The Chief of the Defence Staff

First published on 21 Feb 21

There has been a spate of coverage recently speculating that the current Chief of the Defence Staff’s (CDS) time-in-post is coming to an end. It has quietened down for now, and indeed the date may now have slipped until after the Integrated Review. Of one thing we can be sure, when it looks to be imminent (again), speculation as to his successor will crescendo.

This blog looks at the history of the post, what is required from the incumbent, how and why they’re chosen and why it matters which service they are from, all with a view to outlining why playing ‘guess the CDS’, whilst entertaining, is largely pointless. Inevitably, I’ll finish by having a go anyway…

History

CDS as a position was created in 1959. The UK realised (10 years after the US) that asking a service chief to act as chairman, in rotation, whenever they gathered was insufficient to meet the increasing demands of Joint operations. UK Defence needed a full time chief and the RAF produced the first. Thereafter, the candidates (excepting a blip in ’77) went in service rotation:

1985 saw this pattern properly broken by Admiral of the Fleet Fieldhouse. It’s not clear why, but it certainly changed the landscape thereafter:

There have been 13 Chiefs in this second period; seven Army (54%), four RAF (31%) and two RN (15%), the last of which, Lord Boyce, was 18 years ago, much to the Navy’s chagrin. 1997 was significant in that it saw the first CDS at ‘only’ 4-star level, prior to that they had all been 5-stars.

Of interest, the US tells an uncannily similar story of Army pre-eminence. Since 1949 they have had 21 Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who do on average a year longer in post). Of the 21, ten were/are Army (47%), five Navy (24%), four Air Force (19%) and two Marine Corps (10%): 

There is only one reason I can think of for this pre-eminence (perhaps in both countries): the Army have consistently produced better candidates for the job. 

I should probably try and explain this before I’m barred from every Wardroom forever. 

My immediate point is that ‘better candidate for the job’ does not necessarily mean ‘better candidate’It should but it doesn’t. To understand this we need to look at what the job is and who chooses them.

What

Ripped from the MoD website, the Chief of the Defence Staff is “the professional head of the Armed Forces and principal military adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence and the government.” Responsibilities include:

  • Leading defence (with the Permanent Secretary)
  • Setting strategy for defence, including the future development of the Armed Forces (subject to ministers’ direction, and together with Perm Sec)
  • The conduct of current operations (as strategic commander)
  • Leading relationships with other countries’ Armed Forces

These pillars; strategy, planning, operations and outreach, look like a reasonable set of criteria against which a diverse selection panel could score each candidate based on their performance grades taken from their years in Flag rank. Except that’s not what happens. Then there are unwritten lines that are critical:

  • Getting on with SofS and PM
  • Not likely to embarrass either of them politically

These two are absolutely fundamental but often overlooked (by the purist) and possibly the reason why there can be a difference between the best person and the best person for the job.

How

The team that chooses CDS is very small – essentially it’s the PM and the Defence Secretary. They will be advised by Defence Ministers and the Perm Sec but even then, it’s still a small cabal. Its size and lack of accompanying process makes it vulnerable to anomalies. 2016 is a good example. In this instance, Defence and SofS had a preference (Army) but the PM had a different preference (Navy) and when he felt like he was being pressured by Defence to go with their choice, he issued his now infamous ‘find me a third person’ order. Sir Stuart Peach (RAF) was duly offered up for interview and then selected. Years of manoeuvring and lobbying was undone overnight; hundreds of gossips, ‘the thinking person’s money is on…’ speculators and ‘I know from my source who it’s going to be’ winkers were proven wrong.

Why

Is it possible that an Army officer’s through-career progression lends itself to selection for the top job better than the other two services? Certainly there are more of them and if the sporting player-base theory reads across, then this will be an advantage. This numerical bias is most noticeable (and relevant) in the very senior Joint jobs that are so important as a proving ground for potential CDSs. The army also takes career broadening and education very seriously as witnessed by the ultra-competitive way they tackle staff course(s). The three services do breed subtly different types of leaders. The rugby captain (Army), the Formula 1 driver (RAF) and the rowing eight captain (Navy) are the three cliched-but-useful representations. They’re a generalisation, of course, but is there something in the Army leadership system that makes the finished product more appealing to selecting politicians? 

Naval Officers spend, on average, the first 15 years of their career at sea. The vast array of technical skills required to be competent for sea command are quite different from the political and analytical skills required for high command. When you’re finally spat out of ships and onto a desk, it’s possible that you may be many staff and Joint jobs behind your other service equivalents. Can one catch that up? Of course, but if you have to, and are doing so with fewer people to start with, eventually the law of averages will count against you. I’ll leave this here to the sound of non-Warfare Officers sharpening their pencils!

Another reason often cited for the selection of once service over another, and one that is being used now by advocates of a Navy CDS, is that the choice is tagged to the service-of-the-day. Superficially this makes sense but historically doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:

  • 2001 – Lord Boyce (RN) was instrumental in the build-up and execution of the invasion of Iraq, neither of which were hampered by the colour of his uniform. 
  • 2006 – Defence was firmly locked into two land campaigns, so why chose the RAF (Sir Graham Stirrup who served longer in the role than anyone since Mountbatten)? The RAF were key in these campaigns but they weren’t primus inter pares so if this logic were sound, General Walker would have been relieved by another General. 
  • 2018 – The importance of the maritime domain in countering the potential/actual threat posed by Russia and China was obvious to all decision makers at this time, yet the baton went from the RAF to the Army. 

History therefore doesn’t back the argument currently circulating that Russia + China = Maritime => Navy CDS. 

So What

The theory goes that CDS is service-agnostic and it therefore makes no difference what colour their uniform is. In terms of the advice they offer to ministers I think is probably right. Service biases are hard to overcome, and in some cases at quite senior level they are not, but at the very top, any skulduggery would be obvious, crass and most likely called out. However, in their role as brand ambassador to UK defence, it makes a big difference. CDS is probably the most photographed person in uniform. To people without an intimate understanding of defence, and surveys suggest there are many, which uniform the person at the head of it is wearing matters – it’s the kind of branding that companies spend a fortune to get right.

In sum, candidates for this most prestigious military job are measured against some clearly defined professional objectives and some undefined yet very real and important human and political criteria. Add to this the small size of the (political) team doing the picking and predictions are nigh on impossible. Looking to the service-of-the-day to assist is tempting and whilst the branding element suggests it should matter, in reality, it is statistically inconclusive.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t try…

Who

  • The current front runners appear to be General Sanders (Commander of Strategic Command) and Admiral Radakin (First Sea Lord). 
  • The assumption that it won’t be Army again is flawed (see above).
  • The top of defence is very Army right now. Three from five ministers and, of course, current CDS. You can see why people might want to break this cabal up but for the same reason, those in it – and they have the vote – might not want to.
  • If the service-of-day does become important this time around, then under the PM’s global Britain, the Navy has a compelling case. Giant model carriers on the No.10 table are a good sign. However, cyber, space and technology are equally in vogue right now and play to the Defence Secretary’s oft mentioned Grey Zone; back to General Sanders. 
  • What will the much anticipated Integrated Review demand from the next CDS? If it’s transformation, on current track record, Admiral Radakin has it. If it’s a post-Brexit/Covid slow rebuild, then who knows?
  • Assumed other candidates are the Vice Chief, Admiral Fraser and the heads of the Army and Air Force, all three of whom are very highly regarded by their own services. 
  • CDS has always been picked from either the Vice Chief or the current heads of service. However, this is a convention rather than a law and so there is no reason why, for example, the current Commander Joint Operations couldn’t be eligible.
  • Appointing Admiral Fraser would have the added advantage of keeping the Naval hierarchy in place, although I think this would have limited bearing on the decision makers.
  • Admiral Radakin is young enough to have a run at it next time around.

So, here we go. I think it should be Admiral Radakin or Fraser but I think it will be General Sanders. There I’ve said it. But, for all the reasons outlined above, I’ll be wrong and it will be someone I haven’t even mentioned. 

“Guessing the next CDS is like plugging in a USB – you’re going to get it wrong.” Tom Sharpe

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