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Speech by Admiral The Lord Boyce GCB, OBE, DL

Admiral The Lord Boyce GCB, OBE, DL

On: The Challenges Facing UK Armed Forces

14 April 2004


  • “Honour to have been asked to dine with this illustrious Group; and speaking on behalf of myself and my fellow guests, May I thank you for your very fine hospitality.
  • VMT introduction.  It was indeed a privilege to hold the senior position in the Armed Forces over the busiest operational period for about five decades.  A time when the Army, Navy and Air Force acquitted themselves with great distinction and success – as they did in the decades before, and continue to do now.
  • And that brings me to my subject for this evening – the challenges facing UK Armed Forces.  Because possibly their greatest challenge arises from their history of success, since everyone takes it for granted that they will always win, will always do good, will always put no foot wrong.  So we have at one end of the scale those who have influence or control of resources thinking, if not saying, “If they are that good they can do the same with less”.  And at the other, when a foot does sometimes stray off the path, you would think from some commentators that the sky had fallen in!
  • So management of expectations – of those both within the Services and of those without – is a serious issue for the Armed Forces; and it is becoming an increasingly tough one with which to deal.
  • Of course, there are other challenges too – some of which contribute to this macro challenge – and I have to say that the list is pretty inexhaustible.  But what I would like to do is to cover some of them under the general headings of: operations, technology, people, a potpourri of legislation/PC/politics/media, resources and alliances/coalitions.


  • From operational point of view (as you have no doubt heard endlessly!), we undoubtedly do now have a new perspective following 9/11.
  • Along with the much increased awareness of asymmetric threats (i.e., those avoiding direct conventional conflict – and, by the way, we can, and do, use asymmetry too), we now have to expect our main troubles will arise from failing or rogue states – i.e., those on a different moral ground to us and who do not share the same fear of retribution as ones which feel some responsibility for their territory and people.  One could characterise this by saying, for example, that if the 20thC problem was one of states too strong, the 21stC may be one of states too weak!
  • And we also have to worry about non-state actors who have nothing to lose.
  • So to deal with this, our AF are going to have to be more agile and flexible, ready to prevent, stabilise, and contain bad behaviour; or deter and coerce if necessary.
  • And if all that fails, then be able to take direct action to disrupt, defeat or destroy.
  • And while they – delinquent states or independent terrorists – care little for consequences, once we are militarily engaged with our adversaries we are expected to achieve our aims not only by incurring no losses on our side or causing collateral damage, but also not inflicting any casualties on the enemy.
  • Of course, I am caricaturising – but not a whole lot.  The ‘golden bullet’ syndrome has serious impact on our planning; and it gives huge impetus to our shift to effects-based warfare.
  • Necessary jargon I am afraid!  But let me explain what I mean by effects-based warfare.   It is important, because it is at the heart of the operational challenge.
  • Historically, the majority of military operations have been conducted on the premise that significantly degrading an adversary’s military combat power will sap his will to fight: the ‘attrition’ approach.  However, as I have just suggested, some less conventional adversaries may be willing to accept serious losses; whilst our society is, in general, becoming increasingly risk averse to casualties on either side of a conflict.  So future military operations will need to place increased emphasis on influencing the mind of an adversary whilst keeping casualties and collateral damage to a minimum.  These may be described as effects-based operations in that they will seek to concentrate on actions against both the will and Command and Control capability of an opponent, as opposed to using purely attrition to achieve one’s ends.


  • Which brings me on to my next ‘challenge’ area, Technology, because emerging technology and increased weapon precision will be vital enablers in achieving success in such effects-based operations.
  • But although modern technology provides a solution in this operational environment, it also presents some problems.
  • On the plus side, it will allow us to focus on the pure essentials to achieve our aim, as opposed to having to go about our business in the traditional attrition way.  By networking everything from information through decision making to targeting and orders to shoot we can be quick, precise, minimalist and move towards the golden bullet.  Process weaving all this together is termed network-enabled capability; and it underpins our effects-based warfare.
  • The challenge is how do we get it in to service fast enough – the world is not going to stand still for us.  And our experience of introducing modern systems has not been a happy one of late.  (And, by the way, it is not just the MOD’s fault, as many are quick to say.  Industry’s performance has too often been as much to blame.)  And, of course, money is required to achieve this ‘transformation’, as it is called by some. 
  • Anyway, while the new capabilities are still jam tomorrow, the AF will be expected to perform as if they have the capabilities now; and bold assumptions will be made about how the technology will allow the same or more to be done with a smaller front line – and savings will undoubtedly be taken before the new systems are in place.  And, incidentally, many of the savings will be taken on old/legacy systems that can and do play an entirely satisfactory role in peacetime/low intensity tasks – and where the new technology I’ve been talking about anyway has little or no relevance.  How all this will be managed without either increasing overstretch or cutting back on commitments will be intriguing to watch. 
  • Another challenge about new technology is that it has outpaced our ability to govern its use, especially as our vulnerabilities as societies have grown; because it is, of course, all too often readily available in many of its forms – including WMD – to potential adversaries or disaffected minorities.  And they can probably get some of it quicker!


  • Let me move on to people because, however good the concepts and technology, if AF don’t have the right number of soldiers, sailors and airmen of the right quality, then they are going nowhere.
  • The problem is that, in today’s sophisticated techno-society, the AF are fishing in the same pool for the same high quality young men and women that business, industry and commerce want; and when they do succeed in getting the 25000 people they need each year (not an insignificant challenge!), holding onto them is a real problem.
  • Why?  Lure of better money in the private sector who want them – rightly, because they are first class; less hardship outside military life (especially, as they get older, separation – working spouses); and today’s culture of not staying in one job for very long.
  • And matching expectations (I mentioned this earlier as a problem within the Services as well as outside) is difficult against a background of increasing reluctance to accept rigour and risk (and even if the serviceman or woman can, his or her family may not).
  • So there is a real leadership challenge here to prevail against these odds, most especially in being able to show consideration and empathy whilst instilling the professionalism and toughness that make our soldiers, sailors and airman the best in the world – especially in the business of rapid switching from war to peace profiles, something in which UK has no equal.
  • Not helped here on the whole by my next challenge area, potpourri of….


  • Present a hatful of difficulties which conspire to make life for military leaders ever more difficult.
  • On legislation and H&S, much entirely sensible – so we would want to live with that. But much is not i.e., on H&S, seeing too much along the lines of inviting circus acrobats to wear hard hats!! [you may remember the story from Paris last year]; or on legislation, warding off some of the deftness (in terms of forces engaged in operations) in the Working Time Directive; or the line on Courts Martial the European Court of Human Rights is taking.  And under legislation I include litigation, which is becoming the bane of everyone’s life, AF included, and a significant drain on the Defence budget
  • A PC thread runs through some of this, as it does through…….
  • Politics, where too much is now is being driven by worry about media reaction – to the extent that decision-making can be paralysed.
  • This of course can have serious repercussions on readiness, and the underpinning philosophy in Defence logistics introduced in the 90s of having only just enough equipment available just in time.  It seems to me now that the Armed Forces will always be in a situation where there will not be quite enough when the crunch comes, and it won’t be in time.  Because permission to get preparations underway sufficiently early to mitigate this will never be forthcoming.
  • And as for the media, too much is out of control; and too much of it is guilty of being at best half-empty rather than half-full.  They can, and do, have a serious effect on the morale and fighting spirit of the AF.
  • What is the challenge of this potpourri?  Firstly, I believe a grossly disproportionate amount of time is spent in managing these various issues at the cost of getting on with core business.  And secondly, they are singly and collectively responsible for a growing climate – if not culture – of risk averseness.  And that is bad news in a fighting force.


  • Let me move on to Resources, where it is notable that activity levels for the AF have continued to rise through the last 10 years; and certainly since the SDR of 1998 – and that said Defence needed 2.5% of GDP to do its business; but funding is now at 2.2% GDP and falling in spite of the higher demands.
  • So, Defence is strapped for cash.  Nothing new – history littered with examples of Commanders complaining of shortages of equipment, ammunition, victuals etc.
  • And, probably as in yesteryear with the likes of Wellington and Nelson, the AF are victims of their own success.  As I implied earlier, the Treasury will say: since you keep winning and delivering so brilliantly, you must be more than adequately funded.  Anyway, I suspect the beneficial hike Defence got in SR 02 is about to be savaged in this year’s spending round; and not only will that present real difficulty, in terms of belt-tightening across all arms from fighting equipment through stores to defence estate (I mentioned my suspicions about a savings exercise); but worse, servicemen and women will perceive they are under-valued in spite of all their considerable sacrifices.  And thus retention could become an even bigger problem.


  • Let me finally turn to alliances and coalitions – more the stuff of this Group, I guess.  Firstly, it is difficult (not impossible!) to imagine us operating unilaterally in the future on anything other than the most modest of scales – not necessarily because we cannot achieve the military objective, but rather that it will be, for political reasons, the norm to look for other flags to fly alongside one’s own when embarking on some campaign.  And this applies just as much to the US as well.
  • Thus our AF must expect to operate alongside other countries. But they must, by the way, be wary of building up over-reliance on any ally in times of fair weather because, as we saw in the Iraq operation last year, some allies who had key personnel embedded in our frontline units pulled them out at le moment critique! 
  • Anyway, once alliances or coalitions have been put into operational effect, the challenge is to make them work on the ground.  This can all be wrapped up in one word – interoperability.  This is not just a technical issue, which I will return to in a moment, but also covers concepts and working relationships – I call it ‘interoperability of the mind’.  On this, there are bound to be differences between countries in how they approach problems – the stance might be aggressive, passive, stand-back, low-key engagement, “just-here-for-the-beer” or whatever.  On their own, any might be the right way to do things; but when countries are working together on the same problem in the same region, intellectual balance at the top, and harmony and compatibility of approach at the coalface, so to speak, are pretty crucial.
  • And it is equally important that allies working together know the nature of each others procedures, level of professionalism, quality of command, the type of people they are standing alongside in facing danger and so on.  This knowledge is acquired through training and practising together.  And the challenge here is that this very necessary teamwork preparation is being militated against by a combination of lack of resources – causing exercises to be cancelled – and the busy, real-life operational programme that reduces the numbers available to go away for multinational training.
  • But even if this is all can be achieved, there must also be technical interoperability.  This means spending money on kit if one is to stay on the pace with the leaders – and specifically the US.  This also means the US must pay attention to what I call “backward interoperability” ie, trying to help others to keep up – there is no point in leaving everyone in their wake out of sight over the horizon if they want them to be engaged which, as I said earlier, they will.  And those in the middle, such as UK, must watch both ways. 


  • L & G.  Think you have probably heard enough from me.
  • What, inter alia, not covered (Lots!!) [e.g., NATO/ESDI].  But hope I’ve provided enough to give [some basis for further discussion].
  • And if I’ve been a bit downbeat, it is only because my scamper over the ground has not allowed me to cover much that is positive.
  • And anyway, my maxim has always been:  no such things as problems, only solutions in disguise. And I am sure you would agree with me that that is typified in the can-do attitude of our Army, Navy and Air Force.”