2 July 2011

Poor Jack and Harry

By the time David Cameron made his ‘you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking’ remark about the senior military at the PM's Press Conference on 21 June, he would almost certainly have given his approval to the recommendations in Lord Levene’s Defence Reform report published a few days later.

Descriptions of the proposals as the most far-reaching since Haldane’s reforms to the Army after the Second Boer War, and Fisher’s to the Royal Navy in the same period, are almost certainly overblown, but the changes probably amount to the biggest setback for the three single services since the removal in 1946 of their individual Secretaries of State from the Cabinet. In particular, Levene has recommended what is in effect the merger of the single Service Chief and respective Commander-in-Chief posts and their ‘rustication’, together with hangers-on, to service headquarters. Back in the MoD Head Office in London, a new Defence Board, answerable to the National Security Council, will consist of eight civilians and only the Chief of the Defence Staff to represent the views of the armed forces.

Something like this has been building up for a while. The cover of the Spectator on 11 June led with:
Who’s in command?
Sherard Cowper-Coles says politicians have let the top brass get too big for their boots

although his article was titled:
Breaking rank
Years of timidity from politicians have left our military commanders dangerously overconfident

and ‘too big for their boots’ was not an expression used by Sir Sherard (SC-C hereafter). SC-C was the UK’s senior diplomat in Afghanistan to 2010, and on the basis of his experience, he concludes:
A trend has set in where an overconfident and under-managed military machine fills a vacuum left by politicians, civil servants and diplomats unable or unwilling to provide firm strategic direction. The military is not just doing the fighting, but increasingly it is allowed to decide the overall direction of the campaign. Now that Barack Obama wishes to hasten the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with obvious implications for Britain, the military is protesting. In my view, this is a sign of a deep imbalance in the relationship between the military and the state. ...
Politicians with little or no military experience were being pushed by a confident and enthusiastic military lobby into doing things against their better judgment. War-winning armies need to be incurably optimistic, unquenchably enthusiastic, institutionally loyal, and — to some extent — susceptible to groupthink. The problem comes when the politicians, and the civil servants who advise them, don’t have the courage, knowledge or confidence to push back against pressure from one of the most effective special-interest lobbies of them all. ...
The civil servants in the MoD are clever and courageous, but have great difficulty asserting themselves over their professionally and personally confident colleagues in the uniform branch. The military now have much better academic qualifications than they did in the past. ...
Little wonder the British military are so assertive. They have the media and public on their side, they control the MoD and they are facing a political class that stands in bewildered awe of men in uniform. But with time and money running out, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are at last starting to take charge, and give the military the firm strategic direction they need — in their own interests — in a democracy.
In the article, SC-C paid tribute to the bravery and sacrifices of the UK’s armed forces in Afghanistan. Anyone who doubts his sincerity should read the Diplomatic Telegram, Tribute to the Fallen, recording the ‘ramp ceremony’ prior to the repatriation of Corporal Damien Lawrence of the Yorkshire Regiment in 2008, to be found at the start of his recent book, Cables from Kabul. The criticisms in the article were directed at the senior levels of the military, men in their late forties and fifties, who no longer have to engage in combat but have turned to fighting in the corridors of Whitehall.

The word military, either as an adjective or noun, is nowadays applied to all three forces (RN, Army, RAF) although historically it would have been applied to the Army, with the Senior Service being responsible for matters described as naval. While SC-C’s general point about weak political control of the armed forces is probably correct, arguably it is the British Army which should be bearing the brunt of his criticisms. A post here in April summarised the views of a well-placed insider on the relationship between the last government and the top of the Army, and a post in May gave a typical example of the adeptness with which retired senior Army officers lobby using the media. All this is with a greater confidence and assertiveness, to use the traits identified by SC-C, than has been shown in recent years by the other two services. Why should this be?

Obviously, since the end of the Cold War, land operations in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan have been the main preoccupation of the MoD. Also, the Army is larger in manpower terms, top to bottom, than the other two services – see below. But, as always in the UK, there is the issue of class. It has been said of the three services that the Army is led by gentlemen trying to be officers, the Navy by officers trying to be gentlemen, and the Air Force by neither trying to be both. This is unkind, but comes with an uncomfortable element of truth. Certain elements of the Army, the Guards regiments in particular, have always had a substantial intake of officers who come from the highest levels of society. That is not to say that the Navy and RAF are devoid of senior officers with an upper-class background, but not to the same extent. Substance for this assertion was provided by the Public Accounts Committee in 2007:
20. Of the 10 most senior staff in each Service, nine out of 10 Army officers, six out of 10 Royal Navy officers, and three out of 10 Royal Air Force officers were educated in independent schools. … The [MoD] sees the current officer intake to the Advanced Command and Staff Course as providing an indication of the likely composition of the future leadership of the Services: 58% of the intake of Army officers went to state schools; as did 70% of the Royal Navy officers; and 75% of the Royal Air Force officers.
It is hardly surprising that some Generals feel that they have a natural affinity with the Conservative party and correspondingly little identification with Labour. As most senior officers in their outlook are at least a decade behind the mainstream of British society, their vision of the Conservatives probably tends to be pre-Cameroon and non-detoxified, and of Labour, old rather than new. But they should have realised that, whatever their allegiance, Kipling’s observation on ‘The Ladies’, ‘For the Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady, Are sisters under their skins’, could apply equally well to politicians. In the nature of their trade, they are never slow to spot a ‘useful idiot’ and make use of him in pursuit of office, but once in government will take any steps they can to prevent erosion of their own power.

Now, defence in general and the positions of all three services have been weakened because of the way the Army chose to make its case in recent years, though the Army will probably come out of it all in relatively better shape. As James Kirkup blogged in the Daily Telegraph on 28 June: ‘Sacking soldiers makes for bad headlines; the PM is said to be especially squeamish about taking the axe to the posher, shinier bits of the Army.’ Which may leave the other two services like Sassoon’s Harry and Jack, casualties of the General who ‘did for them both with his plan of attack’.

Under the new arrangements, the occupant of the CDS post will be the prime source of advice on behalf of all three services, but will have been drawn from only one of them. The charts below show how this has worked out in practice since the inception of the post in 1957.

The second chart shows the different patterns of occupancy during the Cold War and afterwards. The RN's predominance in the Cold War period is largely due to Mountbatten’s exceptionally long period of service as the second CDS. Since the end of the Cold War, the Army has provided the CDS for the majority of the time (the charts assume the present incumbent remains in post for 1000 days).

Following the Levene reforms, it might be expected that the MoD will attempt a more balanced rotation of the CDS post, as was the case in the later part of the Cold War. If so, as the next chart shows, the proposed Defence Board Appointments Committee will be faced with a marked imbalance in the backgrounds of the senior service officers from whom it will have to make its choices.

  (See Daily Telegraph for source data (April 2011) and explanation of *s and ranks)

In the corporate world, which will presumably be familiar to some of the Non Executive Directors on the Defence Board (one of whom will be chairing the Appointments Committee), it is now common practice to look for top talent internationally. While it seems inconceivable that an overseas national could become CDS, the prospect of a Canadian or Australian, let alone someone from the US Marine Corps, even being considered, might concentrate 'assertive' minds wonderfully.

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