Military chief backs Special Forces amid questions over ‘toxic culture’

Gen Sir James Hockenhull, head of Strategic Command
Gen Sir James Hockenhull, head of Strategic Command, praised Britain's elite troops as 'remarkable people doing remarkable things' - Uwe Deffner/Alamy

A military chief has backed Britain’s Special Forces amid claims a toxic culture exists among elite troops.

Gen Sir Jim Hockenhull, the head of Strategic Command, said he had “supreme confidence” that members of UK Special Forces (UKSF) had the right “culture and behaviours” to maintain their “licence to operate”.

Asked about the ongoing inquiry into alleged atrocities committed by the SAS in Afghanistan, Gen Hockenhull said his position was “one of the greatest privileges of my military career”.

He said it was “absolutely right and proper” the allegations were investigated but praised the “remarkable people doing remarkable things”.

“We ask incredible things of those special forces operators. They are the most professional element of UK defence.

“They are relentless in their pursuit of that excellence. That includes not just the pursuit of excellence about the wide variety of operations that they undertake, but also the pursuit of excellence about making sure that their culture and their behaviours are in the right place in order to sustain those operations.”

Strategic Command oversees operations which include all three services, such as cyber and space, and is also the parent organisation of UKSF.

The conduct of Britain’s elite forces in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013 and the response by the MoD is being investigated by Lord Justice Sir Charles Haddon-Cave.

His inquiry has already been told senior figures in the Army “failed in their basic duty” to find out the truth regarding the allegations.

Appearing before the inquiry in February, Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, said he was “angry with senior leaders within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and UKSF”.

Mr Mercer said some special forces soldiers had operated a policy of executing males of “fighting age” who posed no threat.

However, the minister has himself been warned he faces the threat of prison for refusing to reveal the identities of whistleblowers who raised concerns.

Following Mr Mercer’s last appearance at the inquiry, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave warned him that his refusal to name sources was “completely unacceptable” and said the minister risked being “part of what is, in effect, an omertà, a wall of silence [which is] obstructing the inquiry and access to the truth”.

Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph last month, a friend of Mr Mercer’s said: “This is not about him protecting wrongdoers. But Johnny has spent his entire political career protecting junior ranks and he won’t change that.”

On Thursday, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said a public hearing would be held on May 3 to focus on the MoD’s “delays in disclosing material to meet Inquiry timelines, and their suggestion of a timeline to suit the MoD’s resources that would substantially delay the Inquiry’s work”.

At the hearing, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave has said he will expect the MoD legal team to explain their failure to meet deadlines for the provision of evidence.

Thursday’s announcement said he will demand MoD supply “proposals to remedy the position”.

A defence source told The Telegraph: “The responsibility today isn’t just addressing allegations from a decade ago but ensuring legal and ethical capability becomes our advantage against the ruthless enemies of the future.”

Gen Hockenhull said: “If you are going to be an organisation which is asked to do these remarkable things, then we need to have confidence that those organisations are not just capable of doing that, but they’re resilient enough to be able to do that and that they got the right approach in conducting those operations.

“I have supreme confidence in what’s happening in UK Special Forces today.”

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