The new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Sir Nicholas Houghton has been in many papers in the last few days over comments made to the MOD in house magazine known as ‘Focus’. The full magazine (which can be found HERE) is a particularly interesting read this month. Interviewing not only CDS, it also looks at the challenges facing the Chief of Defence Personnel, and interviews Rear Admiral Parr about RN operations – it is a genuinely interesting read, and contains a lot of material that doesn't seem to have been published as a press release or elsewhere. Its particularly worth reading from the authors perspective, if only to see the new CDP publicly accept that there a major problem with how the MOD civil service is perceived, and recognising it as a vital enabler for Defence which needs to be stood up for against outdated perceptions.
The reason that CDS hit the news though was over two sets of comments, which can loosely be paraphrased as saying ‘the UK is going to have to do less in future with less defence capability’ and also that ‘cynicism is an issue, as is getting the message out in the most appropriate format as to why Defence is transforming’. The media have looked at both comments and perhaps tried to read more into them than is perhaps the case. Humphrey has read the article, and his own very personal views are below. If you actually look at what was said:
“It is in many ways easier to focus on a single operation than having to plan for a whole range of contingencies. You can never have the same degree of sophistication in capability terms when you adopt a more generic contingency posture. We have to recalibrate our expectation of the level of capabilities we can field on new operations from a standing start. We’ve got to get back into an ‘expeditionary mindset’ where we will not have perfect capability for every scenario.”
In the context of the interview, this was being discussed as part of a wider discussion on the withdrawal from Operation HERRICK and the re-organisation of the military away from focusing on ‘the operation’ to ‘an operation’. This has been seized on as an example that the MOD is somehow less able to conduct military operations in future, but to the author this is a very mistaken view. What the General appears to have clearly identified is that for the best part of a decade, the primary output of the MOD has been Op HERRICK. It is fair to say that a large part of Defences efforts have been focused in support of this, from training, procurement of equipment, evolution of doctrine, provision of resources, airframes, munitions etc. Known as OP ENTIRETY, this move to make HERRICK the Defence ‘Main Effort’ has seen the Department focus almost exclusively on the operation, while reducing ‘contingent capability’ (e.g. the ability to provide response forces to tackle unforeseen threats) to a bare minimum. For HERRICK this has worked well – one only has to look at the way that the Army operating in Afghanistan has been almost entirely re-equipped, and now operates at a capability almost light years beyond what it was in 2006.
This means that today, a unit deploying on OP HERRICK enjoys access to well-resourced training pipelines, that it has well supported provision of kit, and that there is a clear understanding of how the pieces fit together in theatre to support the wider operation. Through the UOR process there has been a huge effort in trying to provide mission specific equipment that meets the needs of Afghanistan, even where it has little relevance to wider operations.
The end result is that the UK forces in Afghanistan are remarkably well equipped and supported by any reasonable standard, and are very capable of adapting to and operating in the specific operational environment. Frankly, after 13 years in Afghanistan, were the UK not doing this, then one would argue that something has gone very badly wrong indeed.
By contrast the end of HERRICK means the likely end of an ability to work in an operational environment where we have well understood constraints, we know the people, we know the challenges, we know the likely threats. Instead, a return to contingency means exactly that – a return to preparing for the unexpected. This suddenly makes things much harder to prepare for – how do you train, equip and plan for an operation when you have no idea where it is likely to come from? At a time when the UK budget (as with most nations) is being reduced in real terms, the ability to fund a bespoke equipment programme, which provides every conceivable force structure, every possible permutation of equipment and training is impossible. Instead we are entering an era where until the next sustained campaign, operations will be very much done on the basis of what is available now, which may not always be the best possible mission specific piece of equipment.
This is a fairly sensible position to be in – as a global nation, with interests, commitments and a penchant for post Imperial entanglements, the UK will always have more possible scenarios to contemplate involvement in than it can reasonably fund. Instead planners have to fight a more challenging battle of identifying where to take risk, where to fund enhancements and how to procure, equip and train to a standard where the UK can deploy on an operation and stand the best chance of success within the constraints identified above. It is inevitable that as soon as the UK returns to a ‘campaign footing’ then this situation will change again – once it is clear there is a longer commitment to the ground, that requirements emerge and the ability to bring kit into service in a short time occurs, then it is possible to once again create a bespoke force for the scenario at hand.
So, in simple terms the General has merely restated the simple fact that if you are preparing for operations, not an operation, it’s a damn sight harder to go in with the right capability from the word go. It is important that this mindset (and perhaps risk taking mentality) is noted though, because an entire generation of commanders have grown up knowing that they were deploying on an operation which although risky, came at the end of a planned work up programme and where they could do a lot of advance preparation. Preparing to deploy to an unexpected location, not knowing the situation and not having the exact kitbag of equipment for that operation will come as a gentle shock to some, although hopefully it will be quickly overcome.
The General though touched on another wider point which again has perhaps been misrepresented – the need for better communication during the on-going transformation process and a need to avoid the cynicism that has emerged in some quarters. No one doubts that there is a need to get communication right, but it is a reasonable question to ask how easy this is to pitch. The challenge as Humphrey sees it is being able to put across the strategic situation, set out why the UK needs to reduce its armed forces and explain what the anticipated outputs and challenges will be in future, while at the same time showing people how the work they do fits in the greater scheme of things. That’s easy when people work in a small organisation, or when there is a common output, but Defence is neither of those things. It is a vast organisation, directly employing hundreds of thousands of people, working on all seven continents on the planet, and employs people in hundreds of different branches, roles, locations and areas. Its audience range from 16 year old school leavers with no qualifications, to rocket scientists to senior officers who personally advise the Prime Minister and who make strategic decisions which change the course of this nation’s history.
How one is able to set out these challenges in a manner which is neither patronising, nor overly bamboozling remains a challenge. It is not helped perhaps by a natural reticence on the part of some military and civilian components to perhaps scoff at internal communications and not see them as essential. It saddens the author that he has worked in some areas where information on force structures, operational updates and general information on what sort of change is going on is dismissed as either ‘propaganda’ or not seen as a useful use of time to study. There is a natural reluctance to be seen to take an interest in the direction the military takes – the author vividly remembers being on the end of some acidic comments from the interview panel when he sat his Admiralty Interview Board, because he’d got maximum marks on the naval knowledge test. There is perhaps a desire to be ‘too cool for school’ and not take an interest in what goes on around you. The result is perhaps that the information is being communicated, in different ways and different formats, but that many in the military themselves do not chose to avail themselves of it, instead preferring to rely on rumours, intrigue and a NAAFI buzz, over fact. One wonders whether this accounts for the continued belief in many quarters that there is a veritable convoy of nurses en route to the NAAFIs of this world…
So in summary, Humphrey feels that CDS has perhaps been somewhat misrepresented here – there are many challenges facing the military, and as an officer with a reputation for straight talking it is likely that this is not going to be the last time he makes observations which will be taken out of context. Having made some very sensible points, the challenge is now to make progress on them though, for that is perhaps how history will judge him. One wishes him luck!