Guernsey Press

Colin Vaudin: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’

Former soldier Colin Vaudin considers the meaning behind recent comments about a citizen army and a fear of conscription...

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This is my first article of the year, so may I first give my apologies to those who have kindly told me they have missed my regular assessments. My absence has been because, as I was told by various teachers at the Grammar School, ‘if you don’t have anything useful to add, stay silent’.

I obviously learnt that lesson and since my last article little has materially changed in either Ukraine or Gaza. That is not to say that people haven’t suffered and that the young – and it is invariably the young – haven’t died or been wounded in ever greater numbers on all sides in both conflicts. But despite that and limited disruption by Yemeni rebels to the vital sea lanes in the Red Sea, the geo-strategic and military environment is fundamentally the same.

I still predict an end to these conflicts in 2024 – once Israel achieves its objectives of the near destruction of Gaza and then withdraws, and an unhappy and probably unfair ceasefire in Ukraine that could see the Crimea and the Donbass regions permanently ceded to Russia.

The various vocal demonstrations, for and against all sides in the Israel-Gaza conflict, have had almost no impact on the strategy of the war and the reality is that the current Israeli government has no intention of accepting a two-state solution now or in any near future.

In eastern Europe and despite Western support, albeit growing more nuanced in some quarters, Ukraine may not have the troop numbers or equipment to deliver a decisive victory in the field.

So, what is the reason for me to write now? What is there that I can usefully add that might be of interest to readers? Last week the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Sir Patrick Sanders, made a speech which was reported as arguing that Britain must train a citizen army. That grabbed the headlines, but his speech was far broader and more substantive than a single sound-bite. The British Army is now just too small to act as a conventional force deterrence able to stop a war breaking out or able to fight long enough for a volunteer force to be formed in the event of a major continental conflict against a resurgent Russia. His vice chief, Lt General Dame Sharon Nesmith, made a speech at the same conference arguing the importance of armoured forces – by that she means tanks and armoured fighting vehicles – in likely future conflicts.

The risk that these two significant military figures identified is that there is a growing strategic gap between the military reality, the expectations of and desire from politicians to intervene on the world stage, and what they are actually willing to pay for. Invariably CGS’s speech triggered a series of flag-waving statements across the political divide, long on rhetoric but short on actual policies or commitments. Most concerning, I believe, is it shows a clear lack of understanding of military strategy and capabilities by almost all senior politicians. Arguing that a Type 45 Destroyer is five times as capable as its predecessor is fine but misses the point that the planes and missiles it is designed to shoot down are also more capable and numbers of ships matter – no matter how capable a single Type 45 is, it cannot be in the Atlantic and the Red Sea at the same time.

US president Roosevelt used the term ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. Speaking loudly without a credible stick is risky and an over-reliance on having a nuclear deterrent, at the expense of conventional forces, actually limits political options and the ability to credibly intervene to de-escalate a potential war.

Perhaps the lack of military understanding by political leaders isn’t surprising given so few of them, and indeed so few of the public at large, have actually served in uniform. This brings me back to the reported need for a citizen army – and should people be concerned?

With recent conflicts, most of us would probably agree that we are living in dangerous times. The nuclear Doomsday Clock is set at ‘90 seconds to midnight’, and it is reported we are now in a pre-war rather than a post-war period. War in this context means large-scale, state-on-state conflict that would include the United Kingdom rather than the limited wars over the last 40 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. These limited wars could be fought by an ever-shrinking professional army that fought despite of, rather than with, the necessary military equipment and resources. In large-scale, state-on-state wars, the professional army must deploy fast and hold the line, generating the time for a mass wave of volunteers to join up and be trained.

By way of historical comparison, think of the millions of volunteers responding to Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters in 1914. Forced conscription only followed two years later in 1916 when even the millions of volunteers were no longer enough. So, I hope I can reassure people that CGS wasn’t arguing for conscription. But he was making the key strategic observation that we are moving into a dangerous and uncertain period and reminding us of the military truism that ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’.

If we don’t want to risk a war with Russia, Putin needs to believe Nato is prepared, capable and willing to fight one. This means we need realistic military understanding in the heart of government, rather than virtue-signalling politicians. We need a professional armed forces probably twice the size they are now, and a volunteer strategic reserve to deliver a rapid expansion if it was necessary. Some readers might agree with these arguments, but would you be actually willing to serve or allow our young men and women to serve? Ask yourself how would we feel if the States resolved to establish, and pay for, a new Guernsey Militia, or do we want them to spend on other, more pressing, demands on the public purse? Would enough of our young people volunteer to serve, are they good enough, or are they too self-obsessed or ‘woke’?

These are big questions and I only know the answer to the last one. Our young people of today are superb if we give them the respect, trust and opportunities they deserve. This is true in both peace and in war. The young soldiers I served with in Iraq or Afghanistan were ordinary people doing extraordinary things and they were every bit as noble and selfless as their forefathers. It remains the privilege of my life to have commanded them on operations.

So the challenge is clear – if you want peace, prepare for war. It is our choice, and I suspect this was the key point CGS was making and while I hope and pray for peace, we cannot say we weren’t warned.