Decision-making in Defence Policy - Defence Contents

4  Efforts to change

Changes to the roles of the Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff

Levene Reforms

66. The roles of the Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) have been altered as a result of an inquiry into the Ministry of Defence, led by Lord Levene. This Defence Reform report (2011), subtitled "independent report into the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence",[115] looked, among other things at the MoD's decision-making capabilities. It criticised:

·  the 'conspiracy of optimism' between industry, the military, officials and Ministers;

·  an institutional focus on short-term affordability at the expense of longer-term planning;

·  a lack of clarity over who is responsible and accountable for taking decisions and an emphasis instead on reaching decisions by consensus in committees to achieve coherence across defence, which can let the best be the enemy of the good.

67. The critique of optimism, lack of long-term strategy, and clear accountability, reflects our own conclusions. The central remedy Lord Levene proposed was that the MoD should "provide a simpler framework that […] makes senior individuals responsible for [decisions], gives them the means and incentives to deliver, and holds them robustly to account".[116] This new framework was defined by two new bodies, the Defence Board and the Defence Strategy Group. In respect of the objective of clarifying and formalising decision-making relationships within the MoD. Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence told us that:

    The primary responsibility inside the Department for decision-making rests with the Defence Board, which I chair monthly. Lord Levene draws attention to the increased influence on the board of the non-executives, the regard in which it is held compared with other Whitehall boards, and the way in which it has been operating. As you are probably aware, alongside the Defence Board we have the Armed Forces Committee and the regular meetings that the Chief of the Defence Staff holds with the service chiefs. In addition, I chair a weekly meeting on operational matters with other Ministers and representatives of the various departments. As far as the Ministry is concerned, I think decision-making works reasonably well.[117]

68. To meet the Levene objectives of improving long-term strategic thinking by leaders within the MoD, Jon Thompson, Permanent Under-Secretary, told us that the MoD had created:

    the defence strategy group, a strategy function that thought some of those big thoughts. That is currently chaired by the Chief of the Defence Staff and me. It includes [Vice Chief of Defence Staff, Comd JFC, DG Security Policy, DCDS (Military Strategy and Operations), DCDS (Military Capability) and DG Finance as members][118]. It meets on a regular basis and thinks about what the state of the world will be in 2050, what will happen as and when the ice caps of the north melt, and what that will do in terms of the security position. It can think longer and it can think bigger thoughts, and that has been a good development.[119]

Changes to the work of the Chiefs of Staff

69. One of the effects of the Levene Reforms was to diminish further the roles of the heads of the three services (the "Chiefs" including the Chief of the Defence Staff, Chief of the Naval Staff, Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, and now joined by the Commander of Joint Forces Command). Historically the Chiefs formulated strategy and directed military operations with senior political figures, including the Prime Minister. Over the years, with the establishment of the Ministry of Defence, the rise of the Senior Civil Service, and following major reforms including the Heseltine reforms of 1984, and the Levene reforms of 2011, the roles of the Chiefs of Staff, have been seriously curtailed.

70. Following the Levene reforms in June 2011, the heads of the three services lost their places on the Defence Board but were instead jointly represented by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Richards. Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP, then Secretary of State for Defence, was reported as saying that this would end a situation in which the chiefs spent most of their time "trying to influence policy and haggle over funding in London" and, instead, would be "empowered" to determine their own operational priorities once budgets were determined.[120]

71. The Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence, described the primary role of the Chiefs' as "to run their services". The deployment of services falls instead, to the Government through the "principal structures of the Cabinet and NSC".[121] The Secretary of State endorses the idea that the Chiefs primary role lies not in strategic decision-making, but rather in "generating combat power", which includes responsibilities for "training" and "morale".[122] Peter Watkins cited the Levene report as the driver of the change, so that the Chiefs were responsible for running their own services".[123]

72. The new structure was intended to allow the Chiefs to concentrate on a Chief Executive role of operations, giving them more control of budgets, and avoiding a situation where they were able to push the particular interests of their own service. Rather the validity of requests could be processed by the CDS or PUS to try to determine an objective balance of ideas for proposal to political leaders for decision. Jon Thompson, the Permanent Under-Secretary told us that:

    I do not hear any significant complaints [from the Chiefs]. […] The new cadre of service Chiefs […] have taken on the delegated model and the responsibility. If you talk to General Carter, he would describe himself […] as the chief executive of the Army. That seems to be the kind of approach that we want. He is running an £8 billion organisation with more than 100,000 employees, and I personally fundamentally believe that the right place to take major decisions about the Army is at the Army Board level, with the Defence Board standing back and cohering it. There are different opinions about that model, but so far, I think, over the past four years, it has been very successful.[124]

73. Peter Watkins, the DGSecPol, told us that the Chiefs were not responsible for delivering "strategic advice", and that "the link between the chiefs as a group and the NSC, through the NSC (Officials), is the Chief of the Defence Staff".[125] The ability of the Chiefs to advise and influence upwards is strictly limited to operations.

74. The Chiefs do have the right to put their thoughts directly to the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State. However, when we put this option to former Chief of the Naval Staff, Lord West, he told us that this was very much a last resort. He could have gone formally to the Secretary of State and said:

    "This is a really bad decision; I want to go across the road and see the Prime Minister," which you are entitled to do. You don't want to use that too often. I used that threat only when it looked as though they might cancel the carrier programme. On a couple of occasions, I made it very clear to the Secretary of State that I would go across the road to see the Prime Minister and make it public if that happened, but I did not have the clout to change it myself.[126]

There is otherwise no formal way for the Chiefs to explain their strategic concerns.

75. Some commentators have criticised the new structure for removing the opportunity for the Chiefs to voice their concerns about strategy and thereby influence national security. These concerns were not lost on former CDS, Lord Richards, who increased weekly meetings with the Chiefs of Staff from one hour to two hours. Lord Richards thought that the Chiefs "absolutely should be part of the strategy",[127] and further that military advice should be their "principal and primary role" and not as chief executive of the single services. He claims that he did not accept that the Chiefs should be excluded from strategy.[128] Lord Richards was concerned, however, that these meetings now happen far more rarely-only once per month.

76. The Chiefs of Staff secretariat has also been described to us as "weak". Lord Richards told us that:

    that is a reflection of cuts and so on. It sort of works, but there is also a new committee called the Armed Forces Committee which, on a routine departmental basis, is probably more important than the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which has a focus on the operational side of life.[129]


77. The 1982 Nott-Lewin reforms, rendered the CDS as the "supreme strategic commander", which Major General Chris Elliott labelled as a "major change" to decision-making structures.[130] The CDS is responsible for providing military advice to the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.[131] The CDS also "ultimately has responsibility for the implementation of the military strategy".[132]

78. Commentators have suggested scope for potential rivalry between the CDS and the Permanent Under-Secretary of State (PUS). The PUS has the:

    most unlovely position, because he is wire-brushed by Parliament if things are one penny out, which is an almost impossible target to meet. So he is going around the whole time trying to make sure that value for money is achieved.[133]

This work brings the PUS into "collision" with the CDS.[134] Major General Christopher Elliott told us that:

    one person is trying to give the services as much as they need and the other person is trying to do the same thing but within the available budget. So they are both coming from the right position, but it puts them into conflict. If you are looking for authority, responsibility and accountability, you cannot split them among other people, which is what is happening at the moment.[135]

Major General Elliott thought that there should be one single person with ultimate responsibility for both budgets and carrying out military strategy.

79. A confusing aspect of the structure within the MoD is that the CDS does not command the Chiefs. Lord Richards, former CDS, noted that even the Prime Minister did not understand that the CDS did not command the Chiefs.[136] Major General (retired) Christopher Elliott told us that he had spoken with two former CDSs, and he had found that both of them had been unable to affect change because they were not in direct command of the Chiefs of Staff. He said that:

    When I spoke to General David Richards, […] I asked, "Why did you allow these equipment things—the carrier and so on—to go that way? Are you in favour of the carrier?" I won't tell you what he said! These equipment issues were big issues that were distorting the rest of the programme. He told me, "Well, I don't have anything to do with the equipment programme." I asked, "Where are the decisions taken?" He replied, "The decisions are taken by the Minister, talking to the single service Chiefs, who give advice. But they don't come through me." When I said to Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, "Why on earth didn't you bang the heads together, because you had this period of dissension among the Chiefs?" He turned around […] and said, "Well, I didn't command them. If I had told them to do it, they could have ignored me." That is an extraordinary situation to be in.[137]

The CDS does not command the three services, he can only co-ordinate them. There is no chain of command from the CDS down to the Chiefs. The CDS works directly to the Secretary of State and likewise the Chiefs work directly to the Secretary of State. The opinions of the CDS, who is meant to represent a single service voice, will not always tally with the combined views of the Chiefs. Lord Richards described the situation thus:

    But look at the case of the carriers, for example. I felt strongly that the acquisition of two huge carriers would be pretty difficult for the rest of defence and, I have to say, the Government were quite sympathetic to my view, but the three services worked directly with the Secretary of State for Defence on that separately, so it did not matter what the CDS felt, even though people expected him to be able to deliver a single services voice. He cannot, because that is not the way that it is constructed. The Secretary of State for Defence, the single services and the civil service were very happy with that, because it meant that they could divide and rule—they regularly did.[138]

80. If the voice of the CDS, on some occasions is not able to express the united opinions of the Chiefs within the MoD, it begs the question of how the CDS might represent the single services at NSC meetings. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach suggested that the Chiefs were "confident" that the CDS was "offering their view collectively".[139]

81. Lord Richards, former CDS told us that there was "a lot of inter-service rivalry".[140] The tension sometimes expresses itself when a competition arises for the allocation of MoD resources. For example Lord West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Navy, told us about a disagreement between the air force and navy regarding aircraft for the carriers. He told us that:

    the Air Force wanted to have F-35As as their standard attack aircraft, and the F-35Bs were going to be a small adjunct to be put in the carriers and run by the Air Force and the Navy […] I do not know what my predecessor's view on this was—with people saying, "Hang on, this is a big mistake."[141]

The question then arises, how the CDS might be able to balance the competing interests of the services.[142]

National Security Council
Membership of the National Security Council

Ministerial members of the NSC

·  Prime Minister

·  Deputy Prime Minister

·  Chancellor of the Exchequer

·  First Secretary of State/Leader of the House of Commons

·  Foreign Secretary

·  Home Secretary

·  Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

·  Secretary of State for International Development

·  Chief Secretary to the Treasury

·  Minister for Government Policy, Cabinet Office

·  Defence Secretary

Senior officials attending when required

·  National Security Adviser (NSA)

·  Cabinet Secretary

·  Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)

·  Permanent Under-Secretary, FCO

·  Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)

·  Director of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)

·  Director General of the Security Service (SyS)

·  Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC)

Source: Dr Joe Devanney and Josh Harris, The National Security Council: National Security at the Centre of Government, page 24,, accessed 23 March 2015

82. The National Security Council held its first meeting on 12 May 2010. According to the Government, the National Security Council is "the main forum for collective discussion of the government's objectives for national security and about how best to deliver them in the current financial climate. A key purpose of the Council is to ensure that ministers consider national security in the round and in a strategic way. The Council meets weekly and is chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron".[143] The Chief of the Defence Staff and Heads of Intelligence Agencies, "attend when required".[144] The NSC is formally a sub-committee of the Cabinet. However, questions remain about the exact relationship between this sub-committee and the Cabinet. The question that this raises is whether this structure has replaced "sofa Government" with circumvented Government.[145] We seek clarification on the relationship between the NSC and the Cabinet, and further reassurance on how the Cabinet will be involved in the formulation of national strategy and the next SDSR.

83. We are concerned that under the current arrangements for decision-making, the Prime Minister could hypothetically "short-circuit" the system and impose his own preferences for defence policy. The Prime Minister must be answerable to the House of Commons for all decisions which he wishes to enforce within defence. We recommend that the Government explain to us how the Prime Minister would be held to account, if (s)he chose to short-circuit the system.

84. The concept of the NSC was developed before the current Government took office, and was intended to address a perceived weakness that internal and external security had always been considered separately. Baroness Neville-Jones, a former member of the National Security Council told us that:

    Operationally, there are some real strengths. We have managed, as a result of instituting the council, to talk the language of national security, which we used not to. We used to talk about foreign policy and defence, and that disabled us from doing something—we did not link the external and internal aspects of security—which was one of the reasons why I advocated the creation of the council. When I heard the head of MI5 say that, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the Government had been warned that there was likely to be an increase in the terrorist threat to the country but nothing had been done about it, I concluded that there was something wrong with the machinery of government if that situation could arise. That was really what propelled me, more than any other single thing, into thinking that we really have to do something.[146]

To achieve this, it was considered that an interdepartmental approach would be the best way forward.

Assessing the impact of the new structures

85. Would these new structures, created as a result of the Levene Reforms and the introduction of the NSC, prevent a repeat of the decision-making problems, exemplified in Helmand or in the Carrier procurement?



86. One of the main benefits of the NSC is that national security is now given priority in a formal setting. Baroness Neville-Jones told us that:

    I think that the National Security Council has, to some extent, driven policy. It has certainly enabled the agenda to be more orderly, relevant and timely. There is a dedicated secretariat, after all, to do that. The preparation is good because officials prepare beforehand, and that used not to be the case. When I was a deputy under-secretary in the Cabinet Office, my job was to brief the Prime Minister. I would gather deputy secretary officials around me for that purpose, but you could then have the meeting and the Secretary of State concerned—often the lead Department's Secretary of State—would come along and say, "I don't want any of this," because what he sensed was borders on his policy turf, so we had to start changing that.[147]

87. Observers have noted that one of the core strengths of the NSC is its inter-departmental design.[148] By bringing together decision-makers from across Government, the NSC incorporates a range of considerations into the design of national strategy. Jon Thompson, Permanent Under-Secretary at the MoD, told us that:

    A positive advantage of the National Security Council is to integrate the whole of Government when thinking about security and defence issues on a pan-Government basis, although I understand that others may have a different view. My experience of the National Security Council and the underpinning NSC officials, which is the permanent secretary level, has been that it is generally good at joining people together. It is rare to have a defence-only issue because, in general, our approach to solving problems is about governance, security and development. Unless you get those three together, countries such as Afghanistan will not succeed; they could be more stable, but they are not well-run.[149]

88. Baroness Neville Jones told us that the inter-departmental element was an important element in designing the NSC. She told us that "unity of government, and the unity of pursuit of policy across the Government, have been greatly aided by the National Security Council".[150] Although she added, "it is not perfect, and one of the reasons is money".[151]

Accountability and responsibility, including evidence of an auditable trail for decisions made

89. The NSC has also addressed the issue of providing an auditable trail for decision-making. The Prime Minister was brought in to chair meetings, so that the programme would have a clear leader, and clear driver. Baroness Neville-Jones told us that:

    If you look around the world, Heads of Government now effectively run external relations of their countries. It is the triumph of the presidential model. The Head of Government—the Prime Minister for us—becomes an increasingly important figure. He has to be across all the issues with things such as the G20. That was another reason for making sure that the Prime Minister was at the centre of it.[152]

90. Baroness Neville-Jones told us that "minutes" were produced, and "these decisions are recorded properly, so you would know where the locus of decision-making lay".[153]

91. The Secretary of State specified how he felt this concept of accountability operated in the Ministry of Defence:

    I do not think it is possible for a Secretary of State to be accountable for every single item in the Department. I am accountable for how the Department works—how its processes work, whether they work efficiently and whether they work responsibly. It is a very big organisation, which has gone through some quite extensive change in the last three or four years. One of the ways that I satisfy myself that that change is working reasonably well is through Lord Levene's annual health check on how the reforms are being implemented.[154]

Ability to challenge

92. The presence of representatives at the NSC provides an opportunity to challenge military advice, or the general decisions made at the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State, Rt Hon Michael Fallon, told us that "there have certainly been many occasions when you query the advice that you are given, ask for more advice, or ask for implications or effects to be considered that are not in the advice. That is part of the normal Whitehall process of constantly testing the advice that is put to you".[155]


93. The new NSC structure, level of interdepartmental coordination, clear leadership, clearer accountability, clear civilian control, and clear opportunity for challenge, are in our view substantial improvements on the old decision-making systems. But more needs to be done, if the MoD is to address some of the other fundamental problems apparent in the Helmand and Carrier decisions.

Expertise, knowledge and intelligence

94. 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. For example, no longer are civil servants required to have 'domain competence' in the fields they administer. This has opened up career opportunities to managerial 'generalists' who can transfer between Government Departments, at the highest levels, with no previous experience of the subject-areas for which they are taking on responsibility.[156] Thus, a Permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, however intelligent, may have no background whatever in military matters.

95. Inevitably, the senior figures sitting at the NSC cannot themselves be expected to be deep experts in these fields. They are, therefore, very dependent on advice from experts in the rest of the system. We heard evidence that the members of the NSC did not themselves hold the expertise to make key decisions about the configuration of the aircraft carriers. Baroness Neville-Jones told us that "the NSC and the membership that took [the decision] were not tremendously well equipped to take those decisions and did not really understand their full implications".[157] The lack of expertise of many members of the NSC was noted by witnesses, who saw that the involvement of more expertise and challenge to Government thinking would be beneficial.[158]

96. There has not been a fundamental reform yet of the structures of the Foreign Office, the Military, or the Intelligence Agencies, sufficient to provide deep comprehensive on-the-ground reporting from conflict theatres for example. Rather the reverse. As our report, 'Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two: NATO', noted, there has been a dramatic decline in understanding of Russia and Crimea.[159] As our report on 'The Situation in Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and The Levant (ISIL)' noted, there are not sufficient UK assets outside Kurdistan to provide a deep understanding of key players such as the Shia militia or the Sunni tribal groups, and therefore insufficient understanding on which to base an independent strategy, or even challenge in an informed fashion the existing US-Iraqi strategy.[160]

97. We heard that the attendees at the NSC were provided with briefing papers, but that these were often disregarded.[161] Lord Richards, former CDS and attendee at NSC meetings, compared the atmosphere to an "Oxford union" debate, where discussion points were spontaneous, rather than based on evidence.[162] Lord Richards told us that the NSC (O)[163] (a meeting of officials) discussed the agenda and briefing papers to be presented at NSC meetings.[164] However he said that he was:

    quite impressed by the way our political leaders almost ignored their briefings and spoke from the heart, or from whatever was driving them. Obviously they would have notes, I am sure, but the discussion was quite spontaneous. In a way, you could argue that it was not as good for that reason, because officials would have prepared some quite well-informed points for good or ill, which often seemed to go out the window, and we came back to emotion and politics, but it was certainly a lively debate. Someone once described it as Oxford Union—you know.[165]

The perceived strength of having the Prime Minister drive the NSC is also one of its key risks, since the inclinations of a single individual would be paramount to the success or failure of the NSC. Baroness Neville-Jones admitted that the Prime Minister, if he wanted to, could "short-circuit" the "whole system".[166] Traditionally, there was a healthy and creative tension between Government, civil servants and the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces. Without expert officials and military advisers to speak truth to power and subject politicians' proposals to the anvil of debate, the resultant 'strategies' will inevitably be built on shaky foundations.[167]

Military Expertise

98. One particular, area of expertise, inadequately represented on the NSC, is in military advice. A number of departments are present at the NSC, and some discussions have focused on whether the presence of a single person—the CDS—is enough to express sufficiently the issues considered important by the military. Lord Richards, a former CDS who attended NSC meetings, was adamant that the CDS "alone is sufficient".[168]He told us that "if I really dug my heels in, very rarely did the committee go against my military advice".[169] Jon Thompson, PUS, agreed with the supposition that the CDS could sufficiently represent the military, along with the Secretary of State for Defence. He told us that:

    I don't find either the Defence Secretary or the Chief of the Defence Staff to be shrinking wallflowers who cannot express their views in the National Security Council. I am absolutely defending the mechanism—I think it has been successful—and I will continue to do so.[170]

However, the removal from the Chiefs of Staff of their traditional role of having an individual and collective responsibility for advising on defence policy as a whole has left a void at the heart of the decision-making machine. Inter-Service rivalries do not disappear simply by excluding the heads of the Armed Forces from the formulation of strategy. There may be a risk that constituting the Chiefs of Staff as a sub-committee of the NSC may re-introduce inter-service rivalry. This could be mitigated by ensuring that civil servants have domain specific expertise. It is important that the Chiefs focus genuinely on strategic discussion in the public interest, rather than the pursuit of single service interests. But disagreements are better thrashed out in an orderly forum than driven underground for arbitrary resolution.

99. A further constraint on the ability of the NSC to consider expertise, is that the issues were considered under tight time constraints. Baroness Neville-Jones told us that Ministers have to have a "very rapid discussion and the documents then have to take shape on the basis of that discussion".[171] The limited amount of time set to consider complex issues of national security plays against the ability of members to consider a detailed exploration of issues and may lead to a superficial style of debate.

100. In the meantime, the system has not become markedly better at substituting for the absence of in-house expertise, by accommodating-in the way the US system for example does-external expertise. Baroness Neville-Jones told us that:

    network thinking and some challenge from outside would stimulate the intellectual juices. It is a process of discussion which allows people to identify what they are doing well, what they are not doing well and what more they ought to be doing.[172]

Specific training and further education for those working in strategy

101. Lord Richards told us that:

    I know senior political leaders who do not want to use the term "strategy". They do not like strategy. It ties them in, and stops them veering and hauling according to the latest opinion poll, or whatever it is. If I may, until your political leaders actually recognise that this is a really serious issue—I know you are doing a hell of a lot to draw attention to it—and that when they don't the result is as you describe, I do not think it is going to get much better, sadly.[173]

This goes to the heart of the problem: the disintegration of a tightly organised strategic planning machine, incorporating the heads of the Armed Forces, coupled with the decline in 'domain competence' on the part of civil servants in what should be specialised Departmental roles, provide politicians with too little rigour to focus their attention.

102. It seems that more needs to be done to help the key decision-makers to think more strategically. Baroness Neville-Jones, former member of the National Security Council, thought that strategy was the UK's "weakest point".[174] Baroness Neville Jones told us that:

    I hope that the Prime Minister won't mind me saying this, but I don't think he is particularly strategic. I think he is highly operational and that he thinks. "Strategy is what we're going to do next".[175]

103. Baroness Neville-Jones echoed Lord Richards' comments that senior political leaders "do not like strategy".[176] She told us that:

    I do not accept the notion that because the Prime Minister is not particularly personally strategic, the machine cannot help him or her be more strategic. As I said, I think that the NSC secretariat needs greater strengthening in that area.[177]

104. Lord Richards questioned why the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ were suddenly put into a strategic role on the NSC, having spent their entire careers, being asked to provide intelligence rather than to analyse it. He said that "they need to start being trained to think [strategically] earlier in their careers, however bright they are".[178] Major General (retired) Christopher Elliott, author of 'High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghan Wars',[179] made a strong recommendation that "the people who are going to be the strategic commanders have education in strategy".[180] He believed that the UK was much weaker than the US in ensuring that senior leaders received the appropriate strategic education.[181]

105. A lack of training may also apply to the CDS, the sole military representative on the NSC. Major General (retired) Elliott told us that previous incumbents of the CDS role "did not, […] have the education, training or familiarity with strategic thinking".[182] He called for those who were going to be strategic commanders to be educated in strategy.[183] He went on to tell us that:

    I make the comparison between the lack of tertiary education in the top people, compared with their American opposite numbers. General Martin Dempsey, as a cavalry officer, had a science degree and three masters, one of which was in strategy. I don't mean to say that that necessarily makes you a better person, but it does get you into a conceptual way of thinking. Nothing like that exists in the present system which is actively used by those who are going to be the Chief of the Defence Staff.[184]

106. The NSC itself does not seem to be adequately staffed, or resourced to provide deep expertise or challenge. The secretariat appears to lack the power to commission work.[185] Lord Richards told us that there was a lack of military experience on the NSC secretariat.[186] He was not convinced that the secretariat contained the right mix of skills, saying that:

    They don't get on any courses. It is not like in the military, when you get on the High Command and Staff course. As far as I can see, they are just posted to the NSC. Maybe they have some interest or background, but I do not think all of them do.[187]

In contrast, in the American system, representatives from the American NSC are out "on the ground and they are articulate".[188] Baroness Neville-Jones told us that:

    I think the secretariat is still underpowered in the sense of being overstretched. It has some very good people in it, but they are stretched beyond where they need to be. They do not have enough capacity to think or plan, and they do not have much capacity to lead planning. One of the things that has not happened is actually in the SDSR. If you look at the SDSR carefully, there is a paragraph right at the end about having a network of planning staffs and outsiders led by the National Security Adviser. I do not believe that that has happened. I do not think that he has the bandwidth, because he not only runs the secretariat, but also acts as the Prime Minister's emissary. He is stretched in many directions.[189]

Long-term thinking, including a focus on strategy

107. The NSC could potentially provide an excellent opportunity to discuss strategy, with a variety of expert voices feeding into the conversation. Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence, thought that the NSC presented an effective forum for discussing strategically important topics. He said that:

    I think that it does have a strategic look at some of the big issues that we need to confront, and it certainly did in the run-up to the decision to commit to military action in Iraq…to move from humanitarian and political engagement to military engagement, was a key strategic decision, not least because of the past—because we had already been in Iraq. That was one of the major strategic decisions of this Parliament. I think it was taken in a very systematic and proper way because of the new machinery that was available to us.[190]

108. However, Lord Richards intimated that recent campaigns which had been discussed at the NSC, had not benefited from strategic planning. He told us that:

    On Libya, you can disagree with much of it, but actually, in a narrow sense, that was a successful campaign. Was it nested within a proper strategy? You can draw your own deductions. On the whole I think it probably was not.[191]

109. Lord Richards told us that discussion at the NSC tended to centre on tactical, rather than strategic issues:

    How often does the term "UK's vital national interests" become a key part of these debates? I have an idea they may do a bit more now, but, when I was there, very rarely. I used to rail against it: "Is this in our vital national interests?" "Is this really what we want to do?" It did not seem to matter whether that was a criterion or not. It was whatever was driving the particular Minister or Department that was driving that particular item on the agenda.—whatever they had come up with. I understand your point, but I think that on the whole it worked quite well. It was just rather tactical.[192]

110. Further criticism centred on the NSC behaving as a reactionary body, reacting to current events, rather than forecasting long-term changes and preparing for those. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy wrote that "from what we know, it seems to us that [the NSC] is mostly a reactive body, rather than a strategic one, which seems to us to be a lost opportunity".[193] Philip Johnston, writing for the Telegraph spelt out the problem with the NSC's lack of strategic thinking:

    Defence matters are rarely discussed in Cabinet any more and are principally the concern of the National Security Council in a break with our age-old constitutional arrangements. The problem with this arrangement is that the NSC seems to be less interested in strategy and has become more "a reactive national incident room" as one military organisation critical of the cuts has called it. Surely with a serious threat re-emerging in Eastern Europe and with the Middle East so unstable, the UK's security, its national interests and how these are best defended should be at the very heart of this election? Instead, all we are told is that another spending review will be starting shortly, so let's wait for that. Given the mess the last one caused this is not an edifying prospect.[194]

In our report 'The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy', we recommended that "measures be put in place to guard against any blurring" of the responsibilities and roles between the NSC and COBR "in respect of emergencies".[195] It is for COBR to be the reactionary body and for the NSC to think strategically. This distinction appears to be lost on the Government.

111. At every level of the NSC, long-term, strategic thinking should be evident. Baroness Neville Jones thought that "there should be a greater capacity inside the NSC secretariat to think long-term and to lead long-term thinking".[196] Since the NSC is the forum where the UK's strategic national interest was supposed to be discussed, we were left wondering in which Committee (if at all) strategy was actually addressed.

112. It was pointed out to us that there is an informal sub-committee of the NSC "colloquially" called the "Super Chiefs" which attempted to look at "longer term strategy", as this had tended not to happen in NSC meetings.[197] Lord Richards, former CDS set up the "Super Chiefs" Committee. He told us that

    In my frustration, I credit something that we colloquially call the Super Chiefs, which was a meeting chaired by the CDS at which sat the NSA—remember, the chair is the CDS—the head of the SIS, the head of GCHQ, the head of the Foreign Office, the head of DFID and the Chiefs. That never really came properly to fulfil its potential, but it was allowed, and Peter Ricketts and then Kim Darroch both attended it. My attempt in it was also to look at longer-term strategy.[198]

However, Lord Richards told us that he did not know whether his successor would still be using the Super-Chiefs Committee. To ensure that the Chiefs of Staff would be able to have some input into NSC considerations, Lord Richards told us that

    the relationship between the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the NSC secretariat and the NSC itself is not written down—as far as I know, you will not find it anywhere on paper. That is the bit that needs formalising. […] I do not think that you need a new committee—I think we are agreeing—because you have a committee that does it, and the Super Chiefs is also a rather good innovation, […] because it is where you bring in the other key Departments of State at a level between the two.[199]

Lord Richards said that the Super Chiefs did "not have any special secretariat", but that they used the Chiefs of Staff secretariat.[200] He told us that:

    We agree that there are bare bones of something that can be made to work much better. The NSC secretariat certainly needs up-gunning generally. It is very small. In the middle of a war, they are told to cut; that is the very moment that they perhaps should have been told to put a few more people in.[201]


113. Our inquiries into decision-making surrounding Helmand Province and the Carriers identified five characteristics for decision-making, where improvement was required. Whilst inquiring into whether the NSC was able to compensate for historic failings in decision-making, a key flaw in the structure of the NSC was identified. We were concerned to hear that implementation of decisions made at the NSC was an area of weakness. Baroness Neville-Jones thought that

    There is meant to be something called the implementation board, led by the National Security Adviser. Things tend to get lost in the Departments. When Sir Kim Darroch came to testify to the Lords Committee that I am on, he rather indicated that he felt it was up to Departments to decide what came to the National Security Council. Personally, I would like to see more drive out of the NSC itself.[202]

She also told us that

    I am not confident about […] the strength of the implementation board, which the National Security Adviser is meant to chair. It seems to me that that is precisely the place where you need integration of representation of Departments, and where the issues are very much cross-departmental. That will almost certainly be the case in any kind of campaign, where the whole business of winning the peace comes very early. That is where I would like to see a strengthening of follow-up. I would also like to see that backed by a greater capacity inside the NSC secretariat to think long-term, and to lead long-term thinking.[203]

114. To resolve the issue, Baroness Neville-Jones thought that "[the Government] need to focus on it. What we need are more sub-committees that are concerned with follow-up, that report into the central machinery and that have the job of watching what is going on and alerting people to serious developments, or to the potential of serious developments".[204]

Summary of the impact of the Levene Reforms and the NSC

115. It appeared that the great strength of these new structures is that they resolved previous problems of accountability. They clarified the chain of command, dealt with the perceived problems, particularly in Afghanistan, that military commanders were not under sufficiently close civilian control, tightened 'job descriptions' and made it clearer who was responsible for a particular decision, and facilitated coordination between different government departments.

116. This is not an argument therefore for reversing the Levene reforms, or the NSC, but more needs to be done. We are not yet convinced that the necessary improvements have yet been made in expertise and the evaluation of evidence. Nor in the process-as opposed to the structure of decision-making. The tone, and time-limits of the meetings, did not seem to provide the right environment in which to define problems accurately, prioritise objectives, evaluate alternatives, or manage the risk of tentative decisions.

117. The Chiefs of Staff appear to have no formal input into strategy formulation, severely diluting the influence of military expertise at the table. The NSC secretariat is vastly under-resourced. Those involved in long-term planning and strategy formation lack the education and training necessary to help them think in a strategic manner. This in turn limits the ability of ministers and decision-makers to challenge advice confidently and rationally.

115   Lord Levene of Portsoken,Error! Bookmark not defined., June 2011 Back

116   Lord Levene of Portsoken,Error! Bookmark not defined., June 2011 Back

117   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

118   Ministry of Defence, Error! Bookmark not defined., Version 4.1, September 2014, para 35 Back

119   Oral evidence taken on Error! Bookmark not defined., HC (2014-15) 896, Q94 Back

120   "Error! Bookmark not defined.", BBC News UK, 27 June 2011 Back

121   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

122   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Major General (retired) Christopher Elliott] Back

123   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

124   Oral evidence taken on Error! Bookmark not defined., HC (2014-15) 896, Q89 Back

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132   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

133   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Major General (retired) Christopher Elliott] Back

134   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Major General (retired) Christopher Elliott] Back

135   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Major General (retired) Christopher Elliott] Back

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143   National Security Council , Error! Bookmark not defined., accessed 20 November 2014 Back

144   National Security Council , Error! Bookmark not defined., accessed 20 November 2014 Back

145   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence] Back

146   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

147   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

148   For example Error! Bookmark not defined. [Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP], Error! Bookmark not defined., and Error! Bookmark not defined. [Baroness Neville-Jones] Back

149   Oral evidence taken on Error! Bookmark not defined., HC (2014-15) 896, Q95 Back

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156   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles]; Oliver Letwin Speech, Error! Bookmark not defined., accessed 23 March 2015; Peter Thomas, The ideal mandarin: exhuming the dead generalist, 21 September 2012, Error! Bookmark not defined., accessed 23 March 2015 Back

157   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

158   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Baroness Neville-Jones], Error! Bookmark not defined. [Baroness Neville-Jones], Error! Bookmark not defined. [Lord Richards] Back

159   Defence Committee, Third Report of Session 2014-15, Error! Bookmark not defined., HC 358 Back

160   Defence Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2014-15, Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

161   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Lord Richards] Back

162   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

163   NSC (Officials) Back

164   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Lord Richards] Back

165   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

166   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

167   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles] Back

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170   Oral evidence taken on Error! Bookmark not defined., HC (2014-15) 896, Q99  Back

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179   Christopher L Elliott, High Command, (London 2015) Back

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188   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Baroness Neville-Jones] Back

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193   Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2014-15, Error! Bookmark not defined., HC 749, HL Paper 114, para 54 Back

194   "Error! Bookmark not defined.", The Telegraph, 03 March 2015 Back

195   Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, Error! Bookmark not defined., HC 761, para 39 Back

196   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 26 March 2015