Goodbye to All That.

Today is my last day as the Regimental Administrative Warrant Officer of the First Battalion, Scots Guards.  I arrived at the Unit in Catterick Garrison in June 2015, and I leave the Battalion, a little over three years later, in Aldershot.  This job will, in all probability, be the pinnacle of my career as a Military Administrator, so I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a little advice to those who follow me, and indeed to the twenty soldiers of my Detachment whose careers have substantially more life left in them than my old thing.  I am the oldest soldier in the Battalion, and have almost twenty-four years experience in both the Territorial and Regular Armies, with twelve years service in the Sergeants’ Mess.

My first piece of advice is to Empower your junior soldiers.  Be satisfied where possible with setting intent and allowing your Sergeants and Corporals to achieve the desired objective; sitting on your hands will be uncomfortable, but it will allow your subordinates to grow.  Don’t insist on uniformity, allow and encourage creativity and accept that what matters is the result, not the process of achieving it.  Protect your subordinates; this is what is meant by ‘looking after your troops’, not merely a parochial paternalism, but a protective hand encouraging professional development and initiative.  In doing so, we create the conditions where our JNCOs can thrive and, moreover, where we have time and space to deliver greater effect as leaders and managers.

Train for the Known, Educate for the Unknown.  Much like learning to drive, the course at the beginning is only the start of the story, it takes years to build up both the technical competence required to be a good driver, and the instinctive knowledge to master your art.  Encourage your soldiers to exploit training opportunities, but also ensure they have the basic skills in numeracy, literacy, and information technology  to carry out their duties: this is not the level currently required for promotion, it is much higher.  Similarly, encourage your soldiers to develop critical-thinking skills and gain further and higher education qualifications, this will allow them to operate in the white space where the training doesn’t cover the lived experience.  Provide your troops with professional military education, CLM is not the be all and end all, it is the beginning.  Allow day release, encourage learning; it will hurt, but you will see rapid results.

Your troops may be Combat Service Support or even Command Support specialists, but Experience both at trade and as a fighting soldier is critical.  We must strive to deploy our soldiers on exercise and operations as often as possible, and to allow them to operate both within their experience level and well outside their comfort zone.  All personnel need to have the wherewithal to operate at least two ranks up.  When I deployed to Iraq in 2003 I did so as a substantive LCpl, acting Cpl, and local Sgt, it was the most valuable experience of my military career and allowed me to be comfortable in organising and deploying to exercise and operations for years to come.  Some people will resent being deployed, after all not everyone joined the Army to go to war, unfortunately this is not, and cannot be allowed to be, a choice.  A soldier without operational or exercise experience is as much use as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition.

Experiment often using the training, education, and experience gained as a handrail.  Today’s solution will not survive contact in the modern Army’s current culture of continuous adaptation.  In my current Unit, we have experimented with centralised administration, a centralised iHub, and latterly an enhanced iHub concept; each adaptation has been a success but has pointed the way to greater improvement.  Don’t forget, we are improving to give our commanders and soldiers an edge, greater readiness, something which will have an effect on their preparedness for the battlefield.  Having experimented, it is vital that we Engage.  By engagement, I do not just mean internally, although this is vital, we must engage with those in similar positions outside the Unit struggling with the same problems; tell your story externally and be prepared to share, we are one Army not a personal fiefdom, knowledge must be spread, embedded and exploited to be of any use.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must act to Endorse our actions.  What do I mean by this? Quite simply we must protect those we have empowered, providing top cover for mistakes while giving credit for success, we must ensure that we reap the benefits of education, experience and experimentation and absorb the lessons within Unit SOPs and wider doctrine, and perhaps most important we must encourage innovation and adaptation.  The end result of this? Trusted, adaptable, and curious soldiers, able to think for themselves and deliver on their own terms, creating competitive advantage by out-thinking the enemy.  I leave to fight a desk in Whitehall from September, cementing my career as a Chairborne Warrior.

Many thanks, have a good weekend,

Barney

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Wear Ear Plugs in the Echo Chamber!

The growth of social media is, for most of us, probably the defining cultural experience of the last decade; that we prefer our social media to be an ‘echo chamber’ of our own world view should be no surprise, after all we have chosen our newspapers according to political inclination for years.  Unsurprisingly to many of you, I read the Daily Telegraph, Spectator, and Economist; I am therefore a Conservative, a Brexiteer, and an Old Curmudgeon.  I am aware, however, that life in an echo chamber, while self-affirmatory, can lead us down rabbit holes in our souls, to more radical warrens and chambers than would be the case if we were more objective and diverse in our choices.  I don’t suppose I’m entirely alone in this, and far be it for me to be sanctimonious about diversity of opinion, but I have friends and family from across the opinion spectrum; I follow, and am followed by, Remainers, Communists, Zionists, Unionists, and even the odd Scottish Nationalist.  That diversity of opinion helps create a perspective where Trump is not always wrong, May is not always right, and Nicola Sturgeon is little Jimmy Krankie.  In short, collecting the thoughts of the many, gives balance and informed opinion.

This week, I was fortunate to attend the RAF’s Air Power Conference 2018, ostensibly to collect the Salmond Prize from the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier.  The Conference was a wonderful event, in a prestigious venue, organised with complete precision by the RAF and followed by a wonderful champagne reception sponsored by various defence contractors.  I met several very senior Air Officers, many middle-ranking Officers, a handful of Airmen, and a smattering of engaging civilians particularly a Twitter friend, Mr Alan Jackson, with whom I spent a good deal of time chatting, and sharing thoughts and ideas.  As the only serving soldier at the Conference on the first day, CDS popped-in on day two, I was made to feel thoroughly welcome but I was appalled to discover that, had I wished to enjoy the two-day Conference at cost, even as a serviceman, I would have had to pay almost £700 for the privilege! This is by no means unusual, top tickets to the two-day RUSI Land Warfare Conference were £900, and the RUSI First Sea Lord’s one-day Sea Power Conference came in at £850.  Whilst I accept that each conference had subsidised ticketing for serving personnel, that the target audience is diverse, including representatives of the cash-rich international defence industry, and that swanky comes at a price, I must say the costs are so high as to exclude many with much to add.  The price tag thus creates an echo chamber where the same people engage year on year, feeding-in ideas formulated against a background of the same biases, creating policies which may or may not be relevant, while the starving masses of Other Ranks, academics, and laymen look on, holding out their bowl like Oliver asking for more!

Swanky costs. I understand that, I’m sitting in my lounge this morning whilst a dizzying array of military and commercial aircraft burn thousands of pounds in aviation fuel whilst practicing for the Farnborough Air Show.  However, the role of a defence conference should not be to crown a king or to admire the Emperor’s new clothes, rather it should  bring together expertise and diverse views, create debate, and ultimately lead to a more relevant and capable joint force.  I fear that as currently constituted, the three Service conferences are almost propaganda; perhaps there should be a single Joint Service Conference where the problems affecting Defence can be discussed in the round, to create more rounded and effective solutions. If we live in a parochial echo chamber where Jean Claude Juncker is always drunk, Boris is always eyeing up the Prime Minister’s chair, and Theresa May is well, just Theresa May, we end up with Nicola Sturgeon; no one deserves that, not even Donald Trump.

Many thanks and have a lovely weekend.

Barney

 

Beware Exceptionalism!!

In my last Blog, I mentioned that I was very much looking forward to guiding a mixed party of students from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States, France, and Germany around the First World War battlefields of the Somme valley.  The trip, organised by Mr Simon Bendry, the Programme Director of the British Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, will coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Amiens next month; in addition, I will be joined by two fabulous guides, and personal friends, Mr Glenn Hearndon and Mr Allan Wood.  I have worked with the Programme in various roles over the last four years, and feel privileged to have been in a position to tell children, and teachers, about the real experience of soldiers on the Western Front, rather than the mythology of mud, blood, and endless poetry.

Until 2014, I had never visited the Somme.  I had read about it years before in School, both in English Literature and History, heard stories from my late grandmother of her father’s experiences in the infantry in the latter stages of the Battle, and been an avid fan of ‘Blackadder’.  In the main, I found that my experience largely mirrored that of the teachers, albeit the older teachers, but that the students were to an even greater degree innocent of the experiences of veterans.  The experience of my first trip encouraged me to learn more and I found myself increasingly turning towards the First World War in my Master’s and genealogical studies.  Since then I have read avidly the work of writers like Jonathan Boff, Aimee Fox, Nick Lloyd, Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman and uncovered over a dozen forgotten relatives who fought in the First World War, many of whom fought on the Somme, and six who joined the almost one million Glorious Dead.

My greatest, if not the only, frustration throughout the four years of the centenary has been the way the First World War has been used by governments to further nationalistic mythology, encourage birth of a nation bullshit, and twist history to support current government policy.  The truth of the matter is that the French bore the overwhelming majority of the Allied burden on the Western Front, the Royal Navy starved the German nation into submission over four years, the majority of casualties in Newfoundland Park on the 1st July 1916 were British, Canada had nothing to do with Newfoundland until 1949, the Australians at Gallipoli were in large part first generation British immigrants (including my relative Pte James Carr of 2nd Bn AIF killed at the Battle of Lone Pine in August 1915) and were heavily outnumbered as contributors by both the British and French contingents, at Le Hamel on 4th July 1918, the Australian infantry were heavily supported by French artillery, British aviation, armour, and planning, and American attachments.  Monash was a great general but his miraculous 93 minutes was not his personal victory, or indeed the victory of Australia.  Most battles on the Western Front were a coalition effort, no one had a monopoly on stupidity or genius, and every nation contributed to the operational success which would lead to the victories of the Hundred Days.

So far I’ve vented my spleen about the way in which governments have sought to create a mythology about the past in order to further a false mythology.  The British are not immune from this sort of thing: in the Spring of 2016, David Cameron and President Hollande used the backdrop of the CWGC cemetery at Pozieres to convince the British people of the folly of Brexit and 2015’s Remembrance theme was set as the contribution of the Indian Army.  The Indian Army contributed 1.7 million men to the British Indian Army in the First World War out of an available population of around 255 million ( 0.6% of the population) and suffered around 74,000 dead in all theatres.  In comparison, my county regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, suffered over 12,000 dead throughout the War.  My point in highlighting the ways in which governments have used the War to further current policies, is not to denigrate the contribution of any nation, but rather to highlight how important it is that we remember the War as an international and joint effort, without the nationalism.

When I take my groups around the Somme in August, and indeed thereafter, I will tell them of the heroism of their nation’s soldiers but I will remind them that what they think of as their nation is a complicated thing, that its efforts were as part of a coalition, that thoughts of exceptionalism are misplaced, and that they should beware the policies of their governments whose ‘remembrance’ is often little more than an excuse for social engineering… your mind is your own, use it!!

I apologise for the rant, and hope you have a lovely week wherever you are!

Best wishes,

Barney

 

 

 

 

A Game of Two Halves…

Many apologies for anyone stumbling on this Blog in the hope that I had anything profound to say about England’s stellar progress in the FIFA World Cup.  It is, in fact, one of two blogs I intend to publish this week, the first will look back at the first half of 2018 and look forward to achievements yet to come, the second will take a controversial look at the use of historical sites to mythologise and socially engineer.  For those unimpressed by either football shenanigans or an account of this pilgrim’s progress, I must disappoint you, the controversy will have to wait until the weekend.  Regular readers will recall that in January 2018 I set myself some fairly ambitious targets for the year, what follows is my progress to date.

My objective in 2018 was to encourage and advocate soldier education as a key component of an adaptable Army.  The main vehicle for this has been the ‘War Talks‘ series, since January we have delivered ten talks at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot on such diverse topics as encountering children in war zones, organisational learning in the First World War, and the leadership of Montgomery of Alamein between the Wars.  We continue to draw a small but dedicated audience, but I have recognised that we must adapt and so it is my intention to record and perhaps video future talks for a wider web-based audience.  This decision coincides with the temporary closure of the Prince Consort’s Library for vital renovation work, I have been fortunate to find a new home for the Talks at the Aldershot Military Museum which provides a central location, good parking, and a historical backdrop to the events.  The next Talk, our nineteenth in the series, will take place on Tuesday, 17th July 2018, when Professor Theo Farrell will speak about his #BAMBY18 shortlisted book, ‘Unwinnable: The British in Afghanistan 2001-2014‘.  In addition to our talks at Aldershot, I am organising a series of ‘War Talks on the Road‘ in conjunction with other organisations at historic locations such as Tonbridge School in Kent and HMS Victory in Portsmouth.

A spin-off of the ‘War Talks’ series has been the privilege of running the British Army Military Book of the Year Competition 2018 #BAMBY18.  Of the six shortlisted books announced in the Spring, four authors have spoken on the subject of their books in the last year.  The judges, Reservists and Regulars, will provide their judgements in September 2018, with the winner announced shortly thereafter.  It is likely that the prize-giving will take place in January 2019, at which point I will return the running of the Prize to the Army Library Information Service.  Whilst these two initiatives have taken up much of my time, I also organised and ran the HQ Regional Command Op REFLECT Study Day in March 2018, and provided academic support to the AGC Educational and Training Services (South) battlefield study, Ex CROMWELL SCHOLAR, as well as command team support to four of the Department of Education’s School Children’s Battlefield Tours.  Going forward, I am privileged to be guiding a flagship multinational tour to coincide with the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, conducting groups of school children from the UK, Australia, Canada, the United States, France, and Germany around the Somme battlefields of 1916-18.  Finally, as far as these trips are concerned I will be guiding a number of Army Cadet Force groups around the Western Front in October 2018.

In preparation for my Fellowship at RUSI commencing in September 2018, I have also begun to speak to units and formations on the subject of Adaptability.  In June 2018, I spoke to 104 Logistic Brigade at South Cerney and tomorrow evening I will deliver a talk to 3 Regt RLC at Abingdon.  Perhaps the most fortunate thing that has happened to me this year is being given the opportunity to write a Joint Concept Note on Adaptability for the Developments Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) at Shrivenham.  The project is due to come to fruition in November 2018.  So what are my priorities for the rest of the year?  Well more of the same, an article or two, some high quality research at RUSI, concentration on my academic career, and perhaps an application for a Commission (dependent on a return to full fitness).  I should perhaps add that next week I will be awarded the RAF’s Salmond Prize 2018 from the Chief of the Air Staff, this is an incredible honour which was both a surprise and humbling.

I promise a much more interesting Blog this weekend, I will warn you that it may not compete with either the World Cup Quarter Final or Love Island, whichever is your poison.

Best wishes,

Barney        

War Talks (at the Museum).

Just over a year ago I founded the Defence Studies Talk Series.  A few weeks later, that mouthful became the War Talks at the PCL Talk Series, a year later and I’m changing the title to War Talks.  This change of nomenclature is not merely a result of the renowned short attention span of its owner, rather it is driven by some fundamental changes to the Series.  When I started the Talk Series in April 2017 I had two objectives: First, to provide an opportunity for informal professional military education to all ranks of the armed forces and civil service and secondly, to promote the historic Prince Consort’s Library.  Since July 2017, the Talk Series has delivered nearly twenty talks on a wide range of topics to an audience of several hundred.  In addition, we have run the HQ Regional Command Op REFLECT Study day 2018 and the British Army Military Book of the Year 2018 (#BAMBY18).

Following our last Talk given by Dr Nick Lloyd earlier this month, Prince Consort’s Library closed for essential renovation work, it will remain closed until January 2019.  This left the Talk Series homeless, and led to a flurry of e-mails from supporters offering guidance on the way forward; overwhelmingly it was felt that the Talks should remain in Aldershot but with suggestions that the talks should also go ‘On the Road’ and /or be recorded.  In terms of a new Aldershot home, I was offered the church halls of the three Army Churches, the lecture theatre of a new Army Reserve centre, and several facilities ‘behind the wire’.  In the end I am pleased to announce that following a wide-ranging conversation with Kirsty Hoyle, the new Community Manager of the Aldershot Military Museum, I have decided to make it my home.  The Museum has excellent parking, a historic conference facility, and is in the heart of the Aldershot community; a little gem, I hope the Series can help to support the work of Kirsty and her volunteer staff.

The War Talks Series will begin with a flourish on Tuesday, 17th July 2018 when Professor Theo Farrell will deliver a Talk on his BAMBY18 shortlisted book, ‘Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001-2014.’  The Museum will be open before the Talk and I would encourage audience members to view the fascinating collections for which Kirsty is responsible.  The Talk will commence at 1900 hrs, refreshments will be available at reasonable cost, and there will be plenty of time for questions and debate afterwards.  I am hoping to arrange for the recording of the Talk and will be ably assisted by Kirsty in terms of marketing.  In many ways, the Aldershot Military Museum is the perfect partner to the War Talks and we have a number of exciting ideas for future collaboration.  I will give you all more information as the plans firm up towards the end of 2018.

Another suggestion made was to take the Series ‘on the Road’.  I have taken up this challenge and have arranged a talk in conjunction with the Tonbridge FWW Talks initiative at Tonbridge School on Wednesday, 7th November 2018.  Our speaker, Maj General (Ret’d) Mungo Melvin CB OBE will speak on the subject of his latest book, ‘Sevastopol’s Wars: Crimea from Potemkin to Putin’.  Clearly, there is a wide gap between Prof Farrell’s talk in July and Maj Gen Melvin’s talk in November, I am working hard to fill the gap with out usual high quality talks and can announce a fabulous ‘on the Road’ venue for which I hope to find a speaker on naval warfare.  With the assistance of Commander Kay Hallsworth, the War Talks Series will deliver a Talk aboard the Navy’s flagship, HMS Victory, in the historic dockyard in Portsmouth in the Autumn.  If any readers have subjects they wish to see discussed please let me know, the only guideline  is that the subjects requested are in the areas of strategy and war studies.

I’m guiding an Army Staff Ride by the AGC(ETS) (South) in Hampshire next week, I’ll be sure to give you the inside track when I get back, the weather is going to be beautiful, a change is as good as a rest as they say!!

All the best,

Barney

Reward.

The aim of the review of the Honours system by John Major’s government in 1992 was devised to ensure that the UK honours system was based on the principle of reward based purely on merit.  Over time, the system reformed by that government has proven to be no less controversial than the system it replaced, albeit the controversy usually involves the perceived misapplication of political honours.  Allegations of corruption in the application of political honours are as old as time and not the concern of this Blog, rather I’m interested in the problems created by a ‘classless’ honours system for the UK military.

One of the major outcomes of the 1992 review was to ensure that the tiers of award available to Officers and Soldiers should be equalised, the review saw the abolition of awards like the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal, and the British Empire Medal, and the extension to other ranks of the previously Officer-only equivalents like the Military Cross and MBE.  Whilst theoretically fair, in practice, putting Officers and Other Ranks into the same pot has extended the number of non-operational honours available to Officers at the cost of those available to soldiers.  In this week’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Other Ranks representing almost 85% of the Army’s manpower were awarded less than 30% of the honours to which they are eligible.  Almost as if to offset this, it is noticeable that the award of the Meritorious Service Medal has been granted a level of importance far in excess of that which was originally envisioned, and there has been a proliferation of local awards such as challenge coins, commendations and the like to reward Other Ranks, particularly junior ranks.  At the same time, Officers are now awarded the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal, an award which from 1830 until last year was the preserve of soldiers, operating to a somewhat different standard when it comes to ‘good conduct’.  In the round, 25 years after the application of the Major reforms, reward is heavily weighted away from Other Ranks and towards Officers and Warrant Officers.  The award of a certificate or coin does not make up for either the de facto loss of opportunity for a State award, or watching Officers rewarded with the award of the LS & GC under a very different disciplinary standard.

I have been the lucky recipient of coins, commendations, and medals including the LS & GC, and have a number of close friends who have been very deservedly been honoured with state awards including the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, the Military Cross, and the MBE.  Notwithstanding that, the system as currently constituted is broken.  The lower level awards are useful incentives and rewards at a time when retention is perhaps the most significant existential threat Defence faces, however, the unfairness at the heart of the system must be addressed.  I accept it will prove impossible to roll back the inequity of the LS & GC and that lower level non-State awards should remain, but I would encourage the MoD to re-introduce the British Empire Medal (already re-introduced in civil life) for Other Ranks only.  The MBE should also remain open to all in an attempt to deliver the equality and merit-based system envisaged by John Major.  Equality based on access to reward, not necessarily on the reward itself; a pragmatic solution which accepts the status quo and delivers the benefits of reward to retention.

My next Blog will be published at the end of June once I return from two battlefield tours in France, a third in South East England, and the RUSI Land Warfare Conference.  It’ll probably be a review of the first six months of 2018.  Before I go I’d like to thank you all for your good wishes on my award of the RAF’s Salmond Prize 2018, it was a great surprise and honour.

Have a great June, all the best,

Barney

Speaking Truth to Power.

A recurring theme in many of the talks in the ‘War Talks at the PCL’ Talk Series this year has been the link between military failure and an inability to speak truth to power.  Dr Matthew Ford made a case that the effective procurement of small arms by the British Armed forces in the post-war era was a triumph of fashion over efficacy, despite the misgivings of experienced and informed, yet relatively junior, military personnel.  Lt Gen (Ret’d) Sir John Kiszely spoke about the Anglo-French campaign in Norway, 1940; in that case, a charismatic and powerful First Lord of the Admiralty forced through an invasion of northern Norway when senior Officers had very private, but with hindsight accurate misgivings.  Thankfully for Great Britain, Churchill would be largely tamed by Alan Brooke later in the War; even then, truth spoken to power was not always heard.

In my short few years in the British Army, I have been briefed often on change programmes: in 2002, I attended a briefing in Catterick Garrison regarding what was then called JPASS, now JPA; an audience of administrative professionals pointed out several flaws with the programme long before it was complete, but the programme rolled out in 2005 with those flaws intact.  In 2015, I attended a briefing at RAF Brize Norton regarding the MoDNet system, again an audience of information management professionals pointed out that a lack of training, information maturity, and other factors would compromise the System; in 2017 the rollout of the system stalled due, in large part, to the flaws pointed out two years previously.  Finally, last week I attended a briefing on the Future Accommodation Model, it seems the problems identified on the previous briefings remain unreformed, I pray that the coalface experts’ opinions do not come to fruition, but I won’t hold my breath.  The FAM pilot begins in December 2018.

Earlier this month, it was announced that CGS was to become CDS in June 2018.  This news, it was hoped, would ensure Gen Carter’s continued insistence on greater debate and openness in Defence.  Would the rhetoric, however, be matched by action?  My recent research into the Reichsheer of Col Gen Hans von Seeckt, identified the ability of subordinates to critique policy and doctrine as an important enabler of adaptability, moreover, it pointed to listening being key.  Policy could change if backed by evidence and often did.  Unfortunately, in recent weeks several serving bloggers and tweeters with whom I speak have told me that they have had ‘that conversation’ and would either be closing or curtailing their activities at least on current policy.  Over the weekend, perhaps the best of the British defence bloggers, Think Defence, announced his retirement; this and the closure and curtailment of the serving accounts removes much of the informed debate on defence matters on social media.

So why should we be bothered?  What is the loss to Defence? Well without the debate, without the willingness of senior and responsible commanders to listen to the shop floor, we are condemned to make the same mistakes as before, to allow fashion and charisma to guide defence policy rather than experience and knowledge, would be unforgiveable.  Von Seeckt was able to use intellectual openness as an ethos to create an effective Army, other Army’s have similarly benefitted, if we close down debate on policy and doctrine simply because it is uncomfortable for those heavily invested in those policies and doctrines we are lesser for it.  Farewell TD, we may not see your like again!

All the Best,

Barney

 

 

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

Eight years ago I was asked by Tim Ward, the librarian at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot, to become a member of the judging panel for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize.  One of the first shortlisted books I read was Patrick Hennessey’s ‘The Junior Officer’s Reading Club’; entertaining in its own right, my experience was further enhanced because I both lived and worked on the campus at Sandhurst at the time.  Throughout the book, Hennessey is deeply critical of the relevance of his training at RMAS:

We were still being given Sidney Jary to read in our first term…Rather like sending people into Basrah with a copy of Stalingrad, it prepared us for the worst, but I couldn’t help thinking there was more relevant stuff out there.  We knew we weren’t going to be Jary and we didn’t want to be.  We joined the Army to fight the three-block war’

Almost as if the Army command was listening, an evening run in the Academy’s woodland would reveal the construction of a FOB, or at least a Platoon House, though probably not an ’18 Platoon’ house.  At that time, militaries on both sides of the Atlantic had become intoxicated by the writings of pundits like Nagl and Kilcullen (my bookshelves continue to bend under their earnest weight) and were rapidly ditching everything they knew, in pursuit of the new god COIN; combined arms battle was out, ‘Hearts and Minds’, or rather the latest voguish iteration of it, was in.  The Army is a shallow creature of fashion, uncritically loving the shiny, feasting on the zeitgeist, and habitually throwing away the flares when the drainpipes become a la mode.

The tendency to follow fashion is not new.  In 1853, for example, the Victorian explorer and soldier, Sir Richard Burton, wrote a manual of bayonet fighting, ‘A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise’, which influenced the way the British Army trained for the next fifty years.  Burton’s book is a child of gothic romanticism, pleading the importance of training the infantryman for the bayonet duel; the War Studies equivalent of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  A soldier without operational experience, Burton’s argument is critically flawed because, as early as the Peninsular War, it was clear that the bayonet was becoming a purely psychological weapon, against the deployment of which no European enemy would stand.  Nigel Green makes an impressive figure in Zulu…c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre!  Nevertheless, the attraction of two knights facing each other with glinting bayonets on the field of honour proved too attractive to avoid and the infantry was sucked into a Black Hole with its own culture the critical mass.

The problem is common to all militaries of course; in his book ‘A Revolution in Military Adaptation: The US Army in the Iraq War‘, Chad C Serena praises the adaptive changes the US Army adopted in reaction to the Insurgency.  Serena ends with a warning: the adaptations which improved the Army’s ability to fight the ‘three-block war’ were antithetical to its culture of combined arms conventional warfare, effective or not they would not survive a swing of the pendulum towards new, improved, shiny manoeuvrism because conventional warfare was the Army’s cultural home.

Rebalancing the force to be more combat-centric is tantamount to ignoring history and the successful, and necessary, adaptations that occurred in Iraq.  Doing so will ensure that…the Army will again have to undergo considerable adaptation in the conduct of future operations.  The cost in lives and national treasure will be substantial‘.

By May 2016, the pendulum had firmly swung back, the US Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, visiting a US training mission in Tanzania, declared that COIN had gone too far, and that manoeuvrism was the real truth; drop the gourd, follow the sandal!  In fairness, the scrabble to follow the new prophets had begun earlier, and in the UK at least there was some attempt to hold the slippery infant in the tub, but is Integrated Action combined with Manoeuvrism really all we gain from the thirteen years of continuous war against terror?  As we hotly pursue STRIKE, Medium-Weight Capability, FRES or whatever we choose to call it, I think it important to understand that flares will come back, and that the baby is too precious the toss out with the bath water; in an Army dressed in tweed, should we really be chasing polyester?  In short, look at the pretty girl at the water fountain by all means, but rather than buying a big Harley Davidson and riding off into the sunset with her, go home to your significant other, buy him or her a new outfit and a nice holiday (preferably a Battlefield Tour), and always remember divorce is cripplingly expensive!!

Hope you’ve all had a good weekend, I’m off to the cinema (I would say movies, but then I’m not a fashionista).

All the best,

Barney

 

One Year On…

A year ago, I wrote a Blog outlining a new project I was originating at Aldershot.  Back then I called them the Defence Studies Talk Series, one year later they are War Talks at PCL; the concept remains the same, only the name has changed.  In this Blog I want to talk about the rationale behind the Talks, thank those who have helped me, outline the Talks planned for the remainder of the Summer, and let you know about some exciting future plans.

The War Talks at PCL Talk Series was originally devised with twin aims:  firstly, it aimed to provide continuing professional military education for all serving personnel and civil servants, filling a gap where formal military education left off.  Secondly, it aimed to highlight the incredible mid-Victorian Prince Consort’s Library at Aldershot and encourage serving personnel and civil servants to use the Library’s services.  In the last ten months we have reached out to hundreds of people and provided high quality professional development; I am satisfied that we have begun to make some impact, we have attendees regularly travelling from as far afield as Devon, Staffordshire, and Leicestershire and speakers travelling from the United States and in July, from Australia.

Although this is a project without either a budget, or sophisticated equipment, and organised and run in entirety by one man, I am pleased with the results.  I am assisted in producing the Talks primarily by the forbearance of my bosses at 1st Bn Scots Guards, I am under no illusions that they could turn it off with no notice, and I am thankful to them for allowing me to continue.  Additionally, the staff at PCL and within ALIS have been supportive, helping to set up and put away, alongside my own soldiers from the SPS Detachment at 1 SG.  My biggest thank you, however, must go out to the academics and soldiers who have spoken at my Talks and who have provided enormous food for thought.  It must be said that without the speakers, library staff. and my Unit these talks would not happen.

The outline for the rest of the Summer is shaping-up nicely.  Our next Talk will be by Dr David Morgan-Owen on Wednesday 23 May 18 speaking on the subject of ‘War as it might have been: British Sea Power and the First World War‘.  This is a substantial departure for the Series and reflects my intent to move away from a purely Land Warfare bias, I hope to see some Matelots in Aldershot, eager to avenge last week’s Rugby result.  I’m hoping to re-schedule Maj Gen Craig Lawrence’s talk on ‘Getting Strategy Right (Enough)‘ to the evening of Tuesday 5 June 18; this is much anticipated, but Craig is a busy man and more often than not he is outside the UK.  I have booked Dr Nick Lloyd, the author of one of the BAMBY18 books, ‘Passchendaele: A New History‘ on Tuesday 12 June 18; the BAMBY is a really special award, judged by practitioners, I am very happy to be running it this year.  Finally, Prof Theo Farrell will be speaking on his BAMBY shortlisted book, ‘Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001 – 14‘ in Aldershot on Tuesday 17 July 18.

As many of you will know, the Prince Consort’s Library will close for renovations, I will therefore be looking for alternative premises.  Many of you have been generous with your offers of assistance but I have decided that the closure offers an incredible opportunity to spread the word, if not about PCL then certainly about the need to provide high-quality professional military education outside of the formal career path.  In short, I intend to take ‘War Talks on the Road‘!!  I intend to arrange Talks in London, Portsmouth, Shrivenham, Tidworth and Camberley before Christmas 18 and to Colchester, Stafford and York in 2019.  This will take considerable organisation and any help readers can offer will be gratefully received; I am a one man band and pursuing a Fellowship at RUSI, working for DCDC, producing the Talks, the BAMBY, numerous battlefield studies, and several formation study days can be a difficult juggling act.  Finally, for those who want to see the Talks recorded, I am also aiming to organise that before I start at RUSI in September.

Many thanks for all your help and support thus far,

Barney

 

Mission Command in Barracks.

Almost two years ago, I started my MA dissertation in Military History at the University of Birmingham, the ability to critically analyse sources was perhaps the most important skill I picked up from the excellent academic staff who taught me, I hope I did them justice in my analysis of primary sources relating to ‘Aerial Re-Supply in the First World War 1916-18’.  This week, as regular readers of this Blog may know, I attended an Armed Forces University Short Course at Exeter on ‘Strategic Communications in an era of Persistent Conflict’; the healthy scepticism imbued by Drs Boff, Whittingham, and Pugh was, I must admit, on high alert!  Strategic Communications is a relatively new discipline for Defence, with much of it imported from Madison Avenue; given Defence’s proclivity for the novel and fashionable, and having read ADP ‘Land Operations’ 2017 with its concentration on ‘Integrated Action’, it would be fair to say I required some convincing.  The course was delivered by a former Royal Naval officer who had wide-ranging experience and considerable expertise in the area; whilst the theory seemed compelling, the outputs seemed very variable, what may work in one context, may not work in another.  Strategic Communications is very definitely an art, rather than a science.

I have also been researching military adaptability for my Joint Concept Note for the MoD’s Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre at Shrivenham.  I wrote in my last Blog that we had a good deal to learn from the reforms of Colonel General Hans von Seeckt, the German Chief of Staff from 1921-27.  I was reminded on Twitter by the aforementioned Dr Jonathan Boff ,that there are considerable differences between the Reichsheer of the 1920s and the British Army of 2018; what may work in one context, may not in another.  One of the best books I have read this week was Eitan Shamir’s ‘Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the US, British, and Israeli Armies’, in it Shamir examines the problems experienced by all three militaries in taking the organisational culture of the German Army, extant from the time of Scharnhorst until the fall of Berlin in 1945, and implanting it within their own cultures.  By far the most successful of the three has been the British Army, although less so latterly as they become more interoperable with the Americans and pick up bad planning habits!

The point that not every solution works in every context is well founded, however, the principle of Mission Command, when adapted to British military culture, seems both effective and efficient.  It cannot, however, be simply superimposed on the prevalent culture, Mission Command requires high levels of expensive professional military education at all levels, a high degree of risk tolerance from commanders, good communication and trust.  Like adaptability, it is not a cheap option, it is not a way of ‘doing more with less’, to do it properly is expensive in financial and cultural terms, but is critical to future success in war on the battlefield and amongst the people.  Mission Command in Barracks is not a straightforward proposition, von Seeckt did not have to deal with a litigious public, a risk averse government, or a constant demand for quantitative evidence from Higher Formations.  Trust is a rare commodity in twenty-first century Britain.

What could improve trust and encourage commanders to risk their reputations and careers?  The answer is professional military education, both formal and informal; only by educating our subordinates to a level where we trust their capacity and capabilities can we take the calculated risks inherent in Mission Command.  We are, then, both the problem and the solution, we must trust and educate if we are to reap the benefits of doing things smarter.  To that end, the peerless Dr Jonathan Boff will be speaking in the next in the War Talks at PCL Talk Series, the subject is his excellent new book, ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front’. Jonathan will speak from 1800 hrs on Tuesday 8th May 2018. See you there!

Best wishes,

Barney