When icy roads fill with abandoned vehicles, gridlock ensues...
Traffic stopped by snow

A recurring refrain around the UK defence budget is the need for efficiency, and the endless quest for “savings” to be found from cutting anything not being fully used around the clock. The problem with this argument, though, is that in peacetime one would hope the military are being rather under-used.

Most immediately, having some “wasteful” spare capacity, means there’s headroom at home for times when floods, snow, or other problems arise. As “Snowmageddon” struck the UK, having some strong-backed labour in all-weather vehicles, quickly available, turned out to be quite useful in a few niches.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The armed forces are assisting emergency services in ensuring essential NHS staff are able to get to work and carry out their work in local communities and are standing by to help the police and civil authorities across the UK following heavy snowfall.”

Now, pulling stranded motorists out of snowdrifts and delivering nurses to hospitals over iced-over roads are not “core military tasks”, but it’s useful to have that capability for rare emergencies; just as a few years ago, sailors were piling sandbags around substations to keep floodwater from blacking out entire districts, and in 2012 thousands of service personnel were mobilised to cover G4S’s failure to provide security guards for the Olympics. (These MACA – Military Aid to the Civil Authority – tasks are not free, either, and in fact are quite expensive to call in; but it can still be sensible to pay for expensive military help for a few days every few years, rather than maintaining the capability in-house)

The problem comes when “efficiency” – getting rid of anything not being fully used – demands that machines and manpower are pushed to the point that during normal operations, they’re running at wartime intensity. This not only leaves little headroom for this sort of domestic crisis or contingency, but also ends up breaking equipment and driving out people. As events in the Royal Navy, in 2016 were described:-

The RN, c2008-2010, was petrified about not being ‘relevant’ and thus was deliberately ‘run hot’ by a succession of 1SL. Six months on deployment, followed by 6 months regenerating for another 6 month deployment was the new ‘normal’ – I did it in 2 units. It broke people, and destroyed marriages… This added up to a pretty toxic atmosphere of people leaving, so people bumped at short notice to fill front line gaps, which resulted in people ‘putting their notice in’, resulting in more and more short term churn. I think our PVR [Premature Voluntary Resignation] rates peaked at well over 10%

Admiral Z pulled up his big boy’s pants, went to see the PM and told him that we were dropping tasking and making people’s lives better. PM kicked off, demanded to see our homework. Saw our homework, got grumpy and agreed to a reduction in tasking… The recovery of our manpower (in some areas) can be directly traced to his decisions.

The Royal Navy cut back on some of its tasks and reduced the operational tempo of its ships. This gave sailors more time and opportunity to train in home port, and longer between operational deployments; this stemmed the crippling exodus of trained, experienced personnel at the cost of less overt activity and less “relevance”.

Waste and inefficiency are Bad Things… except when they become “surge capability” and “cover for contingency”, which is rather the point of a military. A peacetime military is inherently unsuitable for mantras such as “lean” and “Just In Time” – both because crisis and conflict will stretch it, and because few civilian supply chains and management structures have to cope with competitors pelting them with high explosives.

The National Security Capability Review, intended to address defence as part of a wider view, has already been delayed once. Since the last few defence reviews have been rushed exercises in marginal cuts (reducing numbers, but not tasking, “doing more with less” and “working smarter”), there’s a vain hope that when the NSCR gets published – currently scheduled for July – that it attempts to relate the military’s tasking to the means, rather than cutting the resources to fit the available budget and optimistically hoping that “the troops will make very great exertions”.

This isn’t automatically an argument for “more money for defence” – but it is about starting from “what must be done” and resourcing that properly. The last time that was attempted was 1998… and it fell flat when the tasking arrived, but the money didn’t…

Support Continental Telegraph Donate


  1. Defence efficiency must mean defeating foes at minimum cost.
    Peacetime savings are only savings if the power is maintained.
    A bit like buying cheap insurance-fine if the cover is still there, otherwise not so much.
    Also like insurance because you are paying for something you don’t want.

  2. As I’ve said before at Tim’s place, I have a lot of sympathy with service personnel. In my day if you had an arduous tour in NI you could be just about guaranteed a tour in Cyprus, Berlin or other comfortable location. All they seem to do now is train for active service or be on active service.

    On the subject of the defence budget in peacetime anyone connected with drawing it or commenting on it, in any way whatsoever so that means all MPs should be made to read and pass a test on the first half of this book:

    Gordon Corrigan investigates how the British, who had the biggest and best army in the world in 1918, managed to forget everything they had learned in just twenty years. The British invented the tank, but in 1940 it was the Germans who showed the world how to use them. After we avoided defeat, but the slimmest of margins, it was a very long haul to defeat Hitler’s army, and one in which the Russians would ultimately bear the heaviest burden.


    and to a lesser extent his first book.

    I’m going to an Army Benevolent Fund curry lunch next month where the author is a guest speaker and I’m really looking forward to listening to him.

    • Thanks for the heads up re Gordon Corrigan’s book. I’ve placed an order with Amazon when it becomes available again. I’m ex-RAF and can remember what it was like being a Staff Officer at a Group HQ when John Major was the PM and the Russians were our new best friend forever. We would frequently be tasked with getting the views of our Station Commanders on the ramifications of this or that cut, or closure or unit disbandment but frequently being told that the results and justification had to be submitted to Command HQ before the day was out as they were under pressure to brief the civil servants and politicians in a few days. Truly it was a heart breaking time to be in the services. I hope you enjoy your curry !

  3. The problem with Defence Efficiency is simple – it is that it means a group of pencil necked civil servants are sitting down with another group of pencil necked civil servants decided how to save the jobs of some other pencil necked civil servants.

    Inevitably the sharp end gets cut and the civil servants get bonuses. They don’t care about squaddies or Britain’s ability to fight. They care about protecting their own. Whatever happens “efficiency” means more paper work and less pointy objects we want stuck into bad people.

    It is made worse when the Brass decides that the purpose of the military is providing careers for the Brass.

    • If the civil servants are trying to keep their jobs, they’re not doing it very well: MOD CS numbers have gone from 85,850 in 2010 to 56,920 in 2017 (which includes all the trading funds, executive agencies, the MOD Guard Service, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary…) even as more military posts have been civilianised (because civilians cost less than half what military do)

      And the problem with getting rid of civil servants – the technical experts in airworthiness, for instance – is that it leads into problems like taking a 1940s airframe that was unsafe by the 1990s, and trying to put new electronics and bigger engines into it “because it’ll be cheaper than a new aircraft”. MoD CS cut those specialist roles in the early 1990s on the basis that they could “buy in” the expertise from industry: the only problem being that now they couldn’t understand what industry were doing. Neither MoD CS nor the military were able to act as an “intelligent customer” any more, but failed to realise this.

      What Haddon-Cave did (after Nimrod XV230, exploded in mid-air over Afghanistan, killing all 14 aboard) was to force Defence to restore a proper military certification scheme. And when assessed properly, MRA.4 was never, ever going to pass. If it had been properly assessed in 1997 it would have failed right there and then. But industry, MoD and the RAF had all sacked the experienced personnel, so such an assessment didn’t happen until 2009 or so, leading to the cancellation in 2010.

      Still, getting rid of some “pencil necked civil servants” in that example, only cost £3.4 billion wasted, fourteen dead, and a serious capability gap left open, just for that particular case…

      • Seriously? You are going with the Nimrod as an example of the wonderful bargain that is the British civil service? This is insane. You are picking the last act of a twelve act tragedy and blaming it all on serving soldiers. Whereas the British Defence pencil necks screwed up waay back in the 1960s, refused to admit it, continued to pour good money after bad until eventually they killed too many people to hush it up. In a decent world those pencil necks would be hanging from some rope.

        As can be shown by asking the obvious question – who was demanding this turkey? Which Squaddie asked for it? Demanded it? Stuck by it as it went straight into the mire? Insisted on it? No one – except the pencil necked civil servants and perhaps some of their political masters. After all, I assume a good number of them got comfortable sinecures after they retired.

        We spend a fortune on research and development and get damn little from it in return. That is almost entirely the fault of the PNCS.

  4. Defence Efficiency, like Military Intelligence, is an oxymoron.

    As Jason points out, “Waste and inefficiency are Bad Things… except when they become “surge capability” and “cover for contingency””, which implies that a peacetime military must retain a level of redundancy, or unused capacity, plus organisational culture and institutional memory, such that it can ramp up to actual warfighting in the shortest possible time (and at the lowest possible cost). To a certain degree, the value of Churchill during the second unpleasantness was to hold the political will to fight together for long enough, in order to allow that ramp up to actually happen – “end of the beginning” and all that.