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Defence Facts of Life: The Aspiration/Reality Mismatch (Short 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!

Adam Smith postulated that ‘soldiers are maintained altogether by the labour of those who are not soldiers, the number of the former can never exceed what the latter can maintain.’1 British political and military leaders, however, have often disagreed about how much the country should spend on its military forces. In the days of empire the need to fight wars and engage in campaigns to protect British interests ensured that sufficient funds were made available, but as early as the 1860s the tension began to emerge between the imperialists and economic realists.2

After 1900 those who equated military might with world power, influence and prestige stifled the views of those who wanted to reduce defence spending.3 Only at the end of the Second World War did Britain’s substantial debt to the United States, together with the demands for self-determination in many parts of the Empire, require an alteration to British strategy. As the British Empire slowly dissolved, the need for imperial policing decreased and, outside the European theatre of operations, the rationale for large military forces weakened. Nevertheless, Britain’s military leaders, who had been consumed with Britain’s imperial responsibilities, found the changed environment difficult to accept. They proposed unaffordable defence spending plans in an attempt to maintain Britain’s position as a world power.4 Since then, reductions in defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product has been viewed by senior military officers as a metaphor for the loss of Britain’s international standing and self-respect.5

As funding for the military contracted the equipment plans proposed by the separate Services became the focus of bitter internecine disputes. Modern management methods were adopted in an attempt to adjust to the new funding reality, which led to a ‘savings culture’ to create ‘headroom’ to mitigate the increasing chasm between estimated and real costs of unaffordable equipment programmes. By 2009, the Haddon Cave Inquiry concluded that the cumulative effect of multifarious ‘change’ programmes had a deleterious affect on the morale of personnel and undermined the safety of RAF aircraft.6 The fallout from the report’s analysis was compounded the following year by the discovery of a £38 billion ‘black hole’ in the military equipment programme.

In taking action to correct the funding problems the government sanctioned a Defence Reform report and implemented its recommendations. Service chiefs became personally accountable for overspending in their departments. Military involvement on the National Security Council was also limited to the Chief of the Defence Staff and the respective Service chiefs were ‘rusticated’ away from the Ministry of Defence to mitigate the harmful effects of lobbying in support of equipment programmes.7 Behaviour altered in the short term but in January 2018 the National Audit Office uncovered an affordability gap in the equipment programme of at least £4.9 billion. By November 2018 the minimum amount of shortfall was assessed to be £7 billion.8 Clearly, the problem in matching ends, ways and means is something the Services are finding difficult to achieve. Within the British military options to resolve the affordability gap have been noticeable by their absence, explained in part by the difficulties the British have had in developing a culture of strategic thought.9 Definitions of strategy by Clausewitz and Gartner emphasise ‘ideas’ and ‘levers’ but exclude the inescapable reality of ‘limited resources’. If we assume that strategy is a mixture of ideas, levers and the constraints imposed by limited resources, an alternative option for Britain’s defence begins to emerge.

A Unified British Force?

In the late 1960s the Canadians tried to reform their national defence institutions by centralising the administration and control of defence policy and eliminating the triplication of activity undertaken by the separate Services. The integration of the three Services, it was hoped, would achieve savings in planning, support, finance and administration. Modern management methods were adopted in the belief that the savings reaped would help protect existing equipment programmes by reducing the need to increase the defence budget. The success of the new construct required strong leadership. Unfortunately, General Jacques Dextrase, the CDS from 1972-1977, did what he could to stymie the unification initiatives.10 Joint activities were allowed to wither on the vine and a  ‘bottom up’, rather than ‘top down’ approach to defence planning and force development perpetuated. By August 2011 the unification experiment came to an end. Commentators sometime cite the CAF experiment as evidence that any attempt to engage in integration would face insurmountable difficulties.

The main lesson of the CAF attempt at integration was that the commanders entrusted to lead the experiment were not wholeheartedly committed to its success and that the overt negativity they displayed should not have been tolerated. That said, the Canadian government should share some of the blame because it did not provide a top-down national security strategy to frame the sort of changes the CDS needed to deliver. It is clear therefore that the CAF’s inability to integrate successfully should not influence British thinking on the topic. After all, the USMC offers a roadmap for success.

In contrast, the USMC has incorporated the air, land and sea military functions in a single organisation with an esprit de corps that celebrates its common purpose. Arguably, the USMC provides the best value, scalable and rapidly deployable military force available to the United States executive. It does not appear to be saddled by internecine fighting from its air, land and sea components as those within the organisation are fully aware that if a component fails, the Corps fails.

A unified British force would only succeed if the chosen commander was committed to the concept of integration and made it clear to subordinates that attempts to block or stop integration would not be tolerated. Only then would it be possible to build an integrated and affordable military force designed to support the government’s desired strategic ends as efficiently as possible. Moreover, removing the triplication of significant higher and lower level staff activity would eliminate the internecine fight for resources at a stroke and yield significant immediate savings.

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’.


  1. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Edinburgh: Stevenson, 1845) p. 291.
  2. Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars (Newton Abbot: Victorian Book Club, 1974), pp. 175, 184.
  3. Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 23-24. Samuel Hoare, Empire of the Air: The Advent of the Air Age (London: Collins, 1957), pp. 86.
  4. Correlli Barnett, The Lost Victory, British Dreams, British Realities 1945-1950 (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 53-69.
  5. Mark Hookham, Generals berate PM’s ‘posturing’ over Isis, Sunday Times, 08 February 2015. Lord Sir George Zambellas, First Sea Lord, Speech to Chatham House, 18 September 2017, 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. Lord General Nick Houghton, 26 July 2018. UK ‘living a lie’ on defence capability, says former army chief, Ewen MacAskill, British forces no longer fit for purpose, former UK service chiefs warn https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/nov/14/british-forces-no-longer-fit-for-purpose-former-uk-service-chiefs-warn, accessed 12 November 2018.
  6. Charles Haddon-Cave QC, An independent review into the broader issues surrounding the loss of the RAF Nimrod MR2 Aircraft XV230 in Afghanistan in 2006 (London: The Stationary Office, 2009), pp. 12, 355, 357, 361, 367.
  7. Defence Reform: An independent report into the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence. The Stationary Office, June 2011. National Audit Office, Reforming defence acquisition, HC946, 26 February 2015.
  8. Comptroller and Auditor General, The Equipment Plan 2017 to 2027, National Audit Office, 31 January 2018, p. 4.  Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General, The Equipment Plan 2018 to 2028, National Audit Office, 1 November 2018, pp. 4, 7.
  9. Air Chief Marshal, Sir “Jock” Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, Speech to the Air Power Conference, Royal United Services Institute, 03 December 2009. Tarak Barkawi, “UK Grand Strategy: An antiquated Kingdom Faces the Twenty-First Century, Speech to the Future Maritime Operations Conference, Royal United Services Institute, 2012.
  10. J. L. Granatstein, Making the Department of National Defence Work in the 1970s: The Deputy Minister and the CDS Remember, Canadian Military History, Vol 20, Issue 2, 2011, pp. 2, 4-5.

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