By Kevan Jones MP, Shadow Minister for Armed Forces
Constrained public spending and a rapidly evolving security landscape demand new policy solutions in defence, yet the government is missing the opportunity to fundamentally reform our posture at home and overseas.
A rushed review has limited Britain’s strategic global reach and a diminished industrial strategy abandons the UK defence industry. By contrast, Labour has made these issues a priority, leading the debate on defence procurement and initiating a comprehensive review into future global threats. We want a modern defence industry attuned to the capabilities of the future, based on a genuine assessment of the future security landscape, serving an agile, 21st century armed forces. Success relies on wholesale reform, however, which is why we are arguing that the government should undertake a thorough review of our force structure, benchmarking structures against international trends and best practice, ensuring we have the right balance from ‘tooth to tail’.
Despite the many advances in defence, the last Labour government did not sufficiently reform service structures. Some of the issues inherited in 1997 remained and tackling them is now pressing in this changed environment. We support some of this government’s proposals, for example those made in the Levene Review, but with mass redundancies planned from the services and the civilian force we have heard little about how personnel can be used more effectively and the challenges they will be required to meet.
The need for real reform of service structures is now clear. The size of the most senior cadre within the MoD – one star and above – has risen by a third since 1990. We have a higher number of officers across all three services than both the French and American air, land and maritime forces. This ‘top heavy’ model has even been recognised by the MoD, which has stated, “the simple truth is that the defence senior cadre is larger than we can afford, is judged to be out of proportion with a reducing manpower base and also with modern working practices and societal tolerances.” Despite this, recent figures show that just one in 20 of the most senior officers in all three services have lost their jobs while 20 per cent of more junior ranks will lose their jobs as 30,000 service personnel are axed.
The government is doing nothing to correct the clear imbalance which exists between top and bottom. Indeed, the government is holding a review into cuts at senior levels but plan reductions “in broad proportion with overall personnel reductions”. This approach perpetuates rather than challenges the imbalance. If our armed forces are to be reshaped effectively there will need to be disproportionate reductions of senior officers. We now need a review which has this as its premise. It is right to demand efficiency of those at the bottom but we cannot justifiably do so while protecting those at the top.
This is not an issue unique to the UK. In the US there has been a debate about “star creep”, a taskforce has been set up to look at the number of senior posts, certain roles are being downgraded in rank and 102 generals and admiral posts are set to be lost. The UK must itself undertake a similar root and branch review and should incorporate thorough analysis of international partners’ structures.
This is in part necessary now because of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, potentially signifying a dramatically reduced role for land forces in the coming years. Both the UK and US will find it difficult to conduct such operations in future due to political and financial pressures. We have reconfigured planning assumptions and the Libyan conflict has thrown open a debate about the future shape of our contribution to international interventions. This is, therefore, an optimum time for a debate on restructuring our forces.
Already we have said we agree with the government’s plan to significantly reduce our non-deployable regional administrative structure to enhance our focus on frontline capabilities. This could save over £1bn by 2020 on the government’s figures. But again the government falls short. We need to know the role our forces will play, the capabilities and specialisms that will entail and how the unavoidable loss of capacity will be mitigated against to protect our priorities and an ability to deliver with force in key areas.
This is not about party politics but comprehensive modernisation of our forces from top to bottom. The government’s review is inadequate and entrenches inefficient, costly and unjust imbalance. We now need a full review of structures that benchmarks against lessons from overseas and trends in a transformative era for security strategy. The government have to date failed to be reformers in defence. If they change course, they’ll have our support.
This article was originally published on 13th February 2012 at Defencemanagement.com