Forces Crisis? Get rid of the Darlings!

Blackadder's Captain Darling - the archetypal staff officer

Blackadder's Captain Darling - the archetypal staff officer

The Armed Forces are being stifled by an over-preponderence of pointless staff officers, a former senior officer has told the Sunday Express.

Colonel Richard Kemp, an ex-commander of British Forces in Afghanisatan, argues that there are far too many staff officers, headquarters and senior officers who add little value to what is actually happening at the sharp end of the spear.

This is nothing new, for many years ‘Whitehall warriors’ have blighted the military. It is perfectly possible for an office to progress simply from creating a good impression with the right people, rather than getting on with the job. ‘Boy’ Browning is a good example.

It would also be very difficult to argue that the armed forces are not bloated by having too many senior officers, many of whom are in irrelevant or comfortable jobs that we could do without. There is also still much duplication between the Armed Forces. In many cases there are three posts in each of the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy doing essentially the same thing. Is this really necessary? Is it justified to keep senior officers in non-essential jobs when we havent got enough helicopters? Why is it ever OK to have more Admirals than we have ships?

As well as the Chief of Defence Staff, who overseas the armed forces as a whole, each services has its own Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff respectively. In addition each service has a main commander in chief who overseas the actual operation part of the service, and another officer on the same level who handles personnel and administration issues. Even then, there is also a Joint Operational Headquarters which is responsible for co-ordinating deployments across all three services. Confusing? Overloaded? Bloated? It would be hard to argue otherwise. This even before we think about the offices, headquarters, assistants and staff officers used to look after all of these layers. In many cases this is far in excess of what the equivalent manager in industry would have.

Support services ARE important. The soldier on the front line is only the bullet being fired by a very large gun. But this should not be used as cover for maintaining antiquated and overloaded structures and systems. The UK armed forces are smaller than the US Marine Corps, which has more men, more ships, more aircraft, but a much simpler command system. On the other hand, the US does not have a tradition of superfluous staff officers to maintain.

Unfortunately the one thing that makes our armed forces so formidable – their history and traditions – also holds them back. Whenever a restructuring is proposed plenty of commentators cry foul over the loss of historic regiments. This is obviously very sad to see, but we have to be realistic and focus on what we are actually having to do. The Regimental system, where members owe their tribal loyalty firstly to the Regiment rather than the Army, has time and time again been a real strength. But it need not preclude change. In 2007 the Royal Greenjackets and Light Infantry merged to form the Rifles, a regiment actually more in keeping with both of the original regiments history than they were themselves!

Military establishments have through time been largely conservative. A prime example is how the British Army Cavalry were allowed to retain their horses for many years, when it was inevitable to anyone with any sense that horses would be pointless when tanks were becoming such a force in warfare. But the Cavalry officers were allowed to keep their horses for nostalgic reasons. In the same manner, is it realistic for the RAF to have illusions of fighters over the white cliffs of Dover?

Whatever the answer, difficult questions should not be avoided. While braided staff officers traipse though the corridors of Whitehall, men are dying and being blown apart in Afghanistan.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force

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