You are here

The Top Brass and the Politicians: Strained Relations

Commentary, 3 July 2011
Defence Policy, Europe
Recent tensions between British politicians and the military top brass are a symptom of the uncertainty over whose long term vision for British defence policy is the more realistic. Such tensions are not new, demonstrating the inability of policymakers to get to grips with strategy.

Recent tensions between British politicians and the military top brass are a symptom of the uncertainty over whose long term vision for British defence policy is the more realistic. Such tensions are not new, demonstrating the inability of policymakers to get to grips with strategy.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director-General, RUSI

David Richards and Liam Fox

4 July 2011 - The Libyan operation is steadily taking its toll on the government in Tripoli. Colonel Qadhafi's regime might crack very soon.  But the operation is also taking its toll on the government in London, which is showing a few cracks of its own. Defence Minister Liam Fox was in a more bullish mood than usual in his big speech last week. He announced his intention to re-organise the military hierarchy when he launched the Levene report on defence reform. In startling terms he slapped down the top brass for their muttered carping about the effects of the Libya operation on their forces. Military leaders warning about the strains the Libyan operation puts on the forces, he said, were in effect giving comfort to the enemy when 'lives are at stake'. Qadhafi must get 'only one message' from the British. This is as close as a defence minister is likely to come to accusing his top brass in public of unwitting treachery.

It echoes the Prime Minister's tetchy remark on 21 June; 'you do the fighting and I'll do the talking'. Leave the strategy to us, the politicians are saying, and get on with your job of carrying it out. And for good measure Fox told the Argentine Government last week that no amount of 'huffing and puffing' would change our resolve on the Falklands. It seemed like a sideswipe at Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward's recent comment that the UK would now be unable to retake the Falkland Islands in the way they did in 1982, under his command. It was a strong performance from the Defence Secretary that will have unsettled the military chiefs at a time when relations between politicians and the military are delicate, to say the least.

But the military chiefs have a different point to make. There is no prospect of us going wobbly over Libya, or Afghanistan, they are saying. If this is your strategy, it is our job to carry it out. But after next September, we will have to make deeper sacrifices in the rest of the force structure to continue doing so. The effects of that on training, that won't take place; on technical skills that will be lost elsewhere; and on equipment that will wear out pretty soon, will have important consequences long after the Libya operation is over. A very senior RAF commander says privately that the transport fleet will be effectively broken in the next five years at present rates of operation. The First Sea Lord was called to Number 10 for a scolding after he had told journalists in an off the cuff remark that the Navy might have to weaken the Home Fleet if Libya goes on past September. It's no secret that the Apache helicopter force - so effective against ground targets in Afghanistan and Libya - struggles to operate in both theatres at once. We can keep on sweating the whole force for the sake of Afghanistan and Libya, the chiefs are saying, but there is a long-term price to pay that will reduce Britain's overall military capabilities after 2015; and they worry that this price is higher than their political masters either realise or are willing to acknowledge.

These public spats are genuine enough. Tory politicians in government may now be reaping a wind they sowed in opposition when they encouraged the previous military chiefs to speak out and seized on every statement to attack Labour's defence policy. But, as ministers, they nevertheless have a right to expect clear military advice and public loyalty from their chiefs, none of whom are so naive as to be unaware of the publicity surrounding anything they say.

For their part, the chiefs also understand that they are officers of the Crown, not the government, and they have some responsibility to an independent sense of the national interest. Some of the ex-chiefs, now in the Lords, say privately that the top brass have long since lost faith in the ability of their ministers - in any government of the last 15 years - to understand military advice properly and integrate it into government thinking. And ex-civil service chiefs - in industry these days rather than the Lords - observe that 'military advice' usually turned out to be pretty contradictory in their day. There is a lot of exasperation on all sides.

Relations between the top brass and the politicians have been bad before, of course. During the 1960s they were almost poisonous, and for much of the 1930s the military had allowed themselves to be hijacked for anti-government campaigns. Rifts were healed in the heat of subsequent battles. The present tensions may not just work themselves out, however, because they are symptoms of something deeper.

Brits don't do strategy well

The malaise begins with strategy. We have recognised that we are not very good at it. In southern Iraq we took on more than we could sustain over an extended period. When decisive action was needed to expel the Mahdi Army from Basra in 2008, British forces were marginalised, and after five years of effort, little credit was given to British forces either by the Iraqis or the Americans. In Afghanistan, our troops went to Helmand in 2006 to create security around Lashkar Gah only. But they were persuaded by the Afghan governor to move into a series of isolated outposts in the north and within two months British troops were fighting for their lives in platoon houses in Musa Qala and Sangin. The essential mission had shifted, apparently without anyone in London prepared to admit that this was a change in strategy. British forces have been playing catch-up in Afghanistan ever since.

It is not that our political and military leaders cannot think through these problems, or the even bigger issues - the future of our relations with the USA, our stake in Middle East stability, our place in the 'Asian Century' that is even now forming around us, and so on. Well-informed people can always do that. But 'strategy' is about blending the 'ends' - the big aspirations - with the ways and means to achieve them. None of our various national strategy documents, and certainly not last October's Strategic Defence and Security Review, have done this. They list a set of objectives with no clarity about the hard resources that will have to be devoted to achieve them. Those decisions on spending are still in the mix; and while ministers need more time to sort it out - we are over half way through the year and the 2011 public expenditure settlement for defence is still not agreed - the chiefs are losing and diluting their forces on a weekly basis.

Nor is it clear that we even have the machinery for making 'ends, ways and means' decisions.  The government established the National Security Council last year, which was a step in the right direction; but it is headed by a civil servant, not a powerful external voice, and is a liaison mechanism more than a decisive policy-maker. Of course, Downing Street is top of the system and can make whatever strategic choices it likes. But a prime minister ducks in and out of national strategy on the basis of the leader's own instincts, and Number 10 is not equipped to sustain more than that. By default, the critical 'ends, ways and means' decisions are taken by the Treasury, and not even its greatest friends (and there are few enough of them in defence) would argue that it is the right place to make decisions on global politics and national security.

Getting the defence we deserve

Managing defence is, in any case, uniquely difficult. The defence organisation has to be cost-effective and accountable in peacetime; but also structured to win in wartime, when accountancy takes a back seat. It is the only department of government that requires large numbers of its employees to give their lives. It must offer emotional, as well as bureaucratic, leadership. And it must purchase weapons and equipment against its judgement of how the outside world will look in twenty or thirty years.

This is challenging at the best of times. Trying to be an efficient ministry, whilst acting as a strategic military headquarters, however, has led the Ministry of Defence into a Kafkaesque existence. As the Levene defence reform report that Liam Fox launched last week put it, too much reliance on committees has produced a system that was 'complex and difficult to understand', even for those within it. So many are included in so many decisions; in the end no one is responsible. A previous chief of the equipment programme remarked that literally thousands of officials were employed in his department, whose justification was to squeeze the last tiny margins of value for money out of every programme. But that hasn't prevented some spectacular failures and the government laments that it gets pretty poor value for money out of the £13 billion a year it spends on equipment. A less obsessive attitude to 'value-for-money' - one that accepted greater tolerance of innovation failure - would allow him to deliver the programme much more cheaply and with considerably fewer people. And the failures that are now happening anyway might be less spectacular. The system has been letting both the politicians and the military chiefs down for many years. If the MoD were a major company, it would long since have gone out of business.

Like democracy, we ultimately get the defence we deserve. British society is unequivocally post-modern, with all its contradictory expectations. We want protection and security as we enjoy the fruits of a networked, globalised world; we don't see ourselves under a traditional military threat, but we like to see our troops upholding British prestige and interests. We expect them to be good, but only as long as it doesn't cost more than 2 per cent of our GDP. We plan to be an innovative, global player in the new Asian century, but we like to carry a lot of military heritage in our baggage.

Before the Berlin Wall came down, we had forty years of peace in a time of war. And now for the last twenty, we have had war in a time of peace; constant, nasty little wars that rack up the costs while the rest of us are secure enough to worry about our individual prosperity.  If we manage the public's immediate expectations, we would slash defence to help the country through its indebtedness. But that would be irresponsible. Moreover, the Prime Minister's political antenna seem to make him queasy about announcing more defence cuts, though the finances still don't add up and further delay won't improve them.

The tensions between Liam Fox, David Cameron and the military top brass are a symptom of the uncertainty over whose long term vision for British defence policy is the more realistic. If we were better at strategic calculation, and had a well-worked system for doing it, all these discussions would be taking place on the inside anyway.

A shorter version of this analysis first appeared in the Sunday Times News Review, 3 July 2011

Author

Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research