Outmanoeuvring the Velvet Curtain.

combat

Military language has a curious duality; exclusive and inclusive, it is both a gatekeeper and a conduit. It acts to permit access to those who know the right words, while excluding those who don’t; for those who do, it has the potential to open a world of possibilities, for those who don’t, exposure to it can be an intellectually damaging experience. In 2005, while on my Sergeant’s qualification course, my colleagues and I were set a simple tactical problem; fresh from combat experience in Iraq, I gave a good, effective solution, only to be chastised by the Officer Commanding for a failure to use doctrinally correct vocabulary. To be clear, I had never been taught the right words, let alone the doctrine, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: if the Army wasn’t going to give me access to effective professional military education, I would educate myself.

This week’s blog is in part the result of that decision, but equally a reaction to some very supportive feedback from my last blogpost. Like last week, I will take a military concept, simplify it, and clarify some of the related issues. The language may not please the Doctrine Nazis, but it will hopefully help soldiers to understand that the gobbledegook spoken by their superiors is merely a smokescreen, not something to be feared: the Doctrine Wizard behind the curtain has lots of expensive education, but no magic. I joined the British Army in the wake of the first Gulf War, at that time all talk was of manoeuvrism; an avid reader of military history even then, I understood that movement in war was important, but I had no cognition of manoeuvre warfare. This weeks concept is Manoeuvrism – the art of moving to create advantage, while striking the enemy’s weaknesses- the military equivalent of swerving to avoid a punch, while kicking your opponent squarely in the balls.

There are two dominant concepts of war, Attrition and Manoeuvre.  A good way of understanding the difference is by envisioning them as different types of heavyweight boxer.  Attrition is enormously heavy and powerful, but lacks speed and agility; against an opponent Attrition has but one option, to slug it out, remorselessly grinding an opponent down, hoping that greater resources will win out in the end.  Manoeuvre is lighter, less powerful, but far more agile, aiming to win by landing precise blows at critical points while moving to avoid the opponent’s strength. History is replete with examples of both, but for ease consider the war on the Western Front during most of the First World War as an exemplar of Attrition, while Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, exemplifies Manoeuvre. It is important too to remember that although manoeuvrism has only been official doctrine since the 1980s, it has a history as old as time itself. There is nothing new under the Sun.  

The British Army has not always favoured manoeuvre over attrition. As stated previously, as late as the early 1980s British doctrine aimed to wear down its opposition with concentrated firepower, literally slogging it out with the Red Army on the North German Plain. The problem for Britain was that by that time it lacked the resource in both men and material to prosecute the sort of war it had fought from D-Day to Berlin (it had been barely sustainable in 1944) and advances in precision guided munitions, airpower, and networked computing were profoundly changed the character of warfare.  On both sides of the Atlantic, but in particular in the United States, reviews of recent combat experience, notably in Vietnam and of the Israeli experience in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, together with assessments of German and Soviet operational art in the Second World War, and an examination of the Soviet military’s contemporary strengths and weaknesses, led to a change in approach away from attrition and towards manoeuvre with the adoption of the concept of AirLand Battle in 1982.

AirLand Battle sought to dislocate and disrupt the Soviets’ critical weakness, its highly centralised command and control systems, while using air superiority to cut supply lines and destroy units paralysed by the resultant lack of direction. Precision fires would thus denude the opponent’s will to fight, by precision targeting, eventually leading to the enemy’s collapse. This new sort of war would still be fought at the tactical level, but would be won at the operational level, with the conduct of the campaign – operational art – being more important than individual tactical success.  Although this concept was never tested against its intended adversary, it was accepted on both sides of the Iron Curtain that the West had an unassailable advantage, an advantage that proved devastating against Saddam Hussein’s army (modelled and equipped like a Soviet Bloc force) in Kuwait in 1991 and again in 2003.

Times change, however, and the West’s opponents have not sat still. As described last week, the West’s opponents, keen to avoid triggering a devastating conventional response but cognisant of the lack of resilience in Western societies, Western political timidity, and economic weakness have chosen to exploit the ‘Gray Space’. In addition, state actors are developing state-of-the-art Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) systems and reforming C2 structures, while non-state actors are exploiting subterranean methods to defeat Western sensor arrays and moving the fight into densely populated urban areas to further negate the West’s putative conventional advantage.    This has caused a number of dilemmas for Western manoeuvrism to which, theoretically at least, it has risen with concepts like Information Manoeuvre, the Army Operating Concept, and Multi-Domain Operations, each of which intend to incorporate both the physical and the virtual. In short, the US and British militaries have come to accept that the kick in the balls must hurt the mind and the body.

So to sum up, Manoeuvrism is the use of movement and blows, both virtual and physical, to pre-empt, dislocate, and disrupt an opponent and in doing so bring about his physical and moral collapse. It is a beautiful concept, but one that must keep evolving as the enemy evolves. Thank you for stopping by, next week mission command gets the Warrant Officer treatment.

All the best,

Barney

 

 

 

Contesting the Gray Space.



Fake news word tag cloud. 3D rendering, blue variant.

This week’s blog set me a dilemma. On one hand, encouraged by a generous personal recommendation in the excellent Australian website Grounded Curiosity, I thought I might write about professional military education, particularly given recent Twitter debates exposing some rather antiquated attitudes towards the education of Other Ranks in the British military. On the other, last week’s Blog has generated considerable debate about both the proposed Army Operating Concept and operations in the ‘Gray Space‘, I thought I might explore some of the lacunae that discussion with colleagues at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and Army Headquarters has highlighted. On balance, the latter would seem to offer greater room for debate and the greater chance of a fruitful outcome. In this blog I intend to look what exactly is the ‘Gray Space’, how we got here, how and why we intend to contest it, and, most importantly, whether such competition is actually necessary.

In April 2019, I was given the task of promoting the Chief of the General Staff’s (CGS) Innovation Prize 2019, the theme of which was competing in the ‘Gray Space’. It was clear from some of the submissions that there was limited understanding of the meaning of the term and even less of how to operate within it. Quite simply, it is the state of international relations between war and peace; if one considers this to be a spectrum of activity, with absolute peace and total war at either extremity, then one is well on the way to understanding the bit in the middle – the ‘Gray Space’. Despite the protestations of neophiles, the World was not invented last week; it is not seeing unprecedented technological development, international relations are no more complex or dangerous than they have been at any other time in modern history, and ‘constant competition’ has been a constant characteristic of human affairs for millennia. Their fallacy of presentism – the belief that our present is unique – is itself not unique, it is a ‘vampire paradox’ – however often you kill it, it keeps regenerating.  The simple truth is that there has always been a ‘Gray Space’ between War and Peace; typically, traditional actions short of war have been acts of sabotage, espionage, and propaganda, in fact all the good stuff Bond villains get up to in their big screen capers. Like Bond villains, the addition of the computer chip has merely expanded the reach of these effects into the virtual world. Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 for those of a biblical persuasion.

That the ‘Gray Space’ has come to dominate Western military thinking in the last ten years is simply the somewhat contradictory nexus of successful conventional deterrence, political timidity, denuded homeland resilience, and economic liberalism. On many occasions in the last three hundred years casus belli have been entirely spurious; in the eighteenth century, Britain went to war over the removal of a merchant seaman’s ear, in the nineteenth because of the looting of a shopkeeper’s house, and yet the murder of a British subject on British soil by chemical poisoning was considered insufficient cause for war in 2017. Some might argue that the exclusion of military action was a sensible assessment of the military balance of power, but it is hardly the first time that Britain has baulked in the face of Russian aggression. Rather political timidity is the underlying factor, something which the Kremlin, and others farther afield, are keen to exploit. Paradoxically, our opponents’ activities in the ‘Gray Space’, either virtual of physical are a reaction to Western conventional superiority. It is fear of the West’s military capabilities which causes adversaries, be they state or non-state actors, to seek asymmetric answers – to exploit the West’s weaknesses, whilst at the same time taking advantage of their own relative strengths.  In this way, by carefully navigating Western indecision and avoiding a conventional military reaction, the West’s opponents have out-manoeuvred them and forced the West to fight on ground of their enemy’s choosing.

The gap between war and peace – ‘the Gray Space’ –  has thus been created by a combination of overwhelming Western military strength and a failure of its political will. The lack of will has been exacerbated by reduced Western resilience, both societal and military, and economic austerity following the financial collapse of 2008. Societies largely divorced from hardship and increasingly dependent on ‘Just in Time’ logistics, vulnerable information networks, and satellite-enabled precision for everything from food and water to entertainment cannot be easily taken to war against an adversary well-versed in cyber techniques whose populace is far more robust and less dependent on technology. Furthermore, budgetary limitations since 2008 have disproportionately impacted on government departments like the British Ministry of Defence, renowned for profligacy and poor investment decisions, whose previous default was to throw money at a project until it worked. In the austerity era, the paradigm on which Western military superiority is based, lethal and exquisite platforms able to deliver precision effects, has become so expensive that duplicates and redundancy have become virtually impossible.  Indeed, the loss of even a small number of those platforms could be catastrophic, Jellicoe may have been able to lose the First World War in a morning, but a junior RAF pilot could lose a war today with a moment’s inattention.

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Taking all these factors into account, it is unlikely that the ‘Gray Space’ will evaporate in the short-term. Western militaries will continue to invest in systems which provide conventional superiority, Western societies will continue to operate in a dangerously unsustainable way, and Western governments will remain extremely risk averse. In light of this, Western militaries are developing concepts for contesting the ‘Gray Space’, notably the United States’ Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and the British Army Operating Concept (AOC).  These programmes aim to take a whole of government approach, the British call it ‘Fusion Doctrine‘, to use virtual and physical effects to create multiple dilemmas for the enemy, throwing him off balance, and effectively defeating his will by pre-emption, dislocation, and disruption. In other words, by adapting the manoeuvrist approach to the twenty-first century.  Logically, these approaches make sense, continuing investment and training in the conventional warfare paradigm ensures the West’s opponents must operate in the ‘Gray Space’, given political distaste for kinetic action the military’s only course of action is to learn to defend the national interests in that ‘Space’, but this is more problematic than might be apparent. First, if the military’s role is to fight in the Clausewitzian sense, should it be operating in a ‘space’ more properly in the realm of diplomacy, espionage, and political manoeuvre? Secondly, and this is much more controversial, if the character of warfare has changed should Western militaries invest less in the wholly unlikely paradigm of conventional war and instead use the money to contest the ‘Gray Space’? It is my belief that the solution lies in maintaining military superiority whilst closing down the ‘Gray Space’ rather than competing in it, but this can only be achieved by being prepared to take military action earlier and more aggressively, and what is more, being prepared to message that offensive intent persistently. What do you think? Let me know.

In conclusion, I hope this brief piece has explained the ‘Gray Space’ and debunked some of the complicated language which seems to accompany any military debate.  I am far from an authority on the matter, but I do understand it and it is my earnest hope that if more of us do understand the concepts at the strategic level we will be better informed for the future.

Have a great weekend,

Barney

War Talks Series

 

As One Door Closes…

Exercise Citadel Guibert 18 in France.

In a very few days, my tenure as the Army Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) will come to an end.  It has undoubtedly been the most satisfying assignment of my career and I am extremely grateful to all those whose efforts made it possible.  My benefactors are far too numerous to thank individually, for fear of omission I will not attempt to list them here, instead I dedicate this Blog to them. Intellectually, the attachment has been transformational; prior to arrival at RUSI, I flattered myself a free-thinker, a vanity of which I was rapidly disabused.  Those who follow are strongly advised to leave both prejudices and constrained thinking at the barrack gate!

By way of a valediction, what follows are some impressions of the trends which captured have my imagination over the last year on Whitehall.  I must make it clear that nothing I have to say is anything more than personal observation and certainly not either the opinion or policy of RUSI, the Army, or the Ministry of Defence. First, my overwhelming impression of the ship of state is that it is somewhat neglected.  The Captain and crew appear to have forgotten the charts, there is no hand on the wheel, and refit is significantly overdue.  There is little or no idea of what Britain is for; although this lacuna is by no means unique, our most important global competitors each have a grand strategy, an idea of where they want their nations to be in the future, in its place Britain has only tactical reactivity. A German officer with whom I was recently in conversation remarked that Britain has been devoid of strategy since Churchill’s defeat at the polls in 1945.  Britain’s tactics are thus her grand strategy.

Laying beneath the void which should be occupied by grand strategy, is the cross-government ‘Fusion Doctrine‘ which aims to combine the efforts of the departments of state to support…yes, you guessed it, grand strategy. Fusion Doctrine thus hangs limply, disconnected from grand strategy, supporting government policy only at the tactical level, unable to fulfil its considerable promise because it has no more idea in which direction the ship of state is sailing than can be gleaned from a wet finger held in the breeze. Where does the Army fit in this situation? The Army is beset around by a battery of other problems: shortages of resource and the struggle to remain relevant and credible become existential when juxtaposed against political timidity and the changing character of war. In short, the Catch-22 facing the Army is that its political masters demand demonstrable utility before providing investment, but the Army cannot provide the evidence because it has no war to fight. That said, the Army has been inventive, being increasingly involved in non-kinetic activities across the globe in an attempt to prove relevance; paradoxically, however, whilst these activities have secured crumbs of investment, it has been both insufficient to provide the transformation required and has led to a loss of manpower.

So what of the future? I absolutely reject the fallacy of presentism, but it is undoubtedly true that the character of warfare is changing, even if some of this change is within our capacity to reverse. Western militaries remain strongly wedded to conventional combined arms warfare and are most comfortable when thinking and fighting in these terms against a peer opponent. Even their experiences in the Middle East, and evidence from other conflicts worldwide, have not wholeheartedly converted them to operations in the ‘Gray Space‘… the zone between war and peace created and sustained by the same political timidity which denies the military relevance and investment. The new and promising Army Operating Concept (AOC) aims to contest the ‘Gray Space’, although it is unclear whether it originates from a position of the need to attract money or as a result of a Damascene conversion to hybridity. Indeed, the Army still clings to its ‘warfighting’ Division, despite lacking the manpower and equipment to support it.  It does this in an attempt to prove to its American cousin that it remains credible and able to fit within the US Army’s structures at Two-Star level…a fight which it is losing as it inexorably shrinks away. Indeed a cynic might interject that the AOC is merely an attempt to mirror and support the US Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) Concept. If we doubt that British influence is dwindling, we only need look at the US Army’s withdrawal from British professional military education courses at the UK Defence Academy, where our missing operational layer and failure to provide the level of critical thinking out closest ally deems essential, as an arbiter of irrelevance.

To round up, I know that this Blog has been somewhat polemical, it is so designed to get us thinking about the lacunae which undermine British defence and security. In the future we will need to be more resilient, both militarily and societally, we will have to decide whether to tolerate the ‘Gray Space’ or prosecute war against our opponents, and above all we will have to find leaders who have a strategic vision and understand that tactics might win battles, but war is won at the operational and strategic levels.  The situation is by no means irreversible, Britain can return to a central position in global affairs, but it will take vision, investment, and leadership and whither that?

All the best for this week, have a great weekend,

Barney