BBC NewsAndrew Marr Show


Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Sunday, 9 November 2008

'British armed forces are stretched'

On Sunday 9 November 2008, Andrew Marr interviewed Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup - Chief of the Defence Staff

Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup - Chief of the Defence Staff

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Even if the situations demands it, Sir Jock Stirrup says Britain can't just move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. .

ANDREW MARR: Now in ceremonies all over Britain today, those who have survived wars in the last 90 years will be remembering and honouring those who did not.

This Sunday, the day nearest to the 11th November, is chosen to mark the end of the First World War.

Although it was dubbed "the war to end all wars", there have been countless conflicts since and right now British soldiers are fighting and dying day after day in Afghanistan. A Gurkha soldier was killed there last week.

Sir Jock Stirrup is Head of the Armed Forces and will be at the Cenotaph in Whitehall for the ceremony of remembrance this morning.

He came into the studio a little earlier and we talked about civilian attitudes towards the military.

Many people opposed the war in Iraq, but I asked Sir Jock if he thought the general public got the war in Afghanistan better.

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: I think they get Iraq better as well today. I think they get both better. I think we have done a better job of explaining it. We haven't done all that we need to do. There are still people who need to be convinced, but I think that we're seeing a shift.

ANDREW MARR: So what would you say? I mean one newspaper this morning simply asks why we're in Afghanistan. What are we fighting for?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: We're fighting for our own national interest. There is a very large ungoverned space that straddles the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It exists in both countries. But that ungoverned space, like ungoverned spaces everywhere, is a breeding ground and a harbour for violence and criminality. In this case, Islamic extremism, which exports global terrorism and an intensive narcotics industry.

ANDREW MARR: Now there's been a lot of talk about whether or not British troops will move from Iraq when we draw, when we leave there straight to Afghanistan, and the army view, the Armed Force's view for quite a while has been that's not going to happen. But now we have a new American President, clearly going to be putting the pressure on for a bigger British involvement in Afghanistan, is that up for renegotiation?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well our top priority is to deliver success - military success in both theatres. But, equally, I have said for a very long time that the British Armed Forces are stretched. We're doing more than we are structurally resourced to do in the long-term. We can do it for a short period, but we can't continue doing it ad infinitum, so we also have to get ourselves back into balance. It's crucial that we reduce the operational tempo for our Armed Forces. So it cannot be, even if the situation demanded it, it cannot be just a one for one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan. We have to reduce that tempo.

ANDREW MARR: So if No. 10 called you and said, "We'd like to move another 3,000 troops over to Afghanistan and by the way we'd like some people in the Congo too", your answer would be pretty stiff?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well I, I don't believe that's the way it would happen, first of all, because the Government takes the advice of its Armed Forces...


SIR JOCK STIRRUP: ...with regard to what is needy on the ground militarily. But we always have to balance the needs within theatre with what we can actually provide. We have to remember that in these campaigns, in Afghanistan in particular, we're in a marathon; not a sprint. We need to be there at the finish line. We don't need to be dropping out halfway.

ANDREW MARR: And in terms of the Iraq time, the Americans are saying everyone out in 16 months time. We will be out by then at least?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well as I made clear, as the Defence Secretary's made clear, we expect to see a fundamental change in our mission in Iraq during the course of next year. What we're looking to do is to move towards a bilateral relationship with the Iraqi military, such as we have with other militaries throughout the region.

ANDREW MARR: Earlier rather than later, or..?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well I wouldn't want to put a firm timescale on it because we have many negotiations to do, not least with the Iraqis themselves.

ANDREW MARR: Right. It's just that I think ministers have been talking about the spring, hoping to do it in the spring of course and these things are always open, but...

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well we all have hopes, but I am optimistic that over the course of next year we will see this fundamental change and that will mean a significant reduction in the number of our people on the ground.

ANDREW MARR: Turning to Afghanistan, people have said this is the fiercest fighting that British soldiers have been engaged in since the Second World War. Is this something that is militarily winnable?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Winning and losing are not the sort of terms one should use in Afghanistan. This is not primarily a military conflict despite the fact that, you're quite right, it involves some extremely intense fighting and of course it involves some tragic losses for the Armed Forces in that fighting. But this is about the country. This is about developing governance, this is about politics in Afghanistan. That's where we will see strategic success. The military is essential, but the military by itself cannot deliver that strategic success. What it can do is to create the space within which political solutions can be developed.

ANDREW MARR: There's been talk in Washington about taking the so-called "surge strategy" from Baghdad and applying it to Afghanistan. Are you a little nervous about that kind of talk given the difference of the terrain?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well I think that I'm a little nervous when people use the word 'surge' as if this were some panacea. What we're quite clear about is that we need more military force in Afghanistan. There's no secret there. The NATO Combined Joint Statement of Requirement has still yet to be fully met, so we welcome more military forces being sent to Afghanistan.

ANDREW MARR: But these should be primarily from other NATO countries, other European countries, not from Britain?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well I think everybody needs to do their share. We're very clear on that. We're the second largest troop contributing nation. We have around 8,000 people there. And, as I said, in the context of what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're shouldering a burden which is more than we're able to shoulder in the long-term, so we expect to see others to take up their share of that burden.

ANDREW MARR: Now, as you know, there's been a huge amount of criticism of some of the equipment of the soldiers out there, particularly these so-called Snatch land rovers. There's a story today saying... They say pen-pushers, but civil servants, bureaucrats are not allowed to travel in these relatively unprotected vehicles in which I think 36 British soldiers have died so far.

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well, first of all, the rules for civilians, for civil servants in these operational theatres are different from those for military and that's obviously right. I mean the military are there to do things that are more dangerous than we would expect civilians to do.

ANDREW MARR: They're described as "mobile coffins" by the soldiers.

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well I understand the reason people use these emotive terms and I worry all the time about all of our equipment, about all of our vehicles, and I worry particularly about Snatch and where and how it's being used. But I keep a very close eye on this. I speak to the commanders all the time and they tell me unequivocally that they need a vehicle that has the size and the manoeuvrability of Snatch in order to be able to conduct their mission. Now we want a vehicle like that that has better protection than Snatch and that's exactly what we've been developing.

ANDREW MARR: But not until 2010. Another two years of these things.

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: No, no, we have vehicles in theatre now that have better protection than Snatch and they are being used. But of course they're not all arriving at once.

ANDREW MARR: One SAS man who's resigned has spoken in extremely strong terms about what's been done.

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well I am never going to second guess decisions of people on the ground and commanders in the field, but I talk to commanders all down the chain and they are very clear that they need to use Snatch and vehicles of Snatch-like size and manoeuvrability in order to be able to conduct their mission. Our task is to make sure that they have vehicles of that size and that manoeuvrability with as much protection as practically can be put on them.

ANDREW MARR: There is a wider issue here obviously, isn't there, because there's been criticism of winches, lack of aircraft, proper aircraft support, helicopters, night vision goggles, and there is a general impression here that our troops do not have what they need and are dying because of that?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well if you go and speak to people on the ground, then you will find the overwhelming view is that the kit they have in theatre is good.

ANDREW MARR: So when a coroner talks about the top brass or the Government hanging its head in shame about the standard of equipment, is that ignorant civilian commentary or is that something that you have to think about?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well first of all every loss, every death, every casualty we suffer is a tragedy and we feel each one deeply. In the military of course it's part of the business, but it's not something you ever get used to. It's not something you ever take lightly. You worry about it all the time. In terms of the availability of things such as helicopters, you're never going to have enough of those because no matter how many you provide, there will always be a use for more, so one is always constrained. But what we see now is that survival rates on the battlefield are higher than they have ever been at any time in our past because of our capacity to treat people quickly, because of the fantastic medical facilities that we have in theatre and back here in the UK.

ANDREW MARR: It's a British force that is first in reserve if the EU is deployed into the Congo and the Prime Minister said we must not allow the Congo to become another Rwanda. Given all the places that we're fighting at the moment, is it conceivable really that British forces will be fighting in the Congo too?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: The United Nations has 17,000 troops on the ground, so there are more than enough military there already. They do need to be deployed properly, they need to be supported properly and they need to be used without national caveats, but there should be quite sufficient military in theatre.

ANDREW MARR: So if the Prime Minister comes to you within the next week and says, "We do need 1,000 British troops", can we do that?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: Well we can do all sorts of things, but there's a cost. And by cost, I don't mean to the Exchequer. I mean to our people and to their families.

ANDREW MARR: All of those people watching who think yeah Remembrance Sunday, it's chaps in uniform and the Royal Family, it's not really for me, it's not really about me - what would you say to them?

SIR JOCK STIRRUP: I think I might have a hard job finding them today. I certainly would have found them in the 1980s and the 1990s when Remembrance Sunday was becoming much more about the past, about something different - something that was worth remembering but it was about a different time. Today it's about something very relevant and very contemporary.

ANDREW MARR: Sir Jock Stirrup, thank you very much indeed for joining us.



Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

Your comments

Send us your comments:

Your E-mail address:

Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all emails will be published.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit