Saturday, 20 July 2013

Changing of the Guard - the challenges facing the new UK Chief of Defence Staff

The long announced retirement of the UK Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir David Richards, and his replacement by General Sir Nick Houghton has occurred. Following a short change of command ceremony, instigated by General Richards, in what may be the first (and possibly last) ceremony of its type, the baton has been passed on to a new CDS, who will now spend the next five years at the very pinnacle of the military.

General Richards leaves after only three years at the top, but his departure sees the end of an era, as one of the last soldiers in HM Forces service who will have been based in the Far East and Singapore finally retires – perhaps in more ways than one marking the closure of one period of UK military history, and the start of another. The challenges facing Gen Houghton are significant and he will have much to occupy his time over the coming weeks and months. The purpose of this short article is to try and provide some personal views as to the sort of challenges that face CDS as he takes charge.

From the outset Gen Houghton is taking charge at a relatively positive point for the British Armed Forces. They have emerged relatively unscathed from the latest spending round, and the likelihood of further vast cuts to balance the books is currently relatively small, at least for the next couple of years. This, coupled with the realisation that HERRICK is coming to an end, that the most painful decisions on future military structures have been announced, and that the equipment and support needed to deliver means that on paper at least, there is scope for some optimism. He has less likelihood for a couple of years at least of having to oversee and implement ‘bad news stories’.

The withdrawal from HERRICK by 2015 will in all probability mean the end of sustained overseas UK military land operations for the first time in a generation. While this is good in many ways for the Army, which needs time to take a pause to reorganise, reform and prepare again for deployment, it does present wider challenges. From a leadership perspective, he has to take charge of a force where future sustained deployments will probably not be a fact of life. Following nearly 20 years of high intensity operations in Bosnia, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, many in the military have grown used to a life where deployments are a central part of their career. Post 2015, it seems far more likely that outside of short term training exercises, there will be far more limited opportunities for overseas action. Getting people to adjust their mindsets, making them realise this and persuading them to stay in for the long haul is going to be critical, lest too many experienced mid seniority officers and NCOs decide now is the time to leave. The problem becomes more challenging as wider changes, such as changes to pensions, changes in allowances and terms and conditions of service kick in, which may not impact the more junior and newer echelons, but which could force many older and more experienced personnel to consider leaving. When one considers that the economy appears to be on an upsurge, retention may soon become a major problem.  Therefore, CDS will have a challenge to ensure that a military used to ‘running hot’ is now able to adapt to running in a very different manner, keeping the best talent onboard is going to be a major issue.

Reviews aplenty
The next issue facing CDS will be the certainty that the MOD faces another Strategic Defence Review within 2 years, regardless of election results. Although likely to be less traumatic overall for the MOD than the 2010 review, it will still be a challenging time. The settlements in the current spending round seem relatively positive for Defence, and with the equipment programme currently looking stable it seems likely that there will be less traumatic shocks than 2010 where the loss of Harrier and Nimrod is still keenly felt to many supporters of the military.

One should not assume that the review will be straightforward though – a change of Government policy or attitudes to defence may see unexpected changes to posture. Similarly, there is still room for challenge in the equipment programme, where as Humphrey has previously noted, the room for cost growth is relatively limited. It would only take a larger than expected rise in a couple of major programmes to throw the entire budget into disarray, which would reopen the door to further cuts or delays.

So, the challenge for CDS is to set the conditions for a Defence Review which builds on the work of 2010, acknowledges the challenges of the Arab Spring and associated instability around the world, identifies that while there has not been an emergence of a strategic threat to the UK, our interests remain globally based, varied in nature and vulnerable to different threats, and which does so on a budget unlikely to grow in real terms for many years to come.

CDS will need to do this against the backdrop of a world where politicians remain confused about their attitudes to the British Armed Forces – they inherently admire the flexibility on offer, and the ability that a well time operation can have to support UK interests or (more cynically perhaps) improve their position in the polls. At the same time, one detects in public a sense of weariness over Afghanistan, and a desire to avoid any more ‘imperial entanglements’ like TELIC or HERRICK. Understanding this attitude, trying to ensure that funding remains sufficient that the UK can deliver on extant military tasks, plus play a suitable role in global affairs without becoming too embroiled in some of the challenges out there will also be a major challenge. As the warm glow of support from HERRICK fades away, the challenge will be to keep reminding people of the value and excellence that the British Armed Forces bring to the table, and the options they provide to politicians.

So, for CDS he has to fight in the strategic sphere to push the case for the Military, but avoid creating the situation where politicians feel they can commit to courses of action that they and their successors will later regret, and also providing a sufficient ‘window of respite’ to allow all three services time to regroup, recuperate and reorganise after HERRICK. The entire assumption of the 2010 SDSR was avoiding major entanglements between 2015 and 2020 (hence Force 2020) – so as the global situation becomes ever more challenging, he will have to ensure there is a high level understanding of the risks and challenges involved in deploying UK troops overseas.

Operating Overseas
As the withdrawal from HERRICK occurs, it will also be increasingly important to set the direction on how the UK will remain integrated with many of its allies, where years of operations in Afghanistan have led to a great inter-personal relationship. One only has to look at RC(South) where UK forces have served for years alongside an incredibly diverse range of nations, including Estonia, Canada, and the US to name but a few. Now that the operation is drawing to a close, being able to keep those close coalition links intact, ensuring hard learned lessons are not forgotten and that basic things like being able to work together in future remain possible. An early casualty of budget restraint is always overseas exercises, but it  will be important to see how at all levels, from company groups operating in the field, through to staff officers in high level command post exercises, how the UK retains these links and builds on them.

Many of today’s staff officers probably take for granted the close operational relationship that has developed in HQs in dusty locations, but this is perhaps the exception and not the norm. Keeping this relationship alive, and not necessarily slipping back into old habits will be key. One senses that long neglected relationships (such as some NATO exercises) may well come back to the fore as they seem good opportunities for further engagement in future. 

Similarly, CDS will need to face difficult questions about the level of support offered to overseas training and exercises. The future vision for all three services is clearly built around the principles of defence engagement, sending UK assets overseas to work and train with our partners. Selling the vision of a future where it’s not about brigade sized forces engaged in high intensity conflict, but platoon sized elements training small militaries to avoid the conflict ever emerging will be key. Increasingly tomorrows soldier will need to be someone who cannot just ‘close with and kill the enemy’ but someone who can educate, train and build cultural links with a diverse range of countries. Perhaps now, more than ever, the notion of a strategic platoon is appropriate. A poorly received training visit, inappropriate incidents or bad training, and this could lead to longer term difficulties and challenges in a country.

The problem for the UK is that many people place enormous value on British military training – it is telling that in many parts of the world, nations would rather pay a large amount of cash for a place at Sandhurst or Dartmouth rather than send their personnel for free to some other nations. But the issue is where to engage, and with what resources? The ever smaller UK military headcount, the desire to reduce overseas presence and the smaller amounts of funding mean that at a time when demand for UK training is perhaps at an all time high, as nations seek to learn from our lessons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, our resources to meet this challenge will be more constrained. Here CDS (among others) will face the enormous task of setting guidance about where our priorities lie, and where the UK will need to take risk and not participate. This will not be easy, but it perhaps demonstrates how the value of the UK armed forces is not just about war fighting, but defence diplomacy too.

New Ways of Warfare
Over the next five years, one critical challenge will be for CDS to set out his vision of how the UK embraces and responds to the ever more important threat of cyber warfare. There is little point in having world class armed forces if they can be denied the ability to deploy due to hackers taking out a road network or port. We’ve already seen strong messages that the UK understands the importance of cyber defence, but as we approach the 2015 SDR it will become even more vital. The issue is finding funding for such a role, seeing whether it sits within the military sphere or a civilian sphere (for instance, are the sorts of individuals who excel at computer defence able to also work well in a military environment?). 

One area which will require a lot of work will be to set out the vision for cyber defence, and identify how it can be funded with denying funding to existing military capabilities. This will not be easy, and it will be hard to explain to external cynics that ‘Bytes not Bombs’ makes better sense for defending the UK, but it will be a critical task. The nature of warfare today is very different from the one conceived when CDS joined the military – arguably although we no longer face an existential threat that can be dealt with by nuclear means, we do face in the form of cyber attacks an existential threat to our way of life. Failure to defend adequately against this could have devastating consequences for our economy, our support infrastructure and our defences – but the problem is that explaining that today’s front line exists in a virtual space not a muddy corner of a foreign field is extremely difficult. Humphrey worries that until a major attack occurs and succeeds that the external media and public support for tackling this new form of threat may be lacking.

What is the Prize at Stake?
This may sound an odd concept, but it is perhaps worth considering what is at stake if CDS is successful during his tenure. By 2018 when he leaves post, he will have gone through a defence review, seen the delivery of much of the new equipment underpinning the Future Force 2020 vision, including JSFs, new Army equipment and the delivery of the first CVF into service. The UK military should have been well rested by then, and will be nearly ready to re-emerge onto the global stage in a post HERRICK incarnation where it is able to deploy, sustain and recover large forces globally with modern technology and equipment. Recovered from HERRICK, the UK military will hopefully be well on course to achieve the vision set out in the 2010 SDSR.

But this task will not be easy – to bequeath his successor a force capable in 2020 of doing what was set out a decade previously, some tough decisions will be required, and a strong case made for the value of Defence, even when it is not necessarily going to be as busy as in previous years. Meeting this challenge, advocating the hugely important role Defence plays for the UK and persuading politicians, the public and overseas partners of this will be critical. It is a major task he is taking on, and Humphrey wishes him every success in achieving it. 


  1. He wasn't based in Singapore--was he?

  2. On SDSR 2015, he should actively campaign for it to be a Defence-related review, NOT a money-saving review.

  3. "On SDSR 2015, he should actively campaign for it to be a Defence-related review, NOT a money-saving review."

    He could campaign but a UK defence review that was not driven by the Treasury demanding cuts is unheard of, certainly since 1945. What he could do is insist that plans and commitments are reduced in line with the spending cuts, and resign if they aren't. Betcha he don't though.

    Its been about forty years since the Chiefs of Staff stood up to the Treasury (Callaghan was Prime Minister and they used their right of access to make their views known).

    1. Depends what is being cut and whether the MOD takes the bulk of cuts--if there are cuts.

      In balance, unless there is suddenly a Cold War again, it is hard to justify massive military spending. The only thing that is never cut is the "never to be used" nuclear SLBMs.

  4. "are the sorts of individuals who excel at computer defence able to also work well in a military environment?"

    Why should they need to work in a military environment?