‘We are undergoing a fundamental change in the character of war’ (General Mark A. Milley, Chief of Staff of the [United States] Army, 27 June 2017.)
This year’s RUSI Land Warfare conference focused on the decisive use of land power in the era of constant competition. The conference opened by framing the strategic context; specifically, that of a multi-polar world, where the rules based international system is being challenged and eroded. One where the impact of the digital revolution is beginning to unfold, affecting every element of society including defence. As a result, some state and non-state actors are increasingly able to exploit ambiguity, operate unattributably in cyberspace and elsewhere, where they enjoy relative freedoms unfettered by the norms of international law.
With such adversaries choosing to operate at a threshold where our own rules of engagement preclude a strong response, the West can appear slow or weak in its capacity to protect itself.
The Chief of the General Staff opened the day with a frank assessment of the strategic context, its character and threats. He reiterated the importance of the British Army’s unifying doctrine of Integrated Action and threw down the gauntlet to the assembled audience, to address the challenges that face our generation of military professionals. These are just a few of those outlined:
- How do we use Land power in a smart way?
- How do we widen influence?
- How do we ‘get ahead of the bang’?
- How do we secure the right and talented people for our own organisation?
- How do we educate commanders to become producers in the amphitheatre of 21st conflict and near conflict?
- Mass is important; how to mitigate for a lack of it by exploiting the whole force and prepare to expand in time of significant crisis?
- How do we conduct manoeuvre in the information space?
- We need to use ISR and Joint Fires to preserve the force; but how do we develop the means and concepts to fight at arm’s length?
- Multinational interoperability; how to develop our capacity to ‘plug and play’ on the day, with partners and allies.
- How do we prepare to fight the war that we might have to, and by showing our preparedness, effectively deter it?
- Air superiority is not a given; how does the Land force mitigate its absence?
- What do we need to do and to communicate, in order to secure the ‘licence to operate’ from our own population?
- How do we better exploit training opportunities as a means of surrogate warfare in this period of constant competition?
It seemed to a number of the audience that the Army’s hierarchy had more questions than answers, but what became clear was a desire to engage the assembled audience and harness the collective horsepower along the principle that ‘no one has a monopoly on good ideas’. Other topics mentioned included the Specialised Infantry concept and how to get the most out of this nascent capability. His early conclusions were that it is fundamental to work alongside, with, by and through a host nation, wielding consistent influence through persistent engagement. Much was also said about the need to diversify the military. This is an important ambition, to not just reflect the society that we serve, but also address our recruitment deficit and be better able to engage with a broader range of cultures and nations. If we are to harness the benefits that a diverse background will bring, a culture of diverse thought is also necessary.
There is no benefit to the Armed Forces more accurately representing the UK population if there isn’t a culture of listening to divergent opinions within the organisation.
A consistent theme ran through the conference: that of innovation. If the challenges that the British Army will face over the coming years are to be met, it will require the Army to think differently. General Milley rightly highlighted that we can be captured by the ‘arrogance of the present’: a belief that the challenges we face now are more complex or difficult than those that faced in the past. In his address, General Milley effectively rebuked that view. The character of war has continually evolved and militaries have had to adapt to remain both effective and relevant. Those militaries which have evolved the slowest, have inevitably performed poorly.
Addressing these challenges will be all the more difficult in a period of financial restraint and multiple threats. But thinking, discussion and debate costs little more than time and a willingness to engage. Whilst hard won experience from the last campaign may be difficult to let go of, our collective brain must look more broadly to address the threats. The Wavell Room is open for such a discussion and in the coming months we will look at some of the themes, that the CGS challenged us all with. We want to host your views on how these challenges can be faced. Innovation doesn’t happen at the conference centre: it happens every day and in the fringes. Practitioners find new ways to combat new problems as well as old ones; conversations on the tank park, or in the staff college can all make a difference. What is needed is a means to explore, share and further develop them.
Come to the Wavell Room and share your experience, so that we can all contribute to the future of our profession.
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