British military chief warns against inaction in world's trouble spots

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 11:56pm

The head of Britain's armed forces said his country had become sceptical about projecting military force around the world after two back-to-back wars, and urged Britons not to lose what he called their "courageous instinct".

Speaking on Wednesday, just over three months after the British parliament voted against military action in Syria, General Nicholas Houghton's comments reflect anxiety in the armed forces about what they view as a growing political and public reluctance to use them to intervene in global hot spots.

Military chiefs are concerned inaction could threaten Britain's global reach - and the defence budget at a time of austerity.

"The UK's armed forces have never, in the 40 years I have known, been held in such popular high regard," Houghton told the Royal United Services Institute in a speech in London. "But the purposes to which they have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way."

British troops helped topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq and have spent 12 years fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, a country they are due to leave next year.

Yet polls show the British public is sceptical about what those interventions achieved and Prime Minister David Cameron's failure to win parliament's approval for a limited military strike on Syria prompted hand wringing about the former imperial power's role in the world.

Houghton said one of his biggest challenges was to try to "re-validate" the use of military force in the minds of government and the wider public, saying he had watched French forces intervene in north Africa with admiration.