The Profitable NexusHow Ex-British Military Leaders Find Lucrative Roles in Business and Defence
Concerns swirl in Whitehall around retired senior British officers looking to advise foreign governments – conflicts of interest persist even if there is no wrongdoing, writes Iain Overton
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The Middle East has always been a draw for the British military, with its history of coups and power struggles. From Lawrence of Arabia to Field Marshal Montgomery and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the allure of the desert sands and the high politicking of warring tribes seems to have wormed its way into the martial soul.
Such attraction has, though, had deep consequences for the region. When the British military helped create the borders of several countries in the region during and after World War One, it set the tone of border wars for years to come.
Now, in a post-imperial age, Britain’s presence in the Gulf continues.
In 2019, the UK’s then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson signed a Joint Defence Agreement with Oman, part of a wider regional pact that included “a new naval support facility in Bahrain and… ongoing cooperation at Al Udeid in Qatar”. Earlier this year, British troops were reported participating in Exercise Khanjar Oman, part of a four-month deployment with the Royal Army of Oman.
Exactly why British soldiers should be training to protect desert Wadis, so far from Northern Ireland and Scotland where most of those troops were recruited, is unclear. One report said that it was to prepare them for “potential threats to the British public”.
Such closeness, however, does not just reside in the realm of military state assisting military state.
Recent announcements by the UK Government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) – a non-departmental public body that provides advice on the propriety of business appointments for former ministers, senior civil servants, and certain other Crown servants – has shown there are job opportunities for British ex-military in the region, too.
In November, ACOBA reviewed General Sir Nick Carter’s application for a paid appointment with Equilibrium Gulf Limited and Equilibrium Global Limited. It questioned the suitability of the former Chief of the Defence Staff in a consultancy role that aimed to provide advice on issues covered by Bahrain’s Government Priorities Framework and worried that “he could offer Equilibrium and its clients unfair access to information and influence”.
Despite these reservations, Carter’s request was approved. According to ACOBA, the former general had “confirmed that Equilibrium’s work has not, and will not, involve defence matters”. Equilibrium in turn is resolute: it has never done such defence work.
Equilibrium itself boasts a raft of ex-military British advisors and consultants who have worked for it in the past. Its two-page website also has a list of those it can reach out to for consultancy advice, including “former Chiefs of Defence Staff; and a former Secretary-General of NATO”.
One ex-British officer who works for the firm is Major-General Ashmore, former “Military Secretary” and later General Officer, Scotland. Another former advisor is General Sir Richards – now Lord Richards of Herstmonceux – a man reported in 2015 to have given “generic advice on geo-strategy and associated military strategic issues” to the UAE Government.
Among Equilibrium’s former teams there is also Lt Col Lee Marler, a barrister commissioned into the Army Legal Corps where “he rose from Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel within 10 years”. Then there’s Richard Iron – the former Head of Land Doctrine in the British Army, whose role included “working with the King of Jordan to roll back radical Islam in the Horn of Africa”.
Given the dominance of former servicemen in the company, it raises the question: why pack their Middle East teams with such military expertise?
It is clear that no wrongdoing has been done by either these respected veterans nor the the company. But in a request for clarity, the latter did not answer this question, instead stating: “We don’t have these ex-military personnel on our books anymore.”
But these men are not the only ex-senior military who appear, post-service, to establish seemingly lucrative deals with companies very active in the global defence and diplomacy world.
In 2021, Admiral Sir Jones, former First Sea Lord, took up a role with BAE Systems as a senior military advisor. His role was to “build trusted relationships with international governments”. While Sir Jones himself does not work in the region, BAE Systems profits massively from the Middle East, with offices in Saudi and Oman.
In 2021, ACOBA also advised Lieutenant General Sir Urch, the former UK Commander Home Command, regarding his appointment with Jacobs Engineering Group. Jacobs is a US-based technical services firm that works extensively with the US military.
In 2020, Air Marshal Philip Osborn, former Chief of Defence Intelligence, became a non-exec director of Inzpire, one of the “fastest growing defence companies in the UK” (according to its website). In the same year, Lieutenant General Sir Mark Poffley, former Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, accepted a commission from KBR, a US-based company operating in, among other things, defence and intelligence. In addition, Major-General Wilson, former Master-General of the Ordnance left the Army in 2011 to work for eight years as head of strategy and marketing at the defence giant Thales Land and Air Systems UK.
Again, there is no suggestion that anything was untoward with regards to these appointments. But back in Whitehall, there have been some concerns of retired senior British officers looking to advise foreign governments.
Last year, it was found that Admiral Sir George Zambellas, former First Sea Lord, had failed to seek ACOBA’s advice before taking up a paid role providing advice to the Hellenic Republic. In his defence, Sir George said he had not drawn on privileged information.
But such moments shed light on the integrity of the post-office employment system; one designed to stop nepotism and revolving-door influence.
In a letter dated June 2022, Lord Pickles, the head of ACOBA, stated that the system needed reforming. That its credibility needed the establishment of a clearer risk profile, a sanctions regime, and the rules to be seen to be adhered to by many. As he noted, there was a “lack of assurance about individual departments’ application of the rules below ACOBA level (which are the great majority)”.
For the present, though, ACOBA claims that it adheres to the “highest standards of integrity” when it comes to appointments and all the companies named above are adamant that they adhered to “full compliance” with these standards. There is no evidence anyone mentioned in this article did not serve the statutory time away from their high ranks of office before accepting the commercial shilling.
But is the system itself acting to a sufficiently high standard? Lord Pickles himself worried that “there is an ever-present risk of another scandal which the system is ill-prepared for”.
Reform seems slow. And the framing as to what does not constitute a ‘conflict of interest’ seems to be reinforced by the very companies who benefit from the hiring. They clearly believe, after years out of office, there is no concern for a former military commander going to work for an arms company or as a consultant for a foreign government. Indeed, such later-life commoditisation of public service has become an almost baked-in benefit after years of working for the state.
It has not always been this way. Former British commanders have not always shifted into commerce post-service.
In 1828, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, resigned as Commander-in-Chief to become Prime Minister; Lord Douglas Haig became Chancellor of the University of St Andrews; Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery worked with NATO and wrote his memoirs.
The current rite of passage seems to be post First Gulf War. From one where General Sir Peter de la Billière, in order to allow him to receive the pension benefits of full general, was given a newly created sinecurist (post of Middle East advisor to the Secretary of State for Defence), to where a man such as General Sir Mike Jackson was to take up consultancy jobs or board memberships with PA Consulting Group, SectorGuard and Rolls-Royce.
In part, this shift might be because times – and incomes – have changed. General Carter’s final salary in the Ministry of Defence was around £175,000, not nearly enough to get a mortgage on a central London house. Today it seems the norm that – in a bid to ensure they live to the rank to which they have become accustomed – ex-soldiers must transform their militaristic skills into company assets.
It is no surprise, then, that the UK claims it is the second-largest defence exporter in the world, after the US. Or that ex-Special Forces soldiers can earn thousands a day in lucrative security contracts. Those in the state system go on to bolster the commercial one.
Few begrudge this. But there is an underlying concern: that of whitewashing.
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Some companies that hire former military leaders gain a certain legitimacy from the honours these men won in the service of the state. If, as many feel, the UK’s military stands above the abuses of human rights, then those who employ such leaders of such a military must – the logic goes – share such values. Even if such companies sometimes work with governments or in countries that have major human rights concerns.
Because although, as with the individuals and companies listed above, nothing illegal has occurred, the hiring of a decorated veteran still acts as a form of ethical embrocation.
So, on the one hand, the ex-generals get their just rewards; but on the other, the companies that pay them handsomely stand illuminated by their reflected glow.
The concern, however, does not lie with the companies or the retired generals and sea lords who line their retirement funds with lucrative corporate contracts. It does not even lie with the fact that some ex-military heads go to work for some businesses (though not all) that trade in countries that pose significant human rights problems.
Rather it lies with a government that ordains such a culture.
It lies in the UK’s ambition to be a global military power (meaning working, militarily, cheek by jowl with Gulf states like the Saudis and the Bahrainis and ignoring their human rights abuses) meaning that their ex-generals are seen to be very attractive to companies that seek to profit from the corresponding global arms sales. And, in failing to address why ex-heads of the military feel it is financially necessary to work for foreign states or companies that arm and advise such states, the system persists.
There is no easy solution. Pay generals more in retirement? Refuse to offer military contracts to companies that employ them? No. Capitalism’s logic tends to fixate the debate entirely within the so-called ‘military-industrial’ complex and offers no alternatives.
Perhaps it is what it is. But saying that these ex-generals moving into the arms trade and corporate diplomacy comes with no conflict of interest whatsoever is wrong. There is a conflict. It’s just one that everyone invested in it seems happy to live with.
Iain Overton is the executive director of the Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) charity