Military Innovation

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The Operational Level as Military Innovation: Past, Present and Future

DR STUART GRIFFIN

As Defence-in-Depth once again spends time exploring the concepts of the operational level and operational art, it seems an appropriate time to relate my previous contribution on the subject to the other research strand that I have previously blogged about: military innovation. Though the popular focus of military innovation tends to be on new technologies and weaponry, much of the theorising about the causes of military innovation takes evolutions in doctrine as its starting point. I will return to the different theoretical approaches to military innovation in a future post but, for now, the important point is that the operational level is, first and foremost, a doctrinal innovation and that this is crucial to any debate about its current and future worth. As discontent with the current form of the operational level grows, placing the debate in appropriate context becomes ever more important.

Before exploring the history of the operational level, we need to understand why doctrine has often been the source of scholar-practitioner theorising about the causes of innovation. First, a critical practical issue for any academic is the quality of primary source material on a subject. For historians trying to understand the dynamics of military reform in a given era, shifts in doctrine offer concrete evidence of change being enacted by the armed force in question. One can trace a doctrine’s origins back through the system and glean invaluable insights into how and why it came into being because, most obviously, it is written. Further, the formal character of its codification increases the likelihood of this traceable genealogy. Second, though the exact purpose of doctrine varies from military to military, its basic function is to provide authoritative guidance that helps militaries fulfil their raison d’être: usually, to be prepared to successfully wage war. Certainly, ‘field manuals’ and ‘warfighting doctrine’ has that purpose (the clue being in the titles) and so it is a reasonable assumption that it should also reflect the most current, institutionally agreed, thinking on how to actually conduct warfare. Inevitably, the more rapidly the character of conflict is changing, the harder it is for doctrine to keep pace but, sooner or later, it either reflects successful innovation or fails. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Barry Posen chose inter-war doctrine in Britain, Germany and France to analyse the drivers of innovation and that studies of doctrine formulation have been an integral part of military innovation theory ever since.

This is relevant here because the operational level, now integral to how we think about warfare, is, at its heart, doctrine. It makes its way into our consciousness because it takes hold as a concept that relates to bigger issues of strategy and campaigning but it formally originates in a specific piece of doctrine: US FM 100 from 1982. The distinction between the operational level and operational art was subsequently made in the 1986 variant. Ok, fine, so what? Well, though the formalisation of the operational level originates in the United States Army in 1982, thinking about ‘operational art’ long pre-dates it and, in each of its guises, is also a doctrinal response to specific circumstances. Taking three highly influential moments in turn; first, the Prussian General Staff seeking to apply the enduring lessons of Clausewitz and their practical experiences in the Austro-Prussian (Seven Weeks) War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 to a highly innovative intellectual debate about the future of war. This debate encompassed several related innovations in warfare including the physical expansion of armies and of the battlespace and the impact of related technological advances in firepower, mobility and communications. Emphasis on decisive battle remained in the thinking of Moltke the Elder and the officer class but appreciation of the inter-connected nature of the battlespace grows; presaging modern thinking about operational art. We see these developments in the writings of key thinkers, in the Prussian Staff College, in ‘doctrine’ (such as it was) and, of course, in practice.

Second, after the First World War, the Germans and Soviets in particular respond to their own very specific experiences by developing cutting-edge combined arms and armoured manoeuvre concepts. Their shared experience of defeat and the Soviet experience of a subsequent civil war fought over huge distances encouraged radical experimentation and boldness when thinking about future war. In both countries, doctrine again reflected this innovation and though the Germans remained resistant to any formalisation of an operational level they pushed the technological boundaries and skill at campaigning to far greater effect. The Soviets, by contrast, fell behind in technological terms once Stalin imposed his own brutal control on the military but their doctrinal innovations of the 1920s and early 1930s advanced thinking about the link between strategy and tactics, operational art in other words, in a profoundly important manner. I would argue that they are actually more important in this respect than the Germans. Again, both eventually test their theories in the crucible of war and while German combined arms brilliance influences the physical component (how to conduct high-intensity warfare) to this day, Soviet thinking has had the greater impact on the conceptual (how to conceive of warfare).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the final snapshot: the US formalisation of an operational level. Partly in response to defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s and to the Soviet creation of Operational Manoeuvre Groups (OMGs) in the 1980s, the US military formalises the operational level. The concept spreads into NATO and then more broadly . Again, this innovation is doctrinal in origin and conceived in response to very specific challenges. Further, despite recent caricatures of the US military debate as founded on fundamental misunderstandings of the historical evolution of operational thinking, closer study of the genealogy of the doctrine actually reveals an open, intellectual and sophisticated analysis of what had gone before that is much more in-keeping with the traditions of the Prussians and Soviets. True, there are misunderstandings in US application of the concepts but, arguably, they served a very practical purpose in the context of the 1970s and 1980s. It, too, has been tested in battle with great success in the first Gulf War, 1991, and Iraq, 2003, but has proved increasingly problematic in dealing with the kinds of complex conflicts presented by Iraq and Afghanistan. These problems have inevitably led to the current debate about its current and future utility.

What are the implications of all of this for academics and modern militaries trying to think critically about operational art and the operational level? Well, there are lots of interesting lessons about the drivers of military innovation but a more profound lesson perhaps relates to the point that the concept is, first and foremost, doctrinal. The operational level does not have any intrinsic right to remain at the heart of how we conceive of modern warfare. I have argued in the past that only operational art, in its various guises, is a constant in campaigning. Thinking about a ‘level’ evolves in response to very particular threats in very specific circumstances and only becomes formal in the 1980s. It changes in form throughout history and is not a constant in warfare: you don’t necessarily need an operational level to enable operational art. Critics of the ‘level’ therefore have a point but, as an advocate of its continued utility, I would argue that its failings are not evidence of its redundancy and inevitable demise but rather the consequence of far too little time in recent decades spent on genuinely innovative thinking about its current and future form. Reminding ourselves that the operational level is an example of innovation in military thinking, of purposeful doctrine, should also serve as a reminder that good doctrine requires constant critical engagement to remain relevant. Time, perhaps, to stop bashing the concept and start thinking innovatively about it once again?

Image: Soviet stamp depicting Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky (wikicommons). Tukhachevsky was executed during Stalin’s Purges but rehabilitated as a national hero along with several other key military thinkers during the 1960s.

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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

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.

 

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Keeping the Genie in the Bottle: RNAS Anti-Submarine Warfare, 1912-1916

ALEXANDER HOWLETT

Throughout its long history, the Royal Navy has been both an innovator of, and adapter to, technological change. By the end of the 19th century, the sailing warship of Nelson’s day had been transformed into the all steel construction, reciprocating engine, electric powered and radio equipped, battleship. As formidable an implement of sea power as the modern battleship, Robert Whitehead’s 1866 invention of the self-propelled torpedo, despite its diminutive stature, threatened to undermine the relevance of the big-gun warship. Britain’s traditional naval strategy- close blockade and combined maritime operations- built on a foundation, according to Admiral Mahan, of sea power generated by the line-of-battle-ship, now seemed increasingly risky when faced against the meek, but deadly, coastal torpedo boat. The modern submarine, actualized by John Holland in 1900, effectively hid the otherwise vulnerable torpedo boat and thus brought the danger of torpedo attack to a new degree of immediacy.

Submarines, despite the critiques of skeptics, were soon added to the inventories of the naval powers, yet, the battleships only continued to grow in size, complexity and cost. To some radical naval thinkers, it seemed only a matter of time before the extinction of the old ways. It was at this point, at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, when the disruptive asymmetry between super-heavy warships and ultra-light flotilla craft was reaching a crescendo, that another transformative technology began to enter the armouries of the naval powers, a technology that promised to transform naval warfare more profoundly than all preceding developments, and perhaps, countering the submarine along the way.

Although it is little known, the Royal Navy laid surprisingly strong foundations for the use of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare before the start of the First World War. The role of aircraft in ASW was proposed, demonstrated and operationalized between 1912 and 1914. During 1915 and 1916, however, this developing ability was placed on the backburner as wartime priorities shifted. Nevertheless, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had been primed to play a critical role in the submarine crisis, helping to contain and defeat the submarines at sea in 1917-1918. What were the roots of this wartime transformation?

Within the ranks of Royal Navy, and the nascent naval air service, there were several far-sighted officers, submariners, and undersea warfare specialists, who believed aircraft could play a vital role in ASW. Late in 1909, as his first tenure as First Sea Lord was coming to an end, Sir John Fisher established what soon became the Admiralty Submarine Committee, responsible for, amongst other trials, using aircraft to search for, and bomb, submarines. The first chairman of the Fisher committee was Admiral Cecil Burney, and it was his son, Lt. Charles Burney, who was one of the first to examine the possibility of using aircraft against submarines, a possibility he discussed in a 1913 Naval Review article (volume I, issue two). Burney then went to work for the Bristol Company, where he contributed to the development of seaplanes, specifically engineered for ASW, when the war broke out. After the disaster of 22 September 1914, when U-9 sank HMS Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir, Burney was re-assigned to the RN’s torpedo school, HMS Vernon, to develop an anti-submarine explosive, the result of which was the towed paravane explosive, like the depth charge, both introduced in January 1916.

Another important pre-war practitioner was a submariner, Lt. Hugh Williamson. In early 1912, he published a paper that was circulated by Captain Murray Sueter, the Director of the Navy’s Air Department. Williamson’s paper identified and explored the significant role he believed aircraft could play in ASW: by traveling aboard a parent carrier ship, the airplanes could be delivered to the submarine’s operational area, and deployed in flights to patrol. Once detected, an enemy submarine would be forced to dive, thus shortly exhausting its battery power.

Williamson was supported by Sueter, who envisioned ASW as one of the essential duties of the Naval Wing. In the event, Williamson, following injuries sustained in a disastrous seaplane crash in March 1915, while acting as a gunfire observer at the Dardanelles, was appointed as an assistant to Rear Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee, the Director Air Services (Sueter’s replacement). Williamson later became an influential staff officer, head of the Naval Staff’s Section 11 (Air) at the Operations Division.

The usefulness of airplanes operating in the anti-submarine role was actually demonstrated during the 1913 naval maneuvers. Commander Vivian, the captain of HMS Hermes, the Navy’s first seaplane carrier, wrote an encouraging report, emphasizing the success of ship- and shore- launched aircraft for spotting submarines. In December 1913, Vivian followed up with a lecture for the Royal Navy College at Plymouth, in which he endorsed aircraft for the anti-submarine role. Another proponent, Lt. Boothby, had made the same case in the RUSI Journal in 1912, although he favoured airships.

All told, Sueter, Boothby, Burney, Williamson, and Vivian provided a solid theoretical foundation for the use of aircraft in ASW. By 1913, as Arthur Marder pointed out, it was “not an uncommon belief” that the airplanes of the future would be used to attack, and indeed bomb, submarines. The RNAS had gone some way towards operationalizing these theories by July 1914.

However, at the beginning of the war, the RNAS still possessed no specialized equipment for ASW, and the implementation of theory now confronted a dramatic wartime reality. Hermes was torpedoed by U-27 in the Dover Straits on 31 October- Vivian had been reassigned- and Williamson was dispatched to the Dardanelles. Burney’s work at Bristol was interrupted, and Sueter soon had his hands full, controlling the air defence of London during the Zeppelin raids of spring 1915.

Fisher returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October 1914, and, the following February, urged the development of an aerial stopgap measure for ASW. Taking a page from Lt. Boothby, Fisher looked to non-rigid airships (blimps) to fill the role. The resulting Sea Scout, perhaps the direct antecedent of the helicopter in terms of its ASW function, was soon put into production by the airship section of the Air Department. Likewise, other kit was being perfected: J. C. Porte, of Felixstowe fame, was at work improving the American Curtiss flying boats, which, of all types of naval aircraft, were the most highly anticipated for their potential range of capabilities, including ASW.

These were bold developments. However, as the land war ground to a stalemate, and the attractiveness of using submarines against merchant shipping led to the February 1915 War Zone declaration by Germany, the inability of the Navy and its Air Department to respond decisively was exposed. Deliveries of flying boats and Sea Scouts proved far short of requirements, and the machines themselves were short on horse-power, striking power, and crew comforts. Compounding these technical limitations, in May 1915, the air-minded Churchill-Fisher regime collapsed over the prosecution of the Dardanelles campaign. The RNAS, under the following Balfour-Jackson administration, was restructured and placed in a subordinate position to the Navy’s district commanders, not always harmoniously, and thus lacked coordination and central control. Resources were stretched thin, not least because the RNAS had to compete for aircraft with the Royal Flying Corps, from competing priorities within the Air Department itself. RNAS squadrons were sent to France to supplement the RFC, and an increasing number of units were engaged in the defence of British airspace from Germany’s Zeppelin raiders. The ASW campaign was only beginning, and diplomacy had so far prevented the threat from becoming critical.

When this state of affairs changed in 1917, the RNAS had three years of experience to fall back on. The pre-war theorists were soon vindicated: the aircraft would play an integral role, hunting submarines at sea, and flying protection for merchant convoys, while also striking out against the submarine bases, and thus contributing to the failure of the desperate effort to knock Britain out of the war.

This history of theory and adaptation, hesitant development and ad-hoc innovation, all under wartime pressure, is crucial, not only for the historiography of the World Wars (as many of the lessons learnt in 1914-1916 had to be relearned after 1939), but because it was a case where an ounce of prevention truly was worth a pound of cure. Although the airplane did not defeat the submarine threat, airplanes and airships did dramatically restrict U-boat areas of operation, and could have functioned (as the pre-war theory and experiments demonstrated) as part of a synergistic combined arms approach to combating the submarines right from the outset, rather than three years into the conflict. Admittedly, such an enticing possibility remained unlikely due to limitations of kit, manpower and doctrine, however, developing these capabilities before 1914 would have cost relatively little compared to the expense of the super-dreadnought arms race and lives ultimately lost during the long submarine campaign against merchant shipping.

Image: Felixstowe F.2A in flight during an anti-submarine patrol, via the Imperial War Museum.

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Understanding Modern Warfare

Dr Ian Speller and Dr Christopher Tuck

Next month, our multi-authored volume Understanding Modern Warfare will be published in its second edition by Cambridge University Press. Understanding Modern Warfare is a book explicitly about modern warfare. There are many excellent existing works on war generally: this volume is concerned instead with the employment of organised violence: it is about fighting. But why should we be concerned with such a topic?

An academic focus on warfare has often been unpopular. Insofar as they study war at all most Western universities prefer to focus on ‘war and society’, examining the impact that war has had on wider society rather than focusing explicitly on warfare. As Jeremy Black has noted, in some respects this approach demilitarises military history by moving it away from war and battle, resulting in what Michael Howard called a ‘flight to the suburbs’. Understanding Modern Warfare is not a suburban book. It self-consciously focuses on the central activity of armed forces and on the urban centre of the subject, on warfare. It does so in recognition that this does not address the totality of war, which is about more than just warfare, but is based on the notion that one cannot understand modern war unless one also understands modern warfare. At the heart of such an understanding is, to quote Howard, ‘the study of the central activity of armed forces, that is, fighting’. In his influential book The Face of Battle, John Keegan made a strong case for the primary importance of ‘battle history’ within military history, arguing that:

it is not through what armies are but what they do that the lives of nations and of individuals are changed. In either case, the engine of change is the same: the infliction of human suffering through violence. And the right to inflict suffering must always be purchased by, or at the risk of, combat – ultimately of combat corps a corps.

It should never be forgotten that wars always result in death, destruction, waste and human suffering, all too frequently on a truly staggering scale. Unfortunately, ignoring the phenomenon is unlikely to make it go away and to do so fosters ignorance of something that has had, and continues to have, a major impact on human affairs. Whether one wishes to avoid warfare, to mitigate its impact or to prepare to conduct it more efficiently (and these are not mutually exclusive positions) it is important that it be studied. Indeed, one might suggest that in a democracy in the twenty-first century it is particularly important that as wide a range of people as possible should understand the nature of modern warfare in order that they are equipped to make intelligent judgements about the way in which their own governments seek to employ military force. The requirement for military personnel to understand warfare should be too obvious to require further elaboration given the historical correlation between ignorance and military incompetence.

For these reasons, Understanding Modern Warfare addresses what continues to be a critical subject. It examines and evaluates the central issues, ideas and concepts that form the foundation for an understanding of the conduct of war in its various forms and in its different operating environments. It is an exploration of the theory and the practice of modern warfare. It is important to engage with both as one cannot properly be understood without reference to the other. The practice of warfare – what armed forces do and the way that they do it – is influenced by theoretical concepts and constructs or, where these are not expressed formally, by preconceived ideas that themselves represent an informal (sometimes an unconscious) equivalent to theory. Today such concepts are often expressed officially through military doctrine, adopting and adapting theoretical constructs in a manner designed to foster understanding amongst practitioners. Equally, however, military practice matters: warfare is a practical discipline not an obscure theoretical exercise. Understanding Land Warfare is not a history book, but it is infused with and informed by an historical understanding. Theory that does not stand the test of practice is dangerous. As Charles Callwell argues ‘Theory cannot be accepted as conclusive when practice points the other way’.

Critical analysis of the theory and practice of modern warfare highlights issues that continue to be central to the successful conduct of military operations: the primacy of strategy; the dangers inherent in an unreflective blinkered application of doctrine; the differences and synergies between the different operating environments. Reflecting on modern warfare also reinforces the importance of military adaptability. Adapting successfully to the future depends in part upon having a grasp of the past and the present. The future is not fixed, nor is it easily predicted. As the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume noted ‘nothing that we imagine is absolutely impossible’. Whilst knowledge of the past and present of warfare may provide part of the foundation for coping with the future, more important is developing an understanding. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the conduct of war is of such importance, quite literally the province of life and death, it is vital that it be studied carefully.

Image: Indonesian and U.S. Army Aviation Assets Train Participate in Pacific Pathways, via flickr.

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Urban Operations in the Future Operating Environment

By DR SIMON MOODY

Underpinning DCDC’s Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045 is the idea that the future operating environment will be Congested, Cluttered, Contested, Connected, and Constrained (the so-called Five C’s). Implicit in this assumption is that military forces will be increasingly called upon to fight in the urban domain. Indeed, global trends in human geography suggest that the importance of cities to human populations will not only remain, but will increase significantly. At the dawn of the twentieth century, one in ten of the Earth’s 1.8 billion people lived in cities. By 1950 the global population rose to 2.3 billion, 500 million of whom lived in cities. By 2007 half the world’s 6.7 billion people could be classed as city-dwellers. So, as we move into what has been called the ‘urban century’ current evaluations predict that by 2050, 75% of the world’s estimated 9.2 billion people will most likely be living in cities. The implications for future military operations are clear: to speak with Trotsky, ‘you may not be interested in urban warfare, but urban warfare is interested in you’.

Urban warfare is as old as the cities in which it takes place. Ever since the great land campaigns of the ancient world, military forces have sought to control and dominate the urban environment. While the character of conflict has evolved significantly, the enduring strategic significance of cities to armed forces has remained the same. Now, as in the ancient world, cities are cultural, social, and political hubs; they are where laws are passed and leadership resides. Cities are also the focal point for much of the capital wealth and human resources of the modern nation state. For these reasons, attacking the urban political centre of an opponent has often, but not always, been decisive. Militarily, the capture of urban centres might be an operational necessity because of their strategic location, the control of which facilitates future operations or increases military capabilities, or simply that the destruction of enemy forces located within a city is a centre of gravity in itself.

Trends in urban warfare demonstrate that it can adopt a number of different guises. On one end of the conflict spectrum, is the high-intensity urban battle characteristic of conventional global war. The decisive battles of Stalingrad and Aachen during the Second World War represent this type of unrestricted, and extremely bloody, urban combat. Similar decisive urban combat has also revealed itself in smaller-scale regional wars such as the battles of Hue, during the Vietnam War, and Seoul, during the Korean War. At the opposite end of the spectrum, from global and regional conventional war, is urban combat conducted by modern armies operating in an internal security role. In this context, fighting against terrorists and revolutionaries is more reminiscent of police work than conventional urban combat. The French experience in Algiers and the British experiences in Belfast and Londonderry reflects this type of low-intensity, politically sensitive urban combat. Located between these two extremes is the hybrid type of urban combat common in the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Israeli combat missions against Palestinian insurgents and the US urban combat experience in Iraq are both examples of this type of hybrid urban warfare.

Fighting in cities is militarily challenging, and out of all the environments in which the military operate, the urban environment is perhaps the most complex because of the physical terrain, the impact that congested spaces have on force structures, the presence of non-combatants, and the lowering of the technological threshold. The preponderance of sophisticated intelligence gathering and target acquisition systems in Western militaries do offer a relative advantage. However, these capabilities alone will not prove decisive in the future operating environment. Asymmetric forces have become adept at employing low-technology in the form of IED’s and small-arms fire to inflict significant causalities on technologically superior forces. This reinforces the notion that, at its core, urban combat remains a bitter struggle that relies on fierce and prolonged close quarter combat, and civilian leaders will be forced to make careful judgments when considering whether or not to commit military forces to the urban battle.

In a networked age where global media outlets provide the public with near instantaneous access to information, leaders need to be cognisant of the inherently costly and manpower-intensive character of urban warfare when influencing perceptions at home and abroad through a clear strategic narrative and unambiguous political signalling. This will be no mean feat in the urban battle of the future. On the one hand, commanders might employ overwhelming firepower using powerful weapon systems and armoured vehicles to overcome the complexity of fighting in urban terrain. While this might result in an increase in tactical effectiveness, it risks the operation becoming undermined politically because of the subsequent collateral damage to infrastructure and to the civilian population. On the other hand, commanders may constrain the kinetic use of military force by limiting its use of armour and heavy weapon systems, but this might result in a longer, drawn out campaign while exposing itself to heavier and heavier casualties. Finding the correct balance to be struck between the liberal and conservative use of kinetic military force in urban environments will perhaps be the greatest dilemma with which leaders will have to confront in the future operating environment.

Image: World population growth by country; 2013 CIA estimates. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Research Dispatch from Sydney: New Directions in War and History

by Dr Huw J. Davies 
Today is the penultimate day of my research trip to Sydney (with Canberra and Wellington thrown in). The trip has been what I now call a harvest. I’ve photographed literally thousands of documents, unsure whether they are useful. I’m deferring the actual process of research until a later date. Still, like the many thousands of tourists on Sydney Harbour, I have occasionally looked up from the screen of my digital camera to glimpse what I’m actually taking photographs of.

The man whose papers I have come to see, Lachlan Macquarie, before becoming Governor of New South Wales, served in India for decades, visited China, and journeyed overland from India through Iran and Russia in 1807. I didn’t know that. Moreover, his correspondence from Sydney in the 1810s clearly indicates that his decision-making was influenced by his past experiences.

So often, though, when undertaking research in a library, one stumbles upon other useful little nuggets. Probably my most surprising find was a series of sketch-maps, by Thomas Livingston Mitchell, of Spain in 1813. Mitchell was a Rifleman, but also an excellent draughtsman, so was seconded to the quartermaster general’s department to identify possible routes along which the army could march. One of the maps was on calfskin, and though so finely detailed as to be unreadable, I practically skipped over to the curator’s desk and said, wide-eyed and excitedly, ‘look, it’s an illegible map of Spain… From 1813… On calfskin!’ The curator seemed mildly interested, though I imagine her finger was hovering over a button marked ‘Security’.

Mitchell, though, was more than a mapmaker. In another notebook, I found a set of military maxims derived from the classics, and contemporary military theorists such as Guibert and Henry Lloyd, of whom I have written previously here. For a historian who is dealing mainly with circumstantial and speculative links between theorist and practitioner, direct evidence like this is both rare and pant-wettingly exciting when it crops up – particularly in the most unexpected of places.

All of this at least serves to prove that my research on the development of military thinking and innovation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century has some legs. The subject of military innovation was also a major theme of a conference on New Directions in War and History which I attended at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The study of military history has diversified considerably in recent years: a more appropriate term for the discipline might be ‘history of the military’ or ‘war and society’, as one speaker at this excellent conference highlighted. Despite an everlasting fear that the discipline is under siege from more popular and fashionable genres, military history endures, and like Madonna, regularly reinvents herself.

Traditional operational history – the study of buttons and bullets and blobs on a map – has declined but remains important, as important insights can be offered into the mentality and psychology of human decision-makers under intense pressure. This decline has nevertheless created the impetus for a broader range of study and debate, encompassing other genres, some traditional, and some radically new.

Social history, cultural history, economic history, political history, art history, literary history, media history, gender history, class and religious history, sexuality history, and myth and memory. All were represented with a particular focus on the study of the military. As the keynote speaker, Professor Jeffrey Grey, argued, ‘we take out opportunities where we can’.

As a result of this conference, the study of military history, seems to me to be re-invigorated. The military is closely linked with other aspects of society, and it is impossible, indeed a disservice, to separate these elements from one another. The same currents and challenges that drive adaptation and change in wider society, wields important effects on the military. To study the military in isolation from these undermines our understanding of it as an institution.

Two days after this conference, I flew to Wellington, New Zealand to meet with Professor Charlotte MacDonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan at Victoria University Wellington, who are studying the social and cultural impact of the garrison state in New Zealand between 1840 and 1870 – the period of the brutal Anglo-Maori Wars.

The communication of ideas, information and knowledge within the military was subject to the same social and cultural currents and upheaval that other parts of society was. The enlightenment of the eighteenth century exerted important influences on the way those in the military thought about their profession, the impact of which continued to be felt well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From my own perspective, the outcome of this conference confirms for me that the study of military history by the military remains vitally important. Not only does military history offer and opportunity to investigate and analyse command decisions, both successful and unsuccessful, but the subject offers a real opportunity to understand the impact of the military on society and vice versa.

The military frequently feels outpaced by societal developments over which it has no control: this is not a symptom of the Twitter generation, but has always been the case. The military has frequently been caught up in social and political movements and contests, and study of this under-examined aspect of military history can yield important and useful lessons for dealing with different challenges faced today.

You can see the programme from the conference here.

My paper, entitled ‘The Evolution of the British Army’s Use of its History’ is available for download here.

Read about the Soldiers of Empire project at Victoria University Wellington here.

And check out a podcast I recorded when I was in Canberra for The Dead Prussian on Wellington, strategic culture and military innovation.

Image: Reading Room at the Mitchell Wing, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. As always, no research would take place without the help and support of librarians, archivists and curators. Those at the Mitchell have been extraordinarily helpful in meeting my requests over the last two weeks. 

Somme Erfahrungen IBayRK

Horizontal Military Innovation and Lessons Reports

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

In the summer of 1916, in the midst of one of the First World War’s most cataclysmic battles, the German army did a remarkable thing. During the course of the battle of the Somme, it created a new defensive doctrine. What is most remarkable about this is that it did so without the intervention of the German High Command, the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL). The new doctrine was developed and was instituted by the German units fighting tooth and nail against the British and French armies, only after the battle did the OHL give its imprimatur to this new doctrine. In 1916, the German army successfully innovated through the use of Erfahrungsberichte, or ‘lessons reports,’ that were shared extensively and quickly throughout the German army on the Western Front.

The German experience during the battle of the Somme in 1916 demonstrates a different type of military innovation, one I have termed ‘horizontal innovation’ to distinguish it from other type of innovation examined by scholars of the field. Traditionally, scholars of military innovation have recognised two main types — top-down and bottom-up innovation. As their names imply, these two forms describe how innovation occurred. In top-down innovation, new ideas and new knowledge is created at the apex of an organisation and pushed downwards. This often suits hierarchical military institutions, where influential champions of new ideas or new approaches can be found in senior military officers or sometimes civilians in the chain of command. These senior ‘champions’ have the authority to impose this innovation on their organisation. More recent scholarship, though, as pointed to the importance of new knowledge coming from the lowest levels of the armed forces, often in the heat of combat. In this ‘bottom-up innovation,’ small units provide test beds for new ideas, and the best ideas eventually filter to the top from which they are then shared with the rest of the armed forces, usually via a new formal doctrine. What made the German experience different from these two types of innovation is that units shared knowledge between themselves, without involving the German High Command, and in the process created a new defensive doctrine. Rather than showing bottom-up or top-down innovation, this shows how innovation can occur horizontally between units.

The method of this horizontal innovation was the sharing of knowledge about the latest defensive tactics through Erfahrungsberichte. These reports had evolved throughout 1914 and 1915 as a way by which units could share experiences. Initially, these were written on an ad hoc basis; not all units wrote these, and they followed no set format. In 1914 and early 1915, many higher units (army corps and divisions) circulated Erfahrungsberichte internally. Through the course of 1915, these came to the attention of the OHL, which chose what it deemed significant reports to be distributed throughout the army. Indeed, the OHL saw Erfahrungsberichte as being an important means by which new tactics and new approaches could be shared throughout the army. As I discussed in a previous post, the Erfahrungsbericht of the 1st Army’s attack at Vailly in October 1914 was deliberately used as a model for new offensive tactics, and reports produced by the 6th and 3rd Armies informed new defensive tactical guidance issued by the OHL in October 1915.

So far, this is a good example of bottom-up military innovation — The knowledge of frontline units was gathered by the German High Command and this latest knowledge informed a centrally produced doctrine that was then distributed across the army. Indeed, the OHL sought to deliberately control this process. In January 1916, the OHL forbade the sharing of Erfahrungsberichte between units unless these had been previously approved by the OHL.

The OHL’s control over this learning cycle broke down completely in the heat of the battle of the Somme. The battle of the Somme was not like any battle the German army had hitherto experienced. Faced with the enormous material superiority of the combined French and British armies, the German army struggled desperately to defeat the Entente offensive. Whether or not this was deliberately designed as an attritional battle, the battle of the Somme did enormous damage to the German army. At its height, divisions could last no longer than two weeks before needing to be relieved from the frontline. Thus, unlike previous battles on the Western Front, the battle of the Somme drew in units from across the entire Western Front. Over the course of the battle, 96 German divisions were engaged, some three-quarters of the German army of the Western Front, and many of these divisions fought in the battle two or even three times.

Units that had been ‘fought-out’ in the battle of the Somme went to quieter sectors of the Western Front to rest and refit, and with them they took their most recent experiences of the defensive battle. These they shared with their neighbouring units through Erfahrungsberichte. Indeed, with so many divisions rotating in and out of the battle, demand for Erfahrungsberichte became great — Units desired to know the latest techniques before their inevitable deployment. The armies not engaged in the battle of the Somme used the Erfahrungsberichte to provide training for their own units and modified their own defensive systems to take into account the latest advances from the battle of the Somme. So widespread was the sharing of Erfahrungsberichte from the battle that today, countless examples can be found in the existing divisional files of the German archives.

Thus, the OHL lost control of the lessons learning cycle; units demanded and received the latest reports from the front to prepare themselves. This proved to be a blessing for the German army. By removing the High Command from the loop, this learning cycle sped up to accommodate the demands of the units going to the battle. In the process a new defensive doctrine was hammered out by the units doing the actual fighting in the battle of the Somme. This new defensive doctrine often departed significantly from the existing doctrine and from the orders coming from army- and army-group level, but allowed the frontline divisions to withstand the often overwhelming material superiority of the French and British attackers.

A new German High Command under the direction of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff recognised this new doctrine when they issued updated defensive guidance in September 1916. They also made a virtue of the Erfahrungsberichte system that had emerged from the battle of the Somme. In 1917, the OHL required units to produced Erfahrungsberichte whenever engaged in battle. Recognising the benefits of rapidly sharing new knowledge, the OHL required units to share their reports widely. Thereby, the OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff also acknowledged that it could not and perhaps should not attempt to control the rapid learning cycle produced by effective sharing of lessons from battle. Horizontal innovation had become institutionalised in the German army.

Image: Cover from the I Bavarian Reserve Corps’ report on the experiences of the battle of the Somme. Landesarchiv Baden-Wuerttemberg, Generallandesarchiv, Karlsruhe, 456 F1/527.

For more on military innovation, see the King’s College London Military Innovation and Learning Research Group.

For more on First World War history, see the King’s College London First World War Research Group.

Soldiers run to confront demonstrators during riot control training.

Paratroopers have been training to deal with hostile crowds that they may face in their role as the British Army's rapid reaction force.

Troops from 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment have faced petrol bombs and missiles as they carried out public order training in a mock village at Lydd ranges in Kent.

The Colchester-based soldiers started off by learning how to work together to both defend each other with shields and drive back hostile crowds, with the training culminating in a simulated disturbance with their colleagues as rioters.



Photographer: Sgt Rupert Frere
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NSS/SDSR 2015: The Missing Link

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

After many leaks, the full report of the National Security Strategy and Strategy and Defence Security Review 2015 (NSS/SDSR 2015) has been launched and released by the Government. In many ways, NSS/SDSR 2015 is a marked improvement on the NSS and SDSR of 2010 and is a demonstration of a procedural advance the first steps of which were taken in 2010. What I find most encouraging about this latest rendition is a fuller recognition that Britain’s security can only be provided by a wide range of government departments, and not simply defence. This ‘integrated approach’ to dealing with wide-ranging security threats is, of course, not completely new, but NSS/SDSR 2015 puts it more firmly at the heart of Britain’s national security strategy.

However, it is far easier to proclaim an ‘integrated approach’ to security than it is to deliver this, and this leads me to what I see as an important missing link in NSS/SDSR 2015 – How the UK security community can leverage existing knowledge within its various elements in order to work together effectively and efficiently to address Britain’s security challenges. In other words, how Britain’ security community can learn from each other, from allies, and ultimately innovate and generate new ways of working.

The importance of ‘innovation’ has been recognized for many years by one of the UK’s main allies, the United States. Through much of the 2000s, ‘transformation’ was the touchstone of US defence policy, and the traumatic experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan put ‘knowledge management’ and the timely identification of lessons front and center in US defence practice. Indeed, even the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2014 made ‘innovation’ a key aspect of US defence policy, stating:

Across the three pillars of the defense strategy, the Department is committed to finding creative, effective, and efficient ways to achieve our goals and in making hard strategic choices. Innovation – within our own Department and in our interagency and international partnerships – is a central line of effort. Infusing a culture of innovation and adaptability that yields tangible results into an organization as large as the Department of Defense is by necessity a long-term, incremental undertaking. We will actively seek innovative approaches to how we fight, how we posture our force, and how we leverage our asymmetric strengths and technological advantages. Innovation is paramount given the increasingly complex warfighting environment we expect to encounter.

So where is the recognition in NSS/SDSR 2015 that ‘innovation’ and learning are essential elements to realising its objectives? NSS/SDSR 2015 does mention innovation. It states: ‘Innovation – generating ideas and putting them into practice to overcome challenges and exploit opportunities – drives the UK’s economic strength, productivity and competiveness.’ Now, of course, technological innovation has been at the heart of revolutions throughout the history of conflict – the invention of aircraft, of tanks, of nuclear weapons all led to massive changes in how wars were conducted. Without corresponding development in the ideas about how to uses these technologies, however, they would be nothing.

And this is the problem with NSS/SDSR 2015. While it correctly identifies that new ways must be found of dealing with the myriad security threats facing the United Kingdom, it does not go far enough in developing how the UK security community is to work together to solve these problems. It envisions ‘innovation’ as something that happens purely in the economic and scientific realms. It does not identify the necessity for innovation and adaptation to bind together the often disparate elements of the UK security community. It does not create the aspiration, let alone the mechanisms, for sharing and utilizing the vast pools of knowledge that exist within the different elements of the UK security community. This is a shame, as I do not see how the United Kingdom can have a truly integrated approach to security challenges without a solid understand of the importance of innovation and learning as the link that ties its strategy together.

Image: Troops from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment take part in riot control exercises. Photo courtesy of Defence Images.

IMG_0125

Conference Report: Military Education and Empire.

by DR HUW J. DAVIES 

Research on how militaries learn, adapt, innovate and transform has been gathering pace in recent years. The primary motivation for this emerging interest has been the need to understand the means and methods by which the US Army innovated or transformed during its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further studies have emerged exploring the same concept in the British military.

Historically, military adaptation, innovation and transformation has been explained through overarching concepts such as the Military Revolution, or more recently, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. The former implies massive change in military organisation or development prompted by external influence, such as political, social or cultural revolution.

The latter is a more limited concept – the aggregate, perhaps, of marginal gains produced by technological or organisational developments which combine to achieve a decisive shift in performance, capability or effectiveness. Both concepts have come in for their fair share of criticism.

The definition of the Military Revolution has gradually expanded to cover several centuries, beginning with gunpowder weapons, continuing with the consequent developments in fortification design, and concluding with Napoleon’s organisational reforms. Obviously, and event that commences in the fourteenth century and concludes in the nineteenth is hardly revolutionary.

The RMA also suffered from similar conceptual difficulties, most notably from the erroneous assumption that a revolution could be harnessed to deliver a decisive shift on the battlefield. As it became increasingly evident that attempts to do so were hamstrung by an asymmetric enemy determined to turn strength into weakness, so the concept fell by the wayside.

In more recent years, it has become increasingly clear that it is in the realm of military education, both formal and informal, that some of the more effectual developments in military learning and innovation have occurred. At least since the eighteenth century, when the concept of a profession of arms first began to take hold in Western military forces, officers, both individually and collectively have learnt their profession from a close study of their national military history, their specific national character, and the close examination of the art of war, strategy and tactics.

Rather than revolutionary, this is a gradual process, requiring patience and forbearance. A conference held at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston Ontario, illustrated this argument across a two hundred year period. Papers covered different approaches to military education across the British empire and beyond between 1750 and 1950, and explored differing national approaches. It is impossible here to explore the whole in detail, so I will draw out some of the key themes.

The turning point came in the mid-eighteenth century. Until then, British officers, imbued as they were with their sense of natural superiority and brilliance bestowed upon them by the accident of their high birth, reflected merely upon Britain’s military glory of yesteryear.

Military histories, such as narratives of Marlborough’s campaigns, dominated their reading, and reinforced their assumption that the British army remained the most effective fighting force in Europe. The War of the Austrian Succession dispelled this myth. Repeated defeats at the hand of the French caused a shift in the preferred reading, and therefore self-education, of the British officer cadre. Less military history, more studies into the art, science and theory of war, strategy and tactics.

Among these officers was the rising star, James Wolfe. In 1756, as British military prestige was agains tarnished at the hands of the French, he made recommendations to aspiring young officers. ‘In these days of scarcity & in these unlucky times, it is much to be wish’d, he wrote, ‘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, without it we must sink under the superior abilities & indefatigable industry of our restless neighbour…’

He was not alone. Across the army, officers were reading more widely into the political, social, as well as military histories of both Britain and Europe. Treatises on the art of war became important companions on long journeys. Understandably, as the French had been the author of many of Britain’s most recent defeats, it was to the Continental School that the intellectual officer looked for advice and guidance.

But this was wrapped up in a sense of national character. Imposing another nation’s approach to warfare would not work effectively in the context in which Britain fought. National Character therefore became a key theme of military education from the eighteenth century.

For the British, national character was imbued with its maritime history. The British Army was a short term expeditionary force designed to achieve limited objectives in a resource denial or containment based strategy that depended on British control of the sea. Therefore, the study of strategy revolved around this maritime focus, until the twentieth century, when the British Army succeeded in establishing a continental strategy in the First World War. There is an important debate about the wisdom of this approach which should be dealt with elsewhere.

Elsewhere, National Character exerted considerable influence on the direction of military education curriculum, so much so that a national ‘way of war’ was discernible. Papers explored the military curricula in India, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Mexico. In all cases, military history, the study of strategy and the theory of war, alongside the importance of National Character were important common factors, demonstrating how these could be used to benefit the military effectiveness of each force.
Image: Cadets on parade at RMC Kingston

The flag of NATO.

The flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) consists of a dark blue field charged with a white compass rose emblem, with four white lines radiating from the four cardinal directions. 

Adopted three years after the creation of the organization, it has been the flag of NATO since October 14, 1953. The blue colour symbolizes the Atlantic Ocean, while the circle stands for unity.

Future War: Thinking the Thinkable

DR SIMON MOODY

Thinking about future war is important. Very important. History is replete with examples of military organisations that became the unwitting authors of their own demise because they failed to adapt to the changing military environment in which they operated. The French were out-fought and out-thought in 1940 because of a stagnant military doctrine that shunned the revolutionary developments being made in the theory of armoured warfare. Likewise, American forces in Vietnam drowned in a strategic quagmire because its civilian leaders did not grasp the complex nature of the war on which they had embarked. Only a fool would underestimate the stakes at risk in drawing faulty appreciations about the future operating environment. Of course, military organisations have proven to be intellectually and organisationally flexible enough to adapt during the course of a conflict, as the British and German armies demonstrated during the bitter fighting on the Western Front, but this usually comes at a high cost. Rather, it is during peacetime, or periods of contingency planning to use the current British parlance, where armies, navies, and air forces, can hone their intellectual edge and begin to think about how to fight and prevail in the next war.

This is not an easy process, however. Professor Michael Howard famously likened the military profession to the career of a surgeon who spends years practicing on dummies only to treat a live patient at the end of her career. The point is that, in the crucible of war, military forces, like the proverbial surgeon, have just one chance to apply their knowledge and expertise to a real-life situation about which they might only have considered in the abstract. Of course, it is impossible to predict precisely what a future war might look like and the types of forces that will be required to fight it. Yet, I believe that with adequate foresight, imagination, and through a thorough study of the military arts, it is possible for military organisations to forecast the most likely character of a future war. What this requires of individual services is intellectual progressivism in peacetime, a healthy attitude to learning and unorthodox ideas, and a professional culture that nurtures critical thinkers.

The experiences of the British fighting services during the Cold War should shine a positive light on their ability to adopt these ideals. Throughout those uncertain decades, officers had the unenviable task of having to conceptualise a future war involving the ubiquitous use of nuclear firepower, both ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’. In a recent article, I described NATO war-plans during this period as being Strangelovian in conception, because of the macabrely surreal mission that was forced upon the services by their political masters. In response to this apocalyptic scenario the services developed radical new ideas as to how they could survive and fight on the nuclear battlefield, and the intellectual health of the respective officer corps was astonishing: the Royal Navy developed the short-lived concept of fighting a ‘broken-backed’ war at sea; the Royal Air Force honed the conceptual element of Massive Retaliation; while the Army produced a significant body of critical writings on the perceived challenges of nuclear land combat. The great facilitator of this free-flow of ideas was a willingness to think outside of the box and of the support by the senior leadership of military mavericks who could articulate new theories of victory and, importantly, attract enough followers to force radical change to traditionally accepted concepts. All of this, however, was reliant on an engagement with professional military education.

‘Education, education, education’ was the strap-line for Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment, and so it should be the clarion call for defence in a rapidly changing world. In this context, formal military education is indispensable. Staff rides, war-gaming, seminars, and intellectual debate are all methods through which wits rub against the wits of others, and it is this intellectual sparring which is the midwife of innovation. Service periodicals also play an important role in providing a platform for officers to share ideas and to disseminate new theories about the changing character of conflict and the future operating environment. In this context, Britain’s armed forces are well-placed since they are the most operationally hardened they have been for decades, and the Army Knowledge Exchange is a step in the right direction in encouraging this experience to be exploited for learning purposes. If handled appropriately, this operational experience can be harnessed to better develop the conceptual element of its fighting power, the element on which so much about preparing for the next war is reliant.

Experience is important, then. Indeed, Britain has such a long, varied, and illustrious military history that it is sometimes daunting trying to locate which lessons are relevant and which are not. This is where the value of historical research and analysis reveals itself. As humans, we are all conditioned to seek the familiar when confronted with uncertainty. This is natural and expected. The challenge is in sifting through those strategic, operational, or tactical lessons from the past and selecting those for examination which might act as a suitable intellectual reference point for thinking about the future, while being careful not to discard timeless military principles. This is easier said than done. As an historian, I am somewhat biased as to the practical utility of military history, but it is worth pointing out that US forces in the First Gulf War had historians in the Tactical Air Command Centre 24 hours a day, whose advice fed directly in to the decision making process. This is an extreme case of historical support, but military organisations should continue, where appropriate, to employ the services of professional historians.

Envisioning the character of a future war is difficult, but not impossible. An open mind and a willingness to consider new ideas will go a long way to solving some of the challenges of organisational innovation. As Western military organisations begin the long and laborious process of reflecting on the recent military experience in the Middle East, they would do well to remember the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. We better get writing.

Image: NATO flag. Adopted three years after the creation of the organization, it has been the flag of NATO since October 14, 1953. The blue colour symbolizes the Atlantic Ocean, while the circle stands for unity. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.