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A post-digital British military – the new influencing arm of the state


War has changed, but the British Military hasn’t.  War has transformed from a fight over physical territory to a multi-dimensional struggle to influence global demographics.  The British military is a one-dimensional industrial-age construct designed and built to win in the Cold War.  It cannot field the digitally optimised capabilities needed to deliver the narratives, ideas, or indeed victory in the digital and post-digital war.  CGS recently described some of the Army’s fighting vehicles as ‘rotary dial telephones in an iPhone age.  

Future wars will need a radical new multi-dimensional British Military construct that contains substantially more technology than guns and vastly more brains than brawn.  It will still need to prosecute traditional combat in the physical dimension, but it will also need to deploy meshed formations of highly technical combatants, skilled and competent at weaponising data and battling in the cyber-informational dimension, as well as dynamic panels of intellectual warriors to dominate the cognitive realms – a completely new re-imagined British Military.

‘The battlefield is rapidly changing … the emergence of disruptive technologies is so prevalent and rapid that what we need now is an urgent reappraisal of how, with what, and by whom, war is waged in the future … The British military must update itself or risk becoming irrelevant’ (Carleton-Smith 2020)

The post-digital era has already begun

This is a pivotal time for Defence.  Traditional kinetic models of warfare have proven inadequate in the prosecution of modern strategic competition, as are the organisational constructs to fight it.  All over the world, militaries are rapidly remodelling, reorganising transforming to adopt and embrace the digital imperative.  Operational doctrine for this non-contact war is already being rewritten, changing the contemporary way of war from a ‘massing of forces’ to a ‘massing of effects’.  But it is not happening fast enough.  We are still failing – delivering yesterday’s technologies, tomorrow. 

As we drift from Defence in a Competitive Age to Defence in a more contested and volatile world the
British Military has committed to building future warfighting resilience against the threats and
challenges it faces today.  But is this enough? Are we are still planning to fail by again delivering
yesterday’s technologies, tomorrow.  It is time to break the taboos, take the conversation to the next level and think the unthinkable – to reimagine a completely new British Military construct for the post-digital era. 

War has changed.  The physical engagements between traditional armed forces are giving way to battles that are being fought in a myriad of non-physical, distributed, and virtual theatres.  The human mind is the new battlefield, and today’s contemporary battlespace commander is now expected also to apply hyper-technology concepts, cognitive influence models and new organisational structures to prosecute information and cognitive warfare.  The digital and post-digital warfare era has already begun, and it is a multi-dimensional competition battle of wits beyond the traditional threshold of legacy kinetic doctrine and our current organisational design.

Generation Alpha and science fiction

As global economic power shifts from West to East, serving personnel and new multi-cultural tech-native Generation Alpha recruits both find themselves on a rapid socio-digital transformation journey to a totally different battlespace, fighting wars on a new battlefield that has yet to be envisioned.  Whilst predicting the next war is impossible, that hasn’t stopped NATO from thinking about it.  The UK MOD has commissioned Science Fiction writers to imagine it.  This gives us a starting point for concept development and the possible shape of the reimagined and redesigned military that would then be needed to fight it. 

Many consider such ideas as heresy.  But resilience planning, even for unthinkable situations, is what we excel at.  It enhances our preparedness and informs the defence supply chain.  Time spent in planning for these future battles is seldom wasted; it improves our critical thinking, stretches our creativity, and fine-tunes our assumptions.  Whilst the output is hopefully not too badly wrong, even the thinking process in itself will deliver innovations, concepts, micro-changes and a library of models, patterns and experiences that we can reference in the unknowable future of warfare.

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but the planning is indispensable’. General Eisenhower

To close with and destroy the King’s enemies

The British Military concept has, since its inception, had as its purpose ‘to close with and destroy the King’s enemies’.  In all its 450 years of history, it has maintained its relevance so it could prosecute this purpose, shaped mostly by the controlled application of violence in physical combat.  This culture of physical endeavours is embedded in storytelling, colours, trophies, and photos/paintings adorning every Mess, office, and barracks.  We gaze into the eyes of the combatants adorned in these paintings, pondering how they coped with the continuous transformation in warfare during their watch and if we, too, could display such gallantry.  

Looking back to Quatre Bras from a post-digital british military perspective
28th Regiment at Quatre Bras 1815 (Lady Butler) from Wikimedia Commons

We also muse on how they coped with all the new technologies of their eras – the enormous technological transformations in warfare during their tenure.  When we look into their eyes, we wonder what advice they would give us on today’s transformation, how they would advise us to close with the King’s enemies in today’s digital battlespace, and how we should organise to destroy them in this new era.

Is the British military past its sell-by date?

We are at a juncture in our history.  The market for a ‘traditional’ military has passed.  Warfare, society, and the market for strategic competition have just changed too much and too fast – we are no longer relevant.  Others, including the US military, have realised this shift and recognise that ‘If we don’t compete effectively against adversaries, we will lose without fighting.’ said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley in the recently published US Joint Concept for Competing (March 2023)

For the British Military, an organisation that can trace its heredity back 450 years to Kings Henry VIII and Charles II, the current times seem to be the most terrifying.  The organisation seems lost, searching for purpose and relevance in a #Global Britain.  We are unable to acclimatise to the enduring frenetic pace of technological progress, grasp the societal changes in our nation, and flex to the shifts in global power dynamics, paving the way for global sinicization, where the shadow of China looms large.  As repetitive integrated reviews try to understand, comprehend, and find a purpose for the military, the tension between modernists and traditionalists is being played out daily in articles, speeches and strategies.

One-trick ponies and a hollow force

But such an impasse is not new, nor are we unique in our reflection.  Many much older historic British institutions such as the Royal Mint (founded 886), the Bank of England (1694) and even the Royal Family have faced (and continue to face) similar questions about their contemporary relevance and have successfully gone on to transform and thrive in modern incarnations of their previous self.  However, other organisations such as Nokia, Blockbuster, Kodak and in the UK, Thomas Cook, BHS and HMV failed to reflect on changing markets.  They failed to accept new realities and adapt their organisations, their product offerings, and their thinking to meet changed societal realities, thus their demise into irrelevance and death. 

Even today, dynamic digital age organisations such as Google are reported to be losing market relevance, failing due to core cultural problems, and accused of having ‘no mission, no urgency, delusions of exceptionalism, and mismanagement’:  Does Google’s struggles provide a parallel for a British military reportedly failing in its role, another one trick pony in a rapidly changing multi-modal inter-state influence market. 

And whilst Google’s CEO argues their one trick is a really good trick, repeated defence reviews have concluded that the UK state does not value its military’s current performances.  Defence reviews thus perpetually direct a cheaper, leaner, smaller ‘physical’ armed service for the state.  The resultant organisational construct is now seen as a hollow force, a barely viable defence service, scarcely able to protect the UK, never mind campaigning abroad.  Whilst initiatives and edge innovations such as novel robotic dogs, battlefield lasers and specialist Infantry generate great MOD PR ‘spin’, they have been referred to as ‘lipstick on the pig’ when we still can’t organise the basics such as transporting troops into battle.  Such distractions might provide a refuge for those finding fundamental organisational restructuring just too difficult, preferring to be distracted by talk of far-off horizons, silver bullets, and miracle weapons deliverable mañana – the promise of more jam tomorrow. 

Organisational innovation, but not Edge innovation

Rather than incremental innovation at the edge, what is actually needed is more basic organisational innovation for the military to update and diversify its product portfolio.  This means developing a contemporary influence toolset based on the contemporary threats, then getting back in the game and regaining its relevance in the contemporary inter-state influence market.  If we can agree and resolve the role of the British Military, and define our mission from the paradigm of the state (not from an internal military perspective), then we can provide our customers with not just our traditional hard power services, but a complete range of weaponised informational and cognitive solutions. 

War has changed.  As the internecine Russo-Ukraine conflict demonstrates, we are now at an inflexion point in the modern interpretation of warfare.  Even as the Russian military fails miserably in their physical battlefield objectives, Russian spies, hackers and influencers are still hard at work preparing other parallel battlefields and have proved far more effective than the Russian army in dominating the information and cognitive dimensions, subduing global demographics with their narratives and perspectives – Clausewitz would have been impressed. 

As a percentage of the total war effort, hard power effects alone are just too expensive, problematic, and increasingly delivering legacy problems that persist decades beyond the battle.  But when niche hard power effects are fully incorporated and integrated into a full-spectrum total war that battles an adversary in all dimensions, this is how modern wars will be won in the digital and post-digital age

‘…for the millionth time, it is not about technology: It is about the integration of operational concepts and organisational constructs that will shape the way we integrate and use the technology.’ – Deputy US Defence Secretary Bob Work 

A reimagined British Military model – at the centre of Government

Rather than the constant lamenting, crying into beer and bemoaning the demise of our physical effects hard-power military, it is time to go on the offensive.  It is time to reimagine and pitch a completely different concept of a British military – a new multi-dimensional physical, information and cognitive influencing arm of the state – a new military model to fight the post-digital 21st Century war (see Figure 1).

post-digital british military battlespace
Figure 1 – The Reimagined British Military Construct (the author)

This model would be a multi-disciplined integrated organisation that fights a multi-dimensional battle, providing full-spectrum effects options to the state.  Using ‘the technologies of the time’ (Clausewitz, 1832) it would require a new construct, a re-envisioned post-digital British military that can fight and win wars in the post-digital era.  Such an organisation would sit at the centre of government, interoperate with a myriad of partners and be as capable of fighting diplomatically, economically and in the security domain, both above and below the threshold of armed conflict.  It would be able to bolster national resilience across the whole of government and civil society, providing the state with technological, informational, and cognitive overmatch – sustained and at a heightened pitch. 

post-digital british military battlespace
Figure 2 The Reimagined Military Construct in Context (the author)

The digital imperative has revolutionised how all global organisations operate; the military is no exception.  In the post-covid, post-Ukraine world, this accelerated imperative is increasing the speed of transformation of supply chains, operating models and the processes, people, and technologies needed.  Globally this is causing a fundamental rethinking of organisational designs and their toolsets, interpersonal communications, digital supply chains, and other emerging technologies such as hybrid cloud, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.  All these things need to be grasped, developed, and applied by organisations that wish to survive and thrive in the coming decades. 

We can wallow in yesterday’s nostalgia, but this leads to being prisoners of our past glories, not informed, educated, or inspired by them but anchored to patterns and thinking from these times.  It needs to be more focused on addressing the dearth of creative thinking, idea development, and conceptualisation actually needed for the actual effects required to defend our nation in the forthcoming multi-dimensional attacks inbound to our country, our people and our way of life. 

Leading the new organisation 

We need to walk the walk, ready to ‘step forward and meet every challenge’ in this new reality.  But our leadership style was forged in the paradigms of battle, born of 450 years of physical combat, of leading people to close with and destroy an enemy in a physical fight.  The spate of noxious behavioural incidents and recent public scandals also raises doubts if we can change.  The culture of apathy and dishonesty, the ‘Say-Do Gap’ where intellectual dishonesty, lack of moral integrity and the language of ‘buzzword’ nonsense would indicate a lack of leadership and management competency, eroding trust and credibility at all levels. 

Luckily new British Military leadership doctrines from all arms, such as Five Pillars of Leadership, Inspiring Leaders and Future Soldier: new doctrine for a new generation of leaders, acknowledge the changing landscape and that leadership has changed.  These publications introduce new concepts such as psychological awareness, emotional intelligence, and cognisance of cultures into the attributes needed by a modern military leader.  They recognise transformational leadership and suggest a new leadership style of drive, pace setting, participative, coaching, affiliative and visionary.  They also acknowledge but caution against using the traditional directive style in all but exceptional circumstances.  The Weaponisation of Everything now demands that we use a new strategic military leadership style that we transcend the 20th-century industrial leadership model to new norms of intellectual duelling, digital transformation and cultural innovation – the ultimate test of cerebral fitness.

‘Gentlemen, the money has run out. It is now time we start using our brains.’ – Winston Churchill, Nov 1939

Conclusion – to boldly go

We are privileged to be gatekeepers at this critical juncture in the history of the British military, at the inflexion point in warfare between centuries of military tradition and a fast-moving, globally-connected, hyper-technical world.  As leaders, we need to apply the vast bank of corporate knowledge, the collective learning from 450 years of history, and the best military traditions, to design and deliver a re-imagined British military.  A British military that is a multi-dimensional influencing organisation capable of winning the battles of the next century.  One that is fit for purpose in a post-digital world. 

We need to stop, think, re-evaluate, re-orientate, and refocus our minds, intellect and narrative towards developing an organisation designed to deliver a full-spectrum influencing service to the state.  We must take bold steps forward, drive the conversation, win the debate and show unwavering commitment to this direction of travel … even if we are not entirely sure of the final destination.

Martin Crilly

Martin Crilly is the Chief Architect & Engineering Authority to BAE Systems in the Middle East, and a Reserve Signals Officer.   His background is in contempary ICT architecture, technology strategy, cyber-security, J2 and J6 with previous roles in BFC, ISS Ops Plans, GOSCC, DE&S Maritime and others.  For more information and articles on Virtual War and similar topics, ‘follow’ him on Defence Connect.

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