‘Bring back National Service’: A solution to the British Army’s manning woes?

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The British Army appears to be in the midst of a manning crisis; it cannot meet or sustain its personnel requirements and is increasingly turning to women and Commonwealth citizens to fill its gaps, rather than traditional sources. There are many causes, but could conscription be a more sustainable answer?

Recently, the trend away from conscription and towards professional armies across Europe has seen a degree of retreat; militarily, a perceived threat from Russia has driven countries like Ukraine to re-introduce conscription, while countries like France, Sweden, and Lithuania are turning to limited conscription to either reach out to disengaged communities and demographics, or to fill gaps. The United Kingdom’s most recent experience of conscription ended in 1960, but given the Regular Army’s increasing manning deficit and State disengagement in under-represented communities, a form of limited conscription, involving around 10,000 people per annum, may appear to be an attractive solution.

The main problem with conscription in a British context is that it was, and remains, unpopular with the electorate; historically and culturally, it is something the UK has turned to only in extremis, it would be an almost impossible sell (outside of a general war) for any political party, especially as many of those to whom it would apply would be eligible to vote! There is another major objection to conscription: militarily it is expensive, inefficient, and conceptually at odds with Britain’s concept of precision warfare; it is difficult, although not inconceivable, to imagine conscripts grasping the intricacies of modern equipment and the nuances of post-modern warfare after only a few short weeks of training. If conscription, for all its attraction as an instant fix to a temporary manning problem and as a delivery system for improved social cohesion, is politically impossible, is the solution immigrant soldiers?

In the hullabaloo following the release of the Public Accounts Committee’s report into skill shortages in the Ministry of Defence, the ongoing furore over the shortcomings in the Capita recruiting contract, and the Chief of the Defence Staff’s recent assertion that young British people no longer understand the nature of service, two simple truths have been overlooked: first, to a very large extent the current manning problem is inextricably linked to the United Kingdom’s economic success and will improve as the economy slows. Secondly, retention, not just recruiting, is key to sustainable manning.

There is a direct inverse correlation between Army recruitment and national economic success. Currently, unemployment is running at only 4%, and has been falling consistently since September 2011, wages are rising above the rate of inflation, and at the same time GDP, although sluggish, has been positive for almost nine years, the longest period of sustained growth since the end of the Second World War. In these circumstances, it is perhaps remarkable that Army manning has held up so robustly. The inevitable economic downturn will more than adequately fill the gaps in the Army’s establishment, so why look overseas to solve a temporary problem which will disappear in a shorter time than we have lived with it?

The current trade-trained strength of the Regular Army is 76,800 against a requirement of 82,480 personnel, an almost 7% under-manning. In the year to July 2018, around 4,500 personnel left early of their own volition (almost 60% of the total outflow from the Army); had those individuals stayed, the Regular Army would have seen a manning deficit of only around 1,180 personnel, less than 1.5%. This is, of course, rather simplistic, however, the general point remains: it is self-evidently cheaper and more effective to retain than recruit. Retention is a complex problem because there are as many reasons for leaving as there are leavers; the 2018 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) points to some common themes: dissatisfaction with pay and pensions, perceived poor management, particularly career management, and decreasing levels of morale all conspire to undermine Army manning, however, given that job security is the strongest retaining factor, it is difficult to understand how some of the initiatives which purport to support recruiting and retention, for example the changes contained in the New Employment Model, could be seen as in any way retention positive.

The decision to revert to the recruitment of foreign and commonwealth citizens from their home countries is difficult to understand given that the recruitment ‘crisis’ is demonstrably temporary. It is also clear that any system of conscription would be unnecessary, unpopular, and inefficient. The answer to the problem of under-manning is to be patient and improve retention, unfortunately it is easier to blame contracted recruitment than to tackle either the Army’s own part in the failure of the contract, or the causes of the failure to retain. If we want to fill the gaps, it is the question of retention which must be answered.

Autumn Update: War Talks and BAMBY

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Those of you familiar with this blog will know that from time-to-time I like to give an update on both the War Talks series and the British Army Military Book of the Year Competition. I also tend to give some further details of talks, presentations, and other activities with which I am associated. This will be one such blog. It would be a real pleasure to meet any and all of you; to that end, I hope you can make some of these events this Autumn.

War Talks Autumn Season 2019 and Beyond. Sometimes it seems unbelievable that the ‘War Talks’ talk series that I founded in the Summer of 2017 has already been running for six seasons and that we have already delivered 45 talks from academics and international relations experts. Professors, Generals, Doctors, and students have all graced the Talks on subjects as wide ranging as child soldiers, weapon development, and drone technology to name but a few.

Our 46th Talk by Ms. Natia Seskuria of the National Security Council of the Republic of Georgia and an Associate Fellow at RUSI, takes place on Tuesday 22nd October 2019 at the Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot. Natia will speak on the subject of Russia’s information war against Georgia since the invasion of 2008. The remainder of the season is at published above, but I would remind readers that Professor Tony King‘s Talk has moved to Wednesday 13th November 2019. I am deeply indebted to both RUSI for providing its incredible speakers at no cost and to the Wavell Room for podcasting the vast majority of the Talks since mid-2019.

The Talks continue to go from strength to strength, indeed I am already organising the seventh season which will run from January to April 2020. I hope to have a line-up of another seven talks ready for announcement in December 2019 taking us up to 57 in total. If you have any suggestions on subjects or speakers, please drop me a line.

British Army Military Book of the Year 2020. The British Army Military Book of the Year 2019 (#BAMBY19) was won earlier this month by Dr. Jonathan Boff. Jonathan’s incredible book, his second shortlisted book for the Prize, is ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front’ and we hope he will be able to both collect his prize and be presented with a new trophy provided by the AGC(ETS)on Tuesday, 3rd December 2019. We will start the hunt for the 2020 Prize (#BAMBY20) at the end of November 2019 with an events page on the British Army website which will give details of the competition rules, how to become a judge, and how to nominate books for the long list. The Longlist will be announced at the end of January 2020 and the Judges and Shortlist will be announced at the beginning of March 2020. Judging will be complete by September 2020 and the winner announced in October 2020. I will aim to have the Prize presented in the first week in December 2020.

Other Activities. As you all may know, I like to keep busy. The following is not exhaustive but I’m hoping these might give me the best opportunity to meet you all. At the end of this month on Wednesday 30th October 2019, I will be delivering a talk at Leuchars in Fife for the Scottish PME Network on the subject of Adaptability. It is always an incredible honour to be asked to speak by any organisation, but I’d highlight here the Tonbridge War Talks initiative, at which I will speak on Thursday 14th November 2019 on the subject of the reputation of the British Army in North West Europe in 1944-45, ‘The Voice of Veteran as Researcher Conference organised by the Defence Research Network and King’s College, London on 19th November 2019, the Military Social Media Conference in London on 20th and 21st of November, and the Modern Conflict Research Symposium at Manchester in January 2020.

When I’m not speaking or writing, I enjoy Battlefield Studies and I’m hoping to be guiding tours to the Western Front of the First World War in November 2019 and March 2020, and Croatia, South Africa, France and Israel in 2020. In terms of writing, I’m hoping to submit a number of articles to websites and journals in the US, UK, and Australia, but the priority must be with the PhD which still remains temptingly out of reach. Before I go I’d like to let you know I’ve also got projects developing all over the Army and wider Defence, I’ll let you have further details as the proposals firm up. Its a busy life but I like it that way.

Please come along to one of my War Talks or volunteer to help with #BAMBY20 its all part of building the professional military education network. I am particularly keen to get younger and more junior personnel involved because, after all, the future is theirs is it not?

I hope you have a great weekend, back to doctrine, concepts and controversy next week!

All the very best,

Barney

 

An Empowered Army: Smoke and Mirrors?

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Many of you will be familiar with the ‘War Talks’ series which I founded a little over two years ago. On Thursday night, our 45th speaker, Professor Patrick Porter of the University of Birmingham, spoke on the subject of the British campaign in Iraq 2003-11. The Talks are always insightful, but Pat’s was packed with pithy observations about the nature of British government, strategy, and democracy. An unreformed realist, it was Pat’s observation on the nature of democracy which resonated most with me. There was, at the commencement of the Millennium, a belief on both sides of the Atlantic that democracy was an inherently pacific force, the mere application of which could transform even the most undeveloped nations into paragons of liberal virtue. The truth, proven by the failure of military adventures in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, was that the creation of ‘Switzerland in the Sand’ was a dangerous fallacy.

Democracy is not a peaceful force, we need look no further than Eugene Delacroix’s painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’, to realise that Marianne, the bare-breasted symbol of French political freedom, is a violent, populist fighter of a nature far removed from modern, mature democracy. When tyranny is removed, the resultant effect is unlikely to be benign selfies with dogs at a peaceful polling stations, rather history has shown that the flowering of democracy is often accompanied by violence, anarchy, and confusion. Whilst this observation is in no way a criticism of democracy, it is a warning that the forces released by liberalisation are powerful, destructive and potentially revolutionary. Populism and the transfer of power, whether in classical Greece, eighteenth century France, or in an organisation like the modern British Army, can unleash forces which cannot be easily predicted or controlled.

Recently, a trend has developed in the British Army devolving power to the shop floor. Ordinarily such liberalisation would be seen as a positive development, particularly when devolution allows for greater operational adaptability, but the latest incarnation has witnessed the growth of ’empowerment’, a somewhat naïve experiment releasing populist forces into military decision-making and allowing the inexperienced and the ignorant to turn raw opinion into putative ‘truth’. In a post-truth world, even the Army, it seems, has become allergic to expertise. Of course, expertise does not give a monopoly on good ideas, but opinion must be, at the very least, informed. Failure to understand that an organisation is made up of a complex interconnected network of processes and culture, risks swapping the tyranny of the ‘ancien regime’ for the tyranny of populism.

Of course, the recent liberalisation has the backing of those in High Command and has as much to do with the Army’s recruiting and retention woes as a taste for enlightened management. It is notable, for example, that many of the solutions identified in empowerment exercises are answers to relatively simple questions, which have been understood and in the gift of the chain of command for many years. It is also notable that the solutions have been widely advertised both internally and externally. The message is clear: the Army is both listening and enlightened, a great place to work. While that is of course true, unleashing the power of democracy is a dangerous game, once the box is open it will prove difficult to replace the lid. The Army may have been successful in diverting, concentrating, and corralling the restless intellectual power of soldiers in the relatively safe pseudo-science of leadership, but this latest endeavour is powered by forces beyond control.

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Empowerment is not the problem, it is, as already mentioned both here and in earlier blogs, an important part of adaptability, but it must be preceded by education, experience, and understanding if it is to be effective. Von Seeckt’s Reichswehr is a good example in this respect: a long period of non-commissioned service was required before commissioning, but once this was achieved debate, conceptual diversity and disagreement was encouraged. This should be the basis of our empowerment: an educated and experienced professional organisation, experimenting and engaging with the support of those in command in military matters. Affecting internal and domestic change is a matter for those in command, not for the commanded. We should empower for military success, not to create an illusion of accountability and democracy.

In short, there is a role for ’empowerment’ and we should perhaps suspend the cynicism built-up over many years of service in its support; but it would perhaps be better expressed through a fresh flowering of ‘auftragstaktik’ leading to conceptual development, than in the pursuit of improved retention and external optics. We need an empowered army; one that is adaptable, agile, and flexible, not one which spends its time in introspection and faux debate.

Thank you for listening, please join the debate, this article has been deliberately polemical to encourage discussion.

All the best,

Barney

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Reinforcing Defeat in a Time of Change.

 

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Seventy-five years ago last month, the 4th Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment crossed the Lower Rhine at Oosterbeek in Holland to reinforce the remnants of the 1st British Airborne Division. The Division itself had been reduced to little more than a brigade in strength and was surrounded on three sides by two German SS Panzer Divisions. The attempted reinforcement, like the attempt to ferry across the 1st (Polish) Independent Parachute Brigade a day or so before, was an exercise in futility. The aphorism, ‘Never Reinforce Defeat’, seems to have been made for those attempts at Arnhem. Equally, it might have been an observation made at DSEI in London; senior military figures placing their hope on advanced technology and trusting in government promises of new frigates, stealth aircraft, and armoured vehicles designed, like so much hardware before it, for the war we’d like to fight, rather than the wars we may have to fight in the future.

In mitigation, it is not that the West’s paradigm of warfare, manoeuvrism built upon precision, is either impotent or redundant, on the contrary, in many ways it is an exquisite expression of lethality and peerless in effect; but while it might be right for the modern battlefield, it is not right for right now. It is becoming increasingly apparent that politicians are unwilling to commit to the application of direct military force, particularly on land, that aversion is evidenced by a reticence to spend money on defence when faced with competing policy priorities and strategic choices.  If we take the United Kingdom as an example, it is noticeable that politicians are unmoved by the demands of their militaries for new equipment or indeed expressions of the utility of land forces at all. As a result, the British Army is facing an existential crisis in which it is constantly trying to prove its relevance to its political masters. Concepts such as using training as a proxy for warfare, surrogate warfare, and even the developing Army Operating Concept are designed to demonstrate that the Army remains an important element of defence and security.

Defence Secretary sets sights on next century of British air power as major fighter jet milestones reached

Fundamentally, however, although threatened by an militarily agnostic political class, perhaps the main threat to an effective military comes from attempts to remain relevant within the current paradigm, rather than exploring the opportunities inherent in the changing character of warfare.  Last week at the British Army’s conference on the future of NATO it was highlighted that Modernisation and Readiness are the Organisation’s priorities in facing a return to a multipolar world. On the face of it this might seem a reasonable position, to face a ‘resurgent Russia’ and the growth of China as a global force by doubling down on the West’s perceived advantages, but ‘Modernisation’ merely reinforces the current paradigm of warfare and ‘Readiness’ makes the West ready for the conventional attack it fully expects, but which recent experience teaches us is unlikely. Both positions are severely flawed: first, because as previously stated, modernisation does not involve transforming in reaction to observed change, but rather by pouring new wine into old bottles. Secondly, as Meir Finkel points out in his book, ‘On Flexibility’, recent observation of the development of warfare suggests that, increasingly, wars begin with either a technological or doctrinal shock against which no amount of intelligence-based preparation can be effective. Modernisation and Readiness, whilst seemingly logical are, for different reasons, a fool’s errand.

So if politicians are averse to military spending because they cannot see the utility of armed force and military leaders are so wedded to the current paradigm that they cannot, or will not, see the signs of the changing character of warfare, what hope is there for the future of defence, and particularly ground forces? Will they become little more than a gendarmerie as budget cuts slowly remove their lethality? Will they be forced to  concentrate on providing training and special forces to friendly states in unstable regions? Is there a way to change the way in which Western forces are configured, without losing the lethality of precision-enabled combined arms warfare? The answer is, of course, yes, but to achieve it will take money and considerable effort, both physical and intellectual. The key is a combination of the maintenance of conventional manoeuvrist forces, the introduction of an information manoeuvre capability, and a cultural concentration on adaptability. The former two will deliver a force which can provide an answer to pre-existing conventional and hybrid threats while the latter enhances the ability to identify patterns of change and find solutions. The only restraint is finance, but it is a mighty big restraint.

NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Estonia take part in Exercise Fruious Hawk 2019, a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise.

While transforming the force to provide both kinetic and virtual effect is being tested and practised by the US Army with its concept of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), and investigated by the British Army through its nascent Army Operating Concept (AOC), we are almost wholly without an effective understanding of the concept of adaptability. Adaptability is a human factor which can be both enabled and exploited. It is enabled by experience, encouragement, and empowerment and exploited by experimentation, engagement, and encouragement and is probably worthy of a blog of its own. It is important to differentiate adaptability from flexibility. Flexibility is the capacity of an organisation to change in reaction to internal and external stimuli, for those of us who work within Western militaries there can be little doubt that our organisations are hopelessly inflexible, in peacetime at least. If one considers that contracts and personnel costs account for the vast majority of defence expenditure, and are essentially fixed costs, and that the organisations and cultures they serve are often hundreds of years old and glacial in their capacity yo evolve, perhaps organisational inflexibility is inevitable. Only adaptable people will be able to react to the changing character of warfare, they are after all any military’s greatest asset.

I hope you all have a great weekend and look forward to reading your comments on this blog here and on the UK’s Defence Connect internal communications net.

All the best,

Barney