The operational level of war and maritime forces


The recurrent debate over whether or not the operational level of war exists can sometimes feel like the land component talking to itself.  The vast majority of what is written about the operational level, and operational art, focusses predominantly on land operations.  It is rare to find an acknowledgement of the significance of the other components or other government agencies, let alone a systematic consideration of how they might view or fit into the operational level.  Yet one of the strongest arguments for the reality of the operational level – and for its continuing utility despite the changing character of conflict – is that this is where the different components come together, along with tools of government policy other than military power, for the design and implementation of a campaign plan to achieve political objectives.  This approach to understanding the operational level is rather different to that envisaged by Soviet thinkers in the interwar period, German panzer commanders in 1940 or even NATO in the 1980s.  Yet this formulation – which reflects modern British and NATO doctrine – is not a twisting of the original concept but rather a pragmatic up-dating of it, an evolution to allow it to fit contemporary circumstances.

The point remains, however, that the literature on the operational level and operational art is dominated to an unhealthy degree by land power.  It was for this reason that I wrote an article for the RUSI Journal that considered the operational level from the maritime perspective.  I argued that the operational level does apply to the maritime environment, albeit in ways that to some extent differ from the land.  These differences matter because maritime forces contribute to operational and strategic goals in distinctive ways; a maritime commander needs to understand these differences in order to provide the best support to a joint campaign, while a joint commander needs to understand them in order to get the most utility out of the maritime component, as well as to appreciate that it might have its own requirements to enable it to make this contribution.

The key differences in the operational level for maritime forces are that the relationship between attack and defence is more fluid than on land; that the levels of war are more often short-circuited (the current understanding of the operational level is sufficiently flexible to acknowledge that the strategic and the tactical can sometimes be directed linked); and, in particular, that distance and time apply in different ways.  Frequently, when those from the land (and even to some extent air) component are seeking to understand how or why a maritime campaign or contribution to a joint campaign differs, the answer lies in them considering a bigger map or a broader timescale.

For the land component, maritime forces might be acting in close conjunction with them at the tactical level, for example when conducting an amphibious landing, or providing fire support or surveillance over the battlefield.  The Iraq invasion of 2003, in particular the landings and subsequent operations in the Al Faw peninsula, provide a case of this.

More often, maritime forces will be acting out of sight of the land but as part of a coordinated joint campaign, where the effects of the activities of the different components (and other government agencies) come together at the operational level.  The Mediterranean theatre in the Second World War offers several fine examples of this; others might include the US amphibious feint during the 1991 Gulf War, which helped to fix and divert a significant proportion of the Iraqi ground forces away from the intended advance of the coalition.  In both of these cases, of course, maritime forces provided broader support to ground-based land and air forces over a prolonged period before, during and after specific operations from initial deployment to post-war recovery.

Sometimes, the activities of maritime forces might be conducted quite separately from those of land forces, in campaigns which complement those ashore with their combined effect coming together at the strategic level.  The misnamed ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ in both world wars had to be won to further a range of military and broader strategic objectives – not least to allow other campaigns to be fought (including, in the Second World War, the strategic bombing offensive).  Both of these campaigns were strikingly joint, as well as requiring the carefully tailored input of other arms of government, from intelligence to diplomacy.

Another fascinating example of operational thinking in the maritime environment is the US forward maritime strategy of the mid-1980s.  This represented an imaginative attempt to apply the US and NATO advantage in naval power to gain leverage over the Soviet Union in a crisis or to put significant military pressure on it in the event of war.  Rather than sit back defensively behind the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap and fight to protect Atlantic shipping from there, this new approach envisaged pushing carrier battle groups well to the north (primarily, though also into the eastern Mediterranean and in the Far East to threaten the Pacific coast of the USSR).  By threatening Soviet territory and the bastions for their nuclear missile-armed submarines, this action would compel the USSR to pull its naval and maritime air forces out of the Atlantic (thereby achieving a defensive aim of protecting shipping that was carrying allied reinforcements for the land campaign) and also to divert air and even land forces from the battle on the Central Front, thereby indirectly supporting NATO land forces – in addition to any direct support that US carriers could subsequently provide with air and missile strikes.  The concept was, to say the least, not without its critics yet two points stand out.  First, it was without doubt taken very seriously by the USSR.  Second, it represented thinking at the operational level, aiming to use maritime forces in a creative way to achieve campaign and wider strategic objectives at sea while also supporting activities on land from the sea.  In passing, of course, it also provides a useful pointer as to how the West might make creative use of its maritime power to put pressure on an aggressive Russia or an assertive China, not least in threatening to spread any conflict to areas other than those in which they would ideally prefer to fight.

The debate over the operational level could therefore usefully raise its gaze from land warfare alone.  Doing so could clarify the existence and utility of the operational level, while also improving the coordination of military and non-military instruments of policy that is needed for a successful campaign.

Image: US Navy (USN) F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211), Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA), in flight over burning Kuwaiti oil wells during Operation DESERT STORM, via wikimedia commons


Using Military History: Doctrine as an Analytical Tool for Historical Campaigns


James Wolfe was a great advocate of using military history to help inform his understanding of new situations and challenges he faced throughout his career. ‘The more a soldier thinks of the false steps of those that have gone before him, the more likely is he to avoid them’, he wrote after visiting the battlefield of Culloden in 1751. ‘On the other hand, The Examples worthiest of imitation should never be lost sight of, as they will be the best & truest guides in every undertaking.’

Wolfe had fought at Culloden, but he found a visit to the field highlighted errors which in the heat of the moment had not been apparent to him on the day itself. A few years later, he wrote to the father of a newly commissioned officer with his advice on what to read to get a better understanding of his profession. ‘In general, the lives of all the great Commanders and all the good Histories of Warlike Nations, will be very instructive’, Wolfe advised. ‘In these days of scarcity & in these unlucky times, it is much to be wish’d that all our young soldiers of birth & education, would follow our brothers, steps, and as they will have their turn to command, that they would try to make themselves fit for that important trust.’

Half a century later, a young Rifleman named Thomas Mitchell, was deployed to the Peninsula as part of Wellington’s Army. Like Wolfe, Mitchell had an abiding interest in military history. ‘Rivers, woods, ravines, mountains etc etc together form the great book of war;’ Mitchell had noted, ‘and he who cannot read it must for ever be content with the title of a brave soldier, and never repair to that of a great general.’ A skilled draftsman, Mitchell was spotted by Wellington’s QMG, and appointed a mapmaker. Mitchell’s sketches identified the roots along which the British Army was to advance in its ultimately successful campaign against the French in 1813.

Even more recently, a senior general in the US Marines noted the true value of studying history. ‘The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.’ This quote has had quite an airing in the last few weeks. The general’s name: James Mattis.

Let’s assume, then, that the study of military history is a useful way of learning about modern military planning and campaigns. One way of creating a linkage between the past and the present is using modern doctrine to analyse the challenges and obstacles facing historical commanders. Modern doctrine is, in part, based on the lessons of history: a distillation of what worked in the past, updated to fit within the contemporary context.

The term ‘Centre of Gravity’ means something very particular in modern doctrinal terminology, but let’s take the concept more broadly, and apply the original Clausewitzian definition: ‘The hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.’ It becomes somewhat easier to identify and debate what the centre of gravity of any power, of any military, fighting at any point in history.

Take another doctrinal term, Decisive Conditions. Again, a long and impenetrable definition: ‘A combination of circumstances, effects, or a specific key event, critical factor, or function that when realised allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an opponent or contribute materially to achieving an operational objective.’ Put another way: ‘The conditions General X needed to achieve in order to execute his operational plan’. Every military campaign occurred in a sequence. Those campaigns might not have been planned using terms such as decisive conditions, but but all of them would have been planned sequentially, with the key decision-maker knowing full well that he would have had to have achieved a number of small-scale objectives before he could focus on the main event.

Nor is such an analysis of use alone to the military practitioner. Military historians frequently overlook the importance of seemingly insignificant details in the planning and execution of campaigns: their focus is on the big picture, the decisive battle. Little do they realise that without a seemingly unimportant detail, the whole operation might have gone awry. Doctrine, then, as a derivation of what has worked in history, might be a little dry, and filled with jargon that renders its meaning almost impenetrable, but cut through that noise and see the concepts defined in broad terms, and they are a useful analytical tool for learning from, and learning about, history.

Image: Queen’s Royal Hussars (The Queen’s Own and Royal Irish) (QRH) Junior Non Commissioned Officer (JNCO) Cadre course on Sennelager Training Area

The Russian military’s view on the utility of force: the adoption of a strategy of non-violent asymmetric warfare

By Dr. Rod Thornton

Russian military thinking seems to have reached the point now where the idea of using force intentionally in conflicts with peer-state adversaries has been almost completely ruled out. This seems a radical move. But there has been a clear recognition within this military that better strategic outcomes for Russia will result from the use of non-violent ‘asymmetric warfare’ activities rather than those which will or can involve the use of force – such as conventional war or hybrid warfare.

Asymmetric warfare, of course, and in a nutshell, is a method of warfare employed by the weak against the strong where the former seeks to level the battlefield with the latter. The weaker party, using its own relative advantages, attempts to turn the strengths of its opponent into vulnerabilities, which can then be exploited. The means used are ones which, in essence, cannot be used in return – reciprocated – by the target (‘asymmetrical’ means that which cannot be mirror-imaged). Fundamentally, asymmetric warfare is all about activity that, rather than bludgeoning a target into strategic, operational and tactical defeats, actually manipulates it into them. And it is all done, ideally, with no use of force. As Sun Tzu, the ‘father’ of asymmetric thinking, told us, the acme of skill in the conduct of warfare is to defeat the adversary without the use of any force. See, for instance my book titled Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century.

It was President Vladimir Putin who back in 2008 first pointed his military in the direction of asymmetric warfare. In suggesting ways to counter what was accepted as western military superiority, Putin advised that the armed forces ‘should not chase after quantitative indicators … our responses will have to be based on intellectual superiority. They will be asymmetrical, less costly’. Putin understood that efforts to try and match NATO’s military power, especially in terms of technology, would be unavailing and prove ruinous for the Russian economy. The ‘cost’ also of engaging in open warfare was unsupportable. In essence, the Russian military would have to become more subtle – it would have to employ ‘intellect’ in attempts to create strategic effect and do so, ideally, without the use of force. For what Russia needs to avoid, of course, is the use of any military violence in situations that might cause NATO to invoke Article 5 and thereby set in train the costly conventional war.

Surprisingly, in many ways, the Russian military has readily adopted asymmetric thinking. Russian military journals have come to be suffused over the last few years with articles lauding the qualities of ‘asymmetric warfare’ (asymmetricheskie voina). Among the senior officers pushing for the tenets of asymmetric warfare to be adopted throughout the armed forces is Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, the current Deputy Chief of the General Staff (and aged only 53). It is significant that such a high-flyer (he previously held the prestigious post of commander of the Western Military District) is among those urging the capture of asymmetric warfare techniques in doctrine and for its methods to be taught in military academies ‘down’, he says, ‘to a very low level’. Such methods, he goes on, will ‘enable the levelling of the technological superiority of the enemy’. In his ‘principles of asymmetric operations’, Kartapolov talks of the ‘concentration of efforts against the enemy’s most vulnerable locations (targets) [and the] search for and exposure of the enemy’s weak points’. The specific emphasis, he points out, will be on ‘non-violent’ (nenasil’stvennoe) methods of asymmetric warfare.

Other articles present similar arguments for the use of asymmetric warfare by the Russian military. The overall message for this military, and as the influential military newspaper Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda) summed up last year, is that when it comes to the conduct of warfare in the current era, ‘The main emphasis must be placed on asymmetrical means and methods’.

The principal aim of Russian asymmetric warfare is to create degrees of destabilisation (destabilizatsiya) within targeted states and within collectives of targeted states (e.g. NATO, EU). A target that is destabilised (in whatever sense) is one that, in Russian military thinking, is more susceptible to Russian leverage, i.e. it can be manipulated more easily. The range of methods used to engineer such outcomes are mostly based on the use of information (for more on this, see my paper in the RUSI Journal  titled ‘The Changing Nature of Modern Warfare: Responding to Russian Information Warfare’). Information warfare targets the strengths of NATO states – the fact, for instance, that they are democracies and have free media – and turns them into vulnerabilities: elections can be manipulated; opinions can be altered to Moscow’s advantage; agent provocateurs can operate with impunity; journalists and academics can be paid to present a certain line, etc. The West’s use, moreover, of high-tech information systems in all forms of social, financial, economic and industrial life, again, while providing great strengths, will also be presenting vulnerabilities to Russia cyber operations – in both the cyber-psychological (most important in Russian thinking) and the cyber-technical realms. Perhaps, however, the greatest degree of Russian leverage/manipulation will be generated by the targeting of individuals – decision-makers, political and military leaders, etc. These can often be co-opted or blackmailed if the right incrimination information – kompromat – is available.

And all this plays to the Russian military’s own strengths – its ‘own relative advantages’. While it might lack ‘quantitative indicators’ – the tanks, aircraft and ships – it does have a massive capacity to gather information, to disseminate (mis)information and to employ considerable cyber abilities. There is also, and importantly, a history and a culture in both the Russian and Soviet militaries of emphasising and employing to good effect non-violent military means. Perhaps the key term here is maskirovka, one which covers considerably more than just the use of ‘camouflage’.

Conventional military assets are still needed, of course. But these days they may be seen to be acting in a supporting role for the asymmetric warfare campaign against NATO interests. Their outwardly sabre-rattling movements, deployments and activities are seen as means of creating ‘indirect leverage’ that can, in turn, manipulate western actors into making counter moves that actually suit Moscow’s purposes.

The Russian military is now also employing asymmetric warfare methods that these western actors find very difficult to retaliate against on a like-for-like basis – reciprocity is largely denied. Russian democracy has become very much a ‘managed’ one and this closes down many avenues of retaliation. Russia is also not open to cyber attack in the same way that western states are and defences in the country are more pronounced.

The Russian military can and is using non-violent asymmetric means to considerable strategic advantage against NATO. They are, wherever one looks, destabilising and manipulating to good effect. Given this continuing situation and the strategic results that are patently being produced in NATO countries, why would the Russian military need to consider the conventional use of force? What utility does it have?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Breaking: Opening salvo fired in coming war with machines

Dr. Ken Payne

DeepMind, the world’s leading Artificial Intelligence outfit, has released a remarkable new study with implications for those of us interested in war, cooperation, and the strategic ramifications of AI.

You can read and watch it here.

In short, their agents demonstrated the ability to relate socially in a competitive environment. When resources (green apples) were plentiful, the agents cooperated happily. When they were scarce, all hell broke out – DeepMind had endowed he agents with the ability to shoot each other; and that’s exactly what they did.

So what?

In my next book, I take a long-run view of strategy, all the way from early human evolution through to the advent of AI. It’ll be out soon, but by way of preview, and since DeepMind has made it relevant.

First things first – DeepMind’s agents may have cooperated or fought; but they didn’t do so for the same reasons we did. They were making ‘rational’ decisions about whether to cooperate on the basis of individual gain, of the sort that will be familiar from game theory puzzles, like the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Human cooperation is a puzzle – why do we cooperate when the benefits from slacking off can be substantial, especially if we deceive others about it? Natural selection happens at the level of the gene, not the group – so why should I risk my genes to help the group out?

One answer (mine, in fact) is war: the pressure of intergroup conflict, which we now think was pretty ubiquitous. Groups that cooperate together win against groups that do not. This is particularly true when weapons are pretty primitive, and fighting is in the form of a melee, rather than a one on one duel. If you don’t cooperate with group members there’s a good chance that both you and your group will go out of business.

Frederick Lanchester did the maths back in 1916, in his catchily named ‘square law of armed conflict’. When the force of many could be concentrated against the few, there were disproportionate gains from scale. The takeout: there is a massive military advantage to be had from being in a larger group; and larger groups that cooperate will win against smaller groups that do not.

Two results follow – we instinctively cooperate, especially with those we identify as being in our group (conversely we are chippy xenophobes against outgroup people). And second, there’s a clear incentive to form larger groups – including of non-related people. Hence a motive for the development of cultural identities – a shorthand way of saying who can be trusted in a tussle. Over a long period of time, and beginning some half-million years ago, humans developed unique social abilities – including a sophisticated empathy and theory of mind, allowing us to gauge what other individuals believed. Could we trust them not to malinger? In war, we, like chimpanzees today, worked the odds in our favour – fighting primarily by raid and ambush, and attacking with surprise and massively advantageous force ratios. Victory goes to the big battalions.

The arrival of culture, thanks to all that cooperation, modified the situation somewhat: new strategies were available – including, of course, defence in depth! Scale mattered, but clever thinking might offset it.

Back to DeepMind, and the impending rise of the machines. Their agents cooperate to harvest digital apples; but the logic of that cooperation is not the same as that which drove humans to develop culture, empathy, theory of mind, and instinctive cooperation. Their cognitive architectures are far different from ours: they are not embodied biological intelligences, whose very survival depends on navigating a rich social terrain. They are not enmeshed in a biological world of natural selection; driven – often unconsciously – by the imperative to propagate their genetic code. They do not exist in groups that are in a constant state of conflict with neighbours. Harvesting a digital apple does not require the same cooperation as a mammoth hunt. DeepMind’s ‘toy universe’ is a much simpler affair – like an 80s arcade game, but with better baddies.

So, let’s all relax, no?

Well, to a point. Artificial General Intelligence, if it ever manifests, is unlikely to mirror human intelligence, which evolved as the answer to a particular environmental problem – replete with its emotions, massively parallel unconscious deliberation, and narrowband self-aware, reflective conscious. You could perhaps model that in cyberspace – but that would just remain a model. Philosophers like to pose the conundrum: what is it like to experience life as a bat? Answer: we’ll never know, but you can bet it’s much closer to us than the ‘life’ of a machine.

Still, groups of AI will face very similar meta-problems: scarce resources; the possibility of conflict to secure them; and a need to understand what other agents are likely to do. Their inclination to cooperate or compete with those agents may differ radically from our own. Watch this space.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2017 – the Year of the Royal Navy: time to get real?

Professor Andrew M Dorman and Professor Matthew R H Uttley

Centre for British Defence and Security Studies

As we entered 2017 the Ministry of Defence earmarked 2017 as the ‘year of the Royal Navy (RN)’. In the press release that accompanied the announcement key milestones for 2017 were highlighted, including the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving Rosyth and commencing sea trials, the launch of her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales and the fourth Astute-class SSN, the arrival in the UK of the first of four new Tide-class tankers and the opening of the first permanent RN base East of Suez in more than half a century.

This built on the government’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1). As part of Joint Force 2025, the RN would continue to maintain the continuous at sea deterrent with four new nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines. The NSS/SDSR also pledged to bring into service both of the large aircraft carriers currently under construction in order to have ‘one available at all times’. The government also promised to bring forward the purchase of F-35B Lightning II aircraft so that there would be 24 aircraft available by 2023. Looking further ahead, the 2015 review committed the government to buy three new logistic ships to support the fleet, in addition to the four tankers that were due to have entered service from 2016. The government also confirmed that a fleet of 19 destroyers and frigates would be maintained with the hope that ‘by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers’ (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1).

Since then, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has confirmed ‘… that the expansion of the Royal Navy is fully funded’ (Oral Questions on defence 30 January 2017). Yet, behind this rosy façade, however, is a somewhat different picture. In the second half of 2016 the financial pressure on the RN’s budget had become evident. Over the summer, technical problems with the Type 45 destroyer’s power plant emerged leading to all the ships being temporarily moored alongside. In November 2016, it emerged that the Harpoon anti-ship missile would leave service in 2018 without a replacement in the near term rendering RN ships reliant on their deck guns until the Wildcat helicopters are equipped with an air to surface missile. Since Christmas the government has been plagued by revelations concerning the test of one of its Trident missiles last June.

Looking behind the veneer of the 2015 NSS/SDSR a whole series of other cutbacks are evident. The Landing Pad Helicopter (LPH) HMS Ocean is scheduled to leave service in 2018 without replacement. Instead, the second aircraft carrier will be equipped with some amphibious capability. The obvious question this raises is what happens if HMS Prince of Wales is fulfilling the strike carrier role and the government needs both a strike carrier and LPH? The pledge to bring forward the acquisition of the planned 138 F-35Bs so that 24 frontline aircraft would be available from 2023 sounds like a positive development for the RN. However, with each carrier capable of carrying 36 F-35Bs in the strike role, the planned frontline of 24 F-35Bs by 2023 leaves the UK dependent on the US Marine Corps to fill the deficit. Moreover, sustaining the planned Maritime Task Group will be hampered by delays in the delivery of the four new tankers and the continuing absence of an order for the promised three stores ships.

At the same time, the RN is beset with personnel challenges as the most recent personnel statistics have shown with shortages in a number of specialist areas(MoD 2017). As a consequence, the MoD has acknowledged that one of its frigates, HMS Lancaster, was being effectively mothballed pending a refit later this year. Similarly, as the LPD HMS Albion is brought out of reserve and refit her sister ship will be put into reserve ahead of a forthcoming refit. These factors suggest that the uplift of 400 in personnel numbers announced by the 2015 NSS/SDSR is insufficient to allow the RN to crew its existing ships, let alone ensure that one of the new aircraft carriers is always available. As a result, there are rumours that Royal marine numbers will be cut to free up posts for the dark blue element of the navy.

Personnel shortages only partially explain the decision not to restore the amphibious brigade capability taken as a cut in the 2015 review despite the growing fears expressed about Russia and the need to support the UK’s NATO partners. Instead, much of the amphibious capability is fulfilling other tasks in place of other ships. Thus, HMS Ocean is currently acting as the command ship for the US/UK deployment to the Gulf. At the same time, the RN has struggled to commit ships to the various NATO standing forces and some of its tasking is being gapped. Put simply, the RN appears simply too small for its mandated tasks but the government remains unwilling to acknowledge or address this.

One might be forgiven for holding out for the longer term. Before Christmas, Sir John Parker published his report designed to influence the forthcoming ‘National Shipbuilding Strategy’, which called for major changes and investment in the UK’s naval shipbuilding industry. Many of the recommendations appear sound, including gearing the new Type 31 frigate for export and seeking to break BAE Systems’ monopoly of the construction of major warships. Such recommendations are, however, strangely familiar: both the Type 23 frigate which the Type 31 will partially replace and the Upholder class of conventionally powered submarines were originally designed with the export market in mind in the 1980s. It is noteworthy that no foreign sales were achieved and the Upholders and three of the Type 23s were ultimately sold-second hand to Canada and Chile respectively. Moreover, if the government truly wants to implement a viable long-term national shipbuilding strategy, then it needs to bear in mind the life-cycle of its ships and how this will influence the RN’s force size. For example, a RAND study of the UK’s nuclear submarine industrial base concluded that to maintain the industry’s capacity a submarine needed to be ordered every two years (Schank 2005). If one assumes an average lifespan of 30 years then the submarine force needs to comprise some 15 boats. Currently the force comprises just four SSBNs and seven SSNs with no planned future increases.

Moreover, lurking in the background are question marks over the wider affordability of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) overall Equipment Plan between now and 2026. The most recent edition was published in January 2017 and the financial risks contained within were highlighted in the accompanying National Audit Office report. Four risks stand out. First, previous iterations of the Equipment Plan had contained significant amounts of uncommitted ‘contingency’ funding to cover unforeseen programme cost increases and new requirements. This reserve has been almost entirely allocated to new programmes with the result that there is little flexibility in the budget despite the MoD’s extensive previous experience of unforeseen programme overruns and cost increases. Second, one of the results of the Brexit referendum vote has been a fall in the value of Sterling against both the US Dollar and Euro. Whilst the MoD has taken some mitigation steps, the January NAO report highlights that these ‘hedges’ will be insufficient unless the value of Sterling starts to rise. In particular, the significant cost of existing equipment orders in US dollars from the US – including the Boeing P8A Apache AH-64E, F-35B and successor missile compartment tube programmes – means that further cuts to the MoD’s equipment programme are almost certain. Third, the affordability of the Equipment Plan is predicated on a shift of funds from other areas of the defence budget. The risk here is that MoD assumptions that personnel costs will rise below the rate of inflation, significant income can be generated from the sale of assets and major efficiency savings can be achieved might prove overly optimistic. Indeed, failure to achieve the requisite savings in any of these areas could derail defence budgeting assumptions and, by implication, the future viability of the MoD’s Equipment Plan. Finally, the budget is predicated on a 1% real terms increase in defence spending for each of the next ten years. Ironically a similarly optimistic outlook was ultimately the undoing of the ill-fated 1981 Nott Review.

These factors, together with concerns over whether the UK’s GDP will continue to grow in the post-Brexit era, raises serious doubts about whether 2017 will be the ‘year of the Royal Navy’ or the nadir before which financial chickens finally come home to roost.

Image: HMS Arc Royal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested further reading

‘2017 is the Year of the Navy’, Ministry of Defence Press Release, 1 January 2017,

‘An Independent Report to inform the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy’, Ministry of Defence, 29 November 2016,

Cabinet Office, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, Cm.9,161, (London: TSO, 2016),

Ministry of Defence, ‘Royal Navy and Royal Marines Monthly Personnel Situation Report for 1 January 2017’, 9 February 2017,

National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2016 to 2026’, HC.914, session 2016-17, (London: TSO, 2017),

John F. Schank, Jessie Riposo, John Birkler, James Chiesa, ‘The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Submarine Industrial Base, Volume 1’, Sustaining Design and Production Resources RAND, 2005), file:///C:/Users/Andrew%20Dorman/Downloads/RAND_MG326.1.pdf

Beyond Effectiveness on the Battlefield: reframing Military Innovation in terms of time, networks and power

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.


Sea Power, Alliances, and Diplomacy: British Naval Supremacy in the Great War Era


Louis is a current DPhil student at the University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History from the University of Calgary. Louis is co-organiser of the upcoming ‘Economic Warfare and the Sea’ Conference, to be held at All SoulS College in July 2017.

A recording of the talk this post is drawn from is available here.

President Donald Trump’s statements over the continued viability of NATO has raised questions about the relevance and utility of alliances in 21st century international politics. Who gains most from alliance structures and collective security? What are the benefits for a global power in leading alliances? These questions appear particularly pertinent with the end of the ‘American moment’ and the return to a degree of multipolarity in world affairs, where the rise of China and its aspirations of a blue water navy and an emboldened Russia are challenging the status quo with increasing regularity.

Fresh as they may appear, many of these issues have a long historical antecedence. At the start of the 20th century the British Empire faced a changing global environment – with rising powers on the Continent, in the Americas and in Asia – which forced statesmen to confront the dilemma of how to guarantee the security of Britain’s maritime empire without overstraining public finances on defence expenditure. The supremacy of the Royal Navy had ensured the safety of Britain’s dominions and colonies both through its physical might and as a symbol of prestige throughout the 19th century. However, with the rise of new naval powers, chiefly Imperial Germany across the North Sea, seeking local dominance in all theatres simultaneously would be needlessly expensive. Maintaining a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ might leave Britain vulnerable in secondary theatres as it was forced to out-build the German navy so to command home waters. Consequently, British statesmen turned to diplomacy to underwrite maritime security elsewhere, developing alliances and strategic alignment to tilt local balances in Britain’s favour, neutralising potential threats in the process.

The first move towards this was the alliance with Japan, first struck in 1902, and renewed in 1905 and 1911. This settled concerns in Whitehall over the threat to British possessions in the Far East, with Japan turning from potential danger to guardian of these interests. This was an important embarkation point as British statesmen began to explore the opportunities that such agreements presented.

Pressure to find a similar solution in European waters began to mount as the costs of winning the Anglo-German naval race soared. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, argued that Britain must prioritise a ratio of 60% superiority over the German High Seas Fleet, leaving little in the naval estimates for a Mediterranean fleet to protect this key imperial artery. The solution advanced was an accord with France (with whom ties had strengthened following the Anglo-French Entente, signed in 1904). The French navy could, with the support of a diminished British force, control the Mediterranean against a combination of Austria-Hungary and Italy, while the bulk of the Royal Navy took on the German navy in the North Sea.

Churchill’s predecessor at the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna had argued that Britain must spend whatever was necessary to give it domination in both seas without having to rely on France. However, this would require cuts to social programmes at home, which a Liberal government committed to welfare reform could not countenance. The Anglo-French naval agreement, signed in 1913, was therefore a means for securing British interests in the Mediterranean at minimal cost. It was not a sign of weakness: Britain was the senior partner in the agreement, giving little in return for the security of the Mediterranean (not least because it was not bound to supporting France in the event of war with Germany). Paris raised concerns over this imbalance, but made little headway.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, these arrangements came into play, and proved largely effective at safeguarding British maritime interests in the Far East and Mediterranean. The July Crisis demonstrated the limits of what British diplomacy and sea power could achieve: it was not able to prevent war from breaking out. Nevertheless, they did put Britain in a commanding position to wage war at sea: containing the battle fleets of the Central Powers, protecting British shipping, and enabling blockade to begin.

From 1914, Britain used its status as the world’s leading naval power to dominate the naval coalition, directing the maritime elements of the Entente’s strategy. It left the smaller issue of the Austro-Hungarian navy to France (joined by Italy in the Adriatic from spring 1915), while focusing on the more potent German threats in the North Sea and Atlantic. However, when Germany carried its underwater guerre de course into the Mediterranean as 1915 progressed, the Admiralty sought to develop an operational leadership role in this theatre too; partly for reasons of prestige, primarily to address the exigencies of war. Yet the Mediterranean was important to Paris and Rome for reasons of prestige as well – the source of many Franco-Italian disagreements – and their naval establishments prevented the Royal Navy from taking the reins entirely.

The United States Navy, on the other hand, was more content to act as an auxiliary in European waters once the U-boats had forced American entry into the war in 1917. While the White House was keen to work closely with the Admiralty at the operational level, however, there were problems when it came to long-term grand strategy. President Woodrow Wilson had wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict; now that this was unavoidable he sought to maintain independence from London and Paris by becoming an associated, rather than allied, power. Moreover, the United States was engaged in a large programme of naval construction, which would produce a powerful battle fleet that might rival the Royal Navy. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, wanted this suspended so that American shipyards could be directed to the construction of smaller craft suitable for anti-submarine warfare. Yet American leaders feared this would leave them vulnerable in the post-war world, so refused. Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, came up with a solution: a general naval alliance in which Britain would guarantee American security at sea while capital ship construction caught up. Moreover, Balfour worked on plans which would bring together the Allied navies (including France, Italy, Russia, and Japan) with the US under an umbrella agreement of mutual assistance against maritime attack lasting for four years after the conclusion of the war.

This was anathema to the White House, with Wilson unwilling to bind his hands. Nevertheless, this episode demonstrates the evolution of British strategic thinking on alliances and their utility. With Britain at the centre of a web of mutually supporting navies, of which the Royal Navy would be the greatest, its partners could help to extend the security of the empire, affording London potential auxiliaries in war and neutralising possible rivals. Of such future challengers, the United States – poised to assume second place in the naval rankings if Germany was defeated and disarmed – was the greatest. The prospect of an Anglo-American rivalry gathered pace as the U-boat threat receded and the Americans increased the pace of capital ship construction. Yet neither side wanted a costly naval arms race, and following victory in 1918 they soon found renewed common cause in the League of Nations project. The prospect of a post-war strategic alignment (if not a formal alliance) was on the table at Versailles in 1919. British and American diplomats managed to suppress the nascent competition between their sailors, with Robert Cecil of the Foreign Office and Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s chief lieutenant, reaching a compromise through which Britain could carefully manage the US’ rise as a naval power via bilateral talks. Meanwhile, Wilson was prepared to make a guarantee of French security with the British. A new world order was set to emerge, with an Anglo-American alignment at its centre (a dream which seemingly still resonates in Whitehall a century later).

Yet the gentleman’s agreement struck in Paris collapsed in Washington later that year. The result was that in 1921 the Lloyd George government had to negotiate in a multilateral environment at the Washington Naval Conference. While the decisions reached there allowed an Anglo-American agreement on the naval balance of power to be reached, the proposed strategic alignment could not be covered, and it was at a higher price than the one to be paid if the Cecil-House understanding had been implemented. One such cost was the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The potential benefits of that agreement was driven home two decades later when the Japanese ran riot across British possessions in the Fat East, dealing an irreversible blow to the integrity of the British Empire. Coming after two years of war against Nazi Germany, this defeat left Britain beleaguered and appeared to leave India open to the Japanese. Yet for the period 1939-41, the US had refrained from active military support for Britain. Alliances and strategic alignments, then, can offer significant benefits to global powers. To reject or lose them can have repercussions. Certainly, isolation rarely is a better alternative – a point worth remembering in the 21st century.

Featured image: A Middleweight bout at the Grand Fleet Boxing Tournament in 1918 between Chief Carpenter’s Mate Gartner (US Navy) and Leading Stoker Roberts (Royal Navy), via the Imperial War Museum

The Age of Uncertainty: US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era?

By Dr. Ellen Hallams and Dr. Tracey German

In April 2016, Donald Trump declared ‘We must as a nation be more unpredictable.’ In a speech on foreign policy during the Republican primary campaign, Trump – who at that point was the front-runner for the GOP nomination – set out what the New York Times in its editorial described as a ‘strange worldview,’ one that appears to be a throwback to the isolationist movement of the 1930s – ‘America First’ – but which betrays a total misunderstanding of the complexities of the world in which America is deeply embedded. Dissecting that worldview and extrapolating what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will look like over the coming months and years is something of a fool’s errand; this is a man who prides himself on being unpredictable, in keeping allies and enemies second-guessing his intentions, and using his personal Twitter feed to make policy pronouncements.

Yet amidst the chaos, some things are all too clear. The first is that the world as we know it has been upended, and is now violently spinning on its axis. Most of us in the West have grown up in a world defined by certain core principles – democracy, liberty, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and fear – embedded in a liberal order that the US – more than any other nation – has sought to defend, maintain and advance since 1945. It is in part because we live in such a world that Donald Trump now finds himself sitting in the White House, democratically elected (though not by a majority of the American people) with the freedom to express the views he holds. But by doing so, he is undermining many of the values on which liberal order rests: refugees who find themselves being turned away from American airports are living in fear, their yearning to breathe free suffocated by the stroke of a pen; the LGBT community in the US feels more afraid than at any point since the end of the Cold War, while women in America face the prospect that their right to an abortion will be stripped away; Muslims in America are increasingly vilified and demonised, no longer free to worship in peace. Protestors are dismissed and derided; in the world of @readldonaldtrump these are not the legitimate acts of a people with the constitutional right to ‘peaceably assemble,’ but the product of manufactured outrage created by a liberal elite hell-bent on undermining the will of the people.

Internationally, Trump represents the greatest deviation from the liberal bipartisan consensus that has underpinned US foreign policy since 1990. In Obama’s parting speech to the UN he spoke passionately about the threats facing liberal international order. That liberal order has rested not only on a set of core ideas and values, but also an institutional architecture centred on the UN and NATO. Yet in his policy pronouncements thus far, Trump appears to be re-writing the script. He has injected a greater degree of instability into America’s relations with Europe and NATO than any presidency since the end of the Cold War, and is far more willing to embrace, rather than reject, the alternative vision of international order promulgated by Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s election has injected a new element of uncertainty into an already perilous state of affairs in Eastern Europe; not only are Putin’s intentions unclear, so are Trump’s. Lawrence Freedman once wrote that credibility is the ‘magic ingredient’ of deterrence. It is one thing for NATO to be facing uncertainty over Putin’s intentions, it is quite another to be facing its own crisis of credibility caused by uncertainty over the Trump administration’s policy towards both Russia and NATO; this at a time when Europe is witnessing the biggest deployment of US military forces to the continent since the Cold War.

Relations with Moscow may well prove to be one of the most pivotal elements of Trump’s foreign policy; between them, Trump and Putin have the ability to shape international order in ways that affect us all. A matter of weeks after the election of Trump, Putin signed a new Foreign Policy Concept, outlining Russia’s ambitions to play a leading role on the international stage and boost cooperation with the administration of the new US president. It remains to be seen whether these two goals are mutually exclusive – whilst the early atmospherics surrounding both the Russian and US camp have been positive, there are still many obstacles ahead. Moscow has consistently opposed what it views as a US dominance of the international system and has made frequent reference to the destabilising influence of Washington, DC’s international actions.

Trump’s election success was greeted with elation in Russia, with Trump ‘fever’ leading to some interesting images being published in the Russian media: boxes of sugar bearing Trump’s smiling face, the Army of Russia store offering a 10% discount for US citizens and embassy employees on the day of Trump’s inauguration and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russian far-right party, the LDPR, drinking champagne with members of his party in celebration of Trump’s election victory. But these images contrast sharply with the realities of the state of the current relationship between Washington, DC and Moscow, which had hit rock-bottom during Obama’s presidency. Whilst it remains unclear what the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be, there are already signs that it will take a hard line, particularly with regards to international terrorism and the threat from IS – Trump has indicated that torture is an acceptable tool in the fight against IS, a hard-line stance that will appeal to the Kremlin, which has never shied away from the use of force (legitimate or not) in pursuit of its strategic objectives. This highlights one of the key potential drivers of any future US-Russia relationship: similar personality traits. Both presidents like to portray themselves as ‘strong men’ who are seeking to make their countries ‘great’ again. Relations between the two are currently in a honeymoon phase, with each president apparently delighted to have found a similar character in the other, but there could be problems ahead if neither is willing to embrace compromise or concession.

Following UK PM Theresa May’s visit to Washington, DC on January 27, Trump and Putin held an hour-long telephone conversation during which both leaders apparently undertook to repair bilateral relations. During a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the fight against terrorism and ongoing instability across the Middle East, as well as the possibility of expanding their economic ties. This latter issue raises the possibility of US sanctions against Russia being lifted, although the topic was not discussed during their call. Trump has mooted the possibility of lifting the sanctions regime, imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ongoing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. This position is at odds with that of Europe: European leaders including May, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, have all expressed their opposition to any lifting of sanctions until Moscow complies fully with the terms of the Minsk agreement. Any attempt by the Trump administration to ease the sanctions regime risks the emergence of further rifts between the US and Europe, which is precisely what the Kremlin is seeking.

The new Foreign Policy Concept suggests that Russia will continue its pivot towards Asia, partly driven by the lack of access to Western markets, a consequence of the ongoing sanctions regime. However, it also makes clear that Russia will continue to consolidate its position as a ‘centre of influence in today’s world’. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. The Kremlin appears to have high hopes for a considerable improvement both in its relations with the US and its position on the global stage. However, whilst relations between Trump and Putin are currently very positive, this could change dramatically if either oversteps and finds themselves in an opposing position.

However, as the relationship unfolds between Trump and Putin, one thing appears clear: we are living in an era of instability and uncertainty, the likes of which many of us have never experienced before.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump and the future of NATO

Professor Andrew Dorman

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been shrouded in controversy. His apparent close links with Russia and questioning about the ongoing relevance of NATO has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s questioning of the European dependence on the US for its security and the imbalance in relative spending and military capability between the United States and the European members is not new for an incoming or even serving US President. Nor is a questioning of NATO’s future, John Mearsheimer’s classic ‘Back to the Future’ piece in the journal International Security are evidence of this. What is new is his questioning of Article V of the Washington Treaty which provides the collective security guarantee for all NATO members. Without it the value of NATO membership is unclear.

Adding to the complication of Trump’s challenge is the timing of this. Questioning the relevance and future of NATO at a time where Russia, and in the past its predecessor the Soviet Union, is openly becoming increasingly assertive in what it perceives to be its area of influence. The central question confronting the NATO alliance is whether to acquiesce to Russia’s tacit demands that NATO respects its dominance of the post-Soviet space and let’s Russia illegally annex the Ukraine, attack Georgia and so forth, or alternatively continues to allow democratic states that wish to continue to join the alliance and benefit from the collective security guarantee.

In response to Trump’s latest comments on NATO, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that the Europeans may have to provide for their own security without the United States. Fine words but the reality of this for Europe is at best questionable, especially given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of the election of Marine Le Pen as French President followed by a French vote to leave the European Union. Countering the increasing threat posed by Russia looks increasingly precarious for those in NATO, for those in the former Soviet space that have not yet managed to join the NATO, the situation is far more disconcerting.

Fifty years on from the adoption of the Harmel report by NATO, which led to a focus on both dialogue in the form of détente and deterrence with Russia, there is increasing unease in the hallways of the NATO governments. Normally one would expect the incoming US president and those around him to emphasise reassurance and continuity to its partners. However, such conventions do not appear to apply to Donald Trump and whilst those he has nominated to key cabinet positions, such as Marine General Mattis as the new Defense Secretary, are emphasising the ongoing importance of NATO for the US, Trump himself continues to send a contradictory message which Russia would no doubt approve. At best the road ahead for NATO will be rocky, at worst we may be seeing the destruction of the most significant military alliance in history.

Image: NATO Headquarters meeting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Relevance of Conflict History in 2017


Co-Director of The Research Centre for the History of Conflict, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 caught my imagination, as it did, I’m sure, many of the readers of Defence-in-depth. ‘When someone is cruel or acts like a bully’, she said, ‘you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is when they go low, we go high’. Hilary Clinton repeated this refrain many times during the campaign, notably during the presidential debates. In spite of taking the moral high ground, Clinton lost the election. The Obama legacy is unlikely to last four years of Donald Trump in the White House.

In the run up to the election, as I reflected too on the outcome of the United Kingdom’s referendum on its membership of the EU, I was reminded of another way to tackle bullies. I was always encouraged by my parents to use violence as a last resort, but my father used to say, ‘if you do get in a fight, throw the first punch and make sure it’s the last’. The architects of the ‘new order’ in which we live, the Trumps, Putins and Farages of this world, certainly adhere to this mantra. They throw the first punch and they try to make sure it’s the last. ‘The Queen Backs Brexit’ story broke all the rules regarding the political impartiality of the British monarch. The re-ignition of the Clinton email controversy by FBI Director, James Comey, eleven days before election day in the US, equally challenged norms of behaviour. But, once these stories were in the public domain, the genie could not be put back in the bottle. It was ‘leavers’ in the UK and Republicans in the US that were first to compare their political opponents to the Nazis in Germany. The Brexiteers and the Republicans played ‘hardball’ to win, and, indeed, they succeeded.

We are all sometimes faced with complexities of this kind, to what extent should we compromise our values in the pursuit of success? Might Clinton have won the election if she had played a little more ‘hardball’? This type of question is particularly relevant to politicians, political scientists, philosophers and ethicists. It is also relevant to those responsible for the nation’s security. In the Second World War, for example, British and American airmen were employed in operations specifically designed to target German civilians. In a ‘supreme emergency’, so the argument went, there was every justification to ‘take the gloves off’, to figuratively throw the rulebook out the window. Others argue that we lost something of ourselves in resorting to such barbarity. Moreover, it could be said that we have provided our enemies today with ready-made justifications for attacking civilians? When it mattered to us, we targeted civilians; well, it matters to them now. Was our ‘supreme emergency’ different to their ‘supreme emergency’? Who decides?

There is, in short, something politicians, political scientists, philosophers and ethicists might learn from studying the history of conflict. Military history shines a light on many of the issues of our time. Thus, it is to questions such as these that the Research Centre for the History of Conflict (RCHC), at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, will turn its attention in 2017. As we explore the past, not least to better understand the present, the RCHC will organise at least three major workshops and conferences:

  • January 2017: The First World War Research Group, ‘Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War’.
  • May/June 2017: The RCHC, ‘Military History: A Critical Investigation’.
  • June 2017: The Second World War Research Group, ‘East Meets West: the Second World War in Global Perspective’.

This term’s seminar series, run by the First and Second World War Research Groups, will see Louis Halewood, Ashley Garber, Andrew Stewart and Kent Fedorowich visit the Defence Academy.

As well as organizing seminars, workshops and conferences, RCHC historians will bring new research to light to help us better understand critical societal issues. In April, Geraint Hughes will oversee a special issue of the Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs on ‘the Commonwealth and Peacekeeping’. Following on the 60th anniversary of the deployment of the United Nations Emergency Force to Egypt after the Suez Crisis, this special edition will examine the engagement of Commonwealth states in both UN and other multinational peacekeeping operations. The contributions will include articles on Britain’s role in peacekeeping, Bangladesh’s participation in UN ‘blue helmet’ missions, gender and peacekeeping, and the involvement of one of the Commonwealth’s newest members, Rwanda, in international peacekeeping.

For those interested in strategic history, David Morgan-Owen’s first book, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press), will be out in July. David’s work will present a new interpretation of how strategy was formed in Britain prior to and during the First World War. The papers from last year’s First World War Research Group workshop on ‘Jutland, History and the First World War’ will also be published, in February. This unique free to access publication, from the Corbett Centre, includes contributions from five of the most prominent scholars working in the area. It also speaks to the broader issue of how historians can engage with the centenary of the First World War.

Nick Lloyd’s fourth book, Passchendaele: A New History (Penguin) will be out in May. Passchendaele is typically employed as an example of the futility of war, of suffering, pain and high casualties, and of criminally stupid commanders. Nick will fundamentally challenge this narrative and argue that this was a battle the British could have won. He shows just how difficult and exhausting the confrontation was for the German Army, how close the British Army came to defeating it – and how continued fighting in Flanders might have meant an early end to the war, saving perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.

A ‘troop’ of historians from the RCHC will visit Florida in late March for the Society for Military History Conference. Huw Davies, Mike Finch and Aimée Fox-Godden will participate in a panel on ‘The Soldier and the Civilian in Military History and Theory: 250 Years of Global Influences on Military Thinking, 1740-1990’, while David Morgan-Owen and Jonathan Fennell will present as part of a panel on ‘Informing Global Warfare: Knowledge Transfer Between Allies, Services and Armies’.

Aimée Fox-Godden’s first book, Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army of the First World War (Cambridge University Press) will be published towards the end of the year. Aimée will explore the transformation of the British Army during the war through the lens of military innovation. The book will show that, underpinned by its pre-war ethos and cultural flexibility, the army demonstrated imagination and inventiveness, acting on the experience of its allies, as well as promoting the ideas of soldier-innovators and civilian experts in order to enhance its operational effectiveness.

Lastly, but hopefully not least, the first outputs from this author’s project on the British Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War will be out in February. ‘The Forces Vote in the Second World War and New Zealand’s Great Experiment in Social Citizenship’ will be published in English Historical Review. The paper will examine why soldiers, airmen and sailors voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 1943 and show that a spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion with profound implications for the future of New Zealand. There is every chance that the book underpinning the article, The Peoples’ Armies?: The British Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War (Cambridge University Press), will be out towards the end of the year.

From the perspective of the RCHC, there is much to look forward to in 2017.

Image: Assault on Passchendaele 12 October – 6 November 1917: A soldier running along a corduroy track through Chateau Wood. Originally captioned ‘The Way to the Front’, (probably posed), via the Imperial War Museum