So before Christmas, Gavin Williamson chose the next batch of four-star military leaders. This is certainly not unusual given that the current four leaders are nearly 60 years of age and all have been in post for at least two years. The new set of leaders chosen are certainly not chosen through a ‘game of thrones’ as some rumour-spread ‘journalist’ claims. Yet, as before, there are social media ‘groans’ over the choices.
The most prominent groan I can find is that the future Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), soon-to-be Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, is yet another pilot. Groan, yes, except for former Air Chief Marshal Andrew Pulford, the list of RAF CAS since end of the Cold War have been fighter/ground-attack pilots. Why can’t they choose a non-(fighter) pilot?
The very clear reason why, and such commentators should look before whining, is that they can’t. CAS are either chosen from a batch of Air Marshals or current Air Chief Marshals. The excellent historian Colin Mackie provides a list of all RAF officers from Air Commodore above. There aren’t any four-stars to choose from so let’s skip down to Air Marshals. AM Stacey is listed to be retired. Mackie doesn’t list a source but a simple search shows that Stacey was previously Chief of Staff, NATO Allied Command Transformation. He was a ground-based RAF officer, ok, that’s not a pilot, but he’s 59 or so, thus he’s not a choice for promotion. AM Philip Osborn was Chief Defence Intelligence and is also likely to retire. He was a fighter pilot. AM Julian Young is Chief Materiel (Air), not a usual position for moving up to CAS. In any case again he’s old even though wasn’t a fast-attack pilot officer. AM Stuart Evans could have been a a choice for CAS since he’s young. But his biography shows he was also a fast-attack pilot. AM Stuart Atha would have been a great choice for CAS. Unfortunately, he’s as old as the current CAS, ACM Stephen Hillier, and well, also a fast-attack officer.
So there’s just no basis for groaning that the future CAS is still a pilot officer (no offence to the academic who tweeted it). The list of Air Marshals for CAS is short and all the probable choices have been jet pilots. Yes, perhaps they could have chosen an Air-Chief Marshal. But this is the UK, not the US where officers can be nominated to four-star from a non-three-star rank. In any case, I don’t believe US service chiefs (as in the heads of the US Navy, US Army, US Air Force, US Marine Corps) can be chosen from two-star officers.
There was also a very strong argument for a non-warfare officer to be First Sea Lord. Yet the next First Sea Lord, soon-to-be full Admiral Tony Radakin had an extensive career commanding ships. Again, if you look at Mackie’s list of Vice Admirals it is even shorter and all the possible candidates: VADM Timothy Fraser, VADM Ben Key, VADM Paul Bennett and of course, VADM Tony Radakin served as officers on board ships and commanded ships. Fraser Key and Radakin are the only real possible choices and I guess Key was rejected for some reason or just didn’t want the responsibility of handling the senior service’s budget. Fraser having joint experience and being a high-flyer, got the second-highest command.
Nevertheless, I’m not blatantly criticising alternative choices for service chiefs; in fact I agree that officers from all forms of services should be given the chance to be the head of their service. Yet, one should not intentionally favour or pick them just because they are a minor ethnicity, a female or a non-combat service officer. The whole issue of equal opportunity should be more about looking at capability. The Daily Telegraph news article stated that the new four-star officers were chosen as they would aid improving innovation in the British Armed Forces and the MOD and rightly so. (Contrast it with the Sky News article which suggest there is a fight between the senior service and the RAF–this is a pure example of fake news.) Capability as factor will rightly choose the person who can lead the forces, and that certainly isn’t a ‘showdown over a variants of the F-35’ or a ‘Game of Thrones’. The focus of capability of course seems to disturb proponents or activists for minorities or females. Yet, as I mentioned above, pandering towards one side isn’t beneficial.
Will we get a non-fighter pilot as CAS or a non-warship captain as First Sea Lord in the future? Or even a female? Well Mackie’s almost correct lists of senior officers provides you with the possible choices. In any case, the appointment of these four officers opens up their own positions, namely, Chief of Joint Operations, Second Sea Lord, Deputy Commander Capability and Air Member for Personnel and Capability and Commander Field Army. These three-star positions, and other may again lead the path to top commands. It is any one’s game, so long as they have the experience in joint commands and are capable.