New Forest East




By Julian Lewis MP

On first enrolling in the RAF section of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme in 1998, I knew that among the station visits and assorted flights there would be opportunities to meet some of the ablest officers in the Service. What I never expected was the opportunity, in the Advanced Postgraduate sector of the scheme, to spend a year immersed in the highest-level course with the highest-flying personalities which our Armed Forces possess.

Attending the Royal College of Defence Studies is, on the surface, like revisiting one’s postgraduate days at university – and, indeed, the option of taking a Master’s degree is available at the end of the course. Yet, there are several important differences. First, one’s fellow-students are mostly on the cusp of achieving one-star rank in their respective Services. Secondly, about half of them have come to Belgrave Square from a vast range of countries, including all parts of Europe, many Middle Eastern states, India, Asia, Australia and North America. Thirdly, the weekday morning lectures are given by different leading experts on every occasion, constituting a spectrum of academic talent unavailable to anyone in a conventional university.

The RCDS – previously known as the Imperial Defence College – was practising networking before the term was invented. Its highly efficient academic and administrative staff build a sense of comradeship and continuity with the specific intention of creating enduring links. Tales are still told of the beneficial effect of President Musharraf having been an RCDS graduate. The Commandant – currently Admiral Sir Ian Garnett – is always a very senior officer on his last appointment before leaving the Services, and the pictures on the walls of Seaford House make it a gallery of many of the most distinguished fighting men and strategists in our history.

As well as the formal lectures, which are always followed by lively Question-and-Answer sessions, there are twice-weekly afternoon seminars for which reading assignments are provided. Regional and overseas visits occur in the latter part of the year-long course, and the principal academic task is to write a dissertation of between nine and ten thousand words. About a dozen are selected for inclusion in an annual publication after the course members have graduated.

For an MP, the time commitment of 36 half-days set out by Sir Neil Thorne is considerable; but, at the end of the year, I found myself regretting only that my ‘day job’ had prevented me attending the RCDS full-time for the entire 12 months. My limited exposure to this outstanding institution nevertheless completely achieved its aim of showing a Defence-minded parliamentarian what life is like amongst the best and the brightest of our and other countries’ future senior officers. That we part-timers are considered to be permanent members of the RCDS, along with the professional graduates, is a privilege – however undeserved – of which I shall always be proud.