Tag Archives: Defence

A Hollow Force – The Least Worse Option?

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?

Of Plagues and Pestilence

Plague in the streets Picture via Medievalists.net

“There was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the Emperor Justinian,”

Over corpses which split open and rotted in the streets with nobody to bury [them];
• Over houses large and small, beautiful and desirable which suddenly became tombs….;
• Over ships in the midst of the sea whose sailors were suddenly attacked…and became tombs…and they continued adrift in the waves;
• Over bridal chambers where the brides were adorned but all of a sudden there were just lifeless and fearsome corpses…;
• Over highways which became deserted

Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Marhe: Chronicle, Known Also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin,
Part 3, translated Witold Witakowski (1996), pp74-75

“Then came Justinian’s plague, a world-historical event that killed a large part of the population, necessarily wrecking every imperial institution including the army and navy.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward N Luttwak,
The Belknap Press of Harvard University press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2009, Kindle loc 4092.

Interesting Times.

We live in interesting times. In many ways it feels like the Spring of 1939 and not Spring 2020. It is unlikely to presage the end of the world, but it does remind me of being in Iraq in the summer of 2008, watching the global financial crisis unfold, and thinking to myself that I was witnessing the end of an era.

My two takeaways from what we have seen so far are neither new nor earth shattering. We are going to see much more attention focused on security as a whole, encompassing resilience and by necessity (in the future) societal cohesion, and less attention to defence in the singular; and that the pandemic will accelerate already extant fissures, faultiness and by extension conflicts and instability.

Security versus Defence.

One thing that the pandemic has highlighted above all else except our inherent human frailty, is the importance of resilience. I suspect many have been unpleasantly surprised by the lack of resilience capacity. A perceived lack of Intensive Care Unit capacity, panic buying of toilet paper and a comprehensive shortage of medical PPE came as an unpleasant surprise to many. It should not have.

I attended a number of resilience conferences and workshops over the course of 2018 and 2019 and the themes of which were clear.

  • Our globalised system could deal with a regionalised issue, but no-one could envisage a globalised shock.
  • The complexity of the modern globalised system meant that resilience was assumed in and vulnerability assumed out because no-one could map the vulnerabilities effectively (the system was too complex).
  • National supply chain integrity could not be assured.
  • Most countries had outsourced critical components of the manufacturing base (or entire sectors) overseas. In some areas manufacturing had become highly centralised both geographically and corporately.
  • There was no spare (Role 3 or national civilian) medical capacity within Europe.
  • In some cases resilience capacity had been designed out – how many modern houses and flats have a pantry where you can store one to two weeks’ worth of food?
  • A less robust resilience capacity. Resilience costs, there are reasons why we have outsourced manufacturing overseas (it is cheaper) and stockpiles have largely been minimised or reduced all together (they cost to build up, maintain, and depreciate over time (hands up who can remember the impact of resource Account Budgeting on MOD stocks…).

I suspect therefore that resilience on its broadest sense will come to the fore. RUSI has been ahead of the curve here (full disclosure – I am a RUSI member) and in particular Elisabeth Braw (@elisabethbraw ) and RUSI’s Modern Deterrence programme.

The first function of government is not the defence of its people but, I would suggest, the security of its people, encompassing the ability to provide for their basic food, clothing and shelter requirements, maintaining public order and then defending from external hostile threats. As resilience costs, I suspect we may see a knock on to defence budgets.

The COVID-19 Accelerant.

The pandemic has stressed both national and international systems. At the national level governments are walking the tight-rope of preventing health systems from being over-whelmed through a strategy of containment, versus the economic and social impacts of a massive contraction in the economy caused by containment. Societal cohesion is being threatened. This is not new, but COVID-19 is exacerbating the extant fissures and inequalities. In the UK, as in the USA and India many families live pay cheque to pay cheque. India has put in place a lockdown, but does not have a robust system to provide food to its poor. In the USA the demand for foodbanks is growing exponentially. In San Antonio (Texas) – not a place normally noted for urban squalor and deprivation the San Antonio food bank fed 10,000 families last Thursday.
Governments are struggling to meet the immediate demands, recognising that meeting the immediate demands now will place stresses downstream.

One striking aspect of the pandemic is also the immediate reliance placed on those frontline workers who are (financially) often rewarded minimally: supermarket shop assistants, delivery drivers, care home staff and health care professionals. It would be foolish to think that this will not drive social and political appetite to address the wealth inequality the increasingly underpins modern societies and which has already been recognised as a growing issue of concern. If it is not an issue, the fact that this pandemic is also the world’s first infodemic where public health messaging has been delivered into a contested and sometime hostile information environment should also give us cause for concern about the impacts of this pandemic on cohesion and security.

Lastly the pandemic is likely to act as an accelerant on already extant international fissures. All international politics subordinate themselves to domestic considerations, and the pandemic has seen a perceived increase in unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism. The USA has arguably abdicated its role as world leader, the EU has confirmed its north south split, and the idea that the pandemic will hasten the roll back of globalization is not far-fetched.

We live in interesting times; I wish that we didn’t, but we do. Times of stress and crisis are also however, times of challenge and opportunity. Professionally we would do well to think on how to maintain an edge when means are limited. Certainly strategic and institutional agility will be a highly desirable commodity in the future.  The role that information and disinformation has played in this first infodemic of the 21st century should also give us pause for strategic and institutional consideration, not just on information, but the blurring lines between defence, security and the role of the military today. On a broader basis the pandemic should also challenge us to think of the why and wherefore of what we do as a society, I for one have never subscribed to the opinion that the worth of a person is rested in their economic output.

So, interesting times, may we rise to them.

Further Reading:

RUSI Modern Deterrence

Piketty Capital and Ideology