ROME — Following a closely fought, three-way competition to grab the UK's top defense job, analysts are claiming the surprise selection of Air Chief Marshall Sir Stuart Peach proves that joint command experience is now an essential qualification to become chief of Defence Staff.
The former Tornado flyer has been in the No. 2 number two role in the UK armed forces since 2013 after becoming the first chief of the UK’s Joint Forces Command, a four star role that oversees operational units in the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Now, by rising to the No. 1 number one job, Peach replaces Gen.eral Sir Nicholas Houghton, who himself served as No. 2 number two before being promoted.
"Peach is the second chief of Defence Staff to be appointed after being the No. 2,number two," said an analyst who declined to be named. "Is this a pattern? Do you have to be ‘joint’ to get the job, and has being a single-service chief become a disadvantage?"
Peach, 59, joined the Royal Air Force in 1977, flying Canberras before three tours on Tornado GR1s in the UK and Germany, qualifying as a weapons and electronic warfare instructor. He later served as deputy senior British military adviser in US HQ Central Command in 2001 and 2002.
His appointment as Chief of Defense Staff by Prime Minister David Cameron on Jan. 22 followed a tight race among between three candidates, and will be followed this year by more transitions as new Air Force and Navy chiefs are appointed.
In the early running, Peach was overshadowed by Army Gen. Sir Richard Barrons and First Sea Lord Adm. George Zambellas.
"Last year the job was Zambellas' to lose, then Barrons came on very strong, with Peach in the background," said a second UK analyst, who like most of those questioned by Defense News, declined to be named.
Although the UK does not officially rotate the top job around the services, many believed it was the Navy's turn, since the last Navy appointee was Adm. Sir Michael Boyce in 2001.
"Zambellas was the most charismatic candidate — he led all the other chiefs at parliamentary committee hearings, but he was seen as being too much of a Navy man, with no joint experience," said a third analyst.
"Some critics also argued that with budgets stretched on the Type 26 frigates and new submarines getting very expensive, the job would have been an odd reward," he added.
Army general Barrons would have become the third Army official in a row to take the job.
"The Army has been top dog for 15 years due to land campaigns, which has created a degree of unhappiness," said a UK source knowledgeable of the appointment system.
The UK source said Zambellas had been prime minister Cameron’s preferred candidate, but Barrons was the favorite of senior officials at the Ministry of Defence.
"Barrons is seen as making concepts complicated, and while the MoD may like that, Cameron is the prime minister who told generals 'You do the fighting and I will do the talking,'" he said.
"Zambellas gave Cameron the sound, simple advice that Cameron wanted," he added.
But with rival camps backing both Zambellas and Barrons, Peach emerged as a compromise candidate, he said.
"He's not afraid to talk straight to politicians, and this is the third top job he has held down, so he's got staying power," he added.
Alex Ashbourne, a UK-based independent defense analyst, pointed to the growing importance of air power thanks to the British campaign over Syria. "That makes the RAF more relevant than last year," she said.
Peach, like Zambellas, was able to explain things clearly to the prime minister, she said.
"It comes down to who the prime minister feels comfortable with and he may have got on better with Peach, who does not display his phenomenal intellect in an intimidating way," she said.
The first analyst said Cameron was not looking for someone to talk strategy, since the UK's strategic review has now been wrapped up.
"The job is not about strategic thinking, he was looking for a chief to tell him how to implement strategy," he said.
As Germany emerges as a more important ally to the UK, Peach's command of the German language, as well as being married to a German, could prove useful, said the UK source.
Looking ahead, the third analyst said Peach's past as a navigator might influence his view of air campaigns.
"Having been a navigator in a two-seat flown in Tornado, he is the last of the fast jet navigators and so he might be interested less in single-seat fast jets and more interested in [other types of flying such as] UAVs, stand-off or special mission aircraft. He may think you don’t always need to be going at Mach 2."
The overriding message of Peach's appointment, he added, was the victory of jointness.
"It looks like there will never be a single-service chief of Defence Staff again, and that is a positive thing," he said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.