It’s been an interesting few weeks for the MOD, with a multitude of announcements, media coverage and developments occurring, all of which seem to be linked. In this article, Humphrey wants to try and bring together many of the smaller stories that have cropped up, and see whether there is any common theme here.
First up is the news this week of major changes to the MOD ‘Head Office’ (sometimes known as Main Building or the MOD) structure, which will significantly change the way that the MOD does business. This was reported in the media as being a bonfire of the generals, with 25% fewer 1* posts in future. While the media revelled in this, what was missed was the more interesting ‘so what’.
These changes owe their roots to the Levene Review, and the efforts to reduce the top level administration of the armed forces. Since this was published, the MOD has spent a lot of time working out an entirely new business structure, and this is the latest piece of the puzzle.
What Levene has suggested, and what is now being implemented is reducing top level posts, such as the CINC posts, but bolstering greater financial accountability to the three Services. In future, the Service Chiefs will have significantly greater say over how their budgets are spent, with financial delegation handed down to them. As noted elsewhere on this blog, it will be much easier for the Services to prioritise their funding in future, instead of fighting internecine warfare with the other two services for cash.
In this new structure, MOD Head Office becomes far more of a strategic HQ, focusing on top level security policy, advice to Ministers and provision of certain niche roles. Finance is pushed out to the three services, and with it, much of the procurement roles traditionally undertaken in Main Building. The new Head Office will be far less involved in day to day budgetary issues than before – this means Service Chiefs will be far more empowered than they have been previously. A cynic would suggest that it makes it easier for politicians and civil servants to escape the blame when things go wrong – after all, if the RAF chose to prioritise funding on hotels over missiles, then that’s down to the Service Chief, and not the Head Office. Theoretically, a brave new world of delegation awaits, although it’s currently hard to predict whether it will be a success or not.
So, the first ‘message’ we see is that the MOD is absolutely serious about making Levene happen. The next message is that there seems to be a push to try to do down the supposed privileges of senior personnel. There was quite a lot of media coverage about the reported decisions to scale down Service housing, and reduce benefits for senior officers. This again plays into the narrative of a cash strapped department finally putting its house in order and ending the bastions of privilege that supposedly exist for senior officers.
The reality is that most senior officers don’t get official houses, and those that do use them on behalf of HMG to carry out a lot of official hosting and entertainment. It’s often forgotten that by the time an officer reaches 2-3* level, they are no longer masters of their own destiny. They have to spend much of the day, including late into the evenings, conducting dinners, talks, meetings and so on. By this point, the role of senior officers is as much about representing the military to the wider public and foreign governments, as it is about doing their day job. Things like cooks, stewards and so on go a long way to help keep officers looking smart, in the right uniform at the right time, and able to do their job. It’s very easy to make out that senior officers get it easy, but in reality many of them have working days starting before 7am, and ending well after 11pm, sometimes seven days per week.
So, what is interesting with these cuts is that if houses are sold, and retinues reduced, then there is an admission that the military will seemingly no longer be expecting as many senior officers to do as much discrete hosting and receptions, which are often critical to influencing a diverse range of people. It would seem reasonable to judge that in order to placate critics who snipe at the military senior ranks, the MOD has decided to withdraw senior ranks from much of their vital and rarely seen influence work.
While the debate over top level structures and officers batmen has raged, one should look at the type of press releases coming out from the MOD. There has been a noticeable trend to push the Olympics, far less coverage on HERRICK and a general increase in the number of ‘return to contingency’ press releases, often involving the Reserves.
The author’s personal view is that there seems to be a consistent narrative in recent announcements designed to show the SDSR as a success. After all the negative media coverage in the last 18 months over the SDSR and the wisdom of its decisions, the MOD desperately needs to be able to show that the ability to deliver on the day has not been affected. For all the negative coverage, the fact is that since SDSR, the UK has fought a significant maritime & air campaign in Libya, deployed 20,000 troops onto the streets of London for the Olympics and sustained 10,000 troops on operations in Afghanistan. This is in addition to the usual round of commitments in the Falklands, Gulf, Cyprus, and Gibraltar and so on, and in addition to the training deployments.
The message that MOD appears to be pushing hard is that ‘yes we have less kit, but it hasn’t stopped us from delivering what is expected of us’. The move to showcase the Olympics is one which reinforces the role of the military in supporting home operations (a key strand of the SDSR), while press releases highlighting contingent capabilities – such as exercises testing rapid reaction forces like 16 Air Assault Brigade – show how the UK remains able to globally intervene. One senses that as we move to drawdown from HERRICK, the focus shifts to ‘good news’ (e.g. Afghan police trained by the UK feed starving orphans with organically raised, privately educated chickens), and not a focus on more kinetic operations. The public need to be convinced that we are approaching operational success, and stories of ‘one last push’ are less helpful now.
At the same time we have seen a slew of ‘good new kit’ stories, which are helping to highlight the new equipment entering service over the medium term. Much of the media coverage post SDSR has focused on cuts, and not the focus on delivering a regenerated force in the 2020 timeframe. Announcements such as the one about the Type 26 are an effort to show that even though cuts were made, the funding is in place to take work forward. Although it will be some time before these hulls hit the water, the fact is that the funding for them exists. By putting out these sort of announcements, MOD is trying to reinforce the message that it’s not all doom and gloom.
That said, the author found it amusing the way that some papers sought to portray the announcement on Type 26, and that it won’t go to contract until 2015 (a very long planned key date) as some kind of sign that the UK was waiting to see the result of the Scottish independence referendum. Only in the eyes of the media can they take two utterly disparate facts, and try to turn this into a linked ‘news’ story!
So, the author’s judgement is that what we are seeing in the news is the effort by the MOD to try and reassure that all is well. It’s not an unfair point to make – despite much concern about reductions, the fact remains that the military have yet to publicly fail to deliver on any of the tasks expected of them in the last 18 months.
Is morale collapsing?
Although the MOD is keen to point out that the military have not failed to deliver, the media remain keen to pick up on suggestions that morale is collapsing. The release of the comprehensive attitude survey has provided ammunition to those who suggest that morale is broken as a result of the high level of operational tempo and the recent cuts.
Humphrey is more cynical – the total number of respondents was barely 12000 personnel, out of a whole military force of over 200,000 (when one includes reserves). A response rate of barely 10% is probably not the most accurate barometer of service attitudes.
As serving personnel noted on the internet, many of those who fill in these forms have done so to confirm to themselves why they think things are bad. No one is forced to fill in a CAS survey, and it’s rare to find people willing to spend time filling in a survey to say everything is just fine. The author has personally only filled in morale surveys when he is pissed off with something, in the hope that somehow, somewhere, people will become aware of his views and maybe try and fix issues.
So, the reality is that while the survey results are undeniably not brilliant, they should not be seen as the end of the world. The truth is probably more prosaic – people are feeling down in some areas, but then the military is full of cynical people. It’s an irony that from the first day in service to the last, people will find something to complain, moan or grumble about. The point when Humphrey starts worrying is when people stop grumbling and start being deadly quiet – this often means that something serious is afoot.
How concerned should people really be? Humphrey’s personal impression is that there is a sense of frustration and tiredness in some areas. Some parts of the military have been very, very busy for over 10 years now, and people are getting tired. Many people are also tired of being punished for success – to some, there is a sense that Defence has been able to save the political reputation of every Prime Minister for the last 10 years, and yet it continues to be cut, slashed and attacked. It is hard to stay motivated when people see no light at the end of the tunnel – there is no clear indicator that the long term trend of managed force level decline will be reversed until the military fails. On the one hand it is clear that there is a lot of frustration out there, and people will continue to vote with their feet. But the more interesting question is how many of those people leaving would have left anyway? The average period of service for non-commissioned personnel is nine years – while the recent cuts won’t have helped morale, it’s probably fair to say that many of those leaving may well have left anyway.
The much more interesting question is how morale will cope after 2015. In theory, with HERRICK over, and the military returning to the UK, then morale should improve as deployments reduce, and the Army returns to a more ‘barrack life’ focus. Humphrey strongly suspects that there will be little noticeable difference to CAS surveys – people will still find fault, but this time because they are bored with the lack of opportunities to soldier. As noted, people will find a reason to grumble and be down.
So what does all this mean? Well, it’s clear that the MOD is trying to focus far more on the future, through structural reform, organisational change and emphasising success on operations. Whether people like it or not, Defence has shown it can not only reform itself, but also deliver what is asked of it on operations. Yes morale appears on the surface to be shaky, but whether this is a genuinely accurate reflection on the situation is less clear.
What is clear though is that for a traditionally quiet time of year, this has been anything but a ‘quiet silly season’…