British Military at a Crossroads

September 2010
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author


A British soldier in an armored vehicle talks with U.S. Marines while on patrol near Marjah in Helmand province in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom probably will have military forces in Afghanistan for the next five years under the aegis of the International Security Assistance Force.

Traditional force structures may give way to emphasis on deterrence, pre-emption and flexibility.

Buttressed by modern warfighting realities and battered by fiscal realities, the United Kingdom is laying the groundwork for a major overhaul of its military force structure. Significant studies currently underway aim at building a new defense architecture that both provides for any anticipated contingency and enables flexibility to act in new ways against unforeseen threats.

This may finally signify a departure from a Cold-War-structured military. While most western militaries have de-emphasized Cold War contingencies in their planning, their force structures still are built around traditional concepts that accumulated over those four decades. Now, harsh budget realities and new security priorities such as asymmetric warfare and cyberspace threats may compel planners to look at their militaries in a totally different light.

The head of the British Army is Gen. Sir David Richards, KCB CBE DSO ADC, chief of the general staff. He soon will become chief of Defence Staff. Gen. Richards assumed his current command after serving as commander in chief of U.K. land forces, which followed his command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. His most recent assignments, combined with his long military career, give him a perspective encompassing traditional Cold War force requirements as well as the challenges of asymmetric warfare in the Global War on Terrorism.

Gen. Richards believes that, in 10 years, the British military will be agile with a greater capability for dealing with cyberthreats. Greater emphasis will be placed on unmanned aerial vehicles and on intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance. Better intelligence understanding will be required, and this includes knowing about cultural characteristics wherever troops are deployed. Tactical forces still will employ traditional platforms such as tanks, artillery and fighter jets, albeit in smaller numbers.

One of the key factors determining the future of the British military will be the civilian government’s vision of the United Kingdom over the next 15 years, the general offers. That vision will guide the roles that the United Kingdom will play and, consequently, the type of military it will field. From that vision, policies will emerge that the military will turn into strategy. But that process is far from completion, he notes.

Pending the results of the country’s ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review, some points can be predicted, the general says. The starting point is the war in Afghanistan. “We are immersed in a very important war,” he declares. He adds that British Prime Minister David Cameron has said on the record that British forces will be in Afghanistan for another five years, so the United Kingdom must work to ensure that it can continue to contribute effectively to the ISAF.

Other factors that will determine the future of the British military include work being performed by the Future Character of Conflict Studies in collaboration with the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This work is focusing on how future conflicts will be fought, the general relates. And, it is especially vital as the United Kingdom faces tough budget priority decisions while it restructures its military amid severe fiscal constraints.

The global financial crisis is influencing the British military as it is other Western militaries, and the country’s defense spending will reflect the strains imposed by the new fiscal reality. “The most important element to any country’s security ultimately is its economic stability and prosperity,” Gen. Richards declares. “If you don’t have that, you end up in the kind of situation the Soviet Union faced in the late 1980s.

“We must accept that we are going to have to play a role in ensuring the United Kingdom’s long-term international economic prosperity,” he says of the defense community. “I do expect some of our big-ticket programs to be not necessarily cancelled but certainly to see some of the economic reality impact on those programs.”

The general suggests that the budget areas where the country may be able to take risks are those that focus on traditional state-on-state conflict. This type of conflict traditionally focused on massed forces in opposition, and the risk of it happening can be mitigated by forming alliances.

The programs likely to give way to cuts are the more traditional heavy equipment, he offers. Acquisition of tanks and heavy artillery may be reduced in favor of systems that provide better bandwidth “and allow us to see what is on the other side of the hill.” The general allows that, at the tactical level, the British armed forces need to find funding for improved intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, or ISTAR. At the strategic level, cyber is high on the list.

“Scale and context become a key determinant of what we might be structured to do,” he points out.

Gen. Richards notes that the late U.S. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, USA, said that amateurs talk tactics but professionals talk logistics. “In this era, professionals first and foremost talk command and control,” Gen. Richards says, “and then they talk logistics and then finally tactics.”

While traditional land-based heavy mechanized systems may be pared, they will not be eliminated, he stresses. At the lower tactical level, these types of equipment still will be needed, as the 2006 Israeli experience in Lebanon demonstrated. The number of fast jets may be reduced, and the very expensive sophisticated maritime platforms that run billions of pounds per copy also may be subject to budget scrutiny.

Yet Gen. Richards emphasizes that any speculation as to where the United Kingdom will make defense cuts is premature. The ongoing studies will be a better harbinger of what kind of military will emerge. “The defense review will enable us to hopefully reach a consensus on where one can take risk and where one legitimately can therefore reduce any particular program,” the general allows.

Deterrence and containment will be important, so any change in military structure must maintain those capabilities. “We will put much more focus on preventing wars—getting into countries that look fragile well before they become places in which we might end up fighting,” Gen. Richards predicts. “That will require a lot of focus on things such as training teams and making sure that [other nations’] armies are efficient and able to understand the rules of law and how they conduct themselves.

“That means that we must learn the lesson that, when you intervene, you should automatically assume you will need a period of very efficient and effective stabilization, so that all that effort and lives lost in the initial intervention are not squandered because we have forgotten inconveniently that we will have to stay there,” he says. “But, if we get it right, we don’t have to stay there too long; we put a country back on its feet quickly and allow that country’s people to take on the mantle from us.”

Afghanistan has been a school for all of the militaries involved in the ISAF fight against the Taliban, and Gen. Richards says that a prime lesson learned by the United Kingdom is the need for greater agility—particularly in applying lessons learned. For example, a decade ago the British army converted its version of TRADOC into a joint organization. This new structure did well at the higher level, but the army soon found that it had mortgaged its ability to work issues at the lower level. After Gen. Richards moved on from command of ISAF to ultimately become chief of the general staff, he created a new equivalent of TRADOC—the Force Development and Training Command. The need for this element represents a generic lesson learned from Afghanistan operations in that it applies to warfighting beyond that rugged theater. “In the future, we must assume we will be up against very innovative opponents who early on will find our weaknesses and exploit them,” he points out. “We need to be able to respond to that much more quickly than we were doing in the beginning.”

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United Kingdom has learned more about how to conduct counterinsurgency operations, and a key to that is knowing how and where to equip its forces. The general states that the United Kingdom understands better the source of its requirements, and its materiel funding is better.

One hard-driven lesson is the need to have boots on the ground. “If you can dominate the physical and psychological terrain by having enough people in the areas in which you’re operating, then the people amongst whom you’re operating can have confidence that you’re there to stay or do a proper job,” he declares. “Mass matters in counterinsurgencies.”

Forces in Afghanistan need better available ISTAR, the general notes. Land-based forces need more bandwidth, particularly for passing imagery of new improvised explosive device technology or placements.

And, the United Kingdom is likely to create hybrid brigades that can be configured as needed to operate in any type of conflict. These brigades can be configured differently depending on readiness criteria, the general offers. While British forces have been moving in that direction for some time, experiences in Afghanistan have reinforced that effort, he reports.

Gen. Richards views cyberspace as the military’s Achilles’ heel, which is a point he has emphasized in recent public speeches. Both state and nonstate opponents “seem to understand the huge power of cyberspace better than we do,” he says. “We’re not bad at it in certain niche areas, but in our overall understanding—that this is where future wars will be won or lost—I’m afraid we are some way behind the power curve.

“How we reflect the growing acceptance of that view is going to be a key part of the strategic defense review in the United Kingdom, but I am concerned that its true impact and importance in terms of what we do in the future—what we acquire in terms of weapons and capability, how we organize ourselves—has not gotten into our collective psyche. The risk is that we’re still going to put relatively too much money into more traditional platforms and not enough into this very complex and difficult to understand area,” he warns.

Gen. Richards continues that an enemy can use cyberspace to inflame someone “living in our midst” through propaganda, and then provide that person with a weapon system that is simple to make and is capable of imploding a society from within. “That is a worst case, but it’s not far away—we know that to a degree it’s already happening. So, I don’t think the huge significance of cyber is yet understood.

“We’re on a journey here, and we need to accelerate our solutions and base many of our structures and capabilities on that understanding, rather than still being a bit wedded to Cold War approaches,” he declares.

The general states that addressing cyberspace concerns must be done on an international level to prevent allies from competing with one another. Each of the key allies must reach agreement on focus areas in this broad issue, he says. Once international agreement is reached on a collective understanding of the issues, then the allies can address their cyberspace challenges more easily on the international level. “If you don’t have a collective, almost doctrinal, understanding of what we’re talking about, we could well pass in the night,” he points out. “Our opponents are much more fixated on either the low tactical level—al-Qaida or the Taliban—or at the higher level, such as the big states that have been looking at this for a long time and I think are ahead in the game.”

U.K. Ministry of Defence:
U.K. Strategic Defence and Security Review: