There was a significant announcement by the (British) government on 16 September: the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, had been elected by his fellow Nato chiefs to be the next chairman of the Nato Military Committee, taking up the appointment in June next year.
The news received little coverage in the national press and media, however, except for a couple of Brexit-supporting tabloids that suggested it showed that not everyone in the EU was out to do-down the British. The Times carried just a few lines in “News in Brief”, managing also to get the story wrong – saying that he was the first Briton ever to do the job. Indeed, there seemed to be more interest in the regional papers. The Warwick Courier added the important information that Peach was from the “West Midlands.” The Sheffield Star reported that he is a graduate of Sheffield University. In Ireland (a non-Nato country), The Skibereen Eagle (strictly, now, The Southern Daily Echo), which for over a century has been famously “keeping an eye on the Tsar of Russia”, published the Whitehall press release in full, including the portentous “becoming the first Briton to hold the position for 25 years, this appointment will see Sir Stuart as NATO’s senior military officer and act as the principal military advisor to the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.”
Laying aside for the moment the idea that chairmanship of the Military Committee makes him “NATO’s senior military officer”, with its (misleading) connotations of command, what does the appointment and its coverage say about the state of defence in Britain at present?
Peach himself is an interesting study in defence politics. He was always the outsider, though one who has relentlessly broken glass ceilings. He was not the UK Ministry of Defence’s first choice last year as General Sir Nicholas Houghton’s successor as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). That was Sir Richard Barrons, three years Peach’s junior and one of the cleverest generals the Royal Artillery has produced in years (which is saying something). Since 1977 the principal of appointing the CDS from each service in strict rotation has been in abeyance; the prime minister selects the chief personally. Peach was placed on the “terna” along with the then First Sea Lord (to give a semblance of choice) which the MoD sent to the then PM, David Cameron, just before the EU referendum. However, Cameron decided to appoint the man who had been Houghton’s deputy (VCDS) – the second time in a row that the CDS had not been a single service chief – stating that Peach’s earlier experience as Commander Joint Forces Command and Chief of Joint Operations would be “invaluable as we continue to ensure our brave armed forces remain among the most capable and agile in the world.”
What is to be done…
In a commentary piece for The Times shortly after Peach took up the appointment, I suggested he would have three priorities. The first was to re-address the defence spending programme in light of both the mismatch of resources and the implications of Brexit. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was based on assumptions about EU defence and security that now looked highly questionable. Being no longer a part of the EU military structure will have significant consequences, not least of which will be in our relationship with Nato. I opined that: “Though ostensibly unchanged, our Nato engagement will in reality need a pronounced gear shift.”
What I had not anticipated (although I filed the piece under the headline “Is the new CDS sitting in an ejector seat?”) was that within a year of taking on the job, Peach would signal that he didn’t want to stay the course (normally three years) – that he preferred a job in Brussels, where Nato HQ has been since the French kicked it out of Paris in 1967. We shan’t know the full story until he writes his memoirs, but it seems incredible that a CDS should signal his intention to eject while the so-called National Security Capability Review (NSCR) is just taking off.
The NSCR is being led, not unreasonably, by the National Security Advisor, Mark Sedwill, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and PUS at the Home Office when Theresa May was home secretary. Military input is Peach’s job, as is the consequential work on the defence programme once the NSCR has reached its conclusions.
It could be argued that in grand-strategic terms the deleterious impact of Peach’s departure is more than offset by the gain in high-profile leadership of the Nato Military Committee – that it is indeed part of the pronounced gear shift we need. I argued before the EU referendum that a Brexit vote would lead to a strengthening of Nato because Britain would then reinvest in both the Alliance and the bilateral US-UK relationship. Whether Peach’s appointment is an effective part of that reinvestment, or by his semi-detachment in the NSCR yet another chapter in the increasing hollowing out of our armed forces, only time will tell.
The Special Relationship
The second area demanding Peach’s personal attention, I argued, was our special defence relationship with Washington, whose mutual benefits are freely and frequently acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. The day after the EU Referendum, Ash Carter, the then US Defense Secretary, said that Washington and London “will always enjoy a special relationship reflected in our close defense ties, which remain a bedrock of U.S. security and foreign policy.” And, indeed, within weeks of taking over, Air Chief Marshal Peach flew to Washington to meet his US opposite number, Marine Corps General Joe Dunford.
However, the question was – and remains – how best to make those ties work to true mutual advantage, especially as in all matters save intelligence, Britain is the junior partner. In strategic and operational planning, London has too often struggled to be heard. The lesson of the Iraq war, for example, made all too clear by the Chilcot Report, is that the integration of Anglo-US staff is too late once planning has begun; the critical influence is during the White House decision-making.
Churchill recognised this early in the Second World War. He appointed the former Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Field Marshal Sir John Dill, as senior British representative to the combined (US-UK) chiefs of staff committee. Dill’s importance in the transatlantic dialogue – notwithstanding the warm if necessarily distant relations that Dill’s successor as CIGS, Sir Alan Brooke, enjoyed with his opposite number, George C Marshall (and the other service chiefs with theirs) – was immense, as Brooke’s diaries testify. When Dill died suddenly, in November 1944, President Roosevelt said that he had been “the most important figure in the remarkable accord which has been developed in the combined operations of our two countries.” He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, with an equestrian memorial statue, one of just two in that sacred place.
He was succeeded by Field Marshal Sir “Jumbo” Wilson, but the appointment lapsed in 1949 with the creation of the Nato Military Committee, seen as the logical successor of the US-UK (and occasionally Canadian) chiefs of staff committee. In a sense, therefore, Peach stands in the line of succession from Dill, but Brussels is not Washington, and Anglo-American interests are not all within Nato’s remit. It was a mistake to stand-down the high-level liaison after the Second World War, and now is the time to put it right – with someone of Dill’s stature resident in Washington.
Why do British generals vanish?
There is no shortage of candidates, particularly from among those who have recently left their service – and who, indeed, know from recent operations many of the military and civil hierarchy in Washington. But in Britain at present, “Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.” That is, at least, fade from public view. At the age of around sixty, a four-star admiral, general or air marshal quits public service for good. He might be given some titular position – governor in the Channel Islands, Gibraltar, or of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, for example; or he might get himself a place on the board of a defence company; or he might just wish to “find in the furry civic robes, ease” in the House of Lords; but only rarely is he asked to do something of substance appropriate to his seniority and experience. Admiral Sir Alan West is the only former head of service in recent times to be made a minister (for Security and Counter Terrorism in Gordon Brown’s government). When in 2009 it was leaked that General Sir Richard (now Lord) Dannatt, who was about to retire from the army as CGS, might become a defence minister in a Cameron government, there was uproar, not least among serving officers who felt it compromised the principle of military impartiality.
Contrast this with Washington. Senior officers have long migrated to the most important offices of state. At present, the National Security Advisor is a former army lieutenant-general, H R McMaster; the Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, is a former Marines four-star general; and another former Marines 4-star, John F Kelly, is the White House chief of staff, having been Secretary of Homeland Security for six months previously.
Why the reluctance to make use of such men in Whitehall?