BBC News reports that the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, has been asked to step down early. Reportedly he will relinquish the post in the autumn after the Strategic Defence Review has been completed.
Whilst his stepping down is bound to sound like a sacking, it is far from that. He had been due to retire in 2009 after a three year term, but had been asked to stay on. Unconfirmed reports suggest that this was due to Gordon Brown not wishing to promote General Sir Richard Dannatt, the most likely successor. Brown was apparently unhappy with Dannatt’s frequent public statements regarding defence policy and funding.
Historically Chiefs of Defence Staff have only served three year terms, in order to ensure that no one person or service can dominate defence policy. Traditionally the role is rotated among the three armed forces, for example an RAF officer will not be replaced by another airman. So in actual fact the latest development is a return to convention after the last Government deviated from it.
Stirrup is likely to be replaced by the current Chief of the General Staff General Sir David Richards, or the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff Sir Nick Houghton. The sensible money will be on Richards, a former Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Richards has extensive experience, has been pretty reliable and impartial during his time in charge of the Army and is also well thought of by our allies, especially the US. Another outside bet might be the head of the Navy Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, but given the Army’s primacy in operations at present this is unlikely.
These latest developments bring to mind an interesting situation that might have arisen if Richard Dannatt was still in charge of the Army – would the Government have promoted him to Chief of Defence Staff, given that even while he was in command he was a Tory supporter? This would have raised very serious questions about the politicisation of the armed forces.
The only other issue that could be raised is whether it is right to have a new Defence Chief after the Strategic Defence Review – surely it would make more sense to have a new person in place before, so they can help inform the Review? Otherwise whoever comes in after Stirrup will be working with the effects of somebody elses advice and influence. If the Government really wants a fresh start – which makes sense – then why complete a Defence Review with a lame duck senior officer?