Can Fox break the power of Army, Navy, RAF chiefs?
Top brasshats set to be booted out of Whitehall
Analysis Last week, the Defence Secretary announced the publication of the Levene report into the way the UK Ministry of Defence is run: and Dr Fox stated that he agrees with all the recommendations it makes. The MoD has formally announced that it "will publish a blueprint setting out all the major changes the Department is embarked on later this year".
So, what's on the cards down at the MoD?
In outline, the three single services – and their chiefs – will lose massively in power and influence: and there will be an attempt to create a Joint Forces Command which will be the first step towards a future in which the services actually expect to work together as routine, rather than only when forced to or when there's a war on.
From left: First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Peter Wall, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton are to lose their collective mojo.
The Levene report says that the First Sea Lord, the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff – heads of the navy, army and air force respectively – should be booted out of MoD Main Building on Whitehall and made to go and sit in their service headquarters outside London. They will be allowed to leave behind only a small number of staff types to fight their Service's corner in the corridors of power, and these rump contingents will be headed by mere two-star officers: a rear-admiral, a major-general and an air vice-marshal. If they commanded combat formations, such officers would be important indeed – the entire British Army can put into the field only one or two formations worthy of being commanded by a major-general – but among the mandarins of Whitehall, many of whom are equivalent to three-, four- and even five-star military officers, they will be insignificant small fry.
We would expect the single Service staffs currently situated in the Head Office to move to their Service Headquarters. But while the focus of the Service Chiefs' time and effort will be on their Command they will need to maintain office space and a support staff in London. This should be headed at two-star level ...
Then, the three Chiefs will no longer sit on the Defence Board, either. They will be sitting out in the countryside while the real decisions get made in London. Only the Chief of Defence Staff, the UK's top uniformed officer, will be in the room: and he may care nothing for the interests of those services which he didn't grow up in.
That might not matter. Long ago, Mrs Thatcher and her then Defence minister John Nott planned to gut the Royal Navy. Before the cuts could go into effect, Argentina invaded the Falklands. The RAF could do almost nothing about the situation: the Army very little*. The navy won the war and massively boosted Mrs Thatcher's political career in the process. Shortly thereafter, perhaps recognising that she and Nott might have been at fault, Mrs Thatcher instituted the principle which remains in force to this day: that a Service chief has direct access straight to the Prime Minister – going over the heads not just of the Chief of Defence Staff, but over the entire Defence ministerial team as well.
In effect, then, it won't matter that the Chiefs are shut out of the room: if they don't like the decisions that are made, they can go over the Defence Secretary's head straight to Number 10.
But perhaps not any more from this autumn. Levene writes:
The Service Chiefs also have a long history of advising the Prime Minister on the employment of their Service. While ordinarily they report and tender advice through the CDS to the Defence Secretary, the freedom to represent advice as guardians of their Service direct to the Prime Minister as a last resort was formalised in the 1984 White Paper, 'The Central Organisation of Defence'. A mechanism for the Prime Minister and Service Chiefs to meet when required to discuss the health and morale of their Service seems entirely reasonable. However, we would not expect this to cut across the clear lines of accountability that we have set out for the management of the Department, with corporate decision making lying with the new Defence Board and CDS’s position as the Defence Secretary's and the Government's principal military advisor strengthened.
So the Chiefs are well and truly shut out, perhaps. And more: to keep them out of mischief, they are to be given work. Normally, all the units and operations of a given Service are handled day-to-day by the relevant Commander in Chief, a four-star officer under the four-star head of that Service. But now these three C-in-Cs (CinCs Fleet, Land and Strike) are to disappear, meaning that the boss himself will have a lovely big HQ with maps and counters to move about and so forth to keep him occupied.
Increasing the role of the Service Chiefs in the running of the Commands would also reduce the requirement for a separate 4 star Commander-in-Chief. Removing the post would streamline top-level decision-making, simplify lines of accountability for Service outputs, remove duplication between the posts and also provide impetus to the leaning of the senior leadership. We have considered the effect on talent management and potential operational considerations but, on balance, we have concluded that these posts should be removed. We recognise that the Service Chiefs would still need to delegate some of the running of the Command (not least given their continuing representational duties). The Department should look to do this within the current structure at 3 star level.
There are certainly plenty of spare brass hats kicking about in the hierarchy to help, so that shouldn't be too hard.
So, having thoroughly emasculated the three single-Service chiefs, there should be room for the new Joint Forces Command to muscle in, finally giving the idea of joint operations as much status as the single services have. Levene says as much in black and white:
The JFC should be led at 4 star level. He/she should report to CDS ... The Commander JFC should hold similar status as the single Service Chiefs to ensure appropriate traction across Defence. He/she should sit on the Chiefs of Staff Committee, representing joint requirements on Chiefs of Staff (Armed Forces) and as the proponent for joint effect on Chiefs of Staff (Operations).
Indeed, as the Joint Force Command boss will presumably still be in Whitehall HQ, he will in effect have more status than the single-service heads. This may be even more the case as he will be the boss not only of the Directorate of Special Forces – which will confer a lot of clout – but of the Permanent Joint Headquarters, PJHQ. Until now this wouldn't necessarily mean a great deal, but PJHQ is set perhaps to become what it was always meant to be – the main British combat ops headquarters. At the moment the three Service CinCs still get to play with their train sets a lot of the time, only handing them over to PJHQ as required, but that may be about to change.
In principle, and to simplify roles, the Department should look to make PJHQ responsible for all military operations. The Department should consider whether those operations not currently run by PJHQ should transfer to it ... force generation should be the responsibility of the single Services, force employment should be conducted on a joint basis through PJHQ unless there are exceptional reasons of operational effectiveness to do otherwise. Application of this principle would ensure full exploitation of the operational focus, connectivity, relationships and facilities of PJHQ. The Department should consider whether the operations that do not currently follow this principle, notably maritime operations, including the deterrent, security of UK airspace and UK Resilience, should continue to be led by the single Services.
Or in other words, the Service heads may retain their headquarters, maps etc but in fact they will almost never be in charge of what their people are doing: another blow to their prestige, and another boost for that of the Joint Force Command.
If all this happens, it will be a fairly seismic shift at the MoD: the Joint way of doing business might actually gain ascendance, as any smart officer would have his sights set on an interesting career at PJHQ and the Joint command in Whitehall, actually involved with operations and action, rather than boring routine work in his Service HQ out of town sorting out training and recruitment and leave rosters etc.
It's probably a good thing, as anyone who knows the MoD would admit that foolish interservice squabbling is one of the main factors paralysing it. That said, any such knowledgeable person would enter the caveat that Joint could be a disaster if it turned out merely to mean one Service achieving dominance over the other two (which would be the most disastrous varies with the commentator).
Then, Lord Levene and his co-authors come out with an idea which will be very popular with everyone except officers from the middle to senior ranks:
The Department should reduce the size of the senior cadre of Defence and the management levels below it. To enable this, the Department should review all non- front line military posts from OF5 (Captain / Colonel / Group Captain) and civilian posts from Band B (Grade 7), to determine the need for the post, whether it needs to be civilian or military, and optimum management structures ... the Department should manage senior individuals' performance robustly and must be willing to replace those whose performance falls short.
The only problem with this is that it doesn't go far enough: all three services are vastly overmanned from OF3 (Lieutenant-Commander/Major/Squadron-Leader) level on up, and the MoD civilians are probably even worse.
In fact it would probably be a good idea to get rid of some of the officer ranks altogether. There are no fewer than ten (or theoretically eleven) levels of rank and no more than five are really required by combat organisations: this means that at many ranks there is no possibility of holding a combat command, tending to mean even more swivel-chair hussars than there would otherwise be. But Levene felt unable to tackle this issue.
In any case, interservice strife and the overmanning at senior levels which feeds it are only two of the problems which cause the MoD to let itself down so badly and so routinely. The other big one – and it is much, much bigger – is the MoD's relationship with the British weapons industry. This sees it always buy expensive kit off short production runs and then pay massively to maintain that kit in sweetheart deals with the manufacturers: no matter that better and cheaper could be bought elsewhere.
Lord Levene and his colleagues essentially ignore this issue, and seek to pretend that the problems lie only inside the MoD:
The Chief of Defence Materiel (CDM) should be a member of the Defence Board ... reflecting DE&S's role as the Department’s primary interface with industry and owner of the vast majority of the Department’s commercial risk, the CDM should have the lead responsibility for Defence industrial and commercial policy and functions ... on support, there is the potential to build on the trend over the last decade and move towards the greater involvement of industry in supporting military capabilities both at home and on operations ...
We understand that current MOD and cross-departmental organisational structures do not allow for the optimal delivery of Government support to defence exports ... Further work on this is needed ...
If all this goes wrong, it would mean that industry gets a (louder) voice on the Defence board just as uniformed representation gets seriously thinned out. But then to be fair, senior uniformed officers have seldom shown any appetite for trying to resist the huge political pressure to buy from factories in the UK regardless of price, regardless of quality and regardless of the fact that the resulting products are always dependent on support from the US and other foreign nations anyway. So we probably won't lose much by it.
On the whole, then, a fairly large shakeup seems to be on the cards which could turn out OK if we're lucky. It would be nice to think that the process was under control of a man with a bit more grasp on the nitty-gritty of defence, however.
Liam Fox: facing criticism
Announcing the Levene report – and plainly smarting from criticism to the effect that it might have been a poor idea to axe the Royal Navy's carriers in light of the subsequent Libyan fighting – Dr Fox said:
Let me take head on the persistent claim that the nature of our operations in Libya, and the cost of them, would be different had we an aircraft carrier and the Harrier in service. The truth is that we still would have based RAF Tornados and Typhoon to Italy for the air to air role and to carry the precision weaponry such as Stormshadow or Brimstone that Harrier cannot carry.
In fact the Harrier was the first British aircraft to be cleared for the latest Paveway IV smartbombs – the main weapon now in use by British planes over Libya – ahead of the Tornado and the Typhoon, as the RAF will tell you. Indeed, Typhoon was not an operational bomber at all until a rush effort after Libya had kicked off, and had not been planned to become one for years, whereas Harrier was. Harrier, in fact, was equipped for Brimstone: and the latest GR9 Harriers could easily have had Storm Shadow too – if Storm Shadow were any use, which it is not.
Poor work, Dr Fox. It would have been a lot better to admit that the Defence review was badly mucked up in that respect – and in others rather more important. ®
*The land forces which retook the islands had to be transported, supplied and in many aspects supported by sea. Many of them were Royal Marines – part of the navy, not the army – and the lead brigade, 3 Commando, was a primarily Royal Marine formation. Both it and the follow-on 5 Brigade, which saw less fighting and did less well, were under the command of a Royal Marine general.