Tag Archives: Lessons

Operation Temperer and a Campaign Little Known

Operation Temperer

Operation Temperer has returned to barracks for now, but while it was deployed it brought to mind my early days soldiering on Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. The tasks were very much the same – key point defence and overt armed support to the civilian police, and to be frank the equipment did not appear to have changed all that much.

The more recent terrorist attack at London Bridge again brought to mind Operation Banner, but this time in a different guise. There were terrible comparisons to The Troubles made on social media and it highlighted the fact that to my mind Operation Banner remains more misunderstood than known, even by those who served there.

This misunderstanding was most clearly seen early on in the Iraq campaign, in the trite comparisons made between the British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland and its illusory success in Basra, and the then ongoing experiences of the mostly US forces in central Iraq.  The fact is that as a campaign Operation Banner is not well understood, and certainly not by those who would reasonably be expected to know most about it – the British military.

Operation Banner

Few serving soldiers now have any experience of serving on Operation Banner, but even those that do, none will have experience of the 1970s and few will have had experience of the covert struggle. Yet understanding the ebb and flow of the campaign in the 1970s when the hard lessons were learnt, as well as being cognisant of the covert war are essential to understanding the conflict as a whole. Most who are ready with the glib comparisons served in the 1980s onwards when the campaign was relatively mature and growing in sophistication. We remember the Techniques, Tactics and Procedures, but fail to grasp the ‘why’ of the operational approach or even the theatre lay down.

The British Army’s ‘Operation Banner: An Analysis Of Military Operations in Northern Ireland‘ published in 2006 is a remarkable piece of succinctness, capturing almost 37 years in 98 pages. The publication is not designed to be a definitive history of the campaign, not can it be considering its classification that makes it unable to touch on covert operations, and its narrow focus on the military and excluding the role of the police in detail. In fact the definitive history of the campaign has yet to be written.

The British Army’s study is however a good overview of the campaign and has some hidden gems in plain sight (Republican terrorists killed 30% more Republican terrorists than the Army (page 2-12)). This together with the following should be the starting point for those wishing to place the campaign in perspective:

To me it is remarkable how quickly Operation Banner has fallen from view, especially considering the fact the Republican terrorism remains very much active, albeit diminished.  Yesterday’s wars are it seems, largely a matter for the historians, no matter how pertinent they are to the professionals of today.

The Real Lessons of Afghanistan

A US vehicle passes a reminder of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
A US vehicle passes a reminder of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Steven Metz has just published a good article in World Politics Review titled “What are the Real Lessons of the Afghanistan War?“; it is well worth a read.

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.