The appointment of Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Royal Navy, as the new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) has gained significant public interest and coverage.
Not only does it mark the first time a Royal Navy officer has been appointed to the role for 20 years, but it also comes at a time when the UK is potentially reassessing its defence strategy, and this could be seen as a sign of a move to a more maritime strategy.
The post of CDS is perhaps one of the least understood of all the senior military roles, despite it being the most senior job in the armed forces.
Historically, until the late 1950s, there was no ‘CDS’ post in existence, with the three Service Chiefs representing their respective services, but no one senior person in overall charge.
After the Second World War, when operations became increasingly joint in nature, rather than carried out in isolation, it made sense for the senior armed forces leadership to work together. In 1959, it was agreed to appoint a single ‘Chief of the Defence Staff’ who would be responsible for coordinating military activity and acting as the overall senior representative for the armed forces.
Since 1960 there have been 23 incumbents of the role, 10 from the British Army, seven from the Royal Air Force and six from the Royal Navy.
The shortest incumbent was in the role for just 92 days (Marshall of the RAF Sir Andrew Humphrey died of pneumonia while in the post), and the longest was Earl Mountbatten, in post for just over six years.
What is buggins' turn?
The CDS role was initially filled on a rotational basis, with a senior officer (usually a Service Chief) taking on the role, on an RAF – Royal Navy – Army basis. This has led to the suggestion that the post was filled on what became known as 'buggins' turn', with each Service waiting for its go at the post to ensure fairness and equal treatment.
In reality, it is a bit more complex than this, with some appointments being of turn.
For example, Royal Navy officers being replaced by RAF and so on. This was perhaps as much due to the wider career management circumstances, whereby an individual Services preferred candidate may not have been ready to take over at a certain time.
By the 1980s though, change was afoot and the rotation changed to being the 'best person for the job' rather than it being done on a service basis.
The result of this change meant that between 1988 and 2021, there has been just one Royal Navy CDS (Admiral Boyce) – perhaps leading to concerns in the Royal Navy that it was being disadvantaged in some way.
While we may think of the CDS role as being the senior serving officer in the armed forces, it is also a role that has some misconceptions attached to it.
The CDS may be in charge, but they do not exercise direct control over the three individual Services – this remains very much in the hands of the individual Service Chiefs.
Rather the CDS post is one of a leader, advisor and stakeholder engagement lead. As a leader, their role is to act as the senior serving officer in the military and be the ultimate uniformed person in the chain of command. They are the very public figurehead of the armed forces and the CDS post represents the very pinnacle of the military hierarchy.
As an advisor, their role is to act behind closed doors to offer advice and guidance to the Government of the day on military matters. The CDS has the right of direct access to the Prime Minister if required and fills a key role in providing advice and guidance on the conduct of military operations.
This advice is critical in helping shape decisions by the Government on how to employ force and the practicality of military deployments. The advice that CDS can offer would range from guidance on how to deploy the military, based on professional advice from the individual Services, through to helping guide the Prime Minister of the day on the release of the independent nuclear deterrent. It is a broad task with a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the incumbent.
The CDS must also be good at stakeholder engagement – this slightly 'business like' phrase is a good way of explaining what CDS must do for much of their day. It is the business of meeting people and engaging with them about the business of Defence.
This can range from meeting Parliamentarians or senior foreign delegations to hold talks and discussions, helping raise awareness or forge new strategic links, to engaging in complex security conversations on geopolitical issues.
As the senior serving Officer, the views of CDS are hugely important to foreign stakeholders, who will want to hear what he or she thinks on defence matters. The role of CDS is often as much about being a negotiating partner, representing wider British Government interests or helping send a message to friend or ally as it is about leading the military.
Sometimes presence makes a big difference in helping hold talks and shape strategic outcomes.
Internally, the role of the CDS is to try to act as a collective leader and at times 'peacemaker' between the three individual Services (and increasingly Strategic Command as well). There will often be times when the three Services do not agree on what to do, or how to do something- for example what package of cuts to approve, or how to balance spending priorities.
At times like this, the role of CDS is to act as an umpire and reach a decision that is in the overall best interests of Defence. This can be a challenging thing to do. For years they will have worked as part of their Service and looked to take decisions that are in its best interests. Suddenly they may find themselves having to look past their single service loyalty and agree to cuts or changes that have a negative impact on their service as the least bad option overall.
It is understandable that when these appointments are made, people assume that the Service background of the individual will impact how the three Services are funded and operate.
For example, during much of the 21st Century, the CDS role has been filled by British Army Generals, in part potentially because the large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan called for senior leadership that understood the complex ground environment.
There are doubtless some who will look at the news that the Royal Navy is providing the next CDS and assume that this means a sign of renewed investment in the Senior Service, and possible deep cuts to the British Army.
Reports of the problems experienced by the Ajax vehicle, and the wider problems facing the British Army and its increasingly obsolescent vehicle force may make it ripe for more cuts without the protection of an Army CDS.
Those fears are probably unjustified though. The reason for this is that the CDS role only works if the postholder is scrupulously impartial. If one were seen to be 'siding' with their service over the others, then the whole system would potentially be at risk – with future CDS candidates being expected to act in a similar manner.
In fact, it could be argued that despite there not being a Royal Navy CDS in the last 20 years, they have been remarkably good years for the Royal Navy.
It has benefitted from a wealth of investment and managed to deliver into service two large aircraft carriers and associated aircraft and support ships. At a time when the armed forces were preoccupied with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would have been easy to make the case for cutting these projects to fund land operations.
That this did not occur is in no small part due to the ability of the Chief of the Defence Staffs of the time to rise above internal Service instincts and champion what they believed to be the right long-term outcome for Defence as a whole. It is for these reasons that the British Army probably has nothing to fear from the appointment of a Naval CDS in itself.
The challenges facing Admiral Radakin are quite substantial and he will have a lot of issues to deal with over the duration of his time in the role – likely to be the next three to four years. He will need to lead the armed forces through several different and equally challenging issues while ensuring they remain able to deliver what is expected of them.
For starters, he must oversee the implementation of the Integrated Review, which is the document setting out the British Governments national security strategy. Announced in 2021, it sets a very ambitious vision for the next five to 10 years in terms of roles, outputs and missions, and will potentially lead to major changes to the way the armed forces work.
These changes may include bringing new technology into service – for example making the best use of data, AI and robotics, in order to ensure British troops retain a battle-winning edge on operations. But delivering this means significant changes to equipment and orders of battle. As CDS, he will need to oversee the work undertaken by each of the three Services to deliver on their commitments – this will include making significant cuts and withdrawing equipment from service.
For example, the Royal Navy is making significant changes to reduce its crewed mine warfare vessels, paying them off now in order to free up funds for more advanced autonomous ships in a few years' time. Likewise, the British Army is looking to reduce the number of tanks and artillery pieces in order to focus more on deploying in lighter more agile forces into trouble spots around the world.
These cuts will be both painful to deliver and potentially difficult to sell.
Admiral Radakin will need to be able to make a compelling and convincing case that they are part of a much wider journey of transformation aimed to modernise the military, both to those serving and external stakeholders.
In the former audience, he will need to be seen to be a convincing and objective leader, seen as being equally prepared to take tough decisions on all three services and also champion their interests.
He will probably encounter a lot of concerns and resistance to these changes and will need to be able to sell the benefits of the Integrated Review and why it improves life for the armed forces.
Externally he will need to make the case to a diverse audience that the Integrated Review outcomes, including defence cuts, does not mean a reduction in British appetite to operate globally. Rather that it means a willingness to use new technology to do things differently.
Linked to these debates is the problem of finding solutions to the budget crisis facing the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Although the Chancellor has given the MOD a substantial spending boost to help fund transformation, there are still significant budget shortfalls that mean difficult decisions need to be taken soon about how to fix them.
This could mean more cuts, changing or slowing projects down or having to try and do things very differently – for example cancelling a major equipment project or trying to think again about military structures to find a more affordable model. These changes will be difficult to deliver and could lead to heated discussions about the best way to balance the budget and where cuts should fall – it is unlikely to be an easy task to oversee or implement.
Admiral Radakin will need to spend much of his tenure thinking about both these financial challenges and what the next major defence review is likely to involve. There is likely to need to be another defence review in the next four to five years, meaning much of the preparatory work and policy discussions will start while the Admiral is in post. This is his chance to shape the thinking about the overall strategic role and shape of the military and the task they will play well into the 2030s and beyond.
Finally, against this challenging financial situation, Admiral Radakin will also need to be ready to take on the difficult task of leading the military through what could be a challenging period. The next few years could see a variety of really challenging national security crises emerge around the world, from issues in NATO to Middle East security through to increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. His task will be to ensure that the armed forces are ready if called upon, to provide a range of military options to policymakers.
The post of Chief of the Defence Staff is challenging, difficult and requires the post holder to be at the absolute top of their game. It requires immense skill and ability to do well, and the post holder has a huge amount of work ahead of them with many challenging problems to tackle.
In many ways, it is perhaps the loneliest and most thankless job in Defence, but it is also perhaps the most important too.
Cover Photo: Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the Defence Staff (Picture: Crown Copyright).
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.