BAMBY21 and all that.

‘Its a barren wasteland out there Darling’, ‘Turn it over Sir’

Twenty years ago, on arrival at my first Regular unit, I remember being told that at the last parade of the day I would be expected to read Routine Orders to the Company. I found this curious and asked why, only to be told that many of the younger soldiers could not read. As a 30 year old man who had benefitted from an excellent education I found this astonishing, but over the next three years disbelief turned to dismay as widespread illiteracy was demonstrated time and again. In Northern Ireland, Canada, and Iraq, I was asked by soldiers to write letters to their friends and family back home, not just because they couldn’t read and write, but because these proud young men felt ashamed of their inability or awkwardness with the written word.

I decided then, that if I could, I would find ways to improve literacy amongst soldiers; as I began to exploit the many educational opportunities the Army provides, but I became aware of the limited nature of the formal educational pathways offered to non-commissioned soldiers. It struck me, indeed it still strikes me, as unjustifiably profligate of the Army to offer so little professional military education to its people. If one looks at the average career length of a soldier, they are likely to complete only a couple of weeks of professional education before discharge, in that same time he will complete far more adventure training and sport. If we compare this to educational investment lavished on commissioned officers, it is clear that the emphasis is not on the 85% of the Army who do not hold the Queen’s commission. How wasteful to neglect one’s most ‘important asset’, moreover, how short-sighted to ignore the talent one employs in preservation of a nineteenth century structure of rank and hierarchy!

So what did I decide to do about it? Well, I was lucky enough to work close enough to Prince Consort’s Library in Aldershot to attend the book talks organised by the Librarian. On his retirement the Book talks ended so I founded the War Talks Programme to replace them, similarly I took over the organisation of the British Army Military Book of the Year (BAMBY) after a fallow year in 2017. I have written much about War Talks and BAMBY and so won’t repeat myself here other than to introduce the 2021 shortlisted books and list the previous winners.

First, we have Brigadier (Ret’d) Ben Barry’s ‘Blood, Metal, and Dust: How Victory Turned to Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq‘ which has proven to be a provocative and analytical masterpiece and was the subject of my recent book review. Brig Barry is the Land Warfare Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and is well placed to write such an important work. Next, we have Professor Saul David’s book, ‘Crucible of Hell: Okinawa: The Last Great Battle of the Second World War‘, Prof David is an old friend of the War Talks programme and last spoke on the subject of his excellent book, ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ about the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. This was subsequently made into a movie. For the second year in succession, James Holland has been listed for the BAMBY. His recent series of books, of which ‘Sicily ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe‘ is our shortlisted option, has been excellent, James is an eminent popular historian notably working with Al Murray on the ‘We have Ways’ podcast and organising the Chalke Valley History Festival, the UK’s largest festival of its type.

Next we have Doctor Robert Johnson’s book, ‘Lawrence of Arabia on War: The Campaign in the Desert 1916-18‘: Dr Johnson is the Director of the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre and is well-placed to look at this important campaign and the lessons we can drawn from it today. Someone who became a household name in the ‘Coinista’ community in the years after 9/11 is Professor David Kilcullen. His book, ‘The Dragons and the Snakes: How the rest Learned to Fight the West‘ is our next choice. Our penultimate book is, ‘War:How Conflict Shaped Us‘, one of the most widely debated works of the year from the legendary Professor Margaret MacMillan of the University of Oxford. Last, but by no means least, is Doctor Julie Wheelwright’s, ‘Sisters in Arms: Female Warriors from Antiquity to the New Millenium‘, a brilliant examination of the often overlooked role of fighting women in the history of war.

The list of previous winners is as follows:

2008 – Patrick Bishop’s ‘3 Para. Afghanistan 2006

2009 – James Fergusson’s ‘A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan

2010 – Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

2011 – Feargal Keane’s ‘Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima

2012 – Roderic Braithwaite’s ‘Afgantsy

2013 – Lord Ashdown’s ‘A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes

2014 – Allan Mallinson’s ‘1914: Fight the Good Fight

2015 – Alex Watson’s ‘Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria Hungary in the First World War

2016 – Eugene Rogan’s ‘The Fall of the Ottomans

2018 – Aimée Fox’s – ‘Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army 1914-18

2019 – Jonathan Boff’s – ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front

2020 – Anthony King’s – ‘Command: The Twenty-First Century General

I hope you enjoy the books and encourage your soldiers to engage with them, lets fill the gap left by formal professional military education!

All the best,

Barney

Curtain Call in Andover.

Into the Sunset.

Tonight I closed the laptop on my last full week at Army Communications. In this first blog of 2021, I’ll take a look back at the last two years, talk about the highs and lows, make some observations, and give a look forward to what I’ll be doing over the next few months.

I arrived at Army Headquarters in the Spring of 2019 fresh from the most enjoyable six months of my Army career, the Army Visiting Fellowship at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). The transition was prolonged by an unofficial extension at the Institute leading up to the Land Warfare Conference in June 2019 which saw me working in London three days a week and in Andover two days a week. I was glad to retain the link, although the travel was a little draining, and even more pleased to be appointed to their Military Science Advisory Board later that year. For those interested in pursuing the Fellowship, I would encourage you to do so, it was a valuable learning experience and opens one up to the latest Defence thinking and some of the most brilliant and talented young thinkers.

The command team at Army Communications were fulsome in their encouragement of my connection with RUSI and allowed me time to teach at the Georgian Defence Academy in Tbilisi, speak to the Chiefs of Staff of the European armies in Malta and Czechia, and travel the UK speaking to Army audiences. I was very lucky to be permitted to indulge my passions and am very grateful to Maj Gen Neil Sexton and his team, particularly Chris MacGregor, the then Assistant Head of Army Communications, who has recently retired from the Army. My post at Army Communications was officially SO3 Media Operations, but I was put to work in the Digital team with responsibility for the Army’s Twitter account.

The Digital team was a small and largely civilian entity whose outputs are enormous compared to the resource applied to them. When I arrived, five full-time personnel were allocated to the task of telling the Army’s story to the World on social media as well as maintaining a large and comprehensive website. I was relatively unused to working with civilians and it took me some time to understand the dynamic to which they work. It is often said that they are inflexible and of less utility than soldiers, while I accept some have lived up to that stereotype, my experience is of hard-working, dedicated people, somewhat under-rewarded and under-appreciated, treading a difficult path with diplomacy and consistency. Inevitably, civil servants are not soldiers, as soon as one understand the difference and adapts to it, it becomes clear what a great asset to Defence they really are every single day. This was cemented by the British Army Challenge Book project, for which I was Project Officer, here civilian expertise really got me through, producing a bestseller, and helping to win a Defence Communications Award along the way.

I have been really lucky to be allowed to run a number of projects at Army Communications, but two sorts of have given me the greatest satisfaction: the freedom to run the British Army’s digital historical content, including for the D-Day 75, Arnhem 75, VE Day 75, and VJ Day 75 events, and since October last year the British Army LinkedIn account. History is my real passion and is the subject in which I find it easiest to immerse myself, but LinkedIn – telling the Army’s innovation and strategic engagement story to a professional audience – has given me the greatest satisfaction. Running Twitter from 2019 – 2020 was a real pleasure, but the LinkedIn project has brought huge audience growth and stratospheric engagement for the Army. Of all the things I will miss about Army Communications, this will be the hardest to leave behind. The enduring lesson learnt has to be that social media, particularly Twitter, is not the real world… it is run by people like me, ‘gobshites’, who tend to believe they are right all the time and who, more worryingly, believe their opinion is held by everyone else. In the long term, nothing that is said on social media really matters, except to those that say it. The value is in telling a story, not in feeding the trolls.

So what is next? Well at the beginning of March, I start at the Land Warfare Centre as SO2 Warfare writing doctrine and concepts, taking me back into the world of military thought in what will be the challenge of my Army career. I will continue to run the War Talks series when released from Covid-19 and the British Army Military Book of the Year and to deliver talks, articles, and battlefield tours to anyone who wants me to help. I am also about to start writing a book…more later in the year I hope. Leave in February will be filled with a pair of articles for publication in the United States and Australia, a book review or two, and some attention to my academic interests, not least the Fellowship I hold at West Point.

So thank you Army Communications, it has been a blast, you follow in a long line of posts beginning with 2620 (Norfolk) Squadron R Aux AF Regiment back in 1992 and are right at the top of my all time favourites list. Army Communications will continue to grow and improve and I will follow its progress with interest and a little itch to return one day.

Have a great weekend all,

Barney

2020: A Retrospective

It is easy to forget that 2020 began with great promise. Both personally and professionally, I expected great things this year; while it has been far from an unmitigated disaster, and I am aware that for many it has assumed that character, it has certainly brought troubles and disappointments along the way.

This time last year, I was looking forward to delivering a series of lectures beginning with the annual FINABEL conference in Prague and continuing with visits to the First Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland in Belfast and the Headquarters of the 4th Infantry Brigade in North Yorkshire. While these were delivered in person, talks to the Yorkshire Officer Training Regiment, 14th Signals Regiment in Wales, and 8 Engineer Brigade in Hampshire took place over the internet, and invitations to speak to the Land Warfare Centre, the Specialised Infantry Group, and the Infantry Training centre fell by the wayside under the weight of Lockdown. Covid-19 did bring an unexpected pleasure, when I was asked to speak to American veterans through Zoom about the campaign in Normandy in 1944, but overall 2020 was a mixed bag.

The biggest disappointment in my extra-curricula activities was the suspension of the War Talks series in February. The Series, established in 2017, was really getting into its stride with over a dozen speakers timetabled for the Spring and Summer, unfortunately they were postponed indefinitely. The British Army Military Book of the Year 2020, usually decided in September, took until December to complete; the judges understandably producing their results later than normal this year. The School Children’s Battlefield Tours programme was curtailed and I missed the opportunity to guide the last of those tours as France locked-down in February. These tours, with which I had been associated since 2015, were a fabulous initiative and I enjoyed many long days around Ypres and on the Somme passing on the story of the British Army to the next generation, the irony that we were stopped dead in our tracks by a virus was not lost on all those involved.

The Battlefield Guiding industry has been affected very badly by the Pandemic, I am rather lucky in that I am gainfully employed by Her Majesty, but I did miss out on leading Army studies in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Holland, the Balkans, and South Africa in 2020. I am hopeful that as these events are re-scheduled for 2021, I might be able to continue developing young soldiers through this invaluable medium. That is very much the theme for 2021: a time for re-birth. In 2021, I hope to be able to accept more speaking events, get back to guiding, arrange more War Talks, and organise the British Army Military Book of the Year 2021.

Despite all these disappointments, there have been highlights; in September, I became the first British serviceperson to be appointed as a Fellow at the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point and in November the first non-officer to be invited to become a member of the Pen and Sword Club. I am also writing a book proposal which once accepted, I have outline acceptance currently, should see it published in 2022. There are a couple of other landmarks pending which I hope to announce in 2021, although I am sure you will forgive my reticence at this time. I have been fortunate to have articles published in Australia, America, and the UK this year, that will be replicated in the New Year.

Personally, the great joy of purchasing my first house, an Edwardian town house in Shropshire, is balanced by the failure to either be promoted or be selected for commissioning. I will not go into this further other than to say that these events represented enormous disappointments, driving my chronic mental health problems to the very edge of the abyss, but thanks to the support of my friends, I am still here and will come back, although perhaps without any expectation of reward.

What has the remarkable 2020 taught me? Well, first be self-reliant – no one can, or will, give you what you need, you have to build happiness for yourself. Second, the life you build is your reward, the only reward you can ever expect, anything else is just the collection of valueless baubles, and finally, bring happiness to others when you can, but treat empty promises with the contempt they deserve. As we head into Christmas, let me wish you all Season’s Greetings, look after yourselves and those you love, work is just what pays the bills, the boss does not deserve one second of lost time with your loved ones.

Until next time, best wishes,

Barney

Just be Yourself – A Message in a Bottle.

In a couple of days’ time, I and several hundred other British Army Warrant Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers will discover whether we have been successful in the Late Entry Commissioning process with the publication of the Commissioning Board results. For those of you unfamiliar with the Commissioning Assessment Board (CAB), I thought I would use this, my first blog since August, to outline my experience on the CAB. I hope, like a castaway tossing a bottle in the sea, that one of you might find my observations helpful in your own commissioning adventure.

Be Yourself, Be Yourself, Be Yourself

The first piece of advice is to be yourself. If you choose to put yourself through the process of commissioning you will be in for a long road, in the case of my choice, the Educational and Training Services branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps, the road begins with the previous year’s Appraisal Report in June. There is no room for adopting an officer-like persona, the Board have all your Appraisal Reports – there is nowhere to hide. That said, it would be foolhardy to project the complete you, after all there are secrets and skeletons which no one needs to see at a job interview. In short, be the best version of you, the version your chain of command already knows and with which it is more than happy. Open, honest, and robust are the watchwords.

Once the annual appraisal is complete, there is a four-month long wait for the instructions for Late Entry commissioning to be produced. take this time to familiarise yourself with the key political themes of the day, current international relations topics, and to improve your image – in my case lose some weight. Once the instructions are released the first interview will be with your Commanding Officer, this should, all things being equal, be a formality, after all he has seen your work and knows you in detail. The second set of interviews are more tricky, you will need an interview with your One-Star; if you are lucky, the Brigadier will know you or your reputation, but it is here that your current affairs and military knowledge preparation will come in handy. Over ten years ago, I was a Staff Assistant in an Army medical directorate when a prospective commissioning candidate, in answer to a question about his opinion on the best British General of the Second World War answered with unswerving confidence, ‘Rommel, Sir’. I think we can all guess what happened next…

The final interview will be with a designated Field Officer in your chosen Branch (if you are seeking to transfer into another part of the Service); again be yourself, do your homework and try to squeeze in all you feel they need to know to create the best picture of you as a person. I say person because they are not looking to just give a Sergeant Major another 12 years of pension, they know you can be a Non-Commissioned Officer, you may have over twenty years of evidence of that, rather they want to see that you have the qualities of an officer – intelligence, capacity for hard work in a challenging environment, calm, charisma, and leadership. It is easy to neglect the importance of these interviews, but remember Late Entry Commissioning Assessment is a process, not an event; each part is vital.

Following the interviews, there is a considerable period of wait and a filtration process. In July you will be given joining instructions for the Late Entry Commissioning Board, this contains perhaps the most vital part of the process, as with most things it looks innocuous, but is the cornerstone of your performance on the LE CAB: your personal statement. As with all the foregoing, be yourself, talk about your motivations and why you are a good candidate for commissioning, it is not a biography or a CV, this is where you get to display your humanity, professionalism, and intelligence.

LE CAB Day One

The most important part of the process is the Late Entry Commissioning Assessment Board usually held in August or September in the year after the appraisal report which recommended you for commissioning. Every part of this event is important, the first day is largely a registration and briefing procedure, the real work begins after the parade (don’t worry drill is not a pill!!) where you are greeted by the Corps Colonel. You will be placed into a syndicate and allotted to a four-person assessment team: a Colonel and a Lieutenant Colonel who carry out the formal assessment, a Major who is in administrative command of the syndicate, and a Captain who is the educational advisor. The two assessors are invariably stony-faced throughout the CAB, do not expect to see any reaction whatsoever; in many ways this is the most unnerving part of the exercise.

LE CAB Day Two

The first serial is treated as an icebreaker; your syndicate of around six applicants is given a number of topics to discuss, the important thing to remember here is to be collegiate, working collaboratively will create a better impression. A detailed understanding of current affairs is useful but not obligatory, that is not to say you should ignore the subject, you do not need an intricate understanding of the day-to-day events under a topic, rather you need to understand the underlying themes. Let me offer an example, a detailed knowledge of the Test and Trace debacle is unnecessary, but an understanding of attempts to control Covid-19 would be important. You will be discussing themes and trends, a well thought out point showing you have listened to your peers is the best approach – don’t deal in hackneyed opinions, be a reader of the Financial Times not the Daily Express.

The second serial is a ten-minute presentation. You will be given twenty minutes to put it together from some key themes on your personal statement. It is impossible to second-guess these topics, but be sure that whatever you choose you can achieve your aim inside the time and leave a little time for questions. A plan is essential for this presentation and will be assessed later so make it legible, detailed, and with timings. Your peers will be given an opportunity to ask questions, once again be collegiate, give questions which help the presenter; with LE CAB so in life: don’t be a dick! Be prepared for some questions from the assessing staff, you will feel pressured, but most of this stress is self-produced.

The third serial is a test of English language and mental arithmetic. The English test is an essay, once more on a theme in current affairs with which you must be familiar. The maths test is not difficult, but you must be confident in your mathematical ability. If you have been away from numeracy and literacy practice for some time, I would strongly suggest you approach your local Army Education Centre for some assistance; you don’t need to be Rainman but you shouldn’t need to take your socks off to do long division!

By far the most stressful part of the process takes place in the afternoon and evening of the first day: the formal interview. You will be surrounded (literally) by assessors who will pick your personal statement and reports apart, the tone of questioning differs from candidate to candidate but if you expect Bad Cop, Worse Cop you won’t be far off. Expect a further rapid fire metal arithmetic question and to have deeper questions on your motivation. In my case, I was challenged on the honesty of my motivations, the amount of time I would stay if selected, and whether. a commission was just another accolade. Be honest, rebut where necessary, and be yourself.

LE CAB Day Three

Day Three contains what were billed as the most important elements of the LE CAB: the Planning Exercise and the Command Tasks. The Planning Exercise happens. first thing in the morning and it is essential that you have an understanding of the Distance-Speed-Time equation and read the scenario carefully. It is equally important to remember names and details, these will be tested later! After a short break, you and half the syndicate will be called in to defend your solution; intricate questions will be asked, including mathematical questions and alternative solutions to the problems raised by the scenario. In the afternoon, there are a series of command tasks, one leaderless, and a command task for each syndicate member. It is essential that a collegiate approach is adopted, let the leader lead, approach every exercise with a team spirit and sense of urgency, and don’t see this as an opportunity to show up the lacunae of your peers.

Message in a Bottle

As I prepare to cast this message into the azure main, I would like to reemphasise three points: be yourself, don’t be a dick, and don’t use words like lacunae outside an academic environment. Keep your fingers crossed for me on Thursday!

Have a great week,

Barney

‘And yet its stream ran through my heart’ – Seventeen years later.

On the evening of 27th August 2003, I witnessed the passing of fellow British soldier, Fusilier Russell Beeston, when the small convoy in which we were travelling was ambushed in southern Iraq. On this date each year I pause my life to remember those events, that young man, and to re-dedicate every act to his memory.

Exposed to combat for the first time, I experienced a deluge of emotions, agonising to remember, but impossible to forget. Overwhelmingly, those feelings have morphed into regret, violation, and guilt with the passing of years. My life has been both plagued and blessed by those events, events which I feel privileged to have survived.

On this date each year, as both a memorial to Russell and a exhalation of thankfulness, I pause my life in an act of re-dedication. In gratitude, I re-publish the words written by a thirty-something me in 2004 for the regimental magazine of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. What follows is my account, please read it, remember and learn that war has a price:

‘In every life there are moments of definition, points in time when one’s life seems to have a purpose and meaning. A moment of clarity, of sharpness. In most cases it is the birth of a child, a wedding or even a funeral, for me though it came at 2140 hrs at a small Iraqi town called Ali Ash Sharqi about 60 kms north of Al Amarah in Southern Iraq.
“Go, Go now, Go”, the OC shouted into his Personal Role Radio. The small convoy lurched into action and headed up the raised road which led from the centre of Ali Ash Sharqi to Route 6,the main artery of Southern Iraq. 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, then 70 kph, crashing through the gears, the warm night air rushing through the side window of my Land Rover Wolf. A strange red glow like an errant firework flew, arcing over my vehicle; only when it exploded did I realise it was an Rocket Propelled Grenade. Just in time, I hit the brakes as a second dissected the space between us and the lead Land Rover. Suddenly, the night was alive with the staccato rattle of machine-gun fire and the whizzing of bullets like angry hornets zipping past, my head was down over the steering wheel, my foot now flat to the floor, and my heart in my mouth as we dashed for the sanctuary of the Six. The OC opened his side window and engaged an enemy machine-gun with his rifle, brass bouncing off the windscreen and rattling around the cab.

“Stop, Stop, Stop”, came the OC’s order and we screeched to a halt. I stopped and turned off the engine somewhat surreally ensuring the vehicle was left in gear with the keys in the ignition. I placed my hands on my rifle and was alone. The time between halting and debussing was seemingly endless… I dismounted into the sultry night, alive with deadly fireflies and sought cover on the right hand embankment, suddenly we were illuminated by a Schermuly Paraflare and an enemy machine-gun opened up with rounds scything past our bodies. Two yards away Fusilier Russell Beeston appeared to be dead, a round having hit him in the chest, having first shattered his arm on its deadly journey. I ran for my life, instinct expecting another round to take my head off, I tasted blood, it was an expectation rather than fact. I found cover behind my Land Rover, a Private came running past screaming “I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot”; his voice full of disbelief. I grabbed him and dragged him to the ground, helping to administer First Aid; we managed to staunch the flow of blood and laid him in cover, behind the Land Rover.
The confusion cleared a little and I gathered a small band around me, the adrenaline hammering through my veins, as I directed a Private’s Minimi machine gun fire with my tracer rounds onto an enemy position; shortly thereafter it was neutralised. Suddenly, the air was alive with someone shouting, “Beestie’s dead, Beestie’s dead” and I though this is real, this is not Salisbury Plain. A Corporal shouted for a stretcher…no one moved…everyone was paralysed by fear, again he shouted and I headed off into the 30 metre gap in clear view of the enemy to the vehicle with the stretcher in it. Every pace was alive with steel, I could feel it breathing on my face, the return journey was worse, the knowledge of what was to come. I brought a cot bed to where Beestie lay on the road, a Lance Corporal kneeling astride his body, pounding his chest, screaming at him to come back, covered in blood, working in vain to save a life already gone. I returned to my firing position and told the Minimi gunner to move to the defensive position which had been established on the left-hand embankment, the road was now clear except for vehicles, the small team working on Beestie and me. I stood on that vigil, and except for the barking of dogs, there was silence.

Death had come, visited in an instant and moved on. I fully expected to die that night as eight others had done in the 1KOSB AOR in the previous two months, and yet I live; the randomness of it defeats me. It was an experience I wished in vain never to repeat, although I’m privileged to say I was there. If there are such things as heroes in battle, the only one I saw that night was Beestie, who died quickly and quietly, with dignity in the service of his friends.’

As a final epitaph, I return to my favourite poem by Edmund Blunden MC and the third verse of his ‘The Ancre at Hamel: Afterwards’

The struggling Ancre had no part
In these new hours of mine,
And yet its stream ran through my heart:
I heard it grieve and pine,
As if its rainy tortured blood
Had swirled into my own,
When by its battered bank I stood
And shared its wounded moan,

Thank you all and have a lovely weekend.

 

The Hubris of Ozymandias

F35 Lightning

The final article in this three part review of my favourites was published in the Wavell Room in January 2019, while I was still a Fellow at RUSI. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it and taking part in the debate which followed:

In the 1976 film ‘The Eagle has Landed’, Oberst Max Radl, an Abwehr Colonel, takes several seemingly disconnected sources and through analysis, and a belief in the Jungian theory of synchronicity, extracts a daring plan to capture Churchill in a bid to end the Second World War.

Since joining The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) as the British Army’s Visiting Fellow in September 2018, a number of disconnected events have captured my imagination: the accidental sinking of HNoMS Helge Ingstad in mid-November, the Chief of the Defence Staff’s Annual Lecture in early-December, and December’s drone incident at Gatwick Airport.  The shenanigans following the annual RUSI Military Science Christmas Lunch created the synchronicity, as the discussion turned to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1918 sonnet, Ozymandias.  The outcome – a belief that the West’s hubristic defence and security policies could be on the verge of implosion.

By the mid-1980s it had become apparent to the then Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Union, Marshal Nikolai Vasilyevich Ogarkov, that Western superiority in information technology risked overwhelming the Warsaw Pact’s ability to wage war. His calls for reform of the Soviet armed forces, with an emphasis on smaller strike forces enabled by cutting edge technology, fell on deaf ears and Ogarkov was ousted by the Politburo in September 19841.  Five years later the Berlin Wall fell and in 1991 the Cold War ended – a resounding victory for the Western way of war.  That was certainly the assessment of Andrew Marshall, the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, who coined the phrase ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ which led to the concept of Network-enabled Capability and became beloved of military theorists at the term of the millennium2.

The problem is that the theory was fundamentally flawed, not only is it dependent on a broadly symmetric adversary, it also depends  upon vulnerable networked information. Such is the hubris of the West, encouraged by American hegemony in a unipolar world, that despite the evidence of the changing character of war, the increasingly unsustainable cost of exquisite platforms, and a resurgent Russia and ambitious China, it has continued to configure its Armed Forces for the type of War it did not fight, and which it may never fight.  Experience in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan should have demonstrated that the Western paradigm is far from invincible, what is more, after almost thirty years the world is once again multi-polar.  Not only is the Western paradigm vulnerable to asymmetric threats in Small Wars, it is also threatened by asymmetric threats in Information War – the Grey Zone.  The Western conception of precision warfare is unbeatable, but only in the limited context of a conventional war, and it is cripplingly expensive.

So now we turn to the synchronicity, in early November 2018 the Norwegian frigate, Helge Ingstad, collided with a Maltese tanker in Heljefjord.  The damage was so severe that the warship had to be beached, unfortunately the ship later sank and with her around twenty percent of Norway’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, and hence a significant proportion of NATO’s ASW capacity in the High North.  The sinking exposes the problem of multi-functional, technologically advanced, and expensive platforms; they may deliver precision effects and are unarguably lethal, but they are built in such small numbers that their replacements cannot be easily regenerated. Not only does their nature preclude redundancy and resilience, they are effectively white elephants– so precious they cannot be risked in the types of war for which they are designed, and so advanced they are of limited utility against an asymmetric threat.

The Chief of the Defence Staff in his RUSI Christmas Lecture, re-stated Britain’s continued adherence  to the Western paradigm of precision warfare. In his speech, he stated his intention to defeat our adversaries in both the Grey Zone and in the three traditional domains of war using superior technology.  His statement reinforced the British military’s belief in technological determinism, that technology is a driver of history, and will win wars.  Technology has, however, never won a war and increased investment in ever-diminishing technological returns is both uneconomical and illogical3.  It is a mistake to conflate technological fetishism with precision warfare. Indeed, expenditure on technology detracts from resilience, not just because of the cost of platforms, but also because other important capabilities such as home defence are left unfunded. In the rush to prepare to fight an unlikely adversary using exquisite technology, we have left other aspects of our defence exposed.

So, we turn to Ozymandias.  When Shelley wrote his sonnet in 1818, he may well have been satirising the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to the British island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic after his defeat at Waterloo three years earlier.  The poem tells of the ruined statue of an ancient king, Ozymandias.  The king was so all powerful he believed his hegemony would last forever, taunting his opponents with the statue’s inscription, ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’. And yet, for all the vainglory, his statue and his works lay broken in the desert’s sands.  Much can be learned from the hubris of Ozymandias, hegemony is not forever, superiority can be overcome, and all things return to dust. If the West is to delay its inevitable sunset, it should configure an increasing proportion of its forces to the changed character of war, find alternatives to unaffordable platforms, invest in modern deterrence, and act to safeguard the vulnerable networked information upon which the Western version of precision is predicated.  Reform is not cheap, but reform which leads to a more sustainable and utilitarian defence should be afforded.  It is not the percentage of GDP spent on Defence that matters, it is how the Defence budget is spent that counts; if we wish to stay above the sands, we have no choice.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

All the best,

Barney

 

NEOPHILIA, PRESENTISM, AND THEIR DELETERIOUS CONSEQUENCES FOR WESTERN MILITARY STRATEGY

Neophilia

Today, I release the second of a three-part post re-publishing some of my favourite articles. This post was originally published by the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point in March 2019 and was the first of my articles to be published internationally. Enjoy!

It is often treated as an assumed truth in Western defense establishments that the world is experiencing a period of political instability unparalleled in over a century. This belief, combined with the observation that technology and its effect on society are advancing at an unprecedented rate, have become key drivers of military transformation. Evidentially, believers in this notion of exceptional instability point to recent, multiple emergent threats to the liberal rules-based system—the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Chinese attempts to control access to the South China Sea, and the actions of belligerents in civil wars in Syria and Yemen, for example. At the same time, technologists use advances in information and cyber technology, artificial intelligence, and autonomy, to rationalize their own arguments regarding military transformation. Their case seems compelling from an early twenty-first-century perspective. But perhaps more important than what is seen—the trends of eroding stability and rapidly growing technological advancement—is the lens through which these are viewed. When that lens is characterized by presentism and neophilia, rather than placing the present in the context of history, the consequences might be dire.

Presentism—privileging the observed present over the experience of the past—leads to the “fallacy of tranquillity,” which is “the tendency to find the current era to be exceptionally, even uniquely turbulent, and past eras to seem calm in comparison.” Although our times are undoubtedly uncertain, they are by no means uniquely so. The period between the First and Second World Wars was arguably more complex; indeed, with the exception of the twenty years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is difficult to recall a time when international relations were not at least as complicated as those currently experienced. In terms of social and technical change, the era in which we live is actually relatively unremarkable, certainly less disruptive than the Industrial Revolution and the technical evolutions that followed it. Assuredly, some commentators believe that humanity is developing at a slower rate than at any time since the seventeenth century; ours is thus an age of refinement, rather than one of transformation. In military terms, presentism manifests as a belief that the character (and for some the nature) of war is changing, that observed asymmetries are symptoms of fundamental change, and that resultant operational questions are insoluble within the current paradigm of warfare. The effect of such introspection is the diversion of intellectual effort away from practical military problems and into esoteric debates.

Military presentism has many drivers, but is usefully distilled into financial and reputational factors. A quote often, and mistakenly, attributed to Winston Churchill—”Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”—illuminates the former of these two categories. In general usage, the quote is interpreted as a positive call for greater innovation and adaptation. But in the search for answers on the cheap, and in an attempt to attract finite financial resources, militaries, industry, and academia create and amplify new theories, doctrines, and perspectives, often to negative effect. Arguably, conceptualizations like “hybrid warfare” and the concept of Multi-Domain Operations are the results of this scramble for budget share.

Reputation is important too. Shortly after the Second World War, the influential military philosopher Sir Basil Liddell Hart sought to bolster his reputation as the proto-theorist of Blitzkrieg by influencing former German generals, eager to please and avoid criminal conviction, to provide statements to that effect for his bookThe Other Side of the Hill. This attempt was both dishonest and ultimately futile; historians in the 1990s re-examining the theory and substance of German operations and tactics in the Second World War, found that Blitzkrieg was neither based on Liddell Hart’s theories nor a coherent doctrine. Sir Basil’s case demonstrates the lengths to which theorists will go to preserve, or enhance, their reputation.

The struggle for budgets and reputation is not a matter of harmless semantics and academic sophistry; it endangers military thought and practice. Similarly dangerous, though, is neophilia—the belief that what is observed and experienced in the battlespace is entirely novel. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a proliferation of new theories aimed at explaining the changing character of war. We have seen the rise and fall of the theory of the Revolution in Military Affairs, witnessed the fervour of the COINdinistas, been seduced by novel ideas of asymmetry, and endured the putative theory of hybrid warfare. In each case, theory was based on a belief that the observable symptoms of warfare were either unavoidably determinist or wholly disconnected from previous experience. In the case of hybrid warfare, disconnected tactics employed asymmetrically by the West’s adversaries have been conflated to create an all-encompassing doctrine that flatters the talents of officers like Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov, but which is no more coherent a doctrine than German blitzkrieg was in 1939. The result of this theoretical seduction is to tie Western thought leaders into an interminable debate about the nature and character of war and a search for a symmetrical counter to hybridity. The West should learn from its exploitation of Soviet weakness in the 1980s, looking to counter its adversaries’ tactics asymmetrically with its hand firmly on the hilt of its overwhelming conventional superiority.

The threat of neophilia is not merely restricted to the theoretical. Although the addition of cyber and space to the traditional domains of war—land, sea, and air—significantly predates the concept of Multi-Domain Operations, the added domains undermine that concept by fundamentally misunderstanding of the term “domain of war,” the effect of which is to erroneously conflate effect with enablement. Carl von Clausewitz defines war in terms of politics and violence, meaning a domain of war is thus a physical environment in which violence can take place. Cyber and space cannot currently be so defined. Cyber and space, and indeed human thought, which some commentators see as a sixth domain, are in fact enablers of the three traditional domains. Information, howsoever it is delivered, is merely in support to the original domains. That this theory and its effects are directly attributable to presentism is demonstrated by a comparison to historic military activity in the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves have been used by militaries to transmit information for over a hundred years, but despite its centrality to command and control, akin to cyber and space, radio was never defined as a domain of war. It is only in the era of satellite-enabled precision that information has been misrepresented as a domain of war. In terms of practical effects, defining information enablers as domains is likely to stovepipe each enabler, and the funding that accompanies it, into the purview of a single service. In the British military, this is exemplified by the ownership of space by the Royal Air Force; while it is not suggested that the RAF completely excludes the other services, the RAF’s budget demands will probably privilege its own interests. This model is similar to that in the United States, where the nascent Space Force will be subordinate to the Air Force.

Ultimately, the cult of neophilia is a symptom of intellectual laziness—a trope built on simplistic memes and the mistake of conflating disconnected occurrences. In defense terms, those who promote ideas like hybrid warfare and non-physical domains are boxing at shadows, in danger of creating a substantial threat where there is none—a digital blitzkrieg. The current age is far less unique than acolytes of presentism would have us believe. Practitioners and academics should therefore be wary of easy explanations and attractive narratives, instead concentrating on countering threats, while understanding that our adversaries asymmetric answer to the West’s conventional dominance comes from a place of weakness. Precision-enabled, combined-arms warfare, despite its dependence on vulnerable networked information, is still the key to success in war.

 

Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage

Conscious that I haven’t published a blog since the start of lockdown, I’m going to republish a couple of articles while I get writing. The first was published by ‘Grounded Curiosity‘, my favourite PME site, at the end of March 2020.

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Anyone who has found themselves searching for their house keys when running late for an appointment, will be in no doubt that the perception of time is wholly relative. In those moments, when every second counts, time seems to accelerate, filling the available space on the clock face at an exponential rate.

At times like that, our behaviour becomes increasingly irrational; we look for the lost in the same place, time and again searching in seemingly impossible places; in my case, the fridge or the dog’s bed are particular favourites. Then, out of the blue, recall kicks in and in a Damascene flash the ‘safe place’ is revealed; as memory triumphs, the time between the ticks of the second hand slows, the mind and body relaxes, and logical thought returns. This phenomenon, the cause of panic and poor decision-making in domestic life, can be replicated in the battle space and is at the heart of the struggle for what is termed ‘information advantage‘. This article will examine what happens to the quality of human decision-making when pressure is applied, the advantages to be gained from manipulating an opponent’s perception of time, and how that might be achieved in real terms.

In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Israeli Nobel laureate, Dr. Daniel Kahneman posits that when faced with a problem the human brain has two replies; the first, System One Thinking, is lazy and instinctive, most likely used when under pressure, or paradoxically when little invested in the outcome, the second, System Two Thinking, is analytical and complex, carefully assessing the available data; typically, this is called upon when time and conditions permit. System One decisions are, as a result, often wrong, based as they are on prejudice and unconnected experiences, they are the type of conclusions that make searching the oven for car keys seem a sensible option. If Kahneman is right, and he has gathered a lifetime of evidence supporting his thesis, then pressure applied to an opponent will force them to use System One thinking, a type of thinking which often leads to poor decisions and increases the perception of the passage of time.

Making an opponent lean on System One, depleting the quality of their decision-making by applying pressure to constrict their perception of time is classic manoeuvrism; winning by not fighting. An examination of decision-making using John Boyd’s OODA cycle proves somewhat instructive, if not entirely comprehensive. Boyd theorised that decisions are made using a sequence of actions: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA), these can be coincidental, but they are always part of the decision loop. Essentially, Boyd’s theory runs that to defeat an opponent, better decisions must be made faster, we must get inside our opponent’s decision loop, this is at the heart of information advantage – the gobbledegook which accompanies that phrase is nothing more than window-dressing which, either by the negligent use of language or by design, acts to exclude wider understanding.

possible counter to this theory – that the essence of winning is making better decisions faster and thence translating them into actions just as precipitously – is that advancing technology will imminently allow machines to think faster than humans, without having to resort to System One Thinking. It is tempting to believe that the technical possibility of decision-making by artificial intelligence and machine learning will remove the need for human input or supervision, but that time is further away than is imagined in the minds of presentists and determinists. Machine-learning and artificial intelligence are unlikely to play a part in kinetic decision-making, at least without human intervention or oversight, until targeting and judgement have been significantly improved. Western morality will require considerable technological advance before it trusts the robot with lethal force, indeed that could be a lifetime away. As long as a human remains in or on the loop, it will be possible to place pressure which will force System One thinking.

Back to John Boyd; his first action, Observe, offers perhaps the simplest way to alter an opponent’s perception of time and consequently the quality of their decisions. In his excellent 2018 book, The Eye of War, Dr Antoine Bousquet analyses how camouflage, concealment, and deception have played a key role in the history of warfare for centuries, and explores how today these skills must now also include disguising oneself from the discovery of heat, radiation, and electronic signatures. This is further amplified by the requirement to remain hidden on the post-modern battlefield, particularly underground, highlighted in Dr Raphael Marcus’ book, ‘Israel’s Long War with Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire‘. The rapid development of subterranean warfare and the power of electronic camouflage remains poorly understood and somewhat unpractised by Western armies. The cause of this collective ignorance is either a result of political distaste, cultural and intellectual arrogance, or anti-intellectualism. Whatever the cause, Western armies would do well to pay as much attention to the lessons of Hezbollah’s Operation Truthful Promise and the Israeli responses, Operation Density and Peace for Galilee, as they do to the German Fall Gelb and Soviet Bagration.

As important as it remains to disguise one’s presence, the secret to confusing the enemy is to create multiple options and dilemmas for them. This is done by both displaying that which you wish your enemy to see and by offering both attractive and unattractive targeting options. This is not a novel concept, perhaps the most well-known example of a historic scenario occurred during the Second World War, Operations Fortitude North and South used physical and virtual methods to create an imaginary army in Eastern England, the purpose of which was to deceive the Germans into leaving sufficient forces in the Pas de Calais to resist a second invasion, thereby keeping their reserves away from Normandy. It is important, though, to invite as well as discourage; a fine example of this is provided by the action of Australian and British forces at Tobruk in April 1941, luring Rommel into an area of apparent defensive weakness in order to destroy him.  For our purposes, Observe should not be seen merely as a defensive measure, instead it represents an opportunity to distract, disrupt, and dislocate with multiple options, compressing time and forcing poor and rushed decisions.

Orient – making sense of what is observed – represents another opportunity to squeeze an opponent’s perception of time. In order to understand what they are seeing, the enemy must use their understanding of the world in which they operate, together with the communications and information technology with which they are supplied. Just as that which is observed can be disrupted, dislocated, or pre-empted, so can the ability to understand what has been seen. In an article for War on the Rocks in 2018, Alexandra Stickings and I laid the case for the effect on the Western model of satellite-enabled precision effects caused by a loss of space capability. Whilst, the wholesale loss of satellite, and indeed cyber, infrastructure in a military context is increasingly unlikely (both because of mitigation and the increasing certainty of retaliation) elements such as spoofing and the temporary removal of capability enable the manipulation of time and hence the quality and speed of decision-making.

Decide and Act are no less important opportunities for those seeking to manipulate an opponent’s decisions. It is important, of course, to understand that this denial of cognitive capacity is not a one-way street, the enemy is not a target. For political and cultural reasons, the West’s opponents can make decisions at a speed and of a type which cannot be matched. Using tactics, techniques, and procedures, this advantage can be limited, but can only be turned around by dislocation of command and control architecture. The denial of time and the degradation of decisions may also seem to favour activity in the ‘Grey Space’,  but this is a fallacious perspective. ‘Grey Space’ activity is an enabler of conventional activity; of itself, it is little more than traditional political manoeuvre – espionage, sabotage, mis- and dis-information, they are then a means to an end not an end in themselves, the end is conventional military action.

In conclusion, the mystique surrounding the current buzzwords of information advantage and manoeuvre is unnecessary and counter-productive, it is simply the cognitive degradation of an opponent’s ability to act. Degrading the enemy’s cognitive ability is not the end, rather it is merely an enabler for military action – part of the plan, not the plan itself. Time flies, but it flies higher and faster for the confused and blindfolded.

I will republish another article from another site in a few days time. Stay Safe.

Barney

It’s Life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Star Trek

Regular readers of this Blog will know that each Quarter I write a retrospective article covering my activities beyond my work in the Headquarters of the British Army. This blog post, the latest in that vein, will cover the period since the return from Christmas Leave. While I don’t intend for this post to be dominated by Covid-19, it would be crass in any review of the first three months of 2020 to ignore its effects. Indeed, as a result of the global pandemic, this year is likely to become one of those few of us will ever forget. Our language and behaviour have been overwhelmed by the phenomenon, a plethora of new words and phrases – Covidiot, self-isolation, and social distancing – have spread like the virus with which they are connected and may, perhaps, disappear just as precipitously. In closing this blog, I will add some words, perhaps controversially, on the positives and false positives which may flow from the current crisis.

January began with a series of talking engagements in the United Kingdom and Europe. The first trip took me to Palace Barracks in Belfast and a leadership development day at the First Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. I spoke, amidst some really excellent presentations from others, on the subject of Adaptability. It was very pleasing to be the recipient of some very kind words by the Commander of the Specialised Infantry Group, a meeting which has borne fruit subsequently, with an invitation to speak to the Group in May 2020. After a weekend at home, I headed to Prague to the annual FINABEL Conference. There, in that splendid Bohemian capital, I spoke to the Council of Permanent Military Experts on the Fallacy of Presentism, a subject I would revisit at my next Talk at Army Headquarters. That Talk, part of Army Education’s Learning Lunches initiative, led to several further invitations to speak including to Land Warfare Centre, the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick and Leeds University Officer Training Corps in April 2020. Next, I was pleased to speak to Salisbury Air Cadets on the subject of the Western Front in the First World War and finally, at the end of January, I travelled to Catterick Garrison to speak to the Headquarters of 4th Infantry Brigade once again on the subject of Adaptability, all this before the end of January.

The first three months of 2020 also saw an increasing number of invitations to attend and guide Battlefield Studies for units from across the Army. I was due to guide studies in such varied places as France, Belgium, Holland, Croatia, Crete, Israel, and South Africa, but coronavirus has unfortunately put paid to those. I was, however, fortunate to guide one of the last trips in the University College of London’s Schoolchildren’s Centenary Battlefield Tours programme run by the inspirational Mr Simon Bendry. This scheme has delivered a battlefield experience for over 8,500 students and staff and, in the guise of Project110, a public history initiative, more than fifteen million people have benefited from the knowledge gained on those trips. The Programme, for which I have been a vocal advocate for the last six years, was terminated prematurely, and understandably, by Covid-19, but perhaps less so by the Department for Education by whom it was felt to have achieved it’s aim. I was due to have attended a final tour in March which would have been a satisfying final fling only to have it cancelled 24 hours in advance, a deeply saddening end to a wonderful project.

It is important to note that the temporary lockdowns are not forever and I hope that in good time the battlefield studies to which I was previously invited may run again in the future. Battlefield studies, staff rides, historical concentrations or whatever else with which one wishes to label them are vital to improving soldiers’ understanding of their profession. It makes knowledge three dimensional and is the only way in which the boundless experience of war can be translated without intellectual boundary. In the absence of these invaluable trips and resultant from greater free time, I have been able to write a little more. I was over the moon to have my article, Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage, published by Grounded Curiosity the prestigious Australian think-tank.  Watch out for further articles in the coming months! Additionally, and thankfully, not all the battlefield studies have been postponed, and I am pleased to have been asked to take part in the British Army’s Exercise Urban Bear II in Berlin in the Autumn. This exercise will examine the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and begin to think about  the development of future warfare in the middle of the 21st century and what that will mean for cities and mega-cities.

Many of you will know that I run the War Talks initiative, the Seventh Season of which has also been significantly disrupted. Although I managed to organise and deliver four Talks on such diverse topics as the use of Unmanned Ground Vehicles and the German declaration of war against the United States in the Second World War, sadly it has proved impossible to deliver the final two talks in the Season. I have already organised the Eighth Season of Talks, but will wait until the current situation is a little clearer to announce dates and times, and indeed the means of communication through which they will be promulgated. The Talks are a labour of love and a valuable source of informal professional military education and I am determined to have them delivered by whatever means possible, even if that is virtually by podcast and You Tube video recorded without an audience. In addition to the Talks, I have also been pleased to organise the British Army Military Book of the YearPrize for a third year, the shortlisted books are exceptional; I do not envy the judges, drawn from across the Army who will have to choose an excellent and deserving winner!

In all the sadness surrounding Covid-19, there are already those who, quite rightly from my perspective, are prepared to look forward to what comes next. The Wavell Room has begun a Call for papers on this very subject and I would encourage everyone to submit their thoughts, I certainly intend so to do. My thoughts are still forming but are essentially threefold: first, we must realise that mostly things will return to normal, even with the economic and social damage which will have been caused. In terms of the Army, the adaptability being displayed currently will atrophy rapidly as the conservative culture claws back that which has been lost to elastic ideas and processes. Secondly, benefits which we are imagining are not wholly beneficial. We may believe that remote- working and lower economic and industrial production are beneficial to the environment, and indeed they are, but social isolation and dependence on vulnerable networks also present problems for society. Connected to that is my third thought; the country has, in the main, displayed incredible discipline during the Pandemic, but we are neither robust or resilient at the societal and strategic levels, questions over the sustainability of just in time logistics, globalism (particularly our relationship with China), and our ability to absorb strategic shocks must be addressed urgently. Life will return to a normality, but will it be life as we knew it before 2020?

Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives,

All the very best, speak soon,

Barney

 

 

Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage

Time Waits For No Man…

Today my latest article has been published by the leading Australian website Grounded Curiosity. It examines how the perception of time can be manipulated and exploited to give cognitive advantage, a key factor on the contemporary battlefield.

At a time when we are all hunkered down for endless hours, this article examines the tricks the mind plays and how that can be of advantage to us or indeed our opponents. #article #machinelearning #army #military #armedforces #defenceindustry

Please give it a read here: https://groundedcuriosity.com/tempus-fugit-using-time-for-cognitive-advantage/#.Xnw-USWnwlQ