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The Madness of Losing Experienced Military Disruptors By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.






With the ‘Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development’ examining UK’s priorities and future objectives now in full flow, military and industry working ever more closely together and the word ‘innovation’ at the front of everyone’s mind may I this morning question why the Royal Air Force appears content to allow some of the most experienced and able people to leave the service prematurely on the basis of there being no position available for them?

Defence has already been paired to the bone not just in terms of senior uniformed personnel but also, in respect of senior civil servants. The call is for innovation and change and that future capability must be better matched to affordability. Experience is everything and to my mind we must be absolutely mad to let those that have extensive knowledge of capability requirement, experience, drive and ability to leave.

As we move through yet another policy led change process that will have huge implications for all sections of the military, we must ensure that we retain the ability to challenge? At a time of such significant change in how we plan to do defence in the future I take the view that allow key people and particularly those that we may regard as being disruptors and who have shown themselves willing to challenge to leave the military is little short of crass stupidity. I will come back to the specifics of this further down          

Change is always inevitable and rightly so. Whatever one my like to believe about the PM’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings the one certainty is that he will drive through change. Defence is but one challenge for Mr. Cummings but it is the one is most important to those reading this. We have arguably been stuck in our ways for far too long and most of us are resigned to a belief that through the above integrated review process Mr. Cummings intends to drive change across all departments involved.

Innovation has itself become one of the most used words in defence vocabulary over the past year and not without good reason. Published last year, in the strategic context the MOD’s Innovation Priorities paper talked of ‘Innovating in not only what we are delivering but also how we are delivering” and goes on to suggest that the MOD’s ‘Defence Innovation Initiative’ which was published in 2016 identified that the UK needed to develop:

A strategy-driven approach that provides clear strategic direction to the Department, the component parts of which will remain primarily responsible for delivering innovation;

A broad and systematic approach that seeks to embed innovation throughout the Department’s organisation, workforce, processes and culture. That includes better integration of military concepts, emerging technologies and capability development;

A culture that is ‘innovative by instinct’ by incentivising behaviours that we value. Such a culture emphasises the willingness – indeed expectation – to accept risk responsibility across the enterprise;

An open innovation ‘ecosystem’ that capitalises on innovative expertise in MOD and other national security departments. That builds effective, productive partnerships with innovators in industry and academia, as well as with important allies;

The ability to accelerate promising innovations from idea to solution, quickly and affordably.

The MOD paper noted that ‘in Defence, innovation means generating ideas and putting them into practice. Technology innovation is vital, but we also recognise that we need to be innovative in the way we do things. Our approach includes exploiting existing products, services, and processes from parallel sectors, and adapting ready-made solutions for Defence, for rapid impact”.

In regard of a vision for Innovation in Defence the paper talked of “A Defence enterprise, that is innovative by instinct, where ideas are readily generated and exploited to deliver innovative solutions to Defence’s challenges. As to ‘priorities’ the MOD said that ‘we are looking for ideas, and opportunities in unconventional places and in unanticipated relationships and talked of the need to:

Integrate Information and Physical Activity Across all Domains in relation to how can we integrate information and physical activity across domains (particularly Space and Cyber), and synchronise with wider Government to increase understanding and operational tempo?

It then went on to talk about ‘Delivering Agile Command and Control which was in essence asking the question ‘How can we deliver agile Command and Control, to make faster, better decisions and generate decisive advantage in complex operations? The next passage talked about ‘Operate and Deliver Effects in Contested Domains’ which translated from MOD speak means how can we operate and deliver military outcomes in denied and contested domains?

The next priority is the one that caused me to write on the subject this morning because this one talked about ‘Defence People, Skills, Knowledge and Experience’ questioning how can we access people with the right skills, knowledge and experience? While talking about adopting an open approach and collaborating with the civil sector along also with the understandable caveat that even as priorities innovation collaborations must be affordable and provide greater efficiencies, the MOD said that is was seeking opportunities in unconventional places and in unanticipated relationships, all of which in the context of the Defence Innovation Fund were and indeed, are worthy priorities to have.

Before defence goes through yet another round of upheaval and change – a reference to the integrated review process currently underway within the MOD – it has been good to observe MOD working within a specific strategy that is attempting to achieve a real step change in how defence is delivered. Better collaboration with industry is an important part of this and despite often having been let down through lack of a consistent strategy industry has been more than ready to rise to the innovation challenge.

The Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office under the excellent leadership of Air Commodore J (Jez) Holmes is a perfect example of innovation collaboration between industry and the military and which, as an example, is through ‘Team Tempest’ working to develop the next generation Combat Aircraft. ‘Team Tempest’ is for example made up of a group of industry partners (BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Leonardo and MBDA) working with the Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the Ministry of Defence and international partners in the project who all share a joint vision to develop the technologies required for the next generation of cutting edge Combat Air systems.

Back to my main point now – the need to retain those that have the experience and qualities of leadership that the military will need as we move through another huge process of change. One often ignored element required within major defence programmes should always be the need for consistency in regard of people involved. Industry has a very good record in this regard but if I was to be brutally honest, due to postings and promotions, the military has too often in the past been unable to provide levels of consistency that major projects require.

Another very important element of requirement is to ensure that whoever from the military is charged with ultimate responsibility for major project success should also be a disruptor, someone who not only makes things happen and takes full responsibility for his or her actions but also an individual who can motivate all those involved to succeed.

Industry has disruptors and, in the form of Dominic Cummings, so too does government. At a time when defence, security, foreign policy and international development is about to move through another period of change in strategic objective and narrative, to imagine that in the air domain of defence that, particularly having prematurely already lost many outstanding officers, we can afford to allow experienced ‘disruptors’ that we need now more than ever and when defence is itself, quite justifiably, about to find itself challenged by the Dominic Cummings integrated review process is madness. 

The word ‘disruptor’ can I suppose have dual meanings but, in this case, I refer to highly experienced people who argue and generate strategy, enable it, prosecute it and then motivate others around them to succeed. Some are hard nuts to crack and to use the old cliché, take no prisoners but perhaps the most important and yet, often unseen role of a disruptor is to challenge in order that defence not only gets what it needs but that it gets it on time and on budget.   

Bad enough my having been forced to witness the Royal Air Force losing so many of its best over recent years because there are no longer a sufficient number of roles available for them to move into on promotion, the last three years has also seen the Royal Air Force lose rather too many highly qualified and experienced three-star officers. Some of those would come into the category of being called disruptors and in doing so they have not been backward in challenging their colleagues or, if it was their place to so do, those on the RAF Board.

Having come to the natural end of his appointed term and handed over the role of Chief of Staff Capability to Air Vice-Marshal L S (Link) Taylor in April this year I had hoped that one of the most valuable and indeed, formidable disruptors that the Royal Air Force needs in my view to retain through a period of innovation led change, Air Vice-Marshal Simon (Rocky) Rochelle, is I understand leaving the Royal Air Force having not been offered a further position. To say that I am both shocked and disappointed would be an absolute understatement.

I will not list the names of those that I have seen being allowed to leave the Royal Air Force and indeed, defence as a whole, prematurely over the past three years because they have either been seen as a ‘disruptor’ or that the face no longer fits. Sometimes there is genuinely nowhere for them to go and politics of positions can and indeed does sometimes get in the way.

Of course I readily accept the need to bring the next generation of its people through but what I find hard to accept is that those that often have a record of formidable achievement, those that have often been prepared to challenge in order to make things happen, to achieve more with less, motivate to succeed and in the process, bring about an underlying change in attitudes and perceptions, are these days no longer required.

Not everyone will agree of course and I also accept that from time to time Air Vice Marshal Rochelle may well have been a thorn in the side of some. But to my mind believing as I do in the need for strong defence, he ticks the boxes that we need  having proven his ability to generate strategy and then prosecute it, turning around the sun setting of legacy capabilities that came out of SDSR 2010 and more recently, achieved required success in a number of key new programmes including one’s that I know are attracting very positive attention from No. 10 including ‘Team Tempest’ and rebirth of UK industry involvement in Combat Air manufacture.

Other programmes I would mention include the extremely fast launch in 2018 of the 100kg UK earth observation technology demonstrator Carbonite-2 satellite which was I believe all achieved inside eight months and funded from end year underspend (Team Artemis is a small satellite OCD with Airbus, SSTL, Raytheon and Virgin Orbit). This is likely to be a lead programme for international cooperation across partner nations and the work with the ‘5 eyes’ plus two community (including Germany and France) in order to help navigate our way into Op Olympic Defender (Coalition Space Ops) and in leading the Coalition and Architectures Working Group.

To these in respect of capability requirement I would add delivery of multiple GMPP programmes, P8, E7, increasing the number of Royal Air Force Combat Air squadrons, the new BMD radar programmes, transforming the existing RAF General Atomics MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ unmanned aerial vehicle programme into next generation requirement for 16 General Atomics RG Mk 1 unmanned operational combat USV’s, Project ARTEMIS and so on.

Nonetheless, it seems that the establishment has decided that UK Defence no longer needs the huge experience and skills that AVM Rochelle clearly has in abundance. No room in the establishment for passionate, effective and authentic leadership because it appears that we require nothing other than the establishment approach – a process where leaders are mere role players and sadly, one where challenge is no longer possible!

Might it be of much greater value to UK defence as a whole if, rather than fill seats with those who are unlikely to challenge, we replace empty suits with real leaders – men and women who are confident in who they are and what they are and what they stand for and who can inspire and motivate people to achieve extraordinary results – despite the typical establishment response that has too often in the past said that it’s just not possible to achieve that!

Are we absolutely mad to let what few defence disruptors we have left depart? I believe the answer to that is yes. Sadly, yet another case of Defences loss will be someone else’s gain! Aaaggghhh!

CHW (London – 14th July 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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