<i>RUSI Journal</i>: ‘All is not well in the British Army’ former officer warns

1 July 2009

‘Hubris in the British Army has caused too little concern for too long’ and ‘behind the façade, all is not well in the British Army and has not been for some time’ according to a new article published in the Journal of Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Journal June 2009

The British Army’s capacity for internal reflection and rapid change has been sapped by an insular, conformist culture, and its shortcomings need to be acknowledged before it can recover ground lost to other professional armies, argues Patrick Little, a recently retired infantry officer who served in Afghanistan.

Featured in a wide ranging special section of the RUSI Journal assessing British military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘Lessons Unlearned: a former officer’s perspective on the British Army at war’ highlights a long-term ‘state of denial’ and the need to ‘reform a flagging institutional culture that has been too slow to adapt to present challenges’ – a real obstacle to learning and adapting from recent experiences.

Writing on behalf of ‘middle tier officers’, Little – a former Major who left the Army last year after a sixteen year career – challenges the British Army specifically, and defence more generally, to ‘turn a critical mirror on itself’, calling for a period of internal criticism similar to the open appraisal and subsequent transformation of the US Army following Brigadier Aylwin-Foster’s candid criticism of their conduct in Iraq (published in Military Review) at the end of 2005.

Stating that orthodoxies must be challenged, and that ‘hiding behind tradition’ is not the answer, Little calls for a new ethos of creative tension and ‘constructive dissent’ to be instilled in the military before ‘far too many high quality officers’ leave the Army.

‘There seems to be a feeling amongst middle tier officers that they are not listened to, are largely expendable and that their own hierarchy does not adequately reflect their concerns...

‘Unable to accept being submerged, their views diluted or just unheard, many of the more talented officers will probably have been long lost to the armed forces altogether through departure to less stratified civilian employment. It is certainly not unusual to hear UK contemporaries express the view that there are no heretics left, few non-conformists and not enough original thinkers,’ Little warns.

The British Army’s apparent intolerance of dissent or to ‘communicate the unwelcome’ internally, coupled with ‘paralysing’ processes, the former officer writes, make it ‘impossible not to conclude that there have been, and still are, serious systemic shortcomings’.

‘In short, if the British Army wishes to recover its former pre-eminence, it must stop evangelising and start reflecting more deeply on the outsiders’ view,’ Little concludes.

As part of a special section debating British military performance in recent years, the RUSI Journal also presents Theo Farrell and Stuart Gordon’s article tracing specific positive developments on-the-ground in Afghanistan, claiming that UK’s troops have faced and overcome unique challenges in the country, and that ‘Helmand is a far tougher nut to crack’. Their article offers a cautiously optimistic view that Britain is adapting to a difficult war and that the operation is ‘fit for purpose and getting the job done’.

Turning an eye to Whitehall, academic and former Ghurka officer Dr John Mackinlay argues that Britain needs a broader, cross-governmental strategic overhaul. He argues that US reinvention is in ‘stark contrast to British failure to publish a relevant doctrine’. While Britain and the US ‘do not have the same security challenges’, Mackinlay stresses that the UK must confront ‘the Whitehall tribalism which continues to separate the purpose and conduct of the domestic campaign from that of the expeditionary campaign.’

Another contributor, Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst and Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute probes the often-acerbic debate within and between Anglophone militaries to explain why perceptions of British skill in irregular warfare appear to have changed in recent years. Donnelly argues that in some US defence circles ‘Basra’ has supplanted ‘Malaya’ as shorthand for British skill in irregular warfare and it is ‘now the Americans who seemed the masters of modern counter-insurgency and the British students in need of instruction’. Donnelly’s measured American perspective argues that there is much more to this apparent ‘role reversal’ in counter-insurgency expertise than meets the eye.

All the articles feature in the latest edition of the RUSI Journal released on 1 July 2009.

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