Fighting the ‘Battle of the Narrative’: Communicating Army 2020

A recent course organised for influencers was designed to convey the British Army’s response to a changing strategic landscape. Despite redeployment from Afghanistan and Reserve reorganisation, this exercise emphasised that the British Army is still very much in the war-fighting business.

‘The army has its orders; we are now underway with carrying them out.’

Although it has been three years since the political decisions about future British defence capabilities were first formally articulated, debate rages on as the implications continue to be scrutinised beneath media and parliamentary spotlights. For the army in particular, discussion surrounding the wholesale transformation of its force structure – as prompted by the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and subsequent spending reviews – has been compounded by the emotional fall-out inherent to job cuts, the loss of regiments and changes to the Regular-Reserve balance. And with the 2015 SDSR looming, and the possibility of further cuts,[1] there seems to be little sign that the furore is waning.

From the army’s perspective, however, the time for debating the merits of change is long gone. Indeed, implementation of the measures set out last year in Army 2020 and Future Reserves 2020 is already well underway.

Smaller budgets, the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, and an assessment of the likely nature of future military engagements – not to mention the return of soldiers from Germany and the consolidation of UK-based troops into ‘super garrisons’ – has served to inform the shape and structure of the army after 2014. This was underscored by the army’s ongoing reorientation from a campaign to contingency footing, with an emphasis on overseas engagement and capacity building, and national-resilience tasks. How the army will perform these roles and what these changes mean in practice were just two of the major questions addressed by the ‘Understanding the Army’ course recently held at the Land Warfare Centre in Warminster.

Public Engagement

Rolling out a two-day course, the first of its kind for some time and with more planned, may be a small PR exercise for the army amidst the swathe of changes taking place, but its aim – to provide a direct line of communication to the public from which it draws both its support and its staff – was significant. Attendees represented a cross-section of government, academia and the private sector, with varying levels of exposure to what the army is and does. Perhaps crucially, they were not senior professionals who would have heard the spiel before, but a newer generation who would, at the very least, return to the office having heard direct the army’s own views regarding its purpose and future plans.

The very running of the course demonstrated how the army is rethinking its public engagement, a necessary move given both the future structural emphasis on Reserve manpower. The message, therefore, was not just that the army is returning home from theatre and re-assessing its future role, but it is also seeking to strengthen its link with society.

Designed to provide insight into the broad sweep of the army’s components and functions, the course comprised briefings (with the inevitable PowerPoint accompaniment); a combined-arms manoeuvre demonstration that put an Armoured Infantry Company Group through its paces; simulation-training tasters; and, with future operations in mind, an urban-combat demonstration – the one time the attendees got to tag along and ‘experience’ what it is like at the ‘pointy end’ of deployed military power.

Almost every briefing was delivered by a colonel – an indication that engagement with the world outside of the army is being taken seriously. Bite-sized (and surprisingly acronym-free) explanations were delivered around people, equipment and processes within the army organisation. Discussion on each of these was both circumscribed by the ongoing structural changes and underpinned by the key message that although reform may be necessitated in part by budget cuts, the envisioned utility of the army is also a driving factor. Curiously, given the breadth of the audience and the range of other tasks in which the army will continue to engage – including disaster relief and MACA (Military Aid to the Civil Authorities) tasks – these were mentioned only in passing, with war-fighting capacity the pre-eminent subject.

However, for an audience for whom previous interaction with the military may have been limited to details on paper, using the infantry to demonstrate just one aspect of the army’s capabilities was tantamount to the picture that conveys a thousand words. Much political debate in recent years has centred on whether to put ‘boots on the ground’ and the course certainly fleshed out just what the phrase really means. Yet whilst there was occasion to talk to some of the soldiers, the majority of time was spent in the company of officers; so, although the thinking behind many of the procedures and changes at play was evident, there was less opportunity to explore their effect on the soldier on the ground.

Jointery and the Reserves

Also emphasised was the importance of ensuring continued integration across the services, demonstrated during the combined-arms manoeuvre which called upon the support of an air asset. But while a decade of war-fighting in Afghanistan has established jointery as the modus operandi, it is essential for the army to maintain expertise in the land operating environment in order to contribute properly to future operations. Time will tell how embedded this cross-service mentality truly is.

Unsurprisingly, the other significant thrust of the course was explaining  the steps towards the full integration of the Reserves – no longer the ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ option but a central part, by design, of the new force structure. Requiring a cultural change within both the army and society at large, this is the area that will likely demand the most attention in the army’s communications with the public about its future role. Indeed, events throughout this year, such as the Territorial Army (TA) Live weekend broadcast from Afghanistan and a Reservists recruitment weekend in central London in October,[2] reflect the need to convey much more detailed, and convincing, messages around the opportunities open to both full-time Regulars and committed Reservists, the additional value to private-sector companies of employing Reservists, and the various efforts being made to counter the inherent challenges for businesses that do so. 

Inviting civilians to engage directly in this way, and thus to gain better insight into the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the British Army, is a proactive effort to inform, not just react, to changing circumstances. For several years, the army has been on the back foot in terms of setting the agenda for public debate, with the dominant media narrative often presenting the military as a victim, rather than instrument, of government policy. However, although only one strand of a much wider campaign to demonstrate continuing capability and drive recruitment, the ‘Understanding the Army’ course showcased the organisation’s narrative that it is very much open for business, and a war-fighting business at that.

[1] Alex Stevenson, ‘Fox: More Army Cuts on the Way after 2020’,, 12 September 2013, <>, accessed 18 October 2013.

[2], ‘TA Live Broadcasts Direct from Helmand’, 16 February 2013, <>, accessed 5 November 2013; MoD, ‘Reservists in London’, 28 October 2013, <>, accessed 5 November 2013.


Ashlee Godwin

Associate Fellow

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