Defence Reform: Defence Revolution? – 27 June 2011

Writing just ahead of the publication of the Defence Reform Unit’s work, and amongst the weekend’s worth of pre-releases and flags of what the MoD and Number 10 want us to take away from it, we have the ‘revolution’ in defence affairs. I will either update this post, or write another later when the report goes live. {I have now updated it, see below} 


According to the BBC, who obviously received their brief ahead of the academics, Levene’s Defence Reform Unit has placed financial management as the key competency at the heart of the defence community. The phrases that will accompany this are ‘commercial nimbleness’ and ‘thin-client’. For people interested in the wider lessons for government, I think these reforms will set the benchmark for the rest of Whitehall, so watch closely.

Following on from the budgetary driven SDSR – the best review in the circumstances bestowed to the review team – this separate workstream will also act as an SDSR version 1.2. One point one was enacted when the PM decided to act on Libya. Version 1.2 seeks to reduce the number of heavy-shouldered folk in across all three services, and leave just the Chief of Defence Staff to represent all three services. Whilst the government have suggested that all three went along with this, it would be difficult to believe this is entirely true – the sorts of fights the services engaged in during the SDSR process and about issues such as the defence estates, makes their sudden acquiescence look a trifle unlikely.

As I understand it, the Defence Reform Unit eschewed the chance to look at operational issues and the one closest to  my heart currently due to my work on the defence estates with the Centre for Defence Studies is the estates. Instead, and I think rightly in some respects, they chose to focus on giving the MoD a structure that would be ‘fit for purpose’. If they had have focused on the minutiae they might have missed this big picture: the chance to make the big change now.

So, what of this commercial nimbleness? In one breath is stands for being not Labour. For the Labour Party has reoccupied the ground it once held in the 80s and early 90s of being seen to be incompetent on defence. This is a harsh view, but it is widely held, and Ed Miliband’s recent interventions on the covenant were an attempt to re-take some of the competency ground. Saying that all government’s have had procurement problems is true – having to run procurement through Urgent Operational Requirements, is frankly a bit embarrassing. As a footnote, one can only hope that the Labour Party are engaging with ‘defence thinkers’ and the like now, rather than leaving this situation to continue. My email line is always open. The other thing commercial nimbleness stands for, is enhanced partnering. And enhanced partnerships with commercial organisations are possible, and have always been possible. It’s just that the history of this is that the commercial partners have tended to run rings around the contracts people or their political masters and so commercial partnering has got a bad and expensive name for itself.

Along with commercial nimbleness comes ‘value for money’ or VfM. It is here that the MoD needs to smarten up – the number of procurement disasters could fill a five volume set, and one has to hope in areas such as the disposal of assets that the MoD has got wise. The defence estate is a massive holding of assets (estimated value is around 24billions), but of course that value can only be realised with a fair wind, and with prepped land, with permission to change use, and all that takes time. But there does need to be a review that looks at what the ‘right size’ the estates should be, to deliver the operational need, and the anticipated operational need for the next fifty or so years. A sensible review, that accepts that a fire sale will not produce VfM and might take some time, would yield the sorts of financial savings the government is after and the sort of sensible provision for our security that we all would approve of.

A new joint force command seems sensible, and fits in with my view that the MoD will become a sub-set of a security architecture before too long (the reduction in the number of chiefs on the defence board also evidences this). I think the removal of the DCDS Commitments post was silly, and whilst I hope that it gets reinstated this afternoon, the integration into a new joint force command structure may see that most crucial and strategic post taken by an intelligence professional: again, evidence of the morphing of defence into wider security.

So, we will see what the good Dr has to say this afternoon: I am particularly keen to see what he has to say about the reform of the MoD into the ‘thin-client’ and who will staff it. Defence partnerships can deliver real advantage, but they have to be partnerships of equal to make the gains and take the advantages that one can see in theory. What one can say now though, is that whatever the result, the Defence Reform Unit is another small band of officials (like the SDSR) who have been left with a herculean task: pre-report praise, in case having read it I forget to acknowledge that we demand rather a lot of officials.

Written at: 1030hrs.
The report has delivered all of what was pre-released (no surprise there…) and a little bit extra.
Placing some budgetary and equipment responsibilities in the hands of the Services individually means that turkeys will have to be voting for their own Christmas – the SDSR infighting has come back to bite them.
The thing I picked up strongly was the federal structure – the strong centre and the devolved responsibilities. I hope that goes much deeper in the implementation phase than is currently on the page, with financial responsibilities placed at a much lower level by the chiefs (who have the power to gift it) which will provide the motivation and incentive amongst the middle management to carve out their own efficiencies and to see if they can achieve more with what they’ve been given.
Edited 2029hours.

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