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The British Army has a Blackbelt in ‘Bullshito’

‘Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force’ but often misquoted as ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’

Helmut von Moltke ‘The Elder’ 1

‘Everybody has plans until they get hit,’ Often misquoted as ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’

Mike Tyson2

These two quotes are often used interchangeably.  More often than not, they introduce the Clausewitzian concept of ‘friction’ i.e. everything that could go wrong between planning and execution, including the enemy ‘getting a vote’.  Commentators will seldom, however, address the similarities between them.  How on earth did a 19th century Prussian staff officer and Brooklyn-born boxer, Iron Mike, reach the same conclusion?3  Could it be something about training?  After all, not all fighting methods are effective.  Some are tested and proven, some are not.  Combat sports use pressure testing in the form of sparring while traditional martial arts use drills to perfect form.  As an Army, are we training like a bare knuckle brawler, able to take hits and win a fight?  Or are we a Tai Chi martial artist displaying skills for a panel of judges? 

I would argue that the British Army is the latter and has a blackbelt in ‘Bullshito’.  Our training focuses on perfecting choreographed drills against predictable opponents.  It looks great in a Dojo (or on Salisbury Plain) but is unproven in combat.  The Army needs to prepare to win a fight that it did not start in conditions that it has not chosen.  This can be achieved by adopting one of the key principles of combat sports: pressure testing.

My Martial Journey

I trained in Aikido between 1998 and 2002 for an average of 5 hours a week and I reached the rank of 1st Kyu (the level before the black belt).  I learned Hung Gar kung fu between 2006 and 2009, have boxed at regimental level, and recently started training in Brazilian Jujitsu.  When I was an Aikidoka  I experienced an unprovoked attack in the street.  The complex and fancy moves I could execute perfectly in a dojo did not help me at all.  I was unable to bring any of my techniques to bear… What had happened? Had I trained hard enough? 

My Sensei told his students that they could be effective fighters once they reached 4th Dan black belt.  I believed him, I was above that and I was confident.  However, as I exchanged ideas and blows with real fighters, including former prize fighters, I realised I had been wrong.  Wrong to blindly assume that repetition and perfecting the execution of techniques would make them effective in a real combat situation.  

My Sensei knew a lot about his martial art but not much about fighting. I needed to apply critical thinking to my martial practice. I needed to shift my training goal to prevail in a fight rather than to flawlessly ‘perform’ a technique.  The same logic applies to military training. 

What is the Difference Between Martial Arts and Combat Sports?

On an effectiveness spectrum, on the lower end would be traditional martial arts such as Tai Chi, Capoeira and Aikido.  Meanwhile, Mixed Martial Arts staples, such as Brazilian Jujitsu and Muay Thai, would sit at the higher end.4  Both Aikido and Brazilian Juijitsu originate from the same martial art: Japanese Jujutsu.5  Despite this shared history, the disciplines have developed into significantly different areas.  The distinctions between them demonstrate the difference between martial arts and combat sports.

Aikido is a martial art rooted in the traditional budo and it focuses on perfectly performing complex techniques and drills.  In contrast Brazilian Juijitsu is a combat method focused on winning a fight against any opponent.  

In Japanese, the etymology of Aikido and Jujutsu highlights the differences between a martial way and martial arts.  Martial arts tend to end in ‘-do’, which roughly means “martial ‘ways’.  This implies physical means to a metaphysical end, such as well being, enlightenment, or inner peace. Meanwhile, the original ending in -jutsu meant ‘arts’ as in ‘ars, the Latin for skills, but skills born on the battlefield. 

Aikido moved its goal from self-defence and defeating/killing opponents to embodying a peaceful philosophy focusing on partner drills.  Over time, training became collaborative and more focused on form over winning.  Aikidokas are assessed on how fluidly they perform complex techniques

In contrast, whilst Brazilian Jiujitsu also evolved from a hand-to-hand fighting/killing method into a sport the goal remained winning a fight.  Brazlian Jiujistu fighters are assessed on whether they can force their opponents to submit.  Its founders, the Gracie family, set out to test their method in a  forerunner of MMA against fighters of various martial backgrounds such as Capoeira, boxing, or Luta Livre.  The Gracies assessed their methods by one metric only: did it work in submitting or knocking out opponents who actively wanted to harm them.

The Five Deadly Sins of the Fighter

A fellow former Aikidoka, Rokas Leonavičius, devoted himself to explaining the differences between martial arts and combat sports.  After sparring with an MMA fighter, he realised that traditional martial arts do not work for self-defence.  Applying critical thinking to his own martial art, and after reaching out to self-defence experts, Rokas has exposed some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between martial arts training and effectiveness:

1) Safety and Comfort

Many martial arts indulge in cooperative training rather than live sparring using safety as a justification.  Training partners take turns performing complex choreographed defence and offensive techniques.  Neither training partner wants to make the other ‘look bad’; instead they want to give their partner the emotional safety and support to correctly execute their moves.  Despite students’ knowledge and mastery of the techniques, students are not trained to cope with an actual attacker whose initial attack, and further reactions, do not fall into the range of techniques they learned to defend against.

2) Lack of Pressure Testing

By focussing on mastering a good form through repetitive drill and/or cooperative training the fighting method stops evolving and innovating.  As such it increasingly becomes irrelevant in an actual fight.  There are lessons to be learnt from taking actual hits and carrying on fighting despite the pain or learning when to tap out.  One of these lessons is humility.

3) Hubris

Traditional martial arts’ legitimacy as effective fighting methods rests on semi legendary narratives rather than history.  Masters do not question their own masters and they, in turn, are not questioned by their students.  Instead, masters in positions of authority will encourage blind belief over a critical approach or questioning of their abilities.  This reliance on authority and respect for hierarchy and traditions as the source of legitimacy undermines the learning process.6

4) Circular Justification 

Because traditional martial arts masters almost never confront other martial arts practitioners or sport fighters, they end up assuming that his/her teachings are effective.  Compliant students, who have chosen to study under a master, and who do not know any better, will believe him/her.  This will comfort and strengthen the Master’s own assumptions about their martial art.

5) Over-Specialisation 

Even live sparring only covers one situation: a one on one fight within relatively minimal rules and spatial boundaries.  It does not prepare you to deal with being ambushed, multiple opponents, some opponents being armed, or ‘friction’.  Serious self-defence classes teach people about managing risk, raising their spatial awareness, and gauging atmospherics to avoid danger in the first place.  Other preferred steps are de-escalation or flight.  As such, martial artists train for the fight they want and not the fight they will encounter.

The British Army: Brawler or Dancer?

Leonavičius’s list contains a number of conclusions that should sound familiar to military readers.  These conclusions should worry modern military professionals.

1) Safety and Comfort

Safety is paramount and takes absolute priority when training with live ammunition.  However, simulation using Simunition®, Saab’s Deployable Tactical Engagement Simulation (DTES) and integration in the Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3), can achieve ‘free sparring’ between two forces.  Personally, however, I have yet to hear of a genuinely free play exercise.  This is despite the best efforts of Project Hannibal in professionalising opposing forces for training.  It’s not uncommon to hear of ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ between opposed Commanders setting rules before exercise.  

Furthermore, both adversaries are drilled to operate the same way.  Just like martial arts, which favour cooperative training, the opposing force is often a token force that acts as a target providing limited real resistance.  The focus is on drills and form.  This does not prepare us to fight an enemy whose tactics might not fall within the range of our thoroughly drilled reactions.

2) Lack of Pressure Testing

The nature of the mock fight between training troops is not a sparring bout – it’s a display of skills designed to impress observer mentors.  Observer mentors gauge the training troops’ ability to implement doctrine through their tactics techniques and procedures.  Mentors often feed instructions to the opposing force detailing how to react ensuring adherence to doctrine over an unscripted fight.  This adherence to a linear script is the same as martial arts students performing choreographed moves to perfect form over function.  The winner is known beforehand.  

The danger here is losing sight of the possibility of defeat or failure.  Training troops miss out on the opportunities offered by failure in a safe environment.  

3) Hubris

The British Army’s definition of doctrine is ‘a set of beliefs or principles held and taught’.  The Army  adds that ‘its development can be controversial, because this is where points of view become points of principle and then authority’.  Although ‘trial on exercise’ is briefly mentioned as one of the many sources of doctrine, doctrine is not pressure tested as a whole.  The wording is self explanatory: doctrine is akin to religion rather than to science hypotheses.  There is limited  institutional will or resource to have these beliefs challenged, pressure tested, and reviewed constantly outside of routine rewrites.

4) Circular Justification

When deployed on recent COunter INsurgency (COIN) operations, the Army trained (on pre-deployment training to deal with threats from the previous year.  Our tactics, techniques and procedures were rooted in the past with opponents evolving faster.  The Army is now returning to focus on armoured manoeuvre warfare, a lost art since 2003.  Current doctrine is thus untested in combat.  Instead of testing it through training, we train to implement it as best as possible.  The Army is assessed on how it conforms to doctrinal models rather than winning the fight,  This is why training troops try their best to show how well they implement doctrine during exercise.  It encourages commanders to think that doctrine works as opposed to pressure testing doctrine in a mock fight with opposing forces that act outside the acceptable boundaries.  

5) Over-Specialisation

The focus on tactical and operational training does not prepare a deployable task force to deal with enemies that will use our political and ethical constraints against us.  The ‘greyzone’ label that we have given to these operations shows that we had been seeing war in black and white rather than a spectrum of colours.  Cyber and information warfare can, and will, be waged against us at the smallest tactical scale.  Thanks to connected devices and social media, our opponents will use the rules of war to our disadvantage.  Focusing exclusively on the delivery of doctrinally perfect kinetic effects means we are open to an enemy that is targeting our strategy, social cohesion, and infrastructure as well as our troops and materiel.


Traditional martial arts have hit conceptual pitfalls that have rendered them irrelevant and ineffective in street fights.  These conceptual pitfalls are not specific to martial arts and the British Army’s approach to training is plagued by the same shortcomings.  Like Wushu, Tai Chi, Aikido, practitioners, believe in the display of their martial prowess, not their effectiveness.  The British Army is prioritising safety and comfort over realism, cooperative training over pressure testing, infallibility of doctrine over constructive reassessment and experimentation.  It is  falling victim to circular justification and over-specialisation. 

Exercise planners and commanders of training troops should ask themselves whether they are respectively assessing and being assessed for a box ticking exercise or whether they are training to fight and win against a peer/near peer enemy.



Ryan Noordally
Ryan Noordally

Ryan is a sergeant in the Royal Artillery with ten years of experience in the Surveillance Target Acquisition branch.  Prior to this he taught history and geography in a French college in Africa.  An aikido brown belt, he is now a novice Brazilian Jujitsu enthusiast


  1. H. von Moltke, Über Strategie, 1871 collected in Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften,1890 but quoted in Militārische Werke, Berlin, Mittler & Sohn, 1900, p. 291
  2. Tyson’s challenger, Tyrell Biggs, told reporters he had a plan to beat him. Asked about it, Tyson answered with his famous quote. Los Angeles Times, 28 August 1987
  3. Parallels between combat sports/martial arts and war have their limits. “One cannot understand war if it is not defined from the onset as a collective fight, organised and methodical. (…) No one would call war, a multitude of independent brawls.” R. Caillois, Bellone ou la pente de la guerre, Paris, Flammarion, 2012
  4. Debatable but high profile fights between martial artists and MMA fighters have been mostly one-sided affairs. See Xu Xiaodong vs Chinese ‘masters’ or Jocko Willink’s podcast on self-defense.
  5. Jujutsu appeared in Japan during the Sengoku civil wars (1467-1615). It was an unarmed fighting method for dismounted Samurai who had lost or broken their weapons. It focussed on takedowns, throws, chokes, and locks because striking techniques would not work on enemies wearing armour. Jujutsu was rooted in necessity and life or death situations. It was based on empirical first-hand wartime experience. 

    Jujutsu gave birth to Aikido in the first half of the twentieth century via the Takeda clan’s Daito-ryu school of Aikijujutsu. Around the same time Brazilian Jujitsu was born from Kano Jigoro’s school of Jujutsu (before Kano overhauled it and named it ‘Judo’).

  6. The historical example of Singapore demonstrates this is not a new problem. Before 1941, British Army doctrine promulgated the blind belief that the jungle was impenetrable to friendly and enemy forces alike and that the British soldier did not need to train for it. Authority and respect for hierarchy, just like a dojo, prevented the idea from being challenged. A ‘no holds barred’ exercise with a free thinking opponent led by an unconventional commander (like Orde Wingate or Mike Calvert) would have proven how outdated or irrelevant the doctrine was before the Imperial Japanese Army managed to capture Singapore.

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