Monday, October 05, 2009

One War, Joint Warfare by Hew Strachan

The year 2009 marks the centenary of the publication of the British Army’s first official manual on doctrine, the Field Service Regulations, which appeared in 1909 in two parts; Operations and Organization and Administration. The event was marked by controversy. Both the contents and the very idea were hotly debated in General Staff conferences at Camberley. Those who opposed the publication of doctrine outright argued that, as the agent of an imperial power, the British Army could not anticipate against whom it might fight, where it might do so, and – most important of all – how it would do so. The army had to be ready on a daily basis for what the 1909 Field Service Regulations called ‘warfare against an uncivilized 'enemy’ or what Charles Callwell in his book of that title had dubbed ‘small wars’. Each of those wars was likely to be very different in terms of its tactical needs, its geographical conditions, and its possible enemies.1 The defence of the Empire, in other words policy at the national level, generated uncertainty for military thought, and was as likely to create discontinuities as continuity in war.

Those who favoured doctrine did so on the basis that major war – war in Europe against a ‘civilised’ opponent – required that the General Staff should impart what Major L H R Pope-Hennessy, writing a review of the Field Service Regulations in 1911, called ‘a clear conception … of the method on which it intends to apply those principles of national war’. Pope-Hennessy went on to say that major war should be given priority over small wars. Defeat in Afghanistan (and that really was his example) could be rectified he said, but ‘if the British Army is beaten by a Continental Army in Europe, be it in Belgium or in Norfolk, the defeat will be decisive’.2

Although this was the view too of Major General Douglas Haig, then Director of Staff Duties who was responsible for the production of the Field Service Regulations, it was not incorporated in to the published version of Part I: Operations. It laid down that the conduct of war rested on principles which were common to both civilised and uncivilised war, to regular war and irregular war, to major wars and small wars. These principles (for all that the 1909 Field Service Regulations was coy about spelling them out) are recognisable to us today, and still figure in most doctrinal publications in most armed forces. They are often expressed as paradoxes: for example, economy of force and the need to mass on the decisive point. They are conceptual tools with which to ask questions of the operations in hand, and their application – as the 1909 Field Service Regulations made clear – requires flexibility and adaptability.

In 1909 the British Army faced the immediate probability of war on the northwest frontier of India (today’s Pakistan), but at the same time it confronted the contingency of European war against Germany. It had to fight the small wars in hand and to prepare intellectually for the Great War. Its answer to the problem was a unitary view of war, not a binary one, to see the principles of war – and the need for flexibility in their application – as common to all wars. Each war’s character had to be judged on its own merits. The principles of war might need to be modified against an ‘uncivilised’ enemy, but not thrown out.

Terminological Shift

The army’s problems in 1909 have resonance for the army in 2009. The labels which we use to describe conflict – major war, small war; regular war, irregular war; manoeuvre war, counterinsurgency operations; peacekeeping operations, peace enforcement – create an expectation that we have correctly categorised the war in the first place, when we may not have done. Such pigeon-holing can also too easily assume that the war will not change its character during its course. If it does, the label creates the risk that we shall be slow to recognise the change – to realise that the war has jumped from one category to another. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is an obvious case in point.

In reality, most wars contain elements of several categories. The First World War, the war which the doctrine writers of 1909 had been anticipating, was indubitably a major war, but it still involved irregular war in the Hejaz and Palestine, in Central Asia and Africa, and the British Army still found itself engaged in peacekeeping duties and counter-insurgency operations in India and Ireland. Similarly what can be seen as overwhelmingly irregular wars can acquire regular characteristics, with guerrilla forces merging to create formed units, in what Mao saw as the third stage of revolutionary war. Arguably it is the contribution of air power in Afghanistan which prevents the Taliban doing this today.

The binary view of war – major war versus small war – creates a false polarity, a polarity which not only can get in the way of understanding what is really going on, but also can divide the British Army against itself. Indeed it has done so regularly since 1945, with the British Army on the Rhine, shaped by armour and artillery, focusing on major war, and so setting itself at a distance from infantry regiments waging the campaigns of colonial withdrawal.

The Value of Unification

That the British Army needs a unitary view of war, one which straddles war in all its manifestations, is an argument which has been made with increasing frequency during the course of the past year. Sir Richard Dannatt, as Chief of the General Staff, made exactly this point in his lecture, ‘A Perspective on the Nature of Future Conflict’, delivered at Chatham House on 15 May 2009. He spoke then of ‘a kaleidoscope of conflict’, and in his speech to the Land Warfare Conference at RUSI on 23 June 2009 he specifically rejected a binary approach to war. At the International Institute for Strategic Studies Global Strategy Conference in September 2008, his successor, Sir David Richards, suggested that at the tactical level, future conflicts against both state and non-state actors would look surprisingly similar.3 Picking up this theme at the 2009 RUSI conference, he spoke of ‘generic future conflict’ and a ‘single version of war’.

This is not just a British view, whether we look across the Channel or the Atlantic. Général Vincent Desportes, director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense in France, and before that of the Centre de Doctrine et Emploi des Forces, argues strongly that we need to move away from a bipolar vision of war, one which pivots on the notion of major war. ‘War is war’, he has written in his most recent book. ‘For centuries, we have had the feeling that we are fighting new wars, unrelated to previous conflicts’, but ‘with the benefit of hindsight, it is surprising to see the stability of the general characteristic of conflicts, their unchanging logic and the error that could have been avoided if the “trendsetters” of the period had simply had longer memories’.4

In the United States, General Jim Mattis, in his memorandum to the Joint Forces Command of 14 August 2008 (in which he cut the concept of ‘effects based operations’ down to size), said ‘operations in the future will require a balance of regular and irregular competences’. He recognised that ‘all operating environments are dynamic with an infinite number of variables’. Similarly the US Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, told the RUSI Land Warfare Conference that the nature of war is constant, even if the character of each war is different.

The Risk of Reductionism

In endorsing a unitary view of war, we must not assume that we have a single answer to a complex set of problems. The label ‘hybrid war’ clearly captures the blurring of distinctions within war, but it can too easily become another category with its own capital letters, as deceptive as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, and an answer rather than the basis for questions. If we jump to a standard description, we shall downplay the need for flexibility and adaptability which has to be called into play in identifying and understanding the character of each war, and the potential for change as each war is waged. The same label can carry different connotations, not only across services and between nations, but even within the same service. ‘Hybrid war’ is already being used to embrace not only a war in which regular and irregular actors take part, but also hybrid actors in a war who might opt to fight a regular war rather than an irregular one. Significant differences are being lost. Major General Chris Deverell’s admonition at the 2009 RUSI Land Warfare Conference, that ‘hybrid’ does not mean exclusively light, is itself an illustration of this phenomenon. He recognised that soldiers too easily use a name as a substitute for thought, as a way of giving authority to their own statements rather than as a tool for greater comprehension.

This is not to say that a unitary view of war does not help us address two big problems. First, it tells us that the pole around which our ideas of war cluster should no longer be major war, itself a theoretical construct derived from the Second World War and scarcely encountered in reality since. Instead the unitary view of war situates the theoretical ‘gold standard’ towards which the army should be aiming, which lies more in the middle, between the extremes of big and small, regular and irregular. Second, a unitary view of war has the capacity to provide the conceptual framework with which we can make hard choices about priorities within defence spending.

Internal Culturalisation Across the Services

At the RUSI conference, General Sir Richard Dannatt argued that stabilisation, not the initial intervention, should be seen as the decisive phase in current operations. In France, Général Desportes has made the same point. This is where the rubber hits the road. The British Army, and other armies, may be increasingly comfortable with a unitary view of war, but neither the Royal Navy nor the Royal Air Force is. Sir David Richards’s belief, that the commonality of war is most obvious at the tactical level, takes us in two significant directions. First, it is at the tactical level that single-service characteristics and attributes become most pronounced. Second, the character of current operations has the increasing effect of collapsing the levels of war – tactical, operational, and strategic – into each other, with the operational narrative becoming the strategic narrative, and the operational conduct of war itself being shaped by tactical possibilities and tactical events.

Both the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Air Staff publicly attacked some of the assertions made by General Sir Richard Dannatt in his Chatham House speech.5 They, like the Ministry of Defence itself, talked about the need for balanced capabilities, and put as much weight on the war after next as on the war in hand. The United Kingdom confronts a major challenge: the unitary view of war relates to current operations but it does not relate to current defence structures. The Chief of the General Staff, be he Dannatt or Richards, can have a vision of future conflict which he uses to guide the army’s development, but the levers of change are no longer in the hands of a single service. David Richards has spoken of the need for ‘cultural internalisation’ just as twenty years ago General Sir Nigel Bagnall implemented a cultural shift in the British Army, pivoting on the operational level of war (admittedly predicated on the single scenario of a Soviet attack on northern Germany). Bagnall could create a virtuous circle of thinking within the army, from the newly established Higher Command and Staff Course to the publication of British Military Doctrine in 1989 (itself the first doctrine published since the 1909 Field Service Regulations), to command itself. Almost all of this activity was housed under a single roof, within the Staff College at Camberley. But today’s structures are no longer circular; they are stove-piped.

The unitary view of war is landcentric. It sees airpower in terms of attack helicopters, air mobility and strategic lift, not fast jets; it sees seapower in terms of logistic support, brown-water operations and coastal protection, not aircraft carriers. If the unitary view of war reopens inter-service rivalry, all will lose. We shall not address the key conceptual and procurement decisions which confront us, and the services’ political masters will pick off each service by playing one against the other. Joint structures were meant to overcome these dangers, but the most pressing lesson of the last five years is that they have not. Jointness has itself become a challenge; it has become dysfunctional in the process of becoming functional.

The Intellectual Backbone of Joint Doctrine

Three principal manifestations of jointness are important in achieving ‘cultural internalisation’: the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre, the Defence Academy, and the Permanent Joint Headquarters. What follows is not an attack on any individuals of any service in these organisations, but a reflection on how the stove-piping created by joint bureaucracies establishes obstacles to the development and acceptance of a unitary view of war.

Between 2003 and 2008, the British armed forces were engaged in active operations in two theatres of war, but the harvesting of those lessons in the formulation and dissemination of doctrine in near real time did not happen. The Defence Doctrine and Concepts Centre was used by the Ministry of Defence as a think-tank devoted to the long term, focused on predicting strategic trends thirty years out, while those in the Ministry itself concentrated on the immediate issues of defence policy. In other words, the Defence Doctrine and Concepts Centre was directed more towards the possible evolution of future defence policy than towards the conduct of current operations. Doctrine will always have to straddle the experience of the past, the realities of the present and the aspirations of the future, and for that reason is poised between schizophrenia and compromise. But if it is to command authority, it has above all to be grounded in the present. Only now, in 2009, with its work on Joint Doctrine Publication 3-40, the new manual on stabilisation operations, is the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre really grappling with the big issues of the day. But remember that whatever it does, and however closely aligned it may be with the army’s picture of future conflict, it is not within the army’s or the Chief of the General Staff’s chain of command; it answers through the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff to the Chief of the Defence Staff.

If the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre is the agency which should be developing doctrine related to current realities in war, the Defence Academy is the vehicle for the dissemination of that doctrine. It is also the vehicle for discussion between doctrine and practice, where ideas developed in one can be reshaped, challenged and honed by officers fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan, and where the latter can put the experience which they have gained in one war in the context of other wars. But for all that it is co-located with the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre, the Defence Academy is a separate organisation. This dialogue has only begun very recently – and largely since both organisations have been simultaneously headed by soldiers. Moreover, not only does the Defence Academy have to deal with the differing command and staff expectations of three services, it is also a teaching organisation as concerned with generating overseas fee income as any cash-strapped British university. Teaching sixty different nationalities does wonders for defence diplomacy and international understanding, but does it make the Defence Academy the best preparation for the command of British troops in war? Only just over 30 percent of those on the Advanced Staff Course are British Army officers.

Mention of command leads logically to the Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood. British operations in Afghanistan (as in Iraq) possess a command structure that has too many layers whilst lacking connectivity at the right levels. As the Deputy Commander of ISAF, the senior British officer in Afghanistan holds a coalition appointment and is the obvious link to the United States and to NATO. But he is not in the national command chain, which runs from Helmand to Northwood, therefore too easily bypassing them just as it bypasses him. The absence of a theatre headquarters closer to the reality of events on the ground has been glaring, but is at last now getting attention. However, the problem does not stop there, as the Permanent Joint Headquarters is not the only command headquarters in greater London. There is also the Ministry of Defence main building in Whitehall, where command and management coincide, and where the latter can so easily swamp the former. We seem to have headquarters everywhere, but none where we need them. The danger that top-down views of war are at odds with the reality in theatre has been all too obvious in practice. Moreover, those top-down views do not necessarily reflect thinking in the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre, let alone in the army. To reiterate, the Chief of the General Staff is outside this joint structure.

All three joint agencies – the Defence Doctrine and Concepts Centre, the Defence Academy, and the Permanent Joint Headquarters – have direct influence on the development, assimilation, and application of ideas about war. If a unitary view of war is to be accepted, then all three have to be involved in the process. However, none of them lies within the competence of the Chief of the General Staff. His role, even in shaping the army’s own thinking about war, can at best only be indirect.

Joining-up in Practice

So how do we put a unitary view of war into effect in a joint context? There are four obvious practical steps. The establishment of a theatre headquarters; a bottom-up as well as top-down relationship between that headquarters and the Permanent Joint Headquarters; a resolution of the overlaps between the Permanent Joint Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence; and a buy-in of the single service chiefs into the work of both the Defence Doctrine and Concepts Centre and the Defence Academy.

There are also philosophical responses – the means to generate ‘cultural internalisation’. The armed forces are smaller than they were even in Bagnall’s day, and getting smaller. More people know each other, not just within a single service but also across services. Lateral relations matter as much as vertical, and the vertical ones need to flow from the bottom up as much as from the top down. Debate and discussion, deliberation and thought – these are how ideas are internalised and given ownership. The message from a former director of the Defence Academy, Lieutenant-General Sir John Kiszely, is crucially important here.6 Education is central – and education, not training. A unitary view of war’s nature is useless without the intellectual wit to distinguish the characteristics of the war in hand. Action should not be a shortcut; it should not be a substitute for thinking, but the consequence of thought. Command rests on knowledge and a grasp of reality, not on preconception and nostrums learnt by rote.


1 The intellectual father of this argument, Colonel G F R Henderson, had taught the generals of the First World War at the Staff College in the 1890s, including Douglas Haig and William Robertson. On Henderson, see Jay Luvaas, The Education of an Army: British military thought 1815–1940 (London: 1965).

2 L H R Pope-Hennessy, ‘The British army and modern conceptions of war’, Edinburgh Review (Vol. 213, No. 436, April 1911), pp. 324–326; ‘The place of doctrine’, Edinburgh Review (Vol. 215, No. 439, January 1912), pp. 18, 21, 28.

3 David Richards, ‘European armies: the challenge’, in Tim Huxley and Alexander Nicoll (eds.), Perspectives on International Security, IISS Adelphi Paper 400–401 (London: December 2008), pp. 53–62.

4 Vincent Desportes, La guerre probable: penser autrement (Paris: Economica 2007). This book is now available in English: Vincent Desportes, Tomorrow’s war: thinking otherwise (Washington DC: Brookings, 2009), here p. 115.

5 Admiral Sir Jonathon Band at the RUSI Future Maritime Operations Conference, 3 June 2009; Sean Rayment, ‘RAF chief predicts takeover of Royal Naval air power’, Sunday Telegraph, 7 June 2009; Neil Tweedie, ‘The Navy strikes back’, Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2009; Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Sea Lord defends navy spending’, Guardian, 1 July 2009.

6 John Kiszely, ‘Learning about Counter-Insurgency’, RUSI Journal (Vol. 151, No.6, December 2006).

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