A "horse and tank" moment

Posted by Richard Thursday, 25 June 2009 , , , , ,

Following on from General Sir Richard Dannatt, the incoming CGS, General Sir David Richards has now taken the podium at the RUSI Land Warfare conference which ends today.

It says something of the media that the only newspaper so far to recognise the importance of his speech is The Daily Telegraph in a piece written by Thomas Harding. There, the message is summed us as "Army must change or risk failure, warns future chief."

Richards starts off by alluding to the apocryphal tale of armies historically preparing to fight the last war rather than the next. Successful armed forces, he declares, adapt and transform at a pace faster than their potential adversaries. With an eye to history, he cites Cromwell as an example who "unlocked the synergy of discipline, training, new equipment and new tactics in a manner that left the Royalists looking like barely gifted amateurs."

Richards immediate strikes a chord with that framing, as it is precisely that dynamic which drove the US forces to such success as they achieved in Iraq, the lack of which led to the British failure. The Americans learned lessons. The British did not – or not enough of them, fast enough. Those readers who have struggled through Ministry of Defeat will have seen this spelt out in some detail.

In a useful reminder, Richards also tells us of the struggles of Basil Liddell Hart and "Boney" Fuller in seeking to persuade soldiers everywhere that the era of the horse had been replaced by that of the tank and aircraft. But it was Dannatt in his own speech who had reminded the audience of Liddell Hart's rueful comment that "there is only one thing harder than getting a new idea into the military’s mind and that is getting an old one out."

Our incoming CGS says he is determined not fall into that trap and tells us that the Army is adapting to the challenges of war in Afghanistan, although the transformation is still localised and small in scale. The "often subtle and certainly hi-tech ways of fighting" taken for granted in places like Helmand have not yet been imported into the core of the Armed Forces. US forces are doing better.

Crucially, Richards asserts that there has been a radical change in the way wars are fought. We cannot go back to operating as we might have done even ten years ago when it was still tanks, fast jets and fleet escorts that dominated the doctrine of our three services, he says. The lexicon of today is non-kinetic effects teams, precision attack teams, Counter-IED, combat logistic patrols, information dominance, counter-piracy, and cyber attack and defence.

Then says Richards, the pace of technological change is bewildering. It has left every nations mainstream procurement process struggling to deliver equipment that will remain relevant against more agile opponents satisfied with cheap and ever-evolving eighty per cent solutions. Too often, he adds, we still strive for hugely expensive 100 per cent solutions – "exquisite solutions" as US defence secretary Gates calls them – relevant only in a hi-tech state on state war but that risk being out of date before they are brought into service.

In sum, tactical, operational and strategic level success in today's environment is beyond that of a military that draws its inspiration from visions of traditional state on state war, however hi-tech in nature.

As to Afghanistan, should we be content for NATO to be seen to fail on its first ground combat operation, Richards asks. If we do not succeed conspicuously in Afghanistan, and vitally by extension in and with Pakistan, then we risk losing the war against terrorism globally. Furthermore, the reputation of our armed forces is in itself a grand strategic issue. For many years, they have given the UK influence internationally, defeated our nation's enemies while deterring others and been an institution of which the British people are proud. And we would lose this at our peril.

Afghanistan, therefore, is to be our top priority and the key here is that this is not a traditional inter-state war, where success is easily defined. And, if the Afghani type of warfare was to be the norm (rather than aberrant, as some still think) then our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, facing its own "horse and tank" moment. If this is correct, then:

... those charged with the design and equipping of our armed forces need to do three things. Firstly to decide whether they believe conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term or are an historical aberration? Secondly do they believe that, despite globalisation and greater mutual inter-dependence, state on state warfare remains something for which they must prepare? And thirdly ... if it is decided that our armed forces need to be capable of succeeding in both, would not the two types of conflict look surprisingly similar in practise?
On this basis, Richards is asserting that our armed forces need to become better at fighting non-state actors. Not least, on an inter-agency basis, non-military activities must be given much greater weight and properly integrated into strategy. But the paradigm which has inter-state and non-state conflicts looking similar, would allow our armed forces to focus, albeit not exclusively, on a single version of conflict, developing common skill sets and weapon systems

There is though the argument that we cannot afford the ultimate risk of a return to traditional state-on-state conflict; that our capability and military culture should be primarily based on such a possibility, remaining firmly and conspicuously in the "big boys" league, while seeking to build a capability in new areas too.

Mercifully – and here we are seeing a glimmer of sense – Richards argues that this is "simply not affordable". In trying to do a bit of everything, we risk future failure across the board because, on the day, we will have insufficient of what is needed. Furthermore, even in inter-state conflict, traditional combat power can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology.

Nevertheless, Richards is not advocating the scrapping of all our aircraft and tanks to the point that traditional mass armoured operations, for example, become an attractive asymmetric option to a potential enemy. With our allies, he says, we need to retain sufficient conventional air, land and maritime forces to ensure tactical level dominance in regional intervention operations or enduring stabilisation operations.

The key point though is that the scale of employment and the context in which conventional weapons systems may be used in the future will be quite different to what may have been the case in the twentieth century. Should traditional inter-state conflict again become a serious possibility, we do not need to plan on winning these things by ourselves. Our contribution can prudently reflect better what our allies will bring to the party.

Then, if we ruthlessly apply our own policy that we will only undertake traditional state-on-state war with powerful allies, we can achieve savings in this hugely expensive area that will free up the resources needed for investment in other more likely forms of conflict.

To conclude, Richards then notes that our forces are still designed primarily to conduct short duration conventional war fighting operations. In these, one compensates absolutely correctly for what historically would be viewed as a shortage of troops with huge firepower, hence the bias of the equipment programme towards these capabilities over the last sixty years.

In wars amongst the people, however, if you are using a lot of firepower - often delivered from the air in extremis as a result of insufficient manpower - you are almost certainly losing. One must have enough troops firstly to retain the tactical initiative and, secondly, to provide the enduring routine security without which the population will not have the confidence to reject the insurgent or spoiler. They can, and ideally should, be indigenous forces, but you also need sufficient people to train them quickly and efficiently in the first place. Thus he ruminates:

So are our Armed Forces geared up properly for future conflict? In one sense I am not as concerned as perhaps I have given the impression. The essence of a good navy, army or air force is that they have fighting spirit, and can impose their will on a skilled, cunning and violent enemy. Armed forces of this quality, with the agile and innovative leaders they breed naturally, can with good training turn their hand to any type of conflict relatively quickly. I am in no doubt at all that our navy, army and air force is very firmly in this league. If you do not possess such fighting spirit, however good or hi-tech your equipment, you will not win against opponents who do, whether they are part of another states' army or Taliban style insurgents, and however shoddy or out of date their equipment.
Thus we see Richards saying that, from one key perspective, our fight in Afghanistan is the best possible preparation for any future conflict, whatever its nature. He thus is aiming to contribute to the case for a fundamental re-think of the way we prepare and equip our armed forces for the twenty-first century.

All three services have a vital role to play in it but we need to agree the essential character of future conflict. Much of what we need for the future is in today’s inventory, but the scale and context in which it may be required must be rigorously examined.

If our generation's horse and tank moment is not gripped our armed forces will try, with inadequate resources, to be all things to all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any. The risks of such an approach are too serious for this any longer to be an acceptable course, if ever it has been.

There is much to think about in this speech. In many ways, Richards is putting down a marker for the forthcoming strategic defence review, which the Conservatives have pledged, and the issues he discusses will provide the basis for what is bound to be a closely fought debate. As a starter for ten, however, this is very encouraging indeed. We will return to it, I suspect, many times.

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