Permanent Under Secretary for Defence speech outlines priorities for Defence Reform

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

In her first visit to Washington DC since becoming Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) for Defence, Ursula Brennan has underlined the need and priorities for Defence Reform in a speech to the Heritage Foundation.

Mrs Brennan began her address by underlining the fact that while British Defence is undergoing a period of transformation the commitment to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is unwavering. Mrs Brennan also praised the ‘courage, commitment and leadership’ that US forces had shown in the country.

Looking forward, Mrs Brennan placed the issues of Defence Reform within the context of an ever-changing global security picture:

It is a commonplace that the world is changing around us. The UK has historical and economic ties across the world which make us determined to continue to play an active international role. But in common with other nations with global interests, including the USA, it is much less obvious than it was a generation ago how to manage such threats and how to seize the opportunities.

Mrs Brennan highlighted the emerging powers of India, China and Brazil as a case in point as well as future security challenges such as cyberspace:

We know that such changes will bring both benefits and threats, but the one prediction that we can be sure of is that the future will surprise us.

Against this background, the fiscal challenges that governments around the world are having to face must be considered as national security issues. For this reason the new UK coalition government has made reducing the national deficit its top priority.

However, Mrs Brennan asserted that such pressures represented an opportunity and had forced a re-evaluation of how Defence is conducted:

Our aim - my aim and that of my UK Ministry of Defence colleagues - therefore, is to take this opportunity to transform Defence, not just what we do, as set by the SDSR [Strategic Defence and Security Review], but also how we do it.

Emphasising the key points that underline the British approach to Defence Reform, Mrs Brennan highlighted the ambition to be the US’s ‘most capable ally’, the commitment to NATO, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and finally the investment in future capabilities:

To achieve this we will need to achieve significant savings.

In other words, as the SDSR acknowledged, success or failure will depend on our ability to do our business better. That means innovative and bold reductions in how we deliver our back office and support functions.

The two big costs in Defence are equipment and people, and to cut our running costs by 30 per cent we will be cutting Civil Service numbers by 25,000 over four years, which is almost one in every three people working in the Department. Efficiency savings will come from non-front-line parts of the Armed Forces too, with military reductions of around 17,000.

Mrs Brennan said that efficiencies will not address the entire financial challenge and some cuts or reductions in capability were also needed; she also stressed that financial challenges would not end with the conclusion of the SDSR.

Mrs Brennan then said that, in contrast to Defence Reform processes of the past, the current process would be different as the Department is not just looking at structure and organisation but also at culture and behaviours, led by the Defence Reform Unit:

The starting point for reform must be the development of a new operating model for Defence.

We will develop a new operating model with fewer people second-guessing each other. We will refocus our policy and strategy functions so that they concentrate on the strategic, and stop meddling in the detail of delivery.

Next is structure… Our current structure is highly integrated, with military officers and civilians working side by side in policy and operational roles.

This integration is a great strength which no-one wants to lose. But it sometimes results in two of everything, or even four of everything (three Services and a civilian). Integration ensures our Defence Secretary does not have to choose between competing advice, but that should not come at the expense of unnecessary duplication, or blurring of roles and accountabilities.

Third is culture. One reason why duplication exists in Defence is the culture of respecting the different perspectives and traditions of the three Services. We are clear that Defence Reform is not going to challenge the existence of the individual Services. But does respect for tradition mean that each Service should have its own finance team, its own civilian HR staff? We need to divert as many of those duplicated support resources as we can from tail to teeth.

Mrs Brennan then highlighted the need for acquisition reform, contrasting the need for expertise in the management of huge, costly and complex procurement projects with the military career path of role changes every two years.

In strategy, Mrs Brennan highlighted the challenges of expert teams headed by an expert in that field, for example the undersea team led by a submariner, but asked whether this produced the best dispassionate advice on capability needs:

One solution to that problem is to develop scrutiny and assurance processes to ensure that individual equipment proposals are not only good value for money, but also represent the best way of addressing the military requirement, not a particular Service’s view of how to meet that requirement.

This is fine, but it is an expensive way of getting a single view of Defence needs. The Defence Reform team will be looking hard at pressure points such as these. And at whether, above a certain level, it is more important to be a joint officer than a single Service one.

Mrs Brennan said force generation would be scrutinised and, in particular, ‘where different approaches within the Services lead to different outputs for what can look like similar inputs’:

The balance between operational tour lengths, tour intervals (the time between tours) and harmony (or nights out of bed) varies quite markedly for reasons that are not always easy to explain.

Perhaps even more importantly, we need to look at how we prepare for operations, for example rebalancing between synthetic and live training. It is the intention to go beyond the classic approaches to cost reduction and examine some of the deeper drivers of cost growth. That will mark this out as a different kind of reform.

Mrs Brennan concluded by saying that while she had highlighted the challenges, she had underplayed the achievements of those in Defence - military and civilian:

It is those achievements which give me confidence that the huge challenge we face transforming Defence is not merely essential but the best way to ensure that Britain remains a first rate military power.

I have no doubt that before this process is complete, considerable heat will be generated. But you can be confident that our purpose is absolutely clear: to strengthen Britain’s Armed Forces and our continuing ability to work alongside our US allies where and when required in support of a safer and more secure world.