Defence Secretary Des Browne Answers Your Questions on UK Defence and Operations around the World
British Embassy, Washington D.C., 7/31/2008

Welcome to Ask the Defence Secretary, an online interactive forum that allows you to ask questions of UK government ministers visiting the United States.

During his visit to the United States, Defence Secretary Des Browne answered your questions on UK operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world as well as broader UK defense policy. Many thanks to everyone who submitted questions - Secretary Browne answered as many questions as he could in the time available.

View Q&A transcript:

Defence Secretary Des Browne says: Hello. I’m Des Browne, defence secretary for the UK Government. Thank you very much for your questions on UK operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world as well as broader UK defence policy. I’ll try and get through as many of your questions as I can in the time I have.

View Q&A transcript:

Question: How is the British Army ensuring the capabilities of the Afghan security forces who will eventually have to take charge of their own security?

Secretary Des Browne says: There are a number of ways in which the UK Armed Forces are working to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be sufficiently capable to take over security from ISAF. A comprehensive training and mentoring scheme is run by the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A) for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and many NATO nations are providing Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) to support this effort.

The UK currently provides seven such teams, which have been instrumental in increasing the proficiency of Afghan forces in Helmand, enabling them to play a lead role in key operations including the liberation of Musa Qaleh. The Army also contribute 24 RMP police trainers who are helping to mentor the Afghan National Police (ANP). The UK is also spending £48 million ($95 million) on targeted Rule of Law work in Afghanistan in 2008/2009.

Question: President Bush recently announced that the US Government will deploy more troops to Afghanistan by next year. With nearly 8,000 British troops in Afghanistan, is the UK Government planning on increasing troop numbers as well?

Secretary Des Browne says: We keep our force levels under regular review. I announced to the House of Commons last month that we will provide an additional 230 personnel by early 2009. However, although our two countries are the largest troop contributors, there are also 38 other nations involved in the ISAF, many of whom have large numbers of forces in the country. In our bilateral meetings we will continue to press for these nations to help us to meet the ISAF requirements.

Question: Do you foresee the Allied Troops in Afghanistan moving into Pakistan to fight Taliban supporters there in the future?

Secretary Des Browne says: No. The Government of Pakistan has been a strong supporter in our operations against the insurgency in Afghanistan, and their armed forces have fought bravely and taken significant casualties in their own efforts along the border. We will continue to seek the support of the Pakistani Government and endeavour to assist their efforts wherever possible.

Question: Are UK troops going to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan like they did in Aden, Bahrain, and so on?

Secretary Des Browne says: The UK, in partnership with the international community, has undertaken to support Iraq’s political and economic development and we will continue to assist the Iraqi Government and its security forces to deliver security and help build their capabilities – both military and civilian – so that they can take responsibility for the security of Iraq as a whole. 

The UK still has a clear mission to fulfil in Iraq and remains fully committed to that; we will honour our commitments and discharge our duties to the people of Iraq and to the international community. British forces will therefore remain in Iraq until we, the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners are confident that the Iraqi Security Forces can operate without our support.

Our forces are present in Afghanistan at the request of their Government and under the authority of a UN-mandate. They form part of a 40-nation NATO-led force, over 50,000 strong. The Afghan National Security Forces must reach a certain level of effectiveness before they are able to assume responsibility for the security of their country. But decisions about the departure of UK forces will be based on conditions on the ground rather than arbitrary timelines.

Question: Why do the British media (and public) not rally round the heroic UK Forces paying tremendous cost in blood and cash to make the World a better place?

Secretary Des Browne says: The British public have always held our Armed forces in the highest regard as demonstrated by the Help for Heroes campaign and the marvellous City Salute event, which was supported and attended by Princes William and Harry. Recent Homecoming parades and Freedom marches are also testament to the good will that local communities have for their servicemen and women. The media have played an integral part in raising the profile of these events and their support for and recognition of our forces is welcomed by the MOD.

Question: Why is there not a robust pride in being America’s best ally? Why are there questions being raised here as to the value of the ‘Special Relationship’ and fooling around with handing powers to Brussels instead?

Secretary Des Browne says: The historic bond between the US and the UK is as strong as ever. Our special relationship is bound by our close historical ties and unites us today by our shared values and shared threats to national security. Nowhere is this partnership more visible than in defence, where we work together daily to promote freedom and security in Iraq and, under NATO, in Afghanistan; and where we share the sacrifices made by our brave servicemen and women. 

Of course there will be those in the UK, as in the U.S., who disagree with the reasons why we support the US-led coalition in Iraq and NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, and such views do not reflect any deep-seated change in the British public’s support for the ‘special relationship’. The vast majority in the UK are proud of our position as the closest ally of the US. These operations are long-term commitments and the UK is fully prepared to stand alongside the U.S. until our tasks are complete.

Strengthening regional institutions like the EU will help to enhance, not detract from, our collective responsibility to counter terrorism and conduct reconstruction and humanitarian relief efforts. The UK and U.S. cannot do this alone. Building the capabilities of international institutions such as the EU and NATO can only strengthen the capacity of the collective transatlantic relationship.

Question: I have recently read 'The National Recognition Study of the Armed Forces' by Quentin Davies MP. The Prime Minister's forward suggests that many of the 'initiatives' go beyond what the Government or the Military can achieve alone and that it involves people from areas such as the Private Sector, Local Authorities and Voluntary Bodies. What are you doing as Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that the 'initiatives' are taken forward and what collaboration is in place to ensure Mr Davies's recommendations are acted on?

Secretary Des Browne says: You correctly identify that the National Recognition Study contains many recommendations to increase the visibility and profile of our Armed forces within British society. As a Government we recognise that our nation owes a debt of gratitude to both our regular and reserve forces who risk their lives on operations worldwide to make the United Kingdom safe and secure. 

Work on the implementation of the recommendations is being carried out across Government departments, and across the United Kingdom. My whole team of Ministers, and I personally, will remain closely involved with the Study as it matures, liaising at Ministerial level where required, to ensure it achieves its aim of encouraging a greater understanding and appreciation of our Armed Forces.

Question: What are the Ministry of Defense's plans to recruit, train and motivate our Armed Forces going forward?

Secretary Des Browne says: All three Services have active and engaging recruiting policies that spread to all sectors of the community through media campaigns, information operations and incentives such as local community partnerships. In addition to targeting potential recruits for regular service we are also doing a great deal to man our Reserve Forces; specialists – especially from the medical profession – are in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan and we have a dedicated team that liaises with civilian employers to negotiate release of skilled personnel from civilian employment for operational tours.

Training is key to our success on operations. Do not forget of course that training does not end once our service personnel are deployed on an operation; new threats, equipment and techniques mean that our Armed Forces must train continually to stay one step ahead of the enemy.

As for motivating our personnel: As professionals, our Armed Forces relish the challenge of operations and this, coupled with a belief in what they are doing, is the basis of their motivation during an operational tour. However, we are never complacent: our people are our number one asset and we aim to offer a competitive salary and favourable conditions of service. 

Our service personnel receive free medical and dental care, excellent access to education to further both military and civilian qualifications, and an unrivalled non-contributory pension scheme. In addition, they all have the opportunity to participate in a vast range of sporting activities and expeditions worldwide; the opportunities are endless. 

We recognise that we need to support their families too, and to demonstrate this we have recently injected a significant amount of funding – many billions of pounds – into a programme to improve and upgrade all categories of service living accommodation. When troops are deployed, they have access to an operational welfare package that is constantly evolving. Service personnel overseas have allowances for free telephone calls to anywhere in the world, and their families back in the UK can send them parcels at no cost. Earlier this month, I presented to Parliament a new strategy that focuses on how we support our service personnel, their families, and our veterans. This “Command Paper” is the first ever cross-Government strategy to look at this issue in detail and has the backing of the whole Government: it will deliver benefits now and into the future.

Question: What are the Ministry of Defence's plans to look after our injured or incapacitated current and former Armed Forces personnel? The UK has a shocking record of turning its backs on people who have served the realm with distinction, honor and valour only to be cast aside when they are no longer combat fit. ie: Elder Gurkha soldiers. What is your plan on changing this attitude?

Secretary Des Browne says: The UK Government is clear that proper medical support to seriously injured Service personnel is absolutely crucial and we have a medical care pathway for those injured on operations to ensure the best treatment in-theatre and at home. This begins with the skills of the Defence Medical Services (DMS) personnel who provide expert medical treatment and care to injured personnel on the front line.

In the UK, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham represents the very best in clinical excellence and its military-managed ward helps Service patients feel part of the military family whilst in hospital. The Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court will continue to be our specialist centre for rehabilitation for our Armed Forces, and we have announced extra funding of £24 million ($47.5 million) for significant ward and accommodation upgrades over the next four years. 

Unlike the US, and most other countries in the world, healthcare in the UK is free at the point of delivery. If a decision is taken to medically discharge a serviceperson then a proper transfer of care and patient history is arranged from military to civilian doctor, and the National Health Service (NHS) is the main provider of health services for veterans, who receive top-class treatment from civilian clinicians. MOD also manages every veteran’s resettlement and provides welfare support by way of case officers to assist in as smooth a transition as possible into civilian life. 

In terms of our support to Gurkhas in the UK Armed Forces, I would like to say that as of April 2007 all ranks have the same terms and conditions as their British counterparts. This followed a comprehensive review undertaken to reflect the change in immigration policy that allowed Gurkhas discharged from Nepal to settle in UK.

Question: The UK Armed Forces has had considerable success in Malaya & other former colonies in the 1950's & 1960's in counter-insurgency. We face similar (but not the same) problems today and have had some success in dealing with it. Is the Ministry of Defence drawing on all of its talent pool in looking for solutions? Should the MOD consider advice from former senior officers and NCO's so that they can explain their past experiences and their solutions and see if they can be adapted for the current day's combat operations? History does repeat itself, the lands we operate in today are the same ones from yesteryear the difference is the younger combatants and their equipment, their zeal is the same.

Secretary Des Browne says: UK MOD is in the process of producing doctrine to provide guidance to commanders and their staffs on the employment of military force to counter irregular conflict. The foundation of this activity is a thorough review of historical evidence from published sources, backed by interviews, as well as drawing upon our previous counter-insurgency doctrine and expertise. The purpose of the historical search is to determine what worked and what did not, and the reasons for it.

Recognising that each situation is unique, we are being careful not to generate template solutions. Our studies have identified a number of principles that will guide our response to these complex and demanding situations. Although rooted in history, these principles have been reviewed and tested for their enduring relevance in the modern era.

Consultation with academics from the UK, the US and others, as well as outreach to both current and former practitioners at all levels has helped us to accelerate progress as we develop our doctrine. The aim of these contacts is to determine those approaches that have worked, and those that have not in a variety of different circumstances. In addition, we are garnering feedback from those with up to date experience by ‘debriefing’ commanders and their staffs on their return from current operations. Members of the project team are also visiting operational theatres to test some of our ideas as they develop, and to keep up to date with changes as they occur.

Secretary Des Browne says: I am sorry that I have to stop here. I have very much enjoyed answering your questions. Thank you to everyone who wrote in.

Notes to editors :

1 GBP = 1.98 USD as of July 31, 2020

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