Decision-making in Defence Policy - Defence Contents


The British military has an unrivalled global reputation. The nation is justifiably proud of the courage, skills, and dedication of its personnel. But our service personnel have not always been well served by the decisions made by politicians and military leaders. Poor decision-making can cost lives and vast sums of public money. It is absolutely imperative, therefore, that the MoD gets the right information, the right structures, the right processes, and the right people to make the best decisions.

We pay tribute to the senior officers, civil servants, and politicians, who are forced to operate in an increasingly complex strategic environment. The Levene Reforms, and the National Security Council have brought clearer accountability to decision-making, and reinforced civilian control, but they have not addressed historical gaps in information, training, openness to criticism, and strategic thought.

In Afghanistan in 2005, for example, a risky decision was made to take responsibility for Helmand Province, and then in 2006 to deploy troops to isolated platoon positions in the North of the Province. Decision-makers grossly underestimated the scale of Taliban resistance, leaving the soldiers in a dangerously exposed positions. A province, which the decision-makers initially proposed to control with just over 3,000 British soldiers, ultimately proved to require the presence of 32,000 British and American soldiers,[1] and 32,000 Afghan troops.

In 1998, to cite another example, a decision was made to configure the carriers for STOVL jets, although they could carry fewer weapons, less fuel, would require dramatic reinforcement of the deck, and meant that the carriers could not take French jets. In 2010, the MoD tried to reverse this decision, before concluding two years later, that it was too late in the process, to be able to afford to change the decision.

In both cases, the MoD seemed to have been poorly informed and misunderstood the nature of the problem. Those responsible do not seem to have sought the right expert advice, or if they did, ignored it. There does not seem to have been a healthy culture of challenge. In both cases, no-one has admitted to actually taking the decision. In the case of Helmand, in evidence given to the Committee in 2011, successive Secretaries of State insisted they had not made the decision. Meanwhile, everyone from the Brigadier on the ground, to the Generals and policy staff in London, appear to disagree about who was actually responsible in the first place.

In both cases, the structure of decision-making was bewildering. One Secretary of State claimed that he was not aware of being in the chain of command. Some civilians seemed uncomfortable challenging military advice. There was little sense of any long-term strategy underpinning the decisions. All this seems to have created a system which struggled to establish and prioritise their objectives, evaluate alternatives, or manage the risks of a decision. Immensely important and costly decisions appear to have had remarkably uncertain foundations.

The Government has since been relatively frank in conceding that there were serious problems in MoD decision-making. The Secretary of State, Rt Hon Michael Fallon, for example, has said that the Government was "not being properly recorded or prepared and was all very loose and haphazard".[2] But—because of two key changes since 2010: the introduction of the National Security Council and the Levene reforms—the MoD argues decision-making problems are now a thing of the past.

Lord Levene's reforms sought to address—among other things—irrational optimism, the lack of long-term strategy, and the absence of clear accountability, in MoD decision-making. It introduced new structures, which made the Chiefs of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force able to focus more on the administration of their budgets and arms, coordinated them through a joint-forces command, and left the responsibility for strategy increasingly to the Chief of the Defence Staff.

The National Security Council sought to provide a formal setting, to facilitate interdepartmental coordination on strategy. The most senior members of the cabinet were now kept informed of Defence and Security issues, and the Prime-minister would be in a position to make the ultimate decisions. The new structure, the level of interdepartmental coordination, clearer leadership, clearer accountability, clearer civilian control, and clearer opportunity for challenge, were all in our view substantial improvements on the old decision-making systems.

But significant problems were still not addressed by these new structures. The first of these is the continuing lack of deep-country or subject expertise, and therefore, the lack of high-quality information or evidence available to the decision-makers. We are not convinced that decision-makers today are necessarily better-informed than they were in Helmand, or when making decisions about the carriers. Nor that there has been a significant improvement in their skills, experience, knowledge, awareness of historical precedents, or in their strategic imagination. This is particularly striking in military affairs, where the removal of the Chiefs from strategic discussions limits the scope for expert military advice and debate, and puts exclusive responsibility on the Chief of the Defence Staff (who has no command responsibilities) to represent the military view. We believe that this should be addressed by re-engaging the Chiefs of Staff Committee in strategy formulation by incorporating it in the National Security Council as its military sub-committee. We also believe that an appropriate degree of subject specialisation, as well as management skill, should be restored as a requirement for the Civil Service.

More needs to be done to educate the key decision-makers better, and train them to think and act more strategically. The NSC itself does not seem to be adequately staffed, or resourced to provide deep expertise or challenge. The tone, and time-limits of the meetings, did not seem to provide the right environment in which to accurately define problems, prioritise objectives, evaluate alternatives, or manage the risk of tentative decisions. Its implementation capacity is weak. It appears still to struggle to incorporate expertise or critical viewpoints. And too often it seems to be functioning more as a crisis response centre, rather than a body formulating strategy and looking ahead.

There is no 'quick-fix' for any of these problems. Even the best individuals, provided with the highest quality information, and embedded in the best structures with the best processes, struggle to make consistently good decisions. The complexity of the threats which the UK faces is extreme. So too is the complexity of the technology now required to support the military. Decisions in major programmes often have to be made twenty years in advance, in the knowledge that the world will change, and that the individuals making the decisions will often be long gone before they can be evaluated. The daily pressures on politicians are intense. The UK is frequently operating under extreme resource constraints, and is forced to operate in coalition with other countries, with different traditions, and strategies to its own. These are problems that have beset all governments, from different political parties for many decades. And this is certainly not intended as a criticism of a particular government or individual. But the clearer chains of accountability introduced by the NSC and the Levene Reforms, though necessary, are still insufficient. They must be reinforced with a deep change in the culture of government.

We now face an astonishing variety of threats. These potentially include the first confrontation with an advanced military nation—Russia—since the end of the Cold War. We need to come to terms with new asymmetric and ambiguous warfare methods, stretching from cyber to information operations. We need to prepare for new threats such as Electro-Magnetic Pulses, and new capabilities such as RPAs. We need to do so in a new legal environment with an evolving industrial strategy, at a time when the public often appears sceptical of using the military. And we are facing threats, at the time of writing, not simply in Afghanistan, but also in Northern Nigeria, Libya, the Sahel, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and potentially the Baltic. Responding to such modern crises requires more not less historical and cultural understanding, greater emphasis on strategic expertise, deeper efforts of analysis and lesson learning, more openness to challenge, more clarity, more imagination, and more courage. This will require continuing reassessment and reforms in the decision-making structures of the Ministry of Defence and the National Security Council. We have been lucky enough to inherit the finest military in the world. We owe them the right decisions.

1   "Error! Bookmark not defined.", The Economist, 11 October 2014 Back

2   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

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Prepared 26 March 2015