Thursday, 24 January 2013

A lack of sea room at the Service Chiefs table? Thoughts on the new 4* appointments

The MOD formally announced on 24 Jan a series of new military appointments at 4* level. Admiral Zambellas will be the new First Sea Lord (1SL) in April, Air Chief Marshal Pulford will be the new Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), while Air Chief Marshal Peach becomes the new Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS). Finally, Lieutenant General Barrons becomes the new Joint Force Commander (JFC) on promotion. A decision on CGS and the new CDS will reportedly be made later in the year. (the official MOD announcement can be found HERE)

This is quite significant as it marks the first round of senior appointments since the SDSR, and will likely form the cadre of senior officers who will lead the military into the next Defence Review, currently due in 2015. If, as suggested in the Levene Review their appointments last for up to five years, then they will be leading the military into, through and beyond the review, handing over ahead of the 2020 defence review.

The announcement is interesting in several ways – firstly the appointment of ACM Pulford marks possibly the first time a non-Fast Jet pilot has become CAS – a significant move away from a long standing tradition.

The next issue is perhaps the major elephant in the room – with these appointments, the way is now technically clear for all four Service Chiefs and the Vice Chief to be in the running as the next CDS. Obviously Humphrey has no idea at all about who may eventually get it, but one suspects that the First Sea Lord (aged over 60) may well be out the running, and possibly CAS, who is also approaching 60. This leaves just two Army Generals (General Wall and General Houghton, current VCDS) as the only other UK 4*s who are in the running for the post.

If as seems likely an RN officer is not appointed to the post, this will mean that from 1988 until 2018, the sole RN CDS will have been Admiral Boyce, who lasted less than three years in the early 2000s. Also, between 1995 and 2018, there would only have been a single RN VCDS (Admiral Abbot) also at about the same time. In other words, in a period of over 30 years, when the UK was going through major military change, the RN would have failed to produce more than one of the 10 incumbents of the CDS position.

The future structure of the 4* plot looks like it will generate seven Officers –CDS,  the three Service Chiefs, VCDS and the DSACEUR post. For the next four or five years, it is likely that there will be four Army, two RAF and only one RN 4* in existence. In other words, the RN is likely to have a minimal senior presence or influence at a point when the UK will go through a major Defence Review, which will be critical in setting the path for the 10 years beyond OP HERRICK. There does seem to be a major issue here, in that the RN seems unable to generate individual officers who can aim for the very top appointments in the wider Defence environment.

The author knows a lot of former RN Officers, and now they are no longer serving, they are perhaps more able to say frankly views than serving officers can express. If you talk with them over a drink, the conversation will often turn to the fact that in their view, the RN is doing something wrong in that it is not producing sufficient qualities of outstanding officers who can compete for the wide variety of joint posts. In their eyes, there have been some very good officers in recent years, but none seem to have made it to the top.

There would seem to be two challenges which prevent this – firstly, the reality that many of the most outstanding officers seem to be leaving after completing their Command tours. Although this is purely anecdotal, the author knows a reasonable number of good RN Officers who have left the service following their command, and a major reason seems to be the realisation that they will never again command at sea. If you have achieved the pinnacle of why you joined the Navy, it is hard to want to stay on, resigned to a career of many years of desk jobs, with the slim chance of an Admirals flag at the end. As the RN grows steadily smaller, the opportunities for sea command diminish – an absolutely exceptional officer may drive a vessel four times – an URNU P2000 as a senior Lieutenant, an MCMV as a Lt Cdr, a Frigate / Destroyer as a Commander and finally a Capital platform as a Captain or Commodore. The reality is that this is unlikely to occur much anymore, and that growing numbers of officers will progress through the system without having had ‘a drive’, and without having the ability to do it more than once at each level. Unlike in previous years, where sufficient DD/FF platforms existed that an officer could command an escort vessel more than once, nowadays it seems to be that for most, it is a one shot. To do the sums, there are some 16 Escort & 11 submarine drives at Cdr level, while there are under 10 Captain commands (there are still some escorts driven by Captains). In other words, there are barely 35 positions to fill, and over 1300 Commanders and Captains in the RN overall.

The problem seems to be that unlike the Army or the RAF, the pinnacle of Command in the RN is associated at the escort level. An officer leaving command of his Regiment or Battalion in the Army can easily aspire to exercising command at Brigade or Divisional level, which while not the same, still provides opportunities for command of warfighting forces on operations. It is much harder to provide the same opportunities to the RN, where outside of a Battlestaff, there are few such equivalent opportunities. So, if former RN officers are to be believed, the RN seems to have a challenge retaining the best and brightest staff for the long haul.

The next challenge seems to be that for many years promotion to the most senior opportunities in the RN has been linked to being a Warfare Officer, and having exercised command at sea. While this was fine in the past, one cannot help but wonder whether this is too restrictive a policy now? After all, todays requirements at senior levels are as much about management, negotiation, project skills and other technical requirements as they are about leadership. The current service chiefs need to be able to master a whole host of technical skills, and in many ways these are not something necessarily gained from command at sea.

Perhaps the time has come for the RN to reconsider its policy for the provision of 4* officers, and instead consider allowing those officers from the Engineering or Supply worlds to also compete for the highest posts. It seems odd to an outsider that an organisation which consistently proclaims that its primary resource is the talent of its people will willingly refuse to consider vast swathes of well qualified and often very strong leaders, simply because they have not commanded at sea. While it is easy to say that the job of a Sea Lord is to be the officer who inspires and who can command because he too has been there, one should consider that in the last 10 years, thousands of RM and RN personnel have served on land. Large amounts of what the RN does is now shore based, or operating in environments far removed from the traditional ‘cruel sea’ scenario. In an era where a Sea Lord must be able to fight ruthlessly for his Service interests in Whitehall, and be able to take tough decisions about where budgetary axes may fall, and work in a truly purple fashion, then perhaps the time has come to consider promoting others who may be able to do this? One rather suspects that the sky will not fall from its mounting if a non-Warfare Officer became First Sea Lord, and that opening the pool of talent to all of the Officer Corps may actually result in better retention. It is doubtless depressing to be in a branch knowing you have no shot at promotion beyond 1 or 2* no matter how good you may be, while there is seemingly a dearth of talent at the very highest levels of the Warfare Branch who can compete for the 4* posts.

So, the next five years look like they may well be challenging, interesting and based on the internet reaction to the appointments, it is clear that some very good men indeed will be at the helm for the next defence review. Perhaps by the time of the next one, further good RN candidates will be out there to compete for the next tranche of 4* posts?


  1. Alfred_the_Great24 January 2013 at 21:20

    There is a slightly arse about face thread to this argument ;)

    You posit that Warfare Officers are leaving because there aren't many opportunities to have a decent job after Command, and then you go on to say that we should reduce these opportunities further by allowing every Officer to compete for the highest ranks.

    I don't necessarily disagree with you on either, but I suspect the two shouldn't be linked. Our failure to grow Joint Officers is because we have a screwed up career management system that positively discourages Officers to step away from a pure Dark Blue, at sea, path.

  2. Hear hear. If the Crabs can get over their fast jet jockey predilection for top Air jobs, the Mob can give equal opportunity to non-dabbers. Encouraging move giving 2SL to a Pusser.

  3. Some statistical details to support your fifth paragraph were given in a post on my blog 18 months ago
    As you have allowed me to point out here before, our armed forces are now far too top-heavy in terms of senior officers for their fighting size.

  4. See this just confuses me.

    Surely it would be sensible for a Destroyer Captain to have been a Destroyer Lt, a Destroyer Lt Com and a Destroyer Com?

    "An officer leaving command of his Regiment or Battalion in the Army can easily aspire to exercising command at Brigade or Divisional level, which while not the same, still provides opportunities for command of warfighting forces on operations. It is much harder to provide the same opportunities to the RN"

    Isnt the problem there that the RN has given up on "warfighting" in favour of "presence"

    The Navy could have Brigade and Division Level groupings, we could have four fleet groupings, two carrier, two amphibs, with supporting escort flotillas.

  5. Ah!. The traditions, the protocols, the silver service dining rooms and the perquisites of rank.
    They have, for far too long dominated the floors of our military establishments and they are responsible for the mess, (excuse the pun), in which the RN and the RAF now find themselves. This torsion will uwind, but only if merit plays a larger part than heretofore.
    Wars, even small wars, now require a more joined up operational command structure and it simply is not necessary for the top dog to have direct experience of wagging a tail. To command a ship, it would be a good thing to have someone who knows how to use it, but, as Sir Humph repeatedly points out, the logistical support and theatre vision are just as vital and the ability to communicate probably more so. Sadly, nowadays, the skills of office politics are even more to be desired, but not afloat.
    I agree wholeheartedly with Sir Humph's penultimate paragraph, mainly because I and many others have benefited by its proposals.

  6. Jim, I think you missed a far large pachyderm - the RM. There is no reason to suspect the next 1SL could not or should not be a RM candidate and hence a future CDS may well be from that same cloth.

    As for Engineers or Pussers competing, one thing that stops that is the liability for each branch to grow people who are able to get to at least 1* - thats a major inhibitor.

  7. If a lack of command appointments is a significant driver, why is that not a problem in the RAF? While an RN officer could theoretically command four ships as he is promoted, an RAF officer has only one flying command level (a sqn).

    Perhaps the elephant in the room is that after the enduring wars in Iraq & Afghanistan the RN can't compete with the emphasis & opportunities those wars afforded the Army & RAF.