New armed forces chief warns morale may plunge

Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton faces a 'huge challenge'. Picture: PA
Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton faces a 'huge challenge'. Picture: PA
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The new head of Britain’s armed forces has warned personnel could become “cynical and detached” because deep cuts to the military have not been properly explained to them.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, admitted he faced a “huge challenge” maintaining morale and performance as the services are dramatically reduced in size.

But he promised an “honest, straight-talking” approach to ensure that in future everyone was “onside”.

In a frank interview with the internal MoD magazine Defence Focus, Gen Houghton also cautioned the country needed to “recalibrate our expectation” of the global role and capacity of British forces.

And he conceded that the long-term outcome of the 12-year war in Afghanistan “still sits in the balance”.

Gen Houghton said the government austerity drive could be used to “liberate our thinking about more efficient and effective ways of doing business” but that changes had been insufficiently explained internally.

“I plan to be honest, straight-talking and supportive,” he said.

“I think there’s a significant amount of scope for better internal and external communication. We do not spend enough time talking to our internal community.

“They need to understand the context and relevance of what they’re doing in circumstances and times that are quite difficult for many of them.”

He went on: “I think we’ve risked people becoming cynical and detached from what defence is trying to do.

“With transformation, for example, this should be more than just communicating a message – we should be doing it in a way that makes everyone feel onside with what is going on, believes in it and can see the part they need to play.”

Gen Houghton said the military was also “guilty of creating bureaucracy, people checking up on others and holding people to account unnecessarily” and needed to act to slim down HQ operations.

“I don’t think any of this is beyond the wit of man to get right,” he told the magazine.

“But the combination of making manpower reductions, keeping our people motivated, maintaining the right skill sets in the right places and continuing to prosecute operations and run the day-to-day business of defence is a huge challenge.”

Shifting focus to a “contingency posture” would mean the UK getting used to no longer having “the same degree of sophistication in capability terms”, he cautioned.

“We have to recalibrate our expectation of the level of capabilities we can field on new operations from a standing start.

“We’ve got to get back into an ‘expeditionary mindset’ where we will not have perfect capability for every scenario.”

The newly installed military chief claimed it should be “relatively easy” to recruit the 30,000 extra reservists designed to compensate for a 20,000 cut in regular troops, so long as a “sensible balance” was found between the needs of volunteers, families, employers and the military.

It was reported at that weekend that the MoD was already significantly behind its target.

Speaking about Afghanistan, he said: “While everything we’ve invested in terms of blood and treasure and effort over the past 12 years has helped transform the security situation, the enduring outcome for Afghanistan still sits in the balance.

“There are two important things in this context: the first will be successful elections next year and the democratic appointment of a successor to president [Hamid] Karzai.

“Alongside that is the potential start of a successful reconciliation process, where the parties to the conflict find a way to resolve that conflict.

“With these two things in place, rather than handing over an ongoing security challenge – with which Afghan forces will nevertheless be able to cope – we could leave Afghanistan with the realistic prospect of stability and prosperity.”

He said “no decisions have been made” on any UK military involvement in Syria.

“It is, nevertheless, the duty of the Ministry of Defence to provide options for the use of military force in scenarios such as Syria and military advice on the utility of those options.”