Sunday, 5 February 2012

Stars and their P45s. The downsizing at the top that has yet to occur.

The Daily Telegraph posted an article recently which suggested that there had been minimal downsizing in  the MOD senior echelons -  (for the purposes of this article defined as 2* and above), and that only seven officers had been removed from a pool of 137. This is seen as a gross failure of duty, and something that compares badly to the way that our brave boys have been treated.

The link is -here:

While Humphrey is supportive of the view that we need to match our plot of senior officers to the overall size of the forces, he would suggest that 137 senior officers, out of a total military force (including reservists) of approximately 200,000 is not a bad figure - less than 0.1% of military strength.

The problem here appears to be one of misunderstanding about the role of senior military figures. There has long been a love hate relationship in the British press, and wider popular folklore about the role that military figures play. There is a love of the brave Tommy, admiration for the subalterns, and near derision for anyone who occupies a senior job (more usually Colonel or above). Somehow in the British mindset, the same people who as Subalterns were brave heroes of blighty have become transformed into anonymous Whitehall warriors, deskbound, unwilling to change and unable to lead or manage. Clearly something occurs to them at some point in their career to allow this transformation to occur, but it is far from clear as to what this may be.

The public understand defence at a local level - much of the wider understanding of the role that the military played in WW2 has been informed for the last 40 years by the memories of those who served at more junior levels. By the 1970s the last senior officers from the war were beginning to die off, and those who were left in society had occupied far more junior roles. This author would argue that public attitudes towards the military, 'support for the troops and contempt for the brass' owes much to people growing up in the 50s and 60s and talking to the generation who served. Even this current generation still has regular contact with people who have fought in WW2, although it is likely to be the last to which this applies.

The point is that the institutional memories passed on to today's population about the military often stem from these experiences (and those of national servicemen too), who were often very junior, and while very brave, had little exposure to the strategic governance or conduct of operations. Their recollection is one of seeing few officers, and not seeing how the campaign was directed, instead merely suffering as it was fought at the front. This in turn means that people today hear of brave soldiers, but few hear of the control of the campaigns - this is a subject reserved for academics and not people listening to Uncle Tom telling for the 450th time his story of how 'he and his mate Harry were shafted by the bloody officers'.

As such, this has led to a near institutionalised mistrust of officers, and particularly Generals and the roles that they fulfil. People understand what a private or NCO does to a point - it's something their older relatives were, and today watching the plethora of good TV shows about HERRICK or TELIC, it's possible to see the current crop of troops fighting. People do not understand the role of a Staff Officer, nor how the current top level of military management is conducted.
In the case of the article, it is true that only a smaller number of senior officers have stood down (although the loss of 7 officers represents an over 5% headcount reduction overall, akin to firing nearly 450 ABs in the RN). Despite this, it has not been clearly explained why this reduction appears to be so small.

In the initial tranche of redundancies brought about by SDSR, the military intentionally chose to downsize at the more junior level - the loss of platforms, aircraft fleets and other capabilities meant that a bulge of manpower existed at relatively junior levels built around sustaining equipment or capabilities that no longer existed. Similarly entire training programmes or support units existed to sustain aircraft that would never fly again. There was a glut of manpower in the system relative to the revised requirements - therefore rather than have several thousand people sitting around without a job, it was deemed appropriate to begin downsizing them immediately.

To that extent, the early redundancy figures for the military have been built around the notion of getting the manning balance right at the bottom - clear out the people who no longer have a career stream, and reduce manning in line with new expectations. Harsh, brutal, but probably for the best. What is more soul destroying - being in the forces but in limbo with no job, no role and no idea what the future holds, or at least knowing what you need to do to in order to find new work.

For the seniors though, the role is less easy to define. Senior officers exist to direct or command large organisations, often responsible for managing thousands of staff and millions of pounds of expenditure. While sacking them may be politically tempting, removing the head of an organisation without actually removing the organisation itself seems futile - a token gesture to downsizing that achieves nothing, makes the problem worse and doesn't actually solve anything as someone still has to do their job.

What instead is occurring is that since SDSR, several root and branch reviews have been, and are being, carried out to look at the structure of the military and its future organisation. Loosely termed Force 2020, these are the means by which the military will seek to restructure themselves in future years. This takes time - when you are dealing with organisations employing thousands of people, you don't want to rush to a decision in case it causes major strategic damage to the MOD. Instead, there is a need to review all the moving parts, and then reach a decision as to what sort of structure the department needs in order to best manage and lead its people.

This takes time - it's not just the commitment to reviewing the posts, but the time taken to implement the change and disestablish entire organisations that follows. It will take 2-3 years to see major changes in the 2* plot, not because of a resistance to change - far from it. It takes that long because deleting a 2* post often means major changes to the way business is conducted. So, while the headline may be accurate, the sentiments are not. The military is changing, and is changing quickly. But while there is a need to bring about reductions, this needs to be done in a measured manner, and ensure that the force structure created is one that best suits our needs.

The next part of this short series will try to look in more depth at the roles that 2* Officers play in the services, and seek to explain why there are 130 of them, and hopefully address the myth that there are more Admirals than ships...


  1. Look forward to the "next part". I hope it addresses the transition these senior officers undergo from Military / Civil Service to "Political appointees". That is, once they attain 2 Star they are in line for automatic gongs (CB is the norm for civilian 2 Stars) and no longer consider themselves part of their Service. This is the grade/rank at which staffs become protected species and are rarely, if ever, criticised in official reports.

    MoD will not like you addressing this, but I suggest your starting point is the Tench Report from the mid-70s, which successive MoD regimes withheld as it was simply too embarrassing. Their failure to implement the recommendations has led, directly and indirectly, to the utter mess we see in MoD today.

  2. I distrust senior officers because I went to both Iraq and Afghanistan believing that the Army was effective and well led. On both counts I was disappointed and baffled by the failure of the 1 stars and above ( who I worked for and with ) to see further beyond their 6 months tour and their subsequent report.

    We were defeated in Basra and Helmand very largely by the inability or unwillingness of senior officers to understand things that were self evident to those at BG level and below. Those two campaigns have been a tough school for junior to mid level officers. Given the lack of opportunity to promote in the next couple of years many will be lost, along with their hard earned experience. With remedying that in mind, and as a form of punishment for failure which has hitherto escaped our seniors

  3. ( ctd... ) I wholeheartedly support a cull.

  4. A valiant rearguard action was fought by Sir Humphrey, but sadly he failed to convince the masses.
    I believe the Army has 10 times as many generals as it has divisions, more admirals than ships, and I don't believe we need as many very senior officers to fill the senior posts in various organisations such as NATO,Washington and the UN.

  5. I was brought up to respect the expertise and objectivity of senior officers. The more I find out, the less I find out that this is supported by evidence.

  6. "...137 senior officers, out of a total military force (including reservists) of approximately 200,000 is not a bad figure - less than 0.1% of military strength."

    How does this ratio compare to 1945, when millions were mobilised?

    "...removing the head of an organisation without actually removing the organisation itself seems futile.."

    Why does the RAF have both a 4* CAS and a 4* CinC Air Cmd? Which organisation does Air Cmd's new 2* 'Executive Officer' head up?

    You are a poorly disguised, retired senior brown job and I claim my £5.

  7. I'm still working on part two, which will focus a little more on the in depth roles of senior officers.

    However, all three services are going to one 4* each within months - the RN plot is going to be one 4* and two 3*s (the RAF will be the same), plus a small number of 3* jobs.

    The Levene review is being implemented and grade deflation ocurring across all three services.

    In answer to the above poster though, I am emphatically not any of the following, as those who know me in real life can attest!

    a) Retired
    b) Former army
    c) Anywhere near (or likely to be) able to have stars on my shoulders!

  8. Having spent many years in MOD I am truly convinced that we have about 90% too many senior officers in all three services. This is not a joke. It is a joke that we have so many. Why do we need so many senior medical/engineer/education etc officers? All their activity, and those of many others is duplicated in each service. They should be ashamed at hiding behind their comfy and protected positions when so many of the foot soldiers are being made redundant and homeless. Or is this just a case of the minister being incapable of taking-on senior military officers?

  9. I suspect that the media still thinks of admirals in the sort of Nelson/Jellicoe/Cunningham role, rather than as administrators. So they just don't 'get' what these officers are doing, hence the headlines about more admirals than ships.

  10. What do these Whitehall Warriors actually do ?

    I'm having difficulty visulising what the majority do.

    I can understand the need for 24/7 staffing in some cases. But when you combine the Civil Servants with the Military, that is a very large number of "bums on seats" for the size of our armed forces and the operations that we have in progress.

    1. I'm sure Sir Humphrey will eleborate, but I can make a guess, plus like the vast majority of public servants they won't work in Whitehall.
      For example there are several shore-based commands that are no doubt filled by 2 stars, others may be Chiefs of Staff to more senior officers, defence attaches etc, and that's even before we get onto officers involved in procurement, or administration posts that need someone of at least 2* rank.

  11. I'd add that I find it surprising that somone could find something that represents 0.1% of military strength a problem.

  12. What Humphrey has failed to point out is that for every 2* and above, there is an entourage of staff, purely employed to pander to his needs - chefs, admin, stewards, drivers, personal staff officer, aide-de-camp. Then of course there is the heavily subsidised accommodation for him and his staff...

    Cut one 2* or above and you also cut off about 10 hangers-on - probably saving about £1 million per year in salaries, accommodation, travel & allowances.

    Cut 50 of them and we are well on the way to balancing the defence budget!

  13. I think there is a dramatic misunderstanding as to the level of support 2*s get nowadays. Most 2* officers have two direct staff - usually a Flag Lieutenant equivalent, and a Military Assistant (SO1). Some at higher levels may have a secretary too.
    The drivers no longer exist, unless you are a 4* or a couple of 3*s. Instead they rely on access to a small pool of vehicles to collectively service their transport requirements.
    There are very few official residences now, and those that do exist are used heavily for entertaining foreign officers, dignitaries or other useful diplomatic functions. Never underestimate how much valuable business can be done in an informal dinner environment -as with most international conferences, the real work is done around the coffee.

    As for the small number of officers with a steward - this makes a lot of sense. As Stephen Ambrose noted about the US army, they struggled in WW2 because their field officers had no stewards to take care of their personal admin. This meant they had to spend time doing that, and not looking after their troops.

    In a very busy job requiring regular changes of uniform, random receptions and meals, it would seem to make sense to have access to someone to handle your personal admin, so that you can focus on doing the job you are paid to do.

    Again, very few senior officers get such entourages outside of the Service Chiefs and a couple of others in specific positions.

    Its probably worth asking how many senior industry types have no office or support staff, and how much they spend on dining out on corporate hospitality and so on. The forces are not unique in this.

  14. Good reply from Sir Humphrey. Things have moved on a little since the days when my first RN boss, a Commander (= Lt Colonel, Wg Cdr), had two secretaries, a writer, a driver (and exclusive use of plush car), a gardener and a whopping great expense account. The driver even had his own office with annex. Following cutbacks, the gardener retired and the driver had to fulfill both duties. Ah, diddums.

  15. "when you are dealing with organisations employing thousands of people, you don't want to rush to a decision in case it causes major strategic damage to the MOD. Instead, there is a need to review all the moving parts, and then reach a decision as to what sort of structure the department needs in order to best manage and lead its people."

    Yet this is EXACTLY what DE&S has done. Letting (or should I say paying up to £80k) many essential, skilled staff to leave and, in many cases to take up posts in consultencies and contractors where their services are sold back to MOD to fill in for the gaps left when the people moved out. And doing this in an obscene haste to meet manpower cuts whilst the studies on the future shape of the DE&S are still ongoing. Not to mention the total pointlessness of the Materiel Strategy - as everyone except Mr Grey knows the problems of the DE&S are almost entirely rooted in Whitehall and the Treasury. Reorganising DE&S , turning it into a trading fund or a quango is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as long as Main Building, the Treasury and Whitehall work as they do.