When you play word association games with the word ‘military’, one of the obvious responses would have to be ‘discipline’. Every button shone to perfection, not a hair or a sheet-corner out of place, etiquette observed at all times while on duty – even us civvies (think we) know the drill. But articles in today’s Times and Telegraph and a previously unpublished Deloitte report, Defence Reform Review, all seem to suggest that the desk wallahs and shiney-arses (army slang: follow the link for clarification) of the MoD are not just addicted to bumf: they are also one cause of chronic financial mismanagement that poses procurement problems that seriously undermine the Department’s financial health – and the physical health of those in the services.

The Times headline – Too many managers, too few leaders – is straightforwardly blunt, in a way that mirrors the services’ love of colourful slang. Hoping to add a note of levity to an otherwise serious article, I researched the ever-informative ARmy Rumour SErvice (I’m sure you can grasp the acronym by the use of capitals) as well as Wikipedia’s lists of military slang. While I smiled at one entry in the list of military clichés –

Admin – it’s not a small town in China! “

and I saw the wit in the RAF definition of penguin (a term for ground crew meaning ‘all flap and no fly’), the use of ‘admin vortex’ for a disorganised soldier gives a clue about views of the services’ bureacracy from those who are often – literally – on the front line. Wikipedia’s listing of ‘Provisional Wing of Tesco’s’ (meaning “Royal Logistics Corps nickname combining Provisional IRA with a famous supermarket in the UK”) is even darker, although writing as a schoolfriend of one of the six Red Cap soldiers killed at an Iraqi police station in 2003 (his obituary is available online here), it is personally hard to deny the sub-head on today’s Times front page: “Ministry’s ineptitude is costing British lives”.

What is perhaps even more shocking is that this is not news. In November 2007, The Independent published an article The cruellest sacrifice: Revealed: 88 casualties of MoD’s failures. The conclusion it drew in its opening paragraph was far more bluntly outlined than the financial gaffes and blunders listed in today’s Times:

More than one in three servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan might still be alive if not for avoidable blunders and equipment problems.”

In the case of Sgt Hamilton-Jewell and his Red Cap colleagues, the article is more specific:

The Red Caps were unable to call for help because their distress flares and smoke grenades had been taken from them to save time before they were sent home. They had not been issued with satellite phones, which was against orders, and had only 50 bullets each instead of the regulation 150.”

Today’s Times relevations are less graphic, but any humour in them is black: sorely needed helicopters entering service 15 years after being ordered, as the MoD “Forgot to ask Boeing for the software codes that ran the cockpit systems”; 114% projected overspend on aircraft carriers, and a 194% actual overspend on the Eurofighter Typhoon. In the case of the particularly ironically named Future Rapid Effects System, £255m was spent without delivery of a single vehicle; originally expected in service in 2006, that target date is now ‘2015 or perhaps never’.

Among the files at ARRSE, a website that is not as entirely coarse or blunt as its name might suggest, is an article about Serve to Lead:

“Serve To Lead” is both the motto of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the title of a primer for baby officers on the noble art of leadership. Thanks to ‘pvtePile’, who is posting / has posted the contents onto ARRSE, this is now preserved in posterity for the delictation of all ARRSEers.”

In the light of today’s (and earlier) media coverage, it’s sad to note that this introduction goes on to say:

Serve to Lead regularly receives the blessings of the chain of command – none of whom actually put any of its teachings into use.”

Among those teachings are the following quotations, included in the document’s introduction:

We do not in the Army talk of “management”, but of “leadership”. This is significant. There is a difference between leadership and management. The leader and the men who follow him represent one of the oldest, most natural and most effective of all human relationships. The manager and those he manages are a later product, with neither so romantic nor so inspiring a history. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision: its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.
Address to the Australian Institute of Management 4 April 1957 by Field Marshal Sir William Slim Governor General of Australia.”

Being a Leader – The Desiderata 401BC 
When on active service the commander must prove himself conspicuously careful in the matter of forage, quarters, water-supply, outposts, and all other requisites; forecasting the future and keeping ever a wakeful eye in the interest of those under him; and in case of any advantage won, the truest gain which the head of affairs can reap is to share with his men the profits of success.”

Yet Sandhurst seems to have a better concept of leadership than the civil servants whose role is to equip and support. The Times quotes an unnamed defence industry insider on the topic of the MoD equipment teams:

Everybody follows orders, they do not question whether the orders make sense or not.”

Serve to Lead offers commentary on the subject of ‘Dysfunctional Training’, quoting from David French’s Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany 1919-1945:


What the [royal military] colleges did very imperfectly was to encourage cadets to use their initiative and think for themselves, or to train them in leadership skills as tacticians. […] The purely educational content of the syllabus was increased in the 1920s at the expense of military training but, even so, a cadet who passed through Sandhurst in 1935 recorded that ‘Independent thinking is frowned on as heresy – no divergence from official view allowed. The initiative and intellectual curiosity that was supposed to be imparted by the educational syllabus was largely nullified by too much time spent on the parade ground. A Staff Sergeant curtly informed a cadet who tried to express an opinion that ‘You are not allowed to think, Sir!’. Out of a total of 1,350 training hours, no less than 515 hours were spent ‘producing the private soldier cadet’. This was a dysfunctional approach to training. It ill-fitted officers to deal with the unexpected calls which were going to be made on them on the battlefield.”

Although the unpublished Deloitte report recommends streamlining MoD management, privatising branches and outsourcing project management and back-office activities, Sandhurst could teach its Whitehall masters some important lessons in noting that tightly following due process is only a synonym for success if the process leads to success. Like a solider, sailor or pilot, the ultimate role of a process is to serve. All these years on, our servicemen and women are still living in a world summed up by Churchill:

Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”

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