Honesty is the Best Policy (Sometimes).


From the outset I’d like to say that this Blog is highly polemical and is designed to encourage debate, nothing of what I have written is the policy or opinion of the Ministry of Defence, RUSI, or any other organisation with which I am affiliated, have fun.

Although perhaps difficult to believe now, especially for those who know me away from the Web, in my youth I was quite a sportsman. Well, I say that; I played some representative Rugby and was the Victor Ludorum in my final year at Prep School, but you get the picture. Like many people, I stopped playing almost all competitive sport when I left school, but a career in the Army ensured that I would be called upon to perform legendary comebacks from time to time. It was in one such rare appearance that I discovered a unique talent, nay a gift, for Five-A-Side Football. I had always avoided the spherical ball game, The Beautiful Game, preferring Rugby Union, but on this occasion I was chosen for an inter-company game.  It was clear, most of all to me, that I was appalling, the niche skill of which I am last proud was exhibited in front of goal, where, often with no opposition, my feet could be counted upon to blast the ball at right angles to the goal mouth. I am, Ladies and Gentlemen, possessed of tangential feet!

Now this story might seem to be going nowhere, but please bear with me. My experience in the gym in Gloucestershire had taught me two things: first, that I had absolutely no right to ever play football (soccer) again, and second, that due to the small number of soldiers in Station I would almost certainly have to! I knew that I would have to improve fast – no this is not the start of a training montage – but I also knew that age, physical build, and agility were against me. I did have a couple of talents (that is, I know, not the right word): size, speed, and dogged determination. I set about examining my abilities, making an honest assessment, discovering that I should stay as far away from the opposing goal as possible, concentrating on hassling and harassing the opposition players – preferably, though not exclusively, when they were in possession of the ball. My trademark manoeuvre was to pin them into a small space, enveloping them like a greased glove, and using those unwieldy feet like a windmill. In short, I ruined their game, a guerrilla war where the hunter became the hunted.

This then is the essence of asymmetry and it begins with an honest assessment of one’s own capabilities and where one has gone wrong in the past. The key word here is honest, I was to football what Fred West was to home improvement, I needed to understand that and adapt to the game using what little ability I had. Too often organisations, especially old ones like those in the public sector are not honest with themselves and that lack of honesty leads to further failure. This week has seen a Conservative landslide in the United Kingdom’s fourth General Election in nine years, almost as soon as the exit polls were in last Thursday, those of us watching were treated to the spectacle of a Labour Party expressing the need for a root and branch review, a review which would inevitably find that the cause of the defeat, particularly in its Northern heartlands was an ambiguous Brexit policy. At the same time, there were numerous voices highlighting the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, anti-Semitism, and radical policies as being more important causes of defeat. What is the truth? I’m not a politician and I have no idea, but what I do know is that honesty was, and remains, in short supply. If recovery is the desired state, telling oneself lies about ones capabilities, particularly because it is less painful and most palatable, will lead to only one, inevitable, outcome.

So what for Defence? 2020 will see yet another SDSR, we have had so many of these since the Credit Crunch that I have lost count. What I do know is that we are still trying to bring the first one to fruition and have not been honest about ourselves and our abilities in almost any of them. I woke to Lucy Fisher’s excellent article in today’s ‘Times’ reporting that the Prime Minister’s strategy guru, Dominic Cummings, was to be given the task of sorting-out Defence Procurement, the Department has been around the buoy on this subject since before I was born, perhaps an outsider is the answer? Certainly we are not good at articulating what we need or being honest about what is important for UK Defence. In some ways is this not inherent in a publicly-owned entity? They indisputably serve the nation, but unless strictly policed they resort to becoming a welfare organisation for the employees, a drain on the coffers of state, and a rather third-rate enterprise. Bloated organisations like the NHS, reputed to employ more staff than the People’s Liberation Army of China are a case in point; the cold, grey light of day might be just what the doctor ordered.

So where have we got to with Defence? What has our salami-slicing and can-do attitude brought us to?  The Royal Navy has a pair of immensely capable aircraft carriers, but insufficient escort ships and personnel to operate them simultaneously, they also operate a Continuous At Sea Deterrent which has prevented an unlikely nuclear war, but which can’t stop a couple of clowns from Russian ‘intelligence’ from poisoning our own citizens in Salisbury. The Army stands by the Division as the primary formation, despite its aging equipment, insufficient re-equipment programmes, and lack of manpower, in an attempt to remain relevant to our politicians and credible to our US ally. We also talk about reform, a lot, and gaze into the future, when as we know from the work of Colin S. Grey and Meir Finkel, we can never know the character of future war until it arrives. Meanwhile the RAF continues to develop Tempest, a manned and futuristic fighter aircraft, whose most likely role will be ground support, continuing the strong tradition of the procurement of multi-million pound aircraft being used out of role to drop hundred thousand pound guided munitions on a Ten-Dollar Talib planting an IED.

The problem is that we have not been honest by asking what is Defence for? There is talk of ‘constant competition’, multi-domain warfare, hybrid warfare, sub-threshold warfare etc etc etc, but most of this is just an expression of the fallacy of presentism by desperate men designed to make a good case for budget enhancement. Ladies and gentlemen, none of this is new, it is the same old, same old of great power competition enhanced by the computer chip, the difference is that there is more space to play games in because we are too timid to adequately confront our opponents in battle, what would be a casus belli with a nuclear armed opponent today? Simply put, Defence is for defending: First of all the territorial integrity of the UK, then our supply lines and areas of economic interest, then to support the international structures of which we are a part. Defence, however, is not just about the Navy, Army, and Air Force, it is about using all the levers of power of which warfare is only one. Defence must thus concentrate on the kinetic and leave the soft to those better placed and better resourced.

My plea, my wish to Santa if you will, is for those putting together SDSR 2020 to be honest about what we need to do, to take that to government with humility, and to ask for what is needed to provide this country with the Defence it deserves. At the same time, truly embrace reform, remove the blockers, and make the money go further. Oh and stop with the futurology, business-speak, and politically-correct language. Defence is a fighting organisation, destruction, disruption, and degradation of the Queen’s enemies is the business; social mobility, social engineering and a good brand are just fortunate side effects. We must stop treating those imposters as the main effort. Be honest and concentrate on the job in hand, because tomorrow is closer than you think.

All the best, I hope you’re all having a grand Leave,


British troops train to fight in Norway's forests

Soldiers from the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment conducting FIWAF (fighting in woods and forests) training in Norway as part of Exercise Trident Juncture. Ahead of a week-long live exercise, the soldiers adapted to the harsh climate of Norway by training to overcome the extreme low temperatures. These light role infantry troops formed part of the UK-led multinational brigade as part of NATO’s biggest collective defence exercise in over a decade. Exercise Trident Juncture sees NATO and partner nations training and operating together in an Article 5 scenario, ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’. For almost 70 years, the principle of collective defence has been at the very heart of NATO. It remains a unique and enduring principle that binds its members together, committing them to protect each other and setting a spirit of solidarity within the alliance.


5 thoughts on “Honesty is the Best Policy (Sometimes).

  1. Well said Barney. Unfortunately I see an ever thinner slicing of the same old salami, which obviously came from a sacred cow (do we make Salami from Cows ?). On one point: I think we do have enough escorts for one carrier group, as long as you don’t want the RN to be do anything else though? Personally I think CASD sucks all the budgetary oxygen from the room and would be happy to see us de-nuke, but that appears to be a highly unpopular opinion (what about our permanent membership of the security council everyone wails…). I don’t think we have been in the slightest bit honest about defence since before the wall came down, and unfortunately, I cannot see us starting now 😦


  2. Barney, although I’m a retired Senior Service reader – enjoyed your blog and totally agree honesty is the best policy – Marry Christmas look forward tyo reading your blogs in 2020.


  3. Barney, excellent blog. You are right, I’ve been ravaged by all of the SDSRs and the procurement reviews including McKinseys, Francoise and Cummings won’t make an impact as the previous ones didn’t purely because defence procurement is so different. Much of the investment is in long term programmes with global companies. Johnson and Trump need to stop telling the lie America and Britain first because we are locked into a global economy, commerce and industry. Cummings is a single, subject N@xi so won’t be impartial and he doesn’t understand the military as the previous two major reviewers didn’t. The miltay is not a business (McKinsey) and having a TA commission doesn’t qualify you for a ministerial position in the MOD (Francois). Sickening to say the least. A death nell for the country if anything that an unqualified bystander is taken into policy. I was fortunate to wok as an SO2, SO1 and AH/Director in MOD and did not squander any resource. The problem is being locked into governments Business and Innovation strategy so this is where the Rottweiler needs to be targeted, not the MOD which is the only government department staffed deliberately by professionals.


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