An Empowered Army: Smoke and Mirrors?

Liberty

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

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

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

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

Seeckt

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

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

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

All the best,

Barney

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Reinforcing Defeat in a Time of Change.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Barney

 

Battlefields, Interpretation, and Memories.

Hamel 1

This week, I was lucky enough to take three days away from work to take part in a battlefield recce of First World War sites around Amiens in France. Battlefield guiding has become a passion for me in recent years and has brought significant benefits. I want to use this week’s blog to both promote those benefits and the organisation with which I travelled, highlighting the benefits military organisations can gain through involvement with battlefield study and co-operation with civilian tour operators.

In 2010, the late Professor Richard Holmes described the benefits of battlefield study thus: ‘There is a merit to visiting historical battlefields that no amount of theoretical study can replace. Educationalists recognise that participation is the key to learning, and field study – with its unique and unutterably poignant mix of battlefield, cemetery, and memorial – talks to both intellect and emotion. This is not an optional extra; this, surely, is core business‘. It is easy to pay lip service to such virtuous language, but it was only this week that I truly understood what the great man meant. I have been reading and writing about the Battle of Le Hamel since 2014 and have visited the site of the battle on a handful of occasions since then. I never really understood the battle until Tuesday but now feel significantly more qualified to describe it and to interpret it for those I guide. Let me explain.

The village of Le Hamel sits on the edge of the floodplain of the River Somme, at the foot of a curve of low hills, not far from the French city of Amiens. The hills encompass the village like a question mark, with the village hard against the top curve and a spur of ground poking towards it from the high ground at the base. Famously, General Sir John Monash’s Australian infantry, supported by British and French artillery, British tanks and aeroplanes, and a detachment of American troops, captured the village and the all-important high ground in a little over 90 minutes on the 4th of July 1918.  Although the battlefield is not large, being perhaps only a couple of miles long from the Australian start line to the final objective at the top of the low hill above the village, known as the Wolfsburg, it would have been no mean feat to have taken all objectives in so little time. Only by walking the ground and thinking about the writing on the subject in combination was it possible to understand it.

The key to the position, and the answer to the collapse of German resistance, were the two entrenched redoubts at the bottom of the ‘Question Mark’. The Australians stood on the high ground looking down into Le Hamel. Unfortunately for them the slope of the spur down which they had to proceed to attack the village was so gradual that the heavily defended ‘Pear Redoubt’ could not be seen. The only other route to the village passed between two small woods and into the gap between the German’s had inserted another redoubt, ‘Kidney Trench’. These positions were mutually supporting, with ‘Pear Trench’ clearly being positioned more for the support it could give ‘Kidney’ than for the perfection of its own position. This could only be gauged by walking the ground, when observed from the highest vantage point around, the Wolfsburg neither the distance nor the full effect of topography could be appreciated.

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The German position was strong, but it was clearly little developed, the ground chosen took advantage of agricultural landscaping rather than military engineering to achieve an adequate defence. The 2,500 Germans who occupied the two redoubts would not have been the elite stormtroopers of the Spring Offensive, rather they would be the remains of those units supported by fresh drafts and older soldiers. The Australians would have been far more motivated and it was easy to see how they would quickly have overcome German resistance. In fact, as I considered the position I recalled how I had witnessed Bravo Company, the 1st Bn The King’s Own Scottish Borderers with their aggression, fitness, and determination clear enemy forces from a purpose built position in short order during an exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2002. Behind the two redoubts was a wide open area of ground in front of the village, once ejected from their positions, the German defenders must have streamed back to the smashed village in absolute disarray closely followed by their assailants.

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The 2,500 Germans defending the obliterated remains of the village had clearly put up little resistance, the ruins presented a considerable obstacle, and would have taken the Australians days or weeks to clear in 1916 0r 1917. In addition to infantry, of course, the Australians were supported by a fleet of British Mark V tanks to which the defenders had little answer and terrifying aircraft providing close air support harrying their routed comrades. Until I walked the ground, I would have been sceptical of the claims made for Le Hamel, but having seen it, understood the human element, and the advantages of the Australians in terms of materiel and manpower the claims made for the battle looked eminently feasible. In short, by walking the battlefield I was able to understand it and whatismore I was empowered to teach in an authoritative manner.

But what of the organisation with which I travelled? I have worked with Simon Bendry’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme (FWWCBTP) since February 2015, and have acted both as a guide and in support as part of an embedded British Army contingent. These tours offer a unique opportunity for schools to take two children to the battlefields of the War and gain an in depth and relevant conception of the War itself, the nature of remembrance, and the effect of conflict on ordinary people. The Programme is government funded and received a grant of £5 million in 2014, it is run professionally and to an incredibly high academic standard and has taken thousands of children to the battlefields over the last 5 years. Those children have, in turn, completed community projects which have reached in excess of 15 million people across England. But perhaps the biggest winners in the programme have been the British Army; for very little cost, they have been party to this project and found engagement opportunities in communities into which the Army would have found it difficult to reach. The Army, I believe, should exploit the relationship more fully and invest in the Programme and I’d be interested to hear opinions from you all, particularly those involved in engagement.

Thank you for reading this little article, I would ask that next time you hear ‘Bottlefield Tours’ being criticised, you think back to this blog and challenge that view. Richard Holmes was right, we can understand warfare better by immersing ourselves in the shadows of its physical experience. We can also use it to our advantage in a military sense, by using it as an engagement media, using the values of those who served to educate the citizenry of the future.

Back next week with more concepts,

All the very best,

Barney

Strength in Numbers? Mass and Precision

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This week we return to the subject of clouded concepts with a look at ‘Mass’ and ‘Precision’. Let me take you back to the cold winter of 1983. The scene is a Rugby pitch on a frigid Saturday afternoon, the ground is just beginning to unfreeze, but the hard mud will feel like concrete to a mis-timed tackle.  Parents in warm coats eye their progeny with pride, this is Yorkshire, and I am the ‘Pack Leader’ of the Glenhow Preparatory School First XV. The whole team is huddled by the posts, legs like corned beef in the icy chill and there is only one topic of conversation, ‘How big are they, are they bigger than us, how much will it hurt!’. Size matters, as the moments tick by, nonchalance turns to interest, turns to anxiety, turns to terror; then the changing room door opens we behold the Orc army that has been sent to teach us the meaning of pain. These ‘humans’ are huge, at 5′ 8″ I am Lilliputian in comparison, as they come closer the smell of ‘Deep Heat’ and stale sweat assails the nostrils, they are not of this Earth.

When encountering an adversary, whether on a Rugby pitch, battlefield, or in a bar-room we make an assessment of his capabilities. Let us consider meeting our opponent in the context of a bar-room, he is alone and we are with a group of friends, we might feel buoyed by this advantage and in the ensuing fight, all things being equal, we might expect to win. We have done so by employing ‘Mass’, that is defeating him using sheer weight of force. If we want to find a military example, we need look no further than Allied victory in the Second World War: In simple terms Allied advantage in manpower and materiel was so preponderant that neither Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan could match it. In the case of Nazi Germany, even superior warfighting ability in some areas and technologically advanced weaponry could not counteract Allied industrial production and populations. In that example Mass was highly effective.

Now let’s go back to the fight, this time we are alone and our opponent has a pair of friends with him, but we are armed with a knife, are trained in its effective use, and recognise that our opponent is the key protagonist.  We use the weapon to neutralise our main opponent and his support, keen to avoid further loss, picks up their friend and exits stage left. ‘Mass’ has been defeated by ‘Precision’. The weapon utilised against the opponent’s critical vulnerability has overbalanced his mass. As an military example we might use the Six Day War of 1967 in which a smaller but better equipped and educated Israeli force brushed aside its Arab opponents with precision strikes against Arab airpower and armoured formations, leading to military collapse. Clearly both examples are rather simplistic, but they are used here to give a basic understanding of the concept. The important factor to remember is that even David made an assessment of Goliath before pulling out his sling and choosing his stones.

‘Mass’ and ‘Precision’ are described as sitting at either end of a spectrum. The conceptual choice of which end of the spectrum ones force is most appropriately configured on, or whereabouts on the spectrum is most realistic for one’s force, is usually made according to the amount of materials and resources available, access to technology, and the culture of the force itself but, and this is vital, it is possible to have a large quantity of ‘Precision’ and not be a ‘Mass’ force. As an example, US military doctrine is predicated on precision, but lots of it; it does not depend on ‘Mass’. The Western way of fighting, at least since the adoption of AirLand Battle in the 1980s, heavily favours ‘Precision’ and, it is argued, this is correct given Western advantages, even in post-modern warfare. The problem for the West is that faced with a ‘Mass’ opponent, it is difficult for many soldiers to make the intellectual leap away from ‘Mass’: that being outnumbered might not be disadvantageous.  There is a comfort in numbers; emotionally and cognitively size matters. Soldiers will always crave ‘Mass’ because they equate it with safety.

The inability to make that leap is almost ingrained in soldiers. At a RUSI roundtable discussion on the future use of the Army Reserve last year, Army policy makers were confident that they could create ‘Mass’ by the mobilisation of retired soldiers, it was estimated that this number was around 40,000.  The problem is that they cannot be armed and equipped and neither can the platforms which they operate be regenerated.  The British Army, it is true, is less exposed than say the RAF or Royal Navy to ‘Precision’, but if 3rd UK Division was left burning on the Steppe, no amount of volunteers could replace it, because the platforms and equipment which enable the fighting doctrine could not be replaced. The critical vulnerability for the UK and most European countries pursuing ‘Precision’ is that they have both failed to retain sufficient war stores to re-equip, and have insufficient reserves to regenerate a force trained to use them.  It is not that ‘Precision’ is wrong, rather it is that it requires greater resource than governments are prepared to give and a good deal more cognitive room than most armies are prepared to make.  

Back to Yorkshire in 1983. You may not be surprised to know that we beat the Orcs, yes they were bigger, but far more immobile, added to that we took a decision to keep the ball away from the scrum and use our speed and agility to our own advantage.  We recognised that their scrum was their critical vulnerability, and so by denying it room to act, we essentially defeated their ‘Mass’ with our ‘Precision’. Even back in the Cold War it was possible to think asymmetrically, even in Yorkshire! Bloody cold though!!

I hope you enjoyed my boyhood memories, yes I am that old!

Speak to you soon, all the best,

Barney

 

 

Because we’re here Lad!

 

1Nigel Green Zulu

As the nights draw in and Summer turns to Autumn, fall for my American readers, and Spring for those in the Antipodes, it is once again time to review the last three months in the career of Barney. Now before you all stop reading, please bear with it, there are some tasty morsels hidden within the self-indulgent salad! To make it easier, the key ‘takeaways’ are in bold (can you tell I wrote this at supper time?).

It will surprise none of you that the most important event of the last three months was my final withdrawal from RUSI and the start of work in Army Communications.  Since starting at Andover, I have been largely responsible for the Army’s Twitter account (@BritishArmy) and I hope you may have noticed a change in tone and style, with an emphasis on the historical and much more active engagement (we have doubled our reach in the last two months). Indeed, next week I am building a series of tweets telling the story of the Battle of Arnhem as it happened in 1944, mirroring the one I did for DDay75. It may also surprise you to know that the Army’s Social Media team is tiny; I am continually impressed by the output of my team-mates. In addition to my ‘day job’, I have been honoured to take part in wargaming the Army’s proposed Army Operating Concept as the only non-commissioned participant, to have been the only non-commissioned member of the Army’s Intellectual Hub Working Group, and to be working with others across Army Headquarters improving access to education and conceptual understanding.

The Fifth Season of War Talks was highly successful, an all-female bill provided our audience with the very latest research on subjects as diverse as Information Warfare and Identification Discs, many of which were recorded as podcasts for The Wavell Room, the leading website for British military thought. I must thank Sarah Ashbridge, Szabina Maguire, Dr Vanda Wilcox, Alicia Kearns, and Cristina Varriale for their excellent talks, but in addition I must thank my colleague from RUSI, Magdalena Markiewicz, who spoke as the first speaker in the Royal Navy’s ‘Quarterdeck Talks‘. The ‘Quarterdeck Talks’ bring the same sort of informal PME to the Navy which ‘War Talks’ brought to the Army – gratifyingly the Ink-spots are gradually spreading. I am speaking to the British Army about filming the talks for publication on the British Army website at the moment, so watch the ‘net for the Talks going viral!

The Sixth Season of War Talks gets underway on Thursday with a talk by Doctor Pippa Malmgren, an entrepreneur and former presidential aide to President George W. Bush, entitled, ‘Drones, Data, and the Democratisation of the Airspace’.  It promises to be superb and, for those unfamiliar with Doctor Malmgren, I urge you to look at her previous speeches on You Tube and to read her excellent book,’The Leadership Lab’. In her wake, we have already promoted a stellar line-up: Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, Professor Anthony King, Natia Seskuria, Professor Patrick Porter, and Doctor Dan Whittingham. I can also announce that we will return to support our friends in Tonbridge with a Talk by Brigadier Ben Kite on 26 September 2019 and add a final Talk for this year at Aldershot on 10 December 2019, when Elisabeth Braw of RUSI will speak on Modern Deterrence and National Resilience.

Connected to the War Talks series has been the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize 2019, I am running the Prize on behalf of the Army for the second year on the trot and much has been learned from last year. The Prize has been far better advertised this year and has a much more diverse judging panel, but we have much more to do to place it where it deserves to be in 2020. The Prize will be launched earlier, with more fanfare, with its own web-page, and with even more judges; our aim is to encourage reading and learning and we must concentrate on that objective. This years books have included works by Lord Ashcroft and Isobel Oakeshott, Sir Anthony Beevor, Doctor Jonathan Boff, Sir Max Hastings, Lindsey Hilsum, David Patrikarakos, and Professor Patrick Porter. The judges’ results are slowly coming in and I hope to have all the counting done and be in a position to announce the winner of the BAMBY19 in early October.

So what next? Well in addition to the War Talks series and the BAMBY, I will be continuing work on the Army Operating Concept and the Intellectual Hub, we will be intensifying work in the area of inclusive education, and I will be carrying out some exciting work for the Director of DCDC at Shrivenham. In addition, I will start my much delayed PhD this Autumn, conduct three Battlefield Studies, speak at two conferences, and teach the practical use of social media to courses run by the General Staff Centre at RMA Sandhurst. It seems that any thoughts of a slowing down in my workload post RUSI are redundant, I am already booked for battlefield studies in Belgium, France, Croatia and Bosnia, and South Africa in 2020 as well as several conferences in the UK. Above all, I will continue to fight for greater meritocracy within the Army and better professional education across Defence, leading by example.

Finally, in case any of you were wondering about my motivations, and I’m sure some of you are, be under no illusions, I cannot be promoted, I cannot be commissioned, no-one is going to recommend me for honours, and I don’t receive any pay or financial assistance with any of my activities. Simply, I do what I do both because I love it and because it needs to be done. ‘Why us Sergeant Major?’, ‘Because we’re here Lad! Because we’re here!’

All the very best,

Barney

 

‘And yet its stream ran through my heart’

Today is the sixteenth anniversary of my first real taste of combat and, more importantly, of the death of a friend, Fusilier Russell Beeston; Beestie would have been 42 this year, but he never got out of his twenties. Each year, I tend to publish the same blog post, an extract I wrote for the ‘Borderer’s Chronicle’, the Regimental Magazine of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, in 2004. I make no excuses for this, first it releases me from the painful experience of remembrance by using Microsoft’s handy ‘cut and paste’ facility and secondly it means that I keep a promise made a long time ago to Beestie’s mum.

In 2018, I discovered Edmund Blunden’s ‘Undertones of War’ which, together with my regular visits to the battlefields of the Somme, has brought me a great deal of peace, perhaps beyond the understanding of my family and companions. In 1973, a year before he died, Blunden remarked, ‘My experiences of the First World War have haunted me all my life, and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this’, I fear this will be both my fate and that of too many of my comrades too. In publishing the text from the Chronicle, I have redacted all names except two, mine and the man who cannot give his permission. This Blog is in memory of a big Glaswegian Territorial, Fusilier Russell Beeston, who will forever be 26:

‘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 the works of Edmund Blunden 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,

Nisi Dominus Frustra

Mission Command: The Once and Future King?

Exercise Citadel Guibert 18 in France.

Pictured are British soldiers from 8 Engineer Brigade during the planning phase in the operations room during Exercise Citadel Guibert 18. British and French troops deploy together on EX CITADEL GUIBERT 18, a combined arms staff exercise designed to test the interoperability of both nations. As well as learning about and testing the viability of French and British communications systems, 12 Armoured Infantry Brigade HQ worked alongside French Dutch and American officers exercising a scenario designed to practice the command and control of joint operation to stabilise a region troubled by terrorism and humanitarian issues.

Thank you all for supporting last week’s blog, it was really gratifying to witness your interest and engagement both with the blog itself and the wider subject of manoeuvrism. As promised, I will attempt to give ‘Mission Command’ the same treatment this week, in what will be the third in this occasional series. If you are arriving fresh to the blog it may help you to contextualise this week’s offering by reading the last two posts first. What can you expect from this article? It will aim to give a concise and simple explanation of ‘Mission Command’, discuss why it is so important to manoeuvre warfare, and outline where the concept might develop in future. First, what is ‘Mission Command’? In simple terms, ‘Mission Command’ is a method of commanding men which directs what is to be achieved, leaving how that achievement is to be reached to subordinate expertise; its antithesis is ‘Directive Command’ which dictates both what is to be achieved and how that achievement is to be reached.

So why is command so important? Warfare is perhaps the most complex and chaotic environment in which human beings operate. Since time immemorial, leaders of fighting entities have recognised the need to maintain control of their followers in battle, whilst simultaneously attempting to dominate their opponents. In 1918, the Commander of the Australian Corps in France, General Sir John Monash, described the character of contemporary warfare in these terms: ‘A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases. Every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment and play its phrase in the general harmony‘. By inference, Monash characterised the role of the commander as that of a conductor: providing the musicians with a score, directing their actions, and ensuring that the parts worked together in harmony. Command, Control, and Communication (C3) are thus intimately connected, representing the means by which decisions are made, directions diffused, and the enemy defeated.

It is often said that there is no such thing as bad weather, merely poor clothing choices, similarly, there is no right or wrong method of command. Command is best situated where information is optimal within a paradigm of warfare and is exercised along a spectrum, with some commanders preferring to direct every activity in minute detail, while others give greater latitude to their subordinates. In the Second World War, Britain’s two most successful commanders, Montgomery and Slim, operated at different ends of this spectrum: Montgomery, the consummate staff officer, directed his campaigns intimately, in a style Monash would have immediately recognised, on the other hand Slim, the regimental officer, tended to state his intent and leave his subordinate commanders to decide how to deliver the results. Both men were highly successful, operating very different concepts of command; ultimately, successful command is defined only by victory on the field of battle.

So why is ‘Mission Command’ so intimately connected to manoeuvrism? Manoeuvrism is predicated on the rapid exploitation of the results of pre-emption, dislocation and disruption; in these circumstances, the commander best positioned to take decisive action is situated at the tip of the spear. Although perhaps a little too simplistic, let’s use a hypothetical example in conjunction with the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) construct to illustrate the advantage of ‘Mission Command’ over ‘Directive Command’ in manoeuvre warfare: two commanders, A and B, see the enemy withdrawing, both use their knowledge, skills, and experience to assess the situation, whereas manoeuvrist A, empowered to act, takes advantage of the situation and strikes his opponent turning retreat into rout, B communicates his observation and assessment to a superior headquarters and awaits instruction, by the time he receives instruction the enemy has been reinforced and advantage lost. ‘Mission Command’ thus has an advantage over ‘Directive Command’ in the context of manoeuvrism because freedom of decision and action are devolved to the point where information is optimised.

So is that it? ‘Mission Command 1, Directive Command 0? Well no, and for three reasons:

First, context is everything; what might be an appropriate style of command in a conventional warfighting environment may not be appropriate in another type of operating environment. In lower-intensity operations, particularly counter-insurgency operations, the complex and delicate interplay of political and cultural factors at the operational and strategic levels demand a more directive command model – The ‘Tactical Minister’ has greater situational awareness than the ‘Strategic Corporal’.

Second, as technology develops, robotics, human-machine teaming, improved communications and sensors, and the application of artificial intelligence will transform command and control, perhaps removing the human from command at the tactical level. Temptingly, if technology could provide dependable situational awareness solutions such that command could be exercised just as effectively from a bunker in the UK as on the battlefield, we might find ‘Mission Command’ redundant.

Finally, as virtual aspects emerge, we must ask whether ‘Mission Command’ is appropriate in a non-physical environment? Are we sufficiently situationally aware in the virtual world to permit ‘Mission Command’ or is the use of cyber weapons and disinformation so strategic, even when used at a tactical level, that their use must be directed? I have no solution to offer in this respect, although it is an interesting question. To counter-balance this discussion it is perhaps important to remember that virtual operations are but analogue operations enhanced by the computer chip.

‘Mission Command’ is in effect the connective tissue of manoeuvrism. In a conventional warfighting environment, it allows those at the tactical level, operating where information is optimal, to make decisions with one eye on the operational and strategic intent of their commander. An invention of the nineteenth century Prussian General Staff, it is neither a universal panacea nor an eternal truth, it may have been King in Von Moltke the Elder’s paradigm of war, but its reign may be rapidly coming to an end at the hands of technology and the changing character of warfare.

Speak to you all soon,

Barney

 

 

 

Outmanoeuvring the Velvet Curtain.

combat

Military language has a curious duality; exclusive and inclusive, it is both a gatekeeper and a conduit. It acts to permit access to those who know the right words, while excluding those who don’t; for those who do, it has the potential to open a world of possibilities, for those who don’t, exposure to it can be an intellectually damaging experience. In 2005, while on my Sergeant’s qualification course, my colleagues and I were set a simple tactical problem; fresh from combat experience in Iraq, I gave a good, effective solution, only to be chastised by the Officer Commanding for a failure to use doctrinally correct vocabulary. To be clear, I had never been taught the right words, let alone the doctrine, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: if the Army wasn’t going to give me access to effective professional military education, I would educate myself.

This week’s blog is in part the result of that decision, but equally a reaction to some very supportive feedback from my last blogpost. Like last week, I will take a military concept, simplify it, and clarify some of the related issues. The language may not please the Doctrine Nazis, but it will hopefully help soldiers to understand that the gobbledegook spoken by their superiors is merely a smokescreen, not something to be feared: the Doctrine Wizard behind the curtain has lots of expensive education, but no magic. I joined the British Army in the wake of the first Gulf War, at that time all talk was of manoeuvrism; an avid reader of military history even then, I understood that movement in war was important, but I had no cognition of manoeuvre warfare. This weeks concept is Manoeuvrism – the art of moving to create advantage, while striking the enemy’s weaknesses- the military equivalent of swerving to avoid a punch, while kicking your opponent squarely in the balls.

There are two dominant concepts of war, Attrition and Manoeuvre.  A good way of understanding the difference is by envisioning them as different types of heavyweight boxer.  Attrition is enormously heavy and powerful, but lacks speed and agility; against an opponent Attrition has but one option, to slug it out, remorselessly grinding an opponent down, hoping that greater resources will win out in the end.  Manoeuvre is lighter, less powerful, but far more agile, aiming to win by landing precise blows at critical points while moving to avoid the opponent’s strength. History is replete with examples of both, but for ease consider the war on the Western Front during most of the First World War as an exemplar of Attrition, while Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, exemplifies Manoeuvre. It is important too to remember that although manoeuvrism has only been official doctrine since the 1980s, it has a history as old as time itself. There is nothing new under the Sun.  

The British Army has not always favoured manoeuvre over attrition. As stated previously, as late as the early 1980s British doctrine aimed to wear down its opposition with concentrated firepower, literally slogging it out with the Red Army on the North German Plain. The problem for Britain was that by that time it lacked the resource in both men and material to prosecute the sort of war it had fought from D-Day to Berlin (it had been barely sustainable in 1944) and advances in precision guided munitions, airpower, and networked computing were profoundly changed the character of warfare.  On both sides of the Atlantic, but in particular in the United States, reviews of recent combat experience, notably in Vietnam and of the Israeli experience in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, together with assessments of German and Soviet operational art in the Second World War, and an examination of the Soviet military’s contemporary strengths and weaknesses, led to a change in approach away from attrition and towards manoeuvre with the adoption of the concept of AirLand Battle in 1982.

AirLand Battle sought to dislocate and disrupt the Soviets’ critical weakness, its highly centralised command and control systems, while using air superiority to cut supply lines and destroy units paralysed by the resultant lack of direction. Precision fires would thus denude the opponent’s will to fight, by precision targeting, eventually leading to the enemy’s collapse. This new sort of war would still be fought at the tactical level, but would be won at the operational level, with the conduct of the campaign – operational art – being more important than individual tactical success.  Although this concept was never tested against its intended adversary, it was accepted on both sides of the Iron Curtain that the West had an unassailable advantage, an advantage that proved devastating against Saddam Hussein’s army (modelled and equipped like a Soviet Bloc force) in Kuwait in 1991 and again in 2003.

Times change, however, and the West’s opponents have not sat still. As described last week, the West’s opponents, keen to avoid triggering a devastating conventional response but cognisant of the lack of resilience in Western societies, Western political timidity, and economic weakness have chosen to exploit the ‘Gray Space’. In addition, state actors are developing state-of-the-art Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) systems and reforming C2 structures, while non-state actors are exploiting subterranean methods to defeat Western sensor arrays and moving the fight into densely populated urban areas to further negate the West’s putative conventional advantage.    This has caused a number of dilemmas for Western manoeuvrism to which, theoretically at least, it has risen with concepts like Information Manoeuvre, the Army Operating Concept, and Multi-Domain Operations, each of which intend to incorporate both the physical and the virtual. In short, the US and British militaries have come to accept that the kick in the balls must hurt the mind and the body.

So to sum up, Manoeuvrism is the use of movement and blows, both virtual and physical, to pre-empt, dislocate, and disrupt an opponent and in doing so bring about his physical and moral collapse. It is a beautiful concept, but one that must keep evolving as the enemy evolves. Thank you for stopping by, next week mission command gets the Warrant Officer treatment.

All the best,

Barney

 

 

 

Contesting the Gray Space.



Fake news word tag cloud. 3D rendering, blue variant.

This week’s blog set me a dilemma. On one hand, encouraged by a generous personal recommendation in the excellent Australian website Grounded Curiosity, I thought I might write about professional military education, particularly given recent Twitter debates exposing some rather antiquated attitudes towards the education of Other Ranks in the British military. On the other, last week’s Blog has generated considerable debate about both the proposed Army Operating Concept and operations in the ‘Gray Space‘, I thought I might explore some of the lacunae that discussion with colleagues at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and Army Headquarters has highlighted. On balance, the latter would seem to offer greater room for debate and the greater chance of a fruitful outcome. In this blog I intend to look what exactly is the ‘Gray Space’, how we got here, how and why we intend to contest it, and, most importantly, whether such competition is actually necessary.

In April 2019, I was given the task of promoting the Chief of the General Staff’s (CGS) Innovation Prize 2019, the theme of which was competing in the ‘Gray Space’. It was clear from some of the submissions that there was limited understanding of the meaning of the term and even less of how to operate within it. Quite simply, it is the state of international relations between war and peace; if one considers this to be a spectrum of activity, with absolute peace and total war at either extremity, then one is well on the way to understanding the bit in the middle – the ‘Gray Space’. Despite the protestations of neophiles, the World was not invented last week; it is not seeing unprecedented technological development, international relations are no more complex or dangerous than they have been at any other time in modern history, and ‘constant competition’ has been a constant characteristic of human affairs for millennia. Their fallacy of presentism – the belief that our present is unique – is itself not unique, it is a ‘vampire paradox’ – however often you kill it, it keeps regenerating.  The simple truth is that there has always been a ‘Gray Space’ between War and Peace; typically, traditional actions short of war have been acts of sabotage, espionage, and propaganda, in fact all the good stuff Bond villains get up to in their big screen capers. Like Bond villains, the addition of the computer chip has merely expanded the reach of these effects into the virtual world. Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 for those of a biblical persuasion.

That the ‘Gray Space’ has come to dominate Western military thinking in the last ten years is simply the somewhat contradictory nexus of successful conventional deterrence, political timidity, denuded homeland resilience, and economic liberalism. On many occasions in the last three hundred years casus belli have been entirely spurious; in the eighteenth century, Britain went to war over the removal of a merchant seaman’s ear, in the nineteenth because of the looting of a shopkeeper’s house, and yet the murder of a British subject on British soil by chemical poisoning was considered insufficient cause for war in 2017. Some might argue that the exclusion of military action was a sensible assessment of the military balance of power, but it is hardly the first time that Britain has baulked in the face of Russian aggression. Rather political timidity is the underlying factor, something which the Kremlin, and others farther afield, are keen to exploit. Paradoxically, our opponents’ activities in the ‘Gray Space’, either virtual of physical are a reaction to Western conventional superiority. It is fear of the West’s military capabilities which causes adversaries, be they state or non-state actors, to seek asymmetric answers – to exploit the West’s weaknesses, whilst at the same time taking advantage of their own relative strengths.  In this way, by carefully navigating Western indecision and avoiding a conventional military reaction, the West’s opponents have out-manoeuvred them and forced the West to fight on ground of their enemy’s choosing.

The gap between war and peace – ‘the Gray Space’ –  has thus been created by a combination of overwhelming Western military strength and a failure of its political will. The lack of will has been exacerbated by reduced Western resilience, both societal and military, and economic austerity following the financial collapse of 2008. Societies largely divorced from hardship and increasingly dependent on ‘Just in Time’ logistics, vulnerable information networks, and satellite-enabled precision for everything from food and water to entertainment cannot be easily taken to war against an adversary well-versed in cyber techniques whose populace is far more robust and less dependent on technology. Furthermore, budgetary limitations since 2008 have disproportionately impacted on government departments like the British Ministry of Defence, renowned for profligacy and poor investment decisions, whose previous default was to throw money at a project until it worked. In the austerity era, the paradigm on which Western military superiority is based, lethal and exquisite platforms able to deliver precision effects, has become so expensive that duplicates and redundancy have become virtually impossible.  Indeed, the loss of even a small number of those platforms could be catastrophic, Jellicoe may have been able to lose the First World War in a morning, but a junior RAF pilot could lose a war today with a moment’s inattention.

jutland-bf-gribble

Taking all these factors into account, it is unlikely that the ‘Gray Space’ will evaporate in the short-term. Western militaries will continue to invest in systems which provide conventional superiority, Western societies will continue to operate in a dangerously unsustainable way, and Western governments will remain extremely risk averse. In light of this, Western militaries are developing concepts for contesting the ‘Gray Space’, notably the United States’ Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and the British Army Operating Concept (AOC).  These programmes aim to take a whole of government approach, the British call it ‘Fusion Doctrine‘, to use virtual and physical effects to create multiple dilemmas for the enemy, throwing him off balance, and effectively defeating his will by pre-emption, dislocation, and disruption. In other words, by adapting the manoeuvrist approach to the twenty-first century.  Logically, these approaches make sense, continuing investment and training in the conventional warfare paradigm ensures the West’s opponents must operate in the ‘Gray Space’, given political distaste for kinetic action the military’s only course of action is to learn to defend the national interests in that ‘Space’, but this is more problematic than might be apparent. First, if the military’s role is to fight in the Clausewitzian sense, should it be operating in a ‘space’ more properly in the realm of diplomacy, espionage, and political manoeuvre? Secondly, and this is much more controversial, if the character of warfare has changed should Western militaries invest less in the wholly unlikely paradigm of conventional war and instead use the money to contest the ‘Gray Space’? It is my belief that the solution lies in maintaining military superiority whilst closing down the ‘Gray Space’ rather than competing in it, but this can only be achieved by being prepared to take military action earlier and more aggressively, and what is more, being prepared to message that offensive intent persistently. What do you think? Let me know.

In conclusion, I hope this brief piece has explained the ‘Gray Space’ and debunked some of the complicated language which seems to accompany any military debate.  I am far from an authority on the matter, but I do understand it and it is my earnest hope that if more of us do understand the concepts at the strategic level we will be better informed for the future.

Have a great weekend,

Barney

War Talks Series

 

As One Door Closes…

Exercise Citadel Guibert 18 in France.

In a very few days, my tenure as the Army Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) will come to an end.  It has undoubtedly been the most satisfying assignment of my career and I am extremely grateful to all those whose efforts made it possible.  My benefactors are far too numerous to thank individually, for fear of omission I will not attempt to list them here, instead I dedicate this Blog to them. Intellectually, the attachment has been transformational; prior to arrival at RUSI, I flattered myself a free-thinker, a vanity of which I was rapidly disabused.  Those who follow are strongly advised to leave both prejudices and constrained thinking at the barrack gate!

By way of a valediction, what follows are some impressions of the trends which captured have my imagination over the last year on Whitehall.  I must make it clear that nothing I have to say is anything more than personal observation and certainly not either the opinion or policy of RUSI, the Army, or the Ministry of Defence. First, my overwhelming impression of the ship of state is that it is somewhat neglected.  The Captain and crew appear to have forgotten the charts, there is no hand on the wheel, and refit is significantly overdue.  There is little or no idea of what Britain is for; although this lacuna is by no means unique, our most important global competitors each have a grand strategy, an idea of where they want their nations to be in the future, in its place Britain has only tactical reactivity. A German officer with whom I was recently in conversation remarked that Britain has been devoid of strategy since Churchill’s defeat at the polls in 1945.  Britain’s tactics are thus her grand strategy.

Laying beneath the void which should be occupied by grand strategy, is the cross-government ‘Fusion Doctrine‘ which aims to combine the efforts of the departments of state to support…yes, you guessed it, grand strategy. Fusion Doctrine thus hangs limply, disconnected from grand strategy, supporting government policy only at the tactical level, unable to fulfil its considerable promise because it has no more idea in which direction the ship of state is sailing than can be gleaned from a wet finger held in the breeze. Where does the Army fit in this situation? The Army is beset around by a battery of other problems: shortages of resource and the struggle to remain relevant and credible become existential when juxtaposed against political timidity and the changing character of war. In short, the Catch-22 facing the Army is that its political masters demand demonstrable utility before providing investment, but the Army cannot provide the evidence because it has no war to fight. That said, the Army has been inventive, being increasingly involved in non-kinetic activities across the globe in an attempt to prove relevance; paradoxically, however, whilst these activities have secured crumbs of investment, it has been both insufficient to provide the transformation required and has led to a loss of manpower.

So what of the future? I absolutely reject the fallacy of presentism, but it is undoubtedly true that the character of warfare is changing, even if some of this change is within our capacity to reverse. Western militaries remain strongly wedded to conventional combined arms warfare and are most comfortable when thinking and fighting in these terms against a peer opponent. Even their experiences in the Middle East, and evidence from other conflicts worldwide, have not wholeheartedly converted them to operations in the ‘Gray Space‘… the zone between war and peace created and sustained by the same political timidity which denies the military relevance and investment. The new and promising Army Operating Concept (AOC) aims to contest the ‘Gray Space’, although it is unclear whether it originates from a position of the need to attract money or as a result of a Damascene conversion to hybridity. Indeed, the Army still clings to its ‘warfighting’ Division, despite lacking the manpower and equipment to support it.  It does this in an attempt to prove to its American cousin that it remains credible and able to fit within the US Army’s structures at Two-Star level…a fight which it is losing as it inexorably shrinks away. Indeed a cynic might interject that the AOC is merely an attempt to mirror and support the US Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) Concept. If we doubt that British influence is dwindling, we only need look at the US Army’s withdrawal from British professional military education courses at the UK Defence Academy, where our missing operational layer and failure to provide the level of critical thinking out closest ally deems essential, as an arbiter of irrelevance.

To round up, I know that this Blog has been somewhat polemical, it is so designed to get us thinking about the lacunae which undermine British defence and security. In the future we will need to be more resilient, both militarily and societally, we will have to decide whether to tolerate the ‘Gray Space’ or prosecute war against our opponents, and above all we will have to find leaders who have a strategic vision and understand that tactics might win battles, but war is won at the operational and strategic levels.  The situation is by no means irreversible, Britain can return to a central position in global affairs, but it will take vision, investment, and leadership and whither that?

All the best for this week, have a great weekend,

Barney