It seems apparent that the institutions of Britain are fraying, and the military is not alone in this. While the RAF may have termed the last twelve months its ‘annus horriblis’ it is the Army that appears to be bearing the brunt from service accommodation to hollow divisions. How did we get here?
Julian Lindley-French is as trenchant as ever on his blog: “Government is always about hard choices, but it is precisely because successive British governments have either failed to make such choices, or on the few occasions when they have it has invariably been the wrong choice driven by short-term politics rather than national strategy. The High Establishment even have a metaphor for kicking the British can down the global road – managing decline. They are not particularly good at even doing that.”
A slightly less trenchant perspective, but no less cutting, is afforded by Professors Uttley and Dorman of King’s College London in their written evidence to the Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee for its recently published report titled ‘Defence Concepts and capabilities: from aspiration to reality’ that was recently covered by WavellRoom. The report is well worth reading, as is the supporting material. I wish to highlight the following from Professors Uttley and Dorman as being salient to where we are now.
“the MoD is currently making short-term year-on-year decisions to balance its in-year budget. The result has been a series of short-term capability reductions.” (p.3)
“There is ample evidence that HMT and MoD relationships have historically been antagonistic. Part of this is structural: HMT seeks to control expenditure and government departments seek to maximise their budgets. In other words, the MoD is no different from any other large spending department. But it should also be remembered that HMT has, at times, been very supportive of defence as was the case during rearmament in the 1930s.”(p. 5)
“As a large spending area, the MoD has historically been a primary area for budget raiding because of its expenditure programme is one of the largest across government. Moreover, given the high level of capital investment it is an area where substantial savings can be made relatively quickly should a major programme be cancelled.” (p.5)
“As Robert Self has suggested, HMT has required close supervision of the MoD because of its consistent inability to live within its budget and demonstrate rules of financial discipline, leading to inquisitorial dealings with the MoD. In effect, the MoD has been viewed by HMT as a ‘recidivist over-spender’.” (p.5) (5 Robert Self, Making British Defence Policy, (Routledge: Abingdon), 2022, Ch. 8.)
“The UK’s national strategy as a post-WWII residual great power has been based on minimising strategic shrinkage and balancing between a range of sub-strategies. This includes balancing the Britain’s maritime and European continental commitments, as well as investment choices between conventional and nuclear investment, and the maintenance of the special relationship with the US via NATO verses closer integration with mainland European attempts to create security architectures.” (p. 6)
It seems to me that this captures nicely the context of MoD decision making, in both micro and macro over the past few decades. It covers the ‘what’ very nicely, without necessarily going in to the detail of the ‘why’. For this I turn to Sir Peter Ricketts who was the British Government’s first National Security Adviser and, from 2006 until 2010, the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of H.M. Diplomatic Service. In the excellent RUSI podcast Talking Strategy Sir Ricketts expounds at length on strategic decision making as he experienced it.
“My experience of democratic politicians are that they are hopeless at strategy making. There is nothing in the training, development required to be a senior political leader that prepares them to think or act strategically.” (2.25)
“. . . an overarching national strategy which is what I understand by the term ‘Grand Strategy’ I found from my experience to be pretty much impossible in the rough and tumble of politics which is all about the short term. My experience has been that politicians tend to run a mile when the word strategy is mentioned.” (2:56)
“In the Civil Service the word strategy is bandied about for any document that tries to take a rounded view of any problem. So in the Foreign Office we had strategies for every single country in the world and every single issue we were following, a human rights strategy, a climate change strategy, a conflict prevention strategy and so on. What we tried to do in the National Security Council when I set that up for David Cameron in 2010, is to take a step back and look at all the risks and threats which were on the government’s list relevant to the UK, I think it was a list of about 80 of them, and to try and make a choice thereof what we thought were the most likely risks to occur and if they did those that would have the most impact … and then we sat down and with that long list of risks and we produced a matrix of likelihood and impact if the risk happens. And we made choices, we chose twenty risks, we prioritised them between top tier, second tier and third tier risks, and to me that is the essence of strategy making at the top level of government. It’s not about listing every single ambition or aspiration that you have and reassuring citizens that you are doing something about it. It’s making choices, it’s setting priorities, and that’s a thing that I found politicians are very leery of doing. Because when you make choices you leave somebody in the Cabinet disappointed. When you set priorities you can be almost sure that there will be some disruptive event come along (sic) and then you will be criticized for having set the wrong priorities.” (3:56)
Taking all this in to consideration, I was struck by a comment made at an informal dinner recently by some very senior officers. Those of us in the trenches may despair at Army HQ and the MoD, but they are staffed by bright people doing their best, and by and large our leadership are capable and effective too. So what are we to make of their decision making? In talking about the current crop of Service leaders, the point was made that “of course, decision making at that level is all about making the least worst decision”.
So perhaps we are where we are because that was the least worst option available to us? And if so, what needs to change so that the best option available is not simply the least worst option?
This year I had the opportunity to visit Bruly-de-Pesche in Belgium, close to the French border. In my time I have visited many battlefields and related sites, but this one felt different. Bruly-de-Pesche was where Hitler’s forward headquarters for the 1940 France campaign was situated and where he dictated the terms of the French surrender. Hitler spent some three weeks here, and the village has changed little since then – disconcertingly so. One can walk, recognisably so, in Hitler’s footsteps both in the village and in the woods. In the woods Organisation Todt landscaped a woodland walk for Hitler’s relaxation which still stands. To see pictures of a jocular Hitler with his staff there, or to quietly sit on a landscaped wall where quite likely Hitler sat, is to understand how banal evil is.
Evil often only seems black and white in hindsight. We are all guilty of moral compromise, and we all like to think that we would not compromise in the important things. That there are red lines we would not cross. The truth is rather more prosaic. Our society is characterised by moral relativism and significant moral fissures over such issues as abortion, transgenderism and immigration. Moral relativism is inherently susceptible to manipulation and extant moral fissures can be exploited and compromise can lead to complicity. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. White turns grey and grey turns black gradually over time, and the urge to conform is strong.
This can all too clearly be seen in Christopher Browning’s excellent book ‘Ordinary Men‘, the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.
Browning’s work clearly shows how ordinary men can do unspeakable things.
“At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder.“
“As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity – the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out.” (page 71)
“The battalion had orders to kill Jews, but each individual did not. Yet 80 to 90 percent of the men proceeded to kill, though almost all of them – at least initially – were horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behaviour, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.” (page 184)
Mostly Brown’s book is short on the details of the killing work. But for their work, and for others like them, there were witnesses and helpers, some willing and some ‘requisitioned’. Two of the most harrowing books that I have read on the Holocaust provide eyewitness accounts to these so called actions, in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia). These killings were carried out largely by shooting, and largely in public, absent the euphemisms of deportations and work camps. It is important to read these accounts because they lay bare the lie that few knew of the killings. It is also important to read these to realise how low ordinary people can stoop when violence is legitimised by both law and prevailing social standards. They are hard reading indeed.
“These peasants also spoke to me of the pits as if they were alive. How was I to understand what they meant? How was I to accept the witnesses’ repeated assertion that the pits “breathed” for three days afterward? I attributed it, without yet having explained it, to the deterioration process of the bodies. And then, on a different day in another village, someone who had been requisitioned as a child to dig that pit told us that a hand coming out of the ground had grabbed hold of his spade. I understood then that all the witnesses who had told us about the pits moving, accompanying their words by an up and down movement of their hand, had signified in fact that a pit took three days to quiet down because many of the victims had been buried alive. After understanding that, I accepted as the true meaning of these words: “The pit took three days to die…” “The well shouted for three days.” Some victims were only wounded or had even been thrown alive into the pits.” (page 65)
“Dora was a little girl who lived in Simferopol in Crimea. She was Krymchak. Dora died at the age of four and a half, assassinated.
Dora was taken off with two other members of her family. Those who had escaped the raid begged two neighbours to go to the extermination site to try and negotiate with the Germans for her not to be killed. When the neighbours arrived at “Kilometer Eleven,” they found that the Germans had put up a road block. Traffic was stopped during the shootings. Only the trucks willed with Jews were authorised to pass. On the other side of the barricade, they caught sight of little Dora. She was naked. In the icy cold, she was begging the Germans to give her back her coat: “Give me my jacket, I’ll give you my shoes in exchange!” But the Germans listened to no one’s requests. Dora was shot.” (pages 211-212)
[From the deposition of soldier Josef F. soldier in the Wehrmacht who was invited to witness the events by an acquaintance in the SS to witness “the shooting of the Jews“]
“Then I noticed a very handsome couple with two small children. The husband and wife were very well dressed. You could see right away that they were fine people … This couple was in one of the groups that a Russian civilian was bringing toward the firing squad. The woman had a child of about one in her arms, and the couple was leading another child of three or four by the hand. Once they were facing the firing squad I saw the man ask for something. He had probably asked for permission to hold his family in his arms one last time, because I saw him embrace his wife and the child she was holding. But at the same time the shots were fired and everyone fell to the ground. I watched those people all the way to the firing squad because they were such a handsome couple and they had two children.“
“Most of the time, the children knocked over by their falling mothers sat on the ground or on their mothers’ bodies without really understanding what had just happened. I saw how they climbed on their mothers among the dead women. They looked around and definitely did not understand what was going on. I still have the image very clearly before my eyes: they looked up with their big eyes and scared expressions at the shooters. They were too terrified to cry. Twice I saw an SS go down in the ditch with a rifle and kill the children, who were sitting on the dead or on their own mothers, with a shot to the nape of the neck. As I’ve said, they weren’t crying, but looking around in shock . . . The children I saw struggling to move here and there ranged from babies to children of two or three years.“
“While I was watching the massacre, a young girl came up to me suddenly, grabbed my hand, and said: ‘Please, please, they have to let me live a little longer, I’m so young. My parents have already fallen. We don’t have any radio at the house, and we didn’t have newspapers either. The rich Jews left a long time ago with cars and planes. Why are they shooting the poor Jews? We have never insulted the Germans. Tell them that they have to leave me alive a little longer. I’m so young!’ The girl had her hands in front of her face , as though praying, and she was looking me straight in the eyes. From what I remember, she was still a schoolgirl or student. She spoke German fluently, without an accent. One of the shooters with an automatic pistol saw us and called out to me ‘Bring her!’ I answered that I would not do it. The girl, who had heard, begged me, terrified: ‘Please, please, don’t do it!’ Since I was making no move to bring the girl to the firing squad, I saw the SS coming toward me. He had his automatic pistol ready at his hip. At this point all I could think was: ‘Let’s hope that the girl doesn’t turn around, that she keeps looking me in the eye and that she does not see her killer approaching and have to face death.’ I kept comforting her over and over, even though I could see the shooter approaching her back. The girl was still begging me and surely didn’t hear the shooter coming. Once he right behind the girl, he pulled the trigger. He shot her behind the ears and she fell to the ground in front of me, without a sound. I think that she even fell on my feet. I will never in my life forget this image of the girl lying at my feet. Her right eye had been torn out. It was still held by the optic nerve and lay on the ground ten to fifteen centimetres from her head. The eye was still whole. The shot had just ripped it from her head. I can still that white glove today. Her head wound barely bled.” (pages 164-170)
Holocaust reading is hard. The necessary things in life often are. We would do well to do more hard reading, recognising that we too are ordinary men and women, with all that entails.
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.
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!):
“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.
The British Army regards the American Revolutionary War with the same zeal as it regards our most recent escapades in southern Iraq; a campaign that is to be acknowledged grudgingly and preferably consigned to the dustbins of history. We are sore losers. That is a shame as there is a great deal to learn from both campaigns; in fact somewhat perversely there are likely to be more lessons to be learnt from those campaigns that veer between an inconclusive result and an outright defeat than there are from our better known victories. These lessons are also more likely to be at the operational and strategic level, levels at which the current British reputation is somewhat lacklustre. This is clearly the case for the American Revolutionary War which is highly pertinent to today.
The American Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 until 1783. It grew from a colonial rebellion to a broad conflict encompassing France, Holland and Spain. Unlike the common misconception of British defeat being due to incompetent British officers leading the thin red line against plucky Americans unsportingly hiding behind trees (British soldiers adapted very quickly to North American requirements, petite guerre was not new, and British light companies were very good) the reality reveals campaign lessons on:
Logistics. Inter-Theatre the British were at the end of a 9 week supply chain from the UK to the US ( and in this in the days before refrigeration). Intra-theatre the communications/transport system network simply was not as developed as it was in Europe and the ground posed significant challenges. This conflict more clearly than many, highlights the impact of logistics on campaigning.
Joint Operations. We think of the American Revolution in terms of British joint operations, but the entry of the French fleet into the fight was a pivotal point in the war, and Franco/American joint operations in the Yorktown campaign were superb. We lose control of the sea at our peril.
Mass matters. The British never had sufficient combat power to secure terrain and take the offensive. Without the ability to secure the population, Loyalists never felt secure enough to commit to the Crown. With the broadening of the conflict to include France, Spain and Holland, British commitments increased (we had to strip manpower from Theatre to meet greater priorities while the Americans received additional combat power.
Alliances matter. It is debatable whether the Continental Army was sufficient in itself to defeat us, it is undeniable that the alliance (America, France, Spain and Holland) did.
Peer Power Competition. As we move from a super-power world to a multi-power world there are lessons to be learnt for us about strategy in a multi-polar competitive system.
It’s all about the economy, stupid. Wars are expensive, and we in the military tend not to look at the overall impact of their costs, but politicians (rightly) do. At the strategic level the costs of war weigh heavily.
In looking at this campaign at the operational and strategic levels I found the Ucko and Marks framework for analysing armed threats particularly instructive.
Lastly in thinking of this campaign I was minded very much of General Sir Rupert Smith’s comment from the recent RUSI Land Warfare Conference: “You and your opponent share the objective; legitimacy, populations access to basic resources, imposing the rule of law or not. These are competitive relationships, not adversarial. A race, not a boxing match.”
For those who do wish to study the campaign some more, here are my top four picks:
With Zeal and Bayonets Only. A more in depth study of British Army tactics, equipment and performance over the course of the war. The author (in his own words) aims to “show in the course of this work, the King’s troops won the vast majority of their battlefield engagements in America because they tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions…” The work is narrowly focused on the operational and tactical levels and is best read after gaining an understanding of the broader contours of the war. Reviewed here.
A Respectable Army. The first book I was introduced to when looking at the Revolutionary War and rightly so. It is one of the definitive accounts of the war and of the Continental Army. Reviewed here.
The Men Who Lost America. No one likes a loser, as is clearly shown by how history has treated those in charge of British efforts during the war. As we consider our recent campaigns and some dubious decisions closer to home (I think of the outsourcing of recruiting and housing in particular) it is worth considering that we rarely select idiots as generals, now or ever (there are a few honourable exceptions). This book provides a good look at British higher command during the Revolutionary War, and should make one consider the linkages between strategy and operations. Reviewed here.
The British Army has ebbed and flowed with armour, but generally apart from the halcyon days of BAOR the flow has been towards the lighter end of the spectrum and this continues today. My first command however was tracked, as was my last, and most of my staff tours has been done to the rumble of tracks. With only three Armoured Infantry Brigades in the British Army now, there are not many remaining who have diesel in their veins to the same extent.
For those who have not experienced close-up armoured warfare the overwhelming first impression is of speed and scale. For unprepared commanders the shock action of armour may verge on fratricidal. This is even before we consider the logisitcal implications of working with an armoured unit (and I well remember the apocryphal mayhem occasioned by a squadron of Royal Scots Dragoon Guards being detached to 3 Commando Brigade on the Al-Faw peninsula in summer 2003). In order to alleviate some of this, here are my recommendations of the the three best books on unit and sub-unit armoured warfare.
Otto Carius served in the German Army throughout World War Two and saw action on both fronts. More than anything else with armour, this book taught me the value of conducting a thorough ground reconnaissance when working with armour. Working with armour is a matter of thinking big, heavy and fast when looking at the ground. The principles for use are the same, only the parameters are different. And while no doubt battle tanks will soon become a system of systems, with manned ‘mother, vehicles being supported by unmanned air and ground vehicles, I think that it will be some time yet before the need for a thorough recce of the route, the going and firing positions by the commanders on foot, is replaced by other means.
“The Graf interrupted me. “You’ll also get over this ridiculous ditch without a bridge!” “With all due respect, no, Herr Graf. I still know this area from the time when the Russians hadn’t yet advanced so far, and they were just getting ready to infiltrate across the Nara. Back then, of course, I studied the terrain intensely. Because even if the ditch isn’t an obstacle for infantry for tanks it is…”
And then there are the legendary German orders, that tell us a lot about tactical proficiency and auftragstaktik in the Heer; comparison of their orders with ours is illuminating.
“Two tanks will drive into the village at full speed and surprise Ivan. He must not be allowed to fire a shot. Lieutenant Nienstedt will bring up the remaining six tanks. Herr Nienstedt! You will remain on the reverse slope until I give you further orders. Let’s just hope that the patron saint of radios isn’t sleeping! Herr Nienstedt, this is your first operation with us. Remember one thing more than anything else: as long as you are patient, everything will work. The first two are Kerscher and me. Everything else should be obvious. What will happen later will be determined by the situation as it develops.”
‘Tank Action’ is one of those recent gems of military publishing, and I am looking forward to following it up by reading ‘An Englishman At War‘, the wartime diaries of his commanding officer in the Sherwood Rangers. ‘Tank Action’ is as much about command as it is about armoured warfare and is excellent at highlighting the close knit nature of armoured vehicle crews where more so than in the infantry, a crew is only as good as it’s weakest member. The book also clearly highlights in the opening chapters how armoured troops are specialist troops.
“Training on Churchill and Valentine tanks, I had only seen a Sherman once in the eighteen months I spent at Bovington and Sandhurst. But most tanks were similar in concept Andy design and my training had taught me the importance of checking the bore alignment of the main armament to the sighting system, prior to commencing operations in any tank. Misalignment would mean that the gun could not be fired accurately and was likely to be proved fatal in an engagement with a German panzer. I asked the nonchalant trio squatting round the fire which one of them was the gunner. A surly-looking individual stood up. My inquiry as to whether the gun had been properly tested and adjusted produced an indifferent shrug of the shoulders from the man who was responsible for ensuring that the gun was properly sighted. When I told him to get in the tank and check it, he told me to ‘piss off’ and ‘check it myself’.”
Avigdor Kahalani commanded the 77th Armoured Battalion equipped with Centurion tanks on the Golan heights during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Kahalani’s battalion formed the backbone of the defence on the Golan Heights in the ‘Valley of Tears Battle‘then spearheaded the Israeli counter-assault down towards Damascus. With a government and often a military infatuated with special forces and ‘predator porn precision’, we lose sight to our peril just what armour en masse is capable of. Kahalani’s book clearly highlights just what armour in mass brings, devastating combat capability and shock impact as well as giving what is probably the best example of I have read of armour and infantry operating in concert.
“Each tank commander chose a position, moved into it and began to pick of Syrians. It was as if the gunners were settling all the scores since midday on the Day of Atonement. Syrian vehicles were burning, their crews scuttling back out of the field of fire. We paid no attention to them. The tanks were more important. Few Syrian guns answered us. Taken completely by surprise, the Syrian armour raced for shelter – and there was none. We had the high ground once more and they were burning in the valley.”
“The tanks were firing shells at random and pouring machine-gun bursts into communication trenches along the roadside. In this kind of advance, you keep firing even if you can’t see a target. It keeps the enemy’s head down and causes the shock – which might be vital if you only have one axis on which to move.”
Lastly an honourable mention. “Tank Tracks To Rangoon” is an excellent book on the versatility and effectiveness of armour in complex terrain, it shatters many myths.
Amidst all the hullabaloo about Army 2020 Refine and Multi Domain Battle, the British Army has quietly released a new iteration of its capstone doctrine – Land Operations. Doctrine is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is important. Land Operations clearly and concisely states what the Army thinks the nature and character of conflict is, the role of the army in conflict and how it will operate; it deserves to be scrutinised and debated widely.
The experience of Afghanistan is writ large in this new doctrine, but there is a danger that in applying the wrong lessons of the last war we fail to position ourselves for the next war. This doctrine fully incorporates Integrated Action which I have posted on previously, but as well as Integrated Action, Defence Capacity Building and Cyber Warfare are incorporated to varying extents and there is a welcome new annex “Understanding Risk”. In providing extracts of this new doctrine I have focused mostly on those elements that look at what conflict is and our role in it. I have done so because these are the fundamentals around which we build our functions, structures and equipment, aspects which are much debated in this forum.
THE LAND ENVIRONMENT
The land environment has human, information and physical aspects. Most people live in towns, cities and villages, and increasingly in coastal regions. There are very few areas in which no people live; even then, most apparently unpopulated space is a resource that supports the population in some way. People exist in linguistic, cultural, social, and political groups with specific identities, usually associated with particular territories. These territories typically take the form of states, or regions within or between them.
The significance of territory is, therefore, associated with group identity and access to resources; it is often rooted in deep cultural and historical factors as well as in governments’ obligations to provide security for their people. Competition for territory and resources, and issues such as injustice and lack of representation are often at the root of conflict.
Because of its significance, the physical capture and occupation of territory, or the credible threat to do so, has often been regarded as decisive. But, the ultimate decision is political rather than physical; people have to decide whether or not to accept the facts on the ground. Land forces, by dint of their presence among and proximity to the people, provide an important and usually necessary contribution to achieving these political outcomes.
The land environment is also shaped by the way that information is exchanged between individuals, tribes, ethnic and interest groups, and countries. This communication can be verbal, directly between people, through radio, television, and online. Human interaction is expanding and accelerating as information flows in the virtual domain increase. In the new information landscape, any digitally connected person has the ability to shape public understanding of and consensus for (or against) a conflict, or be influenced by other actors who exploit these means.
LAND FORCE AND LAND POWER
Land Power Definition. The ability to exert control within the land environment and to influence the behavior of actors and the course of events.
All land forces, regular or irregular, have four inherent attributes. Each attribute has advantages that can be used, but also disadvantages that have to be avoided or mitigated.
a. The primary attribute of any land force is its people. Land conflict is a human activity, between individuals and groups of individuals. Each of these participants has their own perceptions and interpretations of the environment. Land forces, therefore, are complex organisations, requiring moral as well as structural cohesion and deep hierarchies of command. They can be difficult to direct, so decentralised command systems tend to work best. Large numbers of people can also be expensive and lead to competition with other sectors of society requiring skilled personnel. Land forces are particularly reliant on high quality leadership, education and training at all levels.
b. Land forces’ presence on the ground means that they operate in close proximity to people and terrain. Soldiers are able to gain access to people and communicate directly with them. This gives them the potential to develop detailed understanding of the human, information and physical aspects of the environment. They can get close enough to distinguish between different people and groups, adjusting their approach accordingly. They present a particular kind of threat to adversaries, and are uniquely able to reassure and secure neutral and friendly people. Land forces can manoeuvre over ground, or via air or water, to take physical possession of terrain, or they can physically defend or secure it. The presence of land forces, therefore, is often essential for success which may only be achievable by fighting. The same presence, however, can also disturb local relationships, cause people to feel threatened, and become a focus for resistance
to which they are uniquely vulnerable. Sometimes this threat is mitigated by small or discreet deployments that contribute out of proportion to their size. To operate effectively, land forces must be able to understand and cooperate with local actors.
c. The attribute of persistence, the capacity of land forces to extend their presence in an area for long periods of time, gives land forces the potential to deepen their understanding of the local context, and develop engagement, control and influence. Presence and persistence can be highly significant, if matched by political commitment.
d. Land forces have inherent versatility because they consist largely of organized groups that can relatively easily conduct a very wide range of military and non-military tasks. So even when optimised for warfighting, land forces can be adapted to support, for example, stability and non-conflict activities such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
THE CHARACTER OF CONFLICT
It is not possible to predict the exact character of contemporary conflict, because it is constantly changing and each conflict is unique and evolves in its own way. Nevertheless, certain trends and developments are apparent of which global connectivity and the accelerating flow of information are currently the most important. Although each conflict must be examined in its own right, three inter-related aspects of contemporary conflict are clear:
• the way in which people communicate;
• the proliferation and ever-increasing power of physical weapons;
• evolving strategies and tactics.
Rapid and broad communication of messages and ideas flow across physical boundaries through the virtual domain, energising the causes for which people fight. Adversaries can develop and exploit recruitment, manipulation, mobilization and targeting opportunities, while promoting their own narratives of events, in competition with our own. Our adversaries can share information and adapt more quickly than in the past.
Because of the proliferation of information, military activity is often immediately visible to a local and global audience. The local audience includes enemies, adversaries and a range of actors, from allies and partners to the local population. The global audience is unbounded. Each of these groups interprets our activity through their own lens, and each is influenced by others. Many actors are adept at presenting military activity to the audience, magnifying, mitigating or altering it to influence observers’ understanding of what actually happened. This is critically important to us, our allies and adversaries, because the audience judges whether military action achieves its political objectives. The impact of physical military activity can have more immediate, wide-ranging consequences than in the past, for example more quickly deterring, demoralising or stiffening the resolve of other actors.
As we and other actors become more and more reliant on sophisticated information services, so the threat of cyber attack increases. This novel threat has the potential to disrupt our information services and any systems that rely on electronic control systems.
As our military operations become more visible, and come under greater domestic and international scrutiny and criticism, there is a higher expectation of military restraint compared with the past. This often leads to legal and policy constraints on our use of force additional to the requirements of international law. Many of our actual and potential adversaries do not recognise international law, and do not have the same constraints. They are able to exploit this situation to their advantage by, for example, concealing themselves in the population, using tactics and weapons not available to us, or causing us to be restricted by our own (legitimate) rules.
The power of physical weapons continues to increase, and these weapons are often available to irregular forces. Chemical weapons are used and biological, nuclear and radiological weapons remain a threat. Fires and explosives continue to dominate and shape the tactical battlespace, whether, for example, delivered by long range rocket systems or in the form of improvised explosive devices. These are what destroy things and kill and injure people; therefore they have the greatest resonance in the eyes of the participants and observers of conflict.
The recent period has seen the emergence of the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’. This describes strategies that are not new, but which are increasingly employed by state and non-state actors. Potential adversaries are demonstrating the will and capability to undermine Western operational capability, resolve and legitimacy by blending conventional and unconventional forms of conflict, using both attributable and nonattributable methods. These include posturing, provocation and persuasion in the physical and virtual domains, subversion, and economic and cyber warfare, with or without the employment of conventional military forces. This ‘hybrid’ threat to the international rules-based order can be applied in a way that remains below formal Western military response thresholds.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE NATURE AND CHARACTER OF CONFLICT
Land forces have four functions: fight, engage, secure and support. These functions of land power can be exercised independently or in combinations.
a. The fundamental capability of land forces is to fight in the most demanding circumstances. This capability underpins the other three functions; gives credibility to deterrence, coercion and containment and other strategies; and is essential for interventions and territorial defence.
b. Land forces can engage with a range of actors and audiences, directly and indirectly, contributing to understanding, influence and conflict prevention.
c. Land forces are particularly able to secure and protect people and places persistently in the land environment. This includes providing security in support of inter-agency stabilisation and reconstruction.
d. Land forces can support and assist state and non-state institutions. They can provide mass and presence as well as specialist capabilities.
As the audience’s judgement is an increasingly significant factor in contemporary conflict, operations must be designed and conducted accordingly. No conflict has a purely military solution, and overall success requires favourable consensus among a diverse audience. What we say, how we are seen and what we do must be consistent and appropriate. At the margin, a neutral or nearly neutral outcome of military action can be turned into a success or a failure by how it is perceived.
Because military force is used to achieve political outcomes, it should be consciously aimed at altering people’s behaviour. The application and threat of force, and the gaining and retention of physical objectives should be used to affect people’s decision making in ways consistent with our goals. For this reason, in combat, physical destruction and damage is used to achieve two things: an immediate local reduction in enemy capability; and more importantly, wider damage to the enemy’s will and cohesion. The most efficient and often most effective way to achieve this is by creating and attacking weaknesses to demoralise and disintegrate the enemy, rather than attacking strength head-on to destroy as much equipment, manpower and materiel as possible.
As well as fighting and providing security, land forces are in a position to communicate directly with individuals and groups involved in a conflict. To change or maintain the behaviour of these actors, land forces should integrate the use of force with communications in a mutually reinforcing way. In turn, to achieve political outcomes, they must integrate their activity with that of the diplomatic and economic instruments of power.
The relative ease with which our activities can be observed, commented on and interpreted by multiple audiences makes previous operational and nonoperational distinctions less valid. Even relatively minor armed conflicts have potentially global consequences, for example through diaspora of people with common identities or transnational economic dependencies.
Since the effects of even distant conflicts have consequences domestically and for the international rules-based order, there is a strategic imperative for land forces to contribute to improved security in relevant parts of the world. Military power, complementary to other instruments of state power, can contribute through early and persistent engagement overseas, capacity building of local security forces, and by deterrence. In doing so, land forces can develop the understanding, relationships and outlook necessary should conflict occur.
Integrated Action is the application of the full range of lethal and non-lethal capabilities to change and maintain the understanding and behaviour of audiences to achieve a successful outcome.
Integrated Action describes how land forces orchestrate and execute operations in an interconnected world, where the consequences of military action are judged by an audience that extends from immediate participants to distant observers. Integrated Action requires commanders and staff to be clear about the outcome that they are seeking and to analyse the audience relevant to the attainment of their objectives. They then identify the effects that they wish to impart on that audience to achieve the outcome, and what capabilities and actions are available. These lethal and non-lethal capabilities may belong to the land force itself, or to joint, intergovernmental, inter-agency, non-governmental, private sector and multinational actors involved in the operation. What is important is for commanders and staff to work out how to synchronise and orchestrate all the relevant levers to impart effects onto the audience to achieve the outcome.
Integrated Action, with the audience as its major consideration, requires sophisticated understanding, integration of all capabilities available, and is outcome-focused. These are the four fundamentals of the doctrine.
a. People are at the heart of conflict; it is their decisions and behaviours that determine how conflict is conducted and resolved. Integrated Action requires consideration of the diverse audience that is relevant to the attainment of our objectives, globally, nationally and within theatres of operations.
b. Integrated Action is founded on the land force’s understanding of its task and environment. A dynamic approach to understanding, built on a learning culture, allows the force to adapt and innovate in response to evolving situations.
c. Land forces create desired effects by the integration of lethal and non-lethal capabilities. Effective integration relies on the cooperation and interoperability of the land force, multinational, host nation, inter-governmental, non-governmental and inter-agency partners, as well as of tactical combined arms formations and units.
d. Integrated Action needs commanders to think about how their actions contribute to the desired outcomes, in a broad and evolving context. This approach encourages a wider and longer-term view of a situation, relative to the task and role of the land force.
The doctrine of Integrated Action applies at all levels to land forces, from the land component of the joint operation, to tactical formations, units and sub-units. There is, however, an important delineation between responsibilities for its orchestration and execution.
It is only at the higher tactical or operational level (usually the division or corps) that Integrated Action can be orchestrated and fully aligned with joint, interagency and multinational operations. In certain circumstances, brigades or units may be the highest level of UK land command in a particular theatre and so may be required to operate at the operational level. Examples include conducting capacity building or non-combatant evacuation operations. In such cases, they must be resourced appropriately.
Integrated Action blends lethal and non-lethal actions to have effects on the understanding, physical capability, will and cohesion of the audience. Organised into attainable objectives, these effects are ultimately realised in people’s minds, influencing their decision making, to achieve the desired outcomes. Although not all tactical activities are directed against people, the ultimate targets of land power are the audience and actors. Integrated Action is planned from desired outcome back to actions, through objectives and effects, and adjusted in execution in response to what has been learned and the changing situation.
Within the land force, the tactical functions are the primary levers of influence, representing the full breadth of the force’s activities that are integrated when orchestrating and executing operations. These are, however, rarely sufficient. Commanders and staff must also seek to integrate a range of different levers not under their direct control; they must, therefore, cooperate with joint, intergovernmental, inter-agency, non-governmental, private sector and multinational actors involved in the operation.
Those tactical functions mainly directed towards actors are: manoeuvre, fires, information activities and capacity building. Their successful application depends on command and intelligence which set the operation’s direction, and protection and sustainment which enable the mission. These tactical functions can also have direct and indirect effects on the audience as well as on the mission itself. For example, how a force collects intelligence, protects or sustains itself may directly affect the audience’s perceptions of the force.
The tactical functions represent the full breadth of a land force’s activities when conducting operations. They are:
• Information activities
• Capacity building
The tactical functions are a device that helps to organise activities into intelligible groups; they have no effects, whereas the activities do. As a rule of thumb, corps and divisions are designed to conduct all the tactical functions simultaneously. Subordinate force elements may be able to apply all the functions to lesser degrees or specific ones to great effect. The tactical functions also provide a useful checklist for commanders when assessing a plan, and a common vocabulary for describing a force’s overall capabilities.
British Army doctrine follows the NATO codification of operations themes, types of operation and tactical activities. This enhances interoperability with allies and aids understanding of the mosaic of conflict. Operations may be assigned or described in terms of particular contextual themes. These operations themes allow the general conditions of the operating environment to be understood, informing the intellectual approach, resources available (including force levels, rules of engagement and force protection measures), likely activities required and levels of political appetite and risk. There are four themes, aligned to the functions of land power: warfighting, security, peace support and defence engagement. These themes provide a framework for understanding in general terms the context and dynamics of a conflict and are often concurrent with other types of operation within the mosaic of conflict. These aid analysis and articulation of complex missions and provide the essential gearing required to sequence a series of tactical activities to achieve operational objectives. Within all types of operation, land forces conduct all or some of a range of tactical activities, often concurrently.
This is an evolution of British Army doctrine. It represents thinking borne of experience of recent conflicts, and in many of the terms and taxonomies it nests comfortably with NATO and US doctrine. Fundamentally this doctrine states what we think conflict is now and in the future, our role in it and how we do what we do. As we look at the experience of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, of the Russian role in the US elections and waning Western hegemony, have we got it right? My personal sense is that this new iteration is a good update and improvement. It is written in plain English, is concise (some 200 pages) and does largely reflect what I see in the changing character of operations. I do query whether if, by focusing our role as primarily about changing behavior, our doctrine may have become too obtuse for what is an army that will operate almost exclusively at the tactical level. I also query how often we need to update our capstone doctrine (previous iterations were issued in 2005 and 2010, and whether we are doing enough to educate and inform the wider UK defence community in our thinking. Read, think, question and debate!
I have spent years in Iraq working alongside the Iraqi Army or trying to reform the Iraqi Security Forces. Despite the popular perception we (the West) has not a bad track record in improving the combat effectiveness of our partnered militaries. Unfortunately our track record of reforming the systems within which they operate is appalling at best. If you cannot reform the system then any improvements to the institution are likely to be both unsupported and unsustainable. Turning out the best junior officers may give you a tactical edge in the short term, but unless you reform the middle and upper management they will still have to conform eventually to the very system that lead to failure in the first place.
The Karrada Bombing in Baghdad (pictured above) was a terrible tragedy that may well turn out to have had a strategic impact on the course of politics and the war in Iraq. It was enabled in part by a system that has corruption at its core and still retains use of the so called “magic wands” that were sold as bomb detectors, revealed as worthless and still remain in use. When a system is as corrupt and as ineffective as this, winning the fight is one thing, winning the war another entirely.
For the UK the same general strategic lessons apply, but there are some additional lessons peculiar to Britain’s circumstances:
Being in a Coalition Obscures. The UK was a senior Coalition partner in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However Coalition strategy is by necessity a strategy of compromise between the differing constituent national interests. This means that both the ‘what’ of national interest and the ‘how’ the strategy will achieve this may not be immediately apparent. It also means that that while failure is deniable (and in the modern political system this plausible deniability is very attractive) it is also correspondingly more difficult to take credit for when things work.
Influence must be resourced. The UK was the biggest of the rest in terms of military commitment both Iraq and Afghanistan. However compared to the US commitment the UK’s commitment was small. The UK never fielded a division in Iraq or Afghanistan after 2003; with less dog in the fight there was less influence (as clearly perceived by Churchill in WW2, his direction on British force ratios compared to US in the invasion of France were explicit). Influence is directly proportionate to capability delivered. As is evident from Lieutenant General Bolger’s book “Why We Lost” British military influence suffered in part from being perceived as the “poor cousins” who could perhaps talk the talk (and weren’t shy in doing so) but couldn’t walk the walk. However it must be noted that influence is not just garnered through conventional military capability, although that is the most obvious.
Hidden influence cannot be credited. The UK garners significant influence through its ability to wield the levers of ‘soft power’ especially Information and Diplomacy. However such influence is often understated and behind the scenes and while it may be credited behind the scenes it is hard to weave such influence into a narrative of constructive and significant British contribution at the strategic level. The image increasingly becomes one of a British poodle dancing to the Washington tune, this makes it hard to maintain domestic support.
Domestic political fragmentation makes enduring commitments less likely. At the strategic level the nature of war makes it difficult to disentangle the character of politics from the character of war and the character of the strategy involved. In the UK the fragmentation of the domestic political landscape (a fact mirrored across Europe) has made it increasingly difficult to maintain a consensus on military intervention. This is closely linked to the fragmentation of the news space where people actively seek out a news narrative that supports the perception they wish to hold, making building consensus and support harder. This means that unless the political landscape changes, limited interventions such as Libya and Iraq (2014 – ) will probably become the norm. Such interventions are characterised by being short in time and/or limited in means and designed to meet a simple political narrative, normally moral and emotive in nature. Long term strategy and hard headed national interests may be addressed, but not necessarily in the narrative and secondary to immediate political expediency.