UK DEFENCE – HOUGHTON TELLS IT HOW IT IS!
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
22 Aug 13. If you have had the pleasure of knowing or having previously listened to the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir Nick Houghton you will know that he is a superb communicator, he is hugely intelligent, engaging and is also an excellent listener. Unusually for someone in this position of military authority Houghton also has an excellent sense of humour! A great choice then and his appointment has come at a crucial moment for UK defence.
Having had the pleasure of meeting Nick Houghton I have no doubt that he will serve the interests of the military and its people well. As a speaker he is concise, apposite, interesting and often amusing and as a believer in what the military term ‘jointary’ his approach toward pushing this notion through all sections of the UK armed forces will be fascinating to observe. I am though in no doubt whatsoever that Houghton will stand up for his people and also for the need to ensure that we do have sufficient defence capability to match our wider international role, our future ambitions and our hopefully, our continuing intentions with regard to Defence Diplomacy.
Whilst my subject matter today mainly surrounds an interview given by the CDS to the internal MOD publication ‘Defence Focus’ I suspect that having mentioned the term ‘Defence Diplomacy’ above I should remind of its definition. A few years ago the MOD defined the terms as “to provide forces to meet the varied activities undertaken by the MOD to dispel hostility, to build and maintain trust and to assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces, thereby making a significant contribution to conflict resolution and prevention”. While this definition remains true to this day it may also be said that defence diplomacy in the wider context of national requirement has also moved on to embrace other elements such as defence industrial and export ambitions and wider foreign policy.
Back to the main issue and having over the past six months had the great pleasure of hearing the new CDS on two separate occasions – the first being was when he spoke privately at a SAFFA event and the second when he gave a formal address to the Royal International Air Tattoo Banquet back in mid-July just hours after he had taken up the CDS appointment from his predecessor General Sir David Richards. Gen. Houghton is a brilliant speaker and has that wonderful ability to hold his audience in the palm of his hand simply by talking common sense. Whilst refusing to stray beyond his allowed remit he is somehow both open and honest and has the brilliant knack of telling it exactly how it is.
In an unusually frank interview in ‘Defence Focus’ which I have yet to read in full but which has been included in a report on the BBC website CDS has warned that armed forces cuts mean the UK will have to lower expectations of its military capability in future. General Houghton continues by suggesting that many service personnel had been left feeling “cynical and detached” by the [SDSR 2010] cuts and that he would listen to their concerns. That new emphasis on listening will be much welcomed but in saying this we should also recognize that due to the manner in which defence policy is conducted today it has been hugely difficult for the three individual service chiefs to be as open and honest as they might otherwise have wished to be with their people. The key to success in listening of course is to observe that actions speak louder than words.
Nick Houghton also emphasized the need [of the MOD] to cut down on bureaucracy and to change the whole culture within defence. Few would surely disagree. Not surprisingly Houghton said that he planned to be “honest, straight talking and supportive” to those working in defence during what he recognized are quite difficult times for many of them. On another tack CDS said that ther