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.
After over 10 years of campaigning the UK’s commitment to combat operations in Afghanistan (Operation HERRICK) drew to a close in 2014. The army I joined in the late 1980s is a very different organisation to the army that exists today, not least as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Leaving aside the changes in equipment, tactics and an operationally experienced cohort of commanders and staff, what is the legacy of these operations for UK defence and the British Army in particular?
The UK Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in his annual RUSI lecture just before Christmas focused in part on this legacy. CDS focused on three aspects of what he termed a “challenging legacy”
The utility of Armed Force
The competence of Defence
The wisdom of past government
Utility of Armed Force
CDS stated that many people feel that our operations overseas have placed us more at risk, a legitimate if not entirely accurate perception and one which ignores both the ideological roots of the current conflict between the liberal West and Islamism; and the social, economic and demographic underpinnings of the Arab Spring. Furthermore the at best ambiguous strategic results of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have probably convinced people and politicians of the futility not the utility of force. This can be challenged, but only by educating and informing where we (the UK) went both right and wrong in our application of force and I see little sign of this happening yet. Significantly the Royal Navy, probably the UK’s most effective Service for the wider application of Armed Force has been largely marginalised in the public’s view since 2001, but has deterred, secured and fought on a global basis, demonstrating every day the utility of Armed Force and Armed Forces.
CDS also makes the point: “Certainly, the understandable demonstrations of national grief which for a decade have attended the homecoming of our dead, have represented a significant challenge to our resilience as a nation, and our ability to sustain military operations…“. I have long felt that the increasing trend towards sanctification of our war dead is very likely to be counter-productive to our ability as a society to employ force efficiently and effectively. The simple fact is that it is becoming prohibitively expensive in both real and narrative terms to incur casualties. Yet without the deployment of land combat forces and the real risk of casualties both commitment and effect are likely to be seen as transient at best in the land environment.
The Competence of Defence
CDS is silent on the issue of the competence of defence. Yet it is here that the legacy is most troubling. Three campaigns (Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) which failed at the strategic level and two in which the UK arguably failed at the operational level (Iraq and Afghanistan).
There appears to have been a significant loss of military credibility within Whitehall. As the former HM Ambassador to Kabul stated: “I am saying that at times and in places, one saw military advice to Ministers that was driven by a military view of the situation that was not necessarily the same as what the wider national interest might or might not be.” This charge of militarism is serious and has been echoed elsewhere. It seems clear that the way the wars were fought were very much left to the military and that the ways suited the military and in particular the Army. For instance maintenance of six month deployments for formations on operations guaranteed a minimum force level at a time when establishment levels were under review. A move to 12 month deployments apart from enabling greater continuity in Theatre (vital in any stabilisation campaign) would also have allowed more efficient use of troops (as well as troop efficiencies…).
At the military strategic and operational levels there are two fundamental questions that need to be answered:
1. What was the campaign plan for Basra and why was it so poorly resourced?
2. Why when the UK was arguably decisively under-committed to Iraq was the decision taken to open up a second major Theatre of Operations?
Unfortunately the competence of defence is unlikely to be addressed by Defence. I say this in the basis of the very limited evidence I have seen of vigorous and transparent debate on the strategic and operational lessons from these campaigns. The Services are very good at tactical lessons, because these lie largely within their own remit and comfort zone, but operational and strategic lessons lie clearly at Joint Forces Command and Whitehall level and the politics here becomes murky indeed. As is so often the case in military reform the impetus for reform is likely to be external and the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence continues to do sterling work in holding the military and the Ministry of Defence to account, and I remain optimistic that the Iraq Inquiry will provide significant impetus for change.
A Troubled Legacy
So what is the legacy from the UK’s 21st Century campaigns to date? Both Ledwidge and Fairweather highlight significant failings and call in question the Special Relationship. The Special Relationship was and is a pragmatic relationship invested in rather more emotionally by the British than the Americans. The fact of the matter is that in my extensive dealings with the US Military the Special Relationship seemed alive and well, although brand UK did seem tarnished; we are no longer seen as being as capable or as reliable as we might wish to be. Unlike the Australians we over-promised and under-delivered, however despite this and our shrinking size we remain the “best of the rest” in terms of size and capability. One should not forget that the US is also struggling with its legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan in much the same way as the UK is.
Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrated that UK Land Forces lack mass. If you want to have influence then you need to resource it. Arguably both Iraq and Afghanistan needed a division deployed on an enduring basis in order to both ensure that the job we had signed up for was resourced properly and to ensure that the UK retained the influence and prestige it though appropriate for a major player on the world stage and as America’s ally of choice. As we are highly unlikely to increase the size of UK Land Forces greater thought needs to be given to the overall UK force mix and the types of military operation we are likely to get involved in. Traditionally UK strategy has focused on using a strong navy for force projection while maintaining a small army.
The British Military has demonstrated significant failings in its military strategic and operational decision making abilities. The picture is obscured by the fact that the UK was a very junior partner in a large coalition for both Iraq and Afghanistan, but without doubt serious errors were made in what were effectively treated as UK standalone campaigns (the sobriquets ‘Basra-shire‘ and ‘Helmand-shire‘ are telling). Without a vigorous and transparent debate about these failings these are unlikely to be addressed, and such a debate does not appear to be happening within the military at this time.
The utility of force (hard power) is increasingly being questioned in the UK, as elsewhere in the West, despite the rise in the use of hard power elsewhere. Warfare are is increasingly seen as prohibitively expensive and of dubious efficiency. Both may be true, but human story shows that warfare is endemic to the human condition, and that while one may not go looking for war, war often comes uninvited.
So a troubling legacy, but one which holds the seeds for reform of both strategy and military.