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Twenty-first Century Armed Forces: Agile, Useable, Relevant

08:00, 23 - 25 Jun 2009
RUSI, Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ET

Link to map: multimap

General Sir David Richards, designate Chief of the General Staff, outlined his vision of the future character of warfare for which the British Army should prepare. Training and equipping for conventional or unconventional warfare need no longer be distinct, for even state actors will increasingly seek more irregular means to prosecute war. Future war will continue to be a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, but the revolution in communications will transform the way this is fought.

by General Sir David Richards

May I start by adding my own thanks to Professor Michael Clarke (Director, RUSI) and General Ted Stroup (Vice President, AUSA) for organising what is already a fascinating and timely conference.

In speaking of the ‘Future’ I am not intending to emulate or repeat in different words what the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) said recently at Chatham House, or in this fine hall yesterday. Whilst some of our themes are similar, my aim is to examine more the conceptual underpinning to our shared analysis of where we should go next. In doing so, I am drawing on my International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 50th Anniversary Conference speech in Geneva of last September; what I say now is a development of that speech. It contained issues that time prevents me from raising again today, especially that of C2 in its many vital forms.

We all know of the apocryphal tale of armies historically preparing to fight the last war rather than the next. Successful armed forces adapt and transform at a pace faster then their potential adversaries. Cromwell, as an example which I am particularly fond of, unlocked the synergy of discipline, training, new equipment and new tactics in a manner that left the Royalists looking like barely gifted amateurs. This process can be found throughout history although rarely is it accelerated with the vision and drive demonstrated by Cromwell. Indeed in the 1920s, as an example, Basil Liddell Hart and ‘Boney’ Fuller struggled to persuade soldiers everywhere that the era of the horse had been replaced by that of the tank and aircraft, even though both had been in service for a number of years. It was during this period, as CGS reminded us recently, that Liddell Hart noted ruefully that ‘there is only one thing harder then getting a new idea into the military’s mind and that is getting an old one out’! We must be determined that we do not fall into that trap.

The British armed forces are adapting to the challenges of war in Afghanistan. Self critically however, this ‘transformation in contact’ is still localised and small in scale. Whilst certainly on the case, we have yet to import the population focused, often subtle and certainly hi-tech ways of fighting that we now take for granted in places like Helmand into the core of the Armed Forces, as we train and equip for generic operations. US forces are doing better in my judgement. Having only six years ago abjured nation-building and Counter Insurgency as things real armies did not stoop to do, they now give stabilisation operations the same doctrinal weighting as those related to conventional offensive and defensive operations.

Self evidently, although not yet culturally internalised, there has been a radical change in the way wars are fought. Morally and importantly legally we cannot go back to operating as we might have done even ten years ago when it was still tanks, fast jets and fleet escorts that dominated the doctrine of our three services. The lexicon of today is non-kinetic effects teams, precision attack teams, Counter-IED, combat logistic patrols, information dominance, counter-piracy, and cyber attack and defence, to give you just a feel for the changes. Our people are used to operating in a complex combat, joint, interagency and multinational environment in which success is measured in terms of securing people’s confidence instead of how many tanks, ships or aircraft are destroyed.

The pace of technological change is bewildering. It has left every nations mainstream procurement process struggling to deliver equipment that will remain relevant against more agile opponents satisfied with cheap and ever-evolving eighty per cent solutions. Too often, we still strive for hugely expensive 100 per cent solutions – ‘exquisite solutions’ as Secretary Gates calls them – relevant only in a hi-tech state on state war but that risk being out of date before they are brought into service.

In sum, tactical, operational and strategic level success in today’s environment is beyond that of a military that draws its inspiration from visions of traditional state on state war, however hi-tech in nature.

But what of the next era, assuming success in Afghanistan gives us the confidence and moral authority to get there? And be quite clear that success in Afghanistan – redefined on less ambitious aims, certainly - is truly a grand strategic issue for our nation. Why? Well firstly, as our Secretary of State Bob Ainsworth has argued persuasively, it is vital to our domestic security that we do not allow Afghanistan to once again become an exporter of Al-Qa’ida inspired terrorism or give such people a ‘victory’ that could inspire a much bigger threat still.

Imagine the hugely intoxicating effect on Muslim extremists’ world-wide of the defeat of the USA and NATO, the most powerful alliance in the history of the world. Anything might then be possible in their eyes and that’s what we should expect. Nor, in a very uncertain world, should we be content for NATO to be seen to fail on its first ground combat operation? If we do not succeed conspicuously in Afghanistan, and vitally by extension in and with Pakistan, then we risk failing in this objective too. And the reputation of our armed forces is in itself a grand strategic issue. For many years, they have given the UK influence internationally, defeated our nation’s enemies while deterring others and been an institution of which the British people are proud. And we would lose this at our peril.

Our Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently summarised his views on Afghanistan with these words: ‘What we are doing in Afghanistan is incredibly important. For the next three to five years it will dominate our foreign policy. It will be the defining issue for the next government. It is the laboratory of so much that we will be doing in the future’. For this reason amongst others the Prime Minister and our Chief of Defence Staff have made it very clear that Afghanistan is to be our top priority. Yet a natural caution sometimes constrains excellent people from full-bloodedly seeking to meet clear strategic intent. Why?

Drawing on the Foreign Secretary’s judgement - his laboratory point - let me return to the broader issue of generic future conflict to try and shed light on this conundrum. There is a collective belief that historically most wars have been primarily inter-state in nature. Driven by national interests, success was often easy to define, normally by overwhelming your opponent militarily in order to force a political outcome on your terms. Clear-cut victory was feasible and indeed frequently achieved. It is this thinking that dominated the development of our armed forces. Many analysts argue convincingly that the approach being taken to future conflict today by many countries has still not substantially changed.

Now these countries may not be so wrong, in principle, if one believes that traditional state on state warfare is what it is all about and that the type of operations we are conducting in Afghanistan are aberrant. In fact, even a cursory examination of history suggests that such wars are the norm; whilst hugely important when they occur, state on state conflict is far less frequent. Whether one chooses to accept this or not, I for one believe that our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, is facing its own ‘horse and tank’ moment if you like, born in our case chiefly but not exclusively of the global revolution in communications and associated technology. The result is that the way even state on state warfare will manifest itself has changed fundamentally.

If I am half right, those charged with the design and equipping of our armed forces need to do three things. Firstly to decide whether they believe conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term or are an historical aberration? Secondly do they believe that, despite globalisation and greater mutual inter-dependence, state on state warfare remains something for which they must prepare? And thirdly, but here I think is where some comfort can be drawn, if it is decided that our armed forces need to be capable of succeeding in both, would not the two types of conflict look surprisingly similar in practise, at least to those actually charged with conducting them at the tactical level? If they were, and I believe tendentiously that there is a good case for thinking they might be, it would make the issue of preparing our forces much easier to agree on.

First of all, whilst globalisation has reduced the likelihood of inter-state warfare it has increased the likelihood of conflict with non-state or failed state actors. In today’s environment, given the risks associated with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the potential effects of economic collapse, climate change, and international crime, this is something that responsible countries have to confront more convincingly; both once engaged in such conflict but also in much more assiduously seeking to prevent them from occurring in the first place given the implicit threat to our national security.

So, point one. While we are not bad at it, our armed forces need to become better still at this type of warfare. I emphasise that to succeed this is Joint/Inter-Agency/Whole of Government business. Today it’s a land-based affair in Afghanistan. Tomorrow it will be in or just off the coast of a rogue state. Maritime and amphibious forces will play the dominant role. Or it could be in a central Africa state in which well trained indigenous forces are dependent for success on air support from other nations. But regardless of these scenarios, how we deal with the growing disillusionment of 1.2 billion Muslims, most living in dangerously radicalised states, will be an issue that will dominate our professional lives. And while succeeding in that, we must concurrently and actively exploit the precepts underpinning the Comprehensive Approach to prevent copycat conflicts arising out of cultural and economic alienation in large parts of the world. Some are sceptical about the risks of such conflict developing and whether they will actually affect us. They are already occurring: I draw to your attention the bloody Naxolist insurgency spreading across parts of India. This is an insurgency that has a sense of hopelessness and economic envy at its core, powerful instincts that today can be inflamed and communicated to other similarly dispossessed groups across the world at the touch of a button. It is this that makes the importance of winning the battle of ideology, of hearts and minds, so important. Only genuine improvements in the lot of the dispossessed and viscerally envious, an upward trajectory of progress as I used to call it when serving in Afghanistan, will prevent such conflicts eventually affecting our own lives. And substance not spin is key to winning this vital information operation.

To achieve this, while placing much more emphasis on prevention in the design of our armed forces, non-military activities must be given much greater weight. But they must be re-engineered as security instruments and properly integrated into strategy, not viewed as international versions of domestic welfare programmes. Marriage allowances could be a more effective means of turning young Muslim males away from violence than bullets. Jobs would prevent dispossessed African communities, with their Diasporas already reaching into the heart of our own societies, from responding to violent agitators and the attractions of international crime. And given the reach of dispossessed extremists, it is no good today a nation developing what has been referred to as a ‘defensive crouch’ to deter or contain violence in other nations from affecting one’s own. The case in principle for engagement and pre-emption is stronger today than ever it has been and actually accords with most politicians natural tendency to ‘make a difference’ on their watch. Our statesmen need credible choices, both in pre-empting and in winning inevitable conflicts in the future.

But, point two, if I am right and non-state opponents should be our principal defence and security focus, inconveniently we cannot dismiss the possibility of state on state warfare either. What would such warfare actually look like? Would it really be a hot version of what people like me spent much of our lives training for? I wonder; why would China or Russia for example, despite the often ill-informed debate after the invasion of Georgia by Russia last year, risk everything they have achieved to confront us conventionally? The social and economic costs of creating the scale of military capability required plausibly to succeed, even assuming we do not start to respond in like manner, are enormous. The presence of nuclear weapons reinforces a likely caution.

If countries like Russia or China really want to cause us major problems surely they will employ other levers of state power: economic and information effects, for example? They have seen the Holy Grail. Attacks are likely to be delivered semi-anonymously through cyberspace or the use of guerrillas or proxies like Hizbullah. After all, it was that Chinaman Sun Tzu who famously reminds us that ‘the acme of military skill is to defeat one’s enemy without firing a shot’. In other words, what I am suggesting, is that there is a good case for believing that even state on state warfare will be similar to that we will be conducting against non-state groupings.

So if I am right, point three and the heart of my thesis, the golden lining to all this is that our armed forces can focus, not exclusively but focus, on a single version of conflict. Whether one is fighting non-state actors in Afghanistan or proxies sponsored by a disgruntled major power there or somewhere else, the skill sets and weapon systems required will look usefully similar: a virtuous congruence, if you like, between non-state and inter-state war.

Some will respond by arguing that we cannot afford the ultimate risk of a return to traditional state on state conflict; that our capability and military culture should be primarily based on such a possibility, remaining firmly and conspicuously in the ‘big boys’ league, while seeking to build a capability in new areas too. There are a number of flaws to this approach. Firstly, it seeks to bury the fact that we have to find the courage to accept risk in the way we prepare for future conflict for one obvious reason: it is simply not affordable to do otherwise. In trying to do a bit of everything, we risk future failure across the board because, on the day, we will have insufficient of what is needed.

Secondly, those focused on hi-tech but traditional inter-state conflict often confuse their case by asserting the need to be seen for power projection reasons to possess traditional combat power, large air and tank fleets for example, failing to appreciate that an intelligent opponent will not be impressed by capabilities which can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology. It is an approach that we too must understand better and invest in more, if we are either to thwart such aims or succeed in achieving our own foreign policy goals in a highly complex international environment. One which to me and others, I know, cries out for new diplomatic and trading mechanisms with which to bind into a co-operative process states that, quite naturally, will compete for raw materials and other scarce assets. Why, for example, is competition within the EU or with the USA healthy yet that same competition from China or Russia automatically seen as hostile? Market and diplomatic mechanisms should be trusted much more to regulate what should be viewed as normal and healthy rather than provocative and belligerent.

Those who seek to continue investment in traditional forms of conflict at the expense of the new fail to understand the degree to which inter-state dynamics have changed since the Cold War era. Whilst reluctant to acknowledge the huge pressure on belligerent states to find cheaper and less risky routes to achieving their goals, and the concomitant ability of new technology to help deliver this, perhaps they will at least be persuaded that countries like the UK need only possess a deterrent scale of traditional war-fighting capability; one that reflects our stated policy of only going to war as part of the NATO alliance or, in a regional context, with the USA. I will return to this in a moment.

I must emphasise that I am not advocating the scrapping of all our aircraft and tanks to the point that traditional mass armoured operations, for example, become an attractive asymmetric option to a potential enemy. With our allies, we need to retain sufficient conventional air, land and maritime forces to ensure tactical level dominance in regional intervention operations or enduring stabilisation operations.

But, the key point here is that the scale of employment and the context in which conventional weapons systems may be used in the future will be quite different to what may have been the case in the twentieth century. Should traditional inter-state conflict again become a serious possibility, we do not need to plan on winning these things by ourselves. Our contribution can prudently reflect better what our allies will bring to the party. For now, designing our forces on the requirement to deter potential state adversaries will result in what some analysts refer to as a ‘deterrence dividend’. If we ruthlessly apply our own policy that we will only undertake traditional state on state war with powerful allies, we can achieve savings in this hugely expensive area that will free up the resources needed for investment in other more likely forms of conflict. And because many of the skills are transferable, it will also go a long way to finding the money needed to allow our armed forces to contribute to important stabilising activity in fragile and failed states as well as to that Cinderella activity to which President Obama has drawn our attention recently, that of peace-keeping.

Before I finish I would just like to briefly talk about ‘mass’. In people focused conflict, whether in Afghanistan or protecting vital sea lanes, delivering success will often need mass, whether it is the right number of troops and support helicopters, sufficient UAVs or sufficient small ships. While we are changing slowly, our forces are still designed primarily to conduct short duration conventional war fighting operations. In these, one compensates absolutely correctly for what historically would be viewed as a shortage of troops with huge firepower, hence the bias of the equipment programme towards these capabilities over the last sixty years. But in wars amongst the people, if you are using a lot of firepower - often delivered from the air in extremis as a result of insufficient manpower - you are almost certainly losing. One must have enough troops firstly to retain the tactical initiative and, secondly, to provide the enduring routine security without which the population will not have the confidence to reject the insurgent or spoiler. They can, and ideally should, be indigenous forces, but you also need sufficient people to train them quickly and efficiently in the first place.

So are our Armed Forces geared up properly for future conflict? In one sense I am not as concerned as perhaps I have given the impression. The essence of a good navy, army or air force is that they have fighting spirit, and can impose their will on a skilled, cunning and violent enemy. Armed forces of this quality, with the agile and innovative leaders they breed naturally, can with good training turn their hand to any type of conflict relatively quickly. I am in no doubt at all that our navy, army and air force is very firmly in this league. If you do not possess such fighting spirit, however good or hi-tech your equipment, you will not win against opponents who do, whether they are part of another states’ army or Taliban style insurgents, and however shoddy or out of date their equipment. So, from one key perspective, our fight in Afghanistan is the best possible preparation for any future conflict, whatever its nature. It is on this basis that, as General Martin Dempsey has written recently, armies will ‘build leaders competent and confident in the joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational environment’ too.

I hope I have contributed to the case for a fundamental re-think of the way we prepare and equip our armed forces for the twenty-first century. If I am right, we have much to do but I believe it is doable; and all three services have a vital role to play in it. We firstly need to agree the essential character of future conflict. As you have heard I believe there are some synergies to be had here. We cannot rule out major inter-state warfare entirely. But even if this does materialise, and I think that the probability of it doing so is low, the aggressor is unlikely to use massed armoured, air or naval formations in some live re-run of the Cold War. Very few nations have the capacity and capability to wage this type of warfare and the costs and risks of developing it, let alone using it, are enormous. More likely, such nations will seek to exploit other levers, such as economic power. If shooting does start, it is likely to be through proxies, guerrillas and terrorists or through cyber attack. The battle for people’s minds will, as ever, be central albeit the communications revolution will transform the way this is fought.

Much of what we need for the future is in today’s inventory, but the scale and context in which it may be required must be rigorously examined. If technology and globalisation has materially altered the way inter-state and non-state wars will be fought, we need to change our historical priorities especially if we are also to afford vital preventive stratagems. I will emphasise again that I am not suggesting for one moment that the UK should get rid of all its more traditional military capability. Far from it, but its scale should reflect the context in which it might be used or have value. We need to possess a deterrent scale of traditional war-fighting capability; one that reflects our stated policy of only going to war as part of the NATO alliance or, within a smaller regional context, with an overwhelmingly powerful USA. This scale of capability would be sufficient to avoid traditional military options becoming an asymmetric attraction to a potential enemy, as well as ensure tactical level dominance in regional intervention or stabilisation operations.

Importantly we still need to be able to fight hard, but cleverly so, within the context of a Comprehensive Approach whose constituent elements are viewed and resourced as the security instruments they should be. Crucially, we need to fully understand and exploit the tools of information superiority. And when procuring new equipment, we should exploit the agility and timeliness of the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) process.

If this, arguably at least our generation’s horse and tank moment, is not gripped our armed forces will try, with inadequate resources, to be all things to all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any. The risks of such an approach are too serious for this any longer to be an acceptable course, if ever it has been.

Finally as it is his last RUSI conference as CGS, may I pay tribute to General Sir Richard Dannatt. Not in my lifetime has the Army been so much at ease with itself and so clear about its purpose. Nor has it been held in such high regard by the people it serves. This is a unique and enduring legacy. I, the most fortunate of successors, and the whole Army will be forever in his debt. Thank you.

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