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,