Specialised Infantry: A solution, or the solution?

OIP

January has been a busy month. Leave over, I embarked on trips to Northern Ireland and Czechia to deliver Talks to the First Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) and the Permanent Military Experts Panel of FINABEL, a European military interoperability organisation for whom I spoke in Malta last April. In Belfast, I spoke on the subject of adaptability and in Prague on land warfare in the ‘Grey Zone’. I have also spoken to the Salisbury Air Cadet Squadron about the First World War and battlefield tours of the Western Front, and to Headquarters Land about the Future of Warfare and the Danger of Presentism. The latter Talk needs some refinement in time for its next outing at the Land Warfare Centre in April.

In addition, the seventh series of ‘War Talks‘ was launched a fortnight ago with a marvellous Talk by Dr Klaus Schmider of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst examining the German declaration of war on the USA in December 1941 and continues this Tuesday with a Talk by Melanie Rovery of Janes Intelligence about the future of Unmanned Ground Vehicles. I’m also very close to producing a Long List for the British Army Military Book of the Year 2020  and it is my hope to publish the list on the British Army website shortly. It was, however, not my intention that this Blog should turn into my January summary and so I return to my visit to Ulster.

Last Summer, I bumped into the Commanding Officer of 1 SCOTS at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference in London. I remembered him vividly from my attachment to the First Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers from 2001-04, albeit as a subaltern not the ‘Top Jock’. In conversation, he asked if I would like to speak at a leadership and development conference he was holding in January 2020. I was keen to play a part and so in the second week in January I headed to Palace Barracks, Belfast. The return to my first Unit was deeply poignant, in many ways very little had changed; although amalgamated, the regimental history, of which I have become a very minor part, hangs in the air as well as on the walls. First impressions can be deceiving though, 1 SCOTS is no museum piece.

Along with four other Battalions, 1 SCOTS are designated as part of the Specialised Infantry Group; small, light role units with an establishment of less than 300 soldiers. In theory, they are volunteer units of highly experienced and skilled infanteers, in practice this is a little more nuanced, but what I found was a highly motivated and professional Battalion; well-led, self-disciplined, and dedicated. My talk about adaptability found a ready home. I found empowered soldiers, not in the vanilla sense that it has come to mean in the Field Army, but in its true sense, with Mission Command at it’s very heart. Highly experienced soldiers anxious to engage and experiment under the encouragement of an excellent Commanding Officer. The only element I felt was underdeveloped was education; despite the efforts of the Chain of Command, the culture seemed impervious to the entry of this vital factor. It was heartening to hear the Commander, Specialist Infantry Group make it clear that professional military education was, however, key to future progress within the Group. The group appeared to maximise the possibilities for adaptability within current Army structures, but is it new wine in old bottles?

Specialised Infantry, in its current guise as an organised concept, is a novelty. Clearly, the British Army has been using its soldiers to train proxies for hundreds of years, but this emphasis on training in different theatres is new, reflecting the trend towards ‘Remote Warfare’, as is the development of a wider capability: filling the gap between Special Forces units and All-Arms Battlegroups. The Specialised Infantry is evolving, sucking in expertise from other Corps to create a new role which seems more at home in the 6th Division, Britain’s Information Manoeuvre formation. All is not well, however, in the Kingdom of Denmark; the Specialised Infantry is under-resourced, appears lacking in a clear doctrine, and is in danger of being little more than a presentist fad.

Specialised Infantry is apparently designed, like the Army Operating Concept, to make the Army a relevant operational piece on the government’s chessboard. It allows the Army to deploy a niche capability, at very little cost, to troubled areas of the world; thus keeping the dustier aspects of warfighting, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles etc and the more theoretical information manoeuvre assets safely at home. The accent is on deployment without loss; waving the flag, but keeping the punch for a highly unlikely hot war. The palpable frustration at being permitted to train, equip, and assist but not accompany proxies is understandable, but unlikely to be assuaged. Specialised Infantry is, I fear, destined to be a curiosity of the peculiar times in which we live. Potentially another cause of its eventual demise, alongside military fashion, may be the loss of the British Army’s reputation as a reference force; the old saying goes that one is only as good as one’s last exercise, ours was Afghanistan and that was almost six years ago. In short, we need to keep our reputation fed.

The real potential of the Specialised Infantry lies not, I would argue, in conflict. Rather it lies in its ability to create motivated and adaptable soldiers acting as a cadre for the rest of the Army. Although it is quite natural for the Specialised Infantry to want to retain talent, and I saw huge amounts of it on display at 1 SCOTS, it must, like yeast, be mixed into the dough if leavened bread is the desired result. Let’s not forget, removing the talent from the wider force, leaves the remainder weakened… Stormtroopers were highly effective in the Spring Offensives of 1918, but when the offensives ground to a halt what was left was the ordinary bit! I was enormously privileged to visit 1 SCOTS, they are as I remember them, amongst the best soldiers in the British Army, they deserve to be resourced better, given clear doctrine, and access to far better military education. Is Specialised Infantry the answer, or even part of the answer. to the changing character of warfare? I think it might be, unfortunately I don’t think that was the question it was designed to answer.

Thank you all and have a great week, more writing will follow now that I’m talking less!

Barney