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.
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.
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,