Who does UK National Strategy - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Admiral Sir John Woodward GBE KCB

  Firstly I present some general views at paragraphs 1, 2 and 3. Then I go on to answer the questions at paragraph 4.

  I have attached my original paper Strategy by Matrix written in 1973 and modified in 2003 since it gets referred to in what is below. It has been my personal guide to any strategic thinking that I have needed to do for over 30 years.[1]

  1.  My views on how to develop strategy within the MOD are—create a Central Staff self-managed promotion structure independent of the Single Services. There is no other route to "Joint Planning" [and that includes joint strategy planning]. The existing "system" demands that officers are only effectively "lent" to the Central Staff and woe betide their careers if they forget their Single Service "loyalties" when they're in the Central Staff. Most CDSs should be free of this constraint since that has to be their last appointment—but sadly old habits die hard. Central Staff loyalties must be to their own [separate from the Single Services] organisation.

  2.  In my experience of Defence Reviews since 1972, they seldom got round to saying what should actually be done, much less what with. They were driven primarily by cash constraints, secondarily by industrial, employment and vote-buying considerations. The inevitable result is the sort of thing you see today, a real "buggers" muddle of too frequent gross mis-management and waste of funds on politically desirable [joint European, for instance] projects, cherry-picked from military requirements. This has the added political advantage that when/if they go wrong, the MOD can be blamed. This will all have been aggravated by the change [which I did not actually see in my time there up to 1987] in the ratio of civils to military in the MOD. Civils will usually and quite naturally tend to see military requirements and aspirations in purely civil terms. To civils, the wish to please government is paramount [despite "Yes, Minister"], after all their careers depend on it. And their judgements are not professionally based on military knowledge or experience, not even from National Service now. My old paper Strategy by Matrix tells you how to consider political, economic and military options as a whole, while recognising the "boundaries" between each. Most Reviews largely leave out the military considerations, once the nuclear deterrent policy is decided. Short of the actual event, most politicians fail to consider attrition of non-nuclear forces and the possible consequences of such failure. My conclusion is to invite the new Central Staff in the MOD to work to several different assumptions on cash, extended 10 to 20 years ahead—Long Term Costings if you like—and produce options for military strategies together with their costs. Cost assumptions should be defined eg figures for peacetime and wartime attrition, for escalation of costs with time, or delay, or plain error [plus the penalties for getting them wrong].

  3.  I suspect the "Defence Planning Assumptions" were usually too vague, with little idea of costs, much less allowance for attrition. I confess I never much liked them—they are usually ignored in the even—which is seldom what you expected anyway.

  4.  Trying to answer the paper's questions ...

    (a) What do we mean by "strategy" or "grand strategy"—without a stated "aim" for each main area of future planning, no one can know what the strategy should be—it's like leaving harbour with no destination decided—what course do you steer when you clear the port approaches, how much fuel do you need, how fast do you want to go, what do you want to do when/if you get there? At present the "ship of state" is largely rudderless beyond the vague suggestions of SDR98.

    (b) Who holds the "UK Strategic Concept"? I was not aware that any such concept existed beyond "We'll rely on muddling through on the day, it has usually worked in the past—like since 1066."

    (c) Do different government departments understand and support any such UK strategic policy they can discern? Probably not. When I did my briefing rounds before taking on the job of DCDS [C] in 1985, I made a point of going round the Foreign Office to ask them what they thought the MOD should be providing in support of our foreign policy, what were their priorities? No one had the least idea—the thought of briefing a senior MOD official just hadn't crossed their minds—or if it had, they hadn't put together any plan for it.

    (d) What capacity exists for cross-departmental strategic thinking? None that I was aware of beyond the closed doors of the Civil Service. Should the Government develop and maintain the capacity for strategic thinking? Obviously it should retain the capacity for strategic judgement, just like every other government department—but its main function should be to pull the various departments strategies together, rather than invent them for themselves from top down.

    (e) What frameworks are needed to do this? I really don't know,—but presumably some kind of Parliamentary Committee specially selected for its non-party political integrity—if possible!

    (f) How is UK Strategy challenged in the light of events? Usually by a huge, long-winded and costly Government Inquiry which, by limiting its terms of reference, seeks to exonerate the Government from blame—pace Bloody Sunday et al. Risk assessments [on newly discovered threats] are a different matter because they will usually produce different requirements from the existing procurement plans, individual Services will usually disagree, projects will delay, costs will increase and we get the full "buggers" muddle again. Unless, as in 1982, everyone knew what the strategic aim was, what was needed, how long they had to implement it, how they intended to achieve the aim, what the attrition might be and whether we could manage it. But above all, the whole course of events was demand-led not cash-constrained. We happened, despite the best efforts of the then Conservative Defence Secretary, John Nott, to have sufficient kit—with several last minute additions—to get away with it largely because the opposition made more mistakes than we did.

    (g) How are strategic thinking skills best developed and sustained within the Civil Service? I suggest by avoiding letting them think they know better than the "experts", the military, MI5 and 6, and the many other junior authorities involved in ensuring the security of this country.

    (h) Should non-government experts be included in the Government's strategy making process? Inevitably, but always be fully aware of their hidden agendae. Try to find "elder statesmen", the grey eminences like Willy Whitelaw, Peter Carrington, Denis Healey who have no further ambition in their chosen areas. Use some young ones who have not developed loyalties to firms or Services.

    (i) How should the strategy be communicated across government? The same way that SDR98 was. Not much wrong there, the trouble was that no one pursued to conclusion in the realities of kit, people, costs etc.

    (j) How can departments work more collaboratively? See my answer at (d) above.

    (k) How can reduced resources be appropriately allocated ...? Speaking for the MOD alone, by adopting my scheme at para 1.

    (l) Do other countries do strategy better? Sometimes but not usually against us, history suggests. Perhaps "muddling through" is the best policy?! Certainly, when I once attended a lecture by a retired MOD PUS who had been addressing a senior military and civil audience on the subject of "The formulation of Defence Policy", I waited until he was about to sit down and be thanked by the Chairman and said:—"I have listened carefully to everything said over the last 60 minutes and believe that our method for the formulation of Defence Policy can be summarised in two words—"muddling through". He put his head to one side for about two seconds while he thought about it, then looked me straight in the eye and said:—"Exactly so".

July 2010

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