Review of the MoD – welcome news?

Credit where credit’s due, I find it hard to argue with Liam Fox’s announcement yesterday regarding reforming the MoD. And I never thought I would find myself agreeing with a Conservative Defence Secretary!

It’s long been one of the worst kept secrets in Britain that the MoD has become a bit of a monster – employing thousands of people, multiplying all the time in terms of managers, departments and committees, losing track of its own finances, making a hash of procurement and generally losing sight of what its there for. Its noticeable that during the many Defence Review’s over the past 50 or so years, the armed forces themselves have been hammered repeatedly, while the Ministry itself has sat untouchable on a pedestal.

Working in local government, I can kind of see what the problem is, only my experience is obviously on a much smaller scale. I get the feeling that the response to any problem over the past few years has been to appoint another manager, ending up with layer upon layer of ‘non-jobs’, people who are there building their own little empires but adding very little value to the bigger picture.

Its my opinion that if you work for any public sector organisation, you need to never lose sight of why you are there. In the MoD’s case, it is to equip and support our armed services. But there are plenty of cases of MoD mandarins losing the plot with senior officers because their decisions did not fit in with their precious process management. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way round. When you add in a New-Labour style obsession with publicity and Stalinist control, its no wonder that the MoD has become so unfit for purpose.

Stories abound of the MoD spending millions on swanky new officers and modern art installations, while servicemen’s barracks are in a dilapidated state and men were going to war with inadequate equipment. OK so its an oft-quoted cliche, but that sort of thing should be anathema to the MoD. The culture of the organisation needs to change – civil servants are there to serve the country (the clue is in the name), and in the MoD, they can best do that by supporting the forces, not treating them as an inconvenience that mucks up their nice neat plans.

The intention with scrapping the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry back in the 1960’s was to bring Defence and the armed forces together, kicking and screaming into the modern age. However after the initial forming of the MoD – which was traumatic enough – it seems that no-one had the stomach to push for further reforms. Although there has been a growth of jointery in recent years as the result of cost-cutting, there is still a feeling of the three services always squabbling against each other, and the Treasury happily shafting everyone.

Dr Fox also mentioned the possibility of reforming command structures within the armed forces themselves. If units are to be cut and equipment is going to be scrapped, and even the MoD itself is going to be reformed, it is hard to see how the senior officers can escape. I’ve thought for a while that the armed forces do seem a little top heavy with Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals – isn’t it slightly strange how we have more Admiral’s than major surface warships, for example? While the forces themselves have shrunk since the end of the Cold War, command structures and senior posts have largely remained the same.

The thing is, the heads of the individual services are so disempowered nowadays, as all spending and decision making is made by the MoD and the politicians, that they are effectively just advisors. Operations come directly under the Chief of Defence Staff, through the Permanent Joint Headquarters. Each service also has a Commander-in-Chief just below the overall Chief, so with the expected shrinkage of the forces we might see these two levels of post merge. And how many senior officers do we have who are in posts such as ‘Vice Deputy Chief of Procurement (Shoelaces)?

It might just makes the forces more efficient – less people, less links in the chain, less complicated. The idea of reforming the MoD into three pillars – policy and strategy, armed forces and procurement and estates – does seem to me to be a step forward from what at present is a grossly untidy situation. I know a lot of people will deride these reforms as cuts, and of course they are, but root-and-branch overhaul has to be better than salami slicing.



Filed under defence, News, politics

23 responses to “Review of the MoD – welcome news?

  1. An interesting note – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is talking about slimming down the number of top officers in the Pentagon. Seems like you might be onto something in your blog!

  2. James Daly

    It wouldn’t be the first time that Britain had acted in parallel with the US in such a way. Given that we are the closest allies in the western sphere and frequently work in tandem, it makes sense to have similar structures – that way opposite numbers across the pond reflect each other.

    One of the complaints during the Iraq inquiry has been that British military advisors in the Pentagon and CENTCOM in 2002 and 2003 felt out on a limb, but I guess that is more cultural than organisational – our management and leadership policies are miles apart! (see ‘But I was only following orders’)

  3. x

    It must be remembered all those civil servants aren’t suit wearing Whitehall Warriors. That 80,000 includes everything from vets to range officers and lots in between.

    I remember my first visit to HMS Excellent; I ate with the senior rates and the food was prepared RN cooks. By my last visit in 2005 the catering had been outsourced. Whether these outsourced activities are included in the 80,000 civil servants I don’t know I suspect not. Now this is a good example of whether it is cheaper to outsource or not. A RN cook would expect a shore draft to the Service’s various mess hall to be interspersed with his sea drafts. Allowing him to spend time with the family which hopefully meant the Service retained him. Today it sea draft, course, leave, work up, sea draft, etc. etc. No wonder the youngsters get fed up and leave.

    • James Daly

      What I suspect is the problem is the amount of people working in non-jobs like strategy, policy, etc etc. My worry is that it will be the ‘front-line’ civilian staff who will get hit hard.

      I’m well aware that there are plenty of civilians out there who do a good job for the MoD – I watch the modcivilianjobs website every week, more in hope than expectation. I’m sure in many cases its cheaper and easier to employ civilians than have servicemen do the job when its not strictly necessary.

  4. Be wary of comments like “more Admirals than ships” as they’re thow away tabloid headlines, and investigation of the facts shows this to be the case.

    Senior ranks do need thinning out, however, we’re already pretty lean.

    • James Daly

      According to the MOD statistics digest 2009 the UK armed forces have 140 officers of Major General/Rear Admiral/Air Vice Marshall or above, and 360 Brigadiers/Commodores/Air Commodores. Thats 500 officers of star rating, compared to 590 in 1990, slightly less than a 15% reduction. In the same period other ranks manpower has fallen by a shade over 40%, armoured regiments by 35%, infantry battalions by the same, and the Royal Navy’s fleet by 54%.

  5. James Daly

    The MOD civilian workforce as of 1 July 2010 comprises 85,180 –

    4,770 supporting the RN (of which 2,340 are the RFA and only 560 are industrial)
    11,760 the Army (of which 4,500 are in industrial roles)
    8,690 the RAF (of which 2,840 are industrial)
    15,780 in Defence Equipment and Support
    (2,280 industrial)
    29,510 in the central MOD (9,770 with sub-departments such at UKHO, the Met Office, and dstl)
    10,170 ‘other’.

    On the factsheet on the MOD website it also gives a breakdown of pay scales and management tiers.

    • x

      Yes the “others.” Mystical mythical organisations like the RFCAs staffed with stuffed shirts and jobsworths.

      You are going to laugh but I never think about the RFA being civil servants……

  6. Took me a while, but I found it…..

    Clegg sights a fleet of admirals

    The buzz is that Nick Clegg did well in the television debate on Thursday night. However, on defence, the leader of the Liberal Democrats made a glib claim that there are two admirals for every ship in the Royal Navy, hinting at an opportunity for savings. Slurring the navy like this is both unfair, for the Royal Navy is unable to respond during election purdah.

    There are some 36 two-star officers in the naval service, of whom 30 are admirals and six are Royal Marines major-generals. Of this number, 20 admirals and two generals are in dedicated naval or marine posts, and only two hold the four-star rank of a full admiral. Ten admirals and generals are in tri-service defence posts and another four are in Nato posts. Of the eight vice-admirals on the active list, half are in Nato or tri-service appointments, such as Surgeon Vice-Admiral Philip Raffaelli, who succeeded an army officer as Surgeon-General in December.

    As well as the Fleet Air Arm, there are some 80 ships and submarines all told, some of which are in refit or reserve. So, Nick Clegg’s claim implies 150 admirals; I hope he was steering a safer course with his other figures. The real question is not about the number of admirals but why the Royal Navy is now some 77 per cent of its size in 1997. The world’s seas are no smaller.

    Lester May

    (Lieutenant-Commander RN, retired), London NW1

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