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Military chief Stirrup to step down early

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 June 2010

Defence Secretary Liam Fox says Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup will step down as chief of the defence staff in the autumn following a strategic defence review.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup with Prime Minister David Cameron (credit:Reuters)

Sir Jock's term was due to continue until April 2011. The Ministry of Defence's top civil servant, Permanent Under Secretary Sir Bill Jeffrey, will also leave at the same time.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Dr Fox said: "Both the chief of defence staff and PUS are here longer than they needed to be.

"They were asked to stay on and willing to do so, not least to see the transition into the new government. And I think that the transition's been extremely smooth, and I've been discussing with them, as with other senior staff, how we transition to the new structures and what might be the appropriate times to do it.

"And I'm going to do it at a time that suits the government to do it, but also at a time which treats our long-serving personnel with some respect.

"We've talked about the best time to be replacing our senior staff, probably at the end of the Strategic Defence Review in the autumn."

Challenged on BBC1's The Politics Show over whether he wanted Sir Jock out because he was too close to Labour, Dr Fox said: "No, and certainly that had nothing to do with his own decision."

He said: "I think it would be very wrong to use language like 'axed'. This was a very amicable conversation about what was best for the department."

Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told Channel 4 News:
"It's been a very difficult period for him as chief of the defence staff, we've had a very difficult situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan over that time. And the government overall has faced a lot of criticism for failing to properly focus on Afghanistan and failing to take Afghanistan seriously as a war, and it's only really in the last year that that situation has changed.

"I think inevitably there will be criticism of Jock Stirrup for his inability, for whatever reason, to persuade the government to do otherwise.

"I don't think it is right for a senior officer to speak out openly against the government. I think Jock Stirrup was correct not to do so. I would hope that he did speak up vigorously and with a loud voice behind closed doors, which is what the role of the chief of the defence staff is, and that needs to continue.

"Whoever takes over from Jock Stirrup does need to be a very strong voice, both in terms of supporting and fighting for his forces, and also for giving the most robust advice to the prime minister in handling operations in Afghanistan and beyond.

"The situation we have in Afghanistan today, and we had in Iraq, is very much a ground war. Yes, the support of the RAF is absolutely invaluable in both of those campaigns. But it's still very much a ground war. The focus is on the ground.

"For somebody to really understand in-depth a ground war they have to be experienced in that. And the prime minister's most senior military advisor has to know about ground fighting and counter-insurgency in particular.

"It's so important, particularly with the politicians we have today who have no military experience of their own, that you have somebody with in-depth knowledge who is able to convey that, and convey what's going on and understand what's going on to the prime minister and the defence ministers.

"That's why it's essential that we have somebody who has that experience and has proven themselves as a commander in the field, to be the next chief of the defence staff.

"Sir Jock Stirrup was a Royal Air Force pilot. He had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force. But that did not equip him properly, in my view, to conduct ground operations, to fully understand ground operations.

"Now I've no doubt about his intellect, I've no doubt about his overall ability to manage defence. It's very different from having a real feel for what is happening on the ground where the main most decisive actions and the biggest problems were occurring."

Conservative MP and former soldier Patrick Mercer said: "Well, I think it's inevitable. The rumours frankly have been swirling for a very long time that one of the reasons the conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan is not going perhaps as well as it might is that the head of our armed forces does not necessarily have the right level of understanding or expertise of ground warfare.

"I think it's quite clear that with a new government and with a Strategic Defence Review that is coming inevitably, that those who have overseen the policies of the last few years - and I have to say the mistaken operational decision for the past few years - probably this is a very sensible time for a clean sweep."

Last night the Ministry of Defence announced the death of a British solider from the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday - one of three Britons and 32 Nato troops to be killed in Afghanistan during the last week alone.

More coverage of Afghanistan from Channel 4 News:
- Afghan talks: general's 10 point plan for Cameron
- Fox: UK in Afghanistan 'to make Britain safer'
- In full: British fatalities in Afghanistan
- Full coverage: fight for Afghanistan

The MoD has faced criticism that it has failed to provide proper equipment to frontline troops. On BBC1's Andrew Marr show, Foreign Secretary William Hague denied that Stirrup and Jeffrey's departures were an indication that they were being blamed for excessive spending on MoD procurement and under-resourcing of the Afghan mission.

Sir Bill Jeffrey sent a message to MoD staff on Friday saying: "The secretary of state has now said that he would like me to see through the defence interest in the (Strategic Defence Review).

"I am very glad to do so, because, like others, I see the review as a real opportunity to set defence on a good course for the future. There will be an announcement in due course about the process for identifying my successor."

Likely candidates to replace Sir Jock, a former jet pilot, include the chief of the general staff, General Sir David Richards, or the vice-chief of the defence staff, Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton.

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