Wavell Room
Image default
Concepts and DoctrineLandOpinionShort Read

Warfare, Dinner Jackets, Hammers and Nails

COVID-19 and the military’s contribution to the nation’s requirement for increased human security has been instructive.  Transport aircraft, logisticians, and counter-disinformation warriors are performing admirably, upholding Defence’s reputation as a go-to Department when the chips are down. This should make us think more roundly about what political decision makers will find most useful most often from Defence in the 21st century, whilst not forgetting what the nation can never afford to do without; Defence’s dinner jacket, as it were.

This article discusses what Defence’s response should be to the changing character of warfare and international system that the West faces in the 21st century. It will argue that we need to be more concerned with the location than the readiness of our heavy forces, go lighter and austere more generally, use the Special Forces as a university for combat, exploit the mutual interests Defence has with the media, embrace reversionary techniques, contractorise until it hurts, stomach the use of proxies, and think far more carefully about the consequences of our current application of violence.  

Russian Military Personnel, Crimea 9 March 2014 – Wikicommons

Sean McFate is correct when he writes of strategic atrophy in the West in his seminal book, Goliath.1  We (the West) have been so successful on the conventional battlefield, most notably in 1991 and 2003, that we’ve pushed others out of it. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea all now operate in a liminal fashion (Kilcullen et al2), around the edges of what we recognise as warfare. For them, everything is war and they have discarded the phasing construct that we use to make it clear when we’re in conflict, and not actual war.

If warfare was unchanged, and if conventional forces and technological superiority was still the answer, we’d have made a better fist of preventing Russian incursions in Georgia and Ukraine, and China’s dominance (“in all scenarios short of war with the United States” as the PACOM fleet commander put it) in the South China Seas. But none of these have been achieved.

Non-state actors have also adapted to our dominance on the battlefield. It is why the Taliban will outlast us in Afghanistan (they did warn us…), why ISIS still has global reach despite being ‘defeated’, and why Al-Qaeda successfully wrought such havoc on the people of Iraq (and her Government). Since the end of the Second World War, technologically advanced forces with superior conventional capabilities have failed in Algeria (France), Palestine and Cyprus (UK), Afghanistan (USSR, NATO), Lebanon (Israel), Vietnam and Somalia (US), and Iraq after conflict (a coalition).3 That does not mean that all political aims have failed, too, but it’s hard to pick many successfully achieved ones out of the wreckage.

Only one third of the world’s states are considered to be stable. Non-state actors proliferate as recognised terror groups, narco gangs, corrupt governments or state sponsored entities and the disruption they cause results in voids of governance that get filled by chaos or further malign actors.4 As a result, the world is becoming more likely to slide into conflict, mainly involving non-state actors, mainly in failing states.5  

The West has many of the answers already. There is a reason why Special Forces troops are so busy, and why experience teaches us that when tank troops deploy, they don’t deploy to destroy tanks, or even (almost without exception) with their own tanks.6 It’s because one force is perfect for the roles available to them in the world, and the other is not. Yet whether it is against state or non-state actors, we keep pitching conventional forces into these situations. There’s an excellent list of reasons why it won’t work in Lind’s Fourth Generation Warfare.7 

In a nutshell, we don’t have the political will to do the killing necessary (think Assad Snr in Hama in 1982); we don’t have the skills or understanding or propensity for the de-escalation needed to endure in a foreign land; and thus restrained we operate clumsily and attract violence to our forces and to the people we profess to protect.8 Where success has come, the West has not deployed conventional forces ‘conventionally’; in Northern Ireland, the UK was willing to take casualties to keep some form of peace, the French were bold and took great risk in Mali with a light force, and in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, a small number of coalition special forces orchestrated a ground campaign alongside the Iraqi army, and used the Syrian Democratic Forces as a proxy.

Peshmerga Soldiers 9 September 2014, courtesy of Flikr

It is 2003 since a UK Armoured Regiment destroyed any enemy tanks. For almost 20 years, the relevance of conventional warfare has steadily diminished.  Whilst mechanised formations have been an intrinsic part of UK operations since 2003, conventional force on force is no longer the way in which warfare is conducted. This is certainly a challenge for those charged with developing future capabilities in the Land Domain. Yet despite these obvious trends away from ‘conventional’ warfare the mobility, protection and firepower triumvirate used to design equipment is only to be leading us in one direction: always heavier, always more exquisite and always more expensive.  

The weight of land platforms is also increasing, despite other more radical options being available for evaluation, such as the RIPSAW suite of vehicles, each weighing 4 tonnes.9

The Land Domain is not alone. Much has been written about the exquisite nature of the F-35 aircraft. It is expensive, costing $1.5 trillion dollars to develop and its multi-role design means it is not optimised for anything, not even the air to air role. When a mission requires very low observability, external payloads must be ditched, unlike with Typhoon or F15. Indeed, the UK’s B variant sacrifices payload and range a lift engine. It is hard to envisage where and how a large enough land force or air defence network will be established that requires defeat by it; recent experience tells us that restrictive rules of engagement will also challenge the F35’s ability to engage in urban areas.

Notwithstanding its 5th generation design, the F35 is not invincible and remains vulnerable to air defences as do cheaper and more readily produced aircraft. Given all these limitations and restrictions, there seems little compelling military reason to go quite so exquisite and expensive.10 Similarly, although aircraft carriers played a role in the defeat of ISIS, the cost of each of those produced by the US exceeds the entire budget of the US Special Operations Forces, a fraction of whom were deployed on the ground, very successfully, to lead the fight.11 It seems that ‘the more we spend on conventional capabilities, the less advantage our expenditure buys.’12

So how does this play into a force design and posture that will be shaped against a background of recession, a spending review, and a PM’s Advisor who seems cynical about our readiness for the rest of the 21st century? My ideas do recycle some of Kilcullen and McFate’s thoughts, but they are also shaped by my combat and staff experiences.

The value of heavy forces is as a deterrent.  Studies show that heavy forces, judiciously placed, will reduce the likelihood of conflict. Their effectiveness is linked to their location and political intent to use them, and not readiness; there is a very narrow set of circumstances when they are needed, but when they are, it is critical. Like a dinner jacket, sometimes nothing else will do. But it doesn’t need to be kept handy in the sock drawer. For land forces, the heavy metal should be forward, in storage, and perhaps crewed by the Reserve.  

Use the Special Forces as a university for combat.  Having SF units without regular flow between them and the rest of the force is a poor use of their excellence and experience (and almost certainly leads to stagnation within them.) Watching the adaptation of our opponents since 2003 hints that using combat experienced troops and their ultra-successful habits and disciplines as examples to ‘spread the word’ is a better idea.13 We should reward passing SF courses differently, and routinely cycle personnel between SF and regular units.  

Light forces are the future.  We need to go lighter, more mobile, and we need to make sure we’re ‘Out G-ing the G’14 (g is for guerrilla), to learn from tactical successes in the Vietnam War. It does admittedly depend on the environment, but small bands of determined people can operate amongst a population in a way different from the forward operating base concept. The reversionary techniques, fitness, endurance, and mental approaches exist within our units, but we seem to value other things. We can borrow from the Green Beret concept; much of their elite nature comes not from their physical prowess but from their state of mind. RM and Paras, too, demonstrate much of what we need more of.

Soldiers from 1st Battalion the Irish Guards conducting a live firing exercise deep in the Belize Jungle (MOD Image Library)

Set up a military press agency, to provide intelligence and stories to the free press on a global basis. The media and Defence have mutual interests; Information is the new battle space and is right at the heart of liminal manoeuvre. Combining ISR assets with the expeditionary outlook of the service person and the enquiring mind and thirst for information of the journalist will allow us to accurately record and show the world what our adversaries are doing and help towards lowering the detection threshold that opponents use against us so effectively. This is more than a Directorate of Defence Communications on steroids; it is a complete operationalisation of Defence’s relationship with the press, being at their beck and call, seeing their search for truth as an opportunity, and shrugging off the risks it brings internally.  Perhaps 77x is the place for this but more importantly what is needed is a change in risk appetite and approach.

Reversionary Techniques will win the day. The opposite of the fact that smart systems are available to all is that reversionary techniques are not. Militias may have the capability to triangulate mortar and artillery rounds using commercially available apps, but they lack thorough training and understanding that allow weapon systems to operate when data is lost. We need to remember this and be willing to disrupt communications networks and GPS signals to deny the enemy access to commonplace technology and focus on our depth of understanding and ability to operate without technology. Let’s exploit the enhancements technology brings, not be handcuffed by them.

Targeted killing generates improvement, not deterioration.  It seems that cutting the head off the snake just grows a stronger snake.15 In reality, it is more of a case of ‘better the devil you know.’ Allow enemy formations and groups stagnate and fester. Let them go stale. Let their young bucks become disincentivised and turn away, or turn their anger on the group. This is how we should employ electronic presence, social media, messaging and influencing to create doubt and sew dissatisfaction among them. Precision bombs seem to have an unfortunate and recurring habit of enhancing an opponent.

Contractorise until it hurts.  We will need to prioritize the protection of key civil, economic, and military infrastructure within the host country and there are also security tasks, such as supporting third parties and NGOs, that we as a military would not want to take responsibility for. All of this can be done by people in our pay, and overseen by us. The truth is that contractors often operate, innovate, and survive in environments in which regular forces would feel over-exposed. We have much to learn from them.

Proxy forces & militias need to be raised.  They can provide governance and have credibility where we don’t. Government forces in country should be the preferred option, but often proxies and mercenaries are suitable, especially when resourced through government channels. If this is the case, they have the possible reward of becoming part of the state apparatus. The point is that there are sets of circumstances which allow us to judge their suitability and likely success. Our distaste and perhaps disdain for such forces is counter-productive, especially in a world of enduring, non-state initiated conflict where we are never going to be a cultural fit and where our very presence can generate violence.16

Catastrophic destruction will often be needed.  Whether the appetite for it exists or not is a different matter. But we must understand the value of and train for the operation where – even at scale – we are prepared to go in, kill and capture the opposition and then just get out.17 That should be an option that is always offered to politicians.

I appreciate that the difficulty lies in answering the questions asked by the Treasury which might not be the ones we want to answer, nor which provide an environment in which alternative solutions can be discussed.  But as a military, we need to be offering options that match the political ends of our Government which operates within the international system characterised above. The options also need to acknowledge the new liminal character of warfare. At the moment the means – the majority of options offered – simply have the appearance of different sized hammers that have to be used, regardless of whether there are any nails to hit.

Colonel Denis James
AKA John Laurens | Website

Colonel Denis James is currently the Assistant Head of Army Communications, having recently graduated as a member of The Royal College of Defence Studies.  He is a contributor to the Wavell Room.

He has worked at the Directorate of Defence Communications, spent a year on operations in the Middle East as COS with a US SOJTF and has been a visiting fellow at Chatham House.


  1. McFate, Sean. Goliath: Why the West doesn’t win wars. And what we need to do about it. Great Britain: Random House, 2019.
  2. Kilcullen, David. The Dragons And The Snakes. 118.
  3. Including Van Creveld, Martin. On Future War. London:  Brassey’s, 1991.
  4. McFate, 31
  5. McFate, 107
  6. McFate, 39
  7. Lind, William S and Lt Col G A Thiele. 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Finland: Castalia House, 2015.
  8. Kilcullen, 101.
  9. The General Dynamics AJAX armoured vehicle will cost approximately £60m each (excluding VAT) and weigh c42 tonnes. It is replacing CVR(T), a vehicle with poor protection but the heaviest variants of which weighed 14 tonnes. Boxer, at c38.5 tonnes, is the British Army’s new battlefield ‘taxi’ and replaces the 432 fleet, which weigh c14 tonnes. Mizokami, Kyle. The Army Can’t Figure Out What To Do With the Ripsaw “Tank”. Popular Mechanics. 22 Mar 2017
  10. Kilcullen, David. 72.
  11. McFate 46.
  12. Kilcullen, David. The Dragons And The Snakes: 230.
  13. Kilcullen, 100-105.
  14. Lind, William S and Lt Col G A Thiele. 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Finland: Castalia House, 2015.  44.
  15. Kilcullen, 106
  16. This is one of McFate’s central arguments.
  17. Lind, 41.

Related posts

Dunkirk: Leadership Lessons in a Hard School

Andy Johnson

A battlegroup commander’s perspective on battlegroup operations

William Wells

Operational Art Reborn – Part Two

Chris Hughes

Leave a Comment