The Daily Telegraph ran an article today suggesting that the UK was relying on a so-called ‘Dads Army’ to understand the challenge posed in relationships with Russia and their current actions, particularly in the field of linguists and analysts (LINK HERE) . It’s an interesting article as it really sums up the difficulties faced by the military in providing appropriately qualified personnel at the right time, and balancing this against resources.
For many decades the threat posed by the Russians drove UK defence policy and structures. Entire careers were built around understanding the Soviet threat, and people became ‘Kremlinologists’ able to understand things as subtle as the placing of individuals on a Red Square parade and how that impacted on their influence within the system. The end of the Cold War really brought this system to an end, and since 1991 there has been a substantial decrease in people specialising in the sort of skills and languages needed to understand Russia.
From a practical perspective, the article highlights just how long it has been since the end of the cold war and how few ‘veterans’ are left of this time. It’s been 23 years now, and many of the deep experts have long retired – effectively the UK is having to re-establish its capabilities from a clean sheet of paper, and this may take time to do. If it is possible to draw on willing experts, then they will provide valuable insights and advice as the UK focuses again on this area.
This decision does make sense from a purely logical perspective – if the threat has changed the need to dedicate resources to something which was not seen as a threat has reduced. There have been many editorials over the years since the end of the Cold War decrying the military for retaining obsolete units and equipment designed to meet the Russian threat over new military threats. To reduce expenditure on language training, and to reduce or close down areas focused on Russia makes sense – why spend money on providing a capability that is not needed in anywhere near as great numbers?
It is incredibly expensive to train linguists (or to lesser degree analysts) to a high standard, and takes many years to do. Many friends of the author have gone off to foreign postings, but begun their language training two or even three years beforehand to get them to a level of fluency required to be proficient at their role. This means that anyone specialising in speaking a language needs to be able to justify the return on the investment – during the Cold War there were plenty of career postings at various ranks which meant that these language skills could be drawn on and employed for years to come. But, as these posts have gone, the ability to gainfully employ linguists reduces – you run the real risk of taking someone out of mainstream military service for 5-6 years to do one post, often at a point in their career where they need to be visible and doing promotion worthy jobs.
Additionally, there is only a finite amount of resource available for language training, which like many of the other sort of ‘unseen benefits’ that Defence can do, is often subject to cuts ahead of the front line in the effort to preserve physical presence over personal capability. The Defence School of Languages has done a lot of work in recent years focusing its resources on the languages that really matter – arguably in the 80s this was Russian, the 90s it was Balkan languages and the 00s was about Arabic and Dari/Pushtu. In other words it has to respond to meet the threat of the time, and pus the bulk of its resource there, and not in to areas which have less military need. If the main effort of the day called for Arabic languages, then its almost inevitable that this is where priority is placed – one can only imagine the media outcry if the MOD had continued to push Russian languages ahead of Arabic when Iraq was going on, with the potential implications for troops on the ground.
So, when you bring this all together you realise that reducing linguist cover is an inevitable reality of budget cuts, and Defence prioritising its scarce assets where they are most needed. Even if DSL were to focus all its resource tomorrow on training Russian speakers, it would be several years till the results were seen, and there would still be the problem of providing a credible career path for those who did the training. If you are going to invest in language training, you need to understand how these people can use their skills in a way which benefits Defence, keeps their skills current and not rusty and gives them a meaningful shot at promotion (an argument which applies as much to the MOD civil service as it does the military). A similar argument can be made for the analytical community, although Humphrey has intentionally chosen not to focus on them for the purposes of this article.
The challenge is that this issue is not going to be exclusive to just the Russian speakers. Its likely that in years to come there will be a challenge in keeping other linguists gainfully employed, particularly for some of the more esoteric languages where Defence has a need, but cannot support the numbers or posts required. Again, the issue is how do you support a language capability when you cannot always guarantee the long term sustainability of posts and careers to match?
This issue really highlights some of the issues Defence has got – it needs to be responsive to international crises, but it has a planning lead time often based on needing years to respond to providing a capability. Striking the balance between provision of a generic capability like an armoured battlegroup or escort vessels that is broadly employable, and providing deeply specialist niche skills or capabilities which may not be used as often but which are badly needed and often at short notice is a real challenge. There is no right way of doing this, but it perhaps helps illustrate the challenges facing Defence planners today.