Monday, 25 June 2012

Situation Vacant: Danish Chief of Defence Staff, apply within.

Meeting with Scandinavian colleagues recently, Humphrey was told about the latest interesting military appointment in Denmark. Not a phrase one usually expects to see (standfast Hamlet), but in this case, a well-deserved one.
Gen Bartram (Copyright
The new Danish Chief of Defence Staff took up post a couple of months ago following what can best be described as an open job competition. Rather than the previous approach, more usually seen around most NATO countries, whereby the 3* heads of Service are in competition, the Danish Government decided to advertise the job openly.
In theory, anyone in the country was eligible to apply, and the rumour was that at least one fast food franchise manager had applied for the job (“Do you want fries with that airstrike Prime Minister?”). The successful applicant (General Peter Bartram), was an in service military candidate, but by no means an experienced senior officer. The General was serving as a local acting Brigadier in a NATO post, but apparently had some strong ideas about the path of reform in the Danish military. He was successfully interviewed, and promoted from OF5 to 4* Officer.

A glance at his CV ( shows an officer whose last operational command was in KFOR back in 2003 as an SO1. Given the proportionately very large commitment by Denmark to both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is surprising that he has not seemingly got any direct operational experience of either theatre.
This is a genuinely interesting appointment. On the one hand there has apparently been a strong reaction from those who felt that the post should have gone to an existing senior officer, who had experience of commanding and leading a service. The argument went that how can an officer who has not worked at the 2&3* level be able to represent the best interests of the Military as a whole, particularly in NATO?

There is some validity to this argument, many senior officers grew up working in close proximity to each other (particularly NATO experienced Officers), and there is much to be said for the bond of trust and friendship that emerges over time. General Bartram, although an experienced officer, will not have the same relationship with other CDS equivalents – he is at least 10-15 years their junior. Similarly, his lack of wider exposure to leading a service, coupled with his wider time in NATO does raise the question – is he able to effectively represent the interests of the Danish Military to the Prime Minister of the day?

On the flip side, there is much to commend this appointment. While it is unusual in peacetime to see accelerated military promotion, a quick glance at the annals of WW2 shows a large number of very young Brigadiers and above appointed during the war. In the British Army, Enoch Powell, although largely exorcised from history now due to some of his later political statements, began WW2 as a 27yr old Private and ended it as a 33 yr old Brigadier. Similarly Peter Young ended WW2 as a Lieutenant (Wartime only substantive Lt Col and Temporary Brigadier).

 Wartime is good at bringing out the natural military talents of high quality people, and many of the best Officers ever produced by the UK or wider Commonwealth military attained their peak at a young age during WW2. The argument should surely run that if nations are willing to entrust their entire existence to a generation of 30somethings during wartime, why are they so reluctant to do so to late 40 something’s in peacetime?  

One often reads in the UK press of the resignation of another British military resignation, usually from good officers at SO1 / OF5 level. Cited as a ‘bright young thing’ or seen as the next best hope of the General Staff, many good officers go in their late 30s or early 40s rather than stay on. The military seem to continuously lose a generation of talent, who every year see the slow promotion rates, limited prospects and pay constraints, and realise that with their active soldiering, sailing  or flying days all but behind them there is no reason to stay. This is a real loss to the UK as good officers, many of whom have very interesting ideas about the future direction of Defence choose to walk away.

Would UK defence benefit from a similar approach, and appointing the person with the right ideas, and not the person who is the best from those who are left? We expect good businessmen to be able to run a company by their late 30s, and many of those success stories achieved this because of taking a gamble at the right point in their career. Similarly, the civil service, although promotion is still slow, is very good at getting high quality civil servants into 1* positions by their mid –late 30s.

What is it about the military that makes it so essential that younger officers cannot lead it? Arguably, a good officer with a clear vision for change, and the energy, willpower and determination to see through a five year appointment may have far more effect than an older officer worn down by years of infighting. The authors impression of many senior officers over the years is that they are good people, but they often seem so tired. It is one thing to drive forward change, often working punishing hours in your 40s. Trying to do it in your late 50s is a very different story, and by then, you are as much focused on what happens next as you are about leading. Perhaps we are missing a trick here. Rather than putting good people into mid-level posts in their prime, and then watching  them leave demoralised, or just walk away with frustration at being unable to affect real change, let’s let anyone go for the top post. If you are genuinely excellent, and you have the vision required to deliver the change and leadership required, then perhaps we too should be brave enough to consider letting anyone go for it.

While it is exceptionally unlikely to ever happen, it would be fascinating to contemplate what difference a 50yr old CDS, appointed straight from an operational tour, and advised by older and more experienced single service chiefs, could have on the military. It would reinvigorate those who aspire to make a difference, but who see no chance of being able to do so.

After all, if  or Eisenhower could be a Major (Local Acting General of the Army) and then go on to become President of the USA, what could we do here in the UK?


  1. ""What is it about the military that makes it so essential that younger officers cannot lead it? "" = Hidebound ?

  2. ""What is it about the military that makes it so essential that younger officers cannot lead it? "" = Hidebound ?

  3. There probably isn't enough in the MOD postage budget to for all the super-session letters that would have to sent out by the Military Secretary if an acting Brigadier was made up to General.

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