Experimental Stabilisation Manoeuvre Brigades

Stabilisation and Humanitarian Response are likely to remain core functions for HMG and NATO in the near future.  While developing a successful stabilisation strategy proved elusive in the counter-insurgency environments of Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been very successful where the majority of the population were more permissive of international intervention – Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kosovo are good examples – Libya and Mali may also be regarded as qualified successes.

This paper takes some of the lessons learned during recent stabilisation operations and proposes a new concept of operations and an experimental stabilisation manoeuvre brigade to develop these ideas within the British Army and NATO.


The key conundrum faced by stabilisation planners is how to construct an environment largely permissive to intervention.

Obviously this is as much a political as military or stabilisation task. In Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kosovo and Libya the preconditions for successful stabilisation were largely met before intervention took place – the overwhelming desire of the majority of the population was to welcome foreign intervention to prevent further bloodshed.  In Iraq and Afghanistan intervention was primarily driven by external factors, and permission for intervention needed to be sought after the fact – and proved very difficult to achieve.

In the context of the Islamic revival the presence of high-profile non-Islamic  (and particularly western) foreign forces is deeply problematic, and can easily provide oxygen for extremist groups to reconfigure domestic strife into a war against a foreign invader (as occurred in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan). Moderates in Islamic countries are therefore wary of a high-profile western ‘boots on the ground’ presence which they are conscious could weaken their cause in the longer term, and play into the hands of Islamist Jihadis (Libya is the prime example of this approach).

Two key strategic lessons fall out of this analysis:

  • In broadly permissive environments stabilisation has a very good chance of succeeding, even in the face of insurgency (examples include Malaya, Bosnia and Sierra Leone);
  • In non-permissive or Islamic environments, the presence of large numbers of foreign or non-Islamic forces may serve the interests of insurgents or jihadi Islamists, creating the conditions for a popular anti-western insurgency (French and US interventions in Vietnam and both Soviet and NATO interventions in Afghanistan are instructive).

At the operational and tactical levels the use of sophisticated insurgency techniques, especially IEDS, has also made force protection very important – a factor that can dangerously compromise a mission’s ability to engage constructively with the population, and deflect force commanders from the mission objective which is ultimately about winning popular consent.

Current stabilisation doctrine is probably more suited to meeting the challenge in broadly permissive environments with stabilisation work focussed on bringing peripheral areas that have been under insurgent control back into the fold.

Nevertheless, there are significant issues around continuity of command that need to be addressed in enduring situations.

Time for a New Approach?

A new approach is necessary in non-permissive or Islamic environments.  Building upon the lessons of Afghanistan it would seem that three key factors should underpin a stabilisation mission in these types of environment:

  • Range – the requirement to minimise the observable footprint of foreign forces, and ensure that force protection requirements are manageable and sustainable, requires as much direct engagement as possible to be undertaken at range, preferably from over the theatre horizon.
  • Stealth – where intervention at range is not feasible, a reduction in the profile of intervention forces is paramount both to deny insurgents the oxygen of popular support by enabling them to reshape their cause as a “war against foreign forces” (as occurred in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan), and to use stealth as an alternative approach to meet force protection requirements.
  • Footprint – related to these two factors is the requirement to minimise the in-theatre logistical footprint of intervention forces, which is particularly vulnerable to asymmetric warfare and requires heavy (and often unsustainable) investment in force protection in non-permissive environments.

A number of new technologies and techniques need to be synthesised into an approach that is founded upon these principals to allow new and more effective methods of outmanoeuvring insurgents in contested stabilisation environments.

Range.  Range can be achieved through a number of methods.  In the air through the deployment of either very long ranged (intercontinental) land-based platforms, especially unmanned surveillance and weapons delivery systems, at sea through the use of offshore basing (CV and LPH) for air assets (Fast Jet, Helicopter and UAS) and submarines and surface ships for launching land attack cruise missiles, and on land by launching short-sharp air assault or amphibious interventions from offshore naval assets or nearby (but out of theatre) land bases (as have occurred in Somalia, for example).  This requires a force mix of intercontinental ranged land-based air assets, naval carrier and amphibious task forces, and brigade-sized expeditionary air assault and amphibious raiding forces, with appropriate lift.

Stealth. While intervention at range can have considerable rapid – and game changing – effects, with little or no requirement for additional heavy investment in force protection or development of an in-theatre logistical footprint, it is of necessity temporary in nature and cannot ‘take and hold ground’ for extended periods.  Where more enduring presence is required to shape the battlespace stealth offers a workable alternative.  How can stealth be achieved in theatre? Primarily by shifting the emphasis away from foreign forces and towards local forces, focussing foreign capacity in training, leading and supporting those forces, such that they are competent and effective.  This process was important in Afghanistan and Vietnam; however it was not core strategy from the outset, and in general a task assigned to less capable units within western forces.  The exception is Special Forces, which have evolved techniques to build and support irregular forces to a high level of professionalism.  The principal problem with HMG approach to capacity building is that there are no specialised units (apart from SF) with well-developed expertise in what is often considered a secondary and somewhat menial task. A specialised stabilisation force will require a new type of unit specifically crafted to build, mentor, lead and support competent local forces – both military and police.

Logistics Footprint.  Large in-theatre logistical set-ups are wasteful of resources and vulnerable to asymmetric attack.  The objective is to minimise the requirement for long overland resupply routes and large non-reusable in-theatre facilities that are expensive to develop and operate and defend such as Camp Bastion. This is partially achieved through over the horizon capabilities and the stealthy approaches outlined above, nevertheless any deployed force will require in-theatre logistical support. Emphasis upon maritime logistics capability (RFA), supported by helicopters and amphibious transportation is one useful approach, as is the development of a network of potential resupply bases in secure neighbouring countries in contested regions (Gulf, Near East, East and West Africa, Mediterranean, SE Asia).  The ability to resupply smaller and more easily defended in-theatre forward operating bases from these remote facilities needs to be investigated as an alternative to developing large-scale in-country establishments.

Stabilisation Operations: Concept

Stabilisation operations have been theorized for some time now.  The basic principles have been expanded by the likes of David Kilcullen into a considerable body of literature. The principal stabilisation task is to outmanoeuvre elusive insurgent forces to gain control of the complex human terrain that demarks the stabilisation battlefield.  As with all forms of effective warfare, this requires excellent intelligence and command and control, and the ability to deploy a range of different types of arms simultaneously at the weakest points in the enemies defence.

To illustrate this I will draw an analogy with Blitzkrieg warfare – the revolution in warfighting of the 1930s.   Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was invented to avoid the drawn-out attritional battles that had characterised warfare in World War One. Its purpose was to win the battle decisively and quickly by deploying new technologies of real-time communications and mobility – radios, aircraft, tanks, trucks – to enable a mobile force to rapidly outflank and encircle a much larger traditional footslogging infantry and artillery army, cut its lines of communication and withdrawal and then destroy it in detail.

At this juncture we need a new form of “blitzkrieg” to avoid the drawn out and indecisive stabilisation battles of Iraq and Afghanistan. This new form of war fighting needs to capable of rapidly outmanoeuvring insurgent forces for control of the human terrain, isolating them from popular support so that they can be destroyed in detail.

In comparison with UK or NATO forces, insurgents have both strengths and weaknesses – their strengths can be summarised as:

  1. Proximity Insurgent forces are drawn from and sustained by host populations, foreign forces can never hope to attain this level of proximity to the human objective;
  2. Fragility civilian structures and “normal life” are very fragile conditions – very small amounts of force applied strategically can disrupt these patterns and allow insurgents to gain control over large population groups;
  3. Grievance insurgents rely upon a narrative of grievance which is very carefully constructed to chime with the understandings of the target population group, it is very difficult for foreign forces to develop these nuanced understandings quickly;
  4. Time insurgent victories are not generally defined by military prowess, but rather by endurance on the battlefield.  Insurgencies require relatively low levels of logistical support and can be sustained for many generations if popular support is maintained.  These types of timeframes are unsustainable by foreign forces.

And their weaknesses as:

  1. Immobility while insurgent groups can be networked into wider national or international movements, the actual units deployed are usually confined to the areas from where they derive their support. Mobility between groups is often limited by this constraint, and local issues often create tensions between allied groups. Foreign forces have much greater mobility and ability to combine and concentrate force against these smaller groups.
  2. Brutality while it is easy for insurgents to disrupt the fragile patterns of everyday life, the brutality required to sustain these disruptions can significantly impact upon their popular appeal
  3. Delivery international forces in partnership with host governments have the capacity to deliver effective responses to grievances much more capably than insurgents – that this is often not done plays into the hands of insurgents. Conversely when insurgents are allowed to administer areas, the population often loses faith in their ability to govern. Put simply, insurgents are normally better in opposition than in government.
  4. Slowness of Response while a popular insurgency can endure for many generations, insurgencies take time to build capacity and gain a foothold, especially in areas that were previously calm. Foreign forces can generate effective force much more rapidly.

In order to minimise the advantages of insurgents over UK forces, and to target insurgent weaknesses a concept is proposed that targets the insurgencies lack of mobility, brutality and inability to deliver governance and slowness to respond to concerted action by:

Initially isolating the insurgency from other stable areas;

  • Through a combination of political and military action breaking up the insurgency into smaller constituent groups and degrading the insurgent leaderships and popular support.
  • Creating strongly stabilised zones along the perimeters of these insurgent held areas, with an emphasis upon improving security, justice and dispute resolution, economic activity and public service delivery.
  • Building effective local forces to occupy and administer insurgent held areas as and when support for insurgents diminishes
  • Only occupying insurgent held areas once popular support has begun to diminish.

Stabilisation weaknesses are addressed by:

  • using local forces as far as possible to increase proximity;
  • focussing stabilisation operations in areas along the perimeter of insurgent held areas where normal life can be re-established;
  • ensuring that grievances perpetrated by host governments are understood in advance and set as the political conditions for success prior to intervention and are fully addressed, at minimum, along the borders of the isolated insurgent areas and only expanding full stabilisation operations into new areas as support for insurgency collapses;
  • By ensuring that formed foreign forces are held in reserve and only deployed for short-duration and rapid response operations and as mentoring and advisory teams.

The Approach

Secure the borders of the unstable area: Initial deployments should be set to isolate the insurgency from the rest of the nation and break the insurgency up into component groups, forming a secure perimeter around the insurgent affected region and separating the insurgency itself into smaller localised groups.

Isolate the insurgency from external support: Along these perimeters support for government can be bolstered through stabilisation actions, while insurgent supply routes are cut through actions to control access along these new internal ‘borders’. Cross border support also needs to be addressed at this early time period, either through agreements with neighbouring countries or through effective border controls. In areas where insurgents are already entrenched they can be allowed to retain control up to a point where disaffection with their rule emerges, as brutality and poor administration by insurgents will play to the counter-insurgency agenda.  Force should be manoeuvred to cut off these areas from outside support, break them into constituent units and isolate them from the benefits of government as far as possible to increase disaffection. Only once support for these groups is judged to be declining should stabilisation operations in these areas be mounted.

Degrade insurgent internal cohesion and command and control. Political and military manoeuvres to isolate localised groups and create fissures within insurgent command structures – to a point where popular support is diminishing – should be employed in advance of military or stabilisation actions to occupy territory: these can include operations against leaderships, and political actions to set rival groups against one another, and the use of local communications channels and media to widely disseminate information about these disputes.

Build national capacity to respond to instability. During the initial period of isolating and degrading the insurgency work should be focussed to build up local forces and capabilities to a point where they are able to extend government control into insurgent held territory. The temptation to use intervention forces for this task should be resisted. These forces should be initially deployed along the perimeters of insurgent held areas to help secure the borderlands.

Occupy insurgent held territory.  Military action to take and hold territory should follow once the insurgency has been isolated and degraded through political and military manoeuvres. Stabilisation and military forces should be primarily national (an 80/20 national/international split is about right). Foreign military formed units should be based over the horizon and used only for quick impact operations to secure territory and ongoing raiding operations; otherwise they should be embedded into national units as advisers and mentors.

Consolidate support in newly taken areas. Stabilisation will be successful where enough forces are concentrated to deliver immediate impact, which is rapidly followed-up by improvements to governance and service delivery. The key issue is to sustain normal life, therefore security for everyday activities such as keeping markets and schools open and ensuring people have access to their normal livelihoods are essential. To achieve these effects with limited forces, stabilisation operations should be sequential rather than trying to address the entire region affected by instability at once – stabilisation force should be concentrated in those districts where support for insurgency is low, or where insurgent control is resulting in population disaffection.

Sustain popular support for the counter-insurgents.  In some instances the objects of grievance maybe elements within host governments or their supporter groups. These issues need to be understood early on, and political conditions set for engagement that, where required, results in changes to government personnel and policy.  The sustain function is for local forces mentored by foreign forces. No foreign forces should be employed in this role.

Experimental Stabilisation Manoeuvre Brigade

As with all alternative approaches, there is a tension within UK and NATO military forces between the requirement to sustain conventional war-fighting capabilities, and to train for and develop stabilisation and counter-insurgency operations and tactics.  The new army 2020 structure, with reaction and adaptable brigades configured for different tasks, offers the potential to evolve specialised manoeuvre units designed for stabilisation operations. In the same way that space was given for experimentation with mobile divisions under the leadership of forward thinking (and often maverick) officers in the 1930s, UK should consider allowing at least one adaptable brigade to experiment with new structures for stabilisation operations. A key lesson here is that the experimental mobile divisions evolved into the armoured and mechanised divisions that now lie at the core of every modern army.

Experimentation and training with “stabilisation manoeuvre brigades” (SMB) may well help develop the forces of the future and if the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are to be learned, is urgently required. The following organisation structure is a very rough and ready attempt to formulate what such a brigade may look like, and the types of capabilities commanders may need to draw upon to deliver a comprehensive approach. The critical difference between this formation and current arrangements (which see kinetic and non- kinetic elements thrown together at the last minute and often under separate command structures: FCO, DFID, Military, UN etc.) is that all of the force elements – kinetic and non-kinetic – are permanently brigaded together under common command and control, and have the time to jointly develop new operational and tactical doctrine and to exercise and develop common operating procedures in advance of deployment.  The structure is also designed to generate brigade sized local forces as the main force, with UK force elements either used as a rapid reaction reserve or as critical enablers.  The brigade could be built upon current experience with the Military Stabilisation Support Group and the joint MOD/FCO/DFID UK Stabilisation Unit, as well as operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and also have the capacity to contract and coordinate other non-kinetic support services, as required (through private sector, IO or NGO agencies).

Given the need to learn how to do stabilisation effectively in non-permissive environments, the emphasis should be on experimentation through exercise to enable the brigade structure to evolve as new doctrine is developed.  The brigade could be either a national or transnational (NATO) construct, although a national brigade might be more useful initially as it would allow for better C3i and thus greater freedom for experimentation.

The purpose of the SMB is to generate the following forces:

A joint UK/local forces 2* HQ structure, with the ability to understand the context and deliver core supporting capabilities

An over-the-horizon UK forces intervention reserve comprising a mixed battalion-sized battlegroup with armoured cavalry, protected mobility, air assault and amphibious assault capabilities, which can be strengthened with assets drawn from force troops (artillery, logistics etc.) as well as aviation and SF as needed.

A specialist battalion sized unit designed to generate and mentor and support a main force of effective a national security forces comprising:

  • brigade sized army manoeuvre formation, configured for COIN operations with a mix of light infantry and protected mobility
  • A battalion sized “gendarmerie” type paramilitary police formation, configured for COIN operations
  • Civil police, Border Security and Coastguard services, as required
  • Courts, judiciary, alternative dispute resolution and human rights capacity to manage the security terrain
  • Bolt on UK supplied and operated critical enablers (UAS, Logistics, Aviation, SF)
  • A specialist battalion sized support unit designed to  ensure the civilian administration is able to manage population needs in a stabilisation environment, comprising:
    • District level administration mentors, including communications and media
    • Mentoring for civilian emergency services: SAR, fire and rescue, A&E health and humanitarian EOD services
    • Engineering support to maintain and improve critical infrastructure, agricultural and livelihoods infrastructure and public services
    • Logistics support for UK mentoring forces
    • Capacity to contract and coordinate IO and NGO stabilisation programmes.

These units will then provide the force elements available to deliver stabilisation.  UK forces for rapid short-term deployments to deliver specific kinetic effects, UK mentored local forces to secure territory and maintain rule of law, and UK mentored local administration and non-kinetic programmes to address grievances and sustain popular support for the intervention.


Annex: Example Table of Organisation and Equipment

C3i: Headquarters

  • 2* HQ
  • Stabilisation Command Group
  • ISTAR and Human Terrain Group
  • Cyber, Psyops and Media Support Group
  • Signals Company

Reserve:  UK Battlegroup (can be deployed from range “over the theatre horizon”)

  • Composite Light Infantry Battalion Battlegroup (1 x Light Armoured Recce Squadron, 1 Protected Mobility Infantry Coy, 1 x Amphibious Assault (boat) Infantry Coy  1 x Air Assault Infantry Coy)
  • Attached Force Troops, Aviation and SF, as required

Strike Force: COIN Capability Enhancement Group

  • Brigade HQ Mentoring Package
  • Specialist HQ Mentoring Teams:  a) ISTAR  b) Security Sector Reform
  • Training Cadres:  Staff Officer Training Cadre, Junior Officer Training Cadre, NCO Training Cadre
  • 9 Infantry Company Mentoring Platoons (6 x Light, 3 x Protected Mobility)
  • 3 x Police Training Mentoring Platoons (1 x MP, 2 x Gendarmerie)
  • 3 x Security Support Mentoring Platoons (Intelligence and Investigations Support Platoon,  Law and Order Support Platoon  [Civil Police Team, Border Security and Coastguard Team, Community Security Team], Justice and Dispute Resolution Platoon  [Courts and Judiciary Team, Alternative Dispute Resolution Team, Human Rights Team]
  • 3 Battalion HQ Mentoring Platoons
  • 3 Signals Mentoring Platoons (1 x HQ/Operational, 1 x Tactical, 1 x Force Protection)
  • 3 Engineer Mentoring Platoons (1 x Combat, 1 x Field, 1 x EOD)
  • 3 Logistics Mentoring Platoons (1x Life Support, 1 x Supply, 1 x Transport, Repair and Recovery)
  • 3 Medical Mentoring Platoons (1 x Field Hospital, 1 x Combat Medicine, 1 x Ambulance)
  • 3 Weapons Support Platoons (Mortar, Artillery/ATGM, Close Recce)
  • Bolt-on UAS Package
  • Bolt-on Close Support Logistics Package
  • Bolt-on Aviation or Aviation Mentoring Package
  • Bolt-on SF Package (operates with irregular local forces)


Support Force: Stabilisation Capability Enhancement Group

  • Local Administration Support Package including a Communications & Media Team
  • Training Cadres: District Administration, Civil Police, Fire and Rescue Services
  • Humanitarian Support Company (Fire and Rescue Team, Medical Support Team, Demining/EOD Team)
  • Stabilisation Engineering Company (Critical Infrastructure Team, Public Service Infrastructure Team, Agriculture and Livelihoods Team,)
  • Stabilisation Logistics Company (Signals Team, Force Protection and Life Support Team, Transport and Humanitarian Logistics Team, Administration, Finance and Procurement  Team)
  • Contracted and coordinated private sector, government, IO and NGO capabilities as required



About James Fennell MBE

James Fennell MBE is Co-founder and Principal of Dragonfly, a former DFID Conflict Adviser, Head of Emergencies for CARE UK and Vice President of the private security company ArmorGroup.

44 thoughts on “Experimental Stabilisation Manoeuvre Brigades

  1. Phil

    My question would be this: where is the force that holds the ground? I get that the objective is to provide indigenous forces to do so, but in the meantime?

    In my view to hold ground you need a large, visible footprint which goes against what you believe is optimum for the non-permissive environment.

    Personally I think the centre of gravity is well away from the battlefield. It’s at the national and international level. The key objective of isolating the insurgent is not an objective the military is likely to be able to achieve – that will be down to political and international will.

    I think the broad lessons are that

    (a) capacity building is a multi-agency, multi-national job with all the difficulties that implies

    (b) that early re-building of indigenous security forces is a must (day one, week one task)

    (c) depth and mass is needed from day one (not necessarily with lots of fire-power) which combined holding forces and striking forces.

    (d) that the local human terrain needs to be recognised as incredibly complex and that data regarding it must be retained and digested

    (e) that the force structure needs to be hyper-local in focus and is built upon the intelligence gathered in the above effort

    Very interesting post though. My comments are just to get the ball rolling on a good discussion before the QE2 class are sunk by the weight of verbiage expended on them!

  2. Swimming Trunks

    A very interesting read.

    I did some personal research awhile back (aka Googling) which lead to a RAND concept for Rapid Deployment forces – the force broke down into different parts and I was reminded of the concept when reading the article above:

    a C4I3 (?) force meant to coordinate with friendly forces at different levels and “plug” them into the US information system.
    A light force (mainly infantry with light vehicle mobility).
    Amphibious forces, and so on leading to a deployment of the Heavy armoured units latter.

    Apart from the latter, it does seem similar to the presented idea, only focused on Rapid Deployment instead of COIN/stabilisation.

  3. Think Defence

    Where would you see economic development residing

    Most conflicts it seem have at least some roots in economic, natural resource, land or general wealth distribution so addressing these fundamentals would seem critical

    Also, what about language and cultural diversity, we obviously cannot maintain expert knowledge of every language and culture but if we could pull in resources from local specialists, NGO’s and others that would seem ideal, greater use of reservists of sponsored reservists perhaps.

    Chris.B had a great post a while ago about having regionally focussed commands, I really liked the idea


  4. a

    Looks like a really promising concept. My uninformed comments:

    1. The reserve formation. I think it’s a mistake to have this as a fixed part of the structure: the security situation, the availability of other allied and UK troops in theatre, and the geography will mean that the ideal size and organisation will change from country to country. Maybe in one place you’d want two protected-mobility battalions. Somewhere else it might be aviation and boats only. I’d replace that bit of the orbat with a box that just says “Reserve: UK battlegroup or battlegroups as required”. You’ve done this already with the note about “attached force troops, aviation and SF as required”.

    2. Is the police component – in the stabilisation brigade and in the host-nation forces – really big enough? You’re planning to have a host-nation army brigade, supported by a battalion’s worth of mentors, but only a battalion of host-nation gendarmerie and unspecified numbers of police, supported by four platoons of mentors. The ANA and ANP, to take one recent example, are roughly the same size. And in COIN, the police should be taking the lead – so shouldn’t that be reflected in the numbers of mentors you’re assigning?

  5. jamesf (james fennell)


    I don’t see a problem with western forces being used to “take” ground, in short term interventions, but using them to hold ground has proven very wasteful and problematic. Also counter-insurgency seems more akin to siege warfare than mobile warfare, the key is to identify the supply lines, both political and logistical, and construct a watertight perimeter against re-supply. A large enduring presence in areas which are non-permissive – i.e. folks don’t want you around – is very damaging to the mission and requires alternative approaches. Of course this will not prevent random acts of violence – but they all have a support base from which they originate, even if delivered elsewhere. In Northern Ireland it was only when public support for insurgency had waned, and through political agreement with the South, that the oxygen of resupply could be cut off and peace and political process became possible. In many cases public support for insurgency is bolstered by heavy handed or noticeably foreign intervention forces – as occurred in Somalia in the early 90s, and during the ‘shoot to kill’ period in Northern Ireland.

    I’m not suggesting that intervention forces need to be absent – they are needed – but they need to be more cleverly disguised and integrated with local forces and when required used for short-sharp operations. This approach benefits our defence infrastructure too – preventing us getting bogged down in very expensive and ultimately self-destructive operations. Historically the UK created ‘friendly forces’ in colonial situations – the West African Frontier Force, Kings African Rifles, North West Frontier Force (indeed he whole Indian Army) etc. to do the holding of ground. These relationships are more complex to negotiate these days, but where mutual defence interests coincide are possible – e.g. the Kenyan army’s current intervention in southern Somalia. But these forces need assistance to fulfill this role effectively, and I believe we need specialist units to provide this support as a rapid reaction capability rather than ad hoc deployments, to prevent this work being put back or de-prioritised until the political situation has deteriorated to a point beyond redemption.

  6. Phil

    I don’t see a problem with western forces being used to “take” ground, in short term interventions, but using them to hold ground has proven very wasteful and problematic.

    I completely agree that we need to get indigenous forces doing the footwork as fast as possible, but in the meantime there’s nobody in your structure to hold ground. Afghanistan and Iraq were difficult precisely because there were no effective security forces. If we’re there we’d have no choice but to fill that vacuum which is precisely what happened in June 2006 in Helmand.

    A large enduring presence in areas which are non-permissive – i.e. folks don’t want you around – is very damaging to the mission and requires alternative approaches.

    Staying where you are not wanted is bad news I agree. But areas where you are not wanted I think are more flexible and changeable. Sometimes you are not wanted because you represent a security threat to the locals – by showing them that you are in charge and can keep them safe you end up being wanted. Likewise, if there is an area you are intractably not wanted then local forces are also unlikely to be welcome.

    In many cases public support for insurgency is bolstered by heavy handed or noticeably foreign intervention forces – as occurred in Somalia in the early 90s, and during the ‘shoot to kill’ period in Northern Ireland.

    Agreed but it also works the other way – go in even handed and apply the rules of the game post 2009 in Helmand and you stand a far better chance of proving yourselves to be no trouble and a net benefit to the local community.

    but they need to be more cleverly disguised and integrated with local forces and when required used for short-sharp operations

    Where there’s no local security forces then there’s nothing to disguise them as. And also, it is not very practical to hide foreign involvement the locals can spot at a thousand yards who is and who is not of their ilk. You can indeed sit back and mentor and supervise local operations but again, you need to have competent local forces to do that. The key to competent local forces is the wider force generation needs – raising and maintaining standing security forces and that requires high level involvement.

    I think your force shows the concepts we need to have embodied going into such an operation and it represents an excellent final or penultimate roulement but I just don’t see it having depth in a non or semi-permissive environment or where there are no local security forces and you have to do their job for them.

    I also think trying to pre-package the force is a non-starter. The force structure needs to be ultra-sensitive as I said to the human terrain and human and social laydown of the AO. This requires excellent intelligence and excellent HUMINT and a way of having continuity so that intelligence and data is digested and dispersed.

  7. Phil

    The principal problem with HMG approach to capacity building is that there are no specialised units (apart from SF) with well-developed expertise in what is often considered a secondary and somewhat menial task.

    I will say this, I know people who have almost come to blows to get onto what was then the OMLT and then the BAG and so forth. It’s not considered menial by anyone I know and certainly from my experience good people were put on it and also senior people too – the ADVISOR callsign attached to us was a senior Captain and a SNCO.

    It was considered the best posting to have, working closely with the locals and the local forces and getting into loads of scraps whilst in the arse end of nowhere, isolated and largely left alone by the bullshit wallahs. Chinditesque and no reflector belts in sight. I was gutted I didn’t get into the BAG but ended up working very closely with the local ADVISOR callsign who happened to be embedded with us and the ANA Tolay.

  8. Think Defence

    Would it be fair to say that there has never been a formally established force that mentors and develops local forces and yet it seems to be something that we have always done, and done very well.

    Whether that is SF or others types of unit

    I would also add that with the experience of Afghanistan, where the capability has been very well developed from a reasonable baseline, then the question of maintenance of this capability, the skills and working relationships with all manner of non state and NGO’s, should be exercising those big brains in the MoD.

    Another interesting subject, that I think is absent here, is how we can use our maritime and aviation forces to contribute. In Iraq, the USAF really put a lot of effort into developing the Iraqi Air Force, bought equipment into service that ironically is not in service with US forces, and this small force had a disproportionate impact on security.

    The same is true for naval and riverine forces

    How we do join the dots

    I would also like to see more on de-mining and economic development

  9. Phil

    Indeed, there is an opportunity to give the indigenous air force a carrier capable plane, the indiginous navy one of our CVFs and then let them get on and squabble over it whilst the Army and the indiginous Army get on with the real work of putting right what once went wrong.

    Meanwhile the RAF Regiment can stag on Ascension incase the Argies get some RIBs up there, punch through the storm of iPods being thrown at them by the Navy and attempt to storm Ascension EFI.

  10. Think Defence

    Like it

    Extending my argument though would me investment in things like this


    and this


    At the expense of this


    and this


    Can you see the obvious flaw in my plan :)

    Seriously though, I do like this idea, especially the fact that it has the word experimental in it, nothing like a spot of trial and error, but you have to think in terms of water and air, as well as land

  11. Phil

    Yes so do I. I think it’s an excellent framework from which to hang an ever reducing number of combat formations.

    We often have prepositioned sets of equipment, what about a prepositioned set of local kit and a plan to generate an indigenous brigade or two from scratch in 36 months? Obviously it would need to happen in a wider context but having a plan in place and the kit needed for it ready to go would be interesting. A flat packed officer academy. Perhaps DfID could own the kit and sign it over when needed or give the forces a grant to hold it.

  12. DavidNiven

    I would not have thought it would be hard to stand up a mentoring troop/platoon in all the phase 2 training establishments, part funded by the FO?

    You could always use the reserves for this sort of thing, including flying light aircraft. the regulars would let them have it for a while as they all try to get in on the reaction brigade band wagon but after a while once the regulars get wind that its a pretty decent job to do in various locations around the world they will take it back and then fuck up all the good work, with thrusting young officers trying to stamp their mark on everything.

    So maybe not ;-)

  13. Think Defence

    Just playing devils advocate, picking up from others

    Is this something we can do on the cheap, or would it need serious investment?

    Trading big ticket procurements for a capability like this seems like a very difficult sell

  14. DavidNiven

    I don’t think the units from the military will be a problem, its a dedicated civil service department that houses the specialisms and has experience of working with the military that seem to be missing. I know that there are some in Afghan now and were in Iraq, but they were all individually recruited which takes time for direction and cohesion to gain traction.

  15. Gloomy Northern Boy

    Sorry to start a second front Boss, but I can’t help feeling that a big floating airfield with command and control functions and lots of space might be quite a useful place to run lots of that “over the horizon” stuff from…especially if none of the neighbours are willing to help out with bases… :-)

    A bloody irritating Gloomy

  16. Gloomy Northern Boy

    Boss – possibly – skiing with various knackered old joints, and thus awash with painkillers and obstler…but I’m sure you said “over the horizon” and talked about aircraft somewhere in there…

    I’ll make for the naughty step

    A contrite Gloomy :-(

  17. jamesf

    Thanks for all the interesting thoughts and ideas. I did my time in Afghanistan so much of this maybe too Afghan centric. I am pretty sure that if we had waited while we built up more effective Afghan forces and not attempted to roll-out NATO across the Pashtun south in 2006, we might have been more successful more quickly, and maintained consent for longer. There is no political appetite for “boots on the ground” in the US and Europe anyway, so we have to come up with an alternative.

    I am thinking about a mechanism to experiment as TD says, so the structure is probably flawed. I do think some of the reserve (crisis response capability) should be included, because they need to develop techniques for working alongside indigenous forces in a joint command structure, and the political side of intervention too. I’m not sure if his would necessarily become a deployable formation, but rather one that provided a core of specialist units and personnel that could feed into an expeditionary force. A bit like 79th Amoured.

    However having companies of protected mobility infantry, RM and PARA rotating through the reserve component would build knowledge and capacity across UK forces. A stock of surplus equipment could also be maintained (snatch, Saxons and panthers, anyone?) to rapidly up-armour an indigenous force. I donl;t see this costing too much more. The Adaptable brigades are altready there – much of the two new battalions would be made up of reservists, and they would be skills high, manpower light formations with little requirement for expensive capex on equipment. Bolt on capacities could come from existing forces, or be procured as lower-capability GOCO assets (ScanEagle anybody?). Some of the assets TD suggested would be invaluable – littoral and riverine combat vessels for the Niger Delta for example, some simple aviation assets (a few Mi24s, or some armed caravans).

    There are unresolved issues – how do you train without a captive ‘indigenous force”? – however major annual exercises with allies in Africa and Asia would both contribute towards their capacity building and provide real-life opportunities fro developing the concept.

    I agree that the QEs are an important part of the over-the-horizon strike capability. This concept is not meant to replace the ‘reaction force’ or the ability of UK-forces to conduct high-end war-fighting, but rather to give the adaptable force the capability to engage in stabilisation operations more effectively, at lower cost and to shorter timeframes.

  18. Obsvr

    Many moons ago the bde comd (Dwin Bramall) ordered an officer study project on what would now be called COIN. We identified the No 1 priority as securing the borders. I’ve experience, seen and heard nothing since to make me change my mind. Cutting the insurgents of from external support/safe haven is the mission critical first step.

  19. Mark

    A very interesting read and one of these ideas that is very easy to experiment with we probably already have most things you need to try it.

    I think securing borders it an extremely difficult thing to do especially if your neighbour is someone like Iran.

  20. a

    “Many moons ago the bde comd (Dwin Bramall) ordered an officer study project on what would now be called COIN. We identified the No 1 priority as securing the borders. I’ve experience, seen and heard nothing since to make me change my mind.”

    But I can’t help thinking of all the failed COIN campaigns that followed this advice. Vietnam, most obviously.

  21. jamesf

    “the borders” are both physical and virtual…especially in the radically interconnected world of the internet and mobile ‘phone. In Vietnam failure to secure the borders was the issue, not the fact that it was attempted – or perhaps a failure to understand that without Cambodia and Laos onside it was an impossible task, which was largely left to fester until late in the war. In Helmand border security was addressed only very late in the campaign – we spent much more time trying to win consent in the green zone than on or below the largely Taliban controlled border areas from the fishhook southwards. A focus on the Pakistan border was of course paramount in the East on the Waziristan border, and has remained so, quite rightly. In Malaya and Northern Ireland border security was key to success (through both political and security measures). Recent insurgencies in Mali and Nigeria have been granted oxygen through porous borders with Libya and Cameroon, likewise conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, guinea and Cote d’Ivoire fed off each other, and the Kenyan intervention in southern Somalia is about securing porous borders which feed insurgency and terrorism in Kenya itself.

  22. Peter Elliott

    On the subjet of porous borders how about Kurdistan?

    The Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish and Iranian areas clearly have a strong relationship between them.

    Is there an element however when an upsurge in trouble in one direction actually helps to calm the remaineder? Becuase that is where the keenest fighters and most ambitious leaders focus their efforts? Outbreaks of peace in Iraqi and Turkish Kudistan might therefore be directly related to the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish zone.

  23. jamesf


    On economic development, the evidence from Afghanistan is that its not an immediate priority. Even if some of the causes are unemployment etc. stabilisation is essentially about security and justice in the mission timeframe. That’s why I’ve focused the stabilisation brigade structure on these elements. I agree more emphasis on police might be necessary – the problem with police is finding the manpower, both within indigenous forces and as mentors. I have included some elements within the support battalion to locus upon agricultural and livelihoods infrastructure, but not as the main effort.

    On peace and stability – it depends from where you are looking. If an autonomous Kurdish region was threatening our interests, then the peaceful Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish zones would still be problematic as they provide support for that region. The objective is almost always about protecting our interests rather than peace at any price. Southern Afghanistan was peaceful in 2001, after all.

  24. TAS


    An insightful and fascinating piece of work. Very much appreciated.

    From a maritime perspective, this embodies everything the RN understands and is prepared for in terms of joint expeditionary operations. It dovetails with British Maritime doctrine, Ship-to-Objective-Manoeuvre and operations in the littoral, is underscored by the predictions laid down in Global Strategic Trends out to 2040, and reflects the maritime force and C2 structures already in place as well as the need for and role of the future carriers. Many training teams are already established and working with local forces as you have already discussed in more permissive areas. The Navy gets this in spades.

    The most challenging part of this will be overcoming a decade of Army and RAF combat blindness, and shaking the belief that land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represent a model for future operations.

  25. Think Defence

    TAS, I think a lot of work has been done about the impact of over fishing on regional stability, or areas such as maritime security in the petrochem industry and of course, piracy. But aren’t you of the opinion that this kind of work, fisheries protection and maritime security is a job for almost anyone else but the RN

    Am confused (not hard I know)

    If you were Admiral for the day, how would you expand the RN’s capabilities in this general area and would you stop doing other stuff to pay for it?

    This actually comes back to the point I made earlier, all this sounds great and all that, but ask the Army to reduce armoured division, or the RAF to buy fewer Typhoons or the RN, put up with one or two less T26′s and I think we would find enthusiasm waning

    We talk a good one about conflict prevention and upstream engagement, but when asked to defund the big boys toys, everyone suddenly starts shuffling and finding their shoes interesting

    The real test of how ready we are for conflict prevention or stabilisation is when we cut an armoured brigade, squadron or frigate to pay for it

  26. jamesf


    I think TAS is getting at the expeditionary model into which the ESB fits and is described at the beginning of the article. Land (in asymmetric theatres), becomes all about remote base-to-objective or ship-to-objective maneuver operations, rather than enduring in-theatre deployments. The ESB allows us to develop indigenous capacity to do the ‘hold ground’ bit, complementing an expeditionary force. Problem is overcoming the 20th century. Before 1914 this maritime approach was enshrined in UK doctrine, but for most of the 20th century our adversary was local and we needed short ranged continental forces – both air and land as much as sea power. That is no longer the case, except for errr the Crimea….

  27. TAS

    TD, I’d start by actually funding the current force structure rather than pretending that we are getting along all okay when in fact the Service is dying on its feet.

    Then I’d spend ten million pounds on educating the other two Services on the need for Jointery at all levels, including the use of Tasers every time a moustache sneered at the need for a balanced expeditionary fighting capability when a tank or a Tornado will do.

    Then I’d pay for the Army and RAF to be properly reorganised into mobile, deployable formations, capable of employing an agile, adaptable and sustainable logistics chain, instead of guardians for a series of expansive married patches the length and breadth of Britain. Then I’d expand by 2000% the number of Joint exercises that take place every year and make them ALL involve significant involvement by each of the three Services. Even if that meant every tank practice on Salisbury plain, including every shell and jerrycan of gas had to start from the Outer Hebrides.

    Note – not a mention of more kit for the dark blue.

  28. TAS

    James, that is my general gist. However even I am not so blinded by too many days at sea to accept that sometimes these operations can (and should) take place from sustainable in-country bases. The UK has fought hard to maintain several key joint operating bases around the world and could well use them as the sustainable over-the-horizon operating base. I like your breadth of thinking.

  29. Phil

    In my view the dilemma between maritime and continental is a false one. The real dilemma is between peer warfare and extended stabilisation operations. We need to be able to do both within a reasonable time frame.

    There’s no option to specialise too much in either.

    Persistent operations will never be a choice (we have hardly ever fought a war wishing to still be there 10 years later) and events in Syria and now in the Crimea show how close we can get to fighting a peer or at least an opponent who is not enormously shit.

    Remove the ability to conduct stabilisation operations or OOTW across land, sea and air and you may as well have a Swiss style military. Concentrate solely on sea-air-land peer battles and you remove the armed forces from any normal day to day, bread and butter utility.

    It’s heavy warfare versus stabilisation operations. Not maritime versus continental. Either extreme is a fallacy – balance is needed. This fundamental and very real dilemma should be recognised as the very nexus on which our defence policy should turn.

  30. Observer

    I never was really happy with the need for stabilization missions, too much potential to bleed by a thousand cuts.

  31. Jed

    A really interesting read, but as I am at work I dont have time to go through everyones comments, so very briefly:

    1. I might at some point find the time to write on how Information Operaitons and Psyops would fit into this model

    2. Afghanistan and Iraq were not “traditional” COIN efferts – it is rare you “reduce the country to the stone age” and then go in and build it from scratch. Historically most insurgencies are against an established or recently established regime, but generally you go somewhere to support an existing government and existing military and / or polciy forces. Do we really think the model for all our future operations will be Aghanistan ?

    Off to a 3 hour Fiore Italian Longsword class afterwork, so If I still have usable hands tomorrow I will come back to read all the comments !

  32. Swimming Trunks

    @ Jamesf – I should mention the last link was provided by Sven (aka S O )

    @ Jed – ” I might at some point find the time to write on how Information Operaitons and Psyops would fit into this model”

    That would be interesting.

  33. Brian Black

    I’m not sure of the value of this type of brigade.

    Obviously the forces do now need to train for operations other than conventional warfare across the Rhein; but there would seem to be too many variables in the possible scenarios that could crop-up to have a one-size-fits-all brigade waiting for action.

    The ‘thrown together at the last minute’ criticism is surely simply a reflection of how different the requirements have been for various tasks in the past. The initial military response for stabilisation could be a very different package to that deployed in the longer term; and the military components can be very different from one stabilisation mission to the next.

    Take two of the UK operations mentioned, Sierra Leone and Libya. The initial British movement in Sierra Leone was to send in an infantry battalion as the local and African forces were not capable enough on their own; that initial movement required healthy rapid-reaction forces for the immediate stabilisation of the situation, but it didn’t need the longer-term military training force and civilian response team to be already jointly organised and ready to go. The particular requirements would take time to establish too. On the other hand, the British military involvement in Libya was vastly different, without a land component, and entirely without the need for the type of brigade being suggested. The British led civilian Stabilisation Response Team which is now in Libya consists of eleven advisors, and there is no ongoing British military effort in the country.

    In future situations, the starting point for stabilisation operations can be greatly different from one case to the next. Very rarely will we enter a country that has been Iraqised, with the complete dismantling of political and civil infrastructure and the military. There’ll be different deficiencies and different capabilities already in place, ad hoc grouping of stabilisation forces will consequently be much more likely and appropriate.

    I have a question for the topic writer, but welcome anyone else’s response.

    Having decided that the various stabilisation force elements should be under a single unified command, why should that be a military command rather than a civilian one?
    If part of the force is constructed from government departments, or NGOs, and is concerned with things like judicial framework, policing, and civil infrastructure, why should it be the other part, the military part of the force which takes precedence in the command structure?

  34. jamesf

    @Brain Black

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The answer to your question on military versus civilian command goes to the very heart of the ‘problem’ with stabilisation. Development or humanitarian assistance are essentially civilian tasks, which military capabilities can sometimes contribute to. Stabilisation is essentially a military task: to bring security to a region in which insecurity is rife, and not any old security, but security on our terms (i.e. in Afghanistan a security “victory” over the Taleban). That stabilisation requires political and non-kinetic resources as well as military resources is undisputed, however the overwhelming evidence in Afghanistan and Iraq was that imagining that long term processes such as economic regeneration, job creation and better social services will win hearts and minds or prevent armed violence in the short-term is misguided – the turbine bought and transported at great cost in both UK treasure and soldiers lives to regenerate the Kajaki dam electricity generation scheme still lies uninstalled at the site in northern Helmand – nothing could be done to get the thing working unless security was present. Primarily stabilisation is about a combined (kinetic and non-kinetic) arms approach to addressing armed violence in short to medium term time-frames. As such it requires either military leadership, or military execution under police primacy (as occurred in Northern Ireland). What stabilisation is not is the wider spheres of humanitarian assistance and economic and social development pursued by aid agencies. Its a security task.

  35. jamesf

    @Brain Black

    On Sierra Leone it took a long time to get things right. We essentially screwed up the disarmament programme, and it was only because the overwhelming majority wanted an end to war that we were gifted the time to get our stabilisation ducks in a row.

    I beg to differ on Libya too. I was the UK’s security and justice adviser deployed right at the outset of that mission to help plan for a stable security situation in the aftermath of Gaddafi. That work is ongoing.

    UK is still heavily involved in stabilisation – see below.


  36. Martin

    @ James

    Excellent piece of work with a lot of very good ideas.

    I think having a dedicated section of the army to provide foreign training is a good idea. However I wonder if it would ever be able to match the SAS for prestige. countries like Malaysia still rave about SAS traing they recieved in the 1980′s and I wonder if atleast from a diplomatic point of view a british green berries could match that.

    While your force structure looks great in a permissive environment I wonder how well it would do in an environment like Afghanistan. as you point out we have had little in the way of problems in providing stabilisation forces in permissive environments so would this structure actually solve any problems?

  37. Obsvr

    The borders of SVN were never secured, apart from the small bit that was the DMZ. The long border with Cambodia and Laos was extremely permeable, that is the route by which many hundreds of thousands of N Vietnamese Army soldiers arrived in the South, plus most of the military supplies for the local insurgents (who had been basically defeated in 1968).

  38. Obsvr

    A quote from a letter in this week’s Economist from a gent at KCL “The current government and senior military officers remain myopically focused on so-called ‘stabilisation’ missions in regions that are marginal to Britain’s security. European peace and security, and NATO, should be Britain’s strategic priorities.”

    I totally agree, having specialised units and formations for the stabilisation malarkey is nonsense. The reality is that when a country needs stabilising its government has failed and its armed forces have either collapsed or been defeated. They are not
    capable of providing security for a stabilisation force. Military capability may have been reduced to middle rank and senior officers only. Junior officers, rank and file have to be recruited, and trained individually and collectively, with units and formations being created. This means intervening powers have to provide security and build local armed forces, this takes several years at best. Finding literate and numerate men is essential for some parts of an army. You may be able to set up a basically trained infantry company in a couple of years. An artillery battery takes somewhat longer, assuming you can find the numerate, other specialist elements are similar.

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