Private Commentary by Christopher Samuel a Founding Member of DefenceSynergia (edited for publication)

The Pandemic ‘Discovery’ – MOD

A decade ago, the Government established in its ‘risk register’ that a Pandemic although unlikely to occur was a high threat to the country. In 2016 there was an exercise held to test the Health Service readiness of the ‘government’. The results showed several shortcomings.

In 2019 the Covid 19 pandemic emerged and the UK, like the rest of the world, was found wanting in its response.

The UK government relies on Civil Servants to implement the policies desired by politicians and in recent years this has led to divisions and discord between those same politicians and the Civil Service. Not least over the arrangements to leave the European Union which led to an inevitable distraction from the domestic infrastructure and confirmation that, on occasion, it is allegedly acceptable to diverge. There were also changes in political appointments that always appear to lead to different directives.

Against this background, the pandemic hit the country!

The virulence of the virus caught the NHS –  a national ‘protection’ organisation – unprepared, with some of the 2016 exercise recommendations incomplete. Some ‘brave’ decisions were implemented, and the severity of the pandemic rapidly revealed that there was little coordination between public and private sectors and government departments which were often unwilling to cooperate for political reasons [such as trade unions].

But there was another ‘protection’ organisation of medium size whose 140,000 personnel had many skills, albeit these were largely unknown to the public. The leaders of this department are not household names and its retired members are not valued despite their previous work experience.

Suddenly and not for the first time, the country needed skills to be able to quickly assess the situation, plan and execute plans. At the start government departments were unaware of the skills available or how to procure them. This changed but slowly since the skills required a request and payment. However, as experience was gained and confidence in delivery built up professional assistance was given in planning, logistics and execution by example – training others to vaccinate & test.

The organisation in question is of course the Ministry of Defence (MOD) – Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Their skilled workforce is divided into ‘tribes’ according to the tasks they fulfil. MOD has a substantial budget and is required to procure appropriate assets. The resources to achieve their goals have been minimal compared with the NHS they were tasked to assist. Their existence and role has been debated in the Integrated Security Foreign Policy & Defence Review that focused on the importance of integration of all resources. Yet health, which accounts for some 40% of all HMG public spending is not asked the same questions or examined in the same detailed way.

Therefore, MOD as a ‘protective’ organisation, in contrast to Health, has received exceedingly small comparative increases of resources despite the threats in their domain increasing faster than in the past.

The MOD appears to have few ‘friends’ in other Whitehall departments and is viewed by them with suspicion. This despite defence having a substantial resource budget and responsibility to support a crucial if expensive defence industry from a shrinking asset base all of which has a detrimental effect upon the size, capability and sustainability of HM Forces.

All of which indicates that MOD requires a higher public profile and some internal changes as follow:.

Streamlining the MOD and HM Armed Forces

With the new FCDO team it seems logical that the MOD should be merged to form a coherent ‘Overseas Affairs’ grouping.

The MOD itself would benefit from a review of its structure and ability to address its tasking.

It might help if it was recognised that MOD is largely an organisation that reflects a post WW2 structure at a time when the public & politicians had personal experience of conflict conditions. Unlike today when the perception is that they do well but no idea of what they do. The Integrated review points a way to a more effective capability but leaves some unanswered questions:

  • Are the land, sea & air ‘tribal’ groupings still the most efficient use of resources?
  • Are relationships with defence industry close enough?
  • Are the Armed Forces Terms & Conditions too restrictive for personnel
    • Is the early retirement age (55) still appropriate?
    • Is the ‘gagging’ policy for Military personal stifling debate?