Admiral of the Fleet, Baron Boyce of Pimlico died on 6th November 2022 at the age of 79. A much respected officer, Admiral Boyce had held all three of the senior, four-star appointments in the Royal Navy – Second Sea Lord, Commander-in-Chief Fleet, and First Sea Lord – before been chosen as the Chief of Defence Staff in 2000. At the time, those Royal Navy commands included NATO responsibilities, and the Admiral had been C-in-C Eastern Atlantic and Commander Naval Forces North-West.
Reviewing previous careers of distinguished senior officers can evoke memories of a time past, another country where things were done differently. But reflections on the career of Michael Boyce have a resonance with today that can be quite startling, and explain why, beyond his personal qualities, he was so professionally revered.
He was at heart a submariner, and the qualities required of members of the ‘Silent Service’, and its eternal concerns, animated his approach in general to the very serious business of the profession of arms. One cannot muck around with a nuclear submarine when trying to remain undetected by the adversary’s boats and in the most hostile of high-northern seas. There is no substitute for deep-rooted expertise, experience and calibrated judgement. That professionalism and quiet competence carried over. He was always concerned for the essential but unshowy foundations on which sustained military success is always built, and he respected, rather than circumvented, the proper chains of command and made them work.
Most famously he risked the ire of the Blair entourage by insisting on an unequivocal statement, in plain English, from the Attorney General on the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In doing so he was only reflecting the combined concerns of the Service Chiefs, a body he respected and tried to use collectively. Whilst it was his duty as CDS to ensure such probity, Boyce was also animated by his understanding that the professional, volunteer soldier in a democracy needs to know they are following legal orders. And, just as importantly, that the nation understands that and is behind them. The rise of ‘lawfare’ in all aspects of military operations since, sometimes acting retrospectively, displays his prescience.
Having held military commands concerned with the most vital NATO capacities, such a maintaining the Sea Lines of Communication across the North Atlantic and the demonstrable capability of the nuclear deterrent, Boyce was never overly seduced by the immediacy of the counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his peripheral vision was keener than most in noticing such ramifications as the effects of the GWOT on the India/Pakistan relationship. He always recognised that the genuinely strategic threat came for hostile superpowers such as Russia and China. With Putin’s war in Ukraine raging within a politics framed by nuclear weapons ownership, and with Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian China ramping up the military threat to Taiwan, Boyce’s judgements have been validated. He never lost his interest in these matters, and would regularly remind us from his seat in the House of Lords of the import of being a nuclear power.
The Ukraine war has brought home the truism that all wars are economic and are rooted in production. Boyce decried the accounting changes of the Brown Treasury that encouraged the MOD to divest itself of stocks. Reducing excess stock-holdings may be sensible in commerce, but such an approach can leave the armed forces carrying a lot of risk when ‘just in time’ is ‘just too late’. Boyce’s understanding that fighting real wars requires extensive war stocks is being proved as the combined output of military materiel from The West struggles to support the daily consumption of Ukraine.
Admiral Boyce followed General Guthrie as CDS. The General was well known for his clubbability, and was considered to have formed a strong personal relationship with Blair. In comparison, Admiral Boyce was usually considered patrician, even austere in his manner. But that seriousness was just what was required then. And again today, in a period where we need military leadership that is less about show, and more concerned with understanding the very serious matters around conflict involving mobilised nation-states and framed by the unavoidable presence of nuclear weapons.