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How can the British Army anticipate a crisis as it develops to maximise speed of response?  

Editor’s note: This is the transcript of a speech delivered at Defence and Security Equipment International by Brigadier Ollie Kingsbury, the British Army Head of Warfare Development, in September 2021.  To keep the emotion and flow of the speech we have not edited it.

This is an important question, in my view: one of the two or three key questions for the Army as we evolve over the next few years. There’s a lot going on in the Army to improve, and a lot of change, and I suspect the best answers lie outside those of us serving in any of the senior positions, so any comments would be really welcome.

Before we get into the question, I’d like to offer a few definitions.

What is a crisis?

  • “An unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome”
  • “A crisis is any event or period that will lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, or all of society. Crises are negative changes in the human or environmental affairs, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning”
  • “A time of intense difficulty or danger: catastrophe, cataclysm, disaster”
  • “A specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threaten or are perceived to threaten an organisation’s high priority goals”

 I just took those definitions from the first few which popped up when I did a quick search. And I think they basically match what most of us would think of when we hear the word ‘crisis’: a pretty bleak and negative picture; something to shy away from; and something to prevent if at all possible.

 Attitude and approach

I’ll cover first the attitude and approach we should adopt in relation to these types of event, then outline some of the ways the Integrated Review sets us up, and finish with a few areas where we might need to take the next steps in our evolution.

To start with, I wonder if this negative view of crisis is a helpful way to look at it. I also came across another line.

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

I think quite a few people have used some version of this; I’ve gone with President Kennedy’s, as a man who saw a crisis or two. It’s obviously a bit trite, and I don’t mean to suggest that crises are good things to happen, but I thought it might be interesting to have a look at it through a lens where crisis is not something to worry about, from a military perspective.

I was given the title of this talk a little while back. It’s an area I’m really interested in, having spent much of my career in high readiness units, in the Parachute Regiment, and being lucky enough to complete an exchange in the 82nd Airborne Division. So it looked straight away like something I could get my teeth into: but it’s obviously been given a little extra edge with the evacuation operation we’ve all just witnessed in Afghanistan.

And in that operation in Kabul, I find quite a stark symmetry: with the UK contribution to operations in Afghanistan having two high readiness deployments, both involving 2 PARA, the battalion I commissioned into, as bookends about 20 years apart.

A personal story

If you’ll forgive a little indulgent reminiscing…

I vividly remember standing on that runway in Kabul in the moonlight in March 2002. I was the 2 PARA Patrols Platoon commander, and we were waiting for a C130 to fly us home. We were rather jealously watching a load of 3 Commando Brigade and Special Forces vehicles being unloaded for Operation JACANA. That was a short surge following up the fighting in the south around the American Operation ANACONDA, and we just had pre-deployment training for a South Armagh tour to look forward to when we got back to the UK.

But a SAS trooper told us not to worry: he said “you should treat Northern Ireland as R&R, because you’ll definitely be back in Afghanistan before long”. And of course, he was right, through Helmand and elsewhere, and then with Operation PITTING a few weeks ago.

Key points

Now for me, regimentally, 2 PARA at both ends of that is a thrilling symmetry. But it’s not only symbolic. As we build on the direction of travel we now have after the Integrated Review, I see two main points to take away.

First, we are at our best in a crisis

We’ve seen that this summer, from the decision making in the Joint Force Headquarters and PJHQ, to the planning and tactical flying in the RAF’s Air Mobility Force, to the work of the soldiers on the ground.

Crisis plays to our strengths, in particular to the resilience of the people, and to our junior leadership training. Brigadier James Martin has called it “a culture of unsolicited readiness” on his return from commanding 16 Brigade in Kabul: an attitude where ‘move now, grid reference to follow’ is not only possible but actively welcomed. Not only should we not worry about crisis, but there is real opportunity, in succeeding in a type of chaos where many would fail.

Second, surprise is always out there.

Whether you go with Kennedy’s positive view of looking for opportunity, or the darker dictionary descriptions of cataclysm and catastrophe, with a crisis there is an inherent sense of events out of control. No matter how well found our intelligence networks or our in-country engagement, we should expect surprise, and our influence may well be too marginal to head it off.

Anticipating a crisis

Because ‘anticipating a crisis’ will often not be about the careful tracking of indicators and warnings, logical political and military decision-making, planned decision points leading to graduated shortening of notice to move times, and then a smooth deployment.

Crises will often actually be because of a strategic shock, like the COVID pandemic, or where warnings existed but where people weren’t quite ready to make decisions. Some may be familiar with what is sometimes called the ‘NEO paradox’, where the best thing for a non-combatant evacuation operation is an early decision to go, but where that early decision may end up seeming to be an over-reaction, or possibly even be the trigger for an escalation; and we’ve seen some of that challenge recently, of course. Or the crisis may be both strategic shock and something where warnings existed if people had known where to look, perhaps a bit like 9/11. It will be messy, chaotic.

So if we’re good in a crisis, and if we should expect crises to develop without us in control, the critical thing in ‘anticipating a crisis’ and ‘maximising speed of response’ seems to me to be: embrace it.

Embrace it

Easy to say, of course; what does that actually entail?

In the Land Warfare Centre, our job is working out how to make the most of the Army we have on the shelf now, not about waiting for hover-tanks and invisibility cloaks, so I will emphasise the levers we can pull on in the next couple of years: our tactics and doctrine, our organisation and readiness, and our training and education.

And although in the Army we are sometimes a little prone to existential angst with a dash of self-pity – I know some of you anonymous Twitter accounts are out there – I hope to offer some reasons to be cheerful, which are already underway, and are perhaps less complex or expensive than we might fear; although they challenge our culture and institutional habits as much they do our capability.

I’ll start by highlighting a couple of the key early mover developments from the Integrated Review.

This map is from the Defence Command Paper, showing a view of how we see our forward basing developing.

And I expect many of you are aware of the extra emphasis we are putting into supporting and learning from partners, in particular through the Ranger units and the Security Force Assistance Brigade.

Those aren’t brand new ideas. The land regional hubs idea builds on the way the Land Warfare Centre collective training areas and the Permanent Joint Operating Bases are laid out now, for example. The Ranger units are growing from the Specialist Infantry Group. And you can see the existing Defence Attachés mixed in with the bases and training areas.

But they do reflect a greater forward emphasis than we’ve had for some time. To me the most important aspect is not the locations or people, but the connections and the information which flows around all the physical presence, and what that all allows. Because we can use those connections to bring training, readiness and operations together.

This photo is at our joint operating base in Cyprus, with 16 Brigade preparing to parachute into Jordan earlier this year.

That was an exercise, but synchronised with the Carrier Strike Group deployment in the Mediterranean and with air operations in the Middle East, in an area where the benefits were in reassurance and deterrence as much as training, and with our Ambassadors and other nations’ ministers involved as much as the military.

We have similar plans for different units later in the year, and we are now building our collective training around ‘spotlights’, shining down through layers of complementary joint events; and exercising recall and outload and RSOI processes to try and make every exercise feel like an operation. That gets us more bang for the buck and brings to life that forward presence, not allowing it to become a static set of training teams and training camps, but a sort of flexible mesh network.

We have similar plans for different units later in the year, and we are now building our collective training around ‘spotlights’, shining down through layers of complementary joint events

Of course, we want all that to, for example, help partner forces build their capability, and so reduce the chance of conflict or crisis. But as I outlined earlier, we should not assume that will always work perfectly. And if we build in a clear-eyed expectation that crises will take us by surprise, we can allow that living, breathing forward network of people and places and information to be the framework onto which we build our response.


So that’s fundamental, I think: an attitude of embracing the messy complexity of crisis, and exploiting the forward-based connections to set the conditions for an effective response.

What about setting up our force for that response?

We should focus above all on ruthless simplicity.

Simplicity in our thinking and our language; simplicity in our capabilities and equipment; and simplicity in our structures.

In a world where most armies often delight in complex new ideas, there is something genuinely radical and innovative in stripping our thoughts and our descriptions back to the bare bones. Both to force us to really think about what we mean, and to help us explain it to each other and to our partners: in other armies, in other services and across government and into industry.

In a world where most armies often delight in complex new ideas, there is something genuinely radical and innovative in stripping our thoughts and our descriptions back to the bare bones.

We sometimes default too easily – and journalists and engineers and businesspeople are not immune from this either – to surrounding ourselves in these thickets of impenetrable over-thinking. It’s a human thing, I think. It makes us feel clever and ahead of the rest of the room, and frankly it can preserve us from scrutiny when we are under pressure and we know we have not quite thought something through.

The ghost of Orwell

As Orwell warned us, we need to work to avoid “prose consisting less and less of words chosen for their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.

One of our jobs in the Land Warfare Centre this year is reviewing our doctrine. We are determined to simplify and shorten all of it, trying to get to something like the slim 87-page Design for Military Operations we had in 1987, from the several books we have now, covering the same subjects but filling many hundreds of pages. And we should avoid endlessly creating proper nouns which need excruciating definitions.

Simple and clear writing directly influences readiness and speed of response.

It means everyone is talking the same language, without misunderstanding or going back for clarification. Better chosen words require less explanation, and build in the freedom, and a kind of elastic resilience to our plans, which we need to react with speed and agility.

Simplicity also in our equipment programme.

I don’t own any of that, but if the Army HQ future capability teams are building the ‘bridge from the far bank’, the Field Army has a key role in describing the developing shape of the ‘bridge from the home bank’ so we can do our best to make the bridges meet in the middle.

Fitting together

And as we collectively work on the equipment programme, we should allow room for the little, apparently mundane, things which deliver speed: network access standards; common fuel and engine parts; mission configurable IT security, based on software not different machinery for different classifications; common stowage, towing hitches and lifting equipment. So we can fit it all together in different ways.

And simplicity also in our structures, so all the units can fit together easily, whether that’s a group of small teams across Africa or a larger heavy force.

I don’t speak for the requirement setters, but the I believe the companies which will be the most successful in security and defence in the future will be the ones which emphasise use of common protocols, and who can help us find ways around proprietary rights to, for example, allow the transfer of data to build a single Common Operating Picture across the forward network, between simulation on exercise in Kenya, Google Maps traffic information on roads in Estonia, an information operations specialist in Hermitage, and an intelligence analyst in Northwood.

And simplicity also in our structures, so all the units can fit together easily, whether that’s a group of small teams across Africa or a larger heavy force.

Sum of the parts

We talk a lot in the Army now about the idea of a Land Component, which we established formally in 2019. That has moved a long way beyond the language we had coming out of SDSRs in 2010 and 2015, of the Army’s main output being this single monolithic warfighting division. We now try to think of ourselves as having six equally important formations: the ARRC, the 1st, 3rd and 6th Divisions, a separate airborne brigade and a separate aviation brigade.

We could not deploy all of that at the same time, but all of it is part of the same enterprise, and we have to consider our capabilities as mutually supporting slices across that single system. That could be for something like the response to COVID, or to West Africa with the Ebola outbreak a few years ago, or to the Caribbean after a hurricane. Or it could be for something requiring a heavier capability. ‘Maximise speed of response’ needs to include an element of ‘relative to the crisis’, so I put Operation GRANBY in the Gulf in 1990-91 in the bracket of crisis response too.

We could not deploy all of that at the same time, but all of it is part of the same enterprise

And climate change, use of proxy forces and constantly increasing urban sprawls will mean all of those types of operations will be mixed together. Combat, against high end equipment and low tech IEDs and commercial autonomous systems, humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorist operations, and stabilisation operations and training teams.

Three block war is now a bit of a cliche, but we will see the almost feral small units CGS has spoken about mixed up with heavy formations, and dealing with S400s, upgraded T-72s, novichok, extended range Spike anti-tank missiles, IEDs, NEOs, wildfires and floods, and in tower blocks, underground car parks and the edges of jungles.

Task organisation

So we need to be able to task-organise quickly and simply, so as well as our crisis response being built around Global Response Force units like the 1st Aviation Brigade, we can use the rest as well.

One of the really good things coming out of the post Integrated Review work is that some of our critical enabling capabilities will be better placed. For example, we are lifting our theatre logistics brigade out of the 1st Division and into the ARRC, to position it where it can more easily focus across a range of theatre-level tasks. That improvement is particularly important I think, as effective logistics across theatres is more important as a function of operational level command than almost anything else.

And as the structures settle down, we will re-visit the Army Operating Order to reduce the rather linear approach we have historically taken to readiness, building in greater flexibility, with more front loading of some of the heavier capabilities, like artillery and logistics elements. Crucially, blurring readiness and deployments, so we are willing to adjust notice to move times as threats change, to dwell in forward locations, and to exploit our readiness as an element of deterrence.

Because what we want is a kind of perpetually shifting Land Component. Restless, even; something where you can see the muscles constantly moving under the skin.

Imagine you are poised on your toes like a rugby flanker, leaning slightly forwards, waiting to see where the ball will pop out of the ruck.

That I think is the feeling we want: embracing uncertainty and surprise, knowing we can move faster and do better in a scrap than others; and with absolute excellence in simple things to hold us steady in that position; able to spring forwards whenever and wherever the crisis happens.


Generic cartoon selfie
Ollie Kingsbury

Brigadier Ollie Kingsbury is the British Army Head of Warfare Development.  He is a Parachute Regiment officer who has also served with the US 82nd Airborne Division.


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