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In September 2020 the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) launched The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOpC). IOpC set a blueprint for operations and presented four sub functions: protecting the base, engaging with partners and opponents, constraining activity, and, if necessary, fighting. These themes work symbiotically with a blurring between them. Introducing the new concept, General David Petraeus described it as an ‘important juncture for UK defence’ and a ‘new approach’… a fundamental change in the conduct of operations. However, the concept did not receive a universally positive reception. One blogger, Sir Humphrey, described it as being ‘long on buzzwords [and] short on evidenced examples’. He questioned how it changed the reality of operations today compared to historical campaigns. Michael Clarke urged commentators to hold IOpC against the outcome of the Integrated Review and not to judge it until resources were confirmed. Beyond these views there has been little public analysis about it and the evidence base underpinning it is not yet developed.
This article is an opinion piece and does not aim to provide a watertight analysis of the concept, rather, it aims to provoke debate about its utility and how it should be developed. Firstly, it questions if IOpC is a strategic or operational concept and argues that it is the best definition of operational art that UK Defence has. Secondly, it argues that the MOD must make a positive case for cross-Government support and look to make IOpC a national doctrine. The article discusses the value of IOpC against national fusion doctrine. Thirdly, it suggests that the UK should retire traditional deterrence theory and replace it entirely with IOpC by 2025. Lastly, this article looks at the component parts of IOpC to suggest ways in which it could be developed.
Is IOpC strategic or operational?
As a concept, IOpC merges the boundary between the strategic and operational levels and challenges how we view ‘war’ as defined in current defence doctrine. The doctrinal definition of strategic is ‘goals usually require[ing] a combination of military force, diplomacy and economic measures’ and is likely what the MOD had in mind with its release. When introducing the concept, CDS made specific references to Chinese ‘unrestricted warfare’ showing it is underpinned by a strategic frame of reference. The Defence Concept and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) also noted in January 2021 that commanders ‘at all levels’, including the strategic, would need to ‘routinely’ follow it. On the other hand, many of the themes included in IOpC are operational, defined as the level at which activity is ‘planned [and] conducted’. CDS spoke at length about individual campaigns and IOpC contains limited detail about how they form a coherent whole suggesting it is operational. This is closer to the ‘enhanced joint action’ model presented by DCDC in 2017 in that it finds efficiency in the delivery of effect rather than thinking or acting strategically. IOpC, then, spans both the strategic and the operational and could have utility at both levels. It may be that merging the strategic and the operational is essential given the changing character of warfare.
The middle ground in this discussion is that IOpC is an extension of ‘operational art’ with elements of both strategy and operational levels of thought intertwined. The concept of operational art is defined by the British Army ‘as the employment of forces to attain strategic and/or operational objectives’, but it is not used by Defence and not recognised across wider Government. There is a risk that IOpC will shrink the conceptual space available for strategic thought by overly focusing on the ‘ways’ and ‘means’ available over the ‘ends’ demanded. Lawrence Freedman notes that ‘strategy is more than a plan’ suggesting that national decision makers should be more concerned with outcomes than IOpC is.1 That the UK national security objectives are only loose statements of unachievable outcomes shows that strategic direction is already generalist and does not provide clear ‘ends’. In contrast, IOpC is shaped in the delivery of campaigns over national objectives. Michael Clarke noted strategy must be ‘feasible’ and therefore more accurately consider the tools available. In many ways, this is a more realistic way of creating strategy in that it only plans within the bounds of what can be achieved. Yet, without clearer ‘ends’ IOpC risks making activity the objective undermining the purpose of strategy. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that IOpC bends the traditional definition of strategic too far into the operational, reducing the importance of strategic thinking.
The MOD must stop talking to itself
If IOpC is not adopted as a national doctrine and remains a defence concept then its utility will be undermined. The MOD must expand the conversation about IOpC and engage cross-Government to convince others of its utility to be effective. There is little public evidence that IOpC has been accepted by wider Government or seen as anything other than an exclusively MOD concept. That no other Government department was involved with its launch suggests that the MOD is talking to itself despite highlighting the importance of others. This line of argument is in common with other doctrines and notably national fusion doctrine. Fusion doctrine aimed to ‘strengthen’ the collective approach and create more ‘accountability’ under the National Security Council. Theoretically, IOpC sits under fusion doctrine and forms one of its component parts. However, the intent of both doctrines is the same. IOpC reinvents fusion doctrine by aligning national resources to problems and we should critically question why both are needed. IOpC is better in that it has updated the concepts of fusion doctrine but also recognised greater variance in the character of the challenges faced and the need for persistent competition. Yet, there is a feeling of ‘concept fatigue’ across Whitehall with departments focused on delivering their own activity creating a dependency on the Cabinet Office and National Security Council formulating operational responses. This suggests that, like the MOD, other Government departments act in isolation creating multiple operating models devoting the minimum resource to cooperation. One Parliamentary report in 2019 noted fusion doctrine’s ‘efforts to integrate… across Government will continue to be hindered by the fundamental challenges facing UK defence’ suggesting it is not as deeply embedded as many believe. To counter this, the MOD must raise its horizons and sell the IOpC to wider Government with the aim of making it a national doctrine by 2025 to meet future security challenges.
This critique must be held in balance against a range of other factors. In September 2020 the UK was dealing with COVID and multiple health, economic, and political problems fixing the attention of other departments. Yet such problems all have national security elements. For example, countering disinformation played a key role in the Government’s response, but there appears to have been little consideration of the national security angle suggesting a siloed approach. This is further evidence of the need to review and potentially replace fusion doctrine with IOpC well placed to become a national operating model. The appointment of former MOD Permanent Secretary, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, as the National Security Advisor is an opportunity to start the discussions needed to embed the concept. Whilst Lovegrove will be faced with a range of challenging problems when he takes up the position, the most critical is determining how the nation wishes to operate and finding ways to align Government effort. If the MOD cannot exploit this opportunity to embed the IOpC then it is likely to become another forgotten concept.
Let’s retire traditional deterrence theory
IOpC opens by stating ‘we need a new model for deterrence that takes into account the need to compete’ implying that traditional deterrence theories do not sufficiently engage with the character of conflict. The MOD should consider retiring its traditional deterrence doctrine and replacing it entirely with IOpC by 2025. If this was not possible then subordinating deterrence theory to IOpC would allow an expanded frame of reference. In many ways, IOpC is similar to deterrence doctrine in that it recognises the need to impose costs on an opponent. Yet, deterrence doctrine maintains a distinction between imposing costs and pre-emptive use of coercive activity which is not considered part of deterrence. In contrast, IOpC introduces ‘constraining’ activity in which ‘combat operations’ may be included allowing a far more assertive posture creating both strategic and operational level freedoms. Traditional theory is also focused on deterring sovereign states over non-state actors or behaviours. The UK should no longer seek, for example, to deter ‘Russia’, as a Westphalian nation state, rather, to prevent certain behaviours threatening UK interests. It is easy to identify specific behaviours that the UK wishes to change across the spectrum of security enabling a more flexible approach than allowed for within deterrence doctrine. Given the global nature of security problems, identified in Future Operating Environment 2035, the UK must accept that there may be competition in one area but cooperation in others requiring the more flexible intellectual baseline presented by IOpC. From a military perspective, deterrence has been moving this way since the NATO Wales summit in 2014 (see e.g. Enhanced Forward Presence and NATO VJTF(L)). The utility of this is beyond the narrow scope of direct military benefit and post BREXIT Britain should exploit the full potential of its national resource. As such, retiring deterrence doctrine and moving fully into IOpC’s view of the continuum of conflict, or competition, is a better model for the UK to adopt.
How can we take IOpC further?
The protect component of IOpC is defined as the ‘enduring foundation to operate’ but the concept focuses on nuclear deterrence and infrastructure. This does not consider the protection of less tangible components of force such as morale and leadership. To give an historical example, a July 1942 board of inquiry report found a ‘notable demoralising effect’ when soldiers did not have full confidence in their equipment.2 This negative impact will be similar in any future deployment with only 36% of personnel surveyed in 2020 having full confidence in their equipment. Another described being part of a ‘system which is failing’ suggesting that the moral component can be exploited by our opponents and needs greater protection. This must go beyond the military realm and also consider the potential risks to the UK public from our opponents and how the state should protect UK society. Russian disinformation attacks against the US Presidential elections show this poses a strategic risk. The protect phase of IOpC should be expanded to consider these elements.
Secondly, the engage phase needs a bold expansion to better incorporate all of Government. IOpC introduces ‘engage’ as a posture of international networks and strategic hubs from which to project force. The aim of this is to create relationships and generate understanding. This role should be shared across the functions of Government but IOpC is focused on the military component. We must question how international trade policy, for example, aids the nation when engaging with opponents and align it with other activity. The British Army has tried something similar in recent history with defence engagement doctrine and regionally aligned brigades. The Army’s attempt ended in uncoordinated action with little purpose; engagement activity became the endstate because of a lack of strategic direction. IOpC should exploit elements of best practice from the Army’s experience. The doctrine called for better use of data in identifying and measuring outcomes yet IOpC does not adopt a similar approach. Across Defence there are other examples of using data to measure the military contribution that could be copied. The engage component must, therefore, be expanded from its military objectives and be coordinated by the National Security Council. If this does not happen then there is a risk that activity becomes the end state undermining purpose.
Thirdly, the engage and constrain elements risk becoming merged and a clear distinction should be made between which parts of activity are engaging with allies and which are aimed at constraining an opponent. For example, the deployment of the Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific region in 2021 is principally aimed at engagement with international partners. Yet, there is a strategic risk of miscalculation if our intent is misjudged. David Kilcullen argues that states such as Russia and China already consider themselves at ‘war’ and view our activity differently to us; they view it as ‘war’ and not as ‘competition’ as defined in IOpC suggesting they have lower thresholds for response.3 IOpC must be wary of mirroring our opponents’ reaction onto our conceptual frameworks and guard against our own cognitive biases. During the Cold War the UK largely only considered one opponent, the Soviet Union. Even when there was only one opponent to understand there was still considerable scope for escalation through misunderstanding demonstrated by the near nuclear war started by Exercise Able Archer. The exercise was designed to ‘engage’ with allies but unknowingly raised the threshold of risk. Today, the UK is faced with a myriad of different and less simple threats to counter. Whilst IOpC wishes to be symbiotic this presents a challenge to judging strategic risk. Engage and constrain should be kept as separate concepts and activity must be judged against the two lenses separately to more accurately assess risk.
This article has not attempted to provide a full analysis of the concept. IOpC is a fundamental change to UK thinking about national security problems, but it needs to develop to be successful by 2025. A whole of Government approach, and mindset, is needed to make it work. This article has questioned if IOpC is a strategic or operational concept and concluded that it is an articulation of ‘operational art’ that the state should adopt. To do this, the MOD must stop talking to itself and increase its engagement activity with the rest of Government to gain acceptance and buy-in. There are also questions about the utility of traditional deterrence doctrine in light of the changes that IOpC promises. To reach its full potential it must be exploited by the UK Government through the National Security Council. This is an opportunity for the MOD to sell the value of its thinking and align security responses to a doctrine of its design. If the MOD does not do this then IOpC is likely to fade away and become another failed concept.
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.