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Culture: addressing Apathy and Dishonesty within the British Army.

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Last year I wrote a Wavell Room article titled ‘A Culture of apathy and dishonesty within the British Army’.1 It was met with mixed reviews, whilst it generated significant debate about our ‘language of change’ others dismissed the entire piece as yet another ‘rage-post’.  It was great to see that the key points resonated with so many however, the debate about what can be done to address these issues was less clear nor as energetic as I had hoped.

Last year’s article made three key points. Firstly, our language is not clear enough. Often people in Defence use words incorrectly, we link buzzwords as though it’s a skill set, or we are so ambiguous with our use of prose that they are meaningless to those trying to act on them.  Secondly, we fail to both take the time to appreciate the problem thoroughly and rank activity above an ability to clearly articulate what the problem is.  Even Handforth Parish Council would be impressed by the British Army’s ability to miss the point, although our ability to set up another Working Group or Sub-committee is probably on a par! And, finally, we have a ‘say-do-gap’.  The combination of issue one and two means that we neither really know what we are trying to do or understand how we might best go about it. We cannot on one hand espouse that something is important and then neither hold people to account for not delivering on it, or at least question why we’ve been unable to deliver on something that we readily say is a priority.  It is within this context that I think the Army has a cultural problem. It struggles to be both clear on what it wants, fails to deliver on these often obscure – arguably deliberately so – ambitions and then repeats this process on a 5- or 10-year cycle depending on the Government of the day.

This piece focuses on the ‘say-do-gap’ – what it means, why it’s an issue and what we can do about it. It will be a challenging and uncomfortable read for many. It covers how the lack of accountability and purpose of our senior leadership cultivates this ‘Say-do-gap’, but ultimately concludes that it is a problem that all of us contribute to in one way or another.

The ‘say-do-gap’ – Accountability.

In 2007 a US Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, wrote the infamous article A failure in Generalship.  Yingling made the pointed remark, ‘As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war’. 2 He went on to make it clear that failure in Iraq was ‘not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps.’ 3 This, in many ways, is what I was referring to when stating that the British Army has a cultural problem which is unintentionally encouraged and propagated by our General Staff.

The General Staff of the British Army are more likely to beheld accountable for inappropriate relationships, dishonourable conduct, or the dubious interpretation of education allowances, than they are for failure in their actual jobs – that of leading the British Army at home and abroad today and preparing for ‘tomorrow’.  The British Army now echoes the position the US Army found itself in prior to the Vietnam war, were promotion to the General Staff was ‘akin to winning a tenured professorship, liable to be removed not for professional failure but only for embarrassing one’s institution with moral lapses’.4

We must be brutally honest with ourselves that the mess we find ourselves in now is due, in part, to some staggeringly poor and short sighted decisions over the past 3 decades.  Failure on some operations, failure to recruit, and failure to equip our Army is but the tip of a long list of issues.  Has anyone been held accountable? You could suggest that some of these haven’t promoted further…but many have, and the ability to hold ourselves accountable is a key issue.

Accountability is not about blame and punishment. It is, and always should be, about acceptance and learning.  The verbal ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’ of our senior leadership by Simon Akam in his recent book, The Changing of the Guard, is uncomfortable, but deserved.  Defence’s unwillingness to engage with this book’s key arguments and to shrug it off says everything we need to know about our culture of accountability.  I have no issue with those who have made mistakes continuing to serve, we must be allowed to make mistakes, but only if we are prepared to reflect, understand and improve.  If you were to read the list of awards and promotions given out to the senior leadership of the British Army during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts you could be forgiven for misunderstanding that these conflicts were a resounding success. These conflicts are stains on our collective history, both as a nation and as an Armed Force; they are examples of getting it wrong over and over again and should be treated as such.  They hold a host of lessons that we should use to educate and inform but, as it stands, young soldiers and officers are more likely to understand the challenges of fighting in the bocage of Normandy, or how D-Day was planned, than to have a true appreciation of the tactical and strategic failures of Iraq and Afghanistan.5

Just imagine for a moment that you worked for a multi-billion pound organisation that employed thousands of people, one that was tasked with equipping an Army. And then imagine that a report was published that explained a ‘woeful story of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude’. A report that not only recommended senior management change, citing their poor accountability, but critically the inability to deliver on their core programmes for over 20 years! I offer this as a stop gap – it’s not clear if the Army and wider MOD is going to implement or even consider any of the recommendations from the House of Commons Defence Committee report into the British Army’s Armoured Vehicle Capability. However, if the Secretary of State for Defence’s comments on the report, scoring it as a ‘1 out of 10’ , are anything to go by the key message has already been misunderstood.  Now, this report isn’t perfect, it largely ignores the issues generated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and doesn’t explore the central issue in our procurement failings, which, as highlighted by the National Audit Office are that year after year the MOD’s equipment plan remains unaffordable. It is this bizarre approach to failure, supported by the Secretary of State for Defence, which encourages us to avoid and ignore key issues and avoid any resemblance of accountability with the Army and MOD.  The Integrated Review is a breath of fresh air in so much that it is at least offering funded resources and critically direction, but if the organisation is simply unable to deliver, as it has demonstrated for 20 years, what gives?

Results and accountability remain some of the core tenants for many high performing teams, we even recognise and talk about it at the tactical and unit level.  We have to break this link that accountability is purely a negative term.  It is a central part to any high performing team.  Previously I have been involved in a removal from post situation. It was emotional and uncomfortable, but only briefly.  It wasn’t about competence in its simplest form either – more that an individual’s approach didn’t fit a particular scenario and situation. It was handled swiftly and, with hind-sight, I think all will agree it was the best for the organisation and for the individuals.  Holding people to account when they have failed, and having the flexibility to remove people when they are unsuitable should not only be used for moral lapses, it is a management tool that allows course corrections and true reflection to occur. It should be used more often, at all ranks and grades.

The ‘say-do-gap’. Start with why?

 In recent years there has been an exponential increase in non-state armed groups.6 This, combined with the military modernisation by both Russia and China should offer a sound basis for presenting a coherent argument for the utility of a UK’s land force. 7 Why is it then that we routinely manage to generate a narrative that is incoherent and unrealistic?

The Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper has been published and, let’s be honest, it is not good news for the British Army.  We are being forced to accept the idea, which has never in history been proved, that we can do more with less and technology will solve it for us.  Brigadier John Clark may claim that ‘emerging technology has enabled smaller forces to deliver the same, if not greater, effects on the battlefield’ but this technological determinism is not supported outside of niche historical examples and pinning a strategy to this claim is fundamentally bizarre. 8  This review is not just a public admonishment for the Army, it is a clear articulation that the Government does not trust us to deliver on our core outputs. Nor does it believe that we as an organisation has the mental agility or culture to adapt for the threats of the future – and, of course, they are right.  We will, almost certainly, ignore this issue.

The Army will spin itself into a frenzy in order to react and deliver on the outcomes of the Integrated Review and Command Paper and, in the process, ignore the question of why.  Why have we continued to generate light infantry units when we have little to no air defence capabilities, or lack the key enablers to deliver on core outputs? Why have we continued to spend money maintaining an armoured vehicle fleet when we have no means of getting them to the battlefields we talk about? Why is the Guards division full of single Battalion regiments when most of the infantry has been forced to amalgamate? The list of questionable decision making is dauntingly long and the lack of critical thinking and poor decision-making runs like a cancer through the British Army’s core narrative.  The British Army is currently an organisation where change has to be forced and directed upon it – quite simply it does not have the culture where well reasoned and critical debate can occur, allowing clear and coherent thinking and decision making to follow. We may have direction that ‘reasonable challenge’ is acceptable, but until our leadership ‘recognise that challenge isn’t about them personally’ we will continue to ride the ‘peak bulls**t’ wave that exemplifies group think and poor decision making.  What J.F.C Fuller described as ‘moral cement’ in the 1930s, or to use that modern phrase, an ability to ‘grasp the nettle’ appears to be significantly lacking in this organisation when tackling critical issues.9

The Army has made a considerable effort to increase its ability to think critically about the challenges it faces. It sends more service personnel to work in industry, think-tanks and wider academia than the other single services combined but this has not, as of yet, resulted in more coherent and realistic decision making within the British Army. And, of course, we should not presume that the narrative surrounding the Royal Air Force’s or the Royal Navy’s ambition is based on sound logic.  Anyone with a basic understanding of the current or future threats in the Air or Sea domains will appreciate that there are substantial caveats surrounding what the F35 or the Carrier Strike Group can deliver in all but the most benign environments but, in many ways, that doesn’t matter.10 11  The UK Government’s willingness to demonstrate military effects at range, or its willingness to demonstrate a presence across the globe means that the Royal Air Force’s and Royal Navy’s core narrative is supporting the Government’s aspirational approach of Global Britain and they are, by default, more useful.12  Madeline Moon has recently stated there are many good news stories across Defence, but we are simply not very good at highlighting them, or explaining what our core narrative is or why it is important.13

It is yet to be seen if the ‘boots and bots’ approach with a forward deployed Army will make any difference.14 Going forward we must be clear what the British tax payer gets for their money.  An armoured fighting division of 10,000 to 15,000 from an Army of circa 75,000 soldiers is simply not good enough. We must start to be clearer on our aims – senior leaders espousing ‘modernisation’ and ‘innovation’ but never articulating to what ends should be called out for what it is – incoherent and unrealistic direction, guarded by platitudes of change.  We must begin to articulate clear targets. The first human-machine team platoon on operations, or the first company group augmented with autonomous weapons platforms operating under an umbrella of an integrated drone swarm are examples, but the endless articulating of ‘improvement’ and ‘change’ as an action in itself will continue to deliver little in the way of meaningful improvements. General Sanders’ recent comment that ‘A soldier on the battlefield will be able to instantly draw on space-based surveillance, cyber defences and sensors, to craft the precise response needed’ is a start, but until we are willing to articulate a timeline, allocate resources and start holding people and our processes to account, this target will become yet another obscure proposition never realised.

The ‘say-do-gap’ – It’s your problem too!

Whilst it is easy to blame the leaders of an organisation like the Army, they do have overall ‘responsibility’, the issues I have discussed are cultural problems, which means it’s your issue too.  I have not stated anything new in either article that has not been said before, however I am acutely aware that the actions of all of us are contributing to this problem.  Working harder not smarter, over grading on reports, putting your regiment, sub unit or platoon ahead of the Army’s needs; there are countless examples of us all contributing to this problem that we so readily talk about.  We should all reflect if the routine decisions and actions we take are actually that of a progressive and clear-thinking organisation or one that is stuck in the past and destined not to change.

To conclude…

 The next few months and years will be a period of significant change for the British Army.  Some of you will be making decisions that will disband units and you may be asked to make difficult choices that will affect people for generations.  It is a perfect opportunity for us to demonstrate that we are, as an Army, more considered and measured than before. Never has the glib phrase ‘the needs of the Army come first followed closely by those of the individual’ been more applicable.  We cannot, once again, allow the future of the British Army to descend into largely irrelevant conversations about traditions and uniform at the expense of delivering on core outputs. I don’t believe it is all bad. The British Army is intellectually in a better place than the other services but we must be better at the ‘so-what’ and crucially, the ‘why’.  To ignore the reason why we do this will be to generate another Army not fit for purpose such as the one we work in today.  If we want to keep telling the world that this Army is made up of the best type of people, let’s start acting like it.

James Burton

Non de plume. Fanboy of the real James Burton, author of the Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard - played by Cary Elwes in HBO's 1998 production The Pentagon Wars. 

Footnotes

  1. James Burton, ‘A culture of apathy and dishonesty within the British Army’, The Wavell Rooms, 9 Dec 2020, Accessed 7 Feb – https://wavellroom.com/2020/12/09/cultural-apathy-and-dishonesty-within-the-british-army-say-do-gap/
  2. Lt Col Paul Yingling. The Armed Forces Journal, May 1 2007. Accessed 21 Feb 2021.  http://armedforcesjournal.com/a-failure-in-generalship/ 
  3. Ibid
  4. Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals, American Military Command from WW2 to today’, Penguin Books
    Oct 29, 2013
  5. Currently the PME of the British Officer Corp is likely to include numerous trips and Battlefield Studies (RMAS & ISCS(L) or study sessions on D-Day and the Battle for France.
  6. The Armed Conflict Survey 2020. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, p14.
  7. The Military Balance 2019. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, p6.
  8. ‘Dozens of tanks to be scrapped in ‘redesign’ for army of the future’ The Times, 24 Feb 2021,
  9. JFC Fuller, Generalship.It’s Diseases and Their Cure. Faber & Faber Ltd:UK, Sep 1932
  10. Justin Bronk, ‘Integrating Typhoon and F-35: The Key to Future British Air Power’ RUSI Defence Systems, 9 September 2014
  11. Paul Kennard, ‘Does Britannia Rule the Waves Again? U.K. Carrier Strike Group Declared Operational’, Forbes, 19 Jan 2021. Accessed 28 Feb 21.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulkennard/2021/01/19/does-britannia-rule-the-waves-again–uk-carrier-strike-group-declared-operational/?sh=503e27fa11b2 
  12. Robin Niblett, Global Britain, Global Broker, Chatham House, 11 Jan 2021, Access 27 Feb 2021. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/01/global-britain-global-broker 
  13. RUSI Western Way of Warfare, Episode 7, Series 2, ‘Rose Roth, language and youth’ Guest Speaker Madeline Moon.
  14. Lucy Fisher, Soldiers and machines join an army of ‘boots and bots’, The Times, 30 Sep 2020 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/soldiers-and-machines-join-an-army-of-boots-and-bots-mkwz9l2dt 

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