After an excellent Integrated Defence and Security Review paper giving clear strategic direction for the UKs defence and security priorities, much was expected from the MoD regarding the Defence in a Competitive Age Command Paper.

Let’s be clear about who writes this paper, it is not Ministers, it is the single services who then staff it to “The Centre” with an additional input from Strategic Command that seems to be growing arms and legs at a rapid rate.  The paper is written mainly by people in uniform and the civil servants who work alongside them albeit to broad political direction, we have been part of that process in the past.

The political direction is never prescriptive and is nearly always fiscally focused. The trouble with that approach as seems to have been proven in the Command Paper, is that the ability to translate the direction into coherent military output is missed.

In delivering a plan you need a clear objective; a mission, what has to be done and a unifying purpose of why.  You need assumptions, in the past they were defence planning assumptions. None of this exists in this paper. Without this there is nothing to hang force structures off.  Bland statements such as “the UK will continue to need to counter a range of disruptive states and non- state threats through a concerted cross- government effort,” don’t say how big a range of threats, how simultaneous and what defence’s role actually is in countering them.

The future battlefield a term bringing defence back to 2-dimensional warfare instead of battlespace 3+ dimensional as has been used before seems retrogressive and lines like “These threats will continue to develop over the next few years. The application of increased automation and the power of artificial intelligence will transform many of these capabilities. We must be vigilant; understand the threats we face and be prepared to continue to adapt,” give no indication as to what defence is to do about it apart from be vigilant?

To plan force generation and therefore troop numbers and equipment numbers and types, the detail that should be laid out is quite simple.



How long?

What scale?

How many at once?

How often?

How is it likely to change over time?

None of that is in the paper therefore there is nothing to plan force structures against and therefore we get a pick and mix sweets approach to the people, structures and equipment you have with the usual hope that the bag doesn’t cost too much and it all tastes good.

One has to ask, if the basics aren’t there what is the rationale behind the substance as there is certainly no detail in order to try and reverse engineer what the art of the possible is.  It seems to be the case that the true purpose behind the Defence Paper was for it to ‘look good’ as the headline narrative. 

There was a real opportunity for those charged with delivering defence to have done a complete bottom-up redesign, it clearly hasn’t happened and the deckchairs instead of just being rearranged have been incoherently scattered. 

For a piece of strategic staff work, to make basic mistakes like call the CH47’s and Puma’s as Army assets and to put British Military Capability blobs over the Republic of Ireland questions the attention to detail the Service Chiefs have put into it. That is a slight to the RAF squadrons who will be disbanded and the RAF personnel within them.

There are questions about every page and every statement and detailed analysis of the paper would be longer than the paper itself. Were this a Staff College paper it would be a “show again” and “final warning.” 

What that suggests, given the amount of staffing that will have gone on at every level before this paper reached ministers, is a culture that is afraid to question and it content to let poor work progress rather than rock the boat. That is a dangerous position to be in.

If this were a plan presented to the shareholders of a PLC for an Annual General Meeting, then it would probably result in a vote of no confidence in the board and a move to replace all senior management.

Maybe it is time to clear out the current “top brass” completely and put a new team in place. With this example of poor quality of work the IDA has to remain and put on record our concern that Defence cannot and will not look after its people – but would have us believe that it will.  Is it time to consider as OFSTED would do for a school, that Defence is put into ‘Special Measures?’