Defence Reform: A welcome report from Lord Levene

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.

£25 Billion Bail-out for Britain’s Military

The government announced a £500 billion bail-out for Britain’s banking system in October 2008, extended with a further £50 billion in January 2009.

We need to do something equally urgent and equally dramatic about our defence forces because they are in serious peril. We need a bail-out to give immediate relief from the demands for cutbacks, to cover the added expenditure of unplanned operations called for by the government, to halt the scrapping of vitally needed weapons systems, and especially, to stop the redundancies.

I know there isn’t an area of government where deep cuts are massively unpopular and often demonstrably harmful. I know that. Yet because of the disaster that was thirteen years of New Labour profligacy, coupled with crass incompetence, those deep cuts must be made and if anything, made deeper.

But defence is a special case because we’re at war right now and calling on the army, navy and air force to deliver above and beyond the call of duty on two fronts. They are already suffering the ill-effects of previous cutbacks and the catastrophic mismanagement at the Ministry of Defence over the last couple of decades. They can’t take it any more.

We were the nation that could launch an armada at 48 hours notice to sail eight thousand miles to the south Atlantic and liberate the Falkland Islands, and do that against an enemy operating close to their homeland, equipped with modern weapons and with ample time to prepare their defences. We were the nation that was second only to the military might of the USA when liberating Kuwait from Sadaam Hussein as a key player in a multi-national alliance. We are not that nation any more.

The shambles of procurement means that new weapon systems are delivered late and massively over budget. Some are only run to completion because the cost of cancellation was prohibitively high thanks to penalty clauses. Who was in charge when such contracts were signed? How was this allowed to happen? Other contacts, presumably without penalties to protect them, are cancelled leaving us without vital operational capability.

I applaud those senior officers who are now speaking out about the strain the operations over Libya in particular are causing, on top of the climate of cutbacks and uncertainties in general.

Here is a very depressing speech given by Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham (retired). It’s depressing because it confirms from first-hand knowledge what we have suspected all along. Here’s one point he makes: “We are used to the comforting and rather romantic thought that our forces are world class, and that we are military leaders in Europe. I believe this is no longer the case. As just one piece of evidence the French, now indubitably the leading European military power, have flown three times as many sorties in Libya as the RAF.” And even that level is unsustainable.

There may be hope on the horizon if Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary can bring about the degree of organisational restructuring that is needed, here’s his business plan.

We must also hope that The Defence Reform Unit under Lord Levene will also propose meaningful reforms. Unfortunately, it’s not clear who they are taking their advice from and there is very little to be discovered in the public domain, here’s an introduction on the MoD web site.

Clearly they must have a period of open consultation where experienced and reform-minded individuals can tell them in no uncertain terms what is needed, otherwise they’ll only get their input from the vested interests who are already in the MoD. I can’t see anywhere that says they will do this, and they are due to report by the end of July – in a few weeks time – so someone needs to rattle their cage. Here’s my shortlist of who they ought to invite to talk to them: Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Beverley, Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Major General Sir Patrick Cordingley, Major General Julian Thompson, Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, Colonel Tim Collins, Commander John Muxworthy, Antony Hitchens, Allen Sykes, Andy Smith.

We must have serious reforms in place to justify the bail-out. We must have that bail-out.