UK Defence Review – Why Procrastination is Bad News for Defence

When the defence review was hived-off from the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) in January 2018, and given the engaging title Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said that he hoped it would report in July. In a statement to Parliament on 19 July, Mr Williamson was able only to give an update on the review – an update that showed that work was still at a very early stage, that there was no end-date in sight, and that the only decision taken had been to kick the can firmly down the road.

Back in January there was some relief in defence circles that the defence element of the NSCR had been postponed. There had been much speculation that the NSCR would be making major cuts to the defence programme, and some observers concluded that the newly-installed Defence Secretary had shown nifty footwork in achieving a postponement. It became clear that he was keen to be seen as a champion of Defence, rather than as the man who was going to balance the books – Philip Hammond`s proud claim when Defence Secretary. Williamson seemed to have judged the mood of the Conservative party well when MPs queued up in Parliament and in the media to support the case for more money for defence.

In the MOD there was some optimism that the outcome of the MDP could be a good one, perhaps even closing the gap, reportedly around £20 billion, between the defence budget and commitments over the next ten years. Then came the decision in June from 10 Downing Street that the NHS, clearly a much higher political priority than defence, was to receive a `birthday present` of an extra £20 billion per year. It also became clear that not only was the MOD going to be the loser, but that the Treasury would be looking to the defence programme to help pay for the present.

In the circumstances, the last thing that an embattled Prime Minister needed was the result of a defence review. Whatever its outcome spelt political trouble, either promising large sums of money that manifestly did not exist or cutting the defence budget and enraging her backbenchers (not to mention her Defence Secretary). Hence, kick the can down the road.

There may be some relief in the MOD and in the armed forces that the MDP result has been postponed indefinitely. Unpleasant cuts to defence programmes and force structures were, indeed, in prospect. But delay and postponement leave the MOD and its defence review badly in need of strategy – that is to say balancing the ends to be achieved with the ways and means available. The gaping hole of around £20 billion shows just how badly that strategy is needed. Logically, if the necessary ways and means cannot be provided, the ends to be achieved should be reduced to match the ways and means available – the latter course requiring a high degree of vision and moral courage. The only course of action left for MOD is to muddle-through as best it can, with all the inconsistencies, incoherence and, ultimately, waste of money that that entails. As the Public Accounts Committee commented in January, without a realistic overall plan the MOD is `bound to end up scrapping or delaying projects haphazardly`, adding, `this is not a sensible way of looking after our national defence`.

Of more immediate concern for MOD is the need to balance the books in the short term. This will place much reliance on achieving annual efficiency savings – the old staple of a cash-strapped MOD. The trouble is that after many cumulative years of stringent efficiency savings, such savings are increasingly efficient in name only. They become, in practice, purely cost-cutting measures – measures that actually reduce capability and cost-effectiveness. Arbitrary savings targets (invariably described as `challenging but achievable`) are imposed on budget holders with little or no regard to their practicality. Typically, the result includes reductions in activity levels, with ships tied-up alongside, aircraft grounded and army units prevented from training. Particularly vulnerable, since it`s hard to measure the output, is any form of professional military education, so, unless wisdom intervenes, expect cuts (sorry, efficiency measures) at, for example, the Defence Academy. Needless to say, all of these measures have an adverse impact on the morale of members of the armed forces.

In summary, indefinite postponement of the outcome of the defence review may be welcomed by some: for 10 Downing Street it avoids yet another damaging battle and an unhelpful distraction from Brexit; for the Treasury it avoids the probability of having to give more money to defence; for some in the armed forces it comes as a reprieve, albeit temporary. Politically astute it may be, but procrastination is bad news for defence and it is hard to see it as in the national interest.


A Cautionary Tale – the British Campaign in Norway, 1940.

Campaigns that end in ignominious failure tend to be quickly forgotten. Yet there is often far more to be learned from such operations than from those that were successful. A graphic example is the largely-neglected British campaign in Norway in 1940.

In the spring of that year the British, with French support, dispatched an expeditionary force to oust the Germans, immediately following Hitler`s  coup-de-main seizure of the country on 9 April. In just eight weeks of fighting, the Allies committed a series of catastrophic blunders and suffered a string of defeats. Humiliated, the British and French promptly evacuated, leaving Norway to four years of Nazi tyranny. The ill-fated mission was almost immediately overshadowed by another crisis: the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland in May 1940. Today, few people outside Norway know much about the campaign. Yet it contains lessons that resonate strongly with more recent campaigns such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Much of the failure in Norway occurred at the tactical level. In almost every battle and engagement on land, British troops, many of whom were semi-trained Territorials, retreated or were utterly routed. Hundreds of soldiers were taken prisoner during these engagements. Amazingly, most of the British infantry units sent into action lacked artillery, mortars, air defence, effective anti-tank weapons and even maps. Engineers and logistic support were in short supply. Administration was chaotic.

But, as so often, the underlying reasons for these tactical failures can be traced to higher levels. At the grand strategic level, the campaign, as planned from the earliest days in December, 1939, was deeply flawed. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was entirely unsuited to the role of wartime leader and presided over a divided war cabinet, dominated by one of its members, Winston Churchill, at that time minister for the navy. The war cabinet argued, dithered and procrastinated. Too often it failed to engage in the process of strategy – balancing ends, ways and means. Instead, it fell prey to wishful thinking and frequently indulged its fascination with tactics. As chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee at the outset of the campaign, Churchill made a number of serious errors of judgment and pressurised the chiefs of staff, often during late-night, alcohol-fuelled meetings, into unwise decisions.

On the military side, the chiefs of staff had a shallow understanding of strategy and an over-simplified view of its place. They appeared to believe that their constitutional role was to give advice to ministers and then implement their wishes. Such a view did not take into account the need for strategy to be continuous and iterative. They also failed to grasp the need for discourse and, if necessary, robust debate, while still accepting the principle of civilian primacy, which held that formal political direction must ultimately be followed. The chiefs also balked at pointing out the huge risks in their military plans. Likewise, they rarely challenged the war cabinet`s wishful thinking, seemingly unwilling to speak truth unto power. Ironically, the chiefs were receiving generally excellent advice from their subordinates, the joint planners, but too often they ignored or rejected this counsel, believing that because they were more senior they knew better. Such hubris was to have grave consequences.

The chiefs also bore much responsibility for two critical failures. First, they failed to recognize intelligence that pointed to a German invasion, thus offering Berlin complete strategic surprise. Second, unlike their opposite numbers in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), they and their predecessors failed to study the evolution of warfare with open minds and thus missed the emerging potential of air power. Instead, they allowed single-service agendas to skew perceptions. As a result, the dominance of German air superiority hit the chiefs of staff as what would now be called a revolution in military affairs.

At the next level down, the operational level – the link between strategy and tactics – the contrast between the German and British structures and performance was even more stark. For while Hitler appointed a lieutenant general and his corps headquarters to design and plan the campaign and then command and control it, there was no equivalent on the British side. Indeed, there was a complete vacuum. Thus, higher planning was the responsibility of each service ministry – the War Office, the Admiralty and the Air Ministry – with some very broad-brush coordination from a small and inadequate joint planning staff. For the army, this meant that, in practice, planning was carried out by the various branches in the War Office who dealt direct with the tactical commander, a major general with a small divisional staff based 200 miles away in York. Inevitably, there were large gaps in planning and preparation, which led to a dangerous reliance on improvisation. Although the Chief of the Imperial General Staff was directly responsible for the training standards of the formations to be deployed, and knew the testing conditions that awaited them inside the Arctic Circle, he did not find the time to provide the necessary supervision of their training.

When the forces deployed, the absence of an intervening level of command between strategy and tactics became even more critical. In a fast-moving campaign and with poor radio communications, the decision-makers in London became increasingly out of touch with the situation in theatre. Their decisions were overtaken by events. Furthermore, without a joint-service, deployed headquarters, coordination between services in theatre — for example, for air support – had to be referred back to London where messages were passed from one ministry to another. In addition, campaign coordination with the French and Norwegians suffered, exacerbated by a reluctance to place any trust in the local forces or fight a joint campaign with them. As a result, the efforts of the British and Norwegian militaries were rarely more than the sum of their parts.

Such incompetence at higher levels would have mattered less had the British been fighting a colonial war or conducting the sort of imperial policing that had occupied much of the military`s attention in the inter-war period. Unfortunately for them, in Norway they faced well-trained, well-equipped, well-led German forces. As a French officer in Norway observed at the time, `the British have planned this campaign on the lines of a punitive expedition against the Zulus, but unhappily we and the British are in the position of the Zulus…`

In sum, as so often after a long period of peace, the British military capacity, in its widest sense, faced the audit of war and was found wanting. The result was a fiasco – a textbook example of how not to plan and conduct a military campaign. The Allies received no end of lessons at the hands of the Germans. And these continue to be relevant today. Indeed, a study of this campaign offers a better understanding of campaigns in general and of some of the likely pitfalls that await the unwary. The British fiasco in Norway in 1940 may have been a sorry tale, but it is also a cautionary one.

This blog is based on an article in Military History Now, April, 2018


Anatomy of a Campaign. The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 is published by Cambridge University Press.


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.


Speaking Truth to Power

One hundred years ago at the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force in France, General Sir Douglas Haig held a meeting attended by, amongst others,  staff officers Colonels Rawlins and Edmonds, at which Rawlins, warned that `if the Passchendaele offensive continued, no artillery would be available for a 1918 spring offensive. Haig reportedly went white with anger and said “Colonel Rawlins, leave the room.” When Edmonds agreed with Rawlins, Haig added: `”You go, too”.`[1] The two staff officers had told Haig something that he did not want to hear.

Haig`s reaction tells more about organisational culture than it does about the Field Marshal himself.  Similar anecdotes could be told about other commanders at the time. Today we live in a much less authoritarian age, where such interactions between superiors and subordinates in the British Army would be, if not impossible, certainly extraordinary. But, as has been expressed in recent blogs @WavellRoom,[2]  there remains a lingering suspicion among junior and middle-ranking officers that  the Army – possibly the Armed Forces more generally –  remain organisations in which dissent with superiors amounts to  a career foul.  My guess is that this would come as a complete surprise to most senior officers. They would be likely to challenge the view on the grounds that they and their cohort are open-minded, non-authoritarian, happy to debate with all-comers. Where such a claim is true, the difference in opinion is, therefore, one of perception, although it behoves commanders to demonstrate to their subordinates that their perception is inaccurate. But in other cases, the suspicion may be justified. All commanders need to look at themselves in the mirror and recognise that, just possibly, they could be a teensy-weensy bit more authoritarian than they might like to believe. The answer to the question `Why is it so hard to tell the boss he/she is wrong?` lies largely with the boss.

But an important factor to be considered here is institutional culture.  The Armed Forces are, by necessity, hierarchical organisations which depend on an acceptance of authority, particularly in war and on operations. Even more damaging than an over-authoritarian hierarchy in the Armed Forces would be one which placed no limits on dissent or challenge to authority. The optimum solution is, of course, a balance, and a balance that requires fine judgment.

For example, as a company commander in the Falklands conflict of 1982, I was fortunate enough to have a commanding officer (Lt Col Mike Scott) who struck this balance skilfully. When it came to orders, it was clear: `orders are orders`; but on other occasions, he was happy for alternative ideas to be put forward and self-confident enough to allow his opinion to be challenged.  Before the battle of Mount Tumbledown he gathered his company commanders and key staff officers together to discuss the brigade plan for the attack and share his misgivings. Suffice to say that after an open discussion, led by him, he formulated a very different plan, and returned to brigade headquarters that evening to speak truth to power – pointing out the inadequacies of the brigade plan to the brigade commander. Fortunately, Lt Col Scott`s plan was accepted. To give the brigade commander his due, he did not treat this as an unacceptable challenge to his authority, and allowed logic and common sense to prevail.

Getting this balance right on operations rests on foundations built in peacetime. Important here is an institutional culture which encourages  new ideas and free thinking. Often these will involve criticism of current practice – in a very small way, speaking truth to power. It is a test of the organisation`s soundness and health as to how it reacts to such internal criticism, and how its reaction is perceived by its members.  The key, as in all institutional culture, is leadership from the top.


[1] Tim Travers, `The Killing Ground. The British Army, the Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare` (London, Routledge, 1997)`.  p.105.

[2] `Paul`,`Speaking Truth to Power. Why is it so hard to tell the Boss They Are Wrong?` (@WavellRoom , posted 25 July 2017).

Wavell Room

Training has always been an obviously important component of military capability. Less obvious has been the importance of education. There is, however, reason to believe that education is becoming an even more important component than hitherto. The changing character of conflict is pointing towards an environment for military action that is becoming ever more uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In these circumstances military success depends not just on training – teaching people to carry out certain actions in given circumstances – but on education – preparing minds for unpredictable circumstances. In a mathematical analogy, training teaches you to solve given equations; education enables you to reformulate equations for new circumstances or to design completely new ones.

Education also provides the necessary understanding of factors such as culture which play such an important part in the success of contemporary campaigns. In retrospect, it is easy to see that there was considerable under-estimation of the amount of time and effort needed to acquire the necessary cultural understanding prior to deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although the British armed forces devote significant amounts of time and money to formal education, this only scratches the surface of what is required. Courses such as those at the UK`s Defence Academy all cram a packed syllabus into a finite time, and too often the demands for training trump those for education, not least because the output of training can be measured in a way that that for education cannot be.

Inevitably, much of the education required depends on self-education. Clausewitz alluded to this. `The knowledge needed by a senior commander is distinguished by the fact that it can only be obtained by a special talent through the medium of reflection, study and thought.` This self-education is a lengthy process. There are no short cuts. And the more senior the officer, the less time is available for it.  An important ingredient is the catalyst which can provide the necessary mental stimulation and inspiration: discussion and engagement with fellow-travellers on the learning journey. In the past this has depended on the exchange of ideas in professional journals and face-to-face discussion facilitated by organisations such as the Royal United Services Institute.  But now, with the advent of social media, a whole new opportunity exists.

A group of quite junior army officers have set up a blogging website aimed at generating discussion about current British military issues. Named Wavell Room, after the room at the Defence Academy where they met daily whilst attending the Joint Services Command and Staff College, the website welcomes diverse and divergent opinions and independent critical thinking, and has already attracted original ideas and provided the forum for lively debate on contemporary issues. It has the potential to provide just the sort of stimulation which will encourage the reflection, study and thought of which Clausewitz spoke, and to contribute to the development of policy.

Wavell Room has a fine path to tread. To be of value it must play host to controversial views that may be uncomfortable to some in authority in the Ministry of Defence. At the same time it must demonstrate that it is utterly apolitical and not part of some insurgency against authority. In its turn, the Ministry would be wise to show a rather more relaxed approach towards websites such as Wavell Room than it has sometimes done in the past towards perceived critics.  If both sides get it right, there is great opportunity at little cost for helping the armed forces to become even better prepared to meet future challenges.                          @wavellroom