Defence Policy: MoD Mess

The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) is in an awful mess. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), delivered in October 2010, failed to solve some core issues, and there is a real danger that the ministry’s downward path will continue to pick up pace - at precisely the wrong time.

The World Today Published 1 May 2011 Updated 10 March 2020 3 minute READ

The only good news is that nearly everyone is beginning to acknowledge these shortcomings, and highly respected figures such as Lords Paddy Ashdown and David Owen are alerting us to very dangerous consequences if we do not get a real grip. Defence Secretary Liam Fox has just made clear that recent SDSR decisions will not be adjusted, even in light of the current momentous developments in the Middle East and North Africa, which look set to have possibly as much of an impact as those of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Look across the span of British defence and security and the stark reality is that the weakest point is at the head - in Whitehall and the MOD. Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague both said that the MOD was their biggest shock and domestic challenge of 2010, and countless reports - including Chilcot and the PAC Inquiry - have simply added to the widespread recognition that, as Lord Ashdown put it in the Times on February 22 , the MOD is a “monstrous mess… not fit for purpose… a broken instrument”. He is right. The standing of the MOD is at its lowest for fifty-plus years, and the internal rivalry between the civil servant ‘suits’ and the military ‘uniforms’, as well as between the Navy, Army, and Air Force themselves, is at an all-time high.

Most concerning, though, is the MOD’s own low morale. Corporate self-confidence is shot, and on the face of it, few can see a way out of the wrong-headedness to deal with the resource pressures or the continuing decline. We are in the era of ‘Persistent Conflict’, and most experts believe that the future will be more - not less - difficult than the past. Counterintuitively, just when we should be preparing and building for more innovative use of our personnel and their equipment - in both preventative and reactive modes - we are removing much of the means for them to do this, axing personnel and key systems, and preparing plans to do more of the same as the books continue to fail to balance.

We are very close to MOD woes impacting front-line effectiveness and morale. Whilst the unflinching ‘can-do, whatever-the-odds’ dynamic of our young armed forces personnel continues to deliver against all the odds, this absolute core national strength is about to be put at risk - to our future peril.

So what should our Coalition government do? Above the MOD, the government needs to demonstrate that it is empowering the National Security Council with the means and structure to grip the still far too independent single departments of State, including the MOD, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and others. The single most important change needs to be the appointment of a Secretary of State for National Security and Strategy, owning the wider and long-term security interest, overseeing the civil servant National Security Adviser, driving the pan-Whitehall changes required, and standing up against vested interests and short-termism. This newjoined-up senior cabinet post for this new joined-up complex world will enable the already hard-pressed William Hague, Liam Fox and Teresa May’s departments to focus on doing better with the urgent ‘today’ issues.

Second priority is to wheel out some big guns to knock sense, hope and confidence into the MOD. However determined Liam Fox is to rectify the glaring problems and legacies, only more fundamental change will crack the problem. The current MOD mould is broken, and so is the Whitehall structure. Times are uncertain and dangerous and the onus is on the government to be much more radical.

The reality is that some big-hitters - from both the major parties - including Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, George Robertson, and John Reid have tried to bring about some necessary changes within the MOD over these last few decades; they have failed because the systemic problem is wider than just the MOD. Under Liam Fox, the MOD should proceed with its reform studies, including the Defence Reform Unit work under Peter Levene, and Bernard Gray’s transformation of the entire acquisition process. Above all of that, the prime minister should appoint an external Commission under a Paddy Ashdown-type heavyweight to get into the really big issues that historically and traditionally government departments, and the MOD more than most, evade.

Commission members should include former top-notch Foreign and Defence Secretaries, both Conservative and Labour, and proven thinkers and practitioners of the calibre of Peter Hennessey, Jeremy Greenstock, David King, Rupert Smith, and Simon Jenkins. They do not need months interviewing as Chilcott has. They know the issues. They need collective thinking and solution producing time. The prime minister needs the very best available advice on a range of strategic issues. This would include asking what the role of a Ministry of Defence is today; analysing the role of the Chiefs of Staff committee; and considering whether the Chief of the Defence Staff should own a single ‘Armed Forces’ budget. Importantly, it would also include assessing if our 19th century single, ‘sovereign’ department Whitehall structure is fit for today’s much more complex and inter-connected world.

The government has not got long to get real and to get radical. The most worrying deficit is of hope - and the fundamental law that the ‘Moral is to the Physical as three is to one’ is an important issue for it to dwell on. The MOD risks an almighty fall if it continues to ‘muddle on’. It is time to wheel out the big guns.