Britain’s dystopian (and less accountable) military future

At the end of November 2021, the UK’s Ministry of Defence released Future Soldier: Transforming the British Army. The document is the culmination of a series of announcements and reforms emanating from the department during the pandemic, and critical analysis of these developments suggests they could be a recipe for a more violent and militarised future. A future in which the armed forces become less accountable and further entangled in matters for which there is no military solution.

Rangers

Future Soldier finally saw the announcement of the army’s new “Ranger Regiment”, adding to fears that hundreds of previously moderately accountable troops could be subsumed under the opaque “special forces” umbrella. Whilst there has been talk of the regiment since the release of the Government’s Command Paper in March 2021, it is Future Soldier that marks its arrival. Their categorisation as special forces would likely mean the new units are impervious to freedom of information requests and that parliamentary questions will be met with the archaic “no comment” convention that covers all special forces.

The lack of transparency is exampled in a 2018 report on secret warfare by the Oxford Research Group’s now-closed Remote Warfare Programme:

‘Currently, UKSF are the only part of the British defence and intelligence community that are not subject to parliamentary scrutiny of any kind.Read more

Day One, Week One: Veteranhood

Tom (anonymised) describes the shock of capture that accompanies the early days of military training:

‘I remember lads who were MMA fighters and rugby players, tough kids, fit enough, but they put their chit in [left training]’.

Tom was in an elite infantry unit but he recognises that the intial processes by which we are trained are experienced broadly similarly across the military. I was not in the infantry, for example, but most of my military instructors were. There may have been a difference in the length of basic training from service to service, or between reservists and regular personnel, but the methods and aims are the same, at least to the degree that it matters for our understanding. Tome joined nearly a decade after me but he describes the same breaking-down processes:

‘Things like the mental stuff, change parades [where you are forced to change uniforms again and again as punishment] and all that, they would have done that in all the units, there’s that mental aspect’.

This breaking down is accompanied by a stripping away of civilian identity:

‘They made you shave your head but it’s not like a shaved head. It is a number three, so you have that awkward length, so you all look like fucking idiots, and that was one thing that looking back on, when you all look the same, I always had a bit about me, soon as I had that number three I was like I’m fucking no one now’.… Read more

Beyond Emissions: the military and climate change

We need a vast military-style campaign to marshal the strength of the global private sector. With trillions at its disposal’. Prince Charles evoked a wartime footing when making this statement to the press in November 2021.

As COP26 enters its final stages there will be many who echo these sentiments. Many others will contest the notion that private capital can produce an answer to climate change. And some would rightly point out what Charles, who will one day become symbolic head of Britain’s armed forces, must know: militaries run on oil.  The carbon emissions that their fleets of tanks, ships and aircraft produce – and those created during production of these vast arsenals – are a key topic in the debate about our threatened climate and a talking point in Glasgow after the launch of the military emissions campaign.

Understanding how the military, and defence and security interests, have contributed to environmental degradation and soaring emissions is a vital part of addressing the increasing urgency of the climate crisis. Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) estimate that the US military produces 339 million tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), 3% of its national emissions, while closer to home the UK military accounts for 13 million tonnes of CO2e, 6% of the nation’s total.… Read more

What lies behind Parliament’s military cosplay scheme?

Over the last five to ten years it has been increasingly common to see MPs playing soldiers for the camera. Usually this kind of martial dress-up garners a few laughs on Twitter, letting MPs play the patriot for a few hours and get some good snaps for their election campaign leaflets.

The truth is less clear cut. The Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS) fits into a broader and older pattern of militarising democracy, involving not only the military, or MPs eager to be photographed riding in tanks, but some of the world’s largest arms firms.

The Scheme

The AFPS was founded in 1989 by then Conservative MP, and former TA colonel, Sir Neil Thorne. Thorne had divined a problem in Parliament: that there were fewer and fewer politicians coming into politics with military backgrounds. As a 2011 speech by Lord Astor, for which Thorne and other supporters of the scheme were present, explains:

‘Our armed forces have been a professional, volunteer force for many years while the older generations have inexorably dwindled. Public understanding of our armed forces has declined as a result. And this matters hugely. Our armed forces rely on the support they receive from the public. They look to you, as Parliamentarians, as a weather vane’.Read more

Scuppering access to justice for women in the armed forces

Over the coming weeks, the House of Lords will debate a range of new legislation put forward in the Armed Forces Bill, along with a series of amendments. It is expected that some of the additional proposals will get significant support, not least because of the recent publication of a damning report on the experience of women in the armed forces from a parliamentary Defence sub-committee.

The armed forces are not alone in having systemic problems with sexism and sexual harassment and assault, as recent events within the police have made clear beyond doubt. Rigid chains of command, tendency towards reactionary views, and use of force as a modus operandi, make entrenched institutional and individual bias, and negative behaviour towards women and other groups, particularly difficult to challenge.

One of the common features of all the institutional abuse that has come to light in recent years is the cover up that takes place to protect both the perpetrator and the institution. Within the armed forces, this stretches from cases currently making the news, such as the suicide of a female cadet at Sandhurst military academy and the killing of a Kenyan woman by British soldiers, to older cases, such as the historic (and recent) abuse in the cadet forces reported by the BBC in 2017.… Read more

Insights from the arms fair

DSEI 2021 shows that the UK military, the UK government and the arms trade are so deeply entangled that it is difficult at times to view them as separate entities. 2021 was an unusual year for the east London-based arms fair in that a few critical journalists managed to get inside. In effect, a blanket ban has operated for all but the most pliable reporters.

Matt Kennard and Phil Miller of Declassified UK and Iain Overton, of Byline Times and Action on Armed Violence, reported on what they saw inside the fair.

Overton’s report captures, among other things, an interaction between a arms supplier and a senior military officer:

‘I overheard a British arms supplier speaking to a British Army Colonel.

“I want to spend my money fast,” said the officer.

“I want to take your money fast,” said the supplier.’

Matt Kennard and Phil Miller were greeted into the arms fair by a retired British general who assured them: ‘We’ve got nothing to hide here. This is a legitimate government transactional business.’

The pair confronted defence secretary Ben Wallace on the alleged Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khassoggi. Embarrassingly for Wallace, this came as he was playing tour guide for the Saudi ambassador and a gaggle of Saudi military officers.Read more

At particular risk: women and girls in the military

The Defence sub-committee on Women in the Armed Forces last week published a damning report on the situation for women in the armed forces. They concluded that, ‘Within the military culture of the Armed Forces and the MOD, it is still a man’s world.’ (p79)

The inquiry gathered a mass of evidence from many hundreds of women, with 1 in 10 serving women making a submission – itself an indication of the severity of the difficulties they experience. However, this is not a new area of concern. Likely embarrassed by external pressure, such as from Liberty’s Soldier’s Rights campaign (and now from the Centre for Military Justice and other women who have served), the Army first conducted a Sexual Harassment survey in 2015, followed by a review into ‘inappropriate behaviours’ and how they are dealt with in the Service Complaints System, both in 2019.

It is worth quoting the conclusions of the report at length:

There is too much bullying, harassment and discrimination – including criminal behaviours like sexual assault and rape – affecting Service personnel (both male and female), and the MOD’s own statistics leave no room for doubt that female Service personnel suffer disproportionately. We were alarmed and appalled that the Army’s Sexual Harassment survey of 2018 found that 21% of servicewomen had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work in the previous 12 months.Read more

Checking in with the neocons

In the week starting 12 July 2021, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was in the United States meeting with his counterpart Lloyd Austin. The visit was dominated by a trip to the Pentagon and the signing of a one-year extension to the US-UK Statement of Intent Regarding Enhanced Cooperation on Carrier Operations and Maritime Power Projection .

But the trip also included a speech at right-wing think-tank The American Enterprise Institute (AEI): a hawkish organisation that unflinchingly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has one of the chief architects of the war, Dick Cheney, on its Board of Trustees (Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were also Senior Fellows over the years). Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defence Secretary to Donald Rumsfeld from 2001-2005, is a visiting scholar. Yet, the AEI’s entanglement with the Bush Administration does not end there. As Bush himself stated in a 2007 speech: ‘I admire the AEI a lot. After all, I have been consistently borrowing some of your best people. More than 20 AEI scholars have worked in my administration.’

High-profile hawks from that administration, including John Bolton and Richard Perle, were AEI alumni. In fact Bolton, a veteran of the Reagan administration and also National Security Advisor to Donald Trump, left the Government in 2006 to return to the AEI as a Senior Fellow, only leaving again on his return to government with Trump.… Read more

Embedding the Covenant

This week (21-25 June) the Armed Forces Bill has been back in the Commons for debate. As with the Committee stage (which we report on here), none of the proposed amendments passed and the chance to make progressive change on a range of issues was lost. These include hearing cases involving the most serious offences in civilian courts, creating an Armed Forces Federation, and reparations for those who suffered historical and ongoing injustice as a result of the ban on homosexuality in the forces until the late 1990s (see notes).

Timed to coincide with Armed Forces Week, perhaps the government’s most far-reaching aim with the 2021 Bill is to further enshrine the Armed Forces Covenant in law, a decade after it was first put on the statute books. As a formal commitment or ‘pledge’ to support the armed forces community the Covenant already represents a significant change to civil-military relations in the UK.

For the last ten years the Defence Secretary has been legally required to report to Parliament annually on progress made supporting the armed forces community, largely in the areas of housing, education and health. The government have also used the Armed Forces Community and Corporate Covenant to enlist the support of local authorities, health bodies and many others providing local services and employment.… Read more

Pinkwashing War: Pride and Militarism

June is Pride Month in the UK and whilst the pandemic has forced many parades off the streets, LGBTQI+ communities across the country are taking part in online events. Yet, amongst the celebration of diversity and rejection of the violence that LGBTQI+ communities have endured – and in many places continue to face – across Britain and beyond, the armed forces and defence industry are once again trying to use Pride as an opportunity to sanitise their own violent image. Coupled with using Pride as a prop for masquerading as progressive and inclusive, this is what our partners at the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) call pinkwashing.

Sponsorship of Pride events varies because each city has its own commission or organising committee that seeks funding from national and local sources, and thankfully defence industry sponsorship is not wide spread. But one example does stand out in 2021. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a city with a Naval base and former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer as an MP – not to mention Shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Morgan MP – Portsmouth Pride’s Gold Sponsors include defence manufacturers BAE Systems and Airbus.

It’s not the first time the defence industry or the British armed forces have used Pride to pinkwash the violence of their respective institutions and attempt to present themselves as diverse and inclusive.… Read more