09 May 22. Why is it that our military chiefs of staff only choose to speak out against formal MOD and Government defence policy when retirement beckons, they are about to depart from the scene and that seemingly they now have nothing to lose? What a pity that they didn’t say some of the things they are prepared to say now a year or so ago!
The other more popular method of speaking out is when they are completely free for MOD shackles in a couple of years and when they can if they wish become armchair critics and often a thorn in the side of their successors!
Outgoing Head of the British Army, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith has chosen to put a few of his current views on the record in an interview published in ‘Soldier Magazine’ and that was quickly picked up over the weekend by social media and some press.
Carleton-Smith isn’t the first senior member of the armed forces to speak out of turn when it is clear that they have been passed over for the most senior role – that of Chief of the Defence Staff. In his resignation letter earlier this year Vice Admiral Nick Hine said that he sometimes despaired at type of thinking around him. Hine was a man of vision but also one who had great ambition for the Royal Navy and which he believed had been all but lost.
To remind, Vice Admiral Hine had said in his resignation letter:
“Please understand that the need for and, the value of change, is not a fantasy – if we don’t transform, we will fail and we will lose. It is that simple adding that he was also addressing “pedants and naysayers”.
“I have despaired at times that collectively we had become self-censoring, risk-averse and lacking in curiosity, confidence and critical thinking skills. We have these qualities but have allowed a rose-tinted view of tradition and a spurious belief that you can avoid risk by sticking to a failing status quo to avoid driving transformation.”
He went on to suggest that “When ships do get to sea they act like porcupines – well defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities. This is a result of decisions by successive governments to limit budgets and prioritise defensive capabilities. These significant challenges have not prevented the Navy delivering significant successes, most notably the commissioning of the two aircraft carriers and the 2021 carrier strike group deployment to the Indo-Pacific. However, they do raise concerns about the Navy’s ability to deliver the crucial transformations it has planned.”
Back to the rather different interview given by General Carlton-Smith and that was clearly aimed at Government.
I will come on to whether his specific criticisms are justified or not a little later but for goodness sake, if they really do believe policy is wrong why not speak out earlier or better still, resign?
I will also say this. For far too long our chiefs of staff have been silenced from airing personal views in public. They are even obliged to have the individual speeches that they deliver at conferences and events vetted and I recall on one occasion a few years ago where a Chief of the Air Staff actually attended a speech to be delivered by the then First Sea Lord in order to ensure that he stuck to the party line!
I totally accept the necessity of ensuring that those who our service chiefs are responsible for within the military do not speak out of line. But I do believe that the heads of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force should be allowed a level of discretion that allows them to provide a more personal perspective of policy that they find difficult.
Clearly, I must temper my words here but given how the standard of our politicians has arguably fallen over the years and of how some get pushed into cabinet and ministerial positions over which they have neither any past knowledge or sufficient experience, the public has a right to know concerns of our experienced military leaders albeit that I readily acknowledge surprise and disappointment as to the process that has in recent years allowed certain of our military chiefs to be appointed to their respective roles.
Rather than speak out in order to ensure public awareness of an issue or be seen to be supporting those who they have responsibility for – their people – or resign on principle it is many decades now since a senior serving member of the military actually resigned on a matter of principle.
Members of the Government however do resign on matters of principle, an example of this being the late Robin Cook’s resignation as Foreign Secretary from Tony Blair’s Labour Government in 2003 over the war in Iraq and rather more loudly, that of Sir Geoffrey Howe’s now infamous resignation speech from the Thatcher government in which he accused her in relation of European policy “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”
Back to Mark Carleton-Smith. Having taken over the most senior position in the Army as Chief of the General Staff from the now also recently retired former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter back in June 2018, I well recall at the time of his appointment announcement that the then Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson said
“I have no doubt that [the then] Lt General Carleton Smith (his automatic promotion to General occurred on his first day in office as CGS) will be an outstanding leader of the Army at this crucial period, as we look to strengthen and further modernise the Army to deal with intensifying threats”.
Interviewed by ‘Soldier Magazine’ just weeks before he officially stands down and hands over the role as Chief of the General Staff to the highly respected General Sir Patrick Sanders in early June, General Carleton-Smith admitted that he was “surprised” when he was informed the Army would be capped at only 73,000 regular soldiers – a figure he dubbed as being “arbitrary because it’s just a price point”. He went on to say in the interview that “I’m not comfortable with an Army of just 73,000. It’s too small”, he said. “That was never part of our proposition going into the IR [Integrated Review]. I was working to the direction that we regrow the Army to 82,000, so being limited to 73,000 people was quite a surprise.”
Talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine he talked in the interview of this “highlighting the fact that mass and size are important” adding that “We were clear that Russia was an acute problem, but we expected it to manifest itself in a more hybrid, unconventional fashion – bots as well as boots. They’d done similar in Georgia and the Crimea and so the surprise was that Putin went all-in at very significant scale.” The move, he said “gave Nato an electric shock – it’s now busy reinventing its concepts for deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic region. It’s supercharged the alliance in terms of their interoperability agendas so they can work better and more closely together. Consequently, our personnel can expect to be actively engaged in training with more partner nations abroad more often.”
There will of course be many who perhaps share the view that Carleton-Smith’s failure to stand and fight Army cuts left him out on a limb. He has presided over significant decline in Army manpower and when it comes to equipment procurement, has left the Army in a far worse place than he found it.
By all accounts Carleton-Smith failed to stand up to his predecessor who had gone on to become Chief of the Defence Staff and who as we all know to our cost, was absolutely determined to get rid of Warrior rather than see it upgraded and who has pushed for the workhorse C-130J capability to be scrapped, although despite suggestions that they didn’t get on, I do not hold with that one.
A CGS it appears that Carleton-Smith took his eye off the ball in relation to the Ajax IFV procurement, an issue that will be top priority for his successor albeit an issue that is probably unresolvable. I would also say that he has failed to modernise the Army – not just in equipment and operation but also in terms of culture. Under his leadership I have seen little effort to tackle cost and waste, to ensure sufficient numbers of troops were fully combat ready and he has done little to resolve vexing problems of recruiting and retention. Worse was the apparent lack of a definable strategy and his strict adherence to the Regimental system and which some would argue lies at the heart of the Army’s problems.
The above comments may appear harsh but I have failed to see the Army change in a manner that for instance, the Royal Navy has done seemingly quite successfully. To accept the need for change and modernisation appears to have passed by Carleton-Smiths Army somewhat unnoticed.
CHW (London – 9th May 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785