I have to say I am very impressed with the Defence Reform report produced by Lord Levene and his team. It can be downloaded and read in full here. It is a report that examines the way the MOD is managed, rather than the usual report that looks only at how many ships, tanks and planes we think we need. They have consulted with a commendably wide range of informed sources both within the MOD of course, but externally as well including with foreign defence departments, academics, think tanks, even trade unions, and also including some of the MOD’s staunchest critics.
However I have a few bones of contention with the report.
My first concern is the time scale over which they envisage reforms taking place. It is far too long. They recommend that a Defence Reform Steering Group should reconvene on an annual basis for the next three years. The urgency of the situation surely dictates that they should reconvene quarterly for the next twelve months. Potentially disastrous decisions are already being taken and more will be taken before the reforms are in place. The harm that is being done must be minimised so we need to end the old way of doing business and have the new model established as a matter of urgency. The most ambitious time scale must be adopted.
That leads me to my second concern.
There is deep and widespread criticism of the SDSR. This is a plan that has been put together by what most commentators agree is a dysfunctional organisation that has made catastrophically bad decisions all of which this report acknowledges. Why on earth is the discredited SDSR still being implemented? It is the product of bitter inter-Service rivalry and a lack of strategic thought. It must be halted immediately, and any decisions that irrevocably removes military capabilities must be reversed. Nothing should happen until the newly reformed MOD is up and running and can make its own decisions based on a rational appraisal of balanced military need. A new SDSR should be drawn up within a year of the reforms being completed.
My third concern is about money.
The drive for reform is made critical because of the calamitous mismanagement of the economy by Labour during their thirteen years in power. The country is broke, and Defence is broker if I can put it that way. The discovery of a ten billion pound black hole in the Defence budget merely adds to the sense of disgust. But it is not feasible for an organisation to build a new structure while burdened with the costs of the old. If the new structure is to be trimmed to suit what little is left in the budget, it is doomed to start off in a state of crisis from which it may never recover. This point was not addressed in the report, despite many recommendations that have cost implications. If the coalition government is serious about Defence, it needs to ensure it is viable. Colossal sums of money were made available at the drop of a hat to bail out the financial sector, something of far less importance. Defence only needs a fraction of that amount to help it get through this crisis and it should be given that bail-out.
Which leads to my fourth concern.
Punish the guilty. No one can read the litany of incompetence and downright deceitfulness that has characterised the Labour government in general and the management of the Ministry of Defence in particular and not be angry. Yet all those involved have gone on to receive honours and accolades when, with the example of the House of Commons expenses scandal fresh in our minds, some of them should be going to jail. I would like to see another team formed to investigate every decision and assess the culpability of all those involved. It is clear, even at a cursory examination, that the best interests of the country were not being served by those appointed to positions of trust. Subverting the Defence of the Realm must still be an offence whatever the motives and the guilty should be identified and prosecuted. At the very least, contracts must be cancelled where there has been improper conduct or they have been unlawfully signed.