The distinguished military career of General Sir David Richards came to an honourable end this week. Spanning four decades, it included multiple combat deployments from Northern Ireland to East Timor and from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan.
During his time as the Chief of the Defence Staff -- the UK's top military officer -- he had the vision and leadership skills required to navigate the murky political waters of Whitehall and the somewhat Byzantine processes of the Ministry of Defence. He had a grasp of grand-strategy that is rarely found, in or out of uniform, on either side of the Atlantic. He ensured the successful implementation of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, he guaranteed the defence of the Falklands and was a strong believer in maintaining Britain's nuclear deterrent. Under his leadership he ensured that the MoD took back its rightful place as the UK's military strategic headquarters and not just any ordinary department of state along Whitehall.
During the 2011 intervention in Libya he ensured that the UK Armed Forces played a leading role even while facing mounting defence cuts. Even though he was regularly asked to do more with less by his political masters he was always able to deliver what was required.
One of his biggest challenges was re-focusing the Government and the MoD fully on the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan while simultaneously hammering out a transition plan for British forces there. While many around Whitehall wanted to cut and run, he was a voice of calm and reason when it came to the mission in Afghanistan--always putting the mission above politics.
Sir David was not without his critics. In a department like the Ministry of Defence, where civilians are taking more control over shaping policy and strategy -- away from the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in uniform -- some found Sir David's leadership style abrasive and his ambition contemptible. Like all good leaders he knew that doing the right thing was not always the same as doing the most popular thing. He had an uncanny awareness of Westminster politics usually not found by those wearing a uniform. This made him an effective political operator as well as a respectable military leader and was a source of envy for many. It was also because of this that he was able to fight the corner of the Armed Forces when it came to defence cuts.
Many in the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces found his level of ambition to be intimidating. For others, his leadership style was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale department. Nevertheless it was this ambition, and his leadership abilities, that brought him to the very top of his profession.
I always thought that Sir David served in the wrong century. With his understanding of grand-strategy, and his deep seated belief in what Britain's role in the world should be, he would have served wonderfully in the 19th century during the height of Empire. In fact, if his successful campaign in Sierra Leone had taken place in the 19th century instead of the 21st century, he would already be known as Lord Richards of Freetown.
The U.S. holds the British military to such high esteem exactly because of officers like Sir David and with his retirement the U.S. Armed Forces has lost a true friend. He is an unabashed supporter of the U.S. and a firm believer in the Special Relationship. After all, he spent a career serving alongside and training with Americans. In the case of Afghanistan he was not only serving alongside American troops, he was commanding them, making him likely the first British officer to command U.S. troops in combat since World War Two. Among his most important achievements as Chief of the Defence Staff was restarting the joint strategic dialogues between the U.S. and UK top brass, in abeyance since 1948. This dialogue, held recently in Washington DC, was a meeting of minds that only the closest partners in the world can have.
There is no doubt that his leadership, wisdom and experience will be missed by all of those who had the opportunity to experience it firsthand. Whether in the Pentagon, NATO HQ in Brussels or some Royal Palace in the Middle-East, when Sir David walked into a room as the UK's Chief of the Defence Staff everyone respected him and what he had to say.
As he takes a much deserved break from public life, let's hope it is not for too long.