Twenty plus years a foot soldier in Her Majesty's army these are my my professional and sometimes idiosyncratic musings.
I have served at every level from platoon to corps in what has been a varied, undistinguished and immensely rewarding career.
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The genesis of this is a comment by the British Army’s Assistant Head of Media and Communications, Colonel Chris MacGregor. In a thread talking about the newly released British Army recruitment campaign, Colonel MacGregor said the following:
This reminded me of another recent online episode, but on a much grander scale.
EVE Online is a space-based, persistent world Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) with hundreds of thousands of active subscriptions and often tens of thousands playing online simultaneously. This thing is HUGE, and over a week in December 2018 a battle took place that should make us all think, the battle of wormhole system J115405, better known as ‘Rage’.
In the EVE universe wormhole systems are the most inhospitable space that there is, creating immense logistical and communications difficulties. The destruction of a Keepstar deep in a wormhole was regarded as impossible – until it happened. Over the course of a year a team on EVE prepared and executed just such an operation, the details of which can be found at Kotaku.com. In doing so this team achieved the following:
Executed an effective mission planning cycle that correctly identified how to conduct offensive operations in an environment previously thought to overwhelmingly favour the defender.
Set the Theatre
Over contested LOCs
Allowing for combat attrition and the requirement to offset culmination.
Maintained realtime OPSEC over a period of months
Exercised Mission Command
Conducted both preliminary operations to isolate the Theatre of operations and subsequent operations to consolidate gains.
Let’s think about this for a little bit. I have been involved in more than a dozen Combined Arms Staff Trainer (CAST) at Battalion and Brigade level, and close to half a dozen divisional Command Post Exercises and the same number of US ‘Warfighter’ exercises. In none of these did we have to set the theatre, conduct preliminary moves over contested LOCs and move from Phase III Dominate (Major Combat Operations) to the subsequent detailed exploitation and consolidation. There are a number of reasons why we don’t achieve all this in training which verge from ‘G3 snobbery’ (combat is sexy and logistics isn’t) to the prosaic: to practice logistics realistically takes time. Team ‘The Initiative’ achieved all this in a dynamic and highly competitive environment and using a distributed command and control network. The Initiative demonstrated professionalism, commitment and operational competence.
There are two key takeaways I want to draw from this.
Is there scope to use a MMORPG construct for our operational level staff training? Would staff benefit from participating in such an environment?
In recruiting how effective are we at talent spotting those with a proven track record of operational and strategic level planning? Perhaps more so than we realise, we need to move away from a focus on Physical Realm competences, to look closer at those with a Virtual Realm pedigree.
The following are recommended readings to dispel some preconceptions about MMORPG gamers, and highlight some of the benefits (and no, I am not yet a gamer!):
Up front I will say that I agree with Barney in his post that I would like to see increased PME opportunities across all ranks, and especially for non-commissioned soldiers; but the devil is in the detail and in the spirit of Scharnhorst’s Militarische Gesellschaft I would like to challenge some of his assumptions and provide some fuel to the debate on Twitter.
It seems to me that the basic argument being made in the post is:
The character of war has changed fundamentally, with increased precision and lethality.
Increased precision and lethality demand greater dispersion and therefore use of initiative across all ranks.
Initiative is not latent, but taught through education and training.
SNCOs therefore need to be as educated as their officer counterparts at every level of command.
It is undeniable that the character of war has changed, but arguably not yet the nature. The character of conflict has changed because the character directly reflects the character of the societies engaged in conflict and their commitment to the fight. I agree that precision and lethality are indicative of a changing character of warfare as applied by the West, but would simply caution that to my mind, the primary drivers of a changing character of war are human factors and not technological.
Has the character has changed to such an extent that the role of soldiers has changed fundamentally. I would disagree with this. From my particular foxhole I would note that the job of my SNCOs commanding multiples and patrol bases in N Ireland in the early 1990s was not radically dissimilar to the role they played in Helmand in 2011/12. They controlled a broader range of assets, the fight was more intense, but a multiple commander in 1993 would have grasped immediately the fundamentals of commanding a small PB in 2011 and the range of assets employed was broadly similar (although to be fair, we used fewer RAF fast jets in Northern Ireland then some might have wanted). Indeed when I think of increased dispersion and lethality, I think of the lessons of the Boer War, and the demands placed on combat arm SNCOs in the Edwardian Army (see Spencer Jones’ excellent book ‘From Boer War To World War: Tactical Reform Of The British Army, 1902-1914‘), and despite the changes and reforms here, the roles of SNCOs did not change fundamentally.
Herein lies the nub of the problem. I think we are conflating two separate issues in the debates we are having. The first I see is: what is the correct form of professional education needed to equip the soldiers of today for the fight of today and tomorrow? This is the debate we are having. The debate we are not having however, is what is the role of the soldier (Other Ranks) in today’s fight and tomorrow’s wars and then how best should they be educated to enable this? The form of soldiers’ PME should follow on naturally from the function that the fulfill.
Sowhat is the role of SNCOs on today’s and, more importantly, tomorrow’s battlefield? Barney’s post cites both Matthew Reed’s excellent WOTR contribution on SNCO PME and the experience of the German Reichswehr in the inter-war period as pointers for the requirement. Reed’s article focuses on the role and education of US SNCOs, and in particular looks at how to prepare Other Ranks for Command Sergeant Major appointments. Currently a command sergeant major, at any level and whether British or American, is an advisor and doesn’t not have any direct command authority vested in the appointment. It seems intuitive to me, that the quality of any advice given will reflect both on the capability and experience of the individual, and on the education and training they have received. So there is definitely an argument to be had that SNCOs should be educated to the same level as their corresponding commissioned command cohort. If we expect our SNCOs to act as advisors at increasingly senior levels of command, then we should educate them effectively to carry out that role. My experience of US command sergeant majors is that they ‘stay in lane’ with the advice they give, limiting themselves largely to training and battlefield discipline and acting as the Commanding General’s additional eyes and ears for battlefield circulation and allowing him to gain a better Fingerspitzengefühl for the battlefield. The question to ask is, if as Matthew Reed suggests, SNCO education was changed, would SNCOs be used more as a senior General Staff advisor capable of giving operational and strategic advice?
Here I note that the role of the US SNCO corps differs from that of the British military’s in that’s they have very clearly defined training responsibilities. We have introduced command sergeant majors in the British Army, but we have not fundamentally changed the role of our SNCO corps, we have adopted the form but not the function of the US system; this is worthy of debate in itself. Have we missed an opportunity?
The other example cited in Barney’s post was that of the interwar German Reichswehr. This is an interesting example in a number of regards. The German Reichswehr did not possess Command Sergeant Majors as we recognise them, but SNCOs were common as platoon/troop commanders and trained to do that role. German training was geared towards enabling the tactical commander to operate one up (unlike British training which is geared towards understanding the tactical context one up, but not operating a technique that level) for sound strategic and tactical reasons. Strategically, the Reichswehr anticipated to expand in wartime and this investment in Human Resources gave them this ability to do so rapidly. Tactically this meant that not only were tactical commanders cognisant of their tactically environment one up, they were competent in it too, and could step up as the situation (and casualties) demanded. It was a necessary precondition for the German practice of Mission Command.
Strategically, I do not see the same imperative or capability for expansion in the British Army as there’s existed in the Reichswehr, not least because of our lack of a defence industrial base or warmaintenancereserve. No one has yet managed to satisfactorily explain to me how a British Army could rapidly expand and equip… Tactically the imperative remains, and I have been singularly disappointed throughout my career, by our unwillingness to resource training to allow our people to operate competently one up. A recent article on Nexus has opened my eyes to a further consideration when training one up; the future.
Much debate on Nexus has focused recently on the impact of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS). It does not seem to me inconceivable, that the combination of AI and RAS will blur the current distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned commanders in terms of capability under command and mission sets expected. All this in a operating environment that is expected to grow in physical, informational and quite possibly moral complexity. If this is not inconceivable, and if the only sure thing we do know about the next conflict is that it will not be like the last conflict, then surely investing early in educating and training our personnel will give them the agile edge to help enable us to prevail in the future?
PME: The Form
My views on PME are straight forward. PME encompasses training and education. In terms of function we train for technical competency and educate for agility and those things which are difficult to train effectively for.
Training encompasses the ‘what‘ and ‘how‘;
Education encompasses the ‘why‘ and the ‘high‘.
I say ‘the high‘ because I note that training is generally focused on tactical skills whereas education (in my experience) is better suited to imparting the the operational and strategic level skill sets.
A necessary skill set for all ranks, and one that in my experience needs to be instilled early and encouraged throughout, is critical thinking; it is not something I think we do very well as an organisation but I see encouraging signs that we are movingly in the right direction. In the modern and future operating environment I think critical thinking will become an essential skill set for all ranks and with the narrow focus of PME for other ranks almost exclusively focused on what to do and how to do it, the why, of which critical thinking is such an essential component , is noticeably lacking. Maj Gen Mick Ryan (@WarintheFuture) stated it well in his talk on ‘Future Joint Officer 2040‘ (see Nexus) when he noted that as we lose our technical advantages and no longer operate at mass, that we must out-think in order to out manoeuvre and out fight. To me, this demands an investment into our intellectual capital, and we would be remiss not to invest broadly across the spectrum of our personnel, recognising the the force and rank structures of today may be increasingly anachronistic for the fights of tomorrow.
Lastly I would also recognise that it is a valid argument that PME plays a role in meeting the expectations, professional and personal, of those who join today. When I joined the British Army was seen as a way of gaining a trade and getting ahead. Joining the military was seen as a good thing. While operational effectiveness underpins all that we do, it is ostensibly the primary, but not exclusive, driver for what we do. We would do well to remember this and not discount options because they are not of immediate and tangible operational worth; investing in the long game means investing in our people.
In conclusion I will quote von Scharnhorst, but proffer the thought that where he says ‘officers‘ we should substitute ‘leaders‘, for is this not what we should aspire to for our future generations of soldiers?
“If a young man, who is destined for a military career, does not learn to use his mind right, to judge correctly and conclusively, the mathematics and theory of war, then no experience will help him. One has to give young people, destined to become officers, the early opportunity to think about their profession, to use other’s insights and experiences; to do that they need to have the right basic notions.”
Keep up the good work Barney!
For further reading on the subject of PME and training the books that have influenced my thoughts the most are:
There was a rather unseemly Twitter brawl towards the end of last week with regards to the issue of women in close combat. It was revealing both in what was said, what was unsaid and the manner of saying.
Now policy has been given to us, and the issue of women in close combat has been resolved in so far as all combat roles have been opened to women. I have reservations about this, not on the grounds that women could, but rather on the grounds as to whether women should. The debate that we have had has focused for the most part on the first part, and less so on the latter, with the exception that the military has made a good case as to why they need to make maximum use of all the nation’s human capital.
The assumption that has been made is that encouraging women into close combat roles is good for society as a whole. As any good strategist will tell you, assumptions need to recognised as assumptions (and not facts), and challenged. My reservations on the policy are based on a personal philosophy rooted in the philosophy of Aquinas, the concept of Natural Law and a believe that form reflects function. I do not challenge that women can, I merely have reservations about the assumption that because they can they should in the broader sociological sense. My reservations do not challenge policy, but they do (I believe) allow me to bring a different perspective to the debate, and it is this very difference of perspective that the military values in seeking diversity.
From the military’s point of view what should be worrying about the debate last week (and I caveat this, with the fact that it was on Twitter, with all the limitations of that medium) is the tenor of the debate. We in the military pride ourselves on our diversity, because we recognise that there is a strength in diversity. That strength lies in harnessing the power of different perspectives to bring about a constructive dialectic. If we are unable to engage constructively in debate, then debates will simply not happen.
I have seen great strides recently in the intellectual formation of the military, and the army in particular. We should not be complacent about the work still to be done.
“On the next day, 12 May, there was from time to time a complete breakdown of march movement traffic on the right wing. A hopeless mess developed because vehicle convoys of the infantry divisions again and again forced their way out of the right-hand neighbor’s combat sector into the wider roads that were set aside for the Panzer divisions. The infantry units dacted like rivals of the Panzer units and did not want them to have all the glory. That resulted in jumbled confusion on the Ardennes trails that turned out to be worse than the disaster scenario that Reinhardt had painted earlier in his war games as a devil’s advocate. Instead of immediately being able to start the race to the Meuse River with Guderian’s Panzers, his units were senselessly caught in a traffic jam for two days on German soil. The first vehicle of Reinhardt’s 6th Panzer Division crossed the Luxembourg boundary only on the third day, at 0600 on 12 May.” Karl-Heinz Frieser “The Blitzkrieg Legend” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, p116.
Unity of Command is a well known principle of effective military operations, and while professional military education devotes time to explaining the nuances of effective command and control design it rarely touches on the thorny issue of insubordinate commands. There is an assumption that subordinate commands will be just that – subordinate. That is not always the case. Not all subordinate commands play nice in the sandpit. Sometimes commands do what they have been told not to, more often (in my experience) they do not do what they have been told to do. The British Army has a distinguished tradition of “consent and evade” to unpopular orders.
I have been deployed on operations where subordinate commands have been anything but subordinate: where subordinate commanders have avoided higher commanders, and staff have been frozen out, where orders have been acknowledged but not actioned, and where the passage of information needed for the effective running of operations has slowed to a trickle. I have been been barred from HQs and have seen entire campaign Lines of Effort sidelined; when it has happened it has been a brutal, demoralising and quite unnecessary experience, but as the quote above shows, it is nothing new.
The problem of insubordinate commands in my experience is inevitably driven from the top. It takes its lead from the commanders and senior staff of the subordinate command. Sometimes there may be a personal animus between the commanders but in my experience it is more often a professional disagreement as to the conduct of operations. Subordinate commands will always be more narrowly focused in time, space and concept than the higher headquarters, and this narrow focus can lead to tensions as to priorities and resourcing. The other common factor is a confused C2 structure and this is most often found at the early stages of a campaign when the architecture is developing quickly and where the subordinate HQ may have arrived in theatre before the higher HQ and is accustomed to operating somewhat independently.
Often however the single largest exacerbating factor is geography. One would intuitively think that collocating HQs would be of mutual benefit, but there are dangers. If HQs are collocated then there is insufficient distance to allow the subordinate HQ to gather, assess and then transmit information to the higher HQ. The effect of this is that the higher commander can have as good a situational picture as the subordinate commander which puts the subordinate in the invidious situation of being at best level with his commander in terms of situational awareness and possibly even behind. A subordinate with his narrower focus should have more detail and quicker than his ‘higher’, the pressure mounts if (s)he does not. Staff can add to the problem. It is easy to pop one’s head round to one’s opposite number for the detail needed for the brief, but when the brief is briefed and the subordinate is unaware the issue can escalate quickly. Too often well meaning staff can come across as simply ‘marking the homework’ of the subordinate staff.
So what is to be done if you find yourself on the staff and dealing with an insubordinate command?
1) Understand how the situation has arose. Understand the cause and you will understand the cure.
2) Be transparent, use the laid down C2 architecture and SOPs scrupulously. Always remember that the Higher HQ supports the lower and adds value through its input; support the subordinate.
3) Raise the issue to your Chief of Staff through the correct channels, never assume they know everything – especially in a large HQ. Lay down the operational implications.
4) Understand that it is likely not a personal thing and that the staff are in an invidious position. Be professional and remain courteous.
It should not happen, but it does, and it certainly isn’t not covered on any staff college curriculum that I am aware of. At the end of the day C2 diagrams reflect doctrine and practice, but do not represent personality and perspective.
WHEN the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East
‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,
An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased
Ere ‘e’s fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
The Young British Soldier
A recent conversation on twitter over rank and status got me thinking. The debate had been sparked by the post on the Wavell Room by Nicholas Drummond (@nicholadrummond) about flattening rank structures.
The actual question that I was posed by @AlanIvinghoe was “perhaps the commissioned/non-commissioned officer divide has had its day?” This lead me to think about status, form and function. Why do we do what we do the way we do it? What sets us apart in what we do?
Much of the form of the military, derives from our function. The function of the military differs from all other civilian professions, in that the military have unlimited liability. As soldiers we accept that we put our lives on the line as part of our routine operational duties; we expect to take casualties on operations.
If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .
In order to carry out our duties effectively we fall under military discipline, reflected in the Army Act (or Service equivalents). Within this legislation responsibilities of and to the chain of command are stated and this is reflected in the Commissioning Scroll that most officers receive.
“And we do hereby Command them to Obey you as their superior Officer, and you to observe and follow such Orders and Directions as from time to time you shall receive from Us, or any your superior Officer, according to the Rules and Discipline of War”
The difference between commissioned and non-commissioned ranks therefore, lies in the duties and responsibilities, it reflects their function in war and is reflected in legislation. Could this change? It is conceivable that officers in command receive letters of appointment (or commissions) specific to that command which would then afford them the same rights and responsibilities but I do not see how this would improve matters. A broader issue for more fruitful consideration is how within the armed forces (and the Army in particular) we can de-segregate rank and status from appointment and recognised expertise. If we managed this, then it would be much more the case that rank would not be seen as equaling expertise and I think we would be a more agile organisation as a result; it would also empower our non-commissioned expertise to a far broader extent than is currently the case.
There is a perception that our current personnel structures are not optimal. This was the genesis of the Wavell Room articles and has also been reflected by Sir Humphrey on his 6th August blog post. Much ink and angst has been expended on how we need to change structures and standards, in order to bring more expertise and agility into the military. Do we really have to? Why don’t we keep this expertise in the civilian realm? Do we expect or need these specialists to pick up a rifle and engage in close combat? Do we expect them to hold unlimited liability? The US Army has the Army Civilian Corps. These are civilians who are in many cases deployable under orders. They take the oath, they have a creed. I have deployed alongside them in every theatre I have operated alongside my US colleagues. Some have volunteered to go (the same system our MOD civil servants operate under), but some were ordered too.
“I am an Army civilian – a member of the Army team. I am dedicated to our Army, our Soldiers and civilians. I will always support the mission. I provide stability and continuity during war and peace. I support and defend the Constitution of the United States and consider it an honor to serve our nation and our Army. I live the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. I am an Army civilian.”
It seems to me that rather than focusing on how to bend the boundaries of what it means to be military, we could productively look at developing a status of personnel for operating in the gray zone. Neither all soldier nor quite all civilian, but hybrid, under orders but not expected to hold unlimited liability. If we are not employing these people against the contingency of picking up a rifle and engaging in ‘dash, down, crawl, observe, sights, Fire!’ then why we should we treat them as though we are? This category would also usefully enable us to easier fill the SO2 and SO1 pinchpoints that Sir Humphrey highlighted.
Perhaps the future isn’t green, but pinstriped…
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
Copyright: Mark Rightmire Orange County Register/Getty Images
I have been watching the wildfires in Europe and in the USA with interest. The resources devoted to these firefighting efforts are impressive and in both Europe and the USA the efforts have been multinational. Here in the UK the military has also been involved relatively recently in firefighting at Saddleworth; it may be a harbinger.
It is likely that climate change will continue to challenge national governments in dealing with natural catastrophes. The UK now maintains a surface vessel, currently the RFA’s Mounts Bay, in the Caribbean during hurricane season just for any such Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Relief (HADR) contingencies.
Could and should the UK military do more?
The UK military could certainly so more. The assets involved in the wildfire efforts in California involve trained and organised manpower (and the National Guard routinely activates, trains and deploys for firefighting tasks) and the use of air assets to provide both direct support to firefighting and logistical support (the US Forest Service has an agreement with Alsaka for seven military C-130s) . All of these types of assets the UK military could provide, and air assets in particular can respond quickly.
The UK military are at the moment the only organisation the UK possesses that has the capacity to deploy at reach and conduct these sort of tasks. Although specialist expertise is limited within the military, the UK does not possess deployable civil defence (Fire and Ambulance) capacity at mass, unless risk is accepted against the UK base. In other words, Chief Fire and Ambulance officers are not mandated or resourced to provide capacity for overseas contingencies (much as it is for policing). The UK does not possess any equivalent to the German Technische Hilfswerk (THW).
Should the UK military do more?
Climate change is likely to create instability and instability will in turn create national security issues for the UK. I am unconvinced that this task is a core military task, but it is unavoidable that the military is already heavily involved in efforts and is likely to see further commitment to this type of operation. Few may know that NATO already maintains the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC). This is NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism in the Euro-Atlantic area. It is active all year round, operational on a 24/7 basis, and involves NATO’s 29 Allies and all partner countries. Although for the recent fires in Sweden the following assets were mobilised through the European Civil Protection Mechanism the EADRCC was approached for assistance.
Norway: nine helicopters and ground forest fighting units deployed on bilateral basis;
Denmark: two ground forest firefighting units;
France: two water scooping airplanes, a reconnaissance aircraft and one ground firefighting unit;
Italy: two water scooping airplanes;
Germany: one ground firefighting unit and five helicopters;
Lithuania: one helicopter;
Poland: two ground forest firefighting units;
Portugal: two water-scooping airplanes;
These are highly illustrative of the type of response likely to be requested in the future. The UK does not possess either water-scooping planes or helicopters fitted for firefighting operations, but the latter is not insurmountable as it can be conducted with underslung equipment.
The question remains as to whether it should be a core UK military task? Currently the UK Military Task is to support civil emergency organisations in times of crisis. In the absence of a deployable capability at scale should the UK military become that civil emergency organisation? I remain unconvinced, but I am convinced that there is a requirement, that it is likely to grow, and that UK defence planners should be more cognisant of the implications, not least in training and equipping appropriately. From a strategic perspective the UK’s ability to deploy such capability in mass and at distance, and with a willingness to do so, is likely to pay dividends.
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.
Brexit where art thou? In the most famous scene from ‘Downfall‘, Hitler is informed of the failure of Steiner to launch his counterstroke against the Russians advancing on Berlin. There is a pregnant pause at the beginning of the scene as Hitler, briefed on the Russian breakthroughs counters with “Steiner’s assault will bring it under control”, except Steiner has no manpower to launch the assault and everyone knows this except Hitler. The RUSI Land Warfare Conference felt somewhat akin to this pregnant pause, except the 250lb gorilla in the room that no-one was talking about was BREXIT and not Army Detachment Steiner. Be that as it may, the Land Warfare Conference was excellent on a number of fronts and these are my headline thoughts from the proceedings.
How Big is Big Enough? To my mind there was a degree of existential angst evident about the size of the British Army. Perhaps we have over focused on manoeuvre warfare as mitigation for our reducing numbers, and forgotten that warfare also has a very necessary attritional component? There is a sense that we recognize that we are now too small to be sustain significant casualties and therefore to take risk at the operational level; if we are too small, how useful are we? How much attrition can the British Army stand? This is important as the tenor of proceedings was of a drift to Great Power competition and existential struggle; of wars of necessity and not choice. There are ways to offset this. Rapid expansion is unlikely as we do not have the industrial base to support rapid expansion, but the points made by Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte and Major Kitty McKendrick about the possibilities use of AI to increase autonomy were very well made. Along with talk of autonomy I enjoyed the sense that we need to broaden the aperture of national security and make it everyone’s business to a greater extant than it is at the moment. Of course ‘national security’ and ‘defence’ are not synonymous, but the broadening of the conceptual framework is welcome.
The Changing Nature? Linked to this broadening sense of who needs to be involved in the national security business, is a sense that maybe the nature of war is going to change. I am not at all convinced of this, but I did feel that despite all the references at the conference to the impact if technology on warfare, we missed a chance to reflect on how technology is changing society. If the nature of warfare is going to change, then it is because the nature of society has changed (which is why I think a change in the nature of war is unlikely), but we have yet to explore fully how changes being wrought by technology and big data on society will in turn reflect on warfare.
Data is the new Oil. I enjoyed Dr Pippa Malmgren on data: “The new oil is data” and “we are now in an era of data power.” Dr Malmgren’s point on the requirement for speedier decision making is long overdue. Quite frankly our planning and decision making processes are no longer fit for purpose, they complicate the complex and increasingly reach decision too late. This is most evident at the operational and strategic levels, but is becoming more apparent at the tactical levels as well. We need to look at how best we adapt staff processes and use AI in order to enable commanders to make effective decisions.
All in all it was an excellent conference, with a notably broader and younger audience. The salient points were captured on Twitter (#RUSILWC) and for the British military the sessions are available through the Defence Gateway.
Good science fiction is often a great window in the future. One of the best science fiction books I have recently read is Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red:First Light‘ which is set in the near future. The book concerns the exploits of a US ‘Linked Combat Squad’ and explores in part the fusion of exo-skeleton technology and advanced data communications on the battlefield. This technology is already in development and is expected to be fielded in the near future; the book is worth reading from this aspect alone.
However what I found most interesting in the novel (the first of a trilogy) is its look at the impact on society of the diffusion of information through social media, and with increased reliance on Artificial Information, just how far we can rely on what we are told:
“People are dividing into smaller and smaller groups, while the number of widely shared memes – ideas or facts known to just about everyone in a large, related group, like the population of the US – is in steep decline…”
“It’s about perspective. It’s not that what we know is necessarily wrong or incomplete. It’s that what we know and what we believe to be apparent to everyone, isn’t.”
I have previously blogged about the impact of social media on societal cohesion and its attendant impact on military operations; ‘First Light’ illustrates this dynamic beautifully. Also worth listening to are three podcasts from RAND on what they term “Truth Decay“. For those interested in the information environment in which we operate these are a must listen.
Lastly I have not done ‘First Red’ justice in this blog, it is an excellent read and I enjoyed it immensely – get the book!
A few weeks ago there was an excellent thread by Mr Leonardo Carella (@leonardocarella), an MPhil candidate at Oxford University, about the crisis of liberal democracy and the role of information technology (sic) as a major source of destabilization. His thesis is:
The internet allows:
the organisation of political fringes
the fragmentation of the public sphere
the globalisation of nationalisms
the globalisation of grievances
Mainstream parties have lost control of the public agenda;
Fringe political interests can now be organised and co-opted in coalitions that were unthinkable in spatially determined cleavage politics;
The public sphere is increasingly global:
populist forces support and learn from each other
political debate is constantly targeted by foreign forces
Counter-narratives can develop their own evidence, facts and belief systems shielded from scrutiny
Traditional parties’ advantages – territorial presence, local elite networks, penetration of civil society “mezzo” (sic) structures have become undone, making them increasingly unable to act as gatekeepers between local and national level interests.
Mr Carellas then goes on to say that from his perspective, changes in the internet and social media are not ancillary to changes in politics, but fundamental to it; yet not enough is being done to understand the changes and address the issues. I found Mr Carella’s thesis the most concise explanation of the issues facing us that I have seen for some time.
This changing political landscape holds challenges. At the strategic level if we take a Clausewitzean view and regard war as the continuation of politics by other means, then the fact that the (national) public sphere has fragmented while issues and identities have globalized presents a significantly different operating environment. If the Main Effort becomes remains national cohesion and will to fight, followed by coalition cohesion and will to fight, then we may have to focus more on crafting a positive narrative of what we fight for, rather than rely on focusing on a positive narrative of what we fight against. If we look at the recent campaign against ISIL, crafting a narrative of what we are fighting against was much easier than crafting a narrative to support what we are fighting for. This problem becomes more acute when we start to inhabit the gray zone of polite men bearing cats, or straightforward inter-state conflict where the issue is national interests and cannot clearly be portrayed in stark moral terms such as the fight against ISIS.
My takeaways from this are:
We need to be better at understanding our changing strategic information environment and its impacts on us. Our politics are changing, our political contextualisation of operations has not necessarily kept pace.
As a state we need to be much better at Strategic Communications, recognising the nature of the threat we face.
If we can identify opportunities to exploit (and there are many) in this new environment, we need to accept that our adversaries have already identified them and are exploiting them against us.