If we want to win wars, first change the MoD

We politicians stand accused by The Times of failing to grasp the nettle on defence, of tacitly agreeing to avoid the issue in the run-up to the general election. The issues are so complex that there is a temptation to sweep them under the carpet. But national security should be at the heart of any government’s strategy, and judgments on the fitness of politicians to govern should include a judgment of how well they will protect the people. So let’s start the debate now.

There is a political consensus on the need for a defence review. What I think we need is something much broader. The complexity of the threat demands it.

Defence used to be about how high to build the walls around us to protect from the enemy outside. Now public security can be threatened by anything from viruses in our computer networks to swine flu. It is not enough to be resilient as a nation; we must use the levers of civic society to make resilient communities too. So what we need is a comprehensive national security review.

The broader we draw the boundaries of security, however, the more we need to discuss what it is that we are seeking to protect or to champion. We are moving from a position of “defending the realm” to one of “protecting the people”. This will bring us to an uncomfortable but necessary debate about our place in the world.

We are currently trying to maintain the myth that we can have full-spectrum Armed Forces ready to operate anywhere in the world. Only the Americans and perhaps the Chinese can afford to do that. But do we want and expect to remain a world power, with all the military hardware that implies? Or is it the case that we can only operate in close co-operation with Allies?

A common characteristic among modern organisations is to work out not just what they can do by themselves, but how they can join up with others to do better — I call it Ashdown’s Third Law. Our first step should be to work closely on defence with the only other European country with serious industrial capability — the French.

Once we have analysed the challenges across the spectrum we can make better decisions about where to invest (or where to spare the Treasury axe). We need to identify the right mix of diplomacy, intelligence, aid, economic assistance, security capacity building and force to lead us through these turbulent times. We will not do that by looking in isolation at each department’s area of responsibility. But within all that reviewing of options and building of strategy, one essential element remains constant: we must have the ability to deliver. And in the Ministry of Defence we have a department that is not fit for purpose. We have a department whose performance against its Public Service Agreement targets has been steadily declining since 2005.

This is a greater issue than procurement or buying the right kit. It is about having a department that is able to direct the resources at hand — both money and, crucially, lives — effectively. It is about having a department that is able to overcome its own institutional insularity and link up with partners and nations.

At the moment the MoD is sclerotic and resistant to change — the very faults identified by Kipling after the Boer War. It is hamstrung by an inter-service rivalry that is out of date and now manifests itself publicly in arguments about cuts.

While the American Army under General Petraeus has developed a culture of listening, and learning, to troops, whatever their rank or experience, the culture in the MoD is that you don’t take lessons from junior officers. The ministry needs to become a learning institution if it is to become effective.

The adaptation to counter- insurgency operations seems to have been much slower in the UK than the US, despite our much vaunted experience from Northern Ireland of which we were so proud in southern Iraq in the summer and autumn of 2003.

A national security review would provide the leadership of the MoD with a clearer set of activities and missions. The ministry must then adapt itself to deliver those in as effective and transparent a way as possible.

Take procurement reform. The department should be congratulated on commissioning Bernard Gray to investigate the weaknesses within the current system. The recommendations and observations about behaviour and incentives within the MoD’s procurement section reveal a department that, even though it knew what was wrong, could not bring itself to remedy the problems. And the report looked at only one side of the equipment buying process, deliberately not investigating the role of the defence industry, either the UK’s, or that of our European and other allies.

These are institutional challenges that the MoD must overcome, irrespective almost of the nature of the security tasks it is given. And they will require wholesale changes of the structure and governance of the department.

I have not mentioned Afghanistan. Clearly, the Taleban must be defeated and the people of Afghanistan allowed to govern themselves in a free, representative, and inclusive way. The focus of all agencies of government must be on success in that endeavour.

Future conflicts may not be exactly the same in terms of the enemy, the terrain and the weapons employed. But those adversaries who threaten the UK will look to our successes and failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and use these to plot their own strategic review. We must be faster at learning to be better than our enemies.

Paddy Ashdown. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, was a captain in the Special Boat Service.