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Making the Case for Land Forces

The UK will conduct an integrated defence and security review in 2020.  The contemporary security debate is dominated by authors calling for more information warfare, cyber, or grey zone, or capabilities considered ‘non-traditional’.  These methods of warfare will, no doubt, play an important part in the future and should not be undervalued.

The purpose of the military is to impose a nation’s will onto other humans or to destroy them and their equipment and impose it afterwards.  The character of war may be changing. For all the new ‘stuff’ that writers talk about, war and security tasks remain a physical activity. Despite this, the case for land forces seems brittle and intellectually shallow in the face of the modern debate.

This article makes three core arguments designed to stir debate;

Firstly, that land forces will remain the primary means of victory and enabling other national security objectives. Information, cyber, air, sea, and ‘new’ domains and methods of warfare, will form important parts of any future strategy, but they will not grant victory without a renewed focus on the land component.

Secondly, the debate around land power is narrow and fixated with Cold War scenarios.  It is fixed in discussing ‘warfare’, defined as the means, and not the outcomes that can be achieved.  The literature has been splintered by theories dealing with ‘new’ methods of warfare offering the promise of low risk victory.  A fresh model for understanding land power is needed. Land forces need to reclaim the narrative and re-centre themselves as the key drivers of effective strategy.

Thirdly, that there needs to be both conceptual and financial investment to achieve this.  The UK needs to better define tangible strategic objectives and then shape the force to meet them.  The investment choices that the pending defence review makes must find their foundations in a broader intellectual investment to understand land power.  

Land Forces will Remain Critical

Any modern journal will carry a range of articles arguing about the growing importance of the new domains of warfare.  In the Wavell Room, Chris F argues that “Warfare in the Information Age is a digital war amongst the people”.   KCL student Matt Ader argues that space and hypersonic weapons point to a future in which ground manoeuvre is less important.  These visions offer different ways to conceptualise the capabilities that British defence needs in the future.

However, these visions also have more than a hint of presentism.  The UK has not deployed land forces above divisional scale since 2003 and corporate memory is degrading.  As Paul Barnes points out, technology has changed throughout human history, yet the fundamentals of warfare have remained the same for thousands of years.  Barnes warns us against the danger of ‘whole scale acceptance’ of presentism.   Current operations, such as the campaign in Syria, have been led by the air component delivering kinetic effect combined with a focus on information.  As such, the land domain finds itself distanced from the forefront of the modern debate.  Elements of the military forget that its primary purpose is not to conduct an ‘information war’ but to be in a position to inflict defeat by force.  

In Syria, the UK has not met its objective of defeating Daesh, for all the activity in the air and information domains.  Similarly, the use of airpower in Afghanistan pre-2001 arguably made victory more distant because it ignored the land component.  In another case, the Royal Navy’s response to the January 2020 crisis with Iran was to escort merchant shipping.  A vital task, for sure, but an enabling action.  War and conflict is inherently a human activity not a battle of technology.  There is evidence to support the utility of land forces but it is lost in the noise of the wider debate.  The UK needs ‘skin in the game’ and this is best delivered by land forces. Indeed, the deployment of the British Army to deterrence missions has proved disproportionately effective in Eastern Europe.  

The contemporary debate has also wrongly re-categorised elements of land power as ‘grey zone’ activity.  For example, the ‘little green men’ who invaded Ukraine are now considered part of an information or hybrid operation.  Yet, Russia’s invasion was conventional.  It could also be argued that this distinction was used to avoid a political commitment.  Calling it ‘hybrid’ was a convenient excuse for the West to pretend that land forces couldn’t counter the invasion.  Simply relabelling the activity ‘hybrid’ splinters the debate undermining the criticality of land forces as the driving component in achieving any meaningful objective.  

The Contemporary Debate is Narrow

Living memory of land deployments is shaded by the ‘forever wars’ of the post 9/11 era.  On top of this, there is a cynicism against Army Officers who have promised success but have not delivered a Clausewitzian decisive victory.  As such the modern debate fixates on achieving strategic effect without the need to deploy.  The West is looking for easy and risk-free victories that will never materialise, especially in the wars of choice that have dominated national security for the past decade.  

Land power advocates have not helped by tending to merge arguments involving both ‘war’ and ‘warfare’.  War is the conflict and what it is fought for. Warfare is the technology and methods used to wage it.  A niche difference, perhaps, and both need study. However, the case for land power cannot be made by examining how to fight, it must be made by examining what can be achieved.  What strategic utility does land power offer UK policy makers, and why should they invest in it? A former Royal Air Force officer, Mal Craighill, makes a compelling case when he questions if defence is already overspending and under thinking.  Inside this, there is an argument that the British Army has not sufficiently made the case for greater investment across Whitehall.  If the Army fails to do so in the 2020 defence review, it is likely to find its budget cut and its purpose further eroded.  

The popular conception of land power is a deployed Army, probably on mainland Europe, fighting a conventional war.  It is likely that this will always remain the bench-mark against which Britain’s land forces are judged and this conception is prevalent in modern thinking.  The current land power narrative is dominated by what could be described as a myopic and sentimental view of mechanised warfare with its roots in the Second World War.  In short, modern writers consider ‘the West’ to have a conventional edge, but opponents have found new ways of undermining this advantage. For example, the writer David Axe argues that ‘America’s military power isn’t up to the job’ of deterring Russian aggression.  Axe also quotes sources saying ‘we don’t need to be buying more tanks”.  For Axe, opponents of the West are ‘perfecting’ the art of weakening an enemy politically and no number of armoured divisions can counter the narrative.  Arguably, this fixation is the conceptual dividend of the Cold War.  

The modern debate is dominated by a cohort of land power advocates shaped by air land battle doctrine of the 1990s and visions of manoeuvre warfare in the Fulda Gap.  The now infamous ‘60 hour’ study in which RAND wargamed a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe best highlights this.  Be it deterrence or conventional war, the debate concerning land forces has been dominated by those choosing the battles they wish to fight.  Such scenarios have become overwhelmingly conventional and determined by the methods available, leading to the idea that the West cannot do hybrid warfare or compete in the land domain.  

Conventional war theory has become conceptually comfortable ground for land power advocates who struggle to articulate the broader utility of land forces.  As such, the contemporary debate over land forces has been splintered by ‘new’ theories of warfare, despite the central importance of land forces. The focus has shifted away from the bulk of the combat power and towards methods which appear successful in the light of the present.  This limits the potential utility of land forces and undermines the case for investment in them.

A New Model for Land Power is Needed

Land power is the ability to exert ability to exert control within the land environment and to influence the behaviour of actors and the environment. 

UK Land Operations Doctrine

The doctrinal purpose of land forces is to defeat an opponent by force, or the threat of force.  If a nation cannot dominate the land domain then they will never achieve a victory and will struggle to meet any meaningful strategic outcomes.  This is not in doubt, but, as argued above, it is a limited view of how land forces should be viewed today. UK defence needs a new mindset to reconsider the strategic utility of the Army and how, and when, to apply land power.  This mindset must go beyond the conventional and take back control of the narratives which have splintered the debate around its utility.

To some extent, the British Army has already started to do this.  The 2015 Security and Defence Review subtly re-shaped the role of land forces to include “capacity building, providing training, assistance, advice and mentoring to our partners”.  The Army re-organised to create an adaptive force and Specialised Infantry to give the wider utility.  The 2015 review also noted that “much of the UK’s soft power is completely independent of government”.  

The gap between political objectives and land power has only grown since 2015, despite the re-organisation of the Army to achieve it.  In part this is due to there being no political will to see returning coffins and general risk aversion. It is also the legacy of the highly unpopular 2003 invasion of Iraq.   However, this highlights a mismatch between strategy makers and the means they are prepared to utilise. If British strategy makers wish to pursue #GlobalBritain then they must also tolerate a greater level of  risk. Such objectives can only be met with the deployment of land forces.     

As an example, the UK’s involvement in Somalia.  Despite significant financial and political investment, UK land forces shied away from fully supporting the desired outcome.  A former Royal Marine who deployed to the theatre, Ric Cole argues that this was because of risk aversion. Cole argued for a new model of land deployments more akin to the ‘frontier soldiering’ that the historic British Army would be comfortable with.  Modern deployments of land forces look more like political marketing tools, both internally and internationally,  instead of serious land campaigns resourced to achieve defined outcomes.  

A more aggressive version of this would be the ‘remote warfare’ model proposed by the Oxford Research Group.  Such views feel a long way from the modern debate about the utility of land power and, even if we won’t say it, are closer to modern conceptions of hybrid operations or even special forces.   Yet, both visions offer a different theory for deploying land forces and potential options for strategy makers.  

Whilst national policy allows for partnering, mentoring, and embedding, land power advocates have yet to truly establish a conceptual model to allow its use in support of strategic outcomes.  The Army has applied defence engagement doctrine timidly; preferring to train from distance over genuine partnership building. There are also concerns over the accountability that these missions receive.  As Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen argues, there is a lack of clarity on budgetary commitments, and details on specific programmes.  There is no measure of success or scrutiny of the outcomes the nation wishes to achieve.  Activity appears to be driving strategy.  

In comparison, there is often commentary about the utility of Royal Navy port visits or cocktail parties.  The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force certainly consider their deployments operational.  The US Army also considers similar taskings on a more operational level; Best demonstrated by their persistent, and active engagement alongside regional partners.  Army missions can be sewn together to form a coherent vision of the utility of land power, but only if linked to strategic outcomes.  Land power is arguably too focused on fighting a conventional war.  

Think to the Finish

Part of the answer is to think longer term.  This requires strategy makers to define tangible outcomes that underpin British national security.  Operational objectives can then be defined. The integrated defence and security review of 2020 must consider this first before designing the force. 

To highlight this, the 2015 review does not identify any tangible security outcomes.  Indeed, one commentary asks that planners separate the ‘vital’ and the ‘merely important’.  Judged against this, the 2015 review offers everything but achieves nothing.  Whilst this is not an entirely fair critique, and we should never expect the outcomes to be entirely public, the 2015 review is more focussed on the means rather than the ends.  Activity is driving strategy. The 2020 review must go beyond terms such as ‘relationship building’ and ‘interoperability’ and strategy must define the means. To achieve this a conceptual investment is required from both military and strategic planners.  

Operationally, the nation should also be prepared to take more risk.  If the objective warrants the deployment, then the nation should commit to it and accept longer deployments involving land components.   The British Army must positively make the case that it can be utilised to meet the desired outcomes. This is where the study of war vice warfare is valuable.  Does Britain understand what it wants to achieve? Does the British Army understand what it can achieve? Or have alliances and international exercises become the endstate?  If so, we need to recalibrate national priorities into tangible outcomes and define achievable objectives to support them.   

Once the outcomes have been achieved, defence can start to shape the financial investment needed to ensure success.  Options might include dropping the requirement for an armoured infantry division outlined in Joint Force 2025; a greater focus on wheeled mobility; or more exploitation of the specialised infantry concept; or greater expansion of airborne forces to allow rapid, but soft, reinforcement.  The British Army could move to a model that builds long term human relationships.  Strategies for doing so already exist. It could include forward basing and more embedding with key allies.  It might also include formally establishing Strategic Command as the fourth service to take ownership of joint tasks and the supporting functions such as recruiting. 

To understand what financial investment is needed, land forces must first conceptually re-centre themselves as the central element of any coherent national strategy.  It doesn’t really matter which option the UK Ministry of Defence selects, and there will be numerous views about it, as long as it is coherent with the outcomes that the nation wishes to achieve.  This is where the study of warfare is essential.

Ultimately, politicians must decide what the Army is for.  However, to aide this, land power advocates must make the case that boots on the ground will remain the critical element of future success.  Land forces must reclaim the splintered debate to re-centre views of land power and positively make the case for investment in the 2020 defence review. 

Steve Maguire

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment.  He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters.  He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.


The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

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