Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Think tank warfare

A couple of news articles caught my attention in the last week.

First, the biggie. Those axe-wielding Con-Dems are particularly keen to copy the budget-cutting example of the Canadian government in the 1990s. This will certainly hurt, but the pain will probably be counterproductive.

Second, the Con-Dem chopper also seems to have fallen on Chief of the Defence Staff , Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who will be stepping down early. It’s not just the Con-Dems who are targeting Stirrup. The Parachute Regiment’s Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, who commanded the first troops sent to Helmand, criticised Stirrup for not sending extra helicopters and troop reinforcements into Helmand quickly enough.

Mmmm ... cuts... defence... That got me thinking. I've noticed that any fool can be part of a “radical” think tank, thinking the unthinkable, proposing painful cuts that will hurt other people, but have no direct effect on the think tanker. Some people even pay attention to this bunch of tankers. Well, if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. Here goes. With my Frank Field hat on, and a research budget of a few minutes on Google, how can I find “efficiency savings” in Britain’s £36.9Bn defence budget?

Canadian examples are in fashion this season. As a dedicated follower of fashion, I'm relentlessly on trend, so here's an achingly hip, edgy, Canadian-themed concept. On 1 February 1968, the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force were merged into one unified service, officially known as the Canadian Armed Forces (AKA Forces Armées Canadiennes).

Living proof that countries don’t necessarily need three separate armed forces. Perhaps a medium-sized power like Britain would get better value from one unified defence force? The thinking looks sound:

One of the lessons of the Second World War, reiterated in one form or another by many senior military leaders, among them Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower, is that the scope and methods of modern warfare and defence technology have largely made the conduct of war by individual services operating in separate and independent roles an anachronism.

For some years military writers and defence leaders have been writing and talking about the integration and unification of armed forces. Many considered them an inevitable outcome of modern technology. Theory and principle were easily defensible. But here was a nation actually proposing to put the principles into practical application. Canada had taken the pioneering step.

Canada did not, however, embark on this momentous course for the sake of being first. This was not change for the sake of change. It was a move born of economic and organizational necessity. In the 1960s, with the increase in government expenditures on social programs and the rising cost of government in general, the defence budget was fixed at a figure of approximately $1.5 billion. Both the Navy and the Army needed re-equipping. Each service was bidding for the defence dollar without any means of ensuring that its slice of the financial pie would be adequate for its needs and within the best interests of the country as a whole. Maintenance and operational and personnel costs were taking an increasing proportion of the total defence budget and forcing a decline in the money available for equipment needed to modernize the forces. In 1963 a projection of operating and maintenance costs, taken as a percentage of the total budget, indicated that by 1968/ 69 practically no money would be available for the purchase of operational equipment.

Assuming that Canada intended to maintain modern military forces, there were only two possible courses of action—increase the budget or reduce operating and maintenance costs. In fact there was no guarantee that a larger budget would solve the problem; operating and maintenance costs as a percentage of the total budget would continue to rise unless a fundamental change was made. All means, therefore, of reducing operating and maintenance costs which did not prejudice operational efficiency had to be explored.

At the same time, since the White Paper had placed considerable emphasis on the need for Canada to maintain highly flexible and mobile forces in anticipation of continued, if not increased, participation in peace-restoring and peace-keeping missions, the structure of our forces had to be adapted to this policy. We needed a force structure which would permit us to operate effectively with our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in support of other commitments, including United Nations peace-keeping operations. We also recognized that we could not take full advantage of recent advances in science and technology unless we established a single top management for all three services. In short, the situation pointed clearly to the need to integrate the three services as the means of providing a defence force suited to Canada’s requirements and financial means.

Before 1964, each service—Navy, Army, and Air Force—existed as a separate, independent entity with its own headquarters and its own command, administrative, and support organizations. There was considerable triplication of functions among the services. We had triplication in logistics, communications, transport, recruiting, training, pay and finance, personnel administration and services, and even in such static engineering functions as building maintenance.

Writes Air Marshal Frederick Ralph Sharp. Sounds like they're on to something to me.

At the moment, Britain's limited defence budget is divided up between three rival services, each squabbling with the other two to grab the biggest share of scarce resources and to keep their own - usually late and vastly over-budget - pet defence projects alive. As, the Jock Stirrup/Tootal spat demonstrates, inter-service rivalry all often means that our armed services are fighting each other, not the enemy. That's a luxury we can't afford any longer. It's time for joined-up defence, the status quo is not an option [note to self: insert a few more clichéd calls to action here].

With the Con-Dems asking for our ideas, whilst preparing to wave their bloodied hatchet over the corpses of previously sacred cows, the time's right for change and to hell with the vested interests of all those Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals.

I haven't crunched any numbers, but on the basis of my ten minutes of in-depth research, I think this one's good to save a few billion, For the price of a modest research budget, I could knock up a paper. And if it all goes horribly wrong, you can always blame Canada. No brainer. So how about it, Dave n' Nick? My AnyFoolTM* think tank is open for business and waiting for your call...