed to be the case: only a few weeks ago Houghton aggressively slapped down a number of his erstwhile, now retired colleagues, for suggesting that the army's plans to recruit 30,000 reservists were unrealistic.
But if he was looking for the easiest option the prime minister made a mistake. Houghton's lecture was more than just an attack on the government's parsimoniousness - it was an attack on the whole direction of its defence policy.
Most commentators have taken Houghton's concerns about the Royal Navy at face value. The navy is going to be pushed to crew its aircraft carriers and submarines - the implication is that perhaps it should be allowed to recruit more men and women.
But using the word "exquisite" to describe much of the new equipment on order - including the two carriers around which the navy will gear its strategy for a generation - gives the game away.
Mess silver can be "exquisite". Army wives and girlfriends often are. John Keegan, the doyen of military historians who died in 2010, famously remarked that good-looking girls seemed disproportionately to marry soldiers. But the word "exquisite" when used by a soldier to describe equipment of any sort is strongly pejorative - doubly so, I suspect, from a Yorkshireman like Houghton who was an officer in a Yorkshire regiment, the Green Howards.
It was an obvious attack on the operational utility of the navy's two new aircraft carriers - the biggest naval ships ever in British maritime history and regarded by just about everyone, except the saltiest of sea dogs, as floating white elephants; not so much warships as make-work schemes for Gordon Brown's constituents.
Houghton's speech marks the end of an era. Traditionally, Chiefs of Defence Staff have sought to stay on side with prime ministers - much better not to win every argument but still have influence than be excluded.
That the current incumbent seems entirely happy to blow a raspberry in public at the government's defence policy just shows how exasperated the top brass has become. Few military analysts see any benefit in reconfiguring the Royal Navy into an American-style carrier group. It's madness: each carrier will require at least a dozen escorting ships and currently the navy has only 19 all told. Even then the carriers themselves will be highly vulnerable to missile attack.
But it's not just a disagreement over the direction of military policy. Many of our military leaders find David Cameron personally disagreeable. His cheese-paring approach to the military, mixed in with his extreme generosity to the overseas aid budget, and his compulsive desire for madcap military interventions abroad - has proved too much.
The wider military community in places like the United States is politically powerful. In some states the military vote can be a game-changer. Obviously, military men and women and their relatives don't vote as a bloc but here in the UK many have been traditionally sympathetic to the Conservatives. I wonder if that will be the case in 2015. ·