You are here

The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency

Commentary, 11 October 2009
History, Europe
The operational errors of counter-insurgency campaigns are too often blamed on the inability of armed forces to absorb the lessons of previous campaigns. However, as Huw Bennett demonstrates in his examination of the British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland, flexibility in adapting to the unique dynamics of each campaign is of far great importance than a strict application of out-dated doctrine.

The operational errors of counter-insurgency campaigns are too often blamed on the inability of armed forces to absorb the lessons of previous campaigns. However, as Huw Bennett demonstrates in his examination of the British Army's experience in Northern Ireland, flexibility in adapting to the unique dynamics of each campaign is of far greater importance than a strict application of out-dated doctrine.

Bomb disposal Northern Ireland

By Dr Huw Bennett, for

In the past few years there has been increasing curiosity about the military's ability to learn, and the consequent impact on effectiveness in war. Inspired by theoretical insights into the business world, soldier-scholars such as John Nagl studied past experiences of organisational learning in order to promote reform in the contemporary American forces.  Nagl compared the British experience in Malaya favourably with American failures in Vietnam. 

More recently, however, scholars have noted the British Army's apparent inability to set in stone the lessons from one campaign and transmit them to the next. Given its frequent practice at counter-insurgency since 1945, why the Army continues to spend such time and effort re-learning lessons when a new insurgency breaks out is a mystery that appears unanswerable. The early years of insurgencies in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan were marked by mistakes in the fields of intelligence, tactics, command and control, and inter-agency co-operation.  Eventually, classic counter-insurgency principles came into play, and commanders managed to salvage varying degrees of success from impending disaster. 

History thus seems to suggest that the current crisis in countering Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency conforms to a pattern rather than being anomalous. This article argues that the inability to transfer lessons from one campaign to another is, to a very large extent, inevitable. On a more optimistic note, there are positive reasons why learning should take place again repeatedly. Britain's evolving deployment in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s shows how an improved integration of intelligence products and training regimes can render the military instrument more politically versatile.

The forgetful army

So why is the British Army so forgetful of previous lessons? Writers on organisational and strategic culture emphasise the crucial role played by deeply held beliefs and assumptions in shaping military behaviour.  In the British case, tradition dictates a disdain for abstract thinking about war, including doctrine. Some writers claim this reflects a national proclivity for pragmatism, contrasted with a pejorative association of theory with foreigners. The Army's culture is thought to place supreme merit in the soldier who shows initiative, is self-reliant and makes things up as he goes along.  Because British soldiers therefore value creativity, they are reluctant to systematically study the past and learn lessons for the future. 

The British Army's regimental structure exacerbates the problem by acting as a foil to centralising tendencies within the military, including those processes necessary to thoroughly disseminate lessons. Material constraints militate against efficient information retention even when doctrine is produced and distributed. Throughout the twentieth century, defence policy required the army to prepare for low intensity operations and conventional warfare simultaneously. Training and education had to deal with two quite distinct types of conflict. Add to this the frequent deployments abroad and at home, and it is often difficult to see where extra time for learning might have come from. Overstretch is an old challenge. In the context of insurgencies, an initial intelligence failure is almost always inevitable: if the state correctly identified the threat posed by rising disaffection, then countermeasures could be implemented before the degeneration into violence. 

Early intelligence failures follow a vicious circle pattern, whereby over-confidence in the state's ability to control the situation contributes towards the inadequate allocation of resources to quell unrest. A weak intelligence system then continues to produce flawed assessments. While these factors compel the re-learning of what superficially appear to be the same lessons, in fact the security forces must orientate themselves to a distinct opponent. The Malayan National Liberation Army, the Provisional IRA and the Taliban exhibit distinct characteristics in relation to ideological motivation, organisation, strategy and tactics. The efficient transmission of the lessons of one conflict to another creates the risk of ignoring each conflict's unique dynamics, thus creating an anachronistic counter-insurgency strategy.

Learning in Northern Ireland

On 22 March 1972 the British Cabinet decided to suspend the Stormont parliament and impose direct rule on Northern Ireland.  It hoped to bring order to a chaotic security situation. Both official and provisional wings of the Irish Republican Army were on the offensive, inter-sectarian violence had become an everyday occurrence, and the government's military policy was discredited by internment without trial, deep interrogation, and the Bloody Sunday massacre.  The Cabinet recognised that the early objective of militarily defeating the IRA was now unattainable, and wished to de-escalate the conflict.  Although flaws in the British approach had been apparent from quite early on, direct rule allowed for a strategic re-think in 1972, the most violent year of the Troubles.  At the highest level politicians in Northern Ireland and London scrambled for a solution, including secret talks between the IRA leadership and members of the government. 

However, less historical attention has been focused on the changing intelligence framework, and the effective integration of the information thereby produced into the army's training programme.  Counter-insurgencies rely upon sound intelligence to allow force to be used in a discriminate and measured manner.  While during the campaign's early years insufficient intelligence provoked serious and lasting rifts with the civilian population, improvements made during 1972 created the basis for a change in military strategy and the eventual move towards police primacy and demilitarisation.

The intelligence system in Northern Ireland

The army exploited eight sources when gathering intelligence: observations made on patrol, clandestine observations including 'black face patrols', vehicle check points, local police contacts, information obtained from interrogation, talks with community leaders, IRA defectors working in uniform for a regiment, and informal contacts with ex-servicemen. Foot patrols enabled soldiers to keep in touch with local people, getting a feel for their area and picking up tactical information by observation and in conversations on the streets.  In addition, the army conducted frequent house searches, with 36,617 taking place in 1972 (up from 17,262 in 1971). This unpopular tactic, combined with patrolling, allowed for the development of a house-by-house survey in the early 1970s.  With such detailed information at their disposal, intelligence officers could identify unusual activities, such as visits by IRA leaders from other areas. 

The most notable covert formations at the time were the Military Reconnaissance Force (soldiers gathering intelligence in plain clothes) and the 'Freds' (former IRA members run by military handlers).  Intelligence personnel, excluding MI5 and MI6, numbered approximately 500.  Civil servants, headed by the Director of Intelligence, worked at GHQ and formation intelligence staffs.  HQ Northern Ireland also employed a military intelligence staff.  Every battalion maintained an intelligence section, and military intelligence personnel were attached to liaise with the police Special Branch.  The Intelligence Corps ran a security and counter-intelligence company.  In November 1972 the Army reorganised the special units conducting covert operations by forming the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU), a formation whose 120 personnel, with diverse service backgrounds, had first undergone eight weeks selection and training by 22nd Special Air Service Regiment.

These units produced intelligence reports describing the IRA's structure, modus operandi and tactics.  They revealed how IRA companies were run by a commander with nine subordinate officers, including a quartermaster who supplied, serviced and hid arms and ammunition, delivered them before attacks, and collected them afterwards.  A training officer gave weapons training and sometimes commanded a gun team, while the education officer provided ideological sustenance.  An engineer officer manufactured nail and blast bombs, controlled the explosive caches, and detonated bombs.  As each company needed approximately £300 per month to pay wages (at £5 per single man and £10 for married men) and provide food, accommodation, travel expenses and weaponry, a finance officer was also necessary.  He obtained funds from robberies, protection rackets and collections.  IRA intelligence officers used pairs of youths to reconnoitre jobs and watch people.  Girls were prevailed upon to chat up soldiers for information.

British intelligence reports warned soldiers about IRA tactics too.  Certain indicators warned of an impending attack, such as deserted streets, a crowd suddenly parting, and windows open with curtains half-drawn, concealing a sniper position.  Sniper assaults came from either the 'yobo', who shot without planning or accuracy at short range, or more dangerously, from an expert.  They shot at troops from high rise flats, derelict or occupied houses, and often from one street back through a gap in the houses. The expert sniper often relied on a woman to transport the weapon and scouts to warn of possible targets and threats to the escape route.  Counter-measures to the sniper threat involved saturation patrolling, rapidly cordoning-off suspect areas, avoiding repetitious behaviour and using army snipers.

Training: the Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Teams

All of this intelligence, a considerable improvement on that available in 1971, naturally meant nothing unless acted upon effectively.  In addition to immediate exploitation for operations, the intelligence was fed into a new pre-deployment training system.  As a result, units entered the combat environment with the latest information to hand, with continuity from one operational tour to another improving substantially.  UK Land Forces ran the Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Team (NITAT), training all units going to Northern Ireland, whether on residential tours (for one or two years) or roulement tours (for four or six months).  For people sent individually, a Reinforcement Training Team existed in-theatre.  NITAT instructors possessed recent operational experience, and the leadership regularly visited Ulster to track the latest developments.  They also arranged to have copies of relevant television programmes sent to them soon after broadcast.  The course provided information about the background to the Troubles, the types of paramilitary groups and their various tactics, the types of operations conducted by the army, and the rules of engagement.  A second team was set up at Sennelager, under British Army of the Rhine authority, on 1 May 1972.

The reliance upon units assigned a NATO role, and the need to draw on non-infantry forces for essentially infantry tasks, would endure until the end of the conflict.  In the early days, one or two units slipped through the net; neither the 4th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, nor the 1st Duke of Wellington's Regiment attended the course.  The British team built an experimental urban Close Quarter Battle Range in Hythe to replicate street conditions in Northern Ireland, before moving it to Lydd Ranges in January 1973.  In addition to the general course, NITAT ran specialist courses for a small number from each unit.  The week-long search course advised on building construction, systematic house searching, mine detection, booby traps, vehicle searches, using search dogs, and current terrorist techniques.  During the year the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 2nd Light Infantry, 3rd Royal Green Jackets and other units sent at least 144 men to be trained as searchers, and sixty to work with sniffer dogs.  NITAT also ran 'intelligence environmental courses', with assistance from the School of Service Intelligence, to brief unit intelligence sections on the situation in Northern Ireland.  From 21 February to 23 June 1972, twenty-six officers, eighty-three Warrant Officers and Sergeants, and 104 Corporals and other ranks took this course.  New courses appeared later in the year, including one on intelligence photography.  An assessment by BAOR in September branded NITAT a success, and provided some interesting insights into its work.  The Sennelager team, commanded by Major Baskervyle-Clegg, comprised two captains, a lieutenant, three sergeants, a clerk, a storeman and three drivers.  The full programme taught soldiers about the general situation in Northern Ireland, types of patrols, check points, riot drill, border operations, cordon and searching, evidence, arrest procedures, public relations, intelligence, IRA organisation, weapons and equipment, marksmanship, defences, and using dogs.  Non-infantry units studied all these subjects, whereas infantry battalions picked only those subjects where their knowledge was wanting.  The BAOR team alone provided training to three major non-infantry units, six minor non-infantry units, and two major infantry units.

Arguably, these courses proved effective because they were subject to frequent review and updating with the latest intelligence information.  They institutionalised learning about the local situation before troops even arrived in the conflict area.  The Northern Ireland experience has influenced subsequent policy, as the presently constituted Operational Training and Advisory Group imitate NITAT to a certain degree.  But the success of such units is based upon a systematic programme closely integrated with the intelligence on a dynamic situation.  Lessons from previous conflicts have played little role in their success.  Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons.  Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign's start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation.  The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.


Dr. Huw Bennett is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, King's College London at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. 

The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed or implied in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Joint Services Command and Staff College, the Ministry of Defence or any other UK government agency.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research