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RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2023 – a Wavell Room read out.

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Annually, RUSI – the world’s oldest military think tank – hosts the Land Warfare Conference (LWC) in London, on behalf of the British Army. 2022’s conference focused on mission readiness and technological transformation but, in response to the war in Ukraine the Chief of the General Staff delivered a call to arms, titled Op MOBILISE, which outlined an ambitious plan to refocus the British Army on deterring Russian aggression.

2023, and the war in Ukraine is still raging. It is perhaps not surprising that this year’s conference theme was Mobilising Today to Secure Tomorrow. In recent years many have approached the RUSI LWC with significant doubts and question marks over the British Army’s future, and its direction. This year was no different. With a recent Ajax review demonstrating the challenges of delivering key capabilities, a pending pay review likely to impact morale and, critically, a delayed Defence Command Paper Refresh (DCPR) – many were looking towards this conference as not only an update as to what had been achieved under Op MOBILISE, but also to understand how themes and trends from the war in Ukraine are changing the British Army and setting it for the future.

Unhelpfully, both for the Army and RUSI, the delayed DCPR appeared to completely unhinge this conference. A mildly confused Jonathon Beale, the BBC’s Defence correspondent, questioned if it was even worth him reporting on the publication of the DCPR, demonstrating the ‘no-man’s land’ that this conference was occupying.

Overview.

The following sessions were covered and you can find speaker details here:

  • Session One – Learning from Ukraine.
  • Session Two – NATO’s New Force Model.
  • Session Three – Mobilising Industry.
  • Session Four – The Future Force.
  • Session Five – The Skills for Tomorrow.
  • Session Six – Integrating the Force.
  • Session Seven – The Wider Utility of Land Power.

The highlights.

Notwithstanding the awkward position that this conference found itself in, there were still some outstanding sessions. Panels which clearly articulated the challenge, offered a view from the Army whilst exploring a variety of other views were the most engaging. Session 4 – The Future Force, and Session 5 – The Skills for Tomorrow, were balanced and engaging with well-informed speakers willing to challenge.  There were some sessions which, for good reason, never got past describing the issue. Day 1’s Mobilising Industry session was refreshingly honest – at times it felt like you were listening to a group therapy session – and offered a variety of views as to what the issue is within the procurement processes, but never really getting to solutions or options for a way forward. This was the LWC at its best – SMEs and end users focusing on problem sets and offering unique insights with challenging debate.

What was refreshing to see this year, was the amount of women that attended. You did not have to look far to see a break in the normal male-pale-stale stereotype that these conferences often attract.

Keynote speakers.

The conference attracted its usual high calibre of defence commentators and academics. This year’s keynotes were all internal to UK Defence; Gen Sir Patrick Sanders – Chief of the General Staff, Secretary of State for Defence – The Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP and the Minister for the Armed Forces – The Rt Hon James Heappey MP.  The no man’s land that this conference occupied was most clearly demonstrated with these speakers.

While CGS offered some structural reforms – 16X moving to 1XX as an example – and an activity update aligned to Op MOBILISE, it was for the most part a re-iteration of current lines of effort with the notable claim that ‘Today’s Army is the most productive that it has ever been in my 38 years’. Throughout, Ukraine’s sacrifice was highlighted with explanations of both the utility of a strong Army, and the challenge of time included throughout. There were some hints at what the DCPR might include, including some specific task for the Reserves, but little that hasn’t been hinted at in the past.

Both MPs, rather than delivering pre-prepared remarks followed by questions, conducted a sofa style interview with their respected Chairs. While they came across as open and honest – SofS’s comments on Reserves as a case in point – with no comments up front, both sessions were fairly rambling with little focus on anything in particular. This was, perhaps, deliberately so.

To conclude…

Day 1 can be described as a mixture of flat, sombre and grounded. The elephant in the room – that the delayed Defence Command Plan Refresh has not been published – was evident in most sessions. Questions were awkwardly, and sometimes haphazardously, answered. With nothing tangible being announced, and a conference that hadn’t really been designed to challenge key issues, many were left asking the question – why are we here?

With technical issues for those dialling in, and a disjointed process of asking questions, the much-lauded dialogue that the RUSI LWC traditionally generates – for those near and far – was almost non-existent. The RUSI LWC is so often the occasion that generates much needed thinking and debate for the British Army. This was not that occasion. Whilst the critical issue was out of the control of those planning this conference, it did shine a light on what is rapidly becoming a stale conference structure. It’s no longer clear if the RUSI LWC is an occasion for debate and dialogue, or simply yet another forum for a message to be pushed. Here’s to hoping next year is better – one suspects that the Army will need to revisit why this conference exists for people to continue to invest in it.

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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