Sunday, August 01, 2021

In 2006 the then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker (now Field Marshal Baron Walker of Aldringham), in evidence to the House of Commons Armed Forces Bill Committee, told MPs that an unnamed foreign contingent which had been part of his command in Bosnia had laid down its arms over a pay deal, and "That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body".

At the time some MPs accepted this as a valid argument against representation. Were they right?

The relevant part of the General's evidence is here: Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419). In fairness, the exchange seems to have become somewhat tetchy, so need not be examined too closely. The concern is about the weight then placed on that testimony by some members of the Bill Committee.

'They put their arms down... That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body'

Sir Michael gave evidence, in response to MPs' questions about proposals for a British Armed Forces Federation, that:

"When I was commanding in Bosnia, one of the battalions of one of the nations, and I will not tell you which one, laid down its arms because, it said, the pay deal was not right, so they put their arms down. Do you really see British Armed Services doing that? That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body who are fighting back at home, your soldiers are at the front and they do not appear to be achieving."

General Sir Michael Walker had commanded, with great distinction and respect, the land force component of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina from December 2006 to November 2007.

It would be surprising if any battalion of Sir Michael's force literally "put their arms down", but it is not in doubt that some deplorable incident of indiscipline had either taken place - or been feared.

Illegal agitation over pay delays

What really seems to have happened is that an Eastern European troop-contributing nation had been left with large, unaffordable, armed forces on its territory following the breakup of the Soviet Union. While receiving full UN pay for its troops serving in the Balkans as part of UNPROFOR, that nation is said to have failed to honour fully its domestic pay obligations to those troops, leaving its contingent to acquire an unenviable reputation for alleged black market and other corrupt activities in Bosnia.

Pay being a national responsibility, pay problems seem to have continued after the contingent became part of Sir Michael's NATO-led force in December 1996, allegedly leading to agitation and demonstrations involving officers, troops and families. Some officers seem to have organised illegal associations to lobby for their personal welfare. There was also a "large and influential" Officers' Association (Joint Force Quarterly, US DoD, Spring 1997), which may have been perfectly legal, but without any recognised role in negotiating a "pay deal".

So the agitation never involved any "federation" which was comparable either with the British Armed Forces Federation steering group proposals, or with any recognised representative arrangements in any NATO country.

Representation without indiscipline

In reality a significant proportion of Sir Michael's force in Bosnia-Herzegovina did have lawful independent representation of one kind or another available to members of their respective national forces, including on pay, without any suggestion of resulting indiscipline.

This fact applies not only to many European troop contributing countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, which all provided significant troop contingents for General Walker's force; it also applies to the United States, where independent professional military associations follow a different pattern but, amongst other activities, regularly lobby on a range of personnel issues including pay.

For example see the Association of the United States Army: AUSA - Where We Stand on Key Issues 2012. [Broken link - see below* for recent quote ]


At the time the BAFF Steering Group responded to the Chief of Defence Staff's reported comments by submitting written evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee - Memorandum from the Steering Group for a British Armed Forces Federation - and the group's Chairman Lt Col (retd) Douglas Young had a courteous exchange of correspondence with CDS about the principle of representation.

Until the transcript was later published at the end of the Bill Committee process, we were unaware of the full extent of the Bosnian anecdote.

But some members of the Bill Committee seem to have been much impressed by the anecdote, and it was quoted verbatim in the Committee's conclusions: Armed Forces Federation.

The view from 2015

Revisiting this article in 2015, such claims would be less likely to pass without challenge, now that Parliament has improved its online engagement, and the transcripts of evidence sessions are often published when available instead of waiting for final conclusions. The very existence of an independent staff association which is prepared to comment is also having an influence.

Sir Michael was of course entitled to his personal opinion about representation - but we respectfully disagreed with his prediction that "we would certainly lose" the Armed Forces Pay Review Body if a Federation existed.

For example, in Australia the Defence Force Welfare Association (DFWA) is a recognised "intervener" entitled to represent on pay matters to the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal:

DFWA is an intervener at the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal and has a professional workplace advocate to perform our representational role.

Even in the UK, there is nothing to prevent BAFF from submitting evidence to the AFPRB.

It was common in BAFF's early days to encounter allegations based on the critics' own construct of what they thought a Federation would look like, instead of what was actually being proposed.

Lessons learned

The incident is now water under the bridge, but still stands as an reminder that seemingly authoritative briefings about this issue deserve close scrutiny.

The incident also shows once again that there is a place for a responsible independent staff association representing and serving its members, such as the British Armed Forces Federation, which acts constructively within sensible ground rules but is not beholden to the MoD, and is free to monitor and respond to Government and Parliamentary developments affecting its members.

* The original Association of the United States Army link from 2012 is no longer available, but see for example this excerpt from their 2019 Focus Areas:

7. Support the military benefits and total compensation package necessary to maintain the readiness of the All-Volunteer Force.

  • Military pay
  • Military healthcare
  • Military retirement
  • Soldier and Family quality-of-life benefits to include housing