Efficiency has its costs: UK First Sea Lord

2026

The head of the British Royal Navy has urged ministers not to push their efficiency reforms too far – warning that they should not be allowed to compromise vital military capabilities. Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, said the cuts already announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) – including an aircraft carrier, assault ship and four frigates meant Britain will be left with a fleet that is too small.

Addressing the Royal United Services Institute in London, he said there was now a limit to the further efficiencies that could be achieved as a result of the latest planned reforms set out last week by Defence Secretary Liam Fox. “Such reform represents a welcome opportunity to remove unnecessary overheads and duplication driving ever greater efficiency into our defence and naval business,” he said according to the Yorkshire Post. “But I am also acutely aware that we are already highly efficient at force-generating and operating maritime forces at and from the sea.
“I would counsel that the laudable pursuit of efficiency at the heart of defence reform must not compromise effective delivery of maritime outputs – the very capability that we seek to preserve.”

Announcing his reforms, proposed in a report by Lord Levene, Fox attacked the “bloated” decision-making procedures in the MoD, and said that he was removing the individual service chiefs from a key decision-making body. Admiral Stanhope said the emphasis on operations in Afghanistan meant that the navy had suffered in the SDSR. “We have necessarily had to make some difficult – some very difficult – decisions in terms of platforms and in terms of people,” he said.
“From a maritime perspective, the Royal Navy that is emerging from the review is small, with an obvious gap in our current carrier strike capability.” Admiral Stanhope has warned ministers they face “challenging decisions” if the current mission in Libya continues beyond the summer. Defence Equipment Minister Peter Luff has acknowledged that the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with Harrier fighters would probably have been deployed off Libya if they had not been axed in the SDSR.

The UK MoD last October announced the Royal Navy would be reduced by around 5000 personnel over the next five years, the British Army by 7000, the Royal Air Force by 5000 and the MoD’s civilian workforce by 25 000.Levene’s 84-page report, published late last month, starts with a letter from him to Fox, in which he sets out, with lavish understatement, one of the great problems that has bedevilled the Ministry of Defence: the tension between its civilian and military sides.
“When they combine well together they are able to achieve some pretty remarkable and successful results. However, what we used to call ‘creative tension’ can sometimes lead to internal disputes with the two groups appearing to be at odds with each other.”

In his executive summary, he then explains that he has made 53 recommendations, and highlights eight core changes. They include:
• Creating a new joint forces command structure
• Creating a new and smaller defence board, to be chaired by the defence secretary, with the heads of the three services no longer members
• Clarification of the responsibilities of senior leaders, including commanders and civil servants, to strengthen individual accountablility
• Making the MoD head office in Whitehall smaller, more focused and more strategic
• Focusing the service chiefs on running their own services, with greater freedom to manage, but also making them more accountable for mistakes.
• Stopping the carousel of appointments in the MoD every two years by making sure people stay in post for longer.

It is that culture that Levene says must be addressed, which is why the creating of a new joint forces command headed by a “military four-star” who reports directly to the chief of the defence staff – is so important. Levene says that the independence of the three services has made joined-up thinking more difficult, saying that the “operational glue” between them, in areas such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and command systems are not as coherent or effective as they could be. He states that in the modern world, the need for synergy is greater, and that the JFC should be given considerable powers. He concedes that the three services should retain capabilities that are “core” but says that “the future character of conflict will increase yet further the demand for integrated capability and joint enablers.”

He adds: “We believe that the creation of a joint forces command is a necessary and significant step in ensuring that the MoD responds to the increasingly joined-up nature of the operating environment. In a separate report released just ahead of Levene’s, the Royal United Services Institute and Cranfield University noted the “single service orientation of many senior military personnel has become all too obvious through their public statements as resource pressures have increased.”

Levene says in his introduction to the report: “Our changes will be unwelcome to some. But change is needed.” Before coming to his solutions, Levene sets out 30 key problems in defence, and according to the country’s Guardian newspaper, “they are pretty comprehensive.” Among them are “an inability to take tough, timely decisions in the defence interest; the political pain of taking such decisions; the “conspiracy of optimism” between industry, the military, officials and ministers; and a lack of clarity over who is responsible for and accountable for taking decisions.”

Most damningly of all, Levene says that “finance and the need for affordability are not regarded as sufficiently important throughout the organisation.” He says that the “lack of trust” which pervades the MoD has led to a tendency for those at the top to try to micromanage, while the individual services look out for themselves rather than thinking of defence as a whole. This has led to a “predisposition to overcomplicate … and a culture of reinventing the wheel”.

Levene says that the new defence board “should be the primary decision-making body for non-operational matters”, and should meet 10 times a year. It will have nine members, but only one will be from the military, the chief of the defence staff, currently General Sir David Richards. The board will be responsible for setting the broad direction of travel for defence, leaving the day-to-day operational side of things to the individual service chiefs, who will be removed from the committee.

Levene says that the department must stop the “current culture of consensual, committee-based decision-making” because it means that “no single individual can be reasonably held to account for a decision.”
http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/B4BA14C0-0F2E-4B92-BCC7-8ABFCFE7E000/0/defence_reform_report_struct_mgt_mod_27june2011.pdf