Last month The Sunday Times reported a tragic and exceptional story about a series of Special Air Service raids during the war in Afghanistan. The story centres on the activities of the elite military unit in the early 2010s that was using the element of surprise in swift night time raids whilst seeking out leading members of the Taliban as the war was drawing to an end. However, it is alleged that there was an excessive use of force and implications of conduct which could have broken the Geneva Convention, including the killing of unarmed civilians. This is ongoing in the High Court so it would be inappropriate to comment further, at this stage, on this specific case, but surely this raises questions about how our Special Forces are overseen.
From day one in the military I was given a small black and white booklet with the words “Values and Standards” stamped plainly on the front. In the first few weeks at Sandhurst this was one of only three books we were allowed on our shelves in those meagre spit and polish days. The purpose of this and the subsequent taking of the Oath and finally commissioning was to imbrue a sense of moral fortitude and integrity in members of HM Armed Forces and enhance the bond of trust between the military and the nation for which it fights. Every soldier should understand that they are representing the people, the essence and the values and standards of the United Kingdom overseas. The Armed Forces are the UK’s shop window for much of the outside world and thus the actions of our military should be held to account by the representatives of the people in Parliament. However, there is one unit, or more correctly group of units, which has seemingly no scrutiny in Parliament – the Special Forces.
The United States, which has arguably the broadest Special Forces capability on the planet, has an entire Senate subcommittee dedicated to special operations oversight. In the UK however, the activities of the Special Forces, whilst overseen and commanded by a Major General as part of the Strategic Command, seemingly flow and are answerable only to the Secretary of State for Defence, and by inference the Prime Minister. However, without an oversight or scrutiny from Parliament how can the bond of trust with the Nation be maintained and strengthened?
The UKSF website is understandably very bare. And states very plainly that in order for Special Forces, “to continue to conduct [sensitive] operations it is important that the security of UKSF personnel, it’s equipment, tactics, techniques and procedures are maintained.” This is a fundamental principle that underpins the effectiveness of our Special Forces and I advocate the no comment culture as it protects those military personnel who put themselves in the most dangerous positions to maintain our national security. What I am encouraging is for a subcommittee of the Armed Forces select committee (or another similarly equipped body), who have the requisite security clearance, to receive regular briefings on the activities of our military personnel, question their commanders and who can report to Parliament that their representatives overseas are acting in the best interests of the Nation.
There will be those that push back and claim that providing scrutiny equates to exposure of the country’s most sensitive overseas actions. This is nonsense. The Intelligence and Security Committee sees the most sensitive information and regularly questions our top spymasters. Therefore I only see upside potential. Firstly, it will increase public awareness of the existence of a part of the military that acts in their name as much as the regular forces do. Second, it will allow a thorough and ongoing review of government usage of our Special Forces and, importantly, if they are adequately resourced both in terms of equipment and legally to carry out the actions that we as a nation ask them to. And finally, it will strengthen that bond of trust that the Nation places in our Armed Forces so we can support them in the full knowledge that they are acting in our best interests.I am a former soldier, and I understand the deep held reservations about potentially opening up sensitive operations to outside scrutiny. However, I feel that the military community operates most effectively when it has the backing and full support of the Nation. In a representative democracy that backing is transmitted through the constitutional structures of Parliament. To implement these changes would be relatively simple, structures are already in place, relationships exist and scrutiny of over 99% of the Armed Forces is well established. Maintaining the trust between a nation and its military is a cornerstone of the defence of the Realm, this move would cement that in place once and for all.
Link to original, published by Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces on 2 September 2020.