The Daily Telegraph appears to be continuing its campaign to highlight that any form of capability in the military other than infantry (and preferably Fusiliers) is wrong continues apace. The most recent article on Sat 2 Nov put across that the MOD has increased the ranks of military lawyers from 130 – 190, while spending on civilian lawyers continues. This is put across as a bad thing that shouldn’t happen while we are sacking soldiers.(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10421907/MoD-lawyers-soar-as-Armed-Forces-budgets-cut.html)
The Forces have always needed effective legal support, and arguably the tiny number of military lawyers provides an utterly vital capability. Its not just about the provision of support to people who understand the arcane intricacies of a military law system which is very complex, and very different to our normal law – though this is extremely important. It’s about the provision of people who bring a vital advisory role to Commanders on the ground, and the wider MOD.
Operations today occur in a very complex and crowded environment where decisions made by troops can often have wide ranging implications. Operations will generally occur under extremely defined rules of engagement, and unlike in WW1 or WW2 where the general philosophy could be said to be ‘if it is an enemy then deal with them appropriately’, todays operations occur in a world of ambiguities. Understanding the limits of your mandate, your rules of engagement, the importance of UK and international law and trying to realise how this can be applied to the foot patrol or offensive operation is critical. It could be that while the proposed intention of dropping a lot of paveway bombs to demolish a building would get the job done, it could be in breach of various laws, be disproportionate to the mission at hand, and in the long term do more damage than would otherwise be the case.
Having a legal advisor (LEGAD) on hand is a vital means of ensuring that commanders at all levels, from the platoon commander to the General commanding the UK contingent are appropriately advised on the legality of their actions. This should not be underestimated – in a world where someone doing something wrong can be broadcast on the internet in seconds, ensuring that UK troops are operating inside a legally watertight framework is essential. Similarly, as we move to a world where indiscriminate targeting is frowned on, and where application of force is so accurate now, the ability of a lawyer to understand the Rules of Engagement, particularly when set against international law, and then to be able to support a proposed targeting solution is critical. Knowing that when UK troops are committed to using force, they are doing so knowing what they can or cannot do is critical.
Similarly, once the direct fighting is over, UK troops often find themselves operating in a very strange environment – one only has to look at Iraq in the aftermath of the initial war fighting phase to realise that its not a clear cut place to operate. The advice offered by in theatre legal personnel can often make a huge difference in helping commanders understand their freedom to operate, and what genuine constraints may affect them. For instance, on a single tour in Iraq, units may have found themselves conducting everything from searches, checking for IEDS, detaining known individuals through deliberate operations, and then engaging in combat – quite possibly in the same day. The requirement for modern troops to adapt very quickly to all manner of situations places a huge burden on them – it is important that they get the best possible guidance to know they are acting correctly. Certainly in this authors experience on both TELIC and HERRICK, the LEGAD advice was often one of the most critical parts of any potential operation.
The same lawyers provide vital services back home – in the Royal Navy for instance, there are a range of in house experts on the Law of the Sea, international maritime disputes and territorial waters and the like. This may sound questionable, but when the RN is daily conducting counter piracy and counter narcotics operations across the globe, or sailing in possible maritime flashpoints where different nations have very different interpretations of maritime boundaries, having a good legal understanding on hand of the art of the possible is absolutely vital.
Lets also not forget that the Service lawyers are paid an utter pittance relative to what they would earn in civilian life – the military gains immensely from their knowledge and expertise, and also their time. When one looks at the hours put in by most military lawyers, you suddenly realise just how much of a bargain the taxpayer is getting. The equivalent cost in private practise would doubtless be millions more.
So, while it is easy to knock the MOD for increasing the number of military lawyers, to Humphrey at least this is an utterly sensible decision. We operate in a challenging world where every decision could be subject to challenge and scrutiny, and every action could have serious repercussions. Having high quality in service personnel able to immediately advise makes a huge difference, and can have a real and lasting impact. This is perhaps a good example of the future model of UK military capability – not necessarily ‘sexy’ nor conventional as we associate with the Cold War or WW2, but instead bringing sharp minds to bear on real problems. When we see in the news stories of missed bombs killing civilians dominating headlines, we have to understand that the nature of conflict has changed and that precise and legally appropriate application of force is vitally important to achieving tactical, operational and strategic success.
The future force will be as much about these small groups of experts being available to assist as it is about the bigger battalions and armoured divisions so beloved of internet warriors. In reality, the UK may get far more value, influence and success out of one well placed LEGAD than it would out of the deployment of an entire Battalion of infantry, if the LEGAD is able to advise correctly. As with so much else in the UK military, we should look to the effect achieved and not the numbers to understand why this is a capability worth investing in even when so much else is being reduced.