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,


‘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,





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.


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.


Covid-19, #BAMBY20 and the War Talks.


Last night I had to take the regrettable decision to postpone our 55th War Talk as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the change in British government advice, and after a conversation with our speaker, Brigadier Ben Kite, it became clear that continuing with the Talk was untenable. As a result, the Talk has been postponed until Tuesday, 8th September 2020. At this stage, I believe that the British Army Military Book of the Year 2020 (#BAMBY20) will be untouched by the ongoing outbreak.

Those of you who follow the War Talks will no doubt note that we have one final Talk scheduled this season on Tuesday, 7th April 2020. At this stage I do not intend to postpone the final Talk entirely; instead, I am planning to video the Talk for the War Talks You Tube Site  and record it as a podcast for The Wavell Room without an audience. Of course, this is highly dependent on the cooperation of the Speaker, the Army Libraries Information Service, and Her Majesty’s Government but it does present itself as an attractive compromise, keeping our hungry audience sated with informal professional military education, while working within public health restrictions at this difficult time.

A further complication is that we have all but completed our programme for the Eighth Series of War Talks. Whilst the speakers have not yet been consulted, if they are able I hope to publish the Talks digitally, albeit without an audience. The remainder of this blog is given over to details of our forthcoming potential speakers and, in some cases, the subject areas they have previously offered to discuss. After Easter, our first speaker is planned to be Colonel Chris MacGregor, my boss and the Assistant Head of British Army Communications. A true polymath, Colonel MacGregor’s interests are diverse it is likely that he will talk either about the developing strategic importance of cryptocurrencies or about the role of social media in future warfare. Whatever he chooses to speak about, his talk on Tuesday, 28th April 2020 will be hugely informative and engaging.

We plan to deliver two Talks in May, the first by Dr Ziya Meral, Senior Resident Fellow at the Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research and Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI, will be held on Tuesday, 12th May 2020 with the working title of ‘Turkey, Russia and the Question of NATO’s Southern Flank’. This Talk on a dynamic and evolving series of relationships, will be sure to answer many questions while, I suspect, opening up many, many more. Later in the month on Tuesday 19th May 2020 we are fortunate to have Dr Alison Hawks, Executive Director of the Common Mission Project and the Director of European Operations for BMNT, an American defense company using innovative methods to solve technical problems for the United States’ Department of Defense and the British MoD.  She will introduce the techniques used to find those solutions and discuss how militaries benefit in her Talk entitled, ‘Harnessing Young Talent to Solve the UK’s Toughest National Security Problems’.

June sees no change in the diverse nature of our speakers with Dr Anicée Van Engeland, Senior Lecturer in International Security at Cranfield University talking about her research into Islamist radicalism on Tuesday, 9th of June 2020. Dr Van Engeland recently published a superb and very readable article on the Soleimani assassination and its effects on Iran in the Wavell Room. We are also hoping to have the eminent and sartorially splendid Dr, Peter Caddick-Adams as a speaker in June, advocating for his book, ‘Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day‘, as a potential winner in the #BAMBY20. A date has yet to be finalised for this event, but another of this year’s BAMBY finalists, Dr Jonathan Fennell of King’s College, London , has agreed to speak on the subject of his book, ‘Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War‘ on Tuesday, 30th June 2020. Dr Fennell’s book has been shortlisted for a number of military history literary prizes in addition to the BAMBY and we look forward to hearing about it in mid-Summer 2020.

The variety doesn’t stop there! In July our first speaker is Ms. Victoria Taylor, Twitter’s @SpitfireFilly, television historian, and a PhD student at Hull University. Her chosen subject area is the German Luftwaffe of the Nazi period and further details of her air power Talk can be found in my previous Blog. Miss Taylor will deliver her Talk on Tuesday, 7th July 2020 and is followed on Tuesday, 28th July 2020 by the last Talk in our Eighth Season. Our final Talk will be delivered by Dr Heather Montgomery, Assistant Excavation Director at Queen’s University, Belfast, on the subject of her doctorate, ‘Training Kitchener’s New Army 1914-18: An Archaeological perspective on the Irish Experience’, taking an inter-disciplinary approach to the experience of soldiers of the Great War. Dr Montgomery also worked on the excavations in Thiepval Wood and is a fascinating speaker.

The Eighth Season will, if it is allowed to go ahead, offer something for everyone with an interest in military studies broadly defined. From the wars of the past, through current affairs, to the wars of tomorrow, I believe War Talks offers a degree of width not achieved by any other Series. It should also be noted that by the start of the Ninth Season in September 2020, the Series will have delivered 63 Talks in three years, a truly  prodigious number. The Talks are, as always, to take place at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot with a start time of 1900 hrs prompt and will be released on You Tube within 24 hours of that timing. We continue to try to move the Talks out into the wider UK, any help in achieving that will be very gratefully received.

Your support, especially at this difficult time, is very much appreciated, stay safe and well and speak to you soon.




Integrated Review – A View from the Beaches.


Last Sunday, incarcerated by the rain, I was pleased to have my boredom relieved by the 1958 classic British war film ‘Dunkirk‘. Leslie Norman’s masterpiece tells the human story of the Allied defeat in the Battle of France and the astonishing effort which evacuated over a third of a million men from the beaches of Flanders in May 1940. The story is not exclusively military – yes, it tells the story of a section of infantry retreating before the rapid German advance, but more importantly it articulates the awakening of civil and military integration; a fusion which would, five years later, result in the defeat of the Nazis. Britain in the Spring of 1940 was not the unified and universally determined place of popular mythology, Dunkirk and the subsequent Battle of Britain forged that mould over the next six months or so. My point? Fusion Doctrine, the latest fad in Whitehall, is not all that original but it is essential.

In the film, Charles Foreman, a journalist played by Bernard Lee, takes his motor yacht across to France to play his part in Operation Dynamo. Stranded by the tide and in general conversation, he is asked how an Army which had shattered the Germans in 1918 could have been so humiliated by its vanquished enemy a little over twenty years later. His reply is that it was a matter of ‘Guns and Butter’, in the seven years leading to the outbreak of the War, the British and chosen butter while the Germans had chosen guns. While this summary is not wholly accurate, it does offer a warning from history: to neglect one’s defence and security is to make oneself a hostage to fortune. These two lessons – the critical importance of the Clausewitzian trinity (military, people, and government) and the need to prioritise defence over other governmental responsibilities – should be at the heart of the recently announced Integrated Review.

As always, things are not that simple: First, defence has been steadily de-prioritised since the end of the Second World War and is no longer seen by government as being worthy of its own pillar of national strategy, rather it has become a subordinate part of wider security. Secondly, while ‘Fusion Doctrine’ rightly recognises the need for a whole of government approach to national strategy, it misses the need to enhance national resilience, by which I mean the British people’s ability to cope with crises, both natural and man-made. Finally, and perhaps of most concern, is the presentism which afflicts public policy. At a recent business launch, the former Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, stated that if Defence believed that the forthcoming ‘Integrated Review’ was just a matter of re-balancing tanks, planes, and ships, it was sorely wrong. While her comments can be interpreted as a rallying cry for Defence to think in a more creative way, they also betray a neophile fascination with aspects of defence which are more influenced by science fiction than empirical design. Together, these factors give considerable cause for concern.

We in Defence do not help ourselves. The current Chief of the Defence Staff has repeatedly displayed his presentist credentials and the Army is locked into projects like Specialised Infantry, Strike, and the Army Operating Concept which are designed to prove its relevance as an arm of national security to a cynical Downing Street. This combination of a failure to correctly contextualise the changing character of warfare and government’s myopic insistence that investment must see an immediate return endanger national security, as does a fixation with five-year reviews driven by the electoral cycle. In short, in pursuit of budget share, all three Services are locked into a pursuit of novelty at the cost of effectiveness – well-trained people and precision combined arms battle are still our best defence, they may need to be blended with elements that enhance that effect (space, cyber, information), but to prioritise the enablers over the effect is to critically endanger UK defence in the future.

So what should the result of the ‘Integrated Review’ look like? It should be whole of government with every department of state pulling in the same direction towards a single strategic objective. It should make societal resilience a central priority with education and healthcare being as important to national defence as our armed forces – if we are to deter our opponents, we must improve both the sustainability of our societal model and the robustness of our people. In terms of the armed forces, the Royal Navy must be given the central role; post-Brexit Britain depends on secure global trading links and only the Navy can do this, does this mean more big ships? Probably not, but it means greater investment in capabilities which support Britain’s future. In light of that, and with a low likelihood of an increased Defence budget, both the Army and Royal Air Force will have to cut their cloth frugally. The Regular Army should concentrate on fighting on land, using information manoeuvre to enhance effect and an expanded Specialised Infantry to learn lessons for the rest of the Army and improve professionalism. The Army Reserve should be re-roled as a homeland defence and national resilience force – to pretend that a Reserve can be effectively equipped and trained on the cheap as a kind of follow-on force is yet another fallacy. Finally, the Royal Air Force needs to reconsider whether it needs a sixth-generation fighter when its strategic role is lift and its tactical role is ground support. Pointy jets may be sexy, but when your enemy is two blokes on a moped planting IEDs, a billion pound aircraft and similarly expensive guided munition is hardly economic.

This blog has been a rapid canter through the problems facing UK Defence as it embarks on yet another politically driven defence review. In an ideal world, a patient government would lay down a national grand strategy and provide adequate finance for all departments of government to serve it, it would ask Defence to match its capabilities to that strategy and understand that it is an insurance policy not a utility bill. Unfortunately, this will probably not be the outcome; ideas of Total Defence, an effective Operating Concept, and conceptual realism will, it is predicted, be subsumed by a wave of presentist nonsense and cost savings which will leave Defence as far less relevant than it was before. On that depressing note I will leave you, I’ll be back in March.

All the very best,


War Talks and BAMBY20 Updated.

20191201-War Talks – Seventh Season (Jan - Mar 2020)1

Although I’d rather be writing about something more conceptual, an important part of this blog is keeping you in touch with what is going on with the ‘War Talks’ Series and the British Army Military Book of the Year 2020. Our next Talk takes place this Tuesday, 11th February 2020 when Abigail Watson of the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme will speak at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot on the subject of ‘Fusion Doctrine in Five Steps: Lessons Learned from Remote Warfare in Africa‘. After that, however, the seventh season of the Series will face significant change.

Unfortunately, due to commitments in Israel, Dr Raphael Marcus has had to bring forward his trip to the United Kingdom and hence his ‘War Talk’. Dr Marcus’ Talk will now take place on Tuesday 25th February 2020, replacing the Talk by Brigadier Ben Kite which will now take place on Tuesday 17th March 2020. Timings and titles will remain the same. A benefit of the change has been that I have been able to organise an extra Talk on Monday 24th February 2020 at Army Headquarters in Andover. This additional Talk will be on the subject of ‘The Post-Soleimani Response from Iran and Hezbollah’ and will be recorded, as usual, for the Wavell Room and the ‘War Talks’ You Tube site.

It has also been necessary to postpone the Talk by Dr Ziya Meral until early in the Eighth Season. Unfortunately, Dr Meral is busy with work in the Middle East, however, I can now announce the title of his postponed Talk will be, ‘Turkey, Russia, and the Question of NATO’s Southern Flank‘. This Talk is currently pencilled in for Tuesday 12th May 2020 and will be the second Talk in the Eighth Season. The first Talk will be given by Colonel Chris MacGregor, Assistant Head of Army Communications and will be a fascinating exposition on the strategic importance of crypto-currency and why we ignore this development at our peril. I have also booked the brilliant young academic, Victoria Taylor, a rising-star in air power history, an Assistant Editor of ‘From Balloons to Drones’, and member of the Herstory Group to speak about her research into the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. Ms Taylor will speak in early July 2020.  The remainder of the Eighth Series is undecided, but it is hoped to reflect the books shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year 2020 (#BAMBY20).

As some of you may have seen, the #BAMBY20 Long-List was published last week. The Long-List Committee was inundated with suggestions, receiving twenty-six nominations from serving soldiers, publishers, and veterans. After removing those ineligible, the field was reduced to twenty-three, and an afternoon of discussion and consideration at Prince Consort’s Library produced the published Long-List. The Long-List of thirteen books will be reduced to around six this month and announced on Friday 28th February 2020. The Long-List has received almost universal praise and I hope that trend continues, there is perhaps a lack of diversity in the nominees, but this is perhaps rather more reflective of the publishing market, particularly in these days of significant anniversaries, than of talent. It is only two years since Dr Aimee Fox won the prize, I am sure she will be joined by another woman writer in the not too distant future. Keep an eye open on the British Army website for the Short-List!!

In addition to the changes above, ‘War Talks’ will be exploiting its relationship with RUSI, The Wavell Room, and the British Army to reach 65 Talks by it’s third anniversary in July 2020. In addition to our intimate audiences at Prince Consort’s Library, we have a social media presence measured in the thousands, and a growing digital audience both as podcasts and You Tube videos. Wavell Room has a new volunteer digital editor and this should lead to faster publication of podcasts, while some investment in microphones and camera mounts should guarantee better quality video for You Tube. In terms of the Talks themselves, next week we hope to see a decision to begin a separate series in the North, spreading the word about informal professional military education. This move has taken too long, I apologise for its tardiness, but would remind you, Dear Reader, that the Talks and, to a lesser degree the BAMBY are a one-man band. I will return with further, more conceptual blogs in due course.

Have a great weekend,




Specialised Infantry: A solution, or the solution?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Service is its own Reward – for most.


Eighteen months ago, I wrote a short blog about the Army’s broken reward system. It observed that Other Ranks, representing around 85% of the Army’s personnel, were receiving only around 15% of the state honours allocated to the Army. They were rather better represented in terms of coins, commendations, and other ephemera, but the Major Reforms of 1992 had been an abject failure in creating a level playing-field for state awards. In June 2018, Other Ranks were awarded around 30% of the MBEs issued, last night’s New Year’s Honours saw this fall to closer to a quarter.

On the face of it, this further fall is rather curious; in a shrinking Army where state awards should be mathematically easier to earn that proposition is true only for commissioned officers.  This suggests that either Other Ranks are failing to produce the level of effort sufficient to merit the award of the MBE, that the current crop of Captains and Majors are working at almost superhuman levels, or a mixture of both. A third option is that the system has become iniquitous.  I do not suggest that the honours graciously bestowed by Her Majesty are undeserved, that is almost certainly not the truth, my feeling is that by the time the deserving Officers are aptly rewarded, there is precious little time remaining for the common soldiery, either to be cited or awarded. The time is therefore ripe for an acceptance that the egalitarian dream of Sr John Major has failed, and that the British Empire Medal should be re-instated for Other Ranks, as it has been in civilian life. Here is what I wrote in 2018:

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

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

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

Lets hope that in eighteen months we’re looking at a Honours List with less MBEs reflecting a shrinking Army, but dozens of BEMs, rewarding the effort of our soldiers doing the donkey work on behalf of the lions who lead them.

I promise that is my last Blog of 2019.

All the very best,