A Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

Eight years ago I was asked by Tim Ward, the librarian at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot, to become a member of the judging panel for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize.  One of the first shortlisted books I read was Patrick Hennessey’s ‘The Junior Officer’s Reading Club’; entertaining in its own right, my experience was further enhanced because I both lived and worked on the campus at Sandhurst at the time.  Throughout the book, Hennessey is deeply critical of the relevance of his training at RMAS:

We were still being given Sidney Jary to read in our first term…Rather like sending people into Basrah with a copy of Stalingrad, it prepared us for the worst, but I couldn’t help thinking there was more relevant stuff out there.  We knew we weren’t going to be Jary and we didn’t want to be.  We joined the Army to fight the three-block war’

Almost as if the Army command was listening, an evening run in the Academy’s woodland would reveal the construction of a FOB, or at least a Platoon House, though probably not an ’18 Platoon’ house.  At that time, militaries on both sides of the Atlantic had become intoxicated by the writings of pundits like Nagl and Kilcullen (my bookshelves continue to bend under their earnest weight) and were rapidly ditching everything they knew, in pursuit of the new god COIN; combined arms battle was out, ‘Hearts and Minds’, or rather the latest voguish iteration of it, was in.  The Army is a shallow creature of fashion, uncritically loving the shiny, feasting on the zeitgeist, and habitually throwing away the flares when the drainpipes become a la mode.

The tendency to follow fashion is not new.  In 1853, for example, the Victorian explorer and soldier, Sir Richard Burton, wrote a manual of bayonet fighting, ‘A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise’, which influenced the way the British Army trained for the next fifty years.  Burton’s book is a child of gothic romanticism, pleading the importance of training the infantryman for the bayonet duel; the War Studies equivalent of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  A soldier without operational experience, Burton’s argument is critically flawed because, as early as the Peninsular War, it was clear that the bayonet was becoming a purely psychological weapon, against the deployment of which no European enemy would stand.  Nigel Green makes an impressive figure in Zulu…c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre!  Nevertheless, the attraction of two knights facing each other with glinting bayonets on the field of honour proved too attractive to avoid and the infantry was sucked into a Black Hole with its own culture the critical mass.

The problem is common to all militaries of course; in his book ‘A Revolution in Military Adaptation: The US Army in the Iraq War‘, Chad C Serena praises the adaptive changes the US Army adopted in reaction to the Insurgency.  Serena ends with a warning: the adaptations which improved the Army’s ability to fight the ‘three-block war’ were antithetical to its culture of combined arms conventional warfare, effective or not they would not survive a swing of the pendulum towards new, improved, shiny manoeuvrism because conventional warfare was the Army’s cultural home.

Rebalancing the force to be more combat-centric is tantamount to ignoring history and the successful, and necessary, adaptations that occurred in Iraq.  Doing so will ensure that…the Army will again have to undergo considerable adaptation in the conduct of future operations.  The cost in lives and national treasure will be substantial‘.

By May 2016, the pendulum had firmly swung back, the US Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, visiting a US training mission in Tanzania, declared that COIN had gone too far, and that manoeuvrism was the real truth; drop the gourd, follow the sandal!  In fairness, the scrabble to follow the new prophets had begun earlier, and in the UK at least there was some attempt to hold the slippery infant in the tub, but is Integrated Action combined with Manoeuvrism really all we gain from the thirteen years of continuous war against terror?  As we hotly pursue STRIKE, Medium-Weight Capability, FRES or whatever we choose to call it, I think it important to understand that flares will come back, and that the baby is too precious the toss out with the bath water; in an Army dressed in tweed, should we really be chasing polyester?  In short, look at the pretty girl at the water fountain by all means, but rather than buying a big Harley Davidson and riding off into the sunset with her, go home to your significant other, buy him or her a new outfit and a nice holiday (preferably a Battlefield Tour), and always remember divorce is cripplingly expensive!!

Hope you’ve all had a good weekend, I’m off to the cinema (I would say movies, but then I’m not a fashionista).

All the best,

Barney

 

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One Year On…

A year ago, I wrote a Blog outlining a new project I was originating at Aldershot.  Back then I called them the Defence Studies Talk Series, one year later they are War Talks at PCL; the concept remains the same, only the name has changed.  In this Blog I want to talk about the rationale behind the Talks, thank those who have helped me, outline the Talks planned for the remainder of the Summer, and let you know about some exciting future plans.

The War Talks at PCL Talk Series was originally devised with twin aims:  firstly, it aimed to provide continuing professional military education for all serving personnel and civil servants, filling a gap where formal military education left off.  Secondly, it aimed to highlight the incredible mid-Victorian Prince Consort’s Library at Aldershot and encourage serving personnel and civil servants to use the Library’s services.  In the last ten months we have reached out to hundreds of people and provided high quality professional development; I am satisfied that we have begun to make some impact, we have attendees regularly travelling from as far afield as Devon, Staffordshire, and Leicestershire and speakers travelling from the United States and in July, from Australia.

Although this is a project without either a budget, or sophisticated equipment, and organised and run in entirety by one man, I am pleased with the results.  I am assisted in producing the Talks primarily by the forbearance of my bosses at 1st Bn Scots Guards, I am under no illusions that they could turn it off with no notice, and I am thankful to them for allowing me to continue.  Additionally, the staff at PCL and within ALIS have been supportive, helping to set up and put away, alongside my own soldiers from the SPS Detachment at 1 SG.  My biggest thank you, however, must go out to the academics and soldiers who have spoken at my Talks and who have provided enormous food for thought.  It must be said that without the speakers, library staff. and my Unit these talks would not happen.

The outline for the rest of the Summer is shaping-up nicely.  Our next Talk will be by Dr David Morgan-Owen on Wednesday 23 May 18 speaking on the subject of ‘War as it might have been: British Sea Power and the First World War‘.  This is a substantial departure for the Series and reflects my intent to move away from a purely Land Warfare bias, I hope to see some Matelots in Aldershot, eager to avenge last week’s Rugby result.  I’m hoping to re-schedule Maj Gen Craig Lawrence’s talk on ‘Getting Strategy Right (Enough)‘ to the evening of Tuesday 5 June 18; this is much anticipated, but Craig is a busy man and more often than not he is outside the UK.  I have booked Dr Nick Lloyd, the author of one of the BAMBY18 books, ‘Passchendaele: A New History‘ on Tuesday 12 June 18; the BAMBY is a really special award, judged by practitioners, I am very happy to be running it this year.  Finally, Prof Theo Farrell will be speaking on his BAMBY shortlisted book, ‘Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001 – 14‘ in Aldershot on Tuesday 17 July 18.

As many of you will know, the Prince Consort’s Library will close for renovations, I will therefore be looking for alternative premises.  Many of you have been generous with your offers of assistance but I have decided that the closure offers an incredible opportunity to spread the word, if not about PCL then certainly about the need to provide high-quality professional military education outside of the formal career path.  In short, I intend to take ‘War Talks on the Road‘!!  I intend to arrange Talks in London, Portsmouth, Shrivenham, Tidworth and Camberley before Christmas 18 and to Colchester, Stafford and York in 2019.  This will take considerable organisation and any help readers can offer will be gratefully received; I am a one man band and pursuing a Fellowship at RUSI, working for DCDC, producing the Talks, the BAMBY, numerous battlefield studies, and several formation study days can be a difficult juggling act.  Finally, for those who want to see the Talks recorded, I am also aiming to organise that before I start at RUSI in September.

Many thanks for all your help and support thus far,

Barney

 

Mission Command in Barracks.

Almost two years ago, I started my MA dissertation in Military History at the University of Birmingham, the ability to critically analyse sources was perhaps the most important skill I picked up from the excellent academic staff who taught me, I hope I did them justice in my analysis of primary sources relating to ‘Aerial Re-Supply in the First World War 1916-18’.  This week, as regular readers of this Blog may know, I attended an Armed Forces University Short Course at Exeter on ‘Strategic Communications in an era of Persistent Conflict’; the healthy scepticism imbued by Drs Boff, Whittingham, and Pugh was, I must admit, on high alert!  Strategic Communications is a relatively new discipline for Defence, with much of it imported from Madison Avenue; given Defence’s proclivity for the novel and fashionable, and having read ADP ‘Land Operations’ 2017 with its concentration on ‘Integrated Action’, it would be fair to say I required some convincing.  The course was delivered by a former Royal Naval officer who had wide-ranging experience and considerable expertise in the area; whilst the theory seemed compelling, the outputs seemed very variable, what may work in one context, may not work in another.  Strategic Communications is very definitely an art, rather than a science.

I have also been researching military adaptability for my Joint Concept Note for the MoD’s Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre at Shrivenham.  I wrote in my last Blog that we had a good deal to learn from the reforms of Colonel General Hans von Seeckt, the German Chief of Staff from 1921-27.  I was reminded on Twitter by the aforementioned Dr Jonathan Boff ,that there are considerable differences between the Reichsheer of the 1920s and the British Army of 2018; what may work in one context, may not in another.  One of the best books I have read this week was Eitan Shamir’s ‘Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the US, British, and Israeli Armies’, in it Shamir examines the problems experienced by all three militaries in taking the organisational culture of the German Army, extant from the time of Scharnhorst until the fall of Berlin in 1945, and implanting it within their own cultures.  By far the most successful of the three has been the British Army, although less so latterly as they become more interoperable with the Americans and pick up bad planning habits!

The point that not every solution works in every context is well founded, however, the principle of Mission Command, when adapted to British military culture, seems both effective and efficient.  It cannot, however, be simply superimposed on the prevalent culture, Mission Command requires high levels of expensive professional military education at all levels, a high degree of risk tolerance from commanders, good communication and trust.  Like adaptability, it is not a cheap option, it is not a way of ‘doing more with less’, to do it properly is expensive in financial and cultural terms, but is critical to future success in war on the battlefield and amongst the people.  Mission Command in Barracks is not a straightforward proposition, von Seeckt did not have to deal with a litigious public, a risk averse government, or a constant demand for quantitative evidence from Higher Formations.  Trust is a rare commodity in twenty-first century Britain.

What could improve trust and encourage commanders to risk their reputations and careers?  The answer is professional military education, both formal and informal; only by educating our subordinates to a level where we trust their capacity and capabilities can we take the calculated risks inherent in Mission Command.  We are, then, both the problem and the solution, we must trust and educate if we are to reap the benefits of doing things smarter.  To that end, the peerless Dr Jonathan Boff will be speaking in the next in the War Talks at PCL Talk Series, the subject is his excellent new book, ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front’. Jonathan will speak from 1800 hrs on Tuesday 8th May 2018. See you there!

Best wishes,

Barney

A Seecktian Future?

This week finds me on an Armed Forces University Short Course at the Strategy and Security Institute of the University of Exeter.  The subject of the course is ‘Strategic Communications’, and although I cling to the healthy cynicism of the British Tommy regarding some aspects of Information Operations, I find it fascinating that both the lecturers and my fellow students identify the same frustrations with the current state of the Armed Forces.  Indeed,  I recall from my recent holiday reading of Chad C. Serena’s ‘A Revolution in Military Adaptation: The US Army in the Iraq War‘, that the American Army is similarly, and terminally, afflicted.  So what are these problems which bedevil professional militaries on both sides of the Pond? In short, the ethos of each organisation remains fundamentally anti-intellectual, imbued with a pride in amateurism, and dominated by the primacy of combat. These characteristics, it seems, act like a magnet, constantly drawing the Armed Forces back to the conventional combined arms paradigm, even when the evidence of our experience in the Middle East and Central Asia demonstrates that the character of warfare has changed and that our model requires reform.

At first glance, Colonel General Hans von Seeckt may seem an unlikely champion.  Hans von Seeckt, was the founder of the Reichsheer of the Weimar Republic in the period immediately following the end of the First World War (1921-27).  Von Seeckt was an acolyte of manoeuvrism and combined arms warfare, a dedicated reformer, and an ultra-nationalist, however, if we put his doctrinal and political beliefs to one side and instead concentrate on his reforms, I think we can see that much of his conclusions retain resonance, especially for a Future Force whose pre-eminent quality will be adaptability.  Von Seeckt was privileged to take over the German Army as a blank page, retaining the best of the Imperial Army and discarding its worst aspects.  He had to work within the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles, that is an Army of 100,000 men, an officer corps of 4,000, and no armoured vehicles or aeroplanes, and yet within a few short years he had created perhaps the most professional Army in the world, operating with modern weapons, modern doctrine, and educated personnel.  Von Seeckt did this by insisting on the highest standards of physical fitness, intellectual excellence, and moral conduct from his personnel, by depending on his NCOs to lead troops and deliver capabilities customarily delivered by Officers, and to encourage open (and often public) debate and ongoing and sometimes painful lesson-learning.  Von Seeckt’s Army offset this by improving the conditions of service of his personnel;  but most importantly it placed professional military education front and centre of its outputs.

Clearly, the modern British and American Armed Forces do not have the luxury of a blank page, however, there are important synergies with the German Army of 1918.  Firstly, we have accumulated a great deal of evidence demonstrating that the character of conflict has changed from our experiences since 9/11, we should be looking to assimilate them into our capabilities and organisational architecture by understanding that the answer is not always kinetic, empowering our NCOs by increasing the range of their responsibilities and allowing them to manage aspects of leadership and command which have been traditionally been the fiefdom of officers, and raising education and training to a pre-eminent role in the life of all personnel; as I have said many a time previously, we must Train for the Known and Educate for the Unknown.  Hans von Seeckt may have been a dreadful political reactionary, but he reformed his Army recognising that the character of warfare had changed and that there could be no return to 1914.  If we, like those who opposed von Seeckt, hope to turn the clock back for our Forces to 2001, insisting that we will only do war on our terms, we set ourselves up for defeat, and that, after Iraq and Afghanistan, should send a shiver down every soldier’s spine.

All the best,

Barney