Having built up a bit of momentum with the RN and RAF series it has been pretty difficult to get into the Land domain and by taking a service centric structure it has exposed the weakness of thinking along these strictly service lines. If we look at almost any operation it is obvious that no one service is dominant to the exclusion of others, there are of course exceptions but in general the vast majority of operations are conducted by all three, plus elements of the civil service. We often ignore the civil service element of operations, even land dominated ones, but without them, the armed forces would simply be unable to function. Both Afghanistan and Libya are current examples of the truly joint approach that now exists across defence planning and execution, all three services plus the civilian element contributing to the main effort, as it should be.
Whilst recognising the inherent weakness of a single service centric structure to these debates I am going to carry on anyway and as it concludes I will probably summarise across service boundaries.
In the normal manner, I will publish a series of posts and other contributors will pitch in as we go, the door is always open for more if anyone fancies a go and writing something.
Remember, these are just suggestions, thought pieces designed to stimulate debate
I don’t want to get too much into recent history but to start this series off I am going to take stock of where the Army is today.
The British Army is no different from the other services or any Army in the history of warfare, it evolves and constantly changes, operations inevitably dictate equipment, structures, doctrine and training and the pace of moving between peace time to war time inevitably creates tensions. The Army is institutionally conservative for a reason, good reasons usually, but sometimes they conflict with the need for change and throughout its history there has been a series of evolutionary and revolutionary changes.
The British Army is unusual in many respects because for several hundred years it has been engaged on constant operations of varying intensities, it is arguably the most experienced amred body in the world. Even the experienced personnel of today must recognise that whilst the BAOR years are characterised by some as a ‘drinking and whoring Olympics’ the period was interspersed with a series of short but brutal conflicts overseas and a 37 year long enduring operation in Northern Ireland during which much was learned.
The British Army entered Iraq with its reputation at an all time high, hugely respected by enemies and allies alike but if it was guilty of anything it was hubris, as we know, pride always comes before a fall.
At the end of operations in Iraq that reputation had been tarnished.
The reasons for our problems in Iraq were numerous, no one person or group was singularly to blame but as a corporate body, the Army came out of Iraq with a much diminished reputation, especially for counter insurgency operations. It is often described how this arrogance was characterised by the wearing of berets in Basrah whilst lording it over the US forces about ‘how we did it in Belfast’ but I think this is sometimes misunderstood.
The Northern Ireland peace process had started in 1998 after the Good Friday agreement, some 5 years before so how many section commanders or unit commanding officers actually had any deep and meaningful experience of operations in Northern Ireland?
All military forces seem to be very poor at retaining their institutional memory, look at the US Army experience in Vietnam, huge lessons learned that were then discarded and painfully relearned in Iraq, the same for the British Army. A favourite example of mine is gunshields on armoured vehicles, before Vietnam, no gunshields, during Vietnam, gunshields, before Iraq, no gunshields, during Iraq, well you know the drill.
We entered Iraq thinking that we could apply the same lessons in Basrah that we did in Belfast but not only did we fundamentally misunderstand the differences between the two we also took those hard learned lessons, cherry picked the easy ones and ignored the hard ones. Softly softly, berets and soft skin Land Rovers were a part of Operation Banner but it was not the only part. Under political pressure the Army chiefs simply agreed that we could do in Iraq what we had done in Northern Ireland yet with a fraction of the force density and many of the political and military elements that made Operation Banner such a success, sadly absent.
At a tactical level, there would seem very little to fault operations in Iraq, the Army fought with its customary courage, determination and effectiveness but on a political and strategic level it was badly let down by the government and senior military staff.
It did the best with the cards it was dealt and paid the price of others writing cheques it was unable to cash.
Afghanistan has been another story of confused political goals, dysfunctional strategies, resource starvation and poor coordination contrasted with quite incredible bravery and tactical skill.
The British Army fights best when it believes in the operation but I am not sure many actually believe in its objectives. It would be difficult to characterise the situation in Afghanistan now as being anything less than one of wanting to get out with as much reputation intact as possible with the minimum casualties, after 5 years of continual operations there are signs of hope but for every two steps forward we take one back.
There are endless books available on the subject and I don’t want to dwell on it here but Iraq and Afghanistan, both fairly and unfairly, have diminished the reputation of the Army and the need for reform at an organisational and strategic level is obvious.
The Need for Reform
If we look back in history, the Army, when it actually recognised, or was forced to recognise, its failings has enormous potential for reform.
Haldane, Childers and Cardwell all set about the task of asking difficult questions, coming up with uncomfortable answers and going about the business of reform with gusto. The first step is to recognise the need to change but unless this need is recognised, there can be no meaningful next steps.
We also have to be very careful about throwing the baby out with the bath water; the Army now is better equipped than it ever has been, has a deep well experience at all levels to draw from and despite the doom mongers is still a hugely effective force, able to adapt and deliver.
We can only hope that the young officers and other ranks, those with hard won experience of Iraq and Afghanistan are nurtured, pushing the older generation out of the way. We must not allow institutional conservatism to stymie radical thinking because these younger personnel are the future (I know that sounds a bit syrupy but it is true) although the voice of experience of different operations is also important to retain, a difficult task indeed.
The recently announced reforms that seem to indicate a thinning out of the top ranks are promising but only if they allow the younger and fresher thinking personnel to flourish. If any reforms are to be successful, it is the modern generation that must lead and crucially, be allowed to lead.
Reform or evolutionary change, it is a difficult question to answer because inevitably the reform you implement is out of date by the time it is finished and constant reforming is equally destructive.
It also hinges on the prevailing view of the future, whilst we can make a reasonable assumption that the Red Army is no longer gearing up for a day trip to Calais in dispensing with some of those Cod War capabilities we could be in danger of falling for the latest in military fashion, spending huge amounts of intellectual and financial capital on a future that never comes to pass.
Informing much of the debate around the SDSR and Future Force 2020 is a brilliant document called the Future Character of Conflict.
The Future Character of Conflict is a study initiated by the Vice Chief of Defence Staff on the Character of Conflict out to 2029 and the broad implications that flow from it. The Future Character of Conflict found that the global trends indicate increasing instability and growing opportunity for confrontation and conflict. State failure, extremists, increased competition for resources and the changing global balance of power will dictate why, where and how we engage in conflict.
The study concludes that the character of conflict will continue to evolve. Though it is impossible to accurately predict the exact character of the future conflict, in many of our future operations we are likely to face a range of simultaneous threats and adversaries in an anarchic and extended operating area.
I would urge everyone to put aside a bit of time and have a read, download from here
This should inform much of our thinking but where it treads lightly, is the issue of funding and any notion of grand strategy (its not a criticism, its just out of scope of the document)
The armed forces must face the reality that baring some major strategic shock, funding is unlikely to increase in a sustained manner.
This is the first reality that the armed forces must face, given that the Army is traditionally manpower rather than equipment intensive, its greatest cost is manpower and this is on an upward trajectory. Maximising the return on investment in personnel should be a high priority, the days of poorly trained, poorly equipped conscripts going over the top are well and truly over and we must challenge some of the assumptions about career length, ceremonial duties, the rank system, traditional engagement models and yes, even the regimental system, if we are to make every last penny count.
The underlying themes to my thinking are a relentless elimination of duplication, the military is not always the best answer, prevention rather than cure, strategic realism and ruthless commonality.
Expect to see them in the following posts but to reiterate, these are simply ideas and witterings designed to spark debate, god help us if anyone is listening!
The Future of the British Army Series…