The British Military is engaged in Virtue Signaling. That seems to come as a surprise to some; it shouldn’t. What would be surprising if an organisation that has, throughout its existence, engaged in virtue signalling decided to stop.
The @BritishArmy sent a tweet, which as some tweets are wont to do, generated froth in the teacup. In itself the tweet was innocuous but clearly some took exception to this and there then followed what can only be termed a fairly robust exchange of views. So far so good.
This tweet and exchange of views generated some attention from British #MilTwitter which is where I, with customary Colonel Blimp tact and diplomacy dived in with two left feet.
I have to say that I was not expecting the volume of response that I received (I have a small but much appreciated band of 25 followers at going to press) but the type of response was everything that a dialectical junkie such as myself could have wished for.
Before we go any further, a definition is in order. It became very clear very quickly that ‘virtuesignalling‘ meant different things to pretty much everyone. To me, virtue signalling is the “open signalling of values to show acceptance of and encouragement for said values“. Mine may not be the most widely held definition of the term, but you are reading (and thank you very much for doing so) the words of someone who possesses neither Facebook nor television – you can make of that what you will.
There’s a reason we send these messages. We are demonstrating our adherence to the values of the society we serve. This is important for a number of reasons, not least where it may be held in doubt. Plus, despite our core values, upheld by the vast majority, and despite the fact that we are the most meritocratic of organisations (at least in my experience), we still struggle to reach out to some of the communities we come from and serve – we can seem exclusionary. A targeted message to such a community and that exemplifies our core values makes sense.
My tweet spanned a number of points, the four main points being:
The original tweet had gained traction;
I agreed with the original tweet;
The British Army was virtue signalling;
Are we virtuous (or appropriately weighted) in our virtue signalling?
The first two points were largely glossed over entirely in the ensuing froth, not altogether unsurprising considering the medium. The latter two points generated considerable heat though. This is a good thing. It’s a good thing as it demonstrated people engaging positively and constructively in a public forum in support of core values. Mission command in practice or simply doing the right thing? Either way it’s a good thing.
Many took exception to my use of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’, impugning a pejorative slant to the term. Not my intent, but understandable enough. I still stand by my contention that the British Army is virtue signaling. We send these messages to demonstrate that we believe in and abide by our core values: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. In this case we were clearly signaling ‘Respect for Others’.
But we live in uneasy times. Our values are not necessarily all of society’s values, our beliefs as a society are not homogenous. There is a tension between diversity and tolerance and good order and discipline both within the military and within society. There is therefore a need to stake our ground and fight for it. The original tweet did just that, and as both @thepagey and @TheMaverickSgt pointed out, British MilTwitter rose to the occasion, although (and I am guilty of this myself), more supporting fires would always have been appreciated. To me the exchange exemplified what we should be allowing our soldiers to do on social media: engage robustly in line with clearly defined guidelines (in this case Army Values). yes it will get messy, yes sometimes there could be blowback – sounds a lot like combat. That is why I was so pleased that so many jumped on my tweet as it showed both a willingness to engage and a firm stance for core values.
My last point “will we see the same for the end of Lent next year” generated as much heat as ‘virtue signalling’, although not unfairly this time. I will admit that there was a degree of twitter fed dialectical devilry at work in using the phrase, but with a serious point. We live in unsettled times. Arguably we live in a post-religious and relativist society. The old certainties have gone and new challenges have arisen. Uncertainty is stressful, stress breeds fear and fear can be exploited. Our culture is neither homogenous nor settled, it is in fact contested ground. Our societal faultiness are stressed every single day with an aim to exploitation. It therefore seems to me that in our messaging reassurance is as important as assurance. Have we got the balance right in this – or am I tilting at windmills?
Some weeks ago I had a series of interviews by RAND about my recent operational deployments. I used to joke while deployed that I looked forward to testifying to Congress, so I suppose I should have expected a follow up of some kind.
The interviews were focused on two areas: fact finding on what we had done, and identifying lessons learnt with the idea of producing a protocol for next time. It was immediately apparent from the questions, that we had failed dismally in operational record keeping. Despite trips to Theatre and to the units concerned, there was no coherent record of the first 18 months of the campaign. This was a blow as in my deployments I had put in place a system of record keeping and had maintained a War Diary. The War Diary kept a record of key events, decisions and rationales and was designed to give coherence to what otherwise would be a confusing morass of PowerPoint presentations and email chains. I had devoted considerable effort to this particular project, partly because it answered 90% of the queries we received from Higher on a daily and weekly basis, but also because several historian friends had pleaded with me to do so, recognising the difficulties that the sheer amount of data being dumped into digital archives was going to give future historians. If we found it difficult enough to understand the enterprise we were undertaking (and we did), what hope for the future? It was therefore disappointing to see that it had disappeared into some digital burn pit.
The interviews did however give me a chance to go through my notebook archive, glass of beer in hand and wise in hindsight. There was one fundamental problem that we managed, but never reconciled fully, and one question that stopped me in my tracks. Then there some interview notes as well.
Timeline Synchronisation. My biggest problem during the campaign where my HQ operated at the operational level, was acting as the flex between the Pol/Mil strategic level and the tactical level. My particular problem set was synchronizing operational timelines with political and logistic timelines, complex at the best of times, but more so when working by, with and through. we never did manage to solve that particular problem, although we sufficed in a way in which I supect all military camapigns have ‘sufficed’. The constant was never the same, but logistic timelines lengthened as the campaign progressed, as did planning and force generation timelines.
Why Not More? At the conclusion of the last interview, the interviewer asked a question that gave me pause for thought. “Why didn’t the UK do more?” The context of the question was very specific, and focused on logistic support. My answer highlighted two factors:
As we have seen recently with the COVID-19 pandemic and supplies of PPE, industrial capacity and stockpiles matter in war, no less than in pandemics.
Systemically, the UK was not comparable in any way to the US in this particular regard. We were divided by more than just a common language, and US thinking that we were simply a smaller version of themselves was far off the mark.
Going through my notebooks brought to light the briefing notes that I used for new arrivals in my team. They were developed over a number of months as I realised that most new arrivals were struggling to orientating themselves to both the complexities of the campaign and the complexities of the headquarters. Most had never served in a large joint headquarters, let alone a multinational one. Neither had most worked at the operational level before. Of the two, cognitive dissonance was by far the greatest in regards to the latter. My initial interview aimed to try and minimise the ‘shock of capture’ most experienced on arrival.
The HQ works on a network of generals. They are informed by very efficient vertical staff stovepipes. The General Officer (GO) network acts as the centrifugal centre of the HQ, it spins fast and works efficiently. Understand that you are unlikely to have greater situational awareness than the GO, but you may have more depth of knowledge on a particular facet. Understand too, that the GO lateral network is usually more efficient that the staff lateral network.
As staff we serve two bosses. We support our subordinate HQs, and we feed our chain of command. The two roles are not in competition, it is not a zero-sum game.
Be comfortable speaking truth to power. Never let anyone leave a room or a meeting with a misleading impression of an issue, especially generals.
We deal with large complex operational problems. There may be a simple and elegant solution, but often it is simply a case of eating the elephant one bite at a time. Don’t think you will win the war overnight. The work you do now will make a difference in 12-18 months.
Large complex operational problems are difficult to visualise. Think of how you are going to present the facts. Focus on effective communication.
It’s a large headquarters, often staffing seems to happen through a process of attrition. Don’t let yourself become part of the friction, and don’t let yourself be ground down by it.
There are those who can and there are those who will. Develop a network of both. It is not what you know, but who you know that often matters most. Network laterally.
You are three clicks from National Command Authority. Think about that every time you put a briefing slide together. This closeness also means that you will be buffeted by the winds of passing politics. Pay attention to the headlines – they matter.
At this level it is all about Authorities and Permissions. Understand both, use both to advantage, don’t be shy about highlighting constraints and restraints – both can be changed if needs be.
““There was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the Emperor Justinian,”
• Over corpses which split open and rotted in the streets with nobody to bury [them]; • Over houses large and small, beautiful and desirable which suddenly became tombs….; • Over ships in the midst of the sea whose sailors were suddenly attacked…and became tombs…and they continued adrift in the waves; • Over bridal chambers where the brides were adorned but all of a sudden there were just lifeless and fearsome corpses…; • Over highways which became deserted”
Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Marhe: Chronicle, Known Also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin,
Part 3, translated Witold Witakowski (1996), pp74-75
“Then came Justinian’s plague, a world-historical event that killed a large part of the population, necessarily wrecking every imperial institution including the army and navy.”
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward N Luttwak,
The Belknap Press of Harvard University press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2009, Kindle loc 4092.
We live in interesting times. In many ways it feels like the Spring of 1939 and not Spring 2020. It is unlikely to presage the end of the world, but it does remind me of being in Iraq in the summer of 2008, watching the global financial crisis unfold, and thinking to myself that I was witnessing the end of an era.
My two takeaways from what we have seen so far are neither new nor earth shattering. We are going to see much more attention focused on security as a whole, encompassing resilience and by necessity (in the future) societal cohesion, and less attention to defence in the singular; and that the pandemic will accelerate already extant fissures, faultiness and by extension conflicts and instability.
Security versus Defence.
One thing that the pandemic has highlighted above all else except our inherent human frailty, is the importance of resilience. I suspect many have been unpleasantly surprised by the lack of resilience capacity. A perceived lack of Intensive Care Unit capacity, panic buying of toilet paper and a comprehensive shortage of medical PPE came as an unpleasant surprise to many. It should not have.
I attended a number of resilience conferences and workshops over the course of 2018 and 2019 and the themes of which were clear.
Our globalised system could deal with a regionalised issue, but no-one could envisage a globalised shock.
The complexity of the modern globalised system meant that resilience was assumed in and vulnerability assumed out because no-one could map the vulnerabilities effectively (the system was too complex).
National supply chain integrity could not be assured.
Most countries had outsourced critical components of the manufacturing base (or entire sectors) overseas. In some areas manufacturing had become highly centralised both geographically and corporately.
There was no spare (Role 3 or national civilian) medical capacity within Europe.
In some cases resilience capacity had been designed out – how many modern houses and flats have a pantry where you can store one to two weeks’ worth of food?
A less robust resilience capacity. Resilience costs, there are reasons why we have outsourced manufacturing overseas (it is cheaper) and stockpiles have largely been minimised or reduced all together (they cost to build up, maintain, and depreciate over time (hands up who can remember the impact of resource Account Budgeting on MOD stocks…).
I suspect therefore that resilience on its broadest sense will come to the fore. RUSI has been ahead of the curve here (full disclosure – I am a RUSI member) and in particular Elisabeth Braw (@elisabethbraw ) and RUSI’s Modern Deterrence programme.
The first function of government is not the defence of its people but, I would suggest, the security of its people, encompassing the ability to provide for their basic food, clothing and shelter requirements, maintaining public order and then defending from external hostile threats. As resilience costs, I suspect we may see a knock on to defence budgets.
The COVID-19 Accelerant.
The pandemic has stressed both national and international systems. At the national level governments are walking the tight-rope of preventing health systems from being over-whelmed through a strategy of containment, versus the economic and social impacts of a massive contraction in the economy caused by containment. Societal cohesion is being threatened. This is not new, but COVID-19 is exacerbating the extant fissures and inequalities. In the UK, as in the USA and India many families live pay cheque to pay cheque. India has put in place a lockdown, but does not have a robust system to provide food to its poor. In the USA the demand for foodbanks is growing exponentially. In San Antonio (Texas) – not a place normally noted for urban squalor and deprivation the San Antonio food bank fed 10,000 families last Thursday.
Governments are struggling to meet the immediate demands, recognising that meeting the immediate demands now will place stresses downstream.
One striking aspect of the pandemic is also the immediate reliance placed on those frontline workers who are (financially) often rewarded minimally: supermarket shop assistants, delivery drivers, care home staff and health care professionals. It would be foolish to think that this will not drive social and political appetite to address the wealth inequality the increasingly underpins modern societies and which has already been recognised as a growing issue of concern. If it is not an issue, the fact that this pandemic is also the world’s first infodemic where public health messaging has been delivered into a contested and sometime hostile information environment should also give us cause for concern about the impacts of this pandemic on cohesion and security.
We live in interesting times; I wish that we didn’t, but we do. Times of stress and crisis are also however, times of challenge and opportunity. Professionally we would do well to think on how to maintain an edge when means are limited. Certainly strategic and institutional agility will be a highly desirable commodity in the future. The role that information and disinformation has played in this first infodemic of the 21st century should also give us pause for strategic and institutional consideration, not just on information, but the blurring lines between defence, security and the role of the military today. On a broader basis the pandemic should also challenge us to think of the why and wherefore of what we do as a society, I for one have never subscribed to the opinion that the worth of a person is rested in their economic output.
“From the time of imposing sanctions against Russia, the US and most of EU (sic) member-states openly states openly state that the end goal of sanctions is to undermine the socioeconomic situation in the country to provoke social upheaval and overthrow Putin’s regime“
Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality’.
There is a lot going on in Russia at the moment, and while we beat the drum of Russian dastardliness we need to understand the Russian perspective; a cornered bear is dangerous. The prospect of Russian regression and collapse may not be imminent, but the prospect of Putin’s regime collapsing is what drives the Kremlin’s calculations, and Putin has a problem.
It’s all about the economy, stupid, and Putin needs to grow his. Unfortunately as this perceptive piece from Bloomberg makes clear, Putin’s room for manoeuvre in his regard is strictly limited. The Russian economy is growing by an average of 0.5% a year according to the IMF, it should be growing at >1.5% (IMF) but even a 2% growth rate would not enable Russia to start catching up with its peers (IMF) and, as every Russian strategist from Svechin onwards knows:
“…the strategist must take into account the entire rear, both his own and the enemy’s, represented by the state with all its economic and political capabilities”
The IMF and others have suggested various ways that Russia could reform in order to improve its economic prospects, but these reforms will either create social unrest or directly impact on the Russian state sector. Again, going back to the Bloomberg piece it is pretty clear that in a kleptocracy such as exists in Russia, Putin cannot afford significant reform to the public sector as that would prove an existential threat to him:
“The employees of various branches of government and state companies are Putin’s most reliable support base. Putin’s billionaire friends have gotten rich from state procurement, and now that many of them are under sanctions, it remains the only source of their continued prosperity.“
Putin is the most powerful, but he is not all powerful. It is also clear that Putin is increasingly following the dictates of the Emperor Severus’ deathbed advice to his sons:
“…agree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men”
Cassius Dio, Book 77, Part 16.
So Putin is in a bit of a fix, a Catch 22. He needs to placate the masses while keeping his power base, the oligarchs and security forces, on side; it is a difficult balancing act. At the moment he is trying to position himself above the fray, using the plausible deniability of his adhocracy to apportion blame beneath him; he is the wise (albeit increasingly remote) Tsar. But the social contract is fraying, and as it frays so to are the numbers of protests increasing and participation broadening.
The protests, which show no sign of abating represent a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and broad unhappiness with the entrenched corruption of the Putin regime. Yet it is this selfsame corruption that sustains Putin’s power. This Meduza article represents the best analysis of the protests that I have seen to date; I imagine it is thorny reading inside the Kremlin.
So we should all be cheering in the West at the prospect of a triumphant liberalisation of Russia? Probably not, or at least not immediately, because if a transition was to happen, then like all transitions it would be a period of great uncertainty, great opportunity and great risk. Transitions need to be planned for, and the Russians have been planning for such a transition (or the threat thereof) for years; it’s all a Western plot don’t you know?
The opening quote was taken from an article written in the Russian ‘Journal of the Academy of Military Sciences’ in 2017.The entire article is well worth reading with it’s somewhat paranoid tones reminiscent of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion‘. Yet this strain of Russian strategic thinking has been apparent for some time. In Ben Macintyre’s riveting book ‘The Spy and the Traitor‘ it is quite clear that Yuri Andropov, the then Soviet premier, was convinced that the USA and NATO was preparing a first strike against the Soviet Union and ordered Operation Ryan to confirm this. Ofer Friedman’s excellent book Russian Hybrid Warfare also lays clear the origins of Russian thinking in hybrid warfare (gibridnaya voina) and makes it clear that the origination of this belief lies in the deep rooted belief that the Soviet Union was defeated by the West through the use of ‘methods and techniques based on political, economic, ideological and other non-military types of subversion‘ (page 97), with the continuing conviction that Russia remains targeted by such today.
So what does this mean for us? All politics are ultimately domestic, and as we look at Russian foreign policy we need to bear in mind two factors:
Regime transition (2024)
Regime survival is the foremost consideration of all Russian (Putin) policy decisions, foreign and domestic; it trumps all other considerations. Regime transition, refers to the fact that Putin, under the current constitution, is due to leave office in 2024 and with no obvious successor, is the paradigm under which the broader regime (the oligarchic kleptocracy) is now operating. The strategic culture under which the Russian military operate is one in which the West represents the existential threat. We need to tread carefully, engage constructively, and carry a big stick.
Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality‘ in Russia’s Journal of the Academy of Military Science. Translation by Boris Vainer and accessed through FMSO.
Svechin Aleksandr, ‘Strategy‘ East View Publications, Minneapolis, 1999.
Cassius Dio, ‘Roman History, Volume IX, Books 71-80‘, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1863.
Fridman Ofer, ‘Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Resurgence and Politicisation’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.
This week is mental health awareness week, and I am struggling.
I say this with both feeling and knowledge. Feeling because quite frankly I am emotional, knowledge because I have been here before, twice. I know that having had two episodes my risks of more are significantly higher than if I had only suffered one.
With the benefit of experience I can see too, that I am the steady, almost imperceptible, downward spiral to a further relapse.
But I am not there yet. And I want to write about my experiences to inform and encourage others, because I view this as a positive story.
To be clear from the outset, I don’t suffer from PTSD. I have experienced stress and depression. To my somewhat frustration PTSD is seen as the SAS of the mental health landscape. It is glossy, seemingly everyone wants to write about and yet the vast majority of us will, if we suffer from anything, will suffer from stress and depression. PTSD is seen as acceptable, the curse of the brave. Stress and depression, the unsung stalwarts who are the backbone of mental health statistics are not quite so empathetic. I am one of those.
I had my first episode in the mid ‘noughties’ after an intensive period of operations and far too little leave. I broke, suffering a catastrophic breakdown just before Christmas. The doc gave me some pills, the boss, sympathetic though he was, told me not to talk about it (“it will impact your career you know”) and after two weeks Christmas leave and three appointments with the shrink I carried on as normal. To be honest I wanted to carry on as normal and career wise I was in a good place and enjoying my job.
But I was not better, and I wasn’t actually in a good place. Over the next four years I inexorably drifted back to the same hole, only bigger and deeper this time. This time the system was better. I had three months sick leave and then a graduated return to work over a period of nine months. More importantly I had access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and could start to undo some of the very bad habits I had picked up over the previous 10 years.
I had to relearn how to enjoy life, how to relax. I had to diversify my interests and rediscover my hobbies. I learnt how to walk away from the desk. I learnt that theringing of the telephone was not a harbinger if doom, and I learnt to calibrate my responses by looking at those around me.
I promoted too, and deployed again, several times. Life does not finish when your mental health fails, you just learn to walk at a different pace.
So what have I learnt?
Firstly, that prevention is better than cure. I am struggling once more, but I am not broken. I have the tools to manage my mental resilience much better now. I recognise the warning signs earlier and pace myself better. The military’s mental health awareness campaign is excellent, but mental health issues are insidious, manifesting gradually over months and years. I need to look back to 12 months ago and compare then and now. I ask myself when was the last good day that I had, for not every day should be a grey day. I ask myself why does the ordinary every day, seem to take the most extraordinary effort today? And so I check; am I connected? Am I active? How is my prayer life? Am I still volunteering and am I still learning? We all need to be doing these things. The balance for each of us will be different, but the ingredients are the same. I can manage myself better now than in the noughties.
Now, compared to 6 months ago I am less active, less communicative and my prayer life is superficial; but two weeks ago I was painting the walls in a women’s refuge and that gave me such a boost! So I am recalibrating and consciously changing my behaviour. That is hard, it takes effort and it is immensely draining; but it is possible. Changing patterns is possible, but like the incremental spiral down, so too is it an incremental spiral up.
I will talk to people too. My padre knows, family and friends too. I have never been shy on my experiences, it is part of my initial patter when I report for duty. There remains a stigma over mental health issues, but there needn’t be.
So what can people do?
Be supportive. It sounds trite, but actually in my experience and struggles, having shoulders to lean on has been the best support. Depression is often called ‘the curse of the strong’, and none of us want to be a burden, but we are not all strong all the time and sometimes we need support.
Be aware. These changes manifest over time, think back, not now. Worry about the person who is working harder to stand still, for these are the people for whom the ordinary is becoming extraordinary, and when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and life becomes grey – then you are at the tipping point.
Lastly for those who see a glimpse of themselves in where I am, take a knee, take that condor moment, and reach out.
Remember that stress and depression is what can happen to you, but it does not define who you are. We are all better than that.
CGS bollocked us last week. As bollockings went it wasn’t too bad; I have had better – (Graeme Lamb was a master at communicating rage through the medium of paper, albeit the paper often had puncture wounds), and I have had worse. I agreed entirely with the sentiments, but do wonder about the things unsaid.
On Twitter some have commented as to whether the it was addressed fairly or unfairly, while across at The Wavell Room, David Calder (@drjcalder81) in my opinion came closest to hitting the mark. But hitting the mark on what?
CGS’s 3.5 minutes of steely eyed ire was based on allegations of sexual assault carried out by soldiers on a soldier. Clearly if proven this would be a significant breach of the Army’s Values and Standards, and in particular ‘Respect for Others’.
CGS mentioned “Values and Standards”, an “honest sense of decency” and that a “higher level of behaviour” is expected of us. But in considering the allegations I am struck by the fact that from the society we are drawn, and to society we will return.
One of the contributing factors in the background of many sexual assaults is exposure to pornography. Pornography with its objectification of people as a means (vehicle) to an end (sexual satisfaction) and not as an end in themselves, would seem to be the antithesis of the Army’s Values and standards. I have written before about pornography, and that a society that accepts pornography such as ours does, should not be surprised when members of society increasingly behave in a manner that has been socialised as acceptable through pornography. The fact that pornography is acceptable and that the yet the behaviour is unacceptable, is one of the many contradictions in our society. This contradiction of society is mirrored within the British Army, we preach respect for others and yet fail to condemn pornography.
“Social cohesion and individual liberty, like religion and science, are in a state of conflict or uneasy compromise throughout the whole period.”
I want to encourage us, the military, to think both broader and deeper. We spend much time and effort thinking about Hybrid Warfare and Information Confrontation; we recognise too that the character of war is changing in composition and balance from the kinetic to the cognitive. We spill ink more freely than blood on the Somme, in talking about AI, PME and Mission Command. We discuss all these and recognise intuitively that the character of war reflects the character of the societies waging war, indeed war is a social mechanism. Information confrontation too, seeks to exploit the fissures in our societies and we are faced with the strategic implications of this daily, and yet how much time and effort do we spend looking at ourselves? How much time do we spend considering the strategic implications of our evolving sociology?
“To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances.”
The quotes in bold were all taken from the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s seminal work ‘The History of Western Philosophy”. Many may discount the relevance of philosophy to the profession of arms, but as we consider CGS’s exhortation to do better by ourselves, we should take a moment to consider what tools we have to see ourselves for what we are. Philosophy gives us many of these tools. Lastly, and with a nod at PME and Mission Command, consider this:
“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”
The genesis of this is a comment by the British Army’s Assistant Head of Media and Communications, Colonel Chris MacGregor. In a thread talking about the newly released British Army recruitment campaign, Colonel MacGregor said the following:
This reminded me of another recent online episode, but on a much grander scale.
EVE Online is a space-based, persistent world Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) with hundreds of thousands of active subscriptions and often tens of thousands playing online simultaneously. This thing is HUGE, and over a week in December 2018 a battle took place that should make us all think, the battle of wormhole system J115405, better known as ‘Rage’.
In the EVE universe wormhole systems are the most inhospitable space that there is, creating immense logistical and communications difficulties. The destruction of a Keepstar deep in a wormhole was regarded as impossible – until it happened. Over the course of a year a team on EVE prepared and executed just such an operation, the details of which can be found at Kotaku.com. In doing so this team achieved the following:
Executed an effective mission planning cycle that correctly identified how to conduct offensive operations in an environment previously thought to overwhelmingly favour the defender.
Set the Theatre
Over contested LOCs
Allowing for combat attrition and the requirement to offset culmination.
Maintained realtime OPSEC over a period of months
Exercised Mission Command
Conducted both preliminary operations to isolate the Theatre of operations and subsequent operations to consolidate gains.
Let’s think about this for a little bit. I have been involved in more than a dozen Combined Arms Staff Trainer (CAST) at Battalion and Brigade level, and close to half a dozen divisional Command Post Exercises and the same number of US ‘Warfighter’ exercises. In none of these did we have to set the theatre, conduct preliminary moves over contested LOCs and move from Phase III Dominate (Major Combat Operations) to the subsequent detailed exploitation and consolidation. There are a number of reasons why we don’t achieve all this in training which verge from ‘G3 snobbery’ (combat is sexy and logistics isn’t) to the prosaic: to practice logistics realistically takes time. Team ‘The Initiative’ achieved all this in a dynamic and highly competitive environment and using a distributed command and control network. The Initiative demonstrated professionalism, commitment and operational competence.
There are two key takeaways I want to draw from this.
Is there scope to use a MMORPG construct for our operational level staff training? Would staff benefit from participating in such an environment?
In recruiting how effective are we at talent spotting those with a proven track record of operational and strategic level planning? Perhaps more so than we realise, we need to move away from a focus on Physical Realm competences, to look closer at those with a Virtual Realm pedigree.
The following are recommended readings to dispel some preconceptions about MMORPG gamers, and highlight some of the benefits (and no, I am not yet a gamer!):
Up front I will say that I agree with Barney in his post that I would like to see increased PME opportunities across all ranks, and especially for non-commissioned soldiers; but the devil is in the detail and in the spirit of Scharnhorst’s Militarische Gesellschaft I would like to challenge some of his assumptions and provide some fuel to the debate on Twitter.
It seems to me that the basic argument being made in the post is:
The character of war has changed fundamentally, with increased precision and lethality.
Increased precision and lethality demand greater dispersion and therefore use of initiative across all ranks.
Initiative is not latent, but taught through education and training.
SNCOs therefore need to be as educated as their officer counterparts at every level of command.
It is undeniable that the character of war has changed, but arguably not yet the nature. The character of conflict has changed because the character directly reflects the character of the societies engaged in conflict and their commitment to the fight. I agree that precision and lethality are indicative of a changing character of warfare as applied by the West, but would simply caution that to my mind, the primary drivers of a changing character of war are human factors and not technological.
Has the character has changed to such an extent that the role of soldiers has changed fundamentally. I would disagree with this. From my particular foxhole I would note that the job of my SNCOs commanding multiples and patrol bases in N Ireland in the early 1990s was not radically dissimilar to the role they played in Helmand in 2011/12. They controlled a broader range of assets, the fight was more intense, but a multiple commander in 1993 would have grasped immediately the fundamentals of commanding a small PB in 2011 and the range of assets employed was broadly similar (although to be fair, we used fewer RAF fast jets in Northern Ireland then some might have wanted). Indeed when I think of increased dispersion and lethality, I think of the lessons of the Boer War, and the demands placed on combat arm SNCOs in the Edwardian Army (see Spencer Jones’ excellent book ‘From Boer War To World War: Tactical Reform Of The British Army, 1902-1914‘), and despite the changes and reforms here, the roles of SNCOs did not change fundamentally.
Herein lies the nub of the problem. I think we are conflating two separate issues in the debates we are having. The first I see is: what is the correct form of professional education needed to equip the soldiers of today for the fight of today and tomorrow? This is the debate we are having. The debate we are not having however, is what is the role of the soldier (Other Ranks) in today’s fight and tomorrow’s wars and then how best should they be educated to enable this? The form of soldiers’ PME should follow on naturally from the function that the fulfill.
Sowhat is the role of SNCOs on today’s and, more importantly, tomorrow’s battlefield? Barney’s post cites both Matthew Reed’s excellent WOTR contribution on SNCO PME and the experience of the German Reichswehr in the inter-war period as pointers for the requirement. Reed’s article focuses on the role and education of US SNCOs, and in particular looks at how to prepare Other Ranks for Command Sergeant Major appointments. Currently a command sergeant major, at any level and whether British or American, is an advisor and doesn’t not have any direct command authority vested in the appointment. It seems intuitive to me, that the quality of any advice given will reflect both on the capability and experience of the individual, and on the education and training they have received. So there is definitely an argument to be had that SNCOs should be educated to the same level as their corresponding commissioned command cohort. If we expect our SNCOs to act as advisors at increasingly senior levels of command, then we should educate them effectively to carry out that role. My experience of US command sergeant majors is that they ‘stay in lane’ with the advice they give, limiting themselves largely to training and battlefield discipline and acting as the Commanding General’s additional eyes and ears for battlefield circulation and allowing him to gain a better Fingerspitzengefühl for the battlefield. The question to ask is, if as Matthew Reed suggests, SNCO education was changed, would SNCOs be used more as a senior General Staff advisor capable of giving operational and strategic advice?
Here I note that the role of the US SNCO corps differs from that of the British military’s in that’s they have very clearly defined training responsibilities. We have introduced command sergeant majors in the British Army, but we have not fundamentally changed the role of our SNCO corps, we have adopted the form but not the function of the US system; this is worthy of debate in itself. Have we missed an opportunity?
The other example cited in Barney’s post was that of the interwar German Reichswehr. This is an interesting example in a number of regards. The German Reichswehr did not possess Command Sergeant Majors as we recognise them, but SNCOs were common as platoon/troop commanders and trained to do that role. German training was geared towards enabling the tactical commander to operate one up (unlike British training which is geared towards understanding the tactical context one up, but not operating a technique that level) for sound strategic and tactical reasons. Strategically, the Reichswehr anticipated to expand in wartime and this investment in Human Resources gave them this ability to do so rapidly. Tactically this meant that not only were tactical commanders cognisant of their tactically environment one up, they were competent in it too, and could step up as the situation (and casualties) demanded. It was a necessary precondition for the German practice of Mission Command.
Strategically, I do not see the same imperative or capability for expansion in the British Army as there’s existed in the Reichswehr, not least because of our lack of a defence industrial base or warmaintenancereserve. No one has yet managed to satisfactorily explain to me how a British Army could rapidly expand and equip… Tactically the imperative remains, and I have been singularly disappointed throughout my career, by our unwillingness to resource training to allow our people to operate competently one up. A recent article on Nexus has opened my eyes to a further consideration when training one up; the future.
Much debate on Nexus has focused recently on the impact of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS). It does not seem to me inconceivable, that the combination of AI and RAS will blur the current distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned commanders in terms of capability under command and mission sets expected. All this in a operating environment that is expected to grow in physical, informational and quite possibly moral complexity. If this is not inconceivable, and if the only sure thing we do know about the next conflict is that it will not be like the last conflict, then surely investing early in educating and training our personnel will give them the agile edge to help enable us to prevail in the future?
PME: The Form
My views on PME are straight forward. PME encompasses training and education. In terms of function we train for technical competency and educate for agility and those things which are difficult to train effectively for.
Training encompasses the ‘what‘ and ‘how‘;
Education encompasses the ‘why‘ and the ‘high‘.
I say ‘the high‘ because I note that training is generally focused on tactical skills whereas education (in my experience) is better suited to imparting the the operational and strategic level skill sets.
A necessary skill set for all ranks, and one that in my experience needs to be instilled early and encouraged throughout, is critical thinking; it is not something I think we do very well as an organisation but I see encouraging signs that we are movingly in the right direction. In the modern and future operating environment I think critical thinking will become an essential skill set for all ranks and with the narrow focus of PME for other ranks almost exclusively focused on what to do and how to do it, the why, of which critical thinking is such an essential component , is noticeably lacking. Maj Gen Mick Ryan (@WarintheFuture) stated it well in his talk on ‘Future Joint Officer 2040‘ (see Nexus) when he noted that as we lose our technical advantages and no longer operate at mass, that we must out-think in order to out manoeuvre and out fight. To me, this demands an investment into our intellectual capital, and we would be remiss not to invest broadly across the spectrum of our personnel, recognising the the force and rank structures of today may be increasingly anachronistic for the fights of tomorrow.
Lastly I would also recognise that it is a valid argument that PME plays a role in meeting the expectations, professional and personal, of those who join today. When I joined the British Army was seen as a way of gaining a trade and getting ahead. Joining the military was seen as a good thing. While operational effectiveness underpins all that we do, it is ostensibly the primary, but not exclusive, driver for what we do. We would do well to remember this and not discount options because they are not of immediate and tangible operational worth; investing in the long game means investing in our people.
In conclusion I will quote von Scharnhorst, but proffer the thought that where he says ‘officers‘ we should substitute ‘leaders‘, for is this not what we should aspire to for our future generations of soldiers?
“If a young man, who is destined for a military career, does not learn to use his mind right, to judge correctly and conclusively, the mathematics and theory of war, then no experience will help him. One has to give young people, destined to become officers, the early opportunity to think about their profession, to use other’s insights and experiences; to do that they need to have the right basic notions.”
Keep up the good work Barney!
For further reading on the subject of PME and training the books that have influenced my thoughts the most are:
There was a rather unseemly Twitter brawl towards the end of last week with regards to the issue of women in close combat. It was revealing both in what was said, what was unsaid and the manner of saying.
Now policy has been given to us, and the issue of women in close combat has been resolved in so far as all combat roles have been opened to women. I have reservations about this, not on the grounds that women could, but rather on the grounds as to whether women should. The debate that we have had has focused for the most part on the first part, and less so on the latter, with the exception that the military has made a good case as to why they need to make maximum use of all the nation’s human capital.
The assumption that has been made is that encouraging women into close combat roles is good for society as a whole. As any good strategist will tell you, assumptions need to recognised as assumptions (and not facts), and challenged. My reservations on the policy are based on a personal philosophy rooted in the philosophy of Aquinas, the concept of Natural Law and a believe that form reflects function. I do not challenge that women can, I merely have reservations about the assumption that because they can they should in the broader sociological sense. My reservations do not challenge policy, but they do (I believe) allow me to bring a different perspective to the debate, and it is this very difference of perspective that the military values in seeking diversity.
From the military’s point of view what should be worrying about the debate last week (and I caveat this, with the fact that it was on Twitter, with all the limitations of that medium) is the tenor of the debate. We in the military pride ourselves on our diversity, because we recognise that there is a strength in diversity. That strength lies in harnessing the power of different perspectives to bring about a constructive dialectic. If we are unable to engage constructively in debate, then debates will simply not happen.
I have seen great strides recently in the intellectual formation of the military, and the army in particular. We should not be complacent about the work still to be done.
“On the next day, 12 May, there was from time to time a complete breakdown of march movement traffic on the right wing. A hopeless mess developed because vehicle convoys of the infantry divisions again and again forced their way out of the right-hand neighbor’s combat sector into the wider roads that were set aside for the Panzer divisions. The infantry units dacted like rivals of the Panzer units and did not want them to have all the glory. That resulted in jumbled confusion on the Ardennes trails that turned out to be worse than the disaster scenario that Reinhardt had painted earlier in his war games as a devil’s advocate. Instead of immediately being able to start the race to the Meuse River with Guderian’s Panzers, his units were senselessly caught in a traffic jam for two days on German soil. The first vehicle of Reinhardt’s 6th Panzer Division crossed the Luxembourg boundary only on the third day, at 0600 on 12 May.” Karl-Heinz Frieser “The Blitzkrieg Legend” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, p116.
Unity of Command is a well known principle of effective military operations, and while professional military education devotes time to explaining the nuances of effective command and control design it rarely touches on the thorny issue of insubordinate commands. There is an assumption that subordinate commands will be just that – subordinate. That is not always the case. Not all subordinate commands play nice in the sandpit. Sometimes commands do what they have been told not to, more often (in my experience) they do not do what they have been told to do. The British Army has a distinguished tradition of “consent and evade” to unpopular orders.
I have been deployed on operations where subordinate commands have been anything but subordinate: where subordinate commanders have avoided higher commanders, and staff have been frozen out, where orders have been acknowledged but not actioned, and where the passage of information needed for the effective running of operations has slowed to a trickle. I have been been barred from HQs and have seen entire campaign Lines of Effort sidelined; when it has happened it has been a brutal, demoralising and quite unnecessary experience, but as the quote above shows, it is nothing new.
The problem of insubordinate commands in my experience is inevitably driven from the top. It takes its lead from the commanders and senior staff of the subordinate command. Sometimes there may be a personal animus between the commanders but in my experience it is more often a professional disagreement as to the conduct of operations. Subordinate commands will always be more narrowly focused in time, space and concept than the higher headquarters, and this narrow focus can lead to tensions as to priorities and resourcing. The other common factor is a confused C2 structure and this is most often found at the early stages of a campaign when the architecture is developing quickly and where the subordinate HQ may have arrived in theatre before the higher HQ and is accustomed to operating somewhat independently.
Often however the single largest exacerbating factor is geography. One would intuitively think that collocating HQs would be of mutual benefit, but there are dangers. If HQs are collocated then there is insufficient distance to allow the subordinate HQ to gather, assess and then transmit information to the higher HQ. The effect of this is that the higher commander can have as good a situational picture as the subordinate commander which puts the subordinate in the invidious situation of being at best level with his commander in terms of situational awareness and possibly even behind. A subordinate with his narrower focus should have more detail and quicker than his ‘higher’, the pressure mounts if (s)he does not. Staff can add to the problem. It is easy to pop one’s head round to one’s opposite number for the detail needed for the brief, but when the brief is briefed and the subordinate is unaware the issue can escalate quickly. Too often well meaning staff can come across as simply ‘marking the homework’ of the subordinate staff.
So what is to be done if you find yourself on the staff and dealing with an insubordinate command?
1) Understand how the situation has arose. Understand the cause and you will understand the cure.
2) Be transparent, use the laid down C2 architecture and SOPs scrupulously. Always remember that the Higher HQ supports the lower and adds value through its input; support the subordinate.
3) Raise the issue to your Chief of Staff through the correct channels, never assume they know everything – especially in a large HQ. Lay down the operational implications.
4) Understand that it is likely not a personal thing and that the staff are in an invidious position. Be professional and remain courteous.
It should not happen, but it does, and it certainly isn’t not covered on any staff college curriculum that I am aware of. At the end of the day C2 diagrams reflect doctrine and practice, but do not represent personality and perspective.