Better intelligence, more strategic input needed in MOD decision-making

26 March 2015

Decision-making in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has become clearer in recent years but more needs to be done to improve the quality of information and strategic debate, and to allow disagreement in the system. “Decision Making in Defence Policy” is the Defence Select Committee's last report of this Parliament.

The report examines two examples of poor decision-making in the past. Their first case study examined the UK deployment of soldiers to isolated positions in Helmand, Afghanistan, in 2006, where British forces came under fierce Taliban attack and ultimately needed very substantial reinforcement.  Secondly the Committee looked into the MoD decision, first to select STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) jets for the aircraft Carriers, then to change to catapult launched jets, and then to reinstate the STOVL jets. In both cases, the structure of decision-making was bewildering.

One Secretary of State claimed that he was not aware of being in the chain of command; some civilians seemed uncomfortable challenging military advice; and there was little sense of any long-term strategy underpinning the decisions. All this seems to have created a system which struggled to establish and prioritise defence objectives, evaluate alternative options available, or manage the risks of final decisions. Immensely important and costly decisions appear to have had remarkably uncertain foundations.

Committee's findings

The Committee found that subsequent reforms by Lord Levene for the MoD, and the development of the National Security Council, have improved interdepartmental coordination, and brought clearer leadership, clearer accountability, clearer civilian control, and clearer opportunity for challenge. This was all a substantial improvement on the old decision-making system.

But significant problems are still not addressed. There is a continuing lack of deep-country or subject expertise, and therefore, a lack of high-quality information or evidence available to decision-makers. More needs to be done to educate the key decision-makers better, and train them to think and act more strategically.

Investment in making improvements within the MoD are needed but are not sufficient in isolation, and the Committee’s examination suggests the NSC itself does not seem to be adequately staffed, or resourced.

Chairman of the Committee, Rory Stewart MP, said:

“In both the Helmand and Carrier examples, the MoD seemed to have been poorly informed of the facts, which inevitably led to decision-makers misunderstanding the nature of the problems. Those responsible do not seem to have sought the right expert advice, or if they did, they ignored it. To compound that situation, there does not seem to have been a healthy culture of challenge within the chain of command.

We are pleased that recent reforms have addressed the lack of clarity in decision-making. But there is more to be done. Responding to the modern crises that we see unfolding month after month requires a high level of historical and cultural understanding, greater emphasis on strategic expertise, deeper efforts of analysis and lesson learning, more openness to challenge, more clarity, more imagination, and more courage. This will require continuing reassessment and reforms in the decision-making structures of the Ministry of Defence and the National Security Council.

Our service personnel have not always been well served by the decisions made by politicians and military leaders. It is absolutely imperative, therefore, that the MoD gets the right information, the right structures, the right processes, and the right people to make the best decisions.”

Further information

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