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The Soft Power Army of the 2020s

MOD psychologists have discovered that pausing and taking time to think will increase our cognitive performance in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) operating environment. Taking time, making space and thinking appears to be a under-utilised skill in MOD (see Wavell Room 18 Feb 2020).

Whilst we ponder on a new decade that hasn’t started too well it is worth remembering that we were supposed to be considering a “huge technological upgrade of security forces to keep Britain safe”,1 expanding our global horizons and reinforcing our national mission as a force for good in the world as part of the government’s new post-Brexit #GlobalBritain. 2  Traditionalists were all poised to make their case for the latest ‘hard’ power capabilities – bigger guns, 3 faster missiles 4 and HM treasury was all set to baulk at the cost.   

Maybe it was fortuitous that the review was paused because the global geopolitics theatre has now changed significantly.  With all the global chaos underway, macro-political moves are now being played around the world – a redrawing of the world order is underway, new friends are being courted, good friends being welcomed and bad friends being exposed.  It’s also notable that all near-peer adversaries have very publicly communicated their intention to do good during this time and not take advantage of the situation.  Concurrently they all executing non-linear shadowy5 campaigns where commerce, influence 6 and information. 7 The Diplomat are their fielded weapons and global networks are the battlefields.8 

So, with the biggest threat to our nation now being recalculated to including pandemics,9 influence campaigns and cyber-attacks (leading ultimately to a loss of faith in our rules-based neoliberal democracy,10 is upgrading our land forces with traditional ‘hard’ military equipment and organising the Army to better fight a kinetic war relevant in a post-corona #GlobalBritain?  

“The battlefield is rapidly changing … the emergence of these disruptive technologies is so prevalent and rapid that what we need now an urgent reappraisal of how, with what, and by whom, war is waged in the future … The British military must update itself or risk becoming irrelevant” 

General Mark Carleton-Smith, CGS (4 Jun 2019) 11

In this rapidly changing battlefield,12 defence continues to grapple with this challenge.  Little did CGS know when he spoke the above words just nine months ago, that the first ‘war’ he was to wage in the 2020s, would be for relevancy in a fight against a virulent biological enemy.  The foreign office is also grappling with what it sees as being relevant and what #GlobalBritain will be in the next decade; what will UK’s foreign policy objectives be in the 2020s post-Brexit and now post-corona era; where do we see Britain’s global position in the next decade? 

The concept of traditional war, a lethal competition for domination between states with a clear victor and vanquished are now even more outdated and irrelevant.  In the current and forthcoming grey, political and influence wars of the 2020s, maybe it is an ontological or political victory we seek, ‘victory’ being defined as being the leader in ‘international influence’. 13 Deployment of ‘soft’ influence capabilities to achieve the political goals of #GlobalBritain should be the remit of a new ‘soft’ power Army. 

“China … sees potential political rewards, the big one is enhancing its power abroad. President Xi Jinping said his country would become a global leader by mid-century in terms of ‘international influence’. That goal is now evident in China’s descriptions of how the world should evolve in response to covid.”  

The Economist (18 Apr 2020)

Return to Political Warfare

“There is a growing academic consensus that the idea of ‘political warfare’ has returned” General Carter’s annual address to RUSI (5 Dec 2019)

A Royal Marine officer offering ‘soft’ words of encouragement to Mali Army soldiers under training (Wavell Room) A British ‘soft’ power win.

Post-Brexit and now Post-Covid19, as the UK returns to its new role as an independent sovereign power, maybe it is time to return to the use of old-style ‘Political’ officers14 and a contemporary model of the lost art of Political Warfare,15 employing ‘all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives’.  Like most other neoliberal democratic nation-states, the UK state is embroiled in a fight for relevancy in a post-modern, social-medised globally-hyperconnected commercialised world.16 In this context, new more subtle influence capabilities beguilingly referred to as ‘soft’ power are increasingly becoming more relevant.  In the 2020s, if Land Forces are expected to provide these capabilities to the state, what Virtual and Human weapon systems should the Army also now have in its arsenal?  How will it operate and dominate in all these domains, concurrently and at pace?  

Operating Domains in the 2020s

Future Operating Domains from US DoD Capstone Concepts for Joint Operations

As we roll out #GlobalBritain, using the Army only for “controlled violence17 and just in the land/ physical domains, could be considered a ‘fail’ in contemporary and future politics.  Modern Britain is now a more developed and wealthy neoliberal democracy and as such will generally eschew traditional conflict to maintain its structures and global wealth.  #GlobalBritain is unlikely to ever have the will, the treasure nor the political will to repeat the “failed [interventionist] policies of the past”. 18  Winning the peace (and global trade deals) in the Virtual and Human domains is in the 2020s is the most important victory for #GlobalBritain.

Soft Power #GlobalBritain

President Xi and the Duke of Edinburgh inspecting troops from 1st battalion Grenadier Guards during the Chinese state visit to the UK.  A British ‘soft’ power win (Wavell Room).

If we are just focused on just Hard Power, we’re not going to be doing much”.

Penny Mordaunt MP speaking at Chatham House (5 Feb 2020).19

For the fifth year running, the UK is at the top of the most powerful ‘soft’ power nations in the world.20  In an increasingly globalised, connected, multi-polar world, soft power is important.21  The ability to influence through attraction rather than coercion is essential to the UK’s prosperity, safety and influence.  The UK state continues to hold many leading global soft power assets and capabilities, but the UK’s leading place in the world comes from deploying these in a coordinated, integrated strategic direction requiring a whole of government approach (Fusion Doctrine) to national strategy “as part of a national enterprise”.22  These strengths are a matter of great importance to the UK especially as it seeks to reposition itself in a ‘global’ context, post-corona.  What is to be Land Force’s contribution in this influence contest?  

UK ‘Soft’ Power Land Forces successes

Luckily British Land Forces are already very experienced and capable in Soft Power projection.  British military influence engagements are already key tenets of UK global power projection and are globally recognised at delivering tangible political effects.

An Army sergeant of the Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST) during a visit to Abbazhan School in Gereshk, Helmand. The MSST helped sink three wells and supplied books and desks for the students.  A British ‘soft’ power win.

Below are just a few other examples;

  • Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF): £1.3 billion a year used to tackle instability and prevent conflicts that threaten UK national security objectives by funding joined-up security, stability and capacity building activity in over 70 global locations.23
  • Professionalism, warfare and statecraft: Providing an example of how a modern military operates within domestic and international law e.g. defence engagement in Myanmar, assisting in the reorientation from a military state to the military as an instrument of the state.24
Royal Logistic Corps soldiers providing assistance to the NHS during the Corona pandemic.  A British ‘soft’ power win.
  • Support to relief operations:  After natural disasters in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Caribbean, but also at home providing military assistance to civil authorities (MACA) during devastating floods, and now the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Foreign Officer Training: Officer training academies at Dartmouth, Lympstone, Sandhurst and Cranwell which between them boast more than 30 international alumni currently serving as Chiefs of Defence or Service Chiefs, with international civilian alumni having served as Heads of State or Ministers. 25

But neither soft power nor hand power alone provides the optimum solution. The knitting together or fusion of “all of the means at a nation’s command into smart power”26 is what will deliver future UK political objectives.  

‘Smart Power’ Land Forces in the 2020s

So, what could all this mean for Land Forces in the 2020s?

1. Influence Operations as the main effort: Kinetic capabilities as support.  

“We conduct all operations in order to influence people and events, to bring about change, whether by 155mm artillery shells or hosting visits: these are all influence operations. We sought to make use of every lever we had to influence events.” Major General Graham Binns, GOC 1st (UK) Armoured Division, Op TELIC

Firstly, future defence strategy could see the government pivot towards Influence Operations being increasingly executed with the objective being to deliver Intellectual and Information superiority.  This would require the deployment and dominance of battlespace with new weapon systems such as InfoOps, PsyOps, MediaOps, Cyber, Lawfare and the other ‘new methods of warfare’.27  Traditional kinetic capabilities may increasingly form a subservient but niche supporting role to these ‘softer’ influencing activities.  

2. Lean and Mean kinetic support.  Short, sharp, fast lethality, anywhere, anytime.

“Lying offshore, ready to act, the presence of ships and Marines sometimes means much more than just having airpower or ship’s fire, when it comes to deterring a crisis. The ships and Marines may not have to do anything but lie offshore.” General Colin Powell

Secondly, the debate about future heavy metal platforms misses the influence point.  What is the effect are these platforms to deliver in the 2020s?  How will these help politicians and diplomats achieve #GlobalBritain?  In the Influence wars of the 2020s, the capability requirement will most likely be a threat, the fear of a short, sharp sting of a supple rattan on demand (an influence multiplier), not a heavy, expensive tank division applied six months after it was needed.   Similar to the US Stryker brigade concept, the development of UK Strike Brigades based on the AJAX and BOXER vehicles could quickly provide this hard influence toolset for politicians – deep, agile and rapidly delivered, when and where it is needed and with enough lethality to achieve a decisive effect.

3. Strategic investment in brains, not metal. 

Continuous investment in the education of all ranks.  A British ‘soft’ power win

We require a very different approach to training and education, recognising that we all need to upskill, whatever our rank, age or experience.” 

Major General Copinger-Symes, Director of Military Digitisation, UK Strategic Command28

Thirdly, it is essential that we invest in the STEM skills of our soldiers, provide full technical career paths, and exercise the cognitive (and political) abilities of all those in uniform.  There is a need to deeply study politicians and diplomats, to discover their pain points and understand their political objectives.  There is also a need to develop divergent and critical thinking skills, to create a digitally articulate and confident Army, able to meet the expectations of the first ‘digitally native’ generation.29  As we go forward, Land Forces will need to pitch creative, innovative solutions (lean and mean) that can deliver political objectives at home and abroad.   

4. Virtual War. 

The Defence Cyber School at the Defence Academy addresses specialist skills and wider education in line with National Cyber Security Strategy objective.  A British ‘soft’ power win

“For the changing character of war in the information age will require military forces that recognize seizing or controlling terrain is: · secondary to protecting innocent lives, and that · capturing perceptions is the new “high ground” in today’s conflicts, as the moral is to the material as three is to one…”  

US General Mattis, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation 7 July 2009

It is correct to acknowledge that there is a neophile fascination with some innovations in defence which are ‘more influenced by science fiction than empirical design’.30  It is correct to trial these, then fail them fast it provides no utility.  But most new technologies are neutral, the problem is that we are fumbling about trying to find ways to use them, thinking with yesterday’s logic31 and ‘we are bad at imagining new ways of doing better things’. 32  These advanced capabilities are essential to delivering to commanders InfoOps, audience engagement in the digital war amongst the people33 and cognitive support systems to dominate the vital ground of the minds of the virtually connected combatants.  This is not presentist nonsense,34 just laziness in creative and critical thinking.  With strategic investment in brains – not metal, the cognitive capability of the whole force increases.


Members of the First Kandak, at their graduation parade from the Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA) the British-mentored officer academy, situated outside Kabul, Afghanistan.  A British ‘soft’ power win

Change is scary, risky and disruptive.  In our dominant risk-averse culture many amongst us will advocate ‘entrenchment’, the steady safe option – “don’t rock the boat sir”.  The other road less travelled is only for the brave, the visionary and those capable of dealing with new technologies, uncertainty and chaos – and at pace.  Hopefully, it will does not require a Pearl Harbour style cataclysmic event to convince all that this change is needed (Prophetic words when I wrote the draft of this essay in Feb 2020). 

As Sun Tzu teaches us “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle” so the future Land Forces may need to use more brain and less brawn – a more intellectual test of cerebral fitness is required else we risk being the heaviest armed but least relevant.  Maybe the future is less Armour and more MBAs, fewer guns and a lot more MScs, maybe even an odd PhD or Doctorate.  Also important is integration and symbiosis with the UK Defense industry – £14Bn 35 of annual export sales supports a lot of UK R&D, a lot of UK jobs, votes and most importantly for the politicians, a lot of UK tax take.  


The future for Land Forces is very positive, provided it is viewed through a 2030 global political lens.  This perspective sees an agile Army dynamically providing a range of modern dynamic capabilities to a globally focused #GlobalBritain.  There is a consensus that the future will also see an increased use of special forces, specialised infantry, wheeled mobility and airborne.  There is also likely to be an increased need for ‘soft’ influence operations reinforced with some rather lethal niche weapons.  Future land forces and their contemporary HQs will be a lot different, with many future combatants not wearing a traditional uniform; more pony-tailed cyber geeks, market analysts, public relations lovies, virologists and a good sprinkling of corporate lawyers – #GlobalBritain and ‘warfare’ in the 2020s is to be an odd new enterprise, but still so quintessentially British.

A British Sapper and US Specialist take a ‘selfie’ at the polar bear enclosure – A British ‘soft’ power win
Martin Crilly

Martin Crilly is the Chief Architect & Engineering Authority to BAE Systems in the Middle East, and a Reserve Signals Officer.   His background is in contempary ICT architecture, technology strategy, cyber-security, J2 and J6 with previous roles in BFC, ISS Ops Plans, GOSCC, DE&S Maritime and others.  For more information and articles on Virtual War and similar topics, ‘follow’ him on Defence Connect.


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