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Chief of the Defence Staff gives annual speech

The single biggest strategic risk facing the UK today is economic rather than military, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir David Richards said at his RUSI Annual Lecture this week.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

In his second annual lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), General Richards said this had been a busy, challenging, but rewarding year for Defence. He began his speech by saying:

A thriving economy must be the central ingredient in any UK Grand Strategy. This is why the eurozone crisis is of such huge importance not just to the City of London but rightly to the whole country, and to military planners like me. Seen through my prism the world looks especially unpredictable and unstable.

General Richards drew attention to the issues that face not just the UK but NATO and the wider world. He spoke of ‘a hugely complex transition and withdrawal from Afghanistan, the destabilising effects of Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the Middle East’, and the risk that the ‘Arab Awakening could lead to fissures and internal conflict that could be exported around the world’.

The rise of China’s economy raised questions for NATO to think about he added, asking:

What impact will China’s need to keep its population content have on us? Equally what will the rise of the other emerging economies mean for us? Natural allies or hostile competitors?

Population growth, global warming, terrorism, piracy and international crime were just some of the problems to be faced in the near future, he said. But the General was clear that the role that the Armed Forces would play in ensuring the security of the Olympic Games would be done with huge pride.

Having identified the issues, General Richards asked the question ‘how do we respond to this unstable, unpredictable future?’

He pointed out that the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) had rebalanced British defence and security for the next decade, and that difficult decisions taken about capability still left the UK powerful relative to our allies:

We were the first to accept the implications of the global economy. We clearly won’t be the last. In global terms we spend the fourth largest amount on Defence.

All western nations, including the USA, are changing their defence structures, argued the General. He went on to say that, even though the UK may still have to prioritise even more ruthlessly now that there are fewer ships, men and planes, ‘we will still be, in comparative terms, a front rank player in the NATO Alliance which will remain the most powerful military pact the world has ever known’.

And, he reasoned, as the SDSR anticipated, alliances will be increasingly important:

As the world evolves, so new groupings will emerge. The most obvious is our alliance with the French. It is a vehicle for positive joint action.

He added that the UK will require other carefully chosen alliances over the coming decade and the collaboration with countries in the Gulf and Africa has delivered results in the region for surprisingly little cost, he argued.

General Richards went on to say that holding military capabilities at flexible levels of readiness was the key to defence planning and that the use of Reserves would help to allow this:

MOD and Single Services are working through the implications of all this,” he said.

The General spoke of the importance of putting an emphasis on education to adapt to new technologies. There would also be a need to be able to adopt tactics to fit the kit available rather than the kit on wish lists, he said.


Speaking about strategy, he said:

I know I am not alone in arguing that strategy matters. The Government’s National Security Council demonstrates clear intent while the Foreign Office has reinvigorated a post to oversee strategy, while in the MOD Lord Levene sanctioned the post of Deputy Chief of Defence Staff Military Strategy and Operations, properly supported by an Assistant Chief of Defence Staff Military Strategy.

At the National Security Council the [Prime Minister] chairs a debate with interested parties arguing properly for their perspective. The ability to have this discussion allows a clear understanding of what we in the military term ‘Commander’s Intent’. It is vital to have this common understanding of what is required or sought. It unifies our actions and allows subordinate commanders, or ministries, to test and adjust their sub-plans,” said General Richards.

The General said that we must remain vigilant in ensuring developing threats are recognised and balanced appropriately:

It is no good, for example, planning for a perfect force in, say 2030, if we cannot protect our vital interests in the interim.

Within the military strategic sphere CDS described the challenges that remain as considerable:

To succeed, we need to design mechanisms that oblige other nations to provide what is vital in a crisis and it won’t be easy.

There was, CDS said, a need for all nations to develop a more agile acquisition process that could quickly adapt to changing operational requirements:

To reassure you, this is top of the Secretary of State’s and his new Defence Board’s agenda.

I am sometimes asked if the professional military really can think and plan jointly and strategically. Well the Armed Forces Committee provides the Chiefs with the mechanism to do so and the opportunity to get out of perceived Single Service straight jackets. The Armed Forces Committee also prepares me for the Defence Board. Whilst this may change, I am currently the only military person on the new Board. The Committee allows me to understand the different perspectives of the Single Service Chiefs. It is my duty to record their views but then to give my own professional advice, which may not be based on a consensus.


General Richards described Afghanistan as Defence’s main effort and his greatest challenge:

The UK will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014. My key role over the next three years is to ensure that British forces leave in good order, enabling the decisive elements of an enduring campaign - those based on effective [Afghan National Security Forces], governance and development - to continue over the coming decades.

This is not a change of strategy but a change in ownership of that strategy. As it ‘transitions’ to Afghan leadership, the international community will remain four square behind the Afghan people, in our interests and theirs.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will shortly reach a total strength of 352,000, a headcount that the General jokingly said he envied:

Already, the ANSF are leading some 50 per cent of conventional and Special Forces missions and they have taken over lead security responsibility from ISAF forces for more than 25 per cent of the population. That will soon increase to 50 per cent. As this continues, the insurgency is reducing. Attacks in Afghanistan are down 28 per cent on last year.

General Richards said that the operation was on track and was supported by the population:

Of course the picture is not all rosy. Risks to the strategy remain.

But he said it was worth remembering, a few months on from 9/11’s 10th anniversary, that UK national security underpins what we are doing in Afghanistan:

Ten years ago I would have felt no need to mention it. It is interesting to note how quickly many outside government forget that the ungoverned, unstable space that was Afghanistan became everyone’s problem on 9/11 and the UK’s own homegrown 7/7 bombers were trained in Pakistan.


Many of the lessons we learnt in Afghanistan have since been applied to Libya. Operation ELLAMY was a cross-government operation in which the military protected the population to allow them to shape their own future.

At heart this operation was a success because of the constructive and synergistic role played by a number of nations, principally but not exclusively under NATO guidance and leadership. This was the SDSR’s emphasis on the importance of allies playing out in front of our eyes.

Our co-operation with the French could not have been closer, while our ability to use existing NATO structures allowed us to act quickly and effectively, avoiding confusion. The role played by the United States of America was fundamental to success.

He added that while Libya has been sold as an air operation, and RAF Tornados and Typhoons performed brilliantly in repeatedly striking targets with no collateral damage, the Royal Navy, British Army Apache pilots and the Royal Air Force all performed to their usual exemplary standard:

But our mandate was civilian protection and enforcement of a no-fly zone. The Libyan people, operating on the ground, made the decisive changes to the future of their country. That could not have been, should not have been, and was not done by a coalition operating from the air. They were the land element. An ‘army’ was still vital. As this was delivered by our Arab partners, both from Libya and the Gulf.

Libya is not a template, but one key lesson for us is this need for partners. Our alliances, formal and informal, established and new, will help shape our military actions over the next decade. As we find it harder to maintain large armies or politics make it more difficult to employ them in isolation from others, partnering will become more vital. And the British Army’s role in building these partnerships in advance of combined operations or pre-emptively will be crucial.

In sum, the ingredients to every campaign will always be the same but the formula one uses to mix them will depend on the unique circumstances confronting us on the day. Air, land and sea components will have to be balanced in different theatres in different ways just as will the blend of diplomatic and economic activity.

General Richards concluded his speech saying that innovative thinking and most importantly retaining a warrior ethos will prove decisive in staying ahead:

We are excellent at this, which is one reason why I am confident that we are broadly in good shape and will have a seriously capable joint force in 2020. Indeed, the principal reason for my confidence is not the equipment but the quality of the men and women who serve. Throughout the 40 years I have had the honour to serve I have never failed to be impressed by the quality, drive and ingenuity of the men and women alongside me.

Like no doubt all my friends, I never expected to be their professional head but it is a sheer delight and great privilege to be so.

Published 16 December 2011