31 May 2011

Dannatt at Hay, Levene at MoD

The Hay Festival (of Literature and the Arts) is currently underway at Hay-on-Wye (Powys, Wales). Hay is now sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, at least to 2013. The events already over (28 May) include Leading from the Front, Richard Dannatt talks to Nik Gowing, “The forthright Chief of the General Staff (2006–2009) reviews his military career and the current state of the nation’s defences.” I’ve noted previously that Lord Dannatt described himself as “a periodic contributor to the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph” (under the byline General Sir Richard Dannatt, as indexed here, rather than Lord Dannatt). His book (same title as the event) has just gone into paperback.

I don’t know whether the Telegraph sponsorship of Hay helped to generate the large and apparently supportive audience, but, if they were expecting Dannatt to be particularly controversial, they might have been disappointed, as the Sunday Telegraph report next day suggests. He expanded on the point he had made in his Daily Telegraph article a day earlier that “May has been a bad month for evil men” – OBL’s demise, Mladic’s arrest, - and talked about Libya, and the contribution which the four UK Apache attack helicopters could make if there were to be no "boots on the ground". (The first priority for our other 60 odd Apaches is Afghanistan and their activities are described here).  He saw no justification for aircraft carriers coming from the Libya operations – other aircraft which couldn’t operate from carriers were needed and would have to operate from land bases. The implications of this constraint were not debated properly, he said, during the Defence Review in 1997/98 which had started the current carrier building programme.

Gowing, who had done his homework (though General Rupert Smith, not Dannatt, popularised “war among the people”), asked Dannatt about remarks by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, discussed in a post here in January. His response started with “Like him, get on well” but ended less warmly. The billing of “forthright” was lived up to again when Dannatt blamed Blair and Brown for the £B38 overspend (inherent in the plans for the following 10 years)which the MoD had built up by the time of the 2010 election, because of their reluctance to make the necessary decisions. But he also criticised David Cameron for committing to increased defence expenditure only in a second term – which might not happen – when MoD planners needed numbers for 2014/15 now. This was in the context of the UK/US relationship and whether the UK was essential to the US – the US was certainly essential to the UK, and the former did not want further erosion of the UK’s defence capabilities.

Some other points of interest: Dannatt clearly felt that his outspokenness in defending the army, which he did not regret, had cost him the top job, Chief of the Defence Staff. The Army had wanted a family of medium-weight, multipurpose vehicles (FRES) – these were cancelled by the Defence Board in 2008 to fund the carrier programme. There was a risk after Afghanistan of the army being left with a mix of vehicles which would be unsuitable for whatever came next. Much had been done to rectify past equipment deficiencies in Afghanistan (body armour), and this meant that coroners’ judgements on shortcomings could be a couple of years in arrears of the current situation. He thought the Army needed a strength (“critical mass”) not much below 100,000 (as opposed to 95,000 post-SDSR).

The questions included a dignified and thoughtful point from a woman who had lost a son in Afghanistan in 2009. A man who said he was a brigadier’s son asserted that the UK had four times as many generals as the US (pro rata, presumably) – their soldiers weren’t as good as ours, but their generals were better! Dannatt pointed out that the UK had to fill a lot of senior posts in NATO and the like, but as deputies to US staff when there was less opportunity to shine. In conclusion he commented that while forces from the air and sea could enable, it was on land that things could be brought to a decision – that was where “war among the people” took place.

There was no mention of Trident. Perhaps if the Guardian were still sponsoring Hay, Dannatt might also have been asked about Nick Hopkins’ article which appeared that morning: “Armed forces face radical changes under Lord Levene plans”.
A blueprint for the services and how they should be run is being drawn up by Lord Levene, who was appointed last year by the defence secretary, Liam Fox, and tasked with coming up with root-and-branch reforms. Levene is due to submit his final report by the end of July, but early drafts of his main proposals, and the principles behind them, have started to circulate around Whitehall.
The suggestions include:
  • Thinning the ranks at the very top of the military. At the moment each service has, effectively, two chiefs – one responsible for strategy and management, the other for operations. Levene believes that there should only be one chief for each arm.
  • Establishing a new appointments committee that would be responsible for choosing the highest ranking officers in the army, RAF and the Royal Navy. The committee would be chaired by a non-executive director, chosen by the defence secretary. At the moment, the services make most mid-ranking and senior appointments in-house.
  • Creating a new defence board that will have only one member of the military sitting on it. This would be the overall chief of the defence staff .... At the moment, chiefs from all three services sit on the board.
These proposals are likely to receive a ferocious response from the senior service echelons (perhaps already starting with a leak to the Guardian). If the new appointments system were implemented, it is difficult to imagine a man (or woman) as “tribal” (to use the term applied by Blair to died-in-the-wool Labourites) in their service attachment as Dannatt, rising as far as he did - see Jonathan Powell’s view of him in an earlier post.

Levene was Chief of Defence Procurement from 1985 to 1991, and appears in Alan Clark’s first volume of diaries (In Power) during his defence ministership (1989-1992). Clark, who wasn’t slow to form a poor opinion of his fellow-men, seemed to like him: “… Peter Levene, is thoroughly congenial. A quick mind - and so important – a sense of humour” (page 263). In February 1990, Clark was at odds with his boss, Tom King, over the conduct of the defence review addressing the new post-Cold War world.
Peter had an ingenious solution. To set up a ‘review Controllerate’ with him in charge, three Young Turks form the three services, reporting to me. Mouthwatering. … But Tom would see it a mile off. (page 280).
In April, Clark was in a state of exasperation after challenging senior army officers over a new piece of equipment:
I want to fire the whole lot. Instantly. Out, out. No 'District' commands, no golden bowlers, nothing. Out. There are so many good, tough keen young officers who aren't full of shit. How can we bring them on, before they get disillusioned, or conventionalised by the system? If I could, I'd do what Stalin did to Tukhachevsky. [Footnote: The purges of the Red Army in 1938-9 when three-quarters of all officers of field rank and above were put to the firing squads.] (page 291)
Five years later, Michael Bett (then with BT and who has recently stood down as Chancellor of Aston University) delivered a report to the MoD, Managing people in Tomorrow’s Armed Forces. This proposed a much simpler rank structure (see below for its impact on the army).

The rationale was given in paragraph 3.11:
Looking forward to 2010, we have identified a number of developments which suggest that significant rationalisation of the rank structure is necessary. … Most organisations in industry, commerce and government … have found that [such] 'horizontal' co-operation can be more effective if levels of authority are not emphasised and. the number of layers is kept to the minimum. This reduction in the number of layers is facilitated and enhanced by the availability of much better communications and by the higher level of general education attained by the work force. Simpler and often leaner structures, and more able people exercising more individual discretion seem to act very positively with modern information and communication technology.
Bett recommended the disappearance of the “five star” rank of Field Marshall, but apart from that, no significant changes to the rank structure were made. Whether Levene’s Defence Reform Unit’s equally radical proposals will be adopted should become clear by the end of the year.

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