A recurring refrain around the UK defence budget is the need for efficiency, and the endless quest for “savings” to be found from cutting anything not being fully used around the clock. The problem with this argument, though, is that in peacetime one would hope the military are being rather under-used.
Most immediately, having some “wasteful” spare capacity, means there’s headroom at home for times when floods, snow, or other problems arise. As “Snowmageddon” struck the UK, having some strong-backed labour in all-weather vehicles, quickly available, turned out to be quite useful in a few niches.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The armed forces are assisting emergency services in ensuring essential NHS staff are able to get to work and carry out their work in local communities and are standing by to help the police and civil authorities across the UK following heavy snowfall.”
Now, pulling stranded motorists out of snowdrifts and delivering nurses to hospitals over iced-over roads are not “core military tasks”, but it’s useful to have that capability for rare emergencies; just as a few years ago, sailors were piling sandbags around substations to keep floodwater from blacking out entire districts, and in 2012 thousands of service personnel were mobilised to cover G4S’s failure to provide security guards for the Olympics. (These MACA – Military Aid to the Civil Authority – tasks are not free, either, and in fact are quite expensive to call in; but it can still be sensible to pay for expensive military help for a few days every few years, rather than maintaining the capability in-house)
The problem comes when “efficiency” – getting rid of anything not being fully used – demands that machines and manpower are pushed to the point that during normal operations, they’re running at wartime intensity. This not only leaves little headroom for this sort of domestic crisis or contingency, but also ends up breaking equipment and driving out people. As events in the Royal Navy, in 2016 were described:-
The RN, c2008-2010, was petrified about not being ‘relevant’ and thus was deliberately ‘run hot’ by a succession of 1SL. Six months on deployment, followed by 6 months regenerating for another 6 month deployment was the new ‘normal’ – I did it in 2 units. It broke people, and destroyed marriages… This added up to a pretty toxic atmosphere of people leaving, so people bumped at short notice to fill front line gaps, which resulted in people ‘putting their notice in’, resulting in more and more short term churn. I think our PVR [Premature Voluntary Resignation] rates peaked at well over 10%
Admiral Z pulled up his big boy’s pants, went to see the PM and told him that we were dropping tasking and making people’s lives better. PM kicked off, demanded to see our homework. Saw our homework, got grumpy and agreed to a reduction in tasking… The recovery of our manpower (in some areas) can be directly traced to his decisions.
The Royal Navy cut back on some of its tasks and reduced the operational tempo of its ships. This gave sailors more time and opportunity to train in home port, and longer between operational deployments; this stemmed the crippling exodus of trained, experienced personnel at the cost of less overt activity and less “relevance”.
Waste and inefficiency are Bad Things… except when they become “surge capability” and “cover for contingency”, which is rather the point of a military. A peacetime military is inherently unsuitable for mantras such as “lean” and “Just In Time” – both because crisis and conflict will stretch it, and because few civilian supply chains and management structures have to cope with competitors pelting them with high explosives.
The National Security Capability Review, intended to address defence as part of a wider view, has already been delayed once. Since the last few defence reviews have been rushed exercises in marginal cuts (reducing numbers, but not tasking, “doing more with less” and “working smarter”), there’s a vain hope that when the NSCR gets published – currently scheduled for July – that it attempts to relate the military’s tasking to the means, rather than cutting the resources to fit the available budget and optimistically hoping that “the troops will make very great exertions”.
This isn’t automatically an argument for “more money for defence” – but it is about starting from “what must be done” and resourcing that properly. The last time that was attempted was 1998… and it fell flat when the tasking arrived, but the money didn’t…