Sometimes all it takes to get a story is just a simple question. The hard part is usually thinking what that simple question should be.
The Ministry of Defence is extremely well adept in the art of obfuscation, so nailing down the most accurate picture of how many soldiers were fit for front line duty was going to need some solid foundations.
In fact, the MoD is so clever at manipulating figures, most of us swallowed the news there had been a real-terms increase in its defence budget. Too clever by half, some might say, because some major defence projects are now looking to be in serious jeopardy.
In the military there is considerable worry that we are approaching a breaking point in which we simply will not be able to provide enough troops for front line deployment. The strategic implications of this are enormous for Britain’s international standing. To the wider world it would be seen as a major weakness if we had to withdraw troops simply because we cannot make up the numbers.
Despite the politicians obvious need to hide the severity of the problem, the cracks are beginning to show. The latest deployment announced for the next brigade of almost 8,000 soldiers to go to Afghanistan is made up of an astonishing 76 units. This is three times as many as were needed for the original deployment to Helmand in 2006.
The services were scraping the barrel again and again to find the troops to make up the numbers.
With this in mind, it appeared a necessary but a probably unfulfilling exercise to ask just how many of the 97,000-strong army were actually fit for purpose.
With the help of Patrick Mercer MP, a Parliamentary question requested a breakdown of the number of troops deployed, off sick, and those in the ‘rear party”, mainly used for administration.
It was a complicated document we received, but it gave a breakdown of the true number of troops who were fit to deploy for operations. Among the figures were those deemed ‘unfit for duty”, those who were ‘rear party’and those who were ‘operationally effective”.
There were lots of grounds for double counting, and when put to the MoD, there was a suggestion that not as many people were as sick as might have been. Unfortunately the press officer had failed to read the small print in the document which was incontrovertible.
We had figures for the sick list of 10 battalions which had gone to Iraq or Afghanistan. The results were startling – one in 14 soldiers were not fit for duty, the equivalent of 7,000 in an already under-manned army. It gave us the front page story of ‘Sickness thins the ranks of troops on front line”.
The story all came down to asking the simple question: How many people do you have off sick? I’m sure it’s a question, using the Freedom of Information Act, that could be applied with compelling results to several institutions.