The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at the Army Staff College in Camberley – 24 November 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the Army Staff College in Camberley on Thursday 24th November 1994.


The Duke of Wellington used to offer some succinct advice to Members of Parliament:

“Don’t quote Latin; say what you have to say; and then sit down.”

I shall try to follow his advice this evening. You will be relieved to hear that I am not going to speak in Latin.

I am delighted to be, for the first time, in this famous Staff College. If my spies are correct, no British Prime Minister has been here since 1910 at least.

But the purpose of my visit is not to deliver a staff college lecture. Someone kindly provided one, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I do not use it.

Some of you may remember the broadcaster Gilbert Harding. In the 1950s, during McCarthy’s campaign against Communism, he arrived in New York. One of the questions on the immigration form asked whether the purpose of his visit to the United States was “to overthrow the Republic”. Harding managed to get himself arrested by writing the reply: “not sole purpose of the trip”.

The purpose of my visit here is not to tell you things you already know far better than I do.

I’d like instead to give you my personal view of the Armed Forces, based particularly on my experiences over the past four years as Prime Minister.

Then I’d like to give a view on the tasks which lie ahead, and the principles which should underlie security policy in Britain and Europe.

Personal impressions

I am in the company of servicemen and servicewomen virtually every day, so I promise not to give you all of my impressions. But let me take a few vignettes to illustrate my conviction that Britain’s modern, professional Armed Forces are a peerless national asset.

I’ll start with Iraq.

With 20/20 hindsight and a pair of blinkers, the allied victory in the Gulf war may now look easy. You will rightly have a different recollection.

The political issues were clear enough. In a premeditated and unprovoked attack, Iraq had tried to annex a sovereign member of the United Nations and a country with which we had friendly relations. It had flouted international law. And its actions posed a direct threat to the stability of a region in which the UK and the West had vital interests.

But militarily, the task was formidable. Iraq is 3000 miles away, and had an army of nearly a million men – the fourth largest in the world – and 700 attack aircraft. We did not know how good the Republican Guard was – but they had a formidable reputation. Iraq also had chemical weapons and was developing a nuclear and biological capability. We could not be sure they would not use, in particular, chemical weapons.

To defeat Iraq, we had to combine with our American, French and regional allies in an operation of extraordinary complexity involving all arms of our forces.

This did not just require courage, though our forces displayed bravery of the highest order. It also demanded organisation, the ability – borne through long experience – to work with allies, the deployment and maintenance of highly sophisticated equipment, and at all levels intelligence, skill and clear-sightedness.

As I saw for myself, all of these qualities were vital to our eventual success. And our commanders operated with total confidence in themselves and their men and women.

Typically, during the conflict British aircraft and troops moved into action late at night, UK time. Night after night, I sat up very late at Downing Street, waiting to hear the outcome of their actions. Such experiences leave an imperishable memory.

However, the job did not end when fighting stopped.

When Saddam Hussein turned against the Kurds, we faced a challenge of an entirely different kind. Not a high-intensity desert war, but a military and humanitarian operation without precedent in almost inaccessible mountainous terrain. That too was carried out regardless of difficulty, and the Kurds have lived under the umbrella of the Northern No-Fly Zone ever since.

We must not relax while the threat to the Kurds remains. But thanks to Operation Haven, thousands of Kurds, who would otherwise have died or been displaced, are alive today.

Only last month, Saddam Hussein tested the international community again. And once again he met an unambiguous response, and our friends were shown that we had both the will and the skill to come to their help.

We had aircraft overhead within hours, ships off Kuwait within days, and 1,200 troops from the Spearhead Battalion deployed by 110 Hercules sorties in a week and a half.

Thanks to high readiness and military efficiency, our forces played a leading part in this successful act of pre-emption.

Without firing a shot, they defended British and international interests.

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia has faced all three Services with yet another set of demands:

– on the ground with UNPROFOR, the tasks of humanitarian relief; local peacemaking; ceasefire monitoring; and the maintenance of safe areas;

– in the air with NATO, the enforcement of exclusion zones; reconnaissance and close air support; and deterrent action;

– at sea with the WEU and NATO, the enforcement of sanctions and the arms embargo.

And this is far from an exclusive list.

I shall say more in a few minutes about the worrying situation we now face in Bosnia. But let me just summarise my impressions of an unforgettable 24 hours there in the spring:

– the day started with a matter-of-fact briefing by Brigadier John Reith on how, over the past three weeks, he and his troops had negotiated and mapped, a ceasefire line of 206 kilometres, and brought the heavy weapons under control;

– I then had a dramatic ride over the mountains in a Sea King flown with gusto by a fearless naval pilot;

– -in Bugojno, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment were just settling into their new quarters – a former tannery caked in animal waste, without heat, running water or sanitation. Mortars flew overhead at intervals. And the morale of these young men and women was sky high;

– at the field hospital in Vitez, I met a theatre sister who said she wouldn’t have swapped her time there for the world;

– in the same camp, I talked to sappers who were making streets safe, one of whom – Corporal Barney Warburton – sadly gave his life a few days later on a mine-clearance operation;

– I went to Sarajevo, and was driven around by General Rose. Thanks to the UN’s efforts, the trams were running again down sniper alley, and people were out on the streets. Without helmet or flak jacket, Mike Rose calmly drove through a road block on a confrontation line, to show me where a sniper had shot a civilian only days before. “He’s up there now”, he said gaily, pointing at a nearby bomb-damaged tower block – much to the consternation of my security officers;

– and as the sun set, the RAF lifted me out, near-vertically, in a Hercules which was running the gauntlet in order to keep vital supplies flowing into the city.

Perhaps the most indelible of all these memories was the sight of children playing outside for the first time in months, and families beginning to dig their gardens and repair their houses.

And I knew that it was thanks to the skill, dedication and toughness of British and other UN forces that they had survived and were able to do these things.

It would be a tragedy if those gains were now to be lost.

One of the reasons for the superb British performance in Bosnia has been the experience gained over the past quarter century in yet another role, in Northern Ireland. Whenever, around the world, I have discussed peace-keeping, soldiers and politicians alike refer to the skills of the British Army, honed in Northern Ireland.

Our forces have patrolled the streets and the countryside there for one simple reason: to help the RUC defend the people of the Province, irrespective of political or religious affiliation, against terrorism.

They have made a great sacrifice. Since the troubles began, 648 members of the armed forces and 296 policemen have lost their lives to terrorism in Northern Ireland.

But their sacrifice has manifestly not been in vain. On my visits to the security forces in Northern Ireland this year, I have found growing optimism that there is a fundamental change in the atmosphere.

The security forces have withstood the most determined and heavily armed terrorist campaign in modern Europe. And they have proved that violence cannot win in Northern Ireland. Without their steadfastness, there would be no ceasefire and no hope of a brighter future today.

Let me briefly mention two other recent images.

Early in September, I saw British forces leave what had for years been the front line of the Cold War. At the Airlift Memorial and the Brandenberg Gate, they and our Allies were given heartfelt thanks by the people of Berlin, whom they had defended and sustained through dark and threatening times.

Later that month, I witnessed in South Africa another skill which the British Army has recently developed. Fourteen years ago, a British military team helped to integrate the new army of Zimbabwe at the end of a long and bitter war. So successful were they that they were invited to perform a similar function first in Namibia and then in Mozambique. Now they are acting as consultants to a process which is vital to the South African transition.

What have these various experiences shown me?

First, though I was never in any doubt of this, the Armed Forces are – and will remain – integral to the success of the nation, at home and overseas. Wherever they operate, they are held in the highest respect, and reflect enormous credit on the United Kingdom.

Second, there is no substitute for excellence. It is the sheer quality of each of our Services which shines through, wherever you meet them. The quality of recruitment, training, leadership and equipment. I am in no doubt that we have been right over many years to concentrate on quality rather than quantity, and to ensure that our resources are focused to this end.

Third, the tasks which the Services now fulfil are surely more diverse than at any time in our history. From nuclear deterrence to counter-terrorism, from UN peacekeeping to the training – at home and overseas – of personnel from other countries. Without sacrificing core functions and specialisations, we need flexibility and adaptability. As Enoch Powell once said:

“History is full of the wars people said would never happen.”

Fourth, modern military operations tend to be coloured Purple. The Gulf conflict and Bosnia have demonstrated how vital it is to have close integration between ground, air and naval forces, and a wide understanding by commanders of the potential of the different service arms. This must be blended with the esprit de corps and individual traditions which are also essential elements of the British services.

Future shape and role of the Armed Forces

So much for the present. How in broad terms do I see the future of our forces?

Let me first emphasise a point I have made on several recent occasions.

The forces have been through a period of change which was both inevitable and, I know, unsettling. In order to reshape our forces for the future, hard and often painful decisions have been required. I am very conscious that, while the policy decisions have now been taken, it will take some years to implement them fully.

It is therefore particularly important for you and your colleagues to be assured – as I can assure you – that the big upheavals are over. The level of front line manpower has been set and we do not intend to reduce it.

You may ask what will happen if we are able to reduce our commitment in Northern Ireland – the largest commitment which the Army has had over the last quarter century.

I of course hope that we shall be able to make this reduction.

We shall take no risks over security there, and in the first instance it is the hours of duty rather than the manpower which need to be reduced. But our long-term objective, when the security situation allows, is of course to return to exclusively civilian policing.

However, this will not mean that we reduce the size of the Armed Forces. It will instead give us leeway to deal more effectively with the demands on military resources, and to provide more time for training. If we have a margin, we shall certainly not be short of tasks for it.

Your future effectiveness also depends on having the right equipment. That was one of the key objectives of “Front Line First”.

As you know, Front Line First enabled us to confirm £5bn worth of orders and tenders for new equipment – ships for the Navy, tanks for the Army, laser-guided bombs and the upgrading of Tornados for the Royal Air Force.

“Front Line First” also dealt with the way the Armed Forces are organised and managed. It benefited greatly from the involvement of middle ranking and junior service personnel, and will encourage the devolution of responsibility. It will also lead to a permanent Joint Headquarters, a Joint Rapid Deployment Force and a Joint Services Command and Staff College.

Over the past 45 years, Britain has played a unique role in defence, both in Europe and globally. Defence has always been one of this country’s outstanding strengths.

Through the changes I have described, I am confident that our Armed Forces are in the right shape for to play an equally strong role in the future. They will have the people, the material, and the management that they need to carry out their changing tasks.

Their highest priorities are the protection of the United Kingdom and its dependent territories, and collective defence through NATO.

The independent nuclear deterrent, which the Royal Navy and the RAF have maintained since the 1950s, provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security. It is a vital element of NATO’s system of war-prevention and a force for stability in Europe.

This Government is pledged to maintain that deterrent through Trident, which will come into service around the turn of the year.

We also have a formidable capability to promote our wider security interests. We can deploy forces on land, sea and in the air anywhere in the world, to play a significant role unilaterally or in a coalition.

And, as our current experiences show, we have the flexibility to carry out diverse military tasks:

– When the need arises, as it did in the Gulf, we have a war-fighting capability.

– We have the equipment and the experience for peacekeeping. We have done this for years in Cyprus, for example.

– Our forces are operating, as I have said, in several different roles in Bosnia.

– In Rwanda, we deployed 600 specialist troops to support humanitarian operations, in an unfamiliar and horrifying environment.

And in Europe, our forces have taken part in the first three “Partnership for Peace” exercises. These brought together – in Poland, the Netherlands and the Norwegian sea area – the forces of countries which only a few years ago were divided by the Cold War.

These and other tasks, including training, mean that Britain now has troops deployed or stationed in over 40 countries around the world – a remarkable figure which seems more likely to increase than to diminish.

Those deployments, great and small, help to support and defend Britain’s global interests. They have a central role in our external policy.


Before I turn to the wider security environment, I should say a word about Bosnia.

The situation on the ground has deteriorated sharply over the last few weeks. It is all the more important to be clear about our objectives there.

Neither UNPROFOR nor NATO can take sides in this war. Nor are they equipped to impose peace on the warring parties. If this were achievable, it would require a massive intervention on the ground, including a very large contingent from the United States. That is not, and has never been, in prospect.

Nor is there, in our judgement and experience, any prospect of imposing peace through aerial bombardment.

Our objective is a negotiated settlement, acceptable to all parties. We believe that this is the only solution which could last. We must reinvigorate diplomatic efforts, as UNPROFOR’s peacekeeping operation cannot be sustained indefinitely in a vacuum.

I have therefore written to the leaders of countries in the Bosnian Contact Group to stress the urgency of progress when our Foreign Ministers meet in Brussels next Friday. If humanitarian operations are to continue, we need a commitment from all the parties to the search for a peaceful settlement, and a firm undertaking to respect the status of United Nations and other international personnel in Bosnia.

We must also do all we can to prevent the war from spreading. We have succeeded so far. But the risk of a wider Balkan conflict reigniting is real.

UNPROFOR’s mandate is to convey relief supplies to those in need, and to promote and monitor local ceasefires. Thanks to UNPROFOR, the area of conflict within Bosnia was greatly reduced this year, as I saw on my own visit. But the latest offensives and counter offensives in Bihac and elsewhere are threatening to turn the clock back.

UNPROFOR should not remain if it cannot carry out its appointed tasks, or if the risks become intolerable.

I of course do not want to see its withdrawal. However, if the parties restart all-out war or the arms embargo breaks down, UNPROFOR could have no choice but to withdraw.

There would be no winners. Millions of ordinary people in Bosnia would be the losers.

We must see this danger clearly. The parties must be made to see it, too, by a collective diplomatic effort of the kind I have suggested.

We should not yet write off the possibility of further progress; but without it, the UN cannot allow the lives of its soldiers and aid workers to be endangered needlessly.

It is time for a sober reappraisal by all who have Bosnia’s interests at heart.

Wider Security Environment

The paradox created by the end of the Cold War is by now familiar.

The potential threat of general war may be far less. But there is also, undoubtedly, less peace.

We have the opportunity to manage security in a much more rational way, through co-operation between the major powers; but we also have the problem that the lid has been lifted off a great many regional crises.

There are two areas of potential instability in or near to Europe.

To the East of Europe and down to the Balkans and the Caucausus, States which have just regained or acquired independence face a huge transition combined, in many cases, with internal ethnic tensions.

In parts of North Africa and the Middle East, there is instability of a different sort, fomented or exploited by extremism.

These are the challenges to which Europe must adapt. It is a process we need to carry further.

The European Union has a role to play in both areas. By developing political and other contacts, by opening its markets, and where appropriate by helping countries in Central and Eastern Europe to move towards full membership, the EU can do much to extend prosperity and stability.

We must also strengthen links through the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. This should be the aim of the CSCE Summit which I shall be attending in Budapest at the beginning of December.

The CSCE should set standards in European security, for example, in the treatment of minorities. It should provide an early warning system and a means of conflict prevention. Though it will not have the capability to manage military operations, it should be better equipped to carry out such practical tasks as the provision of liaison officers and observer missions.

NATO must of course remain the bedrock of our security. In practice, it is the only organisation which can provide for our own defence and that of our allies. Its inner strength and transatlantic link should not be weakened. NATO must adapt to the new environment. It should put greater emphasis on crisis management. It must not be seen as simply an alliance of last resort, brought into play only when the territorial integrity of its own members is under threat.

NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme has been a very important stage in its evolution. Twenty-three nations have established partnership with the alliance. Partnership for Peace is helping military establishments to adjust to their new roles in a democratic society.

Russia is of course central to this. We are building up a new relationship with Russia which reflects her position as a major international power. At the UN Security Council, in the annual Summit meetings, through the European Union and CSCE, through Partnership for Peace of course, and in our direct bilateral contacts, we are working with Russia on an equal and co-operative basis. Consultation between us is becoming a matter of habit, as it is with our international partners.

For some, the Partnership for Peace programme will naturally lead in time to inclusion in the alliance itself. We and our Allies have said that we expect enlargement of NATO, but it will be a gradual, evolutionary process which will threaten no-one. It must contribute to our central objective of extending security and prosperity eastwards; and it must be taken forward in parallel with a closer relationship between NATO and Russia.

This should be the aim of NATO Foreign Ministers when they meet in Brussels next week and commission work on the principles and obligations of NATO membership.

But NATO cannot cope with everything. We cannot expect American troops to be present in every international crisis. There will be problems in which Europe’s interests are more closely involved than those of the United States. In these cases, we will need to ensure that we Europeans can do the job effectively ourselves, in a way that is compatible with NATO.

This does not mean a European Army, answerable to a single European authority. Decisions on the use of our Armed Forces must rest with the Government and Parliament of the United Kingdom. Armed forces are a fundamental attribute of a sovereign nation-state.

In the Western European Union, however, we have a ready-made European pillar for NATO. The WEU has been given a mandate to become the defence arm of the European Union. Defence is not an area where the traditional institutions of the European Community – the Commission, the Parliament, the Court – have any role to play. Instead, those European governments which wish to do so should improve their ability to take military action together by developing the WEU.

One potential problem is already being resolved. January’s NATO Summit launched the concept of Combined Joint Task Forces. They will provide a command structure for operations in which the United States is not involved. They will be separable from NATO but not, crucially, separate.

I believe that a realistic objective would be for the WEU to be able to undertake military operations of at least the scale of the current UNPROFOR operation in Bosnia. But for this we shall need to do three things: to improve the WEU’s capabilities for military planning; to put in place arrangements for the high level, political direction of military operations; and to ensure that the WEU can work in harness with other countries, including its own associate partners.

Improving the collective capabilities of the WEU means also improving our ability to operate alongside individual partners.

We are developing this in a pragmatic way, step by step. With Germany and other allies in NATO formations also available to the WEU. With the Dutch, with whom we have long had a joint amphibious force. And of course with the French. At my Summit meeting with President Mitterrand and Prime Minister Balladur last week, we set up a Franco-British Air Group. It will have its headquarters at High Wycombe, and its first Commander will be a French General. This planning group will help our two Air Forces to work more effectively together in future multilateral operations.


I have done no more than sketch out some of the elements for the future European Security and Defence Identity.

This is an important subject for the future, and one in which the United Kingdom will play a strong part.

Among the member states of the European Union, Britain’s contribution to the defence of Europe in the post-war period has been second to none. In her Armed Forces, Britain has the experience, skill and professionalism to meet the new challenges facing Europe.

And this is a contribution which we are of course making also to the United Nations and directly to our friends in the Commonwealth and around the globe.

Some of you in this room will have worn the blue beret of the United Nations. Others will certainly do so in the future.

As a country which leans heavily on her worldwide interests and trade, it is right that Britain should play a full part in peacekeeping, peacemaking and humanitarian relief.

In Africa, for example, we are ready to expand our role, by providing support and training to African peacekeepers. Under an initiative which the Foreign Secretary and I launched in September, we hope to do so in tandem with the French, and perhaps also with the help of other partners through the WEU.

The United Nations tends to be burdened with the problems that others cannot solve. Inevitably it cannot always solve them. The operation in Somalia, for example, has left us with lessons to draw. But the UN has a responsibility to try where there is a realistic chance of success, and it deserves our active support.

Whether you are serving at home or abroad, whether you are from the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy or the Army, you will have a role to play in the new strategic environment.

You will be part of an outstanding Service which needs some of the brightest and bravest of our citizens.

Part of a body of men and women motivated by your Service Ethos:

– by pride in your traditions and institutions;

– by comradeship and team spirit;

– by the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities which lead people to put their lives on the line;

– by loyalty and patriotism;

– by an enduring belief in British values and an unshakeable determination to defend them.

You will have a career to be proud of, and the country will be proud of you.