‘Lidl Heart II’: Thinking about the challenges of Influence

This is a response to a previous Defence-in-Depth post by Dr Chris Tuck entitled “Lidl Heart: Cut Price Strategy and the Perils of Influence”.


Aside from having the cleverest title of a Defence-in-Depth blog so far, Lidl Heart: Cut Price Strategy and the Perils of Influence says much about the challenge of being successful in achieving results through influence that it is difficult to disagree with. The article is particularly effective in highlighting how even a nation like Britain, with extensive engagement with the cultures of target audiences and a willingness to try new approaches, was not able to deliver consistently effective outcomes.

However, whilst it is useful to caution against the over-privileging of influence as a substitute for other sources of power, it is equally important to recognize the potential utility of influence as part of a full-spectrum approach and therefore what might contribute to a better effect. Ultimately, the outcome of all conflict is decided in the cognitive domain or as a British Army colleague put it, it is about breaking the enemy’s will to fight.

In thinking about influence primarily through the prism of Joseph Nye as being about the use of power for attraction however, it is possible to miss the opportunities that exist to employ non-military national power to achieve outcomes in the way that is at the heart of contemporary Russian and Chinese doctrine and practice. That is not to suggest that it is appropriate for the UK to adopt some of the specific practices employed by these states but rather to call for a better understanding of what is required to do influence successfully and what that might mean as the UK approaches an SDSR.

The article highlights five related and recurring difficulties in the use of influence activities but consideration and commitment in four areas these could at least begin to be addressed.

Firstly, there is a need to make much more effort in developing insight and understanding. Notwithstanding the British military’s historic links to many parts of the globe, in recent times there has been consistent under-investment in developing the assets required to understand what is increasingly labelled as the human terrain. Although there have been improvements through the period of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan the level of effort is marginal when compared with more technical approaches to surveillance and reconnaissance. Developing some expertise in likely conflict zones, and building on both language skills and the social sciences will allow for more effective understanding of target audiences and how they might be influenced in order to achieve effects critical to the campaign. A further benefit of improving understanding will be to build confidence in commanders in the ability of influence activities to deliver effects.

Secondly, there is a need to truly integrate influence into mainstream thinking. Yet again, whilst the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns saw some progress in this area, influence activities are still seen as a bit second tier and not the preserve of real warfighters in the UK military. This is reflected in the way that units with specialist skills in this area are often subordinated in ways that are not logically coherent. The UK’s psychological operations capability for example has been a part of a military intelligence brigade and the Security Assistance Group when it should actually be more closely linked to fires. This requirement for integration also extends to ensuring coherence across the levels of a campaign from tactical actions to the strategic narrative, as well as across all of the actors in campaign both cross-government and cross-coalition.

Thirdly and leading directly from the previous two, there is a need for continuing development of professionalization of the influence business. It needs to be a core discipline with those who have the skills and desire to specialize recognized appropriately including with a meaningful career structure. However, it is also important to ensure that this is reflected in wider training and education as it is equally important to develop planners and operators who are capable of employing influence activities and integrating them to deliver joint campaign effects. There is a temptation when that is not understood well for the focus to be on the minutiae such as the colour of a leaflet or the phraseology of a broadcast rather than the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.

Lastly, mirroring one of the difficulties identified in the initial blog is the need to ensure that the level of investment is adequate for the task. If the UK is going to make a real commitment to deliver effects through influence then it is clear that people, training as well as technical capabilities to produce and deliver materials are required. However, the cost of doing this properly will be a fraction of that required for harder capabilities. Indeed, with some creative thought elements of the capability can be outsourced to businesses that already do the analysis and then design, produce and deliver the products successfully such as advertising agencies. The US military is already doing this in support of current operations.

Conflict is inherently about a cognitive battle and influence activities are a sensible part of any full spectrum military capability. However, it is a force multiplier and not a force replacement and there must not be a trade off with harder military capabilities. However, if the UK aspires to do influence in a meaningful way it needs to invest in people, training and capabilities, but equally importantly needs to move the business from a niche activity not considered a proper part of war fighting, to the core integrated military activity as British joint effects doctrine already suggest it should be.

About the author: Ewan Lawson is the Senior Research Fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute and a former RAF officer. During his career, he worked closely with the Defence Studies Department on his research interests. He is now a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies where he is researching the development of international regimes to deal with sexual violence in conflict. (www.unwcc.org)

Image available under Open Government License.

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