Lessons From the Staff

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.
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