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.


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,


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,



War Talks Series VI – Autumn 2019

War Talks Series

Last week, I published my first blog in three months, promising to give details of the sixth season of my War Talks programme in early August. I hadn’t expected to be able to deliver it any earlier than that, but thanks to the generosity of the speakers I can at least give an outline (see below).  The titles and dates may be amended subsequently, but I wanted to share what had been confirmed at the earliest eventuality. Before I deliver the good news, I’d like to reiterate the point of these Talks: The War Talks series, founded in July 2017, is designed to provide informal professional military education for Defence personnel, both to complement formal education in the profession of arms and to enhance soldier education, which I believe to be insufficient for purpose.  The Talks also have a secondary purpose of advertising the work and capabilities of the historic Prince Consort’s Library in Aldershot, the home of the War Talks, to which we have returned full-time after discussions at HQ Army.

From September onwards, all of our Talks will be available by podcast through both The Wavell Room and Facebook Live. Our first speaker in the new Series will be Dr Pippa Malmgren , a former Presidential Advisor to George W. Bush, advisor to the British government, founder of the DPRM Group and co-founder of H Robotics. Dr Malmgren will speak about the future use of drones and artificial intelligence in war. A couple of weeks later, our second speaker will be Vanya Eftimova Bellinger .  Vanya is an Assistant Professor of Strategy at the United States Air Force University in Alabama and was formerly a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College.  She will be talking about her acclaimed and award-winning book on Marie von Clausewitz, as well as her recent research on Scharnhorst and the Prussian Army reforms of the early nineteenth century.

October’s first speaker will be Professor Patrick Porter of the University of Birmingham. Professor Porter will speak on the subject of his excellent book on Britain’s role in the campaign in Iraq from 2003 – 2009 which is one of the seven shortlisted books for the British Army Military Book of the Year 2019 (BAMBY19).  Professor Porter is followed by an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), Natia Seskuria.  Natia serves in the Defence Ministry of the Republic of Georgia and is a Lecturer in Russian Government and Policy at the University of Georgia.  Her knowledge of Russian ‘Information Warfare’ in Georgia since the war of 2008 is encyclopaedic and it is on this subject that she will address the War Talks audience.

After we turn the clocks back, our first Talk in November will be given by Professor Anthony King of the University of Warwick.  Professor King has worked with the British Army for many years and has written several seminal works on the experience of the British soldier and latterly on command in the twenty-first century.  It is upon this complex question that he will speak to us on Bonfire Night.  At the end of November, we are fortunate to have Dr Daniel Whittingham of the University of Birmingham as our speaker. Dan is a local man, having been born and brought up in Aldershot, but he is also one of the foremost thinkers on Counter-Insurgency in the United Kingdom. He will speak on the subject of the recent history of this type of warfare and its future direction of travel. Dan will return in the New Year to launch his book on Major General Charles Callwell and his book on Small Wars.

We have two special events in December, the first will be our Christmas Lecture. We are still in negotiation with our speaker for this event, but I will give further details a little closer to the time.  In addition, we have the Prizegiving event for the BAMBY19 which will hopefully see the winner talking about their award-winning book.  In total since July 2017 we will have had 49 Talks on wide ranging topics, which I hope will have encouraged soldiers to explore the available educational opportunities provided by the Army.

Many thanks and best wishes,


20190726-War Talks – Sixth Season (Sep - Dec 2019).

Spring into Summer!

This morning, I received a ‘phone call from Mons Barracks regarding the delivery of some parcels addressed to me, probably victims of the vagaries of MoDNet.  Anyway, it acted as a useful reminder that it has been over twelve months since I left the Scots Guards and almost five months since I left RUSI, on a full-time basis at least.  The last few months have flown. I must admit the move to Andover in March was not the smoothest, I rather resisted it I’m afraid, and this put me into the doldrums, a lull from which I am only just emerging.  I am also aware that I have rather neglected this blog, I hope that over the next few weeks I’ll be able to put that right.  This blog post will be largely reflective, but I promise to come back with something a little more interesting with my next posts.

My last review was at the end of March 2019, and a huge amount has happened since then. The biggest event was undoubtedly the opportunity to speak at the FINABEL Annual Conference in Malta. FINABEL is an alliance of European Union militaries, the purpose of which is to enhance military interoperability across Europe.  It was a fascinating meeting held over three days in a beautiful hotel overlooking the Grand Harbour in Valletta.  The culmination of the event, for me at least, was my address to the Chiefs of Staff of the member armies or their senior representatives. Although I have spoken to important groups before, speaking to the most senior soldiers in Europe was an incredible and unforgettable honour. I am surprised and honoured by every invitation to speak, and although not on the same scale, I was also pleased to speak to the Adjutant General’s Corps Warrant Officers’ and Senior NCOs’ Conference at the end of May.  My next speaking engagement is at the 9th Annual Social Media in the Defence and Military Sector Conference in November, I hope to meet some of you there.

Besides speaking, I was also pleased to act as a historical advisor to the Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC) Battlefield Study to Normandy in May, it was a fascinating trip during which I enjoyed seeing young soldiers open up to the conceptual component. It convinced me, even more, that intellectual study of the profession of arms is not just Officer sport.  I have been booked on six battlefield studies over the next year already, four to the Western Front battlefields of the First World War before Christmas, and two to more exotic places in 2020.  The first will be with the AGC to the Balkans in the Spring, the second will be to South Africa in the Summer, or is that Winter.  The Battlefield Studies allow me to teach, that is a real passion but one which is sadly severely limited.  Another area which has been restricted of late has been my passion for writing.  Some of you may have read my chapter on the Western Way of War in RUSI’s ‘The Future Operating Environment Out to 2030’ published last month, unfortunately I have only written two pieces since then, an article on the critical vulnerability of space-enabled precision warfare with the wonderful Alexandra Stickings, and a book review on Mark Galleoti’s book, ‘Russian Political Warfare’. I am determined to re-balance this with a fistful of articles and papers before Christmas.

Another area which has been highly successful, but which I owe some more time to, has been the War Talks series and the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize 2019 (BAMBY19). The Fifth Season, an all-female affair, has pulled in larger audiences thanks to podcasts in conjunction with the Wavell Room; our last, until September, will be given by Cristina Varriale of RUSI tomorrow night at Prince Consort’s Library. The Sixth Season’s itinerary is, as yet, incomplete, but I am hoping to announce it during August.  The BAMBY continues apace, it is hoped to announce the winner of the Prize by October. I have also been glad to assist the organisers of the Navy’s new Quarterdeck Talks, if only in a small way, I wish them luck in their endeavours and commend their Talks to you. A recurrent feature of this blog has been the limited capacity I have had since moving to Army Communications, I assure you that normal service will be resumed very shortly.

I have purposely left unaddressed any discussion of the future. The reason is that I am not quite sure of the direction in which I am travelling.  I know that I want to do more reading and speaking, and I really want to start a PhD as soon as possible but that is counter-balanced by a need to earn money and to pursue the cause for which I have been speaking since 2014, better education and wider career opportunities for Other Ranks. Undoubtedly, I will return to these subjects in the next few weeks.

Thank you for listening, speak soon.


War Talks – Fifth Season (May-July 2019)

The War Talks initiative enters its third year in July, by then it will have delivered 42 Talks on subjects as diverse as the career of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the genetics of war, and child soldiers in Africa.  We have welcomed academics and think-tankers from across the World, with speakers travelling from as far afield as the United States and Australia to speak to our dedicated audience.  The Talks have taken place in Aldershot at both the Prince Consort’s Library and the Aldershot Military Museum, in Portsmouth aboard HMS Victory, and at Tonbridge School in Kent.  From May, our Talks will take place in a wider range of locations,  be broadcast on social media, and feature an increasing diversity of speakers.  We are also incredibly fortunate to continue to be supported by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and the British Army in the guise of the British Army Military Book of the Year (BAMBY) Competition.

The new season, our fifth, starts in May 2019.  My rationale for the Talks remains to deliver informal professional military education (PME) to service people and civil servants, filling the gaps between formal PME courses.  This season is very special, however, in that all of our speakers are women.  It is no secret that women are unrepresented as speakers in the areas of war studies and international relations; my aim in this, the centenary of the arrival in the House of Commons of Lady Astor as the first female MP to take her seat, is to highlight the quality of women speakers and to prove that it is possible to be diverse and preserve excellence.  I believe that our speakers are amongst the best available in their areas of expertise and hope that attendees looking to promote PME will look to women to fill panels in future.  Our season kicks off on Tuesday 7 May 2019.

Our first speaker, Sarah Ashbridge, is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) PhD student based in Huddersfield.  Her studies concentrate on British and German identity disks and the administration of war dead in the period 1914-1921 but she is also an experienced battlefield archaeologist, having been involved in the recent excavation of Hill 80 in Belgium and the British Army’s Operation Nightingale project on Salisbury Plain.  Sarah will speak on the subject of ‘Identity Discs and the Administration of Death 1907-21′, her talk, at Aldershot Military Museum, will be essential listening for students of the Great War and for those with an interest in conflict archaeology.  Our second Talk takes place on Tuesday 21 May 2019 at the same location.  Our speaker on this occasion is Szabina Maguire.  Szabina is Hungarian and a former diplomat who now carries out research into Russian disinformation on behalf of NATO, her Talk will divulge many of her findings and promises to be fascinating for those examining the ‘Grey Space’.  Szabina’s Talk is entitled, The Role of Disinformation on NATO’s Eastern Flank’.

In June, we are privileged to have Dr Vanda Wilcox of the John Cabot University in Rome coming to speak.  Vanda is currently writing on a book on the Italian Empire in the Great War and working in Paris but will, on Tuesday 4 June 2019, be speaking on a subject related to her PhD and Cambridge University Press book, ‘How (not) to manage morale: Italy in the First World War’.  I’m very much hoping that she may have some suggestions for British soldiers in the twenty-first century.  Later in June, Veerle Nouwens, Research Fellow at RUSI will be speaking on the topic of China, having heard Veerle speak previously I can assure you all that her expertise and delivery is incredible.  She has lived and worked in China and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Chinese politics.  The title of her Talk is yet to be confirmed, but will look at China’s place in the twenty-first century.  Veerle will speak at the historic Prince Consort’s Library on Tuesday 25 June 2019.

In July, we have two further Talks.  Our first is by Alicia Kearns, will take place on Tuesday 9 July 2019 and is entitled, ‘Weaponised Truth and the Democratisation of Information.  The subject is prescient, coming at a time when the British Army is closely examining the concept of information advantage, and when militaries around the world are struggling with the role of social media in engagement.  Alicia is a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party and was previously a diplomat working in Iraq, where she was involved in countering ISIS, and in Ukraine, where she advised on countering Russian disinformation.  The final Talk in this season will be given by Cristina Varriale of RUSI.  Cristina will speak on the subject of North Korea and nuclear proliferation on Tuesday 23 July 2019.  Cristina has worked in Washington DC at the Centre for Strategic Studies, at the International Centre for Security Analysis, and at the British American Security Information Council and has appeared on Sky News and the BBC as the go-to expert on the politics of proliferation on the Korean peninsula.  Her expertise is formidable and she will bring our fifth season to a suitably explosive close just before the Army’s traditional break.

Below is a list of all the Talks and the dates on which they will be held, I look forward to seeing you all there.

All the best, have a good weekend,


20190401-War Talks – Fifth Season (May - July 2019).

Winter turns to Spring!!

I’m sure you will have inferred from my prolonged absence that the period since Christmas has been incredibly busy for me.  I last wrote in my Blog at the end of January, so this is going to be one of those catch up pieces where I tell you what I’ve been up to and what I have planned for the next few months; needless to say the first quarter of 2019 has been a whirlwind.  In January, I was working full-time at RUSI in London, living in Aldershot, and spending most of my time writing, none of that is now true and it makes me a little sad.  The only thing that hasn’t changed is Brexit, that will still be rumbling on when I finish my next posting!

I suppose all good things have to come to an end; working full-time at RUSI was an absolute honour.  I loved working in Whitehall, learning from the incredibly informed young people in the Institute, and being mentored by people like Peter Roberts and Ewan Lawson.  I like to think I have made real friends amongst the researchers, friends for life. In the period from New Year until the end of March, I was fortunate to have articles published in the Wavell Room and by the Modern War Institute at West Point, to work on a RUSI Journal article with the superb Ali Stickings, and a chapter for a special report to be published by RUSI in May 19.  I was also immensely privileged to be allowed to go to Georgia as a representative of RUSI to teach at the Defence Academy in Tbilisi alongside Ewan Lawson.  I think I made the most of my academic placement, I’m still full of ideas for articles on such topics as Mission Command, the Changing Character of Warfare, and Adaptability amongst others, I will get round to them, one thing RUSI has taught me is to keep writing!  The good news is that I am still working part-time at RUSI, assisting the Land Warfare Fellow, Jack Watling, with the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2019.

In March I was formally assigned to the Army Media Centre at Andover, where I am the SO3 Media Ops (Digital), its a great job working with a great bunch of people.  I love that I am able to use my head and be creative and that I’m able to run projects for the wider Engagement and Communications at the same time as doing my day job.  In addition to the projects publicising CGS’s Innovation Prize and ensuring streaming is available for the Army at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference, I am also able to help deliver Battlefield Studies for UCL’s Institute of Education, HQ 3rd (UK) Division, and the Yorkshire Regiment, lecture to groups such as HQ Directorate of Special Forces, my Corps’ WOs and Sgts’ Conference and the Chief’s of Staff of the FINABEL nations, and organise and run the War Talks series, our 35th talk is on Tuesday!  I hope to announce the details of the six Talks in the Fifth Season this weekend, what I can divulge tonight is that it will be an all-female season, particularly apt in the centenary year of Lady Astor’s arrival in Parliament.   Additionally, I will be running the British Army Military Book of the Year competition in 2019 on behalf of the COS of Army Education; the Competition opens on the 23rd April and we have seven books for the judges to consider.  Judges come from all across Defence ranking from Trooper to Colonel, Regular and Reserve.

Those of you that know me will also know that my real passion is Professional Military Education (PME).  Ewan Lawson and I have been discussing this for some time and I was fortunate to be able to organise a RUSI roundtable event with Maj General Mullen, the Commanding General of the USMC’s Training and Education Command, it was clear that the appetite for a more twenty-first century approach to PME is not just an aspiration in the UK nor is it seen as officer sport.  The times they are a changing!  To that end, I’m hoping to run more events with a PME theme for RUSI in the late Summer of 2019.  So what of my other aspirations?  Well, I don’t think I’m going to get promoted or offered a commission any time soon, but that’s never been the point, my aspirations are in spreading the word about PME, its utility as a driver for change, and developing my career as a military academic.  To that end, I am determined to start a PhD this year, to apply for more Fellowships, to do some more work in the area of Force Development, and to write lots more!

Right its time to read, Raphael Marcus’ ‘Israel’s Long War with Hezbollah’ is on my night stand!! Hope to catch you all very soon.

All the best,




Turning Swords into Multi-Tools

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on this Blog entitled The Ghost of Christmas Past, which advocated enhanced formal professional military education (PME) for Other Ranks (ORs).  The post was generally well received and I was really flattered by some of your support.  Inevitably, the feedback was not universally positive, the key criticism being that improving OR PME was both expensive and operationally irrelevant.  Yes, enhancing formal PME for ORs would be more expensive, and is perhaps unlikely at a time when PME as a whole may be seen as a painless pruning, but the payback could be enormous and not just in the reduction in the cost of junior staff officers!

In a recent article on War on the Rocks, Master Sergeant Matthew Reed, a student at the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy, highlighted the experience of Major General Anthony Cucolo who, as Commanding General of U.S Division-North in Iraq, had felt that the operational effectiveness of his formation was compromised by his Non-Commissioned Officers’ (NCOs) inability to understand the operation and its context at an appropriate conceptual level.  The article goes on to advocate better and more rigorous formal PME for ORs to fill the gap and hence improve military effect.  To use the analogy of the contents of a toolbox: we currently have dozens of tools each specifically designed to tackle a set task, with enhanced PME we could have multi-tools and a lighter toolbox.

The formal route is, however, not the be-all-and-end-all of PME.  Across the Anglosphere, informal initiatives are being used to fill the gaps between formal courses.  Formerly, these pauses would have been filled at unit level by ad hoc education programmes, but these have largely disappeared, a curiosity of a bygone era, replaced by individual PME accessed from the internet.  Indeed, it was heartening to read an excellent short article by Daniel Cowan, an Australian NCO, this week in The Cove, the Australian Army’s One-Stop Shop for PME, which gave details of the opportunities available on the Net and elsewhere to address the PME lacuna.  This inspired me to think about how a British NCO might begin to fill the gaps between CLM courses.

Analogue learning retains a place in informal PME and I would encourage anyone who can to get along to the Talks provided by the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR) and the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) at Sandhurst to go.  Both organisations also provide excellent associated publications including the British Army Review (BAR).  There are numerous other non-military initiatives which provide talks and debates on military subjects across the country, these are either private initiatives like the War Talks or run alongside university programmes notably at King’s College, London, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton.  These universities, and several others besides, run postgraduate courses in military studies, all of which can be financed with the help of Enhanced Learning Credits (ELCs).  But we are putting the cart somewhat before the horse, lets turn to reading.

Reading is for many of us a real pleasure, for others it is not that but a chore and in some cases a real cause of anxiety.  I cannot pretend to have an exhaustive knowledge of books on military subjects, but I would strongly recommend the following as giving an accessible, sound foundation on which to build an understanding of war:  As an entry level book, perhaps the finest is John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, although if this proves a bit much for first contact, try John Master’s The Road Past Mandalay or Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel.  If you are anxious to move up a level and get an understanding of modern war, I’d give Understanding Modern Warfare a read in conjunction with the latest version of ADP Land Operations, or whatever piece of doctrine is appropriate to your service.  If you’re interested in future war, give Colin S. Gray’s Another Bloody Century a go, and if you like your future as fiction Ghost Fleet is pretty compelling.

Reading doesn’t have to be in books, there is some excellent journalism out there, both in print and online.  Personally, I like the writing of Lucy Fisher in the Times, Jonathan Beale on the BBC, and Henry Jones online; a word of caution though, not all journalists are as balanced as they might appear, avoid the sensationalism is my watch word.  In addition to journalism, there is output from Think Tanks like RUSI, IISS, and Chatham House, much of that is behind a paywall, although you can access the RUSI Journal through the Army Libraries and Information Service (ALIS) both through Defence Net and the Defence Portal.  The main source of informal PME is, however, the internet.

The best way of gleaning the best from the internet is to utilise the excellent resource that is Grounded Curiosity, an Australian PME site that gives links to the best work being done in military affairs.  On there you will find links to War on the Rocks, the Wavell Room, The Cove, Strategy Bridge, Small Wars Journal the Modern War Institute and dozens of blogs and podcasts looking at military matters such as Think Defence and the Dead Prussian Podcast The real home of online PME is, of course, Twitter.  The number of commentators on defence affairs on Twitter is quite staggering and although sometimes plagued by trolls and the uninformed, the platform allows the erstwhile polemologists to speak to real expertise in an area and enter into wide-ranging debates with academics, serving personnel, and industry experts to really hone your knowledge.  I purposefully haven’t named any of the Defence Twitterati as I’d hate to exclude anyone, but if you are up for a challenge take a look!

In closing, Id like to say that its vital that ORs engage with PME be that by attending talks, reading books and newspapers, accessing the blogs and articles through the internet, or arguing the toss on Twitter.  Formal PME gives you enough information to do your job, informal PME gives you all you need to question what you are being told.  In 1991 when the Wall came down, defence expenditure was cut as part of the Peace Dividend, Western governments encouraged society, in a biblical reference, to turn swords into ploughshares; with Defence budgets so tight and manpower so scarce, perhaps the time has come to use PME to turn swords into multi-tools.

All the very best,





The Best Things in Life Are Free.

Thirty years ago last Summer, I left school.  Looking back, the young Barney headed into the world with a superfluity of arrogance, a fistful of A Levels, and an almost complete lack of common sense; the truth is, if I met him I’m not sure I’d like him much.  At school, I was a dreadfully conservative teenager, more at home in the 1950s than the 1980s, in love with books, Rugby, and several of my lovely classmates!  This conservatism manifested itself, in academic terms at least, as an enthusiasm for coaching rather than learning.  I saw success in the wider world as a process of collecting, and the things I most like to collect were qualifications.  In collecting certificates, I preferred to be shown how to pass an exam rather than understanding the subject I was studying.  It was only when I began my Masters that I realised that while coaching could extract a decent pass, learning and understanding were essential for excellence.

A couple of days ago, I was privileged to meet Dr Peter Johnston, the Head of Collections, Research, and Academic Access at the National Army Museum, and whilst there enjoyed a tour of that fantastic institution.  Before the tour, we discussed some of the learning opportunities the Museum is scoping for serving personnel, and the service the Museum currently provides to the British Army, Regular and Reserve.  Chief among the opportunities, I think, is the offer to units of free consultation, tailored tours, and study facilities for Study Days.  Units that visit the Museum don’t simply get to wander around a museum studying a chronology of Army history, they are guided thematically and, if they use the museum’s free services, can be guided to look at how the Army dealt with the problems of the past, many of which rhyme with the problems of today.  An example which Peter pointed out was cultural awareness; the British Army has a rich history of learning to understand other cultures in pursuit of its mission and the Museum can demonstrate our predecessors solutions through artefacts and explain the importance of cultural understanding.  There is no exam, no certificate, this is a learning opportunity and it is free.

In today’s Army we are perhaps programmed to expect certification, to be spoon-fed learning, and to believe that learning experiences are costly.  Last Summer, I helped to plan and deliver a Battlefield Study for Educational and Training Services (South) delivered at virtually no cost in Hampshire and Berkshire.  The cost to attendees was nothing but their time and in return they got to extract lessons for today from the Battle of Cheriton and the Second Battle of Newbury.  The point of this? Quality professional military education need not be either expensive, overseas, or bottle-fed.  The attendees did much of the learning for themselves and my role was merely to explain concepts and orientate the group in the 1644 landscape. No one was being coached for exam success, everyone was learning.  This is also the key strength of the War Talks programme, it is broad-based, does not aim to deliver certification, and is completely free.  In the last two years we have delivered almost thirty talks, all have which have been free, on subjects as wide-ranging as leadership, encountering children in twenty-first century warfare, and the threat represented by Putin’s Russia to name but few.

The benefit of these sorts of informal professional military education would have been lost on the young Barney; there was no exam, no qualification, and no medal.  The NAM offer, the battlefield study, the War Talks programme, and the increasing number of other PME opportunities offer learning, not coaching to pass an exam.  If you want to encourage excellence in learning and understanding in your unit, don’t worry about the cost or the lack of a certificate, think about doing it for free.  The best things in life are free.

All the very best,

Old(er) Barney.

P.S Get your Units to the National Army Museum, and tell Peter I said Hello!!


The Ghost of Christmas Past

On Monday morning, I return to work after what has been a wonderful Christmas break.  The giving and receiving of presents is always a particular highlight and thankfully, I am easy to shop for, an item of British First World War militaria or a military history book is always welcome.  This year, I was extremely fortunate to receive some wonderful gifts, albeit those who don’t understand my proclivities might easily believe my presents had come from either a car boot sale or a second-hand shop!  My favourite gift is an original First World War Verners Mark VII marching compass in full working order in its issued leather case.  The individual to whom it was originally handed had scratched their details into the leather of the case, unfortunately try as I might I cannot read the lettering.

As I opened the ancient case and examined the compass, I was transfixed by the instrument, its heavy brass construction designed to last, the aluminium parts painted to avoid a flash of shine, and the Mother-of-Pearl dial, beautifully detailed to allow easier reading of the compass on a moonlit night.  I held in my hands a cutting edge piece of early-20th century instrumentation; designed only twenty years before the War, it would have represented real precision on the battlefields of the Great War.  I thought about the fact that most major attacks during the War were conducted in daylight and, thinking about my own experiences navigating in France and Belgium at night, understood the complexity of navigation for our very recent ancestors.  Today navigation is as simple as turning on a smart phone and following triangulated GPS signals, very much easier than for our forgotten navigator of the Great War.  For all its beauty and practicality, my 1915 compass is, although usable, almost obsolete, its utility beaten by my the march of time.

A little before Christmas, I found myself embroiled in an annoying Twitter spat with several Militweeters regarding the utility of allowing Other Ranks to access Professional Military Education (PME).  Their argument was that, at a time of austerity, spending money on granting soldiers access to the sort of PME currently reserved for Officers was wasteful and unwarranted.  They argued that soldiers already received sufficient PME informally or through the Command, Leadership and Management courses required for promotion and that to add further knowledge would be pointless.  Soldiers knew what they needed to know for their role.  This, and the Defence Academy’s ‘Other Rankless’ PME Conference before Christmas, display an incredible level of paternalism and a real failure to understand that the educational requirements of the battlespace have changed.  Current Army PME, while still delivering an effect, has become, like my exquisite Christmas present, obsolete.

The battlespace has changed fundamentally since the current concept of soldier education was formulated.  In those days, the Army was a mass instrument, and soldier education was concerned with ensuring Non-Commissioned Officers could read and write to an adequate level and have an understanding of current affairs.  In general, it was expected that his or her officer would be substantially better educated and be there to guide them in barracks and in the field, soldiers’ intellectual efforts should be confined to the techniques of the trade in which he was employed. The soldier was there to do not to think.  This sort of Army; hierarchical, paternalistic, and functional, lost its efficacy at the end of the Cold War.  As the character of warfare has changed, so have the educational requirements of NCOs; the battlefield is far more precise and lethal than it was, sensing and targeting enforce dispersion, and as a result the soldier must use their initiative to a far greater degree.  Initiative is not latent, it is learned through education and training.

In an article for War on the Rocks in November 2018, the author, Matthew Reed quoted from an interview with a former U.S divisional commander and Army War College commandant, Major General Anthony Cucolo, in which the General had stated:

When I was commanding U.S Division-North in Iraq, I needed my command sergeant major to operate at that level with me as much as my two one-stars and as much as my chief of staff…Every member of the command group needs to be operating at the same level… You need things like understanding grand strategy, how strategy turns into policy, the economics of warfare, and oral and written communications so you can go toe-to-toe intellectually when you get put in those positions.’

This insight is as prescient at every layer of command; the relevant SNCO or Warrant Officer should be as educated as the officer to whom he answers, indeed all NCOs should have sufficient education to perform the duties of their superiors.  This was certainly the aspiration in the German Reichsheer in the 1920s, and was proven effective when the force underwent rapid expansion in the 1930s.  Some have accused me of wanting to give  soldiers a ‘liberal arts education’, this is categorically not my objective, rather it is to encourage PME at all ranks to enable better decision-making on a lethal and dispersed battlefield whether they want it or not!  In conclusion, I, and I’m sure many reading this post, have been in situations in training and on operations where better PME for soldiers could have created a far better outcome, I’d like to see those who come after me better educated to deal with the battlefield of today, and learn from the mistakes of the past.  It is January, what better time to look back on the past and set your compass to the future!

PME – its not an Officer sport.

All the very best in 2019,


New Year Resolutions in 2019.

A few days ago, I laid out my accomplishments in the vintage year of 2018: first, my appointment as the first non-commissioned Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in its 187 year history; second, the award of the Royal Air Force’s Salmond Prize in it’s centenary year; third, organising the re-birth of the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, won this year, for the first time, by a woman, Dr Aimee Fox; fourth, the organising of a Two-Star study day and fourteen War Talks, and having the privilege of speaking to Units, Formations, and a whole career stream in the Army and Royal Navy; fifth, to have been published in the United Kingdom and the United States and to have been interviewed for television and radio and finally undertaking, as both a guide and an administrator, nine battlefield studies in the UK, Belgium, and France.  Above all, for the first seven months of the year, I was the Regimental Administration Warrant Officer at the Scots Guards.

If anything, I intend to achieve more in 2019.  My New Year’s Resolutions are firstly, to get fit and lose weight, and secondly, to exploit last year’s successes.  At this juncture, I’d like to reiterate my motivations: I want to see improved Professional Military Education for Other Ranks throughout UK Defence, wider employment for Other Ranks, and greater value placed on learning in the entire profession of arms.  How I intend to push my projects forward in pursuit of these goals, will form the rest of this Blog post:

Royal United Services Institute.  Although my assignment to RUSI is due to end in March 2019, there is much to accomplish in the next three months.  I have a number of articles in progress, covering subjects as diverse as recruiting and retention and countering defence vulnerabilities in space.  I intend to write more and be published more widely to enhance my profile in 2019.  I’m also working on an essay prize, in conjunction with RUSI’s Land Warfare Conference, which will be open to soldier’s and junior officers and will encourage the Army’s young thinkers to write and express themselves with significant cash prizes as further motivation for the winners.  I will also throw myself into whatever opportunities RUSI offers me, and they are many!!

PhD Proposal.  In 2017, I began working on a PhD proposal, this was a bruising process and did not produce the result I wanted.  In short, I could not find a subject which captured my imagination sufficiently to dedicate six years of my life in its pursuit.  I do want to do a PhD, more for myself than for any other reason, but I still need to find the right subject.  I intend, therefore, to find the right subject for me and begin study in September 2019.  Its likely that the subject will be related to learning and adaptation and be in the context of the First World War or the period immediately following it.

War Talks.  As I think I have said previously, I will be handing the British Army Military Book of the Year competition back to the Army Libraries Information Service in 2019, but the War Talks series will continue to move from strength to strength.  Through my connection with RUSI, many of the speakers will be provided from amongst the Institute’s research community, allowing me to diversify the talks across military history, war studies, and international relations.  To bring further diversity, and through Aldershot Military Museum, the RUSI speakers will also hold sessions with local Sixth Form groups to discuss current affairs and improve the understanding of international politics in the Aldershot area.  In addition, the Talks will go on the road again, this time further afield, and I will endeavour to have them videoed and the speakers interviewed by me for podcasts.

These are just the headliners, I also intend to help organise a new Aldershot Military Literature Festival commencing in July 2019, continue guiding visits to the battlefields and speaking to Units and Formations.  Above all though, I will continue to take every opportunity to push the message that competence, not rank, should be the only limitation on appointments available to Other Ranks and that nothing is beyond anyone with the right education.  The last bastion of chauvinism in the Armed Forces is Rank, that needs to change.  I wish you all a Happy New Year in 2019, see you on the other side.

All the very best,