With the Ministry of Defence facing deep financial cuts to fill a `black hole` of around £20 billion in its budget, the armed services are seeking to defend significant and high-profile elements of their structure and capability. For the Army the cuts could mean a reduction of up to ten per cent in its manpower; for the Royal Navy they could include scrapping the amphibious capability, together with a manpower cut to the Royal Marines; and for the Royal Air Force a major delay or reduction in the order for its F-35 fighter aircraft.
Against this background the Ministry of Defence is, quite rightly, looking to make maximum savings in non-frontline spending. There is, however, a danger in this. Arbitrary cuts or `efficiency targets` imposed on support areas can result in disproportionate and long-lasting damage to lower-profile but fundamental elements of defence capability and contribute to a hollowing-out of the nation`s defences.
One such area – and a highly vulnerable one – is defence education, in particular the post-graduate, professional military education of officers of all three services. This is mainly carried out at the Defence Academy, based at Shrivenham but with outstations that include the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. Some of the activity within the Defence Academy could be classified as training – preparing people to carry out specific actions in given circumstances – but some is education – preparing minds for unpredictable circumstances.
Although there is, of course, overlap between the two, training is easier to defend against cuts than is education. Training has an output that is easier to measure, although it is still vulnerable to ill-judged cuts – for example, comparing the resources devoted to officer training in the three services, and, where there is discrepancy, insisting on the lowest common denominator, regardless of circumstances. The output of education, however, is far harder, if not impossible to measure, certainly in the short term. This is unfortunate since bean-counters in the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury are apt to take the view that the value of an activity is based on its measurable output, and that if the output cannot be measured then the activity has no value. Such an attitude is exacerbated by the fact that defence education is funded from a central defence budget, not by the individual services. When times are hard, the services seek to protect their own budget, and point fingers at the central budget to make more cuts. Furthermore, defence education has no powerful champion within the Ministry and has a negligible profile in the political arena and the media – certainly compared with army manpower, the Royal Marines or F-35 fighter aircraft. It is, therefore, the easy hit in defence cuts.
Does this matter? In the very short term – weeks and months – not much, perhaps, apart from the signal that it sends within the armed forces and internationally (where British officer training and education is held in high regard). In the longer term it matters a great deal. Defence education is the seed corn of the intellectual capacity of the armed services. It develops breadth of mind, imagination, vision and wisdom. Any reduction in defence education will impact on the quality of decision-making by the senior officers of the future. Furthermore, at a time when conflict is becoming more uncertain, complex and ambiguous we should be investing more in defence education (`preparing minds for unpredictable circumstances`), not less. Nor can cuts to defence education be justified by anticipation that when times are better, an increase in funding can be made. To be effective, defence education must be continuous and `through career`; it is not a tap that can be turned on and off without long-term penalty.
Despite these arguments, it is likely that, without intervention, the politically attractive, easy hit will be taken, probably disguised as further efficiency savings – which, in reality, will be no such thing, merely cuts to effectiveness. This will be to the long term detriment of UK defence. It will take true wisdom at the most senior levels of decision-making to prevent this happening.