Thursday, 24 January 2013

A lack of sea room at the Service Chiefs table? Thoughts on the new 4* appointments


The MOD formally announced on 24 Jan a series of new military appointments at 4* level. Admiral Zambellas will be the new First Sea Lord (1SL) in April, Air Chief Marshal Pulford will be the new Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), while Air Chief Marshal Peach becomes the new Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS). Finally, Lieutenant General Barrons becomes the new Joint Force Commander (JFC) on promotion. A decision on CGS and the new CDS will reportedly be made later in the year. (the official MOD announcement can be found HERE)

This is quite significant as it marks the first round of senior appointments since the SDSR, and will likely form the cadre of senior officers who will lead the military into the next Defence Review, currently due in 2015. If, as suggested in the Levene Review their appointments last for up to five years, then they will be leading the military into, through and beyond the review, handing over ahead of the 2020 defence review.

The announcement is interesting in several ways – firstly the appointment of ACM Pulford marks possibly the first time a non-Fast Jet pilot has become CAS – a significant move away from a long standing tradition.

The next issue is perhaps the major elephant in the room – with these appointments, the way is now technically clear for all four Service Chiefs and the Vice Chief to be in the running as the next CDS. Obviously Humphrey has no idea at all about who may eventually get it, but one suspects that the First Sea Lord (aged over 60) may well be out the running, and possibly CAS, who is also approaching 60. This leaves just two Army Generals (General Wall and General Houghton, current VCDS) as the only other UK 4*s who are in the running for the post.

If as seems likely an RN officer is not appointed to the post, this will mean that from 1988 until 2018, the sole RN CDS will have been Admiral Boyce, who lasted less than three years in the early 2000s. Also, between 1995 and 2018, there would only have been a single RN VCDS (Admiral Abbot) also at about the same time. In other words, in a period of over 30 years, when the UK was going through major military change, the RN would have failed to produce more than one of the 10 incumbents of the CDS position.

The future structure of the 4* plot looks like it will generate seven Officers –CDS,  the three Service Chiefs, VCDS and the DSACEUR post. For the next four or five years, it is likely that there will be four Army, two RAF and only one RN 4* in existence. In other words, the RN is likely to have a minimal senior presence or influence at a point when the UK will go through a major Defence Review, which will be critical in setting the path for the 10 years beyond OP HERRICK. There does seem to be a major issue here, in that the RN seems unable to generate individual officers who can aim for the very top appointments in the wider Defence environment.

The author knows a lot of former RN Officers, and now they are no longer serving, they are perhaps more able to say frankly views than serving officers can express. If you talk with them over a drink, the conversation will often turn to the fact that in their view, the RN is doing something wrong in that it is not producing sufficient qualities of outstanding officers who can compete for the wide variety of joint posts. In their eyes, there have been some very good officers in recent years, but none seem to have made it to the top.

There would seem to be two challenges which prevent this – firstly, the reality that many of the most outstanding officers seem to be leaving after completing their Command tours. Although this is purely anecdotal, the author knows a reasonable number of good RN Officers who have left the service following their command, and a major reason seems to be the realisation that they will never again command at sea. If you have achieved the pinnacle of why you joined the Navy, it is hard to want to stay on, resigned to a career of many years of desk jobs, with the slim chance of an Admirals flag at the end. As the RN grows steadily smaller, the opportunities for sea command diminish – an absolutely exceptional officer may drive a vessel four times – an URNU P2000 as a senior Lieutenant, an MCMV as a Lt Cdr, a Frigate / Destroyer as a Commander and finally a Capital platform as a Captain or Commodore. The reality is that this is unlikely to occur much anymore, and that growing numbers of officers will progress through the system without having had ‘a drive’, and without having the ability to do it more than once at each level. Unlike in previous years, where sufficient DD/FF platforms existed that an officer could command an escort vessel more than once, nowadays it seems to be that for most, it is a one shot. To do the sums, there are some 16 Escort & 11 submarine drives at Cdr level, while there are under 10 Captain commands (there are still some escorts driven by Captains). In other words, there are barely 35 positions to fill, and over 1300 Commanders and Captains in the RN overall.

The problem seems to be that unlike the Army or the RAF, the pinnacle of Command in the RN is associated at the escort level. An officer leaving command of his Regiment or Battalion in the Army can easily aspire to exercising command at Brigade or Divisional level, which while not the same, still provides opportunities for command of warfighting forces on operations. It is much harder to provide the same opportunities to the RN, where outside of a Battlestaff, there are few such equivalent opportunities. So, if former RN officers are to be believed, the RN seems to have a challenge retaining the best and brightest staff for the long haul.

The next challenge seems to be that for many years promotion to the most senior opportunities in the RN has been linked to being a Warfare Officer, and having exercised command at sea. While this was fine in the past, one cannot help but wonder whether this is too restrictive a policy now? After all, todays requirements at senior levels are as much about management, negotiation, project skills and other technical requirements as they are about leadership. The current service chiefs need to be able to master a whole host of technical skills, and in many ways these are not something necessarily gained from command at sea.

Perhaps the time has come for the RN to reconsider its policy for the provision of 4* officers, and instead consider allowing those officers from the Engineering or Supply worlds to also compete for the highest posts. It seems odd to an outsider that an organisation which consistently proclaims that its primary resource is the talent of its people will willingly refuse to consider vast swathes of well qualified and often very strong leaders, simply because they have not commanded at sea. While it is easy to say that the job of a Sea Lord is to be the officer who inspires and who can command because he too has been there, one should consider that in the last 10 years, thousands of RM and RN personnel have served on land. Large amounts of what the RN does is now shore based, or operating in environments far removed from the traditional ‘cruel sea’ scenario. In an era where a Sea Lord must be able to fight ruthlessly for his Service interests in Whitehall, and be able to take tough decisions about where budgetary axes may fall, and work in a truly purple fashion, then perhaps the time has come to consider promoting others who may be able to do this? One rather suspects that the sky will not fall from its mounting if a non-Warfare Officer became First Sea Lord, and that opening the pool of talent to all of the Officer Corps may actually result in better retention. It is doubtless depressing to be in a branch knowing you have no shot at promotion beyond 1 or 2* no matter how good you may be, while there is seemingly a dearth of talent at the very highest levels of the Warfare Branch who can compete for the 4* posts.

So, the next five years look like they may well be challenging, interesting and based on the internet reaction to the appointments, it is clear that some very good men indeed will be at the helm for the next defence review. Perhaps by the time of the next one, further good RN candidates will be out there to compete for the next tranche of 4* posts?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Thoughts on the NAO 2012 Major Project Report


The author has been travelling recently, and opportunities to write have been significantly reduced. That said, one news story which did catch his attention was the NAO Major Projects report into the MOD (the report can be found here at the link HERE) and a good summary of the major cost changes can be found over at Think Defence HERE.  Although it identified many positive aspects, it also picked up on cost growth across the board, with an overall increase of 12% to projected project costs. To many this seemed evidence of ‘business as usual’, with the MOD seemingly incapable of stamping down on project costs, and that UK troops were suffering as a result.

Having gone through it in some detail, Humphrey had a few thoughts about it and what it may mean more broadly. Firstly, one of the key details which was perhaps lost in the flurry of wider reporting bemoaning inept staff and out of date generals was that much of the cost was due to exchange rate fluctuations and rising fuel costs. In particular the costs of the Voyager tanker aircraft have grown significantly due to this rise.

There is not much that the MOD can do against a global rise in prices, particularly for oil, and while an element of risk can always be included in costings, sometimes it is outside of MOD control. The Voyager PFI is particularly interesting as its initially eyewatering costs (some £14 billion for what appears to be 14 aircraft) appears very steep. In reality this is the cost for the entire capability and not a fleet of aircraft per se. So, the total cost includes quite literally every cost that will be incurred by the project through the life of the PFI, ranging from the aircraft themselves, through to training and the provision of the infrastructure and fuel for the project.

So, Voyager is about the complete delivery of a guaranteed capability over a long period of time, and not just the procurement of airframes. While it is easy to knock the MOD for adding several hundred million to the bill, in reality this is a cost that the RAF would have incurred whether it was buying a PFI or the aircraft fleet outright. The fact that the cost is added to the PFI bill makes it look like procurement costs have risen, but in reality if the RAF had purchased the airframes outright, then the costs would have fallen to a different budget.

The lesson to take from this is simple – operating highly complex military capabilities is very expensive. You cannot just buy an aircraft now and run it for a small amount. The real cost lies in the long term support and operating the platform – it is entirely possible that sales people could have waved glossy brochures about airframes only costing X amount. This figure would doubtless be bandied about by commentators suggesting that the RAF had been seen off, but in reality the operating cost of the fleet over 25-30 years was always going to be in the region of £14 billion, its just that people don’t see the true figure when it isn’t frontloaded into a PFI.

Consider the annual running costs of a Frigate, which can be easily into the tens of millions per year (lets say £20 million) and take a thirty year life span (say £600 million through life costs in very broad terms)– by the time the last Type 23 pays off, then its likely that running that class of ship from 1989 to the mid 2030s will have cost the taxpayer well over £10 billion in running costs, let alone refits and procurement. Indeed if one were to cost up the entire Type 23 programme, then its cost to the nation from point of design in the early 80s to final disposal then the likely cost is likely to be well north of £20 billion.

If at the time of the 1981 Defence Review, it had been announced that the UK was going to fund a ‘cheap’ utility frigate project costing well over £20 billion in through life costs, then there would likely have been nothing short of uproar. Its always worth remembering that when looking at costs, you should never take the cheapest figure quoted in the press as the entire cost of the project. Remember that Voyager is perhaps unusual in that it is openly exposing the entire cost of a military capability for its lifetime.
MOD Abbey Wood

Another reason why costs grew appears to have been down to currency fluctuations, particularly with the dollar. This is quite a significant observation as it is often argued in some quarters that the UK should abandon its sovereign design and production capabilities, and instead just buy off the shelf equipment, particularly from the USA.

Not withstanding the significant damage such a move would do to the UK industrial sector, it is worth considering how it could end up as a very expensive move. Purchasing of equipment from overseas will often tie the purchasing nation into long term support and maintenance contracts. If say the UK decided to purchase off the shelf the M1A1 Abrams as a new tank, then the costs would be almost exclusively fall in US dollars. This ties the UK into a long term dependency on support contracts priced in dollars, not just for the initial procurement, but for longer term sourcing of spares. Even small fluctuations in exchange rates can have significant impacts on budgets – in this case if the majority of UK equipment were sourced from overseas, then it is perhaps worth considering that a much higher reserve of cash would be assigned to handle currency fluctuations. This in turn would reduce the amount of cash able to fund procurement as a whole.

While this is a very simplistic argument, its worth remembering that adopting a policy of wholesale purchasing of equipment overseas would not necessarily make savings in the medium – long term for the MOD, and may in fact make things more financially challenging.

 One interesting thing to do in the report is read through and identify why costs have increased. In many cases it is due to planned upgrades or other work being cancelled or delayed in other projects. Where one looks at complex systems – for instance the ASTUTE class submarine, you can see that costs have risen in part due to planned work on other projects not going ahead ,necessitating remedial expenses to make obsolete equipment run on, or projected savings not occurring.

The reality here is that we are only now really beginning to understand the scale of the projects which have been cut or delayed during defence cuts earlier in the decade, and during the many Planning Rounds. At the time expenditure or projects may have been cut, delayed or descoped to try and reduce spending at a time when the budget was unable to meet the aspirations of the many projects needing funding. While this may have been a short term fix, and a necessary one which helped the process of bringing the equipment programme back on track, it has clearly had longer term impacts.

It is really only now that we are beginning to grasp the bigger picture of the costs incurred by adopting many of the measures taken a few years ago. It may well take several more years for the full growth in costs to work its way through the system – are there other nasty surprises lurking out there which have yet to expose themselves?

Is this all the future MOD will be able to afford?
This perhaps neatly ties into the last point to make – namely that the report identified the challenge of keeping suitably qualified project management staff in the system. It is easy to cite the lack of suitable staff as a reason for project overrun or cost growth, but why is there a shortage? The authors very personal view is that several main factors hinder the retention of project management talent – firstly, the desire to reduce the headcount of the civil service has meant that many long serving staff see little reason to stay in the MOD. It was telling that the MOD managed to get sufficient voluntary applicants for civil service redundancy in the first year of the programme to meet all of its staff reduction requirement for the SDSR, which should have taken three years. There is an outflow of long serving staff who have a strong understanding of defence procurement and project management. At the other end, reductions in recruitment mean it is very difficult to bring a steady inflow of staff in to replenish the ranks at a more junior level. The lack of a co-ordinated HR management system means managing staff moves and development is challenging – so staff are leaving, and those few who join are unable to be managed centrally to ensure their development.
This, coupled with a certain amount of insecurity about how procurement may be handled soon means that many of the authors friends who work in procurement feel they have a long term future in this area.

The other challenge is the inability to offer a competitive package for suitably qualified staff – while entry level salaries are often on par with their private sector peers, this parity quickly reduces. By the time you approach mid management levels, staff are paid significantly less than their private sector peers, and with similar levels of job insecurity. A friend of the author worked out that his direct opposite number in the private sector was being paid three times more than he was, despite working on the same project and for similar hours. Faced with such temptations, it is hardly unsurprising that so many staff seem to jump ship to the private sector.

Similarly bringing suitably qualified staff back into the MOD though is immensely difficult – to recruit and retain the best possible project management skills means being prepared to pay a very large wages bill (or for the applicant to take a very large salary drop). It is hard to see many good project managers being tempted by the prospect of joining MOD for a salary of £25-£30,000 per year. Given this, how do you square the circle and bring in the best talent, or at the least pay closer to parity?
Moves towards changing the way DE&S operates may go someway to alleviating this problem, as a more independent procurement organisation may have greater flexibility to pay rates which could attract people back – providing the recruitment opportunities exist.
This project is not limited to the civil service – one only has to look at how regularly military staff rotate through posts to realise that very few will stay in post for more than two years. There is a real lack of continuity in the postings plot, as people constantly move for career development, or to relieve others. In reality this is perhaps less than helpful – given that it takes 6 months to become comfortable with most complex jobs portfolios, one realises that in every 24 months, there is probably only a 14-16 month period when the military officer is in post, able to deliver and not focused on taking over, or handing over. A longer period in post would not only increase stability, but also probably make it easier to deliver a project on time, or at the very least ensure a proper understanding of what would happen if a savings measure was taken. Based on the authors own experience, it is possible that many of the financial challenges occurring now are in part due to newly posted officers who didn’t fully understand their projects and portfolio approving a measure to be taken, which they perhaps later regretted due to realising the wider costs involved.
So, the lesson to draw from the NAO is that there often more complex reasons why things happen than perhaps seem obvious at first. It is very easy to criticise the MOD for not managing cost overruns, but as has been seen, these often occur despite the best efforts of MOD. It is also important to understand that procuring and running high end military equipment is expensive, and prone to all manner of costs which are often difficult to predict decades in advance.
Despite this, the author believes that the UK should be far more proud of its defence procurement staff than people seem to be. Despite problems, year on year, they have consistently managed to deliver hundreds, if not thousands of projects, ranging from simple equipment through to nuclear submarines. They’ve managed to do this despite financial uncertainty, staff changes and most importantly massive technological changes – which can make a real difference when the procurement of a major item can take several years to oversee. The end result has been the delivery of equipment which works, generally (although not always!) works well, and which has been tested in the most challenging environments known to man. The UK public should be rightly proud of the skills and expertise which enable the British military to operate from the depths of the ocean, across all the continents on the earth and into the depths of space. By all means focus on what can be done better, but lets not forget just how much we do well, particularly when compared to most other nations.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

C'est Mali-fique - The French operation in Mali and the RAF involvement


While travelling, Humphrey was quite impressed to hear the news that the French Government has begun operations in Mali in support of the government against rebel forces, and in particular the news that the RAF is providing logistical support. This short piece is intended as a quick ‘hot thoughts’ about what this development may mean more broadly in defence terms
 
For an ezcellent summary on the wider situation in Mali, try reading  - http://defencewithac.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/more-trouble-in-timbuktu.html which looks at the wider situation.   

Firstly, it is clear that the days of France being able to exert a near colonial level of influence in West Africa without much international interest or attention have gone forever. Following the end of their direct colonial presence in the region, France continued to treat much of West Africa as a fiefdom, maintaining a network of small bases, containing a mixture of low tech capabilities and used to actively suppress those individuals or networks which posed a threat to its interests. It could be argued that for many years, there was next to no public interest about in this area, and that the French were able to conduct a lot of operations ‘under the radar’. By contrast the current operations have been front page news and shone a spotlight onto a poorly understood and little visited region. While the French intervention is likely welcome, the level of attention paid to it demonstrates that it is increasingly difficult for nations to conduct interventions, even in areas with little interest, without gaining significant public attention. One must assume that the days of the Dhofar intervention, or other quiet wars have gone forever, and that even the smallest military operation must be carried out under the full glare of the international media.

Judging by the news, the reaction seems to indicate that in fact there is no such thing as a ‘home front’ anymore either. The fact that mainland France has gone on a heightened terror alert, and that there is seemingly a highly credible risk of internal domestic backlash shows that actions, even in far off and remote nations, will continue to have consequences in the domestic arena. It also shows that when actions are taken, they will increasingly be linked to other campaigns, such as that of extremist islam, and seen as justification for further attacks. This move will almost certainly provide justification to extremist elements to link to attacks to French interests across the globe. Although no different to previous such instances with the UK or US, it is clear that interventionary operations will no longer be seen through the prism of just being a military operation, but instead can easily be linked to other matters. While there is support now, the question is whether after some terror attacks,whether there will continue to be French domestic support for what are possibly kindly described as quasi-colonial delusions of grandeur, by conducting combat operations in an area which may once have been of interest, but which has long since slipped to the periphery.

The involvement of the RAF highlights other more interesting lessons too. Firstly it cruelly exposes a paucity of strategic airlift in the French military. While it is often easy to point to the French military and highlight what appears to be a catalogue of high end military equipment like Rafale, Leclerc or the Charles de Gaulle, it is perhaps quite telling that despite all this, that when push comes to shove the French military is unable to provide sufficient strategic airlift at short notice to move troops in for offensive operations.

One shouldn’t be smug, for the UK is hardly in a perfect position either, but it is perhaps noteworthy that the French airlift fleet is getting a lot older (if memory serves its airtranking fleet is drawn from KC135 stratotankers dating from the late 1950s and originally devised for the nuclear role). Domestic politics mean France is unlikely to procure a C17 capability, but this once again highlights that for all its front end grandeur, the French are unable to operate at distance alone in a purely national capability. Arguably the UK could have done this without recourse to external support, although the timescales are questionable.

Why does this matter? Firstly it demonstrates again the validity of the C17 purchase for the UK, one of the single best investments of recent decades. This has been able to provide at short notice a major addition to French capability with potentially real differences to the outcome. Also, it helps make the case for a long term retention of the fleet. Although this may sound odd, one thing the author noticed in the recent NAO report on the MOD last week was that in the strategic airlift section, was a set of stats showing that the UK will have a surplus of strategic airlift against requirement after 2022. Incidents like this will continue to help make the case for the retention of the C17 and A400M fleet in planned numbers, as the goodwill and strategic influence the UK gets from. it, help demonstrate the value of the capability.

As an operation this once again demonstrates the SDSR vision of the British Armed Forces operating in a range of interventionary roles. Very, very few countries would have been able to provide this sort of strategic effect, and means that the UK has a real asset that can be brought into play. Its all very well having tens of thousands of tanks and infantry, but if you cant move them, then you can’t employ them to best effect. The reality is that NATO has failed to provide a strategic airlift capability here, and that the only NATO member in Europe operating C17s has had to support the operation. What does this mean? Well on the one hand it means that the UK has gained a certain level of planning influence within other NATO capitals – after all, any other nation considering similar actions would be equally reliant on the UK to provide C17 support. This means engaging with the UK, listening to its views and accepting that access to its strategic airlift may come at a diplomatic cost. In real terms, the UK may well have gained some wastaa with the French which can be employed at a different time as a result of this support.

It also demonstrates the importance of the renewed links between UK and France which have come about in the last few years. It is unlikely such an operation could have occurred easily without planning and co-ordination, and this is a good test of a relationship where two similarly capable powers are required to work together.

Finally this is likely to have an interesting effect on the French ‘shopping list’. It remains to be seen whether any Urgent Operational Requirements (UORS) can be identified from this affair. What will almost certainly not be publicly discussed, but which could happen is that the operation will identify shortcomings across a range of capabilities and force enhancements to increase both Mirage, Rafale and Army capabilities. Most pressingly the French may look at their requirement to replace the KC135 and perhaps realise that close co-operation with the UK may have its advantages. The idea that purchasing an A330 fleet, very similar to the UK one, may have real advantages in terms of economies of scale for support, training and the ability to sure identical platforms to load and move equipment in a hurry in future. This operation could perhaps well help herald a closer step forward in UK/French co-operation.

Whatever happens, these operations come at a cost, and as President Hollande has sadly realised, the human cost is too high when even one soldier is killed. One must hope that there are no other casualties after the reported loss of a helicopter the other day.

The outcome of the operation will be interesting to see in due course – in many ways a classic ‘intervention’ as beloved of authors of Strategic Defence Reviews across the globe since the 1990s, it will be interesting to compare to Sierra Leone, both in its short term effect, but also the long term implications of whether a substantial military involvement helps resolve a problem prior to a UN force arriving in numbers, and what impact this has on the stability and interests of Mali in the long term.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

All change at MOD Main Building?


Among the various news reports circulating over the Christmas lull, one in particular was of interest.  Taken from the Financial Times, and circulated on the ARRSE website (link is HERE), it revealed that there was allegedly opposition by civil servants from both the MOD and the Department of Transport to move the DFT into the MOD Main Building in Whitehall. The article highlights several points which are not hugely glamorous, but which do show some of the challenges of trying to run a central government department in London.
 
It is perhaps one of the most enduring images of the MOD that the department has dozens of buildings in London, all staffed with hugely anonymous officials hustling from one Kafkaesque activity to another. The public image is of individuals sitting somewhere between Winston Smith and the long suffering Bernard, while at the top of the tree, crusty old officials like ‘General Melchett’ from Blackadder sit in wooden panelled offices, ignorant of the lives of our brave boys who are fighting and dying in Afghanistan.

The reality though is that the MOD presence in London has been shrinking for decades. Less than 20 years ago the MOD had nearly 20 office buildings scattered across central London, not including British Army linked to London District or other Military sites like the St Vincent COMCEN. Today that figure has been reduced to just two, both on Whitehall – the MOD Main Building (built in the 1930s), and the Old War Office Building (OWOB) next door. Reports in the media suggest that OWOB is due to shut within the next couple of years, and be sold off to a private developer. It is reasonable to assume that MOD Main Building will in short order be the only MOD building in London.

The issue Main Building has is what on earth does it exist for? It sometimes feels to the author that people see Main Building as a combination of the Ministry of Magic, somehow home to great mystery or secrets, and the home of high farce. Relatively few of the Military or MOD Civil Service will ever work there, and much of the buildings functions operate in a fairly rarefied environment, focusing on strategic or political matters rather than day to day issues. It is often hard to put a finger on why the building matters so much, and speak to some in the bar, and they will often make a case that it could be rusticated en masse to some other location.

This is not helped by the undeserved reputation acquired by the building in the 1990s and early 2000s when it underwent a very complex (and expensive) refurbishment designed to make it safe and habitable for the next 40 years. Crucially, the ownership of the building also passed on, with the MOD using it under a PFI arrangement, where a complicated mesh of contractors and subcontractors took on responsibility for running the building on behalf of the MOD. Utterly false reports regularly appeared in the media about the supposedly luxurious surroundings, including chairs, art work and TV screens, all of which indicated a civil service divorced from reality. This has continued to shape public attitudes to the MOD, with many people whom the author has met citing their dislike of the MOD civil service as stemming from this refit.

In theory, there is space for 3-4000 personnel in the building, a figure regularly cited as being all Whitehall Warriors, although in reality this includes everyone from the security guards and cleaners, through to Ministers. Although exact numbers do vary, its fair to say that there is roughly a 50% split between civilian and military staff overall.

 What is the building used for now?
Today MOD Main Building has a core role of providing a strategic HQ for the entire MOD and military. In other words, it is the home to Ministers, the Service Chiefs and their Assistants, and the most senior MOD civil servants such as PUS. Additionally, it has a key role to play in acting as the top level HQ for running operations (so the full gambit of J1-9 issues), handling Parliamentary Business, and a wide range of other issues which sit within the role of what used to be known as the Central TLB.

There is a clear need for these staffs to be in London – Ministers have a requirement to conduct their Parliamentary duties, while the interface at the strategic levels means officials need to have easy access to other Whitehall areas. Despite the many technological advances, such as VTC and the like, there is still no substitute for being able to have people able to get into departments and start working together. This, coupled with the need for the various staff areas to be able to interact regularly, both which each other and Ministers means there is a definite need for a central HQ building, which brings together these joint staffs.

Every nation in the world needs a strategic HQ of some form or another for its military, and the MOD is no different. Indeed the author would go so far as to say that Main Building is perhaps a very good example of a fairly lean organisation running with far fewer personnel than its peers (for example, in the late 20th Century, there was reportedly 10% of the Canadian Forces based in Ottawa working in DND HQ).

 The reason the FT article was so interesting to the author was because it showed vividly just how challenging the last 10-15 years have been for the MOD, and how plans made then have been continually adapted. Originally Main Building was intended to house some 3-4000 persons, and the building refurbishment was structured on this assumption. It was also assumed that the MOD would have a presence elsewhere in London, and that Main Building would be just one part of the wider London office network. Two things have happened to change this – firstly, the aforementioned closure of all the London office buildings, and also the rustification on a vast scale of MOD personnel out of London, which has come about in the last 5-6 years.

There have been two main drivers for this removal of staff from London – firstly, command structure changes which have seen much greater devolution of authority down to the various Front Line Commands, and which now sees the Service Chiefs working far more regularly from their FLC HQs. The second one has been the drive to reduce costs and send civil servants (and military personnel) out of London and into the regions. It is extremely expensive to house personnel in London, particularly Military staff. A few years ago, the authors office team worked out that the single most expensive person on the team was in fact the Corporal employed in an administration role. By the time his military salary, allowances, accommodation, travelcard and all the other costs associated with a London posting had been paid, his total cost was rapidly approaching £60,000 per year. By contrast, the civil servant who could do the same job would cost under £20,000. Rustication massively reduces employment costs, and provides jobs in more deprived areas – it also helps reduce costs in the planning round, although cynics may suggest that a 10-20% headcount reduction rarely leads to a similar reduction in work!

The net result, as the MOD moves away from several years of planning rounds, reviews and general drive to reduce headcounts is that MOD Main Building probably has more space in it than is needed for the likely future number of occupants. The challenge is what to do about this. On the one hand it makes little sense to keep large amounts of office space sitting empty waiting for someone to occupy it. But, moving new departments in brings fresh challenges in terms of access control, support to IT networks, and also the sheer cost of moving. As noted above, with the building now run under a PFI contract, any such move would probably cost a significant amount of public money to fund, as the interior of the building was adapted, and then reorganised as appropriate. This money would come out of someone’s budget, and would probably have potential present a PR disaster for the MOD. The inevitable FOI about costings would be a field day for the media, who would slam the MOD for spending large amounts of public money on moving offices and not buying body armour or bullets for ‘our brave boys’.

At the same time though, the wider government need is to reduce expenditure where possible and reduce the amount of occupancy of central London office space. So, here is one of those terribly difficult decisions- does one act in line with direction from the Government to reduce office space, save money and take an absolute PR beating (not to mention a lot of expenditure), or does one not make different use of the building, saving local budgets, but taking a PR beasting for wasteful use of space!

There is no right answer to this, and as the author is not involved in anyway on this, it would be wrong to speculate on the outcome. But hopefully readers can perhaps understand a little bit about the challenges of planning in Government – the MOD was refurbished to meet requirements to deliver a certain level of capability, based on the Government planning at the time. Now, through a change of circumstances, it finds itself with space to spare and yet is probably going to be lambasted in the press for whichever solution is chosen.