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#WavellReviews – “War by Others’ Means” by Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds (A RUSI paper)

Available here from RUSI

Imagine: you want your lawn mowed, but won’t – or can’t – do it yourself.  Perhaps you’re too busy, perhaps you’re self-isolating.  Enquiries around the neighbourhood yield a willing gardener.  You teach how to access your garden shed and how to use your lawnmower.  For a while, everything runs smoothly.  Your lawn is mowed admirably.  But trouble strikes as you realise your new gardener isn’t mowing as instructed; none of the lines are straight, and they’ve mowed over your carefully cultivated flowers.  Perhaps they’ve been lending your mower to others, who have been mowing unhelpful shapes into a neighbour’s lawn.  Perhaps they leave the mower running while they have their breaks, meaning the cost to you is becoming unsustainable, but the time taken to train up somebody else doesn’t seem worth it.

This, in a twee example, is the proxy problem.  States are not always able to execute their foreign policy ambitions themselves, and sometimes they are simply unwilling to.  They turn to others to “mow the lawn for them”, to use the euphemism of Peter Roberts, Head of Military Science at RUSI, describing the gamut of partner force capacity building that ranges from foreign cadets at Sandhurst to US missiles being sold to Israel.  Today, “proxies are back in fashion”.  International stability is threatened by regional conflicts that are best executed by local forces with local knowledge, but who may need a leg up from better militarily-endowed states.  The difficulty of extricating from expeditionary campaigns makes the use of deniable, ‘fire and forget’ assistance from special forces appealing to governments with an eye on their budgets.  Occasionally ‘the promise of gains across a whole force is alluring1’ so that patron states can proudly announce that their generous benefaction has improved that an entire partner force.  Sometimes, it is as simple as a quid pro quo.  Cynically, the best time to make friends is before you need them.

Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds’ paper ‘War By Others’ Means’ comes at an apposite time.  The absorption of the UK’s Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes it abundantly clear that UK international aid is a part of foreign policy.  The full release of the Integrated Review in early 2021 will set out the national interest and how all arms of government contribute to it.  RUSI is proudly independent and influential on the political scene, and sits close to the centre of UK military thinking both on Whitehall and in its staff: since July 2020, the Chair of the institute is the Rt Hon Sir David Lidington, de facto deputy to the previous Prime Minister.

‘War By Others’ Means’ deals only with how to deliver effective partner force capacity building.  It assumes of its readers that the ‘why’ is understood.  Failing states, financial instability precipitating security crises, states’ desire to intervene indirectly, all go without saying.  It tracks the process from end to end: why patrons embark upon capacity building; how partners should be selected; what training should be provided; who should deliver training; what equipment should be provided; and when training should end.  The opening assumption is that states operate to enhance their interests.  To do so, states pursue partner force capacity building for four reasons: ‘to develop a state’s military institution; to enable a partner to defeat a defined adversary; to influence a partner’s decision-making; and to mitigate the fiscal, reputational and political risks of military activity.’  The choice of partner should depend on their political legitimacy, having a shared adversary and a positive diplomatic relationship.  Potential partners should not have ‘objectives deleterious to the patron’s interests’, nor should they pose a severe risk of ‘blowback’.  Chiefly, they must accept and support the proposed changes.  Patrons should be able to supply the training required to achieve an effect, and have sufficient risk appetite not to unduly constrain the trainers.

Following an assessment of the partner’s strengths, weaknesses and needs, training should initially focus on specialist roles (snipers, anti-tanks, mortars) that, if improved, can offer significant gains to deployed units.  Institutional development should only follow once a marked uplift in partner combat power has been realised and should be culturally attuned, working to improve what is already in place rather than attempting to replace or eradicate the existing culture.  The manning of training teams should not be static.  Special forces have the right capabilities to carry out the initial assessment and build an initial standing of mutual respect.  They should introduce the more conventional forces who will deliver the main body of the training, with the operators returning periodically to renew relationships with the partners.  Conventional forces career structures preclude long-term deployment and therefore a shift to a contracted, loan service training force structure could be implemented to ensure long-term continuity.  Equipment provision should comprise lethal and non-lethal items.  A symbolic initial supply should be granted quickly to engender goodwill.  Scarcity will be accepted if balanced by regularity, in order to minimise a partner’s surplus of patron weaponry that could end up in the wrong hands.  Training should last long enough to achieve lasting change (a decade is suggested as the minimum).  When it comes to measuring effectiveness, ‘the desired end-state is unlikely’2; operations outliving their original aims should be anticipated, with regular check-ups scheduled to test and adjust operations if necessary.

Watling and Reynolds identify some deep incoherencies in modern partner force capacity building: chiefly, training up a partner’s military can jeopardise long-term stability by creating a dangerously unbalanced State, where one arm of the government holds more power and is disproportionately effective compared to others.  They are indirectly critical of policies that succumb to the soundbite temptation – “delivering training to every soldier in a foreign force” – that risk minimising the actual effectiveness of the training delivered.  Long-term thinking is posited as the answer, with operations planned over many years and consistency built in by deploying personnel who can spend several years in theatre to build useful relationships.  This is a theme that has cropped up in various avenues of modern strategic thinking, from Rory Stewart’s attitude towards short-term NGO deployments to build a government3, to recent talk in the UK of returning to ‘strategic outposts’.  Integrating several arms of government into decade-long operations in countries will be resource-intensive and may require doing less in order to do it better.  As the paper states, a clear prioritisation of a patron state’s aims is key.

The text is clear and makes its points lucidly, without the dense, technical passages that can slow down academic papers for lay readers.  For a military-focussed paper from a military-focussed think tank, there is admirable restraint when it comes to acronyms, meaning the prose reads fluidly.  It is impressively, even intimidatingly, well-read.  Footnotes often exceed half the page.  The use of ‘blowback’ as a term of reference is odd given the possible, more military-sounding replacement ‘recoil’.  While Watling and Reynolds acknowledge the danger of military-centrism in capacity building4, at times their analysis succumbs to this bias.  They assume a realist outlook on international relations that diminishes the very real ‘soft’, diplomatic gains that can be achieved, and the liberalist motivations to intervene abroad.  Militaries – and military commentators – want a clear measure of effectiveness and to demonstrate the end result initially stated in the aim; yet the intangible, unquantifiable, ‘not certain what’s gained but we’d lose out if it weren’t done’ character of influence sits uncomfortably.

Watling and Reynolds have made a valuable contribution to the current debate surrounding the articulation of Britain’s national interests, and to the wider use of partner force capacity building.  The themes they bring out – cross-governmental integration, long-term deployment and the importance of influence – are essential for understanding international relations in the 2020s.  Whether or not their recommendations come to fruition will have to wait until the new year to be revealed, however it is sure that this paper will shape the ideas contributing to the Integrated Review.

Junior Officer in the Royal Artillery at Royal Artillery

Will is a serving officer in the Royal Regiment of Artillery


  1. War by Others’ Means, p55
  2. ‘War by Others’ Means’ p79
  3. Rory Stewart, ‘The Places in Between’ (London: Picador, 2005) pp. 273-4
  4. War by Others’ Means, p100

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