Learning from a General

General Sir David Richards’ end of year speech should be required reading for ministers across the Coalition Government. The drive for collective action and a ‘grand strategy’ to tackle the flagging economy is a worthy goal for any department.

Last week, General Sir David Richards, the head of the armed forces, said that the economy is today’s ‘biggest strategic threat’ to the United Kingdom. In his speech he warned that the crisis in the euro zone was of ‘huge importance not just for the City of London but to the whole country, and to military planners like me.’

But why exactly should the head of the armed forces be concerned with something that is out of his control and predominantly non-military in nature? The broader outlook that encompassed the speech signifies a turning-point in British defence policy since General Richards took command as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) last October. Looking beyond defence policy, it is an approach that all government departments would benefit from.

Implementing a ‘Grand Strategy’

General Richards has focused on a renewed effort to successfully devise and implement a ‘grand’ (or national) strategic vision. This vision, as set out in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), saw uncertainties emanating from Chinese economic dominance, the transition in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Arab unrest, and much more.

It is Richards’ comment on Britain’s flagging economy that gives an insight into his strategic mind and desire to address existing concerns over Britain’s ability to ‘do’ strategy. It reflects a long-standing debate within the defence community on the need for an all-encompassing strategic plan, which goes beyond simple capabilities-based planning.

A ‘Grand Strategy’ – in theory – would give the United Kingdom the tools to effectively tackle future military, economic, security, social, and economic threats both at home and abroad. It would also focus on advancing Britain’s interests in a world that is becoming increasingly unstable and unpredictable.

Importantly it would be a collective effort across government mobilising all the functions of the political system (not just the military). Good strategy would dampen the effects of uncertainty and the complexities of a globalised and networked world.

Two recent select committee reports, one from the Defence Select Committee (DSC) and the other from the Public Administration Committee (PAC), were critical of existing (or lack of) strategic structures within the British political system. The PAC Report ‘Who does UK National Strategy?’ concluded that no-one ‘does’ strategy in Britain. The DCS report ‘2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and National Security Strategy’ published in August 2011, was highly critical of the process involved in determining Britain’s defence and strategic posture.

Since then Richards has led the way in prioritising strategic thinking within the Ministry of Defence. During his speech to RUSI, the CDS stressed that having a ‘strategic handrail’ was essential for guiding policymakers through the uncertainties and challenges that the future global outlook has in abundance.

Collective Effort and Reality Checks

No longer is it possible for the UK’s senior officers to dismiss externalities beyond their own remit. The effects of budgetary constraints and an uncertain economic future are felt not only by individual departments but by the government as a collective entity. This ‘we in this together’ thinking has to be reflected across government with an equally collective effort.

Some former senior officers have frustrated serving officers and ministers by engaging in hypothetical arguments where externalities should be changed to suit the armed forces (‘if we had more money we could do this!’ – they say). The CDS, however, is demonstrating that British Defence policy should be morphing itself to the world as it is, not as it should be. A duty of commanders will be to ‘[a]dopting tactics to fit the kit we have rather than the kit we wished we had’ he said in the RUSI speech.

It is this reality check (a firm smack of reality rather) that has been lacking for much of the last decade within the MoD. It must replace what Richards called tactical ‘wishful thinking’ that fails to assess issues ‘beyond any government’s control’.

As was seen during the spending cuts last year, the MoD was only able to moderately influence its expenditure. In relative terms, its expenditure reductions were low compared to departments like the Home Office, yet the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have taken significant hits in terms of personnel cuts and downgrading of capabilities. This led to difficult decisions being made about capabilities, especially about what would be sacrificed in order to retain some or strengthen others.

Despite lobbying by various departments throughout 2010, they largely lacked the ability to influence where the axe would fall. Even the axe wielder (the Treasury) lacked control over the external events and crises that determined the downward spiral of the UK economy. It is in this respect that the Government and all its collective entities, in theory at least, would benefit from a strategic vision.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the euro zone crisis this year demonstrated in stark terms how individual state economies – and the UK economy especially – are often hostage to outside events. For General Richards the UK was ‘the first to accept the global implications of the global economy’. Those implications are now affecting all Western states and their defence postures, including the US, the largest military in the world.

A Strategic Future?

Despite this push for greater strategic thinking by the head of the armed forces – and his desire to see it across the whole of government – there exists significant constraints. Last year’s establishment of the National Security Council (NSC) was one decision that institutionalised collective strategic thinking and decision making.

Although there has been criticism of the NSC, it is a promising body that is very much in its infancy. The Libya conflict showed its effectiveness – and its limitations – in bringing together individuals from across departments and the military. Significantly, the Prime Minister has shown a desire to use this body for the purposes it was created for. Although it is uncertain whether future prime ministers will use the NSC or bypass it entirely when making decisions that affect the UK’s national interests.

The lacklustre approach (usually through lack of meetings) shown by Gordon Brown to the NSC’s predecessor, the Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy, is an example of how not to do collective strategic thinking.

To realise the UK’s true strategic potential and foster strategic thinking, then it must be demonstrated that it is beneficial and overall it gives the desired effect. For advocates of UK strategic thinking, like General Richards, this may be the hardest task of all. After all, the current debate on grand strategy has evolved from the failures (economic, military and social) of the past decade.

When we eventually return to prosperous times, is it likely the strategic debate will simply fade away? What will determine ‘strategic success’?


General Richard’s speech at RUSI should be read across each Governmental department, not just by those in the military. In his concluding remarks he repeated his first assertion that the ‘country’s main effort must be the economy’. One his main aims would be to control spending while also emphasising the need to ‘combine realism with imagination’ and use existing capabilities to their full potential. This is something that the Prime Minister will be happy to hear, but David Cameron also bears much of the responsibility if a grand strategic vision is successfully implemented.

Currently, the trajectory of progress is correct and change is being made, but there is still significant work to do.

In the near future it will remain unlikely that individual heads of departments or civil servants can truly alter the Government’s course on the continuing budget cuts and controlling the deficit. Instead they must look to other methods in utilising their current budgets to best effect. The British armed forces ethos of ‘adapt, improvise and overcome’ is coming to the forefront in British defence policy. Now it is time that other government departments take strategic lessons from General Richards, it could be our only effective route out of our current woes.


Posted on December 23, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Foreign Affairs, Looking Forward and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: