David Blackburn

The clot at the heart of the MoD

The clot at the heart of the MoD
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Gibbon wrote that the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of its own stupendous fabric. So too is the Ministry of Defence. An investigation by the Times (£) has revealed that bureaucratic intransigence has cost the taxpayer £6bn and several servicemen their lives. We have been here before with the Nimrod disaster and the subsequent Gray and Haddon-Cave reports. ‘A culture of optimism’ in procurement and maintenance leads to unsustainable costs, expensive delays, and, occasionally, the indefensible loss of life. At last, the Commons Public Accounts Committee is volubly shocked and has called for urgent reform. 

The Times and the Committee blame the labyrinthine complexity of Whitehall’s last great monolith, and successive governments’ failure to enact systemic reform. With singular absence of mind, the issue under consideration is lost in a plethora of MoD committees, sub-committees and consultations, a system designed to stymie accountability and obstruct scrutiny. Only emergency seems to galvanise the byzantine procurement process – the response to the helicopter crisis in 2009 was decisive, dramatically improving operational capacity in a matter of weeks. In the meantime, standard procedure prevails, ruining morale. Livid officials are quite happy to sound-off to journalists, and the Times has garnered a quotation that will reverberate around government and the defence industry:

‘We sit and watch incompetence. Vast amounts of money could be saved and we could take half the time that it takes to get the right equipment to people who need it. This is what is costing lives.’

The service chiefs and their advisers have escaped the Times’ opprobrium, though they are equally culpable in furthering the culture of optimism. Who thought it necessary to spend £1bn on three surveillance aircraft models that are older than those they will replace? Who believed it wise to send infantrymen to Salisbury Plain to fight imaginary Russians weeks before deployment to Basra? And who saw sense in building an aircraftless carrier that will never go to sea? There is a tendency in Britain not to question the service chiefs, which is odd given that everyone else receives derision. Perhaps that reverence should be tempered by scepticism.

But, above all, military blunders start and end with politicians. The previous government’s record was abysmal; the current government has made an inglorious start. In the light of today’s findings and the Nimrod catastrophe, excluding procurement procedure from the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a significant oversight. Lord Levene is to report on the issue and the department’s structure in time, much rests on his recommendations and the Defence Secretary and his new staff’s ability to deliver.