Owl believes we have a complex attitude in relation to our armed forces, and governments have been reluctant to use them in support of home based civil emergencies in the past. (Some trace this back to the Civil War when England first acquired a professional standing army). Other nations are not quite so squeamish, indeed the US has a quasi-military National Guard which is deployed frequently.
This article discusses the announcement to deploy troops. Certainly they can help logistically, and as Owl has pointed out, there doesn’t seem to be a clear command and control structure to deal with local responses. I.e. who makes decisions and to whom are they accountable running the gamut from operational, tactical and strategic decisions. in a geographic area run by a mix of county, and unitary local authorities with a quite separate health care system superimposed on top of it all.
So far the Police seem to be running the show.
Deploying troops to help fight coronavirus is the right move.
Mary Dejevsky @IndyVoices www.independent.co.uk
It was a low-key announcement that was rather drowned out by the decision to close all schools forthwith. But its significance was at least as great. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has doubled the number of troops on standby to help respond to the coronavirus emergency in Britain and issued a call to reservists.
There is now a 20,000-strong special “Covid Support Force” on stand-by – quite a commitment for a country whose combined armed force strength is less than 150,000.
Such a decision is surely wise. France is already using its military to airlift acutely-ill patients from areas of the country where medical facilities are stretched to others where there is still capacity. In Italy, military vehicles are transporting coffins from hospitals to crematoriums. Soldiers on patrol are in any case a regular sight at main stations and airports across Italy, as they are in Belgium and some other European countries. In Spain, the military is being deployed to patrol some cities to enforce the lockdown.
But UK governments have generally seemed reluctant to deploy the military in civilian situations, preferring to rely on the police and other emergency services. Small numbers assisted during recent floods, and in August RAF helicopters were sent to help reinforce a Derbyshire dam. The military was mobilised, too, during the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. They were not called, though, to the Grenfell Tower fire, where their expertise and equipment might have usefully supplemented that of the London Fire Brigade.
After Donald Trump ordered a hospital ship to New York City harbour to address a shortage of hospital beds because of coronavirus and there were suggestions that something similar might be tried here, the British attitude was well summed up by the comment of a military official said: “Why would you put patients on a draughty, remote ship when there are hotel rooms lying empty? … It would be better to book up the Holiday Inn next to the hospital.”
Given this background, the defence secretary’s announcement has to be a gauge of how seriously the current emergency is seen from Whitehall. But why the relative unwillingness of UK governments to call upon the military, compared with governments elsewhere in Europe and even the United States?
One reason might be the now largely folk memory of the rejoicing that greeted the end of Second World War conscription. For many, the end of conscription signified the real end of the war, and there has been almost no appetite to revive compulsory military service since – even though some countries, such as Sweden, have recently done so. The UK prides itself on having an entirely professional military, keeps the armed forces and civilians in quite separate boxes and shies away from anything that might mix the two.
Another might be a prevalent view at the top of the armed services that the job of the military is to fight wars, or at very least contribute to international peace-keeping. This attitude is encapsulated in the well-known quip by the then US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to the effect that it was no business of the 82nd Airborne to “escort kids to kindergarten”. She was talking about the aftermath of the Bosnian war at the time, but you can see her point. The training and sophisticated equipment of an elite parachute regiment officer could be seen as squandered on largely civilian operations.
In today’s UK context, these misgivings might be coupled with two further concerns. One – that the diversion of precious troops to supposedly “softer” civilian tasks could leave the already depleted armed forces unequal to their prime purpose of defending the nation. The second – less noble, perhaps – that any acceptance of an enhanced civilian role for the armed forces could undermine their claims for expensive new military hardware at a time when security policy is under review.
As of now, it not at all clear when, or even whether, the military will be deployed in response to the coronavirus crisis. According to the defence secretary, it will only be mobilised in response to formal requests from government departments. I suspect, though, that many – sensing the doom-laden uncertainty all around them – would find even a limited military presence a good deal more reassuring than alarming.
On the rare occasions when the armed forces have been deployed at home in any numbers, the response is invariably positive. People are grateful when uniformed troops show up in emergencies: they are trusted as the supreme professionals. In 2012, after G4S – the private security company contracted to staff the security checkpoints at the London Olympics, the decision was taken to have the military step in. And their contribution was hailed as a huge success. They were well-trained, efficient and down-to-earth.
So why has no real attempt has been made to replicate or capitalise on this experience, because a more visible role for the military at home could have a potentially beneficial effect on the country at large. It could help to salve a lot of wounds.
The UK’s recent involvement in failed wars has left a legacy of popular mistrust, both towards governments and the military command. From Iraq through Afghanistan to Libya, it has been hard to identify much success. There is little appetite for any new foreign intervention. In 2011, voters lobbied their MPs to prevent a new military intervention in Syria and David Cameron accepted defeat. Trainers and special forces were dispatched nonetheless.
The more realistic among the top brass have acknowledged at various times the regrettable fraying of what is known as the “armed forces covenant” – according to which those who serve in the military should be treated with fairness and respect by the civilian community. A potent symbol of how relations between the armed forces and the people had become fractured was what happened in the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett, when people flocked to pay their respects to those killed in Afghanistan as their coffins were conveyed to the church from RAF Lineham.
Between 2008 and 2011, this mournful public spectacle became a source not of pride, but of embarrassment, to the military establishment, and the route was changed. It would now appear, from the number of senior military figures decrying the imminent UK withdrawal from Afghanistan that some military leaders and politicians are still in denial about the extent of public support for their ventures.
Deploying a special military contingent to help with the coronavirus crisis could help re-establish the ties that have been lost between the armed forces and civilians in this country. The armed forces have the sort of training, experience and equipment for extreme situations – that, alas, could be sorely needed in the coming weeks.
They have already been involved in evacuations of UK citizens from as far away as Japan and Cuba. Seeing them hard at work at home could help boost not only morale (theirs and ours), but public support for the armed forces covenant and even for a (slightly) enhanced military budget.