April 1st is always a time in the UK military when significant changes seem to occur to structures or organisations. This appears to be tied in to the start of the new Financial Year, although given some of the decisions taken over the years, one can’t help but feel there is a more ironic intent in choosing the date. Sticking his parochial service hat on, Humphrey is still waiting for someone to confirm on April 1st that the longest running April fool of all time (namely the foundation of the RAF) is over, and that the 100 year experiment has ended early, but this is unlikely to happen. For the Royal Navy though, April 2nd this year marked a very significant change to a long established command structure which did not receive the attention it perhaps deserved.
Since the current government came to office, there have been two major reviews into the structure of the armed forces – namely the SDSR, and also the Levene Review. These reviews have tried to achieve reductions in costs through the culling of manpower, reduction in equipment holdings and changes to structures to conduct business ‘more efficiently’.
There was a clear desire in pretty much all political quarters ahead of the SDSR to cull numbers of civil servants (an easy vote winner for any party) and to reduce the fat and perception of a bloated chain of command. The image of out of date officers and bowler hatted civil servants dining in Whitehall clubs and ignoring the pleas for support from a poorly equipped front line is a powerful narrative, and one that many politicians of all hues like to invoke when discussing the department. Therefore the desire to see support areas, HQs and all the non-glamorous parts of defence cut ahead of the ‘Front Line’ is easy to understand.
The Levene Review was aimed at trying to align the structure of the armed forces, particularly their senior officers, and making it more aligned to both the post SDSR force structure, and also cutting numbers of support staff. Broadly speaking it was well received, even if media debate focused on the misleading impression that the Service Chiefs were losing influence in the Defence Board debate.
One of the key recommendations was that each service should slim down their command structure, and instead of having two 4* posts (the Service Chief and the CINC), there should only be one, with the title of Command in Chief being abolished. Another key recommendation was the establishment of a Joint Forces Command (JFC), which would strive to establish better control over the truly joint capabilities across all three services.
The report is a genuinely thought provoking and high quality read, and this author would strongly recommend interested parties take the time to read it – as a guide to how the department is likely to be structured over the next few years – the link is HERE. The MOD accepted the recommendations of the report in full, and has since moved to implement them.
For the Royal Navy this has meant a challenging nine month period as it strove to implement the review, and deliver significant cost savings. The end result has been a significantly streamlined structure which is perhaps more hollow than some may be comfortable with.
Since the final substantive withdrawal of UK forces from East of Suez in the early 1970s, the Royal Navy has been organised in a very straightforward manner – the First Sea Lord (4*) was the head of the Naval Service, and primus inter pares among the other Naval 4* officers. Day to day control of the Fleet was delegated to the Commander in Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET) who was based at Northwood, who was also dual hatted as a NATO Commander – CINCHANNEL and later CINCEASTLANT. For all intents and purposes the CINCFLEET role was the operational commander of almost all RN units (standfast the Deterrent) – while 1SL may have lead the Naval Service, the fleet was the CINCs to control. Traditionally the holder of the CINCFLEET post has been rotated into occupy the 1SL billet (although there have been exceptions, much to the disappointment, or in thankfully rare cases, relief, of the service!).
The key role of the 1SL post for over 40 years has been to act as a figurehead, a political officer to represent the Service in Whitehall, a source of advice to Ministers, and the individual responsible for representing the Service, and the Nations, wider interests. While ultimately responsibility for the actions of the Service rested with 1SL, to all intents and purposes the generation of the Fleet and exercising control over its day to day responsibility rested with CINCFLEET.
Until the early 1990s, there were two other 4* commands – Second Sea Lord (2SL), and also the CINC Naval Home Command (CINCNAVHOME), who were responsible for the tapestry of personnel management and naval shore base infrastructure in the UK. These were merged into a single 4* in the early 1990s, and then became a 3* position in the late 1990s.
Its immediately clear that the perception of a hidebound rank structure is simply untrue – since 1990 the RN has cut 75% of its in house 4* posts, and now only has occasional use of a wider 4* slot – either the CDS& VCDS post, or the odd NATO job – by any stretch of the imagination this is a significant reduction in posts.
The New Model Navy
Under the new structure, there is more than just token name changes to senior posts. There is wholesale root and branch reform to the command structure, merged with a very large reduction in manpower to support functions.
At the very top, the most notable change has been the adoption of the title FLEET COMMANDER for the current CINCFLEET (Adm Zambellas). In due course, when the Admiral changes post, or retires, then the post holder will become a 3* Officer. There will be no further CINC titles in the RN (the 2SL/CINCNAVHOME post has also been retitled to Chief of Naval Personnel and 2nd Sea Lord).
The next key change is the emphasis on the 1SL post taking on a much greater responsibility for exercising day to day control and leadership over the Service. Previously the Service Chiefs operated out of London, and delegated these roles to the CINCs. Now 1SL will be expected to take a much greater hands on role in leading and managing the Fleet (The Army and RAF are doing identical changes). In one way this is a good move, as it reconnects the senior leadership to the Service they represent, but at the same time it reduces the amount of time that the three Service Chiefs will be able to spend in Whitehall fighting the cause of their own service.
Instead, much greater emphasis on fighting the political battle is going to have to rest with the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (ACNS) who will be based in London and will perhaps have to shoulder more of the day to day staff burden than before. This author would recommend that people wishing to place bets on future Sea Lords could do far worse than to observe who is appointed into the ACNS post in future, as it will require the post holder to raise their game beyond that which is already played, and in many ways force them to be the face of the Service in Whitehall in a manner which has perhaps been conducted by the 4* officers.
One mild concern that Humphrey has is going to be the increasing reliance on a single 4* Officer to conduct a wide range of defence diplomacy and other tasks. While some may scoff, the reality is that to many external nations, a visit by a 4* officer is a significant occasion, and one that represents not only UK military, but also political interest. At this sort of level, the staff talks that occur almost certainly have to transcend that fine line between operational and military matters, and onto wider strategic discussions. Previously with two 4* Officers in service, it was easier to send out high powered naval delegations to conduct these visits, carry out staff talks, meet visiting ships, secure access to ports and do all the ‘schmoozing’ that is an essential and poorly understood means of securing UK interests and influence around the globe.
With the reduction of the CINCFLEET role, it is now going to fall far more heavily on 1SL to carry out these tasks, in a way that the new FLEET COMMANDER may not be able to do. This, coupled with the increased workload likely to result from the commitment to being in Portsmouth more regularly will make for a much busier senior officer. This will increase the reliance on high quality officers at the 1&2* level to support his workload, and ensure that more decisions are decentralised, rather than relying on pushing up to a more senior office.
One change not noted by the media, but which could have significant changes to the way that the RN works is the shift in responsibility for ‘force generation’ away from FLEET HQ in Portsmouth (Leach Building) and watch as it is delegated downwards to the three naval bases. Previously FLEET HQ desk officers spent much of their time handling the generation of assets to ensure delivery of a hull ready to achieve the commitment.
In other words, if the RN has a commitment to fill (e.g. West Indies Guardship), then the staff in FLEET were responsible for not only working identifying the platforms and working across the MOD to bring them up to speed, handling repairs, defect rectification and training, but also co-ordinating their programme for the deployment as well. Now the responsibility has been pushed downwards to the Naval Bases, where the engineering and support teams will work to ensure that a unit is ready for deployment to meet the schedule of the fleet programmers. A small change, but one that perhaps more accurately reflects how work was being done, and which, if it works, will help restore a balance in the system, where rather than having a 4* level HQ driving almost every aspect of force generation and deployment, instead it sits at a more appropriate level.
The proof will be in the pudding, but the reality is that with ever fewer units, the RN has to get the best possible utilisation from the hulls it is left with. It is vital that units are able to be worked up properly, and supported with training and spare parts to ensure that there is not a seamless break in the maintenance of commitments.
The personal view of this author is that this has potential to work well, but it will rely on staff not falling into the old trap of doing a ‘copy all’ email which then escalates problems back up the system, and suddenly rather than problems being sorted at the right level, there is a re-involvement of desk officers who had previously been removed from the process. This ties into this authors wider concern at the upwards delegation of authority within the MOD, where ever more senior officers are required to make decisions that previously had been taken at far lower levels. There is a danger that if not properly run, this process could end up not achieving its desired effect, unless strict email discipline is enforced!
Show me the the money
One thing to remember is that the changes introduced are just the start of a wider process of change, which if properly implemented will see the Naval Service gain much greater control of its budget, in a manner which it has not enjoyed for many years. There is a potential for the 1SL post to gain real budget control over spending on the Naval Service which will enable him to prioritise spending in a manner previously denied.
In the old planning round system, at its simplest (and this is a subject worthy of its own post) funding was allocated on a ranking system, with funding assigned across the board to those projects deemed worthy of support. This meant that individual Service priorities may not have been funded if another Services need was deemed to be of higher priority. The shift to giving greater control over the pot of money to Service Chiefs will help reduce the wrangling, or rather delegate it to within each Service, and enable the Navy to make a much more balanced decision about where its funding priority lies. In future, the Naval Service will decide on where to allocate the pennies, and not the Centre – in one way this is a positive development, even if it does mean that it will mean an end to the tired of myth of diktats from Whitehall informing where money should be spent. There is potential for mischief making though – potentially the RN could generate a ‘Maritime Patrol Aircraft’ requirement and if it chose to do so, fund it from within the RN budget. This author would be fascinated to see the RAF response to the RN trying to provide an MPA capability from RN funding…
Where are the People?
One key driver behind this change isn’t just a need to rationalise the RN in the post SDSR environment, but also to drive down headcount and reduce staff costs.
At present the RN is required to lose 5000 staff, and once the post SDSR fleet reductions have been taken out of the equation, there is still a need to shed staff to meet the revised manning total. Once you take out the front line units which require manpower, and can’t easily be touched, then you have a much smaller pool of people to draw on to make reductions. One of the reasons for the changes would seem to be a desire to reduce manning to match the structures put in place.
Put in context, the RN is creating a support structure which is far leaner than before and which is likely to get smaller still. There is going to be a real challenge to maintain shore billets which can provide expertise and support to deployed units. While this is achievable with current force levels, the RN does appear to be approaching a tipping point, where further cuts to manpower levels will have a far more significant impact than before – a further 10% cut to the RN would be the equivalent to having to sack every member of the Submarine Service.
This is worth remembering when people call for cuts to the back office administrators and civil servants – by all means cull the support staff, but identify what front line capability you no longer wish to have as a result. Right now, the authors very personal view is that we’re fast approaching the point where capability deletion, and not salami slicing is the only way future manpower cuts can be implemented.
A new Command, a new dawn?
The other key development on 2nd April was the formal standing up of Joint Forces Command at an Initial Operating Capability level, under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Peach (see the MOD press release HERE) The role of JFC is to provide a joined up approach to the increasing number of ‘Joint’ Units which are involved in military operations with the UK.
As an organisation it will ‘own’ PJHQ, the overseas operating bases, and a range of tri-service organisations including elements of Defence Intelligence, Defence Logistics, Cyber Defence and a range of other units.
On paper this seems a sensible move – PJHQ has been a huge success, and something which many other nations have tried, with varying degrees of success, to emulate. To an entire generation of British Military personnel, joint work is now the order of the day, and not single service. However, it was increasingly clear that there was no one organisation to take charge of all the joint organisations and provide leadership, management and direction to them. Indeed, it could be seen that some units perhaps suffered as they were ostensibly joint, but run under a single service role. By introducing JFC, it is possible to reduce the admin burden on these units, and provide clear direction to them. Similarly, it makes for a more sensible funding arrangement, and also to ensure that future joint developments make sense.
In theory the UK is moving towards what could be an extremely sensible operational model – the three service commands will be responsible for training, equipping and generating forces, in order for them to be assigned to JFC and PJHQ to exercise operational command over them. They will then work to the direction of the JFC / PJHQ while deployed, prior to being put back under single Service control on their return. This has huge potential, providing that no bunfights emerge. Under the old system, PJHQ was a 3* command, and effectively ran the operation on behalf of the services, whereas now JFC exists as an overarching body, it could be seen by some as a competitor for resources and influence.
In reality Humphrey suspects JFC will work well, and that within a few years it will be seen as an essential part of the structure of the military. The challenge is to ensure that the standing up of a new 4* post and associated admin adds real value to the system, and doesn’t clog it up. Based on what has gone on so far, Humphrey believes the former, rather than the latter, will be the case.
Command structures are not hugely exciting to most people, and don’t really represent much of interest to many people. But the recent changes to both the RN, and the standing up of the JFC are an extremely important change to the way that the UK military will conduct itself, and should be more widely looked at. Even though the front line kit won’t be changed, the way it is supported, trained and generated may well change, and this could have a major impact on the future of the military.