This is one in a series of occasional posts from scholars outside of the Defence Studies Department. If you would be interested to contribute to this series please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen.
Dr Matthew Ford is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. His book Weapon of Choice – small arms and the culture of military innovation is published by Hurst & Co, London and Oxford University Press, New York 2017. This blogpost draws on ideas that I have used to frame a discussion panel for the Annual Society for Military History conference this coming March-April in Florida. If you have found this of interest then it would be great to continue the debate alongside my fellow panellists Lt-Col. Dr J.P. Clark (U.S. Army) and Dr Laurence Burke (curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) at the conference. J.P. Clark’s book Preparing for War: the Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917 is published by Harvard University Press.
‘…it would appear that many battalion commanders are not really qualified to comment usefully on their weapons’
– Major J.A. Barlow, Tunisia, May 1943
In May 1943 Weapons Technical Staff (WTS) from the Ministry of Supply visited 18 Army Group in Tunisia. Led by Major J.A. Barlow, a captain of the Army Eight shooting team and two times winner of the King’s Prize at Bisley, the WTS sought to understand what soldiers in 18 Army Group wanted from their equipment. To their astonishment having tabulated 15,000 replies to their questionnaire the WTS found that soldiers’ opinions on their kit was ‘frequently conflicting, if not directly contradictory, as between different units and formations’.
Although surprising, the WTS’ findings were not unique, nor confined to the conscripted armies of the Second World War. For example in 2002, during Operation JACANA, Royal Marines were deployed to Afghanistan in support of America’s Operation Enduring Freedom. Newly issued with the upgraded SA80/A2 rifle, news reports started to emerge indicating that, despite the euphemistically named Mid-Life Upgrade by Heckler & Koch, the new version of the assault rifle still didn’t work. Recognising that the Ministry of Defence was facing a PR disaster, a team of civil servant and H&K engineers were sent to Afghanistan. This team showed beyond reasonable doubt that the issues were, in fact, caused by the Bootnecks who hadn’t followed the cleaning drills they’d been issued and as a result the SA80/A2 was malfunctioning. As in 1943, the interface between the soldier and his weapon proved to be a complex and problematic one.
Little known anecdotes like these might seem irrelevant to the much larger question of military effectiveness, but I want to suggest that these specific instances of ambiguity offer considerable opportunity to generate insights into military-technical change. Superficially these stories indicate that the military can struggle to inculcate standardised doctrine, drills and techniques into soldiers. More fundamentally, they point to the way that effectiveness is shaped by a whole series of functions that aren’t simply the responsibility of the armed forces but also reach back to matters concerning engineering design and even defence industrial policy.
Part of the reason for highlighting these examples is to draw attention to the complex socio-technical web of relationships that need to be understood if effectiveness on the battlefield is to be adequately explained and theories of military innovation developed. In this respect the first wave of innovation literature (literature that looked at military-technical change as a top-down exercise driven through by politicians, generals or forced on the organisation by events) is of limited use. While there was an impulse to change small arms in the Second World War, the driver of this change didn’t come from frontline commands but the Director of Infantry at the War Office. In the same way not even the shock of the SA80’s failures during the First Gulf War could force the Conservative Government to admit that they had got the privatisation of Royal Ordnance dramatically wrong. Instead the Ministry of Defence had to content itself with tinkering with the SA80/A1 until a Labour Government came into power after which the atmosphere in Whitehall changed and a systematic evaluation and refurbishment of the Army’s assault rifle became possible.
Similarly, some caution is required when trying to fit these anecdotes into more recent literatures that emphasise adaptation on the battlefield. In the case of 18 Army Group in 1943, even with the support of the Director of Infantry, British engineers were unable to introduce the kinds of assault weapons they recognised could help the infantry win the tactical battle. Weapon designers were hemmed in both by the Government’s over-riding focus on mass-producing existing technological devices and the logistical and supply chain challenges that making a switch implied. Moreover, they also had to recognise that the tactical engagement had been displaced as the Army’s foremost priority by commanders like Montgomery, who favoured combined arms in order to deliver success at the operational level.
By contrast, recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan point to the way that the battlefield has become less important for defining military effectiveness. As the evolution of components for the SA80/A2 (grips, picatinny rails, range finders, grenade launchers, sights etc.) indicates, the British Army has been excellent at accelerating its “lesson-learnt activity”, adapting its technology and technique in the face of changing insurgent tactics. However, indicators normally associated with the development of civil-society became proxies for overall campaign success even as Special Forces sought to win tactical engagements as part of kill/capture operations. Consequently, even as the pace of battlefield adaptation has increased, it has simultaneously exerted a decreasing effect upon the outcome of operations.
Thus, irrespective of whether military organisations continue to think of success in the same way as in Iraq and Afghanistan, events over the past 15 years present an opportunity to rethink how we theorise military innovation. Traditionally three conditions had to be met for a change to count as military innovation. First, innovation had to change the manner in which military formations functioned in the field. Secondly, an innovation had to be significant in scope and impact. Lastly, an innovation needed to result in greater military effectiveness. At the very heart of this definition, then, was the necessary link between effectiveness and the battlefield. What happens to a theory of military innovation, however, if we challenge the basis of the theory and reframe an analysis of change in ways that don’t make this assumption?
One possible way to generate insights into the process of change is to take what Dr J.P. Clark, my fellow panellist at a forthcoming Society for Military History conference, has done and look at innovations through the lens of time. Central to his approach is the recognition that there can be stark generational differences in professional expectations within the military profession. Among an older generation, even among those officers most supportive of reforms, there can be a tendency towards supporting innovation as a way to preserve the best of what was old. At the same time and by way of contrast, younger officers can regard reforms as the means by which to overturn old institutions and replace them with a new collectivist approach centred upon organisations filled with like-minded staff officers trained in accord with an approved doctrine. Far from constituting revolutionary change, innovation, as understood by Clark in his analysis of the U.S. Army during the 19th and early 20th centuries, may also represent an evolutionary inter-generational moulding of the military.
Alternatively Dr Laurence Burke offers a more explicitly theorised approach drawing on Science and Technology Studies (STS) as a way to reflect on processes of military innovation. By applying Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Model, Burke relates the experiences of the US military to the adoption of the aircraft in the early decades of the 20th century demonstrating the way in which a range of actors work to enrol groups into networks. What emerges from his analysis shows how interests are constructed and re-worked so as to dictate socio-technical outcomes.
Developing this point, my own approach recognises the value of STS and Clark’s consideration of time and seeks to develop theoretically informed insights into the importance of the concept of power in framing military innovation. By showing how innovation sits within a broader set of industrial and alliance relationships, relationships that demand engineering, scientific and bureaucratic mediation I reveal how frontline requirements are reframed in ways that make them intelligible for wider circulation. More than this I can show how users themselves have contested different views of their own requirements as they seek to enrol other groups and dictate the kinds of innovation that might emerge. In this respect I hope to draw scholarship back to not just discussion of top-down or bottom-up change but also to a consideration of what might be caricatured as middle-out change.
Image: SA-80 rifle stripped (1996), via wikimedia commons.