Fatal Policy Failures at Defence
There can have been few more damaging reports issued about the way in which defence matters are managed today than the investigation by Charles Haddon-Cave into the 2006 RAF Nimrod crash. Published on Wednesday, he uses direct language to condemn a "systemic failure" which brought about the tragic accident that lost 14 service lives. Revealingly, on the day that Gordon Brown announced a complete U-turn on TA training - originally cancelled to save money, now reinstated due to serious opposition at a saving that puts TA personnel in danger when serving - Haddon-Cave's most serious accusation is that the wholesale culture in the RAF has moved from safety to budgetary concerns. In effect, forget airworthiness and concentrate on costs. This is no way to run the military.
Two of the ten named individuals singled out for criticism were the first Chiefs of Defence Logistics, General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sam Pledger. These were servicemen promoted to the highest level and charged with implementing government cost saving initiatives that were bound to result in safety failures somewhere along the line. Cowan instituted a cost saving regime that was ruthlessly pursued, while Pledger apparently even wondered whether he should continue with such a scheme in the light of the government's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That he did so, seemingly against his better judgement, is what has led to his shaming by Haddon-Cave.
Then there are the civilian contractors, each incompetent and careless on the issue of safety. Two of the named individuals worked for Qinetiq, the defence firm that was later privatised by the government, netting its executives windfall payments of up to £20million and £23million. There can surely be no greater indicator of the bankruptcy of defence logistics, and a shameful government policy that commits the armed services to a greater and more complex level of armed combat than has been seen since 1945, whilst at the same time cutting its budget and placing huge pressure to deliver financial savings above everything else.
The Haddon-Cave report has shed light on the appalling nature of the Nimrod tragedy, but it has cast its beam inadvertantly wider by illuminating the whole shoddy structure of current defence policy. The same shoddiness led to the Chinook crash of 1994 - a crash initially blamed on pilot error before a campaign by the dead pilots' families eventually revealed that software problems were to blame. Software problems for the chinooks further led to 8 new helicopters, ordered at a cost of £259million, being indefinitely grounded. And Gordon Brown wanted to save a comparatively paltry £20million by stopping all TA training.
There isn't much that is positive about this whole dismal saga. The government, its defence agencies, and senior servicemen, stand monumentally indicted. But Haddon-Cave's report has at least brought all this into the open, and its direct, critical style should be the template for every future independent report into the sometimes fatal failings of government. Openness has brought us this, as it has brought us the knowledge of our MPs' expenses shenanigans, and there can surely be no good argument against introducing stronger and more far-reaching Freedom of Information legislation as soon as possible.