The Army’s role in the UK’s pandemic response placed the force unusually close to the domestic frontline. In this exclusive interview, the head of the Army, Mark Carleton-Smith, shares the lessons of a year like no other with Richard Johnstone

The Army is an organisation that commits itself “body and soul” to its endeavours.

So says General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, who has led the organisation as chief of the general staff since June 2018. So when coronavirus struck, the Army brought that absolute commitment to the daunting mission of assisting the government, even if the terrain was closer to home than many soldiers were used to.

“There was no single department of government that was involved in the national response that didn’t have some measure of military contribution inside it,” Carleton-Smith tells CSW.

These contributions ranged from support for testing to the logistics of rolling out vaccinations and soldiers helping with the day-to-day running of busy hospitals. “Everywhere we have supported we have been fully integrated into the civilian organisations and this provides a really positive example of the collective achievement that the nation’s military and civil service can deliver,” he says.

And although “in UK operations the Army is not in the lead, the civilian agencies are”, Carleton-Smith says this demonstrates “just how adaptable the Army is”. “The professional toolkit and skills that are honed for the very specific requirements of the battlefield are actually underpinned by a very entrepreneurial, innovative, and dynamic spirit that can turn itself to whatever the immediate challenge is of the day.”

While it is unusual for the Army’s assistance responding to a domestic emergency to stretch over such a long period, he highlights that its men and women “are used to sustained operations”, serving overseas for up to six or nine months at a time.

“Therefore, suddenly having to turn their hand to a different sort of challenge – and one that was at home – didn’t feel so very different from the experiences of Iraq or Afghanistan and having to commit oneself, body and soul, 24/7, to the project,” he says.

Indeed, the Army was “very pleased to be as engaged as we were” given that so much of the challenge in the response to the pandemic covered areas – around command and control structures, logistics, and crisis management – that form the foundations of how the military works.

“We have learned a lot from that experience,” says Carleton-Smith of the deployment on the home front.

“I think we’ve been able to demonstrate the full breadth and value of our people at a moment of peak national crisis.”

The Army’s support to the departments of state is organised through the Standing Joint Command, which deals with military assistance to civilian authorities. It has a series of liaison officers across the UK who act as the first port of call for the civilian agencies and help them with their requests for support. Then, once a refi ned requirement is submitted, the Ministry of Defence works with the Army’s land operations command to identify the right bits to help.

The coronavirus was, in Carleton-Smith’s words, a “strategic shock” to government, and the Army was also able to loan some of its own civil servants to other departments in a range of roles.

Last April, he says, the Army thought the pandemic was going to cause “major disruption for anything between 12 and 18 months”.

“That was our first stab at how long we thought this was going to affect us, and we’ve been on that rolling assumption ever since,” he says.

“That was an important horizon, because when one takes oneself back to April last year, I think there was an expectation that this would pass, and we would all be back to normal, certainly by September. And here we are, over a year later [when we spoke in late June] with a very significant portion of the country double-jabbed, but very significant disruption still in significant parts of our national enterprise. We are now coming up to that 18-month point, and we’re not through this yet.”

However, he highlights that the Army has not “missed a step” in terms of meeting its own operational requirements. It has been lending support to Estonia in the Baltics and the UN mission in Mali, as well as winding down the UK’s residual contribution in Afghanistan.

“We’ve managed all that, really without breaking stride, which I think is testament to the resilience of our own training pipeline,” he says.

This has been achieved with the assistance of the Army’s aforementioned band of civil servants, who work closely with the force’s military personnel as part of what Carleton-Smith calls “a unique workforce”.

“We have people performing all sorts of roles all over the world – from more conventional civil service roles like finance, HR, policy and project delivery, to others like security guards, fire officers, vehicle technicians, teachers and instructors, which you wouldn’t immediately jump to when thinking about your traditional civil servant.”

In May 2018, CSW spoke to Carleton-Smith’s predecessor General Sir Nick Carter, who is now chief of the defence staff, about the relationship between civil servants and soldiers.

Carter was discussing the development of the Army Advanced Development Programme – a two-year training scheme that has been specifically designed to bring the two sides of the Army workforce – military and civilian – closer together.

The scheme was developed for two reasons, according to Carter – to ensure the Army had the skills to “run the business” and to improve its offer to civil servants.

This programme has continued under Carleton-Smith, with more than 30 people having completed their training and a further cohort due to finish shortly. “We are pleased to have had a mix of military and civil servants working alongside each other and successfully graduating from the programme. In this time, members of the development programme have undertaken projects in support of key transformational programmes and are thereby developing the skills the Army needs to run its business at the highest level,” he says.

“The mixed cohorts of military and civil servants have driven change by working collaboratively and bringing a diversity of thought and initiative to some very complex projects.” His team has been running the application process for this year’s intake, who will take up the programme at the end of August.

The scheme is of increasing importance as the government’s flagship Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy called for a closer working relationship between military officers and civil servants. The Defence in a Competitive Age paper, which set

out the military response to the review, highlighted the creation of the Secretary of State’s Office for Net Assessment and Challenge that will bring together the best of the civil service, armed forces, academia and business, and challenge accepted wisdom and ways of doing things.

Carleton-Smith says that the challenges presented by the Integrated Review – “how do we better use the workforce types available to us? And how do we ensure that our various contributions are recognised and valued?” – illustrate possible changes. “Our organisation will need to constantly transform and evolve to react to the threats faced by our country and so there will always be benefit in testing and adjusting the way we work together.

“There is no rigid model for us to adhere to, but we must recognise and respect the relative contributions involved. This is about bringing to bear the right skills when and where we need them, using the collective expertise and innovation of our nation in order to meet the threats and challenges of the future.”

In particular, he says “it is imperative that we nurture the military-civil servant relationship”, adding: “The jobs can be very different but the importance of the relationship between these two workforces remains crucial in ensuring the Army delivers in the most effective way.”

“I’m a subject matter expert in terms of the application of the military instrument, but I wasn’t an expert with respect to navigating issues through Whitehall”

Carleton-Smith has himself had a very diverse career. His frontline operational roles, including serving as commander of the SAS special forces unit, have been interspersed with stints in the Ministry of Defence and the Army’s head office.

“That juxtaposition has given me a very rich tapestry of experience and exposure with my civil service colleagues, that I’ve really enjoyed,” he says. “And I’ve learned from civil service colleagues.

“I’m a subject matter expert in terms of the application of the military instrument, but I wasn’t an expert with respect to navigating issues through Whitehall or managing the wider interdependencies that defence is reliant on. My civil service colleagues were, and I’ve learned as much from them in the balance of my career as I have from my other military colleagues.”

In particular, he recalls working closely with civil servants as the MoD’s deputy director of policy planning in 2005, after returning from Afghanistan. “I learned very early that we were going to be much stronger together, and that has proved to be the case,” he says.

He acknowledges that his shift to that Whitehall job “couldn’t have been more stark”.

“I’d spent two and a half years in Iraq and Afghanistan commanding the SAS – at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, and just as we were beginning to prepare the ground in Afghanistan for the NATO mission down into the southwest, and very specifically into Helmand for the UK.

“I had lived a very robust, unsparing, expeditionary existence for a long time, so to suddenly find myself parachuted into the fourth floor of the Ministry of Defence – but not into the operations directorate that was actually dealing with war on two fronts, but into a much more rarefied intellectual atmosphere associated with policy definition in its widest sense – was not the easiest transition to make. I had to decompress from one particular atmosphere, and culture and experience, and I had to grow another set of intellectual muscles in order to contribute to the policy planning team.”

Among those he worked with are senior civil service figures like Gavin Barlow, now a director in the Cabinet Office; Dominic Wilson, now the director general for security policy in the MoD; and Damian Parmenter who went on to become director of the defence and security industrial strategy at the MoD.

“They certainly kept me sharp,” recalls Carleton-Smith. “And they were not predisposed to take military advice as self-evidently being either logical, or the single answer to the question. And it was frankly stimulating, rewarding and challenging to have those conversations with them.”

He says that the challenge of these different roles “brought out the best in me” and is a strength of the MoD overall.

“I had lived a very robust, unsparing, expeditionary existence for a long time, so to suddenly find myself parachuted into the fourth floor of the Ministry of Defence was not the easiest transition”

So what would his advice be to colleagues – both military and civilian – who want to take advantage of this kind of permeability? “When I reflect back on nearly 40 years in defence, the first thing I’d say is that life is really all about making bold decisions, and I encourage them to make the most of the extraordinary breadth of variety that service with the Ministry of Defence does offer.

“It’s all about developing and learning, and continuing to nurture that professional curiosity. I think you can really only do that by continuing to stretch yourself, and taking yourself very deliberately out of your comfort zone, and not limiting your horizons.”

This includes not limiting horizons within Whitehall.

“We are paid in defence to be the subject matter expert, and those who are best at that are those who have thought deeply about our profession and our responsibilities and have studied it both in its breadth and its depth,” he says.

“But it is also those who can see defence in its wider context, across government and Whitehall. And I think that does speak to people who are prepared to pack their kit back up and expose themselves to the fresh challenges of working in other government departments – and then harnessing that experience and bringing it back and applying it again, inside defence.”

He says that within government, the MoD is probably still seen as “somewhat insular, maybe overly hierarchical and siloed, and speaking in hieroglyphics”.

He concludes: “We need to break that down, and our best ambassadors are our youngest, brightest and best, who are telling the defence story among colleagues in other departments.”

This, he hopes, will lead to an increased diversity of experience among officials as they progress in their careers, with an increased ability to forge a consensus around an issue – what he deems the “litmus test” of success in Whitehall. “It is much more important, I think, the more senior you become, to be able to establish a consensus around an issue, rather than be the only person in the room who’s actually right.”

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