One could provide a succession of platitudes about value for money, continuous improvement, and our people being our most important resource. He will have been told about the perennial need for decisions to be devolved to the lowest possible level consistent with competency and delivery. He will be familiar with the culture of obfuscation and abdication of personal accountability associated with a distended committee structure and a staffing system in which compromise appears to be the enemy of logic.
All that advice is valid; and certainly, every pound we spend on defence needs to count. But although the MoD must be run on efficient business principles, its role in deploying and commanding military forces means that not all of its activities and processes can necessarily be reduced by cost saving measures.
Firstly, I would want him to champion a sensible approach to strategy: one that delivers a coherent vision and priorities across defence and for conducting successful operational deployments. The essence of military strategy lies in reconciling ends (what the public and politicians want), means (what they can afford) and ways (the ability of the military to deliver, in practical and technological terms). When these elements are out of balance, or one or more of them is inadequate, defence programmes and spending tend to be incoherent and wasteful. On operations, this imbalance leads to mission failure and can be fatal to campaigns and reputations – as was seen in Afghanistan, where it was doubtful whether there were adequate levels of political direction or resources.
The permanent secretary should articulate the importance of defence across Whitehall, and encourage the development of a national ‘grand strategy’. This would harmonise the ends, ways and means across the whole of government and provide a framework for decisions about priorities, procurement and the future, ensuring that the value of our armed forces and the economic and diplomatic advantages gained by using them could be properly weighed and accurately assessed. Everyone knows the input costs of UK defence capability, but there is little discussion or publication of the output advantages that accrue in support of other national endeavours.
Secondly, the department makes little attempt to assess and reflect cumulative operational risk. This has implications for decisions about the types of conflict in which our armed forces should be engaged. My suggestion is that when the annual departmental plan is agreed, a parallel, rigorous risk assessment should appear, reflecting the inherent and often hidden risk that has been added to the defence programme as a result of various resource adjustments.
In the past, the planning process has involved exhaustively articulating the impact of individual measures, with little or no attempt to quantify the combined risk or the risk carried forward from previous years. Only with an objective, honest assessment of the impact on overall capability of successive adjustments (reductions) in resources can coherence and balance be maintained across all our armed forces. Crucially, this would provide a basis for realistic advice to politicians about their expectations and quantify the risks of UK forces’ engagement in crises.
Finally, I would want the permanent secretary to remember and remind politicians that, in unpredictable times, defence budgets can and should go up as well as down. We might need to surge capability at short notice in response to dynamic events. In addition, an atmosphere of decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which constrains strategic agility and erodes vocation and morale. Ultimately, the issue here is the balance between policy, resources and capability across government, but if the UK does not have capable instruments of state power at its disposal, it will not be able to respond to the world's opportunities and risks, let alone cope with the shocks that seem likely to punctuate a complex, fast-moving strategic landscape in the 21st century.