Lord Dannatt, pictured here in 2013, was one of Britain's most senior military figures.Mirror

General Richard Dannatt is one of the most significant British military figures of recent times: his full title – Baron Dannatt, GCB, CBE, MC, DL – is proof of this. As Chief of General Staff (or Head of the Army, for the uninitiated) between 2006 and 2009, he was in charge of the Armed Forces when they were simultaneously engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, for all his titles and prestigious former offices (until recently, Dannatt served as Constable of the Tower of London), he is remarkably willing to speak about his career.

“I’ve always felt that we needed to do better than just muddling through”

We begin with the past. Dannatt’s military career began in the 1970s, as a platoon commander of the Green Howards in Northern Ireland, where he earned a Military Cross for acts of gallantry under fire. How did his experience of fighting the IRA affect his approach to dealing with insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan?

“I’ll answer by telling you a short story,” Dannatt replies. “On my second tour of Northern Ireland, I became responsible for a small patch of southwest Belfast, which had Protestant families on one side and Catholic families on the other, while I lived with my platoon, in 250 empty houses, in the middle. The policy was that Protestant families could live in that estate but didn’t want to; Catholic families were not allowed to live there but very much wanted to.

“The GOC visited and I asked him what I should do. He put his hand on my shoulder and said; ‘Richard, in the British Army, we’ve got broad shoulders. Just muddle through.’

Dannatt was in charge of the Armed Forces when they were engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan.Royal Armouries

“From that moment on, I’ve always felt that we needed to do better than just muddling through. You’ve got to have a clear objective and the resources to do the job on the ground. The tragedy in Iraq was that, while defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces was never going to be a problem, there was no workable plan for the aftermath.

“Into that vacuum came Al-Qaeda and Islamist groups; the same problem has spread more widely across the region. When you’re left to muddle through, you walk into disaster.”

Dannatt’s reference to planning and resources is telling: as Chief of General Staff, he became outspoken in his view that the Army was overstretched and that some equipment – such as the Snatch Landrover – was inadequate for the campaign.

Bearing this in mind, I ask Dannatt to imagine betting on where our forces were likely to next be engaged in combat; which regions would he highlight?

American jets fly over burning Kuwaiti oil fields. Dannatt says the Gulf War is a "classic example" of an unexpected intervention.USAF

“That question is impossible to answer with any certainty,” Dannatt replies quickly, “for obvious reasons. I shall give you two answers: one theoretical, the other specific.

“The most important thing about predicting the future is not to be so wrong that, when the future reveals itself, you can’t adjust quickly”

“Professor Michael Howard (former Regius Professor of History at Oxford) once said that the most important thing about predicting the future is not to be so wrong that, when the future reveals itself, you can’t adjust quickly. That is the challenge we face. Most of the military interventions which Britain has made since 1945 were unexpected. The Falklands is the classic example; the invasion of Kuwait is another; the collapse of the Soviet Union is one too.

“If you predict what will happen and prepare for it, then the experience of history shows us that you will likely be wrong. We must make sure that we have a range of capabilities, which we can apply to meet any future circumstance.

“Now for my specific answer,” Dannatt says, drawing breath. “If you sent me down to Ladbrokes to put a fiver on which continent we are likely to make a major deployment to at some point in the future, I would say Africa.

In 2015, these 92 Army medics travelled to Sierra Leone, as part of a wider campaign against Ebola.Press Association

“It’s a wretchedly poor continent but a very resource-rich continent too. The scramble for resources in Africa is huge and will be huge. In either West or East Africa, some of our former colonies will come under huge pressure and we may have an obligation, driven by the United Nations or a moral obligation due to the imperial links, to intervene.”

Dannatt points out that this may not be a combat scenario: peace-keeping or providing manpower for inadequately resourced nations is equally plausible. “The largest deployment of British soldiers in 2015 was not fighting a war, but fighting disease; we sent a large number of troops to aid Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak.”

Lord Dannatt speaking in the ceremonial uniform of the Constable of the Tower of London, 2010Russ London

We turn to the other great issue on the military horizon: managing a post-Cold War nuclear world. Does Dannatt see any potential for change in Britain’s nuclear capabilities?

“I think that maintaining a nuclear deterrent is a reasonable policy for the British government to hold,” he says, giving the diplomatic answer. “Both the Conservative and Labour parties maintain that we should be a nuclear-capable country, to deter any threat which might arise in the future. What might that threat be? That’s very difficult to define.”

“The nuclear genie is out of the bottle.”

“But, as I’ve said, to be ready for the future it is critical to have a broad range of capabilities: our nuclear deterrent is at the high end of our deterrent capabilities. So it would be a bold political party to opt for a nuclear disarmament policy. The Labour party might; I don’t think the Conservatives would.”

Rather more pointedly, I ask if he can see any way in which global nuclear disarmament might be achieved. The answer is equally blunt: “I’m afraid that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. There are too many players to achieve mutual disarmament.”

“Nuclear non-proliferation is a laudable objective internationally,” he continues, “although it tends to be espoused by those powers who are already nuclear capable. The other international emphasis should be on retaining a recollection that nuclear war is unthinkable, because it is so destructive, and making sure that there are protocols and lines of communication in place between any potential protagonists, so that they don’t pursue the nuclear option.

“You could then, of course, argue: ‘Well, what’s the point of having them?’ But that’s too big a jump for people to make. The question is how you manage the nuclear genie, now that it has escaped.”

Lord Dannatt has been outspoken in his belief that Britain must meet its NATO spending commitments and increase its manpower.Yorkshire Post

My final question draws us on to the future of the UK’s strategic capabilities. Dannatt has previously described in public addresses the ‘great question’ faced by the Government: should we take our resources as the assumption for the scale of our military forces; or should we take a principle or aim and provide resources to meet that? This question has always been “fudged”, according to Dannatt – ignored, in favour of answering short-term demands.

I ask him to ‘un-fudge’ it; what does he believe Britain should be as a military power? To my surprise, he obliges with a clear answer.

“We should be a significant European country, with a close relationship to the United States. We need to maintain those two positions, as part of our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a recognition of our residual legacy obligations as a former imperial and colonial power.

“Although we are just a medium-sized European country, we have a role to play in the world: both through hard power and soft power, we can bring influence. And if that’s what we want to do, we’ve got to resource it properly. That requires a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence and a minimum of 0.7% of GDP on development. In an ideal world, we would increase the defence budget to 2.5%. So, yes, we can state a policy; the question is then about providing the resources for it.”

Then comes the final rhetorical blow: “If we do wish to give up our position as a global player,” Dannatt finishes, “then we become another Switzerland: live in peace and make clocks.”

Lord Dannatt’s latest book, ‘Boots on the Ground: Britain and her Army since 1945’, is available in paperback

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