You are here

The Ministry of Defence main building in London

The UK Modernising Defence Programme: ‘Get with the Programme’

John Louth
Commentary, 16 February 2018
Defence Spending, Equipment and Acquisitions, Defence Management
Officials in the Ministry of Defence charged with delivery of the UK Modernising Defence Programme would do well to heed the title and take a robust programmatic approach to their task.

The UK government’s decision last month to separate out the defence components of the National Security and Defence Review will be subject to a variety of parallel commentaries in what has been called the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP). Noteworthy from the start is the fact that the review is divided into four clear work-strands, that could be described as follows:

  • Organisational development and reform.
  • Efficiency management.
  • Commercial and financial management.
  • Capability development.

From the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) perspective it makes sense to carve-up the work. As the National Audit Office has estimated that unfunded elements in the equipment plan are at least £10 billion with an undelivered historical efficiency programme of about £7.5 billion this will certainly prompt profound questions around commercial management, organisational reform and enduring economies/efficiencies.

It seems also to be appropriate that the chief operating officer and finance director head these first three work-strands. The problem from a programme management perspective is that these are ‘ways of working’ questions. These are important, but potentially dysfunctional, if we cannot articulate the programmatic ‘purpose’ of the defence enterprise in the first place.

Clinging to the notionally three purposes for defence set out in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015 – to Protect, Project and Promote – makes little sense in programme management terms as they do not address measurable effects.

So, understanding the purpose for generating defence capabilities precedes questions over which capabilities to develop, deliver or retain which, in turn, precedes options concerning the optimum ways to deliver, sustain, refresh and amend those capabilities. If that is right, we need to take a portfolio or programme management approach to this work rather than thinking of it as a policy imperative.

The literature and practice of sound programme management is clear: senior leaders identify the end-state in terms of capability or effect and then align their resources – people, money, materials, machines, knowledge and time – to deliver that effect.

In doing so, the risks and opportunities associated with that programme of work are captured, matured and managed. So, instead of the four work-strands running in parallel the MoD needs to articulate its end-state or purpose: the capability work-strand must take primacy and be sufficiently mature to inform the enabling three.

To do otherwise risks organisational reform that does the wrong thing, sub-optimal commercial transformation that impedes force generation and efficiencies that are, in effect, just ill-considered cuts in capability.

Following this logic, what is the end-state that is sought? The MoD published in December 2017 its refresh of defence industrial policy where the purpose of the defence effort was characterised as:

  • Delivering wider economic and international value and national security objectives.
  • Help UK industry to be internationally competitive, innovative and secure.
  • Make it easy to do business with the MoD.

SDSR 2015, in contrast, talks about the purpose of defence being:

  • To protect our people.
  • To project our global influence.
  • To promote our prosperity.

These two documents are elegantly written and the product of good staff work, external engagement with stakeholders and targeted political consideration. But they are policy papers – pretty ineffectual in terms of aggressive programme management.

This is because we struggle to articulate what effects are required in operational terms, and what inputs are required to yield the outputs to create those effects – the very stuff of programme management.

Without this detail of analysis, judgements cannot be formed on strength in depth, reconstitution, forward holdings of assets and consumables – all of which should drive our investment. Chapters on context and security risks prove equally unhelpful in this regard.

Rather, the end-state in capability terms to underscore our purpose, matched to the broad strategic threats and unknowns, needs careful and clear articulation if the work of the MDP is to be successful.

If this is to be Joint Force 2025, let us say so, but this needs to be more than a heading or label. What numbers, competencies and assured skill levels are required within the military and the industrial and civil sectors that comprise the Joint Force? Are the contracts going to be in place to generate these inputs from the commercial sector and, if so, where does this feature within the EP? What are the risks associated with so much of our capability owned and generated by shareholders instead of the government and how are we managing those risks? All questions that suggest we need a portfolio and programme solution – and approach – not more policy generation and staff work.

The academic body of knowledge suggests that a programme management approach to strategy and organisational development unequivocally leads to an articulation of choice. It can hardly be otherwise, as a resource can be used only once at a given moment and that most fragile of programme elements – time – is unforgiving if spent unwisely.

That is why so many poorly performing organisations turn to portfolio and programme management reform to address their ills. Indeed, this would appear to be MoD’s understanding and experience from Smart Acquisition to the strategic partners of Defence Equipment and Support reform.

If this approach is not taken with the MDP, then it seems sensible to suggest that the moment – or moments – of choice will be fudged. This might be good politics, but it is very bad programme management for capability development. Steering a course between the two is the real challenge for those engaged with the MDP.

Additional commentaries in this series will follow at, roughly, weekly intervals.

Banner image:The Ministry of Defence in London. Courtesy of ArildV/Wikimedia

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research