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Armed forces 'may become detached'
The new head of Britain's armed forces has warned personnel could become "cynical and detached" because deep cuts to the military have not been properly explained to them.
The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Houghton, admitted he faced a "huge challenge" maintaining morale and performance as the services are dramatically reduced in size. But he promised an "honest, straight-talking" approach to ensure that in future everyone was "on side".
In a frank interview with the internal MoD magazine Defence Focus, Gen Houghton also cautioned the country needed to "recalibrate our expectation" of the global role and capacity of British forces. And he conceded that the long-term outcome of the 12-year war in Afghanistan "still sits in the balance".
Gen Houghton said the Government austerity drive could be used to "liberate our thinking about more efficient and effective ways of doing business" but that changes had been insufficiently explained internally. "I plan to be honest, straight-talking and supportive," he said. "I think there's a significant amount of scope for better internal and external communication. We do not spend enough time talking to our internal community. They need to understand the context and relevance of what they're doing in circumstances and times that are quite difficult for many of them."
He went on: "I think we've risked people becoming cynical and detached from what defence is trying to do. With transformation for example, this should be more than just communicating a message - we should be doing it in a way that makes everyone feel on side with what is going on, believes in it and can see the part they need to play."
Gen Houghton said the military was also "guilty of creating bureaucracy, people checking up on others and holding people to account unnecessarily" and needed to act to slim down HQ operations.
"I don't think any of this is beyond the wit of man to get right," he told the magazine. "But the combination of making manpower reductions, keeping our people motivated, maintaining the right skillsets in the right places, and continuing to prosecute operations and run the day-to-day business of defence is a huge challenge."
Shifting focus to a "contingency posture" would mean the UK getting used to no longer having "the same degree of sophistication in capability terms", he cautioned. "We have to recalibrate our expectation of the level of capabilities we can field on new operations from a standing start. We've got to get back into an 'expeditionary mindset' where we will not have perfect capability for every scenario."
The newly-installed military chief said it should be "relatively easy" to recruit the 30,000 extra reservists designed to compensate for a 20,000 cut in regular troops, so long as a "sensible balance" was found between the needs of volunteers, families, employers and the military. It was reported at that weekend that the MoD was already significantly behind its target.
Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "Rather than strategically remodelling our forces for a post-Afghanistan, post-crash, rapidly-evolving security landscape, the Government have simply shed capacity. Army strength and numbers rely on a reserves plan in complete crisis, which could severely limit our ability to respond to and shape world events."