Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A new Ministry of Defence

It seems increasingly clear that we are really letting down our Armed Forces. There are good reasons to think that it takes a questionable sense of priorities to have spending on the armed forces going down as a share of public spending and GDP while we are engaged in a major armed conflict in Afghanistan and have smaller, but still significant, engagements in Iraq and other arenas. There is a reasonable case that we are simply trying to do too much with too little.

Still, to a certain extent that puts the cart before the horse. There is no sign that extra money would be well spent. Wasting new money would be both offensive in itself as the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill are hard-pressed and would undermine the long-term case for Britain maintaining a serious military. New embarassing wastes of resources would give the British public the false impression that, for some reason, we are simply incapable for running a large and effective military.

Hardly a day seems to go by without some new and shocking story coming to light. Some new travesty too dire to be some molehill turned into a mountain by the media. Today, Mike Denham blogged on the Chinooks that have yet to see action after thirteen years and around £500 million spent. The ongoing failure of the Nimrod has cost lives and continues to hoover up money. Accomodation is alarmingly poor. The Defence of the Realm blog is full of examples of lethal procurement failures, in particular the disastrous failure to find an adequate replacement for inadequate Land Rovers. Vital equipment, particularly helicopters, is being cannibalised with only one third of the Army's vital airlift capability functional. Shortages of body armour have definitely proved lethal.

Some of this is down to a lack of resources but that lack of resources isn't purely a matter of failing to place proper importance on supporting the military. There is clearly huge waste going on, particularly in procurement. At the same time as the military falls to pieces for lack of money the Ministry of Defence has been enjoying a spectacularly expensive refurbishment with spectacularly expensive office chairs.

There isn't a simple way of fixing problems fundamentally caused by political leaders who do not understand the military. With the numbers in the services having fallen so low it is unlikely, in the continuing absence of a major war, that ex-service personnel will form a substantial portion of our political elite again. The need for civilian control of the military will necessarily mean that soldiers suffer the suspect command of politicians who don't really know what they're doing. However, the vital institution that should give them support in such debates is the Ministry of Defence. Otherwise, the military's voice is too dispersed, spread around the country and the rest of the world at its various stations. Headquarters in London should be able to do their bit to make the military's case to the politicians.

Tragically, it appears that the contemporary Ministry of Defence is doing quite the opposite. An excellent article in the first issue of Standpoint magazine, by an anonymous military officer working within the Ministry sets out how bad things have gotten:

"I am often asked why the MOD makes so many strange decisions and seems to care so little about the welfare of its personnel. People are surprised to read about expensive computer systems that fail to pay service members their proper salaries — or pay them late. Some are shocked by the apparent dumping of severely wounded personnel from Afghanistan and Iraq into civilian hospital wards, remote from their regiments and families, or the massive contracts for systems that are delivered late and don’t work properly, or the strange failure to publicise genuine successes and minor victories achieved “against the odds” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

None of these scandals — or many others less well known — would surprise anyone who knows the MOD and what it has become."

The problem is clear. The Ministry of Defence's staff aren't really a part of the military. They're just ordinary Civil Servants who would rather be in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Your average Civil Servant can't really understand the military, let alone really appreciate its needs. Again, Standpoint's anonymous author makes the case eloquently:

"Most people still believe that the MOD is essentially a military organisation. It is not. It is an organisation dominated numerically, culturally and structurally by civil servants and consultants, many of whom are unsympathetic to its underlying purpose or even hostile to the military and its ethos. You just have to spend a few days at the MOD before you realise that the culture there is not just non-military, but anti-military."

I'm not sure the normal starting points for reforming a public service - accountability, contestability and autonomy - will work here. I don't think that the strength of hierarchy in the world's militaries is an accident or irrational. It seems quite plausible that when you want people to get into a gunfight with others out to kill them a very visible hand is an important source of confidence and trust.

The vital step would seem to be, to me, making sure that the Ministry of Defence is returned to its proper role as a military organisation. There are two ways we might do that:

  1. Set a fixed ratio for military officers to civilian personnel and dictate that the balance is swung back to the military in the Ministry of Defence. The policy would look like a kind of hawk's cap and trade with an enforced shift in the ratio that the Department could get to however it wanted.
  2. Change the career structure for all staff at the Ministry of Defence. Stop using generalist recruits and end the practice of maintaining the Ministry of Defence organisation as one more department of the Civil Service. If you do need to recruit civilians then use a separate recruiting process. By a process of attrition, we can move towards a Ministry of Defence that is a military organisation as staff leave for other departments or retirement.

Once the staff at the Ministry and the Army, Navy and Air Force are all really part of one team the headquarters might become rather better at supporting the troops at the sharp end. Military procurement will start to become a military matter rather than a new industrial policy. Even if the politicians are hopeless at least the military will have a powerful ally in Westminster again.

1 comment:

Ewan Watt said...

Mr Sinclair - I think you're spot on. There is certainly a myth that hiking the MoD's budget will be the panacea to all the problems facing our armed force's. The waste at the MoD is is similar to that of any other department - and why should it not be? If we gave the MoD more money - which I am in favour of - who's to say that they won't waste even more? Urgent reform is required.

"The Defence of the Realm blog is full of examples of lethal procurement failures, in particular the disastrous failure to find an adequate replacement for inadequate Land Rovers. Vital equipment, particularly helicopters, is being cannibalised with only one third of the Army's vital airlift capability functional. Shortages of body armour have definitely proved lethal."

Defence of the Realm is a cracking read. However, the "inadequate Land Rovers" that you speak of - are these the Snatch Land Rovers? My friends in the forces get tired of people criticising the fact that the Snatch Land Rovers have little armour - they want something that is mobile rather than heavy.

Regarding airlift capability - I don't doubt that we need more. But it would be interesting to know whether it was above average for only a third of our airlift to be functional. I'm sure it is, but it's a statistic often used to crticise our shortage of armoured vehicles and helicopters. Such equipment obviously requires a lot of maintenance.