The MOD: Unfit for Purpose

Standpoint’s source in the UK Ministry of Defence reveals a culture that is actively ‘anti-military’

I am often asked why the MOD makes so many strange decisions and seems to care so little about the welfare of its personnel. People are surprised to read about expensive computer systems that fail to pay service members their proper salaries — or pay them late. Some are shocked by the apparent dumping of severely wounded personnel from Afghanistan and Iraq into civilian hospital wards, remote from their regiments and families, or the massive contracts for systems that are delivered late and don’t work properly, or the strange failure to publicise genuine successes and minor victories achieved “against the odds” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

None of these scandals — or many others less well known — would surprise anyone who knows the MOD and what it has become.

Most people still believe that the MOD is essentially a military organisation. It is not. It is an organisation dominated numerically, culturally and structurally by civil servants and consultants, many of whom are unsympathetic to its underlying purpose or even hostile to the military and its ethos. You just have to spend a few days at the MOD before you realise that the culture there is not just non-military, but anti-military.

That is one reason why so few of us (except for the chiefs of staff) regularly wear our uniforms to the office. Officers who desire a career in politics or the Civil Service try to seem as civilian as possible, and soon start speaking in the consultants’ jargon favoured by the “fast-track” Civil Service. (It is telling that senior officers have generally failed to champion the wearing of uniforms in public by members of the armed forces.)

I once attended a meeting of MOD civil servants about “outsourcing” parts of the military. I was out of uniform. My colleagues were keen on outsourcing as much as possible; I argued that stripping out logistics and other capacity from the armed forces is dangerous — it means no longer having cooks and technicians who can be handed a weapon and told to fight. I asked the people around the table, “Who actually loves the military in all this?” There was an awkward silence. So I repeated the question in different form: “Who is putting the military requirement first?” One of the civil servants, a woman on the “fast track”, actually giggled. I reiterated that this was a serious question and noted that I was the only service person present. There was then great embarrassment as no one in the room had realised beforehand that I was a serving military officer. I probably wouldn’t have been invited if they had known.

The contrast with the US Department of Defense could not be greater. The Pentagon is a first-rate military organisation (at least in terms of status) where the MOD is not. At the Pentagon, every military person is expected to be in uniform; and it’s the civilians who feel and recognise that they are the supporting cast. Military officers are frequently loaned to other ministries such as the State Department and they continue to wear their uniforms there. The reverse is true in the UK where the Civil Service and its “unions” not only resist the wearing of uniforms but also any systematic secondments (as opposed to hand-picked placements) from the military.

The MOD has slipped from being one of the top five ministries to one of second or even third rank. Moreover, even if our top generals wanted to oppose some aspect of defence policy, they would find the MOD’s structure is now rigged so that civil servants increasingly come between them and the government.

Back in the late 1980s things were very different. It was only two decades since the Admiralty, Air Ministry and Ministry of War had been folded into a combined HQ. In those days there was broadly a one-to-four ratio of civilian to military personnel. On any project you would have one member of each service, plus a “scientific civilian”.

After that two doctrines came into play — “jointness” and “equivalency”. Together they drove out specialised military professionalism and brought in a new managerial, non-specialist cadre of civil servants. The result was that MOD projects needed only one member of the armed forces. A pre-existing and efficient culture of interaction and debate and testing of ideas was driven out.

Now the ratio of civilians to service-members is closer to six to one — not including the ever-growing numbers of consultants and Spads (special advisers) or the parallel government structures in the cabinet office and the PM’s policy unit which may be driving the ratio towards 12 to one. Essentially the military has lost command of its own HQ.

Worse still, the civil servants who now dominate the MOD are a different breed from those who staffed it in the 1980s. In those days there were still many civil servants who had served in the Second World War or Korea, or who had at least done national service. They respected and understood the armed services; they believed an effective military was important and had usually learnt essential skills of leadership and management. They were loyal to the Queen (then the head of the Civil Service), to the Civil Service itself and to its code, and to the service arm they were working for. They have all gone.

Their successors tend to see the services as a tiresome anachronism, peopled by unsympathetic, old-fashioned social types. For many of them the MOD, with its part-time minister, is merely a stepping stone to greater things. From the perspective of such bureaucrats, the main point of the organisation, apart from furthering individual career paths, has less to do with the defence of the realm than with policy goals such as Europ­ean integration, the implementation of UN mandates and the expansion (and therefore dilution) of Nato.

Cost-cutting at the MOD comes at the expense of the uniformed services. That is partly because military officials are more expensive: the civilian equivalent of a colonel is paid less. But it is mostly because military people get in the way and ask awkward questions.

At the MOD, while there’s endless talk of “throughput” and other jargon, there is surprisingly little technical knowledge. There used to be a strong cadre of science civil servants but they went too, after the Defence Research Agency was sold off to Qinetiq, leaving behind a managerial rump known as DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Labor­atory) — soon probably also for the chop. Qinetiq, through a process of asset-stripping, has gone on to sell what were the crown jewels of British science. Our famous wind tunnels, and also the “Dark Hangar”, where some of the most important SAS techniques and weaponry were developed, have all been demolished. And where have the public millions gone? Often to the private pockets of the public servants who led on privatisation. It is a national disgrace.

The real point of most MOD contracts is industrial strategy. We buy planes or vehicles or systems not because they are the best we can afford for the task in hand but because they mean jobs in some part of the country. Or because they further European integration. This is why we buy helicopters like the Merlin that cost more than three times the price of the US Blackhawk. As a result we don’t have decent airlift capacity in Afghanistan, and our infantry in Basra were the first British troops to go into battle without dedicated “on-call” air cover since the First World War.

Though all the services suffer under the MOD regime, relations between the forces are worse than ever. The Army is angriest because it is bearing the brunt of actual operations. It used to complain about the RAF. Now that so much money is being spent on maritime projects unlikely to see action, it increasingly resents the Royal Navy. This is only deepened by the arrogance and incompetence of the Navy itself, as exemplified by the Shatt-al-Arab incident last year.

Because the services haven’t had the budget increases they need to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is running out of everything. We’re running out of trucks, for instance. And when things break they aren’t being replaced. Increasingly one gets the impression that the civil servants don’t care if the forces are broken — their careers will not be affected. But it may also be that some civil servants and a body of politicians, from both Left and Right, would actually be happy for the military to be broken in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then they will have truly achieved the Europeanisation of Britain’s armed forces along the lines of a purely defensive “UK Defence Force”. War will somehow have been abolished — until, of course, it returns at a time of our enemies’ choosing.

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