27 February 2016

The Top Brass (retd) Brexit Letter

On 24 February the Daily Telegraph published a letter from 12 retired very senior military officers addressing the security aspect of Brexit (as the more dramatic possible outcome of the June referendum on the UK’s leaving the European Union is known). Key extracts:
As former military officers, we think that it is time to consider the broader strategic issues. Between us we have led the Royal Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force, or held other senior positions in the military. … we are particularly concerned with one central question: will Britain be safer inside the EU or outside it? 
… Britain’s role in the EU strengthens the security we enjoy as part of Nato, adds to our capability and flexibility when it comes to defence co-operation and allows us to project greater power internationally. In a dangerous world it helps us to safeguard our people, our prosperity and our way of life. We therefore believe strongly that it is in our national interest to remain an EU member.
Originally the letter had 13 signatories. After its publication, various newspapers, for example the Guardian, explained that the letter had originated from Number 10. It was also revealed that Downing Street had had to apologise to one general for adding his name without his consent.

The word “military” tends to be misunderstood as referring solely to the Army, but correctly it is applicable (as in the letter above) to all three services. It is interesting, therefore, to consider the breakdown of the signatories by service (for the ranks see the note below):

The table raises two points. Firstly, I pointed out here five years ago that “One asset which British defence seems to possess in abundance is a large cohort of senior officers of all three services, serving and retired, …”. How big a cohort might that be? Well, in service currently there are about 100 men (mostly) of rank known as “three star” and above. Assuming that on average these people are in post for about three years, then retire at 60 and die at 80, it follows that for each one now working (and there were rather more than 100 a decade or two ago), there are six or seven predecessors enjoying their retirement. So Number 10 should have been able to call on, by my guesstimate, about 700 sound chaps but only alighted on 12.

Secondly, these “about 100” top posts have always been shared almost exactly among the three services, yet in the letter there are seven Army former top brass to one RAF. That is to say, only one RAF retiree among well over 200 who might have been approached. Odd, but then the referendum is becoming an increasingly odd business producing unlikely alliances. There is even one school of thought that whether the result is leave or remain, Boris Johnson will become the next leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister with hands then on so many levers of power. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported on 22 January that:
A senior RAF officer who commanded Britain’s 2011 intervention in Libya has been chosen to be the next Chief of the Defence Staff. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach will take over the post as head of the military later this year after beating candidates from the Army and Navy. Sir Stuart was a surprise choice after being chosen ahead of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, and Gen Sir Richard Barrons. The Prime Minister is believed to have met all three candidates in recent weeks to choose a replacement for the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton.
Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, has long held the view that:
I think he is the most ruthless, ambitious person I have ever met. (Introduction to Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, 2011)
Whether under Boris’s affable exterior, there is a man with a long memory for his friends and for his enemies, I don’t know, but the RAF, typically shrewdly, seem to have kept their distance. As for the argument expressed in the letter, there are other views. For example, those of General Sir Michael Rose, who would have been the 13th man and who told Sky News:
I have doubts about the wisdom of using military officers for a political campaign. I happen to believe sovereignty and security are intrinsically linked and in recent years we've seen the EU erode our sovereignty.

Notes on the Table

Anyone really interested in the breakdown by rank will probably understand the “Star” and "NATO Equivalent" column headings and can study the signatories’ titles in their letter. But this might help:

OF8, 3 Star: Vice Admiral, Lt General, Air Vice Marshal
OF9, 4 Star: Admiral, General, Air Marshal
OF10; 5 Star: Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal, Marshal of the RAF.

The 5 Star rank is no longer used for Chiefs of the Defence Staff who are now 4 Star like the individual service chiefs. However, they seem to be given the higher rank on an honorary basis on retirement – only the Brits …

Royal Marine officers are probably counted as part of the RN for these arcane astronomical purposes.

UPDATE 29 February

The Times today has a pro-Brexit article, Don’t count on the EU to protect us. Nato will do that, by a retired Rear Admiral and in the Sun two former Major Generals and a Commodore are opining under the heading Falklands heroes call for Britain to leave the European Union. So the Notes above need to be extended:

OF7; 2 Star: Rear Admiral, Major General, Air Vice Marshal
OF6; 1 Star: Commodore, Brigadier, Air Commodore

There are probably more than 70 OF7s and 200 OF6s currently in post, so the total retired cohort (using the rule of thumb above) could be as many as 2000. And there are 115 days to go before Referendum Day!

UPDATE early March

The big guns seemed to fall silent, at least temporarily, in late February following a withering barrage from a former Royal Marine “OF7 2 Star”, Major General Julian Thompson, in the Daily Telegraph: I fought for Britain and I know how the EU weakens our defences, The myth that leaving the EU would harm British national security must be destroyed once and for all.  He attacked what he regards as four common myths which obscure understanding of why “membership of the EU weakens our national defence in very dangerous times”.

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