It seems apparent that the institutions of Britain are fraying, and the military is not alone in this. While the RAF may have termed the last twelve months its ‘annus horriblis’ it is the Army that appears to be bearing the brunt from service accommodation to hollow divisions. How did we get here?
Julian Lindley-French is as trenchant as ever on his blog: “Government is always about hard choices, but it is precisely because successive British governments have either failed to make such choices, or on the few occasions when they have it has invariably been the wrong choice driven by short-term politics rather than national strategy. The High Establishment even have a metaphor for kicking the British can down the global road – managing decline. They are not particularly good at even doing that.”
A slightly less trenchant perspective, but no less cutting, is afforded by Professors Uttley and Dorman of King’s College London in their written evidence to the Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee for its recently published report titled ‘Defence Concepts and capabilities: from aspiration to reality’ that was recently covered by WavellRoom. The report is well worth reading, as is the supporting material. I wish to highlight the following from Professors Uttley and Dorman as being salient to where we are now.
- “the MoD is currently making short-term year-on-year decisions to balance its in-year budget. The result has been a series of short-term capability reductions.” (p.3)
- “There is ample evidence that HMT and MoD relationships have historically been antagonistic. Part of this is structural: HMT seeks to control expenditure and government departments seek to maximise their budgets. In other words, the MoD is no different from any other large spending department. But it should also be remembered that HMT has, at times, been very supportive of defence as was the case during rearmament in the 1930s.”(p. 5)
- “As a large spending area, the MoD has historically been a primary area for budget raiding because of its expenditure programme is one of the largest across government. Moreover, given the high level of capital investment it is an area where substantial savings can be made relatively quickly should a major programme be cancelled.” (p.5)
- “As Robert Self has suggested, HMT has required close supervision of the MoD because of its consistent inability to live within its budget and demonstrate rules of financial discipline, leading to inquisitorial dealings with the MoD. In effect, the MoD has been viewed by HMT as a ‘recidivist over-spender’.” (p.5) (5 Robert Self, Making British Defence Policy, (Routledge: Abingdon), 2022, Ch. 8.)
- “The UK’s national strategy as a post-WWII residual great power has been based on minimising strategic shrinkage and balancing between a range of sub-strategies. This includes balancing the Britain’s maritime and European continental commitments, as well as investment choices between conventional and nuclear investment, and the maintenance of the special relationship with the US via NATO verses closer integration with mainland European attempts to create security architectures.” (p. 6)
It seems to me that this captures nicely the context of MoD decision making, in both micro and macro over the past few decades. It covers the ‘what’ very nicely, without necessarily going in to the detail of the ‘why’. For this I turn to Sir Peter Ricketts who was the British Government’s first National Security Adviser and, from 2006 until 2010, the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of H.M. Diplomatic Service. In the excellent RUSI podcast Talking Strategy Sir Ricketts expounds at length on strategic decision making as he experienced it.
- “My experience of democratic politicians are that they are hopeless at strategy making. There is nothing in the training, development required to be a senior political leader that prepares them to think or act strategically.” (2.25)
- “. . . an overarching national strategy which is what I understand by the term ‘Grand Strategy’ I found from my experience to be pretty much impossible in the rough and tumble of politics which is all about the short term. My experience has been that politicians tend to run a mile when the word strategy is mentioned.” (2:56)
- “In the Civil Service the word strategy is bandied about for any document that tries to take a rounded view of any problem. So in the Foreign Office we had strategies for every single country in the world and every single issue we were following, a human rights strategy, a climate change strategy, a conflict prevention strategy and so on. What we tried to do in the National Security Council when I set that up for David Cameron in 2010, is to take a step back and look at all the risks and threats which were on the government’s list relevant to the UK, I think it was a list of about 80 of them, and to try and make a choice thereof what we thought were the most likely risks to occur and if they did those that would have the most impact … and then we sat down and with that long list of risks and we produced a matrix of likelihood and impact if the risk happens. And we made choices, we chose twenty risks, we prioritised them between top tier, second tier and third tier risks, and to me that is the essence of strategy making at the top level of government. It’s not about listing every single ambition or aspiration that you have and reassuring citizens that you are doing something about it. It’s making choices, it’s setting priorities, and that’s a thing that I found politicians are very leery of doing. Because when you make choices you leave somebody in the Cabinet disappointed. When you set priorities you can be almost sure that there will be some disruptive event come along (sic) and then you will be criticized for having set the wrong priorities.” (3:56)
Taking all this in to consideration, I was struck by a comment made at an informal dinner recently by some very senior officers. Those of us in the trenches may despair at Army HQ and the MoD, but they are staffed by bright people doing their best, and by and large our leadership are capable and effective too. So what are we to make of their decision making? In talking about the current crop of Service leaders, the point was made that “of course, decision making at that level is all about making the least worst decision”.
So perhaps we are where we are because that was the least worst option available to us? And if so, what needs to change so that the best option available is not simply the least worst option?