Evaluation: Ernest May, Strange Victory

I’ve just been reading Ernest May’s Strange Victory – Hitler’s Conquest of France, which I was recommended in this thread at Abu Muqawama.

Strange Victory‘s main point is that everything you think you know about the German invasion of France in 1940 is wrong. The French (and British) armies weren’t catastrophically ill-equipped for modern war; the French tank park was almost a third bigger than that of Germany, and the advantage was concentrated in the newer and heavier types – the French had many more Somua S35s and Renault B1s than the Germans had Panzer III and IVs. In terms of quality, the B1 and the British Matilda were the heaviest tanks either side deployed; the S-35 was probably the best all-round tank on the battlefield. The French Army’s historic strength, its artillery, disposed of a huge advantage in big guns.

Similarly, there is no reason to believe that French morale was particularly poor, or worse than that of the Germans. Where they had the opportunity to fight, the French fought; in the Gembloux gap in Belgium, Rene Prioulx’s French Cavalry Corps – actually, a pair of armoured divisions – fought the 3rd and 4th Panzers for four days, covering the First Army’s move up to the Dyle line. They lost 105 tanks to 160 for the Germans; some German accounts suggest that had they kept going, rather than breaking off the engagement once the main force was in place, the whole German front in the north might have collapsed. On the other side of Antwerp, the 9th Panzers ran into another French armoured division, and this time lost another hundred tanks for the loss of five French. May quotes a German cavalryman’s account of their horses screaming in terror as French tanks surged towards their lines, a reversal of every traditional account of 1940.

Even the hapless 9th Army in the Ardennes, May argues, did better than might have been reasonably expected; it was made up of the bits and pieces of the French Army, with a high concentration of the oldest reservists and youngest conscripts, the last pick of equipment, a lot of ageing dug-out officers, and sent to guard a front no-one expected to be important, where it met the very best the Germans had to offer. May argues that it was no worse than the German forces facing the Maginot Line in Army Group C, or the Leeb Museum as the troops called it after its commander and the quality of its equipment. Had they been facing a concentrated attack by Prioulx’s tanks, they might have been routed as the 9th French Army was.

So what happened? How did the Allies end up with the best of their armies, and the whole of their mobile forces, successfully defending positions two hundred miles from the German schwerpunkt? May begins at the beginning, examining the German and French planning processes. It is a commonplace that the Allies did exactly what the Germans were hoping they would. Up until the early spring of 1940, however, the German army was planning to do exactly what the French were hoping they would – to commit their forces to a westwards push across Belgium and southern Holland, something like the Schlieffen plan of 1914.

The Allies planned to counter this with a left-flanking manoeuvre pivoting on the Ardennes, rolling the motorised 1st and 7th French Armies and the British Army, including three French armoured divisions and a British tank brigade, onto a river line running half-way across Belgium. This would provide a shorter line and defence in depth, and would concentrate the Allied strike force directly opposite the Germans’. This was roughly the plan – plan D – that they put into effect on the 10th of May, 1940.

The Germans were never satisfied with their plan; it was obvious to both sides that Germany could only lose a long war, as Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction recently bore out. And the General Staff plan for the Western Front didn’t offer much chance of a decisive victory. Germany needed a battle that would transform its strategic position. May describes the emergence of the final plan, which moved the main attack from the area around Liege to the southern Ardennes, as a collective product, pointing out that the first person to call it the Manstein plan was von Manstein. He certainly did have a major influence on it, lobbying against the original plan until he was transferred away from Army Group A headquarters to shut him up. But so did many others.

Hitler correctly realised that the original plan wouldn’t do. But he also offered his own inimitable negative contribution – why not decide not to decide where the main attack should go in, and make the decision on the night? Eventually, the debate was settled by a string of major war-games designed to test the three competing proposals. As it turned out, the original plan usually delivered stalemate in Flanders, and occasionally, defeat. Hitler’s proposal reliably resulted in failure, varying between mere fiasco and the French conquest of the Ruhr. The Group A plan usually worked.

That the war games were an accurate simulation was the work of the General Staff intelligence branch, Foreign Armies (West), led by General Tippelskirch, with Colonel Liss in charge of the French desk. One of the duties of this office was to act as the enemy commander during war games. The French and German intelligence services were radically different; France had invested hugely in intelligence collection, with formidable capabilities in photo-reconnaissance, electronic intelligence, and agent-running. Germany, short of cash, was also short of information; however, the Germans had compensated by concentrating on analysis. Tippelskirch’s staff spent most of their time studying what would now be called foreign doctrine – how potential enemies thought about war, how they trained for it, and how they made decisions.

Their conclusions about France was that the French Army relied heavily on centralised command and control, which was implemented through staff procedures that generated extremely detailed written orders and reports. Also, the French communications system was much more effective vertically than it was horizontally – in the name of security, landlines and dispatch riders linking major headquarters were preferred to radio, which meant that French army units had to have very detailed instructions in order to coordinate with their neighbours. One of the few clear technological advantages the Germans had over the French was their Enigma-encrypted mobile radio network – which they had developed to support their own concept of Auftragstaktik.

Therefore, they proposed that the greatest weakness of the French Army would be in responding to unforeseen events. Whatever the final plan would be, it could only succeed by forcing the French to abandon their own plan; if they got to execute their own plans, they would win. When Tippelkirch and Liss got in character for their parts as French generals, they played them as men trapped by their own thoroughness.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to design a plan that would confront the French with an unexpected crisis and force them to abandon their own plans. It had to stay unexpected. French intelligence certainly had the data to find out what the Germans were planning; they identified most of the Panzer divisions from aerial photos and radio intercepts, discovered that two of the four major supply depots in the Western theatre of war were located in the Eifel, just across the border from the Ardennes sector, and analysed German aerial reconnaissance overflights statistically, showing that they were concentrating on a rectangular zone behind the Ardennes and leading towards the coast. They interrogated a shot-down reconnaissance pilot and got him to spill the beans on his targets, which all lay in this area. All this data was written up in careful summaries and delivered to the commander in chief, mixed with a vast quantity of noise and German disinformation.

But the French understanding of intelligence specifically barred intelligence officers from commenting on the content of their reports; rather like traditional journalists, they were not supposed to editorialise or speculate. Judgment about the enemy’s intentions was left to the commander; detailed planning was left to the operations branch. The very quantity of data that the Deuxieme Bureau delivered to Gamelin, Georges, and the rest every day meant that nobody was asking questions about its meaning. As the Germans installed extra railway sidings and temporary bridges in the Mosel valley, put in more telephone lines, and cleared parking space next to the roads leading towards Luxembourg, the French general staff was drowning in reports, endlessly revising the detailed plan for the move into Belgium, and creating an entirely new and ambiguous headquarters shoehorned between the General Staff, the Northern Front, and the Commander in Chief.

One book that doesn’t come out of this well is Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle: France 1940. May is scrupulously courteous to Horne, and credits him with providing the definitive account of combat in 1940, but it’s impossible not to revise your opinion of Horne as a result of this book.

For example, Horne doesn’t mention that the French divisions cuirassees, whose role as part of the strategic reserve he discusses at length, weren’t actually armoured divisions in the sense of a unit equivalent to a Panzer division. Rather, they were more like a British Army Tank brigade, a force made up of heavy, slow-moving tanks intended to lead a set piece assault on a fixed front. French doctrine foresaw that they would break through the enemy lines, and then let the “light mechanised division”, which had as many tanks as a Panzer division, pass through and exploit the breach. The DC would move back into reserve and put its vehicles back in order.

As a result, they didn’t have the mobile logistics or supporting arms of an armoured division and couldn’t manoeuvre like one, no matter what the high command wanted of them. This – not specific French incompetence or cowardice or Communist infiltration – explains why they were frequently in the wrong place, and why the 2nd DC could be caught with its tanks on one side of Rommel’s 7th Panzers and its soft-skinned vehicles, including all the fuel, on the other. It is true that the French never succeeded in using the three DCs effectively. It is also true that their tanks simply had to move to the battlefield by rail.

And there is far too much national-character stuff in Horne. May takes a much harder line with himself on this. Also, he is more able to recognise that a lot of postwar Gaullist writers wrote the way they did because they were politically on the Right and in the grip of the prejudices of the pre-war era. There is simply too much cheap frogbashing in the world to add to it. You can often hear the effort being made to resist it in Horne’s prose, but too much leaks through.

This story has a sort of tragic duality. The Germans won because they had been able to plan more like a democracy than democratic France or Britain – they constantly questioned their assumptions, criticised superiors, and threw out bad ideas – but they would never do so again, precisely because of their triumph over France. Hitler rapidly convinced himself it was all his own work, and the independent authority of the army was permanently destroyed. The technology – tanks, close air support, and mobile radio – and the doctrine of Blitzkrieg had been validated. Many people concluded that fascism itself had also been validated – they had seen the future, and it worked. The prestige of the Nazi Party and of Hitler rose to a degree that finally saw off any hope that the military would depose him; at the same time, the generals were faced with the possibility that Germany had a combination of technology and operational art that might actually win. Between Hitler’s triumph, and their new status as potential world conquerors, the generals’ opposition to Nazism faded, and any hope of limiting the damage went with it.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 6 – Key Strategic Questions

And we’re there! Chapter 6 – Key Questions for the future SDR – attempts to sum up the Green Paper and set some deliverable goals for the full SDR process.

There are six key questions, which also get their own comments threads here; again, one of the salient features is how little there is about the relationship with the US and also that none of the comments seem to find this at all surprising. Not so long ago, suggesting any cooperation with Europe except for the strictest possible interpretation of NATO would reliably get you an avalanche of Tories accusing you of undermining the special relationship. Now, not so much.

It is likely that the American commitment to the NATO Alliance will wane in the next 10 – 20 years…The prospect here, indeed possibly the only prospect, is of closer ties with our European partners through development of the Common Security and Defence Policy….It is obvious that the continual paring down of national capability will end in a Euroforce. Whether this is perchance or by design is a moot point. I think the time has come to stop resisting this and start positively embracing it

The six strategic questions are as follows:

* Given that domestic security cannot be separated from international security, where should we set the balance between focusing on our territory and region and engaging threats at a distance?
* What approach should we take if we employ the Armed Forces to address threats at distance?
* What contribution should the Armed Forces make in ensuring security and contributing to resilience within the UK?
* How could we more effectively employ the Armed Forces in support of wider efforts to prevent conflict and strengthen international stability?
* Do our current international defence and security relationships require rebalancing in the longer term?
* Should we further integrate our forces with those of key allies and partners?

There’s also this one:

* To what extent and in what areas should we continue to refocus our current efforts on Afghanistan?

The rest is basically a summary, but it’s interesting that a couple of specific policies make it through to the final cut:

Options for enhancing our cyber capabilities and structures to ensure we can defend, and take steps, against adversaries when necessary; and where we might increase our contribution to allied space capabilities or invest in our own national capabilities.

More for reference than anything else, here are the official military planning assumptions, and a list of operations since the 1998 SDR.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 5: People, Equipment, and Structures

So we’ve had the grand tour d’horizon; we’ve had the self criticism; we’ve had the very rapid skip over the nuclear issue; we’ve had a careful balance of general-purpose capability and counterinsurgent language. Now for some hardcore bureaucracy. It’s Chapter 5 of the SDR Green Paper – People, Equipment, and Structures.

This kicks off with the MOD’s personnel problems. As in essentially any organisation of the last 15 years or so, there’s an invocation of having to learn new skills many times in your career, etc, etc. There’s going to be a “whole force concept” review of how the MOD manages its people. There are warm words about looking after our veterans being a moral value. And then there’s this:

The provision of accommodation, for example, is a potential disincentive to home ownership and may not represent the best investment we can make in helping families and personnel deal with the demands of Service life.

I would have thought the disincentive to home ownership would be the wages, and the, well, demands of Service life. (How many mortgage lenders are cool with the idea that the signatory may get shot at any moment?) Seriously. What the fuck? Apparently they’re looking at “alternative models for accommodation”, which might be good if it involved killing off the Annington Homes money pit, but it doesn’t sound like it.

On equipment, the general theme of a renewed interest in industrial policy is there, although the section is very general indeed, in fact vague. Tellingly, the issue of operational sovereignty – which has flared up all over again with regard to the F-35 – is raised:

We will have to revalidate our overall approach to:
* Operational Sovereignty. Our Armed Forces rely on assured overseas sources for some important equipment and support but there are cases where specific industrial capability must be located in the UK for operational reasons

There’s also a nod to arms exporters, presumably to pass the document through the bits of the MOD involved with DESO and friends.

On organisational issues, the chapter contains a bit more meat; it appears a major re-apprisal of the MOD’s structure and business processes is coming, although the drafters warn that the costs of constant reorganisation have been a very serious problem.

Change must be considered carefully in the light of the risks associated with reorganisation highlighted in the Haddon- Cave Report. The future Review will offer an opportunity to re-examine the model and to determine whether and how we might be able to improve on it.

Haddon-Cave is the report on the Nimrod XV230 crash in 2006, which demonstrated that the Nimrod fleet was essentially unairworthy in its entirety and that the engineering and management systems intended to guarantee the safety and effectiveness of the MOD’s aircraft. A major issue it identified was the impact of constant organisational change – something of a theme throughout the public sector in the Blair era.

The chapter finishes with a ritual call for greater efficiency. There’s also this worrying statement, in the light of the bizarre property-booster bit:

the scope for further rationalisation of the defence estate;

Not again…

In short, if Chapter 3 was impressive, Chapter 5 is poor – with the exception of the reference to Haddon-Cave, it’s mostly either made up of truisms or else simply too vague to mean anything at all. And what on earth is this stuff about property? Notably, the comments home in on it at once; it’s also noticeable that by Chapter 5, the trolls have landed.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 4: Partnership

Next slide, please. At last, we’re there – Chapter 4 of the SDR Green Paper tackles the classic question of alignment with the EU, NATO, and the special relationships. And it’s a highly post-American document.

Our current relationships are mutually reinforcing. NATO remains the cornerstone of our security. However, as Europeans, we must take greater responsibility for our security together. Stronger European defence co-operation offers many opportunities, not least in the wider role defence should play in resolving conflict and building peace. The UK will greatly improve its influence if we and our European partners speak and act in concert. A robust EU role in crisis management will strengthen NATO. Playing a leading role at the heart of Europe will strengthen our relationship with the US.

This is the strongest pro-European official statement on defence for quite some time, I think. You’ll observe that any contradiction between the EU and the special relationship is denied, but it’s also true that there’s not very much about the US here at all. In that sense, this is a radical statement.

The Review will need to determine where there is scope to increase the effectiveness of those relationships in delivering our security or to rebalance our investments across the organisations. In particular:
* how we can strengthen European nations’ contribution to global security, including through more effectively aligning resources and priorities;
* how we can further improve cooperation between NATO and the EU;
* how we increase equitable burdensharing within NATO and the EU, particularly with respect to operational deployments;
* whether there is scope for increased role specialisation or capability-pooling within NATO and the EU in order to create a more coherent and capable output;

These are the cliché questions, of course – why won’t Germany let their helicopters fly at night, does Europe really need quite so many conscripts, does Austria having a dozen Eurofighter really contribute to anything much. There is truth to them, although perhaps less than there would be if the US Marines didn’t impose their own national caveats on the US Army. It’s in their nature that they will only be settled by long and imperfect negotiation, and if the UK wants them settled, it will probably have to signal that it’s serious about European cooperation.

* whether we should increase our investment in UN peacekeeping, and in particular our contribution of forces to UN operations;
* where we could offer further assistance in strengthening the strategy and planning functions for UN operations at headquarters level; how we continue to streamline and improve the cost-effectiveness of each organisation; and

This suggests a possible use for the exportable surplus of generals identified in comments here.

* how we most effectively generate influence within coalitions and with our key partners

I would argue that an ally whose support is not totally certain has far more influence than one that will go-along-to-get-along with anything…and I suspect that so would the SDR drafters.

Beyond Europe and North America, the Review should consider the merits of formalising our long-standing bilateral relationships and where new and expanded partnerships could bring mutual advantage and reinforce global and regional security. For example, regional security organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union are already playing an important role in ensuring international stability and there is scope to further improve links between these organisations and the EU and NATO. In the recent economic crisis, the G20 emerged as critical to coordinating the response of the international community. Some argue that we must similarly expand the international security architecture to better include emerging powers.

I’m not sure if there’s much in this, but it’s encouraging that the drafting process isn’t focusing just on Europe and the Atlantic.

The “partnership” theme is also used to discuss working with civilian organisations, and the problems of building the reconstruction element of a counter-insurgency strategy. Although the word isn’t used, there’s quite a bit of the language – if Chapter 3 had a Gian Gentile-like concern for general-purpose capability and adaptability, Chapter 4 at least sounds more like Abu Muqawama.

We have made major strides forward with what is called the Comprehensive Approach – a unified approach to defence, diplomacy and development. There has been progressive improvement, driven particularly by our experiences in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, since early 2008 we have doubled the number of deployed civilian experts and we now have an integrated structure, headed jointly by a UK senior civilian representative and the UK Commander Task Force Helmand, and focused on the rapid delivery of stabilisation effect in an insecure environment, alongside military operations.

The Stabilisation Unit – jointly owned and staffed by DFID, FCO and MOD – has improved the UK’s ability to plan, deploy and direct activities in fragile and failing states, including countries emerging from conflict. In particular, it has established a new Civilian Stabilisation Group with over 800 deployable external experts and over 200 civil servants with the right skills and experience to help countries recover from conflict….

Only local people will determine whether, in the long-term, a country or region will establish self-sustaining stability. They have a right to be consulted on the path that they will take towards that stability. Ultimately, they will lead and own this path. Their knowledge and understanding will also enhance the prospects of our success.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 3: Adaptability and Influence

Well, it’s going to be more like “All SDR, All the Time”, as I’ve just noticed that MOD is planning to close the consultation in two weeks. Here goes.

Well, Chapter 3 is in my mind the most impressive bit of the SDR Green Paper so far. It basically sets out the notion that, although the military have as usual succeeded in adapting to the conditions in the field and generally cracking on, the broader defence establishment – the MOD policy-making process, the defence procurement system, the intelligence services, the defence industries – have not done anywhere near as well in coping with constantly changing priorities.

The point is made that although the MOD succeeded, eventually, in turning around a fearsome number of Urgent Operational Requirements very quickly to support the Army in Afghanistan, the very need to issue so many UORs demonstrates that the main equipment programme was dysfunctional. Further, the defence establishment is put on notice that it will have to save money in order to fix the core equipment programme.

As far as answers go, the chapter suggests that there is a need to institutionalise the practice of having regular defence reviews, rather than holding them as and when the Treasury insists, and that this should be set down in an Act of Parliament. Further, they want to alter the strategic planning process – after Iraq, who could possibly object? – in order to “increase the ability of Ministers to direct change”, but also to “increase the authority of the Chief of Joint Operations”.

There’s obviously some tension between these goals – one increases the power of ministers, one the power of the officer corps and specifically the operational command structure rather than the Defence Staff. There’s a fine political balance here; if the intention is to boost both Northwood and the ministers, the corollary is less power for the Defence Staff and the civil servants.

Of course, the key to the politics here is procurement, because that’s where the money is and because technology eventually becomes policy. Chapter 3 suggests the following changes:

* generating more adaptable forces. Many of our forces are already operating outside their primary roles. We need to strengthen this trend towards taking on multiple roles;
* prioritising our investment in capabilities with wide utility, which are likely to be effective in a range of scenarios and against a range of threats. These would include, for example, support helicopters;

To put it another way, especially if there’s not much money around, the MOD can’t afford to indulge in hyper-specialised gear. Instead, equipment has to be general-purpose, in order to fit in with a strategy of trying to stay agile in the environment “characterised by uncertainty” laid out in Chapter 1. The helicopter example is nicely uncontroversial, but it probably won’t have gone unnoticed that it also fits the carriers.

* creating greater flexibility between Regular and Reserve Forces to ensure access to a wider range of skills and a larger personnel pool;

The MOD has been trying to do this ever since the last SDR decided that the Territorial Army was too big and needed cutting; after Kosovo, when an unexpectedly large mobilisation was needed, they changed course, but despite using the reserves heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, they continued cutting the headline numbers until very recently. The reserves were also given a homeland security/anti-terrorism role, being asked to provide a battalion-sized Civil Contingency Reaction Force for each regional brigade. Experience of actual civil contingencies, like the 2007 floods, led this to be abandoned as the civil authorities found they didn’t have any need for a CCRF but did badly need almost every other specialisation.

* developing a greater understanding of the appropriate balance between technological edge and larger numbers of platforms;

This was a Hoon-to-Reid era trope – although the services wouldn’t get as many (tanks/ships/aircraft/whatever), high technology would make up the difference and therefore the costs of Iraq could be absorbed.

* relying on being able to reconstitute military capabilities, to enable us to access a full range of balanced capabilities with appropriate warning time without having to maintain those capabilities at all times.

To put it another way, if it’s possible to re-create certain specialities quickly, we don’t need to have them permanently on hand. This requires a different view of the industrial base – does this suggest that we need to pay more attention to keeping the industries involved in the UK?

Further, the procurement system is asked to:

# increasing our use of mature technologies when setting requirements. This would reduce the risk that research and development could lead to delays and cost increases in the programme;

# increasing our use of spiral or modular development, in which we build a capability to meet our current requirements but with the capacity to upgrade that capability by adding functions or technologies as they become mature or new threats emerge.

The Adaptability section checks out by admitting that the MOD struggled to understand what was happening through the 2000s, that it lacked understanding of the countries it operated in, and that it failed to make use of expertise available in other government departments, in academia, and in other institutions. They propose more openness and suggest “empowering the Concepts and Doctrine Centre”, their in-house thinktank. Unfortunately, this lacks credibility – at the same time as this statement was issued, the MOD is in the process of shutting down its Research and Assessments Branch, whose job this is, as the MOD’s favourite blog points out.

As far as influence goes, the chapter suggests that the military should be doing more advising, defence diplomacy, and the like, and also tackles the nuclear question very briefly. Essentially, it simply says that we need to make decisions now about Trident so as not to commit to disarmament by accident – this is a far more controversial statement than the SDR makes it sound, and it gives the strong impression that simply nobody wants to discuss it. It’s a let-down at the end of what is otherwise a very sensible document.

Sunday UK Strategic Defence Review: Chapter 2

OK, so it’s time for another chapter of the Strategic Defence Review as a Blog.

Chapter 2 begins as follows:

The use of force as an option is becoming more complicated. It is likely to become more difficult to use force in the way in which we have used it in the last two decades.

This is of course code for Iraq. The Iraq experience is a considerable theme through the chapter.

Many of our assumptions about joint working and expeditionary capabilities have been validated. But experience has shown that our operations have developed in more complex ways than we envisaged. We have sometimes underestimated the intricacy of working in multi-national operations and with non-military actors

To put it another way: We were right to expect we wouldn’t spend all our time in Germany. Further, we had to talk to the RAF. But one particular operation turned out to be much more complicated and much more serious than we allowed ourselves to imagine.

Looking ahead, The Future Character of Conflict will grow more complex. We are likely to face a range of simultaneous threats and adversaries in challenging operating areas – such as fighting in urban areas against enemies concealed amongst civilians. We are also likely to be subject to greater scrutiny from the media and public, both in the UK and overseas. Communications is now a key component of any campaign.

That seems to be communications as in “strategic communications” – PR, in other words. Nothing to do with being Better Off With Map And Nokia. Snark aside, again, this is the experience of Iraq glaring through.

Technological development, especially in the fields of cyberspace and space, may further change our understanding of conflict. It is likely to be more difficult to maintain our technological edge over some adversaries, or to bring that edge to bear on others, with a profound effect on the way we operate.

Anything electronic is now cheap, and the big power monopoly of satellite reconnaissance is breaking down.

There follows a list of operations and arguments that tend to support the 1998 SDR and the later New Chapter. They do not include Iraq, and only mention Afghanistan in passing on the grounds that we got there logistically, until we get to this paragraph:

Special Forces have demonstrated their value across a broad spectrum of activity, from operating alongside our conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to capacity-building with partners or hostage rescue.

However, when we get on to the “lessons learned”, we get this:

Our assumption that we could “go first, go fast and go home” has proved false. We believed that we could deploy our forces for the most difficult early intervention stage of a conflict, and leave the subsequent stabilisation and development tasks to partners. But we have not been able – or wished – to disengage as we had planned. We have therefore further improved our ability to sustain deployed forces, including, for example, through additional procurement of strategic lift.

I think this is important. Going first, going fast, and going home was very close to the early Rumsfeld view – airpower, strategic mobility, force protection, and an almost neurotic self-assertion towards allies. It’s rather what the European Council on Foreign Relations says here; Europe was meant to do the boring stuff. It reminds me of the old line about “America cooks and Europe washes up”. Well, if you never wash up, eventually you get typhoid. The reference to additional lift was the decision to lease, at vast cost, and eventually buy the RAF some C-17 transports – a sort of shadow of the concurrent procurement train crash around the Future Strategic Transport Aircraft.

The international and national policy and legal framework is having an increasing impact on our operations. Defence continues to make an important contribution to tackling terrorism overseas, following the lines set out in the SDR New Chapter in 2002. The role of Defence in working with other departments to tackle the drivers of terrorism, and to build security capacity, is crucial – although the scope for conducting overseas counterterrorism operations is narrower than envisaged in 2002.

Indeed – 2002, and the spirit of 2002, are a long time ago, and:

In many cases, our operations have developed in much more complex and dynamic ways than we envisaged and planned for, and we have not been able to adapt as rapidly as we would have liked.


In particular, in our focus on our geographical area of responsibility, for example in Basra, we may have placed insufficient emphasis on the multi-national operational level. In the later stages of operations in Iraq, the full integration of UK staff into US and coalition headquarters significantly improved the coordination of our contribution. We are taking that lesson forward in Afghanistan.

To put it another way: We thought we could ignore what was going on in Baghdad, Anbar, and Multinational Division South-Centre, and just crack on in Basra without rocking the boat. But it’s impossible to divide the problems of war, whether between land, sea, and air or between geographies within the same theatre. When they wanted war elsewhere, we opted out of the big decisions and lost the ability to say no effectively.

Our deployment of formed headquarters and formations for limited periods has not reflected the need for “campaign continuity”. We have now extended the tour lengths for key headquarters personnel and are looking at options that would ensure greater continuity throughout the headquarters. We are clear that we need to go further to produce better campaign continuity.

This was a problem for the Americans in Vietnam and also for the British Army in various counterinsurgencies. It’s probably common to all armies involved in a long war that isn’t utterly central to their worldview, because it’s driven by career structures. To be a general, you must have a general’s command, and why would you be a general if not to command? Further, what they usually command is a formation, and formations usually rotate. Ad-hoc geographical or functional commands are against the bureaucratic structures involved – perhaps it’s because of this that they are always necessary.

We have found it challenging to identify and rapidly implement lessons in doctrine. This is inherently difficult, but in some areas we have already moved a long way. The Army recently issued a new Counter-Insurgency Doctrine, and we now have a dedicated training facility for counter-insurgency in the UK.

Well, they’re right, really.

Often, innovation within the operation has minimised the adverse impact of these weaknesses. In our current operations, we have incorporated those insights into our strategic policy. Our Afghanistan/ Pakistan Strategy, and General McChrystal’s strategy, are based on a clear understanding of the challenges we face, a long-term vision founded on integrated political, development and military action and an overarching regional approach. Our Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) procedures are delivering the equipment our forces need as the requirements evolve. The Government has approved over £5.5 billion of UORs in Afghanistan since the operation began.

To put it another way – we muddled through, sort of. The reference to UORs corroborates this – part of the reason why the armed forces don’t buy all they need through UORs is that they go around much of the procurement process, in order to be urgent. This means, of course, that they may end up paying more, or getting less. On the other hand, the very fact that they needed to raise £5.5 billion worth of them for Afghanistan – that’s as much as the carriers – suggests that the normal procurement process is dysfunctional.

What about the future? It’s likely to be:

* Contested – access and freedom of manoeuvre – even as we attempt to deploy into the regional theatre – will have to be fought for;
* Congested – we are likely to be unavoidably drawn into urban areas, the littoral and lower airspace;
* Cluttered – we will find it difficult to discriminate between a mass of ambiguous targets – friendly forces, other international actors such as non-governmental organisations or development agencies, media representatives, local civilians and our adversaries;
* Connected – key lines of communication, including critical military infrastructure, maritime chokepoints and computer networks, will be vulnerable to attack and disruption; and
* Constrained – legal and social changes will place additional limits on our actions.

This is true, but hardly original. This is a good book.

Our preferred way of warfare – concentrating force, bringing technology to bear and seeking rapid defeat of our adversaries – may not be as effective as it has been in the past.

Is that our preferred way of warfare? I think this might need a debate. It sounds a lot like a classic statement of the American way of war, which may be the problem. Of course, nobody wants to disperse force, fail to use technology to best advantage, and seek endless, inconclusive struggle – but if Rupert Smith is right and struggle tends to be endless and inconclusive, and technology less decisive than expected, perhaps this should have some bearing on our preferences.

And here comes the dread word: “cyber”.

Cyber Space, in particular, poses serious and complex challenges for UK security and for the Armed Forces’ operations. Our increasing dependence on cyber capabilities creates opportunities but also serious vulnerabilities. Cyber attacks are already an important element of the security environment and are growing in seriousness and frequency. The most sophisticated threat is from established and capable states but cyber eliminates the importance of distance, is low cost and is anonymous in nature, making it an important domain, not just for hostile states, but terrorists, and criminals alike. Cyber space is critical to much of our military effort here and overseas and to our national infrastructure.

Note that the most sophisticated threat comes from states – not the main or the most serious threat. Of course, if the feared attack involves an electron microscope or a quantum computer, a state is the most likely attacker. But it’s in the very nature of information security that the great overwhelming majority of threats come from a huge diversity of tiny actors, and they are just as capable of doing serious damage as anyone else.

Further, defence against these threats tends to be the same – basically, sensible network management. The good news here is that there is no talk of giant firewalls or of “cyberdeterrence” – just of sensible security precautions. Further, the realities of the threat environment are taken seriously. No Dr. Evil plots here, nor cold war fantasies, just a space rather like the sea. The upshot of this is that the UK has far greater interests in keeping the infrastructure up, working, and open to all than it could possibly have in disrupting it. Very like the sea. The White House appears also to be heading this way, as Kings of War points out.

The National Security Strategy also set out the increasing challenges we face in Space. The Armed Forces’ dependence on space has grown rapidly over recent years. Access to space-derived information is now critical to our ability to conduct operations. This makes us vulnerable. The development of offensive counter-space capabilities is a particular concern. But, given our reliance on assets we do not control, there is also a risk of loss of access in periods of high demand – such as during large-scale operations or in the event of a sudden reduction in existing capacity. A continued close relationship with the US underpins our access to space capabilities. But we intend to look closely at how we contribute to allied programmes or develop national capabilities.

This is probably the most significant paragraph in the chapter. After 1971, the UK hasn’t tried to maintain its own reconnaissance satellite capability, nor has it participated in multilateral projects. It is thought, although as with everything between the UK and the USA, it is not written down in anything subject to ratification, that there is an understanding that the USA would share its overhead imagery with the UK. We know that this was turned down at least once during the Falklands War.

Tellingly, during the Iraq war, European countries fell in three groups. Those who had their own imagery – France and Germany. They didn’t participate at all. Those who got such a capability after the spring of 2003 – Spain and Italy. They left early. Those who had nothing at all – everyone else, basically. The outlier is Turkey, which didn’t have such a capability (although they did have representatives at the EU Satellite Centre) but didn’t get involved. Then, the Turks probably had good human sources in Iraq. They’ve since ordered a high-resolution photographic satellite from Telespazio of Italy.

Exactly what the US chose to share with us out of the wealth of imagery its national technical means, as they say, produced remains one of the great questions about the UK’s involvement in Iraq.

Research and development investment in defence technology in emerging nations has been increasing significantly over the past decade. Some key equipment produced by these countries is already as capable as equivalent equipment produced by the UK and our key allies and partners.

Civil investment in research and development, both nationally and globally, is now much larger than equivalent defence spending. Much of this research is developing technology – for example in communications, materials or biomedical science – which could be used in a military or wider security context. But the Ministry of Defence and our international partners in defence can expect to have less visibility of and expertise in such cutting edge technology than we have had in the past.

Loss of our technological edge in significant areas of military capability would have a profound effect on the way we operate.

This is the Arduino question; the proliferation of what used to be technology confined to the superpowers, or as Phil Hunt put it, what happens when a Congolese workshop with a RepRap can make a surface to air missile? Arguably, the key point here is that there is nothing we can do about it except for getting more like that ourselves – which comes back to the procurement economy.

As Kings of War’s David Betz says, this is an argument for general-purpose forces more than anything else. He also quotes the Navy as follows:

* Firstly, what do you want to defend and what are the Standing Commitments for Defence?
* Secondly, we need to have a clear idea about what we as a country would aspire to do on our own.
* Third, where the UK is operating as a coalition member, how do we want to influence our partners?

Culminating point

After spending a bit of time recently in the various battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, this topic has been much on my mind. It’s one of those simple but non-obvious military ideas that explains a lot more than you’d expect. Basically, the culminating point is the furthest that the attacker can go while still remaining superior to the defender. From the attacker’s point of view, you need to plan to reach your objective before you hit the culminating point, while the defender wants to do one of two things: bring the culminating point forward or move the objective backward, in order to be able to counterattack against an inferior attacker.

Which is all very dry and rather tricky to follow. Continue reading