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,