A lesson in accountability from America

What a contrast we see in the way the military is run in this country compared with the USA. Here, General Dannatt is being praised for his bravery in first speaking out about the abysmal housing our servicemen are expected to live in, and now for the near-poverty levels of pay for those in the lower ranks. He is holding his political masters to account. Over in America, however, the hobnailed boot is on the other foot. Secretary of Defense, Robert M Gates, has just sacked the four-star Air Force Chief of Staff and the civilian Air Force Secretary for “a pattern of poor performance” over control of nuclear weapons and parts. Last year he sacked a two-star general and the civilian Army Secretary over the shocking standards of accommodation at a top US military hospital.

Here’s what the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee had to say: “Secretary Gates’ focus on accountability is essential and has been absent from the office of the secretary of defense for too long.” Contrast that with our own part-time Secretary of State for Defence who is also the Minister of State for Scotland. Accountability is not a word he is familiar with. He has presided over a regime where increased demands on the armed forces have not been matched with increases in resources. The thin desert-pink line has been stretched to breaking point and it is no surprise that under the circumstances more and more servicemen are abandoning the armed forces.

Gates has made it clear that the American air force had suffered for years from a loss of expertise in handling nuclear materials. Is that what is in store for us? Are we going to have our own “nuclear incidents” caused by lack of experience or lack of resources? Two incidents hit the headlines in America. One happened last year when a B-52 flew across America with six armed nuclear cruise missiles, which was completely against regulations, but what’s more, the crew didn’t even know they had them on board. The more recent incident, which resulted in the sackings, was when four nose-cone fuses for Minuteman nuclear warheads were sent to Taiwan, instead of some helicopter batteries that should have been sent.

The problems in America are certainly not due to resources, they are more symptomatic of complacency. Over here we have a dedicated, motivated, and professional armed services, but which is underpaid, poorly resourced and seriously overstretched. As a consequence ours are also haemorrhaging skilled men and women. Never mind the injustices that are being done to those who serve, and let’s not even get started on how shamefully the wounded are treated, where is the political will to see defence as nothing more than a part-time job? When will we get a secretary of state for defence who will focus on his job? When will we get some accountability?