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Defence Facts of Life: The Aspiration/Reality Mismatch (Long Read)

Readers note: In this article the author proposes that Britain should have a single defence force rather than three top heavy independence services. Given this is a complex topic, this article has been written in two parts. The short read gives readers a feel for the authors view and he develops his arguments in a longer article. Please click the links for more!

A speech given by Air Chief Marshal Sir ‘Jock’ Stirrup at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), on 3 December 2009, bemoaned what he considered to be the lost culture and capacity of the British military establishment for strategic thought. The claim was mirrored in 2011 by Anthony King, who commented that British commanders had been exposed strategically by their failure to prioritise and sequence campaigns in a way that realistically aligned resources with political priorities.1 Almost ten years later the anticipated willingness ‘to seek out and listen to alternative views’ does not appear to have engendered ‘a preparedness to challenge conventional wisdom’2 about the way resources could be better aligned with the aspirations articulated by Britain’s political leaders. This thought piece has been constructed to initiate a debate on the utility of rationalising the British military in order to provoke a discussion about the costs and benefits of the currently unthinkable idea of transforming the three separate armed Services into a single British Armed Forces service.

In the twentieth century Britain’s decline as a world power was managed in a way that enabled the majority of its institutions to survive intact, despite the significant challenges posed by events. Nevertheless, a consequence of the lack of trauma suffered during the country’s transition to the second rung of economic strength helped to perpetuate the deeply rooted illusion that Britain continues to be a great world power. In the early part of the twentieth century British political and military leaders became increasingly anxious about the security of Britain’s Imperial possessions because the significant costs of protecting them.3 This worry led Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law to consider relinquishing the country’s commitments in the Middle East. His attempt to do so was thwarted because his Cabinet colleagues felt bound by commitments the British had made to the League of Nations, regarding the mandates in Iraq and Palestine, and by their determination to maintain British prestige in the East.4 The battle between the imperialists and the economic realists would endure for decades but in 1940 the decision by the War Cabinet to set aside financial considerations and continue to fight Germany, alone, caused British governments to become materially and financially reliant on the United States of America for many years thereafter.5

In the aftermath of the Allied victory the paradox of British economic and financial weakness was reflected by the marked contrast between Britain’s relative poverty and its apparent strength. Ostensibly, Britain was powerful: its imperial possessions had been reinstated and its military forces straddled the globe. British military leaders, therefore, found it psychologically and conceptually difficult to comprehend the reality of the country’s economic weakness and accept that Britain’s position as a world power had been significantly diminished.

Among the British military leaders, the problem in recognising the new reality was further complicated by the part played by the Chiefs of Staff (COS) in the Second World War, who were integral in forming policy with the War Cabinet and had routine and frequent access to Cabinet members and, importantly, to the Defence Committee. Despite the regularity of this access and the proximity to the machinery of government this enabled, the COS struggled to appreciate how Britain’s precarious financial position would affect their future plans. In March 1946, by choosing to ignore the likely consequences of Britain’s obvious economic problems, the COS chose to sketch out a proposal for an expensive global Commonwealth defence system. The government had other ideas; between 1947 and 1948, when the Minister of Defence, Mr Albert Alexander, attempted to reduce the strength of the fighting Services, Field Marshal Bernhard Law Montgomery, hero of El Alamein, became “fed-up” with his minister, who he thought incapable of understanding the strategic necessity for large forces. Montgomery was so irritated by his political superior that he engaged in persuading the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Air Staff to join with him in seeking Alexander’s removal from office. Fortunately, common sense eventually prevailed when Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Tedder reminded the conspirators that such a move was unconstitutional.6

A year later, in 1949, the Defence Committee rejected a report that had been commissioned on the ‘Size and Shape of the Armed Forces’, which attempted to reconcile defence spending with affordability, on the grounds that the scale of necessary force reductions was undermined by the worries that the proposals would bring Britain close to ‘extinction as a first-rank Power’7 and ‘would lead to a catastrophic decline in our influence’.8 The problem, therefore, was a conceptual one, where the close interaction between military and political leaders over many years had led the senior military leaders to conclude that their defence spending proposals, which had more to do with Britain’s Imperial past than its likely future, ought to take priority over other forms of government spending.

By 1968, the British government began to relax its opinion that other nations equated British power and influence with the strength of its military capability. Roy Jenkins, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson’s first Labour government, told the Cabinet that Britain’s ‘standing in the world depends on the soundness of our economy and not on a world-wide military presence.’9 Nevertheless, the subsequent British withdrawal from the ‘east of Suez’ is generally considered a totemic reference point in the history of the country’s defence reviews.10 Since then, British military leaders and defence commentators have viewed ‘Defence Reviews’ and ‘Policy Statements’ as thinly disguised attacks on the defence establishment and its budget.11 The gradual reduction in such spending, when viewed in terms of the proportion of GDP, has led to the perception of a widening gap between British strategic aspirations and its military capabilities because of the apparently inexorable decline in the number of military personnel, equipment and capabilities. When Wilson’s second Labour government attempted to reduce British defence spending to a level commensurate to that of other European NATO countries the COS baulked at idea of cutting defence spending from 5% to 4% of GDP, thinking the scale of the reduction too large to accept.12 Given British defence spending currently hovers around the 2% mark their fears now appear overblown.

When the Conservatives came into power in 1979 the COS anticipated that spending would increase but, within a year, Margaret Thatcher felt obliged to underscore the reality of political control over military spending plans. The country’s finances were so strained that her government were obliged to find immediate savings of £200 million. Moreover, it was made it clear that future rises in defence spending would be capped below the costs of price inflation.13 In an attempt to strengthen ministerial control over the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and encourage a more cooperative tri-Service environment the government abolished ministerial posts for each of the single services and bolstered the role and responsibilities of the CDS.14 The reforms, however, failed to develop the desired cooperative spirit between the services because the respective chiefs continued to use their proximity to government in the Ministry of Defence to lobby senior politicians on behalf of single-Service interests. Instead, in the early 2000s, by choosing to avoid more radical reform, the respective Services chose to promote a savings culture, to create ‘headroom’ for their ‘overheated’ equipment programs.

Unsurprisingly, the resultant savings realised were far too small to significantly affect the wider defence-spending picture, yet it was only after the coalition Conservative-Liberal government assumed office in 2010 that a funding black hole of £38 billion was discovered in the defence equipment programme. The government took decisive action to deal with the funding gap by commissioning a report on defence spending. It recommended radical defence reform.15 The main thrust of the report’s fifty-three recommendations was the need to strengthen individual accountability and make Service Chiefs more personally accountable for overspending in their departments. It also hinted at the corrosive impact on defence efficiency caused by lobbying over single service issues and recommended that the single-service Chiefs be excluded from the Defence Board, in the hope that the CDS would fairly represent tri-Service interests.16 Although the concept of personal accountability initially appeared to influence the procurement culture17 the National Audit Office (NAO), in January 2018, identified a series of issues that identified a minimum affordability gap of £4.9 billion and a potential affordability gap of £20.8 billion before 2028.18 By November 2018, another NAO report predicted that the shortfall over the same period would be £7 billion, but could widen to £14.8 billion if some of the risks it identified materialised.19 It is clear, therefore, that despite the £1 billion spending uplift provisioned by the Chancellor in the Autumn Budget Statement20 there is an enduring problem in matching ends with means. Finding a way to resolve this problem merits consideration of a tri-service solution, to help ensure the objectives and threats identified in the National Security Strategy do not fall foul of parochial single-Service interests. This paper offers a solution that would require a radical transformation of the way Britain’s armed forces are configured.

Is it time to think again?

When George Osborne was Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, he concluded that affordability ought to dictate the size and shape of Britain’s armed forces.21 Unfortunately, a number of Britain’s senior military leaders, who presumably viewed Britain’s role in the world rather differently to Osborne, were apt to articulate the opinion that defence was underfunded and ought to get a larger proportion of the country’s national wealth. Their input, which rarely, if ever, alluded to internecine fighting for scarce resources between the Services, reflects the belief that by carrying ‘an increasing small stick’ Britain is not taken seriously any more.22 Such thinking conveniently overlooks the reality that, in democracies, a strong economy is needed to pay for a strong military. Concurrent with this mind-set among senior military leaders, there has been a pervasive tendency to be over-optimistic when considering the costs of procurement projects and the likely efficiencies Services can make to accrue ‘headroom’ for unanticipated program cost rises. The Haddon Cave report, which investigated the reasons for the loss of an RAF Nimrod aircraft over Afghanistan in 2006, noted the ‘conspiracy of optimism’ about the benefits of the savings culture that permeated military thinking.23 The report showed how the fallout from the incessant change culture, together with the emphasis placed on savings to maximise capability, led to underfunding, shortcuts and mismanagement, with disastrous consequences.24

In this context the British military may not yet be ready to consider radical options to reconfigure the Services, even if the options suggested were able to mitigate the affordability problems. In 1995 Correlli Barnett questioned the provenance of the frequently used terms ‘influence’, ‘status’ and ‘prestige’ and argued that the ‘fantasy of the United Kingdom as a present and future centre of world influence and power’ affected the willingness of the Foreign Office, the service ministries and the COS to conceive appropriate and affordable options for the nation’s defence. Since then, at regular intervals, there has been is veritable procession of current and former senior officers who have to gone to the press to explain their frustration with the perceived shortfall in funding for the British military.25 Put simply, changing the behaviours, beliefs and taken for granted attitudes of the current military hierarchy, about the need for radical organisational change, is unlikely to be a straightforward task.

Nonetheless, fear of causing controversy should not cause necessary choices to be filed as too difficult. In 1941, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the architect of the victory in the Battle of Britain, worried that a taboo on constructive thinking existed because ideas that challenged perceived wisdom hinted at the inability or failure of senior leaders to think constructively. The prevailing atmosphere, he argued, was one where proposals were rejected on the basis that they ‘had been thoroughly considered by wiser and more experienced heads’ before being ‘rejected for good and sufficient reasons’.26 This assessment epitomised the way the RAF decided not pursue the procurement of long-range fighters to support daylight bombing in the Second World War. Indeed, in the late 1930s, when the topic kept appearing on the agenda of the RAF’s Air Fighting Committee, it was referred to as a ‘hardy annual’, before rejected the idea as a conceptually and practically flawed. Only when the United States Army Air Corps proved the fallacy of such narrow thinking, in 1944, did the RAF change its mind.27 So, perhaps it is time to offer up another hardy annual:  Britain should have a single defence force, rather than three separate, top heavy, armed Services.

The Example of the Canadian Armed Forces

In February 1968 the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Canadian Army became unified as a single force: the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). The rationale for this change, set out in the Liberal Government’s 1964 White Paper on Defence, was to enable a single coherent defence policy; create the office of a single Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) to centralise and strengthen the administration and control of defence policy; create a unified system of command and to introduce modern management methods to eliminate the triplication of activity, in order to achieve efficiencies and to generate loyalty to the state, rather than to any particular service. By using modern management methods it was hoped that the proportion of resources allocated to capital equipment programmes could be increased without having to increase the defence budget overall. Integrating the three services reduced overhead costs, achieved savings in planning, support, finance and administration and set the conditions for an ‘Integrated Defence Program’. However, within the Canadian military, it was widely believed that the ‘do more with less’ culture distorted defence decision-making and compromised operational effectiveness.28

The CAF construct, however, was undermined by the way many personnel were conflicted by their loyalties to their previous single Service and by how the resultant strong dissenting pressure was exerted on the political and military hierarchy.29 The CAF’s CDS between 1972 and 1977, General Jacques Dextraze, disliked unification because of his belief that those in uniform fought for unit loyalties rather than for their country. Instead of resigning at the prospect of unification Dextraze stayed on to become CDS, and then applied himself to de-unify whenever he could: stopping moves to harmonise uniforms and ensuring that separate Commands for each service remained.30

After unification the Department for National Defence (DND) retained three services with civilian and military components with a single Defence Research Board (DRB) sanctioned to rationalise spending. Dextraze appears to have persuaded Sylvain Clouier, the deputy Minister at the DND, that the DRB was interfering in military priorities and, in two stages; the organisation was absorbed and then eliminated.31 Such events helped to develop the largely unchallenged view that the very unity of the CAF had led to distorted outcomes. Other common elements of the CAF were allowed to wither on the vine. Instead, the belief that each service had a unique and irreconcilable character, especially at the tactical level, was repeated so frequently that it led to the perception that the efficiency savings were responsible for the reduced operational effectiveness. The enduring parochialism was exacerbated by the nature of operations the CAF then conducted, which reinforced the modus operandi towards the way business had always been conducted. This, in turn, perpetuated the preference of former soldiers, sailors and airmen to think and operate independently.

Moreover, the absence of a national security strategy to drive policy and its execution meant the military budget, rather than strategic priorities, dictated the direction and funding for key fighting capabilities towards the continuance of a ‘balanced force’ and led to a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top down’ air, land and sea approach to defence planning and force development.32 By mirroring the language of U.S. transformation and addressing the challenges posed by the post 9/11 world, General Rick Hillier, Canada’s CDS from 2005 to 2008, a soldier, sought to re-orientate the Canadian Armed Forces to fight in expeditionary operations and in the littoral environment33 in a way that delivered operational primacy to land forces, supported by  air and naval forces.

While Hillier’s leadership certainly led to the consolidation of the importance of the post of CDS and led to a more unified command structure, it appears as though the Canadian government delegated the formation of national military strategy to him. This, some claim, led to an army-centric perspective of CAF transformation. On 16 August 2011 the CAF was reformed again in separate Air, Land and Maritime Commands; a move that implied the failure to effectively integrate the force of 126,500 authorised regulars. Military commentators have been apt to cite the CAF experience as evidence that attempts to integrate air, land and sea component is likely to be fraught with insurmountable difficulties.

The example of the United States Marine Corps

The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is America’s expeditionary armed force. Like the CAF it is focused towards expeditionary and amphibious operations. Its ethos promotes the idea that every Marine is a rifleman, but the USMC’s development of its own organic air and aviation assets has influenced the way its leaders’ think about all-arms combat. In 2017 the USMC had 186,000 active duty personnel.34 Despite the negativity surrounding the CAF experience it is clear that the USMC has been able to mould an organisation that operates in the air, land and sea environment with a coherent structure, culture and ethos.

For example, the USMC’s distinctive esprit de corps, emphasises that Marines are neither ‘soldiers’ nor ‘sailors’ (and presumably not ‘airmen’) but Marines! There is no room in the organisation for those unwilling to adopt this shared vision. Consequently, the U.S. Marines are able to operate in a way that seamlessly transcends the imaginary boundaries between those who operate in the air, land and sea environments at both the operational and tactical levels. Significantly, in terms of combat power the USMC is a formidable force. In 2018, an assessment of the relative sizes of the respective organisations from unclassified sources indicated that the USMC has 251 F/A-18 multi-role fighters, 108 AV-8B Harrier II ground attack and 57 F-35B combat aircraft.35 The USMC also has significant numbers of electronic warfare, tanker, transport, and helicopter and trainer aircraft. These numbers compare very favourably with the number of aircraft available to the RAF, which in 2018 had 137 Typhoons fighter/bomber, 29 Tornado GR4 ground attack and 15 F-35B.36 That said, direct comparisons between the USMC and the British Armed Forces ought to be tempered by the reality that the USMC does not ‘own’ the ships they operate from; these belong to the United States Navy.


It is clear from a cursory examination of the CAF and USMC models that the two organisations have developed very different views about the viability of a single coherent force being able to deliver air, land and sea power. The Canadian aspiration to combine its disparate forces was forged in a Cold War environment, at a time when the necessity for a politically led, frequently updated, national security strategy, was not as important as it became after 9/11. Only then could the opportunity to reduce the unnecessary triplication of costs be effectively coordinated and controlled at government level and filtered down to adjust the proportion of resource allocated to equipment procurement. Without the necessary conceptual foundation for government defence policy the idea of rationalising defence appeared to lack the necessary provenance. In this context, the idea that separate forces could combine in the national interest and be solidified in their loyalty to the State seemed absurd.

Consequently, the laudable vision to rationalise the CAF was undone by military parochialism, often explained away by notions of separate culture in the air, sea and land environments and perpetuated amongst those chosen to lead the new organisation. Essentially, for the single-Service CAF construct to be a success it was essential for its leaders to make it clear that that a new culture and heritage had to be embraced by all those who served, at all levels of command. The reorganisation failed because many of those in positions of authority never really believed in it. By 2005, the challenges faced in the post 9/11 world enabled Hillier to orientate the CAF main effort towards the land component, something that is likely to have chimed rather well with his professional and staff training.

In stark contrast, it is clear that the USMC do not tolerate those who dare to challenge the view that it can operate as a coherent force in the air, land and sea environments, as this would be the antithesis of its raison d’etre. Arguably, the way the USMC has developed has made it, dollar for dollar, the most capable of the U.S. forces. Its procurement policies, based upon its needs, are configured in the context of the resources available, in the sure knowledge that if one part of its force fails when undertaking expeditionary operations, the whole forces fails. In the USMC the option of blaming another component when things go wrong, for not delivering what it expected when it was expected, simply doesn’t arise. What then, does this say about the options for the British Armed Forces?

A hardy annual revisited

The pregnant question is whether the British could transform the separate services into a single service, along the lines articulated in the Canadian model, albeit informed by a coherent National Security Strategy from the outset, with an ethos and culture equivalent to that of the USMC. At present there are approximately 149,710 British regulars in the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force, a figure that brackets it between the size of the regular forces of the CAF and USMC.

The snapshot analysis above explains the conceptual thinking behind drawing the disparate elements of armed fighting power into a single entity to maximise affordability. It casts doubt on the provenance of the claims that the air, land and sea elements have characteristics so distinct that they cannot be combined at the operational and tactical levels in a coherent way. It appears as if the Canadian model was flawed because those who were entrusted with its success were not wholeheartedly committed to the ideas behind the new construct. The main lesson to be drawn from the experience of the CAF is that satisfying the interests of the defence of the nation requires a hard line against those who are conceptually inclined against making the necessary changes. The impact of removing senior military leaders from their posts, under a cloud, is one that is quickly transmitted to other parts of the respective military organisation. It rapidly changes behaviour and beliefs and dramatically adjusts taken for granted attitudes. Another lesson that emerges from the Canadian experience is that although political leaders should take advice from their military experts they should avoid delegating the definition of strategic priorities to the CDS. Finally, the ethos and culture of the USMC provides a useful indicator of what can be achieved if the right people are selected to lead and the culture and ethos of the organisation is designed to ensure its coherence.


It is likely that recognising the need to transform the British Armed Forces into a coherent, and more efficient organisation, appropriately configured to meet the security challenges of the twenty-first century, would likely upset a significant number of senior military officers wedded to the traditions of their respective services. So what? To paraphrase Tarak Barkawi’s a speech at RUSI in 2012: The defence of the country should not be ‘a tea party hosted by English heritage’.37 Desired strategic ends should dictate the way the country is defended, not the ethos and heritage of institutions well past their sell-by date. That said, given the political sensitivities likely to accrue from the way the ethos and heritage of Britain’s armed forces are portrayed in the media, it would be necessary to prepare those in the military for what needs to happen by encouraging debate on the topic within the Services as a first step to eliciting an understanding of why such dramatic change is necessary.

The RAF’s appropriately entitled ‘Thinking to Win’ (T2W) programme, conceived in 2015, appeared to create an environment of conceptual tolerance necessary to begin a dialogue on the topic. Unfortunately, rumour suggest the T2W initiative may have been quietly shelved.38 If so, those of us who questioned whether the RAF was ever really serious about listening to alternative thinking beyond innovation at the tactical level to create ‘headroom’ will have been vindicated.39 Messaging could also be used to clarify the benefits that would surely accrue from centralising and strengthening the administration and control of defence policy. Arguably, reducing the triplication of senior staff activities would yield significant savings that could ultimately be fielded into the procurement budget. Such savings are unlikely to be too difficult a sell to rank and file personnel who have had to swallow a plethora of savings measures affecting them.

It is clear that since the end of the Second World War the British military establishment has resisted attempts to reconcile the affordability of defence with its equipment aspirations.40 In response the politicians were obliged to assert their legitimate control over the mechanisms and processes to deliver the nation’s defence. It is now time to consider the idea of radically changing the character of the British Armed forces and is likely to become another hardy annual that will keep returning for discussion until its merit is eventually realised.

David Stubbs

In his RAF career David Stubbs served as rear crew on maritime patrol and airborne early warning aircraft. During his exchange tour with the United States Air Force (USAF) he deployed to Turkey to fly in operations over northern Iraq. After returning to the UK, he deployed again to oversee operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. After completing another tour, as a flt cdr on the E-3D, he deployed to Afghanistan before teaching at the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre, on the Higher Air Warfare and Air Battle Staff courses. After completing a Master of Arts in Air Power: History, Theory and Practice at the University of Birmingham, a version of his thesis was published in the Journal of Military History. Articles and a chapter have followed in the RAF’s Air Power Review, Canadian Military History, Journal of Military History and in the book ‘The Culture of Military Organizations’.


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  34. https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Budget_Request.pdf
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  36. UK armed forces equipment and formations 2018: annual statistics on vessels, land equipment and aircraft of the armed forces and military formations. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-armed-forces-equipment-and-formations-2018
  37. Tarak Barkawi, UK Grand Strategy: An Antiquated Kingdom Faces the Twenty-First Century, RUSI, Future Maritime Operations Conference, 2012.
  38. Mal Craghill, Thinking About Thinking in the Royal Air Force https://warontherocks.com/2019/03/thinking-about-thinking-in-the-royal-air-force/ 1 March 2019.
  39. David Stubbs, Is the RAF serious about ‘thinking to win’? A paper submitted in 2016 to the Centre for Air Power Studies, but rejected for being ‘unbalanced’ and ‘excessively negative’.
  40. George Parker David Bond, Theresa May casts doubt on UK status as ‘tier one’ military power, Financial Times, 20 June 2018. Lord Dannatt, Military needs £7 billion a year more to protect itself says former British Army head Lord Dannatt, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5904787/LORD-DANNATT-British-Army-needs-7million-year-protect-itself.html 30 June 2018.

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