RAF chief challenges army’s Afghanistan focus

By Alex Stevenson

The head of the RAF has challenged the Army’s focus on Afghanistan as debate about the future of Britain’s defence heats up.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton told the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) that reinforcing the armed forces’ “low-tech warfare” capabilities, as is required in Afghanistan at present, risked missing the bigger picture.

In one of the clearest admissions yet that the services are engaged in intense competition as the post-election strategic defence review approaches, Sir Stephen he and the Army and Navy chiefs “somewhat differ in emphasis”.

Last month chief of the general staff General Sir Richard Dalton, the head of the Army, told the IISS that Britain’s armed forces faced a historic shift in emphasis towards “irregular conflict”.

“We all know that tough choices will have to be made about our future force structure in the coming defence review, and one solution could be to go down the route of low capability, niche specialisation, optimising our force structure purely for the war we’re fighting now,” Sir Stephen said this afternoon.

“But I’ve explained the implications of this choice – we drastically reduce our options, increase risk, and commit ourselves to a future of low-tech warfare that may be neither desirable, nor politically or publicly acceptable.”

Instead he called for an armed forces which combines all capabilities, balancing the needs of the Army in Afghanistan with consideration of mid- and long-term needs.

“We need to think very carefully about whether our ‘Afghanistan’ era force structure is a model for the future,” he warned.

“Do we want – and need – to put all our eggs into this particular basket? Where would we fight a major, low-tech counter-insurgency again?

“What is inescapable is that wherever possible, we need to acquire agile and adaptable capabilities that are appropriate for what we’re doing now, but aren’t so specialist that they don’t have utility in other forms of warfare and do not limit our ability to conduct other critically important operations.”