The Chief of Air Staff must have appreciated beforehand that he was throwing his hat into the ring: it was a courageous act in the highest tradition of the Royal Air Force. But any value gained was quickly dissipated by his ignominious climbdown. Either he meant what he said, and had evidence to back up his assertions, or he should never have made the speech at all.
The late Lord Mountbatten, who was a master of the art of Whitehall gamesmanship, used to say that crossing swords with the Treasury was worthwhile (or even justifiable) only if the issue was one on which the Chiefs of Staff could stand together shoulder-to- shoulder; and if all of them were prepared, in the final analysis, to exercise their ultimate sanction - collective resignation. Mountbatten also counselled that this ultimate sanction was a viable option only before final decisions had been announced; once the political die had been cast, such action was futile - and even unworthy.
There is undoubted concern about the Government's lack of a structured defence policy that relates resources to commitments, and which is unbalanced as between the nuclear and conventional components. And there is much public support for the problems that the armed forces are facing. But if the Chiefs are discontent, they need to have the courage of their convictions and invoke their ultimate sanction. Otherwise, the wisest course might be to keep their powder dry.
TONY LE HARDY
The writer served with the Chief of Defence Staff, 1962-65.Reuse content