Tag Archives: first sea lord

Falklands 30 – Dockies, the unsung First Sea Lord and the same old from CFK

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems quite odd joining the ‘Falklands 30′ bandwagon, considering that a large proportion of the words written on this blog over the past three years or so have been about the Falklands! But I have been struck by three things over the last few days – the lack of credit given to the Dockyard workers, the importance of Admiral Sir Henry Leach, and the never-ending tripe emanating from Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires.

Firstly I want to pay a huge tribute to a group of people who were, for me, the unsung heroes of the Falklands campaign. The dockyard workers of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard – and indeed other places such as Plymouth and Chatham – prepared the fleet for action in an unbelievably short time. Argentina invaded the Falklands on 2 April. The Carrier Group – including HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes – sailed from Portsmouth on 5 April. Thats a turnaround of three days, to get two big, capital ships into action. The Hermes at least was destored. Many of the dockies – not dockers -were under threat of redundancy after Sir John Nott‘s defence cuts of the previous year, and his plan to emasculate the Dockyard. My Dad had left the Dockyard only weeks previously. Stories abound of men working round the clock, many setting up camp beds near their workstations. One Dockyard worker had to be almost forcibly removed from his machine after a 36 hour shift. We probably couldn’t put in a mammoth effort like that now, with a vastly reduced workforce, and much of it outsourced to private hands. There’s a great article about the Dockyard during the Falklands here in the Portsmouth News.

I’m also amazed by how little attention is given to another of the unsung heroes of the Falklands War – Admiral Sir Henry Leach. Leach, the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, happened to be in Whitehall in full dress uniform on 2 April. With his boss the Chief of the Defence Staff away on an official visit, Leach took it upon himself to seek out the Prime Minister. At the time Mrs Thatcher was in her House of Commons meeting room with the Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott. Nott was outlining the difficulties that any military operation would entail. Leach was kept waiting outside by flunkies, but one Thatcher learnt of his presence, she asked for him to be shown in. Leach proceeded to explain that an operation to re-take the Falklands would be possible. And not only that, he overstepped his authority and explained that it SHOULD take place. When asked why he said this by Mrs Thatcher, he explained that ‘if not, soon we will be living in a very different country where words count for little’. Liking this, the Prime Minister sent him away with approval to form a task force. Apparently John Nott went white as a sheet. Not only had he been outplayed by one of his subordinates, but his defence reforms were in tatters. I am reminded of the officer in Bridge over the River Kwai, who loses grip on reality and tries to prevent the demolition of the bridge.

Henry Leach and Terence Lewin were seadogs of a different age. Having been to war in 1939-45, they were cut from different cloth than our political commanders of current years. Would modern First Sea Lords tell a Prime Minister exactly what they think, contrary to the Defence Secretary’s advice? Sadly, politicians don’t seem to tolerate professional wisdom nowadays. If I were Prime Minister, I would rather uncomfortable advice from an experienced serviceman, than hollow rhetoric from a career politician. Henry Leach was 100% right – Britain would be a very different place now, if it had not stood up for its beleagured friends in 1982.

It never ceases to amaze me the rubbish that Cristina Fernandez comes out with down in Buenos Aires. This time she hijacks the anniversary of an Argentine-instigated war, to argue that ‘colonial enclaves are absurd’. I’m still not sure how exactly she can have the gall to say that, given that the Falklands were under British sovereignty before Argentina even existed. Argentina itself is made up of the diaspora of colonial conquerors in the Spanish. This fascinating article by John Simpson tells us the story from another angle – the growing domination of the press by the Government in Argentina; the ‘official’ inflation rate of 7% and the indenpendent rate of 22%; and the feeling that Fernandez has resorted to traditional route one Argentine politics by wheeling out the Malvinas issue when there are social and economic problems at home. The sad thing is, that the majority of Argentines appear to believe her tripe.

In recent years it has routinely been peddled that the rest of South America is at one with Buenos Aires over the Falklands. Certainly, no one has said or done anything to dispel this myth. But Simpson argues that Fernandez is taking Argentina down a dysfunctional and isolated path, taking the country closer to dubious regimes such as Venezuela and Iran, which more moderate South American leaders are understandably not happy about. Fernandez is propogating something of a cult of personality, Chavez style. A snazzy dresser (for an Argentine, anyway!), and quite possibly reconstructed by surgical means, she also rarely gives interviews, only broadcasting direct on national television. She has reportedly annoyed Brazil by proposing a non-nuclear zone in the South Atlantic – obviously with an eye on putting a shot across British bows. However, Brazil is currently building a fleet of nuclear submarines.

I cannot help but feel that if Britain tries to weather the storm emanating from BA, reacting robustly and being prepared, that eventually Fernandez and her ilk will have no choice but to moderate their behaviour. It’s hard to see it lasting for too long in that regional and international context.

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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts: PM’s papers released

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Image via Wikipedia

Some of you may have seen that Prime Ministerial Papers relating to John Nott‘s 1981 cuts to the British Armed Forces were made available to the public on New Years Day, under the 30 year rule. As I am sure you are aware I have long had a strong interest in British Military History in the post war period, and especially in the 1982 Falklands War.

The 1982 war is irrevocably tied up with the Defence cuts of 1981, steered by the Defence Secretary of the time, John Nott. The cuts – which proposed to do away with aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance – are thought to have spurred the Argentine military junta into action. Ironically, if only they had waited another six months the Royal Navy would never have been able to respond. And not only that, but thousands of Dockyard workers who had redundancy notices hanging over their heads were critical in getting the task force ready to sail.

Clearly, if we are looking for lessons of how to do Defence cuts in challenging economic times, the Nott cuts are a valuable example. The file runs to 200+ pages, and consists of ministerial notes, correspondence, memos and speeches. Many of them have handwriting scribbled on, including in the hand of Mrs T herself. I have had a cursory glance through them, and whilst the general thrust is already well known, the files do demonstrate just how far the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach (above), went to try to protect the Navy. He took the very unusual step of asking to see the Prime Minister personally on the issue. Although each of the three service chiefs have the prerogative to see the PM, in practice 99% of the time they raise queries through the Chief of the Defence Staff or the Defence Secretary. Of course, we now know that in that fateful meeting in the House of Commons in April 1982, Leach claimed one of the greatest ‘told you so’s of modern history.

What is new about these documents is the depth they go into in explaining the thinking, the rationale between cutting the Royal Navy, whilst enhancing the RAF and maintaining the Army at the status quo. It is an interesting case study of the defence priorities that Britain had in 1981, and there are also some insights into procurement, costs, and the inventory of equipment that the armed forces had at the time.

I’m going to have a look through them and post up some snippets and my analysis. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

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Serious questions for Defence Secretary

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Can he out-Fox this one? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the furore regarding the Defence Secretary‘s murky relationship with his former flatmate/best man/adviser (delete as appropriate). Apart from the point of view of the ministerial code and integrity in public life, there are very serious concerns for those of us interested in British Defence issues.

The Defence Secretary is supposed to be advised by the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs (First Sea Lord, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Staff), and the relevant other senior personnel and civilians in the armed forces and the MOD. The MOD has plenty of departments, dealing with things such as policy, plans, procurement, anything and everything. There can hardly be a lack of capability there.

If the Defence Secretary really feels the need to be ‘advised’ by anyone who is outside the MOD chain, there are a number of learned, credible institutions such as the RUSI, which possess a wealth of knowledge and experience around Defence and Security issues. People who have actually paid their dues, either serving or studying military history.

All of which should suggest that at face value, the Defence Secretary shouldn’t really be in need of a special adviser. OK, in reality most Cabinet ministers have staff who advise on spin – how stories are presented, the politics of the issue, etc. But Mr Werrity has been described as a ‘Defence lobbyist’. Funnily enough, when Liam Fox was Shadow Health Secretary, Werrity was a ‘Health lobbyist’. Interesting, no? And surely if a Cabinet Minister cannot do his job without a poorly qualified siamese twin, doesn’t that cast judgement on his ability full stop?

Interestingly, Adam Werrity is, at 33, only five years older than myself. He gained a 2:2 degree in public policy – whatever that is – from the University of Edinburgh. Apparently he also stayed rent-free at Fox’s London apartment between 2003 and 2005, all of which hardly makes for a professional relationship.

It all makes you wonder what ‘advice’ exactly is being sought and offered. I’ve never liked the thought of special advisors who are outside the foodchain – it is completely unaccountable and open to all kind of abuse. What kind of influences are being brought to bear on these middle-men, say from commercial interests? There is absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no control. Nobody elected him, based on a manifesto, and nobody selected him after an interview process.

This isn’t, for me, a red vs. blue/yellow political issue – all politicians have questions to answer about ‘lobbyists’, and who influences them and their decision making. The Defence of the Realm is far too important to be left to the Defence Secretary’s mini-me. But, as a high-profile Defence blog put it so succinctly, once again the British armed forces have become a political football, and the servicemen and women of the country are hardly likely to be winners.

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First Sea Lord – Royal Navy ‘in a very bad way’

Something of a media storm has kicked up today, over comments made by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope.

In a rare example of an Admiral standing up for his services, Stanhope said:

‘How long can we go on as we are in Libya? If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces. That is being addressed now. Certainly in terms of Nato’s current time limit that has been extended to 90 days, we are comfortable with that. Beyond that, we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities.’

Admiral Sir Jock Slater was First Sea Lord during the earlier 1998 Strategic Defence Review:

The position the First Sea Lord and the chief of staffs is very difficult indeed because if you want to retain the confidence of ministers you should not speak directly to the press about your concerns. But the fact remains that the navy is in a very bad way. The loss of Ark Royal and the Harriers was the worst decision by a government for many, many years. I think what Mark Stanhope has done is to state the obvious. You can’t carry on doing more with less.’

Naval Historian and analst Professor Andrew Lambert, of Kings College London, had this to say:

I think what the First Sea Lord has said in a very quiet and polite way is what everyone else has been saying in a very loud and aggressive way for a considerable period of time. The government has committed themselves to doing something when we have not got the equipment to do the job. The problem is the government has not got the political courage to admit they have made a mistake and as a result we are spending vast amounts of money doing things inefficiently and ineffectively. We’re getting laughed at by the French for not having a carrier off Libya. It’s hard enough when they beat us at rugby or football but when they beat us at carrier aviation it is unacceptable.’

‘It’s not the business of government to make perfect decisions all the time. It’s their business to run the country and respond to events. They have held their hands up when they got things wrong with the NHS reforms and sentencing but they seem unable to do the same with defence. It’s gone beyond a joke really. I know governments will stick to their own rhetoric but this is costing us too much and may even end up costing lives and that’s why the First Sea Lord was right to speak out because the situation is unacceptable.’

The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, is either clearly living in la la land, or is secret ex-RAF officer:

‘Operations in Libya are showing how capable we are post-SDSR as a leading military power with the fourth largest defence budget in the world. We continue to have the resources necessary to carry out the operations we are undertaking and have spare capacity with the Royal Navy Cougar Taskforce which is currently on exercise in the Gulf. The SDSR is not being reopened. The Harrier has served with great distinction over a long period and in a number of theatres, but we are not bringing them back into service. Our planning assumptions remain valid and we have been able to effectively conduct missions over Libya. We are now progressing with the disposal of the Harrier force.’

planning assumptions valid? They were invalid before the ink even dried Foxy. Leading military power? Our projection doesnt back that up. And as for rourth largest defence budget? Our inventory does not back up that one either.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said:

‘This is yet another convincing argument in favour of reopening the defence review, which has not survived its first contact with world events. ‘The country will be dismayed to hear that the operation in Libya could have been conducted more cheaply and more effectively had the Government taken a different approach. ‘I hope the straight talking by the First Sea Lord will be met with some straight answers from Ministers. In particular, it is vital that Ministers tell us now how they intend to equip the mission in Libya should it go beyond the six month mark.’

Looking beyond all of the party political and and inter-service dialogue, even the most ardent Tory party card holding RAF airman would claim that the SDSR isn’t looking, in retrospect, like a pile of horse shit. Even Cameron and Fox know it, but of course politics being politics they can’t say so. Ironically, I suspect that most people would respect them more if they admitted that they had got it wrong.

There are bigger contexts to the the rapid and serious decline in the Royal Navy. Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, the Task Group Commander in the Falklands War, wrote in the Daily Mail the other day that Defence cuts would leave Britain unable to recapture the Falklands if they were taken again by Argentina.

Heres a summary of Woodward’s arguments:

  • America, whose support in 1982 was crucial, appear to support Argentina’s claim to the Islands. Even to the point of referring to them as ‘The Malvinas’ in a joint declaration with Argentina.
  • Why isn’t Cameron getting straight on the plane to Washington to demand an explanation from Obama? 253 British lives were lost defending the islands, and the islanders right to determine their own sovereignty.
  • The Mount Pleasant airbase in the Falklands is not as defendable as thought, and in any case the Argentinians would not attempt a landing without taking out the airbase first.
  • The staging post on Ascenscion Island is leased to America, whose permission we would require to use it. Without it, any sustained operations in the South Atlantic would be impossible.
  • Mount Pleasant can only offer up 3 or 4 Typhoons. The RAF is struggling to get enough Typhoons airworthy for Libya, let alone a war 8,000 miles away. With no aircover and without Mount Pleasant to rapidly reinforce the islands, we could kiss them goodbye.
  • With no carrier-borne air cover, retaking the islands would be impossible. The French are unlikely to lend us Charles de Gaulle.
  • Fundamentally, the islanders are British, and want to be British. The Argentines want them for spurious, vain domestic political reasons. The fundamental values of the UN enshrine the right to self-determination.
  • If David Cameron decides, in a crisis, that the Falklands are not worth defending, who will lose the next General Election.
  • With the new carriers and joint strike fighters not due for some years, we have to muddle through this situation for another 10 years at least.

‘As things currently stand, we’d have serious trouble defending anything much further than  the other side of the English Channel.’

Sandy Woodward was, in many ways, like Montgomery. A war-winning senior officer who rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way in doing so. And I, personally, find it very hard to argue with any of his arguments outlined here.

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Fast Jet flying club?

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard as Chief of t...

Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and a former Major-General (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the most common accusations levelled at senior commanders is that once they reach high command, they ‘look after their own’, based on their earlier experience. This is hardly surprising – if a young man joins a service as a teenager, and spends 40-odd years serving within it, being infused with the deepest traditions of it, of course its going to leave a mark. But is this tribalism helpful in them modern, purple-operations era?

It was noticeable during the Falklands War that more than a few of the Naval Commanders concerned were ex-submariners – Fieldhouse, Woodward, and more than a few of the Task Force’s captains. This prominence of the submariner was probably due to the importance of the Submarine to the Cold War Navy. Previous times had seen the Fleet Air Arm provide many senior officers. As for the Army, there have been phases there too – Infantrymen, Guardsmen, and Gunners. Mike Jackson became the first CGS from the Paras.

Yet the RAF has, allegedly, had a lot less diversity than the other forces. The frequent accusation is that nothing more than a ‘fast jet flying club’, thanks to most of its commanders being former fighter pilots. But is this the case? And how does it compare to the other services?

Chiefs of the Air Staff

Lets look at the evidence. These are the last eight Chiefs of the Air Staff, and their backgrounds:

Stephen Dalton – Jaguars and Tornados; Director General Typhoon, Deputy CinC Air Command

Glenn Torpy – Jaguars and Tornados; Air Component Op Telic, Chief of Joint Operations

Jock Stirrup – Jaguars and Phantoms; Deputy CDS (Equipment)

Peter Squire – Hunters and Harriers; Assistant CAS, CinC Strike Command

Richard Johns – Hunters and Harriers; CinC Strike Command, Commander Allied Forces NW Europe

Michael Gaydon – Hunters and Lightnings; CinC Support Command, CinC Strike Command

Peter Harding – Wessex; Vice CDS, CinC Strike Command

David Craig – Meteors and Hunters; CinC Strike Command

Interesting stuff indeed. Apart from one, all have a background in fast jets. The RAF’s limited career structure precludes officers moving around within the service, too. How come no-one who has had a career flying, say, the Hercules or Chinook has made it to the top level of RAF command? Would an ex-Chinook pilot be more inclined to joint operations than an ex-fighter pilot? Interesting as well that the current Chief of the Air Staff spent some time as Director General of the Eurofighter programme…

First Sea Lords

Lets take a look at the backgrounds of the First Sea Lords during the same period:

Mark Stanhope – Submarines, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; Deputy SACEUR (transformation), CinC Fleet

Jonathan Band – Minesweeper, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, MOD appointments

Alan West – Frigate; Chief of Defence Intelligence, CinC Fleet

Nigel Essenhigh – Destroyers; Assistant CDS (programmes), CinC Fleet

Michael Boyce – Submarines, Frigate; 2nd Sea Lord, CinC Fleet

Jock Slater – Frigate, Destroyer, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Benjamin Bathurst – Fleet Air Arm, Frigates; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Julian Oswald – Frigate, Destroyer; Assistant CDS, CinC Fleet

The spread of experience is a lot broader here – not only overall, as First Sea Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, but also individual officers seem to have broader experience too. For example, a submariner has to command surface ships if he wishes to progress further in the Navy, as do pilots. This saves officers being compartmentalised in their experience and skills base. Commanders of escorts and of carriers will know a great deal about aviation, thanks to flying One notable absence, however, is amphibious warfare – no First Sea Lord’s in recent history have commanded a landing ship.

Chiefs of the General Staff

David Richards – Royal Artillery, Armoured Brigade; ARRC (inc ISAF), CinC Land

Richard Dannatt – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Mike Jackson – Intelligence Corps/Parachute Regiment, Belfast Brigade; ARRC (inc KFOR), CinC Land

Mike Walker – Royal Anglian Regiment, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Roger Wheeler – Royal Ulster Rifles, Armoured Brigade; GOC N. Ireland, CinC Land

Charles Guthrie – Welsh Guards, SAS, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

Peter Inge – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

John Chapple – Gurkhas, Gurkha Brigade; Deputy CDS, CinC Land

Once again, its clear that senior Army officers have a more diverse background than their Airships. Admittedly, they are all infantrymen apart from David Richards, but in turn most of those infantrymen have either commanded armoured units, or served with the SAS or Parachute Regiment. There has for a long time been a ‘one size fits all’ attitude within the Army, and its by no means unknown for an Engineer to command an Infantry Brigade, or a non-airborne officer to command the air assault brigade. Notice as well how the centre of gravity in the Army changed from the British Army of the Rhine to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and as a result they have gained experience of NATO commands, peacekeeping and so-on. In general there has been more real ‘action’ – N. Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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new Navy chief on RN’s ‘vital role’

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

The Royal Navy has a vital role in protecting Britain’s imported energy supplies, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope has told the Portsmouth Evening News.

With North Sea supplies fast running out, Britain is becoming incxreasingly reliant on imported supplies of gas and oil, 30% of which comes from Qatar and the wider Middle East region. ‘If we fail to protect that, an energy crisis is likely’, explains Admiral Stanhope, ‘the general public don’t see the four minehunters we’ve got in the Gulf’.

He will also be urging Government planners to look over the horizon, beyond current deployments. ‘There were challenges before Afghanistan and there will be challenges after Afghanistan’.

On the new supercarriers, Admiral Stanhope stressed that their importance goes beyond purely Naval requirements, ‘It’s about defence as a wider concern, its about the ability of the UK to underpin its position in the world’.

More broadly, the head of the Navy argued that the public have very little understanding of the importance of the sea to Britain’s prosperity and freedom, and that we are ‘therefore highly reliant on the stability and security of the globalised world’.

For many years known as the ‘silent service’ for its inability to promote itself, it seems that the Royal Navy now has a powerful advocate in the Ministry of Defence. He is quite right to argue that Britain’s security is inherently linked to security abroad, history has shown that time and time again. Its not enough to pull up the drawbridge and look inwards, especially given the ever-increasing globalisation of the wider world. On the importance of long term planning he is also correct – service chiefs have to plan for the next war, not just the current one. Unlike politicians, who plan for approval ratings and the next election.

How much Admiral Stanhope will be able to achieve, given the perilous finding situation remains to be seen, however.

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