SDSR 2015 – A Balanced Platform, and an Old Vision


So, as predicted, the world really is a more dangerous and complex place. It was ever thus.

Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, the Defence Secretary argued that no-one could have predicted the rise of a capable insurgent force, a global jihad or a Russia doing things we didn’t like at the time of SDSR 2010. Other views are definitely available. Indeed, lots of people were expressing just these views in 2010 for the rush-job, Cabinet Office and Treasury-led review that seemed to insulate itself not only from expert voices from outside Whitehall but from those in Main Building too (hence the circular PR firing squad of military voices that boomed out prior to the publication of the review). So, having been pilloried in the press, by military experts and even by academics (including myself in measured tones) you would be a reasonable person if you’d have thought the government would have learnt from the experience. And they may have. This is a balanced programme. It might not require the sort of revisions that most defence reviews are subject to, which would make a distinct change to the past. But Cameron still said ‘full spectrum’, which to me kicks the ‘we just don’t have the money for this’ can further down the road.
The ‘trip-wire’ brigades are an interesting innovation, even if they are not going to be rapidly formed (they’ll be ten years in the making). Whilst 2010 was an insular review, signalling a withdraw from expedition – followed immediately by Libya (oops) – this implies that we’re still in the expeditionary game (be it eyeing up Eastern Europe, or the Middle East). Should these brigades need moving via the oceans then we might have a problem, even with the new announced capacity. But from 2025 onwards, wherever there is a fight with a western coalition of the willing, the UK will be in the middle of it. On one reading of the recent past, this sort of activity then causes the requirement for further investment in counter-terrorism capabilities.

But the big missing element is the coherent strategic vision the Prime Minister promised. Having failed to articulate one in 2010 and now in 2015, I think we have to conclude that despite the hours that have been invested in discussing ‘strategy’, the Parliamentary Committee inquiry led by Bernard Jenkin and so on, that strategy is a lost art. And it’s an expensively lost art. Because it causes us to cover everything badly, rather than build capabilities behind something coherent. These best single line articulation of the strategy the UK ‘ought’ to have is from Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI – ‘a force for stability in the world’, amending the ‘force for good’ that was so widely scoffed at, at the time. Such a strategy would build upon cooperative work with our ‘frenemies’ (relevant today might be Russia and Iran, who will almost certainly need to be the boots on the ground element to sort out the Syria debacle). Prosperity and security as bonded concepts has some traction, but it definitely spending to save, and it’s not clear to me why the UK has to be at the centre of it (the old east of Suez debate writ large). I may be being unfair. If there is a strategy, it’s to return to the post-war UK, of global reach just reframed for today.

The positioning of the nuclear deterrent could have been sorted out with a simple political decision – to underwrite that the money attached to the deterrent could be kept within the defence budget not repurposed away from defence and into something else. I think that the issues around the nuclear question become much more solvable with that in place: pound for pound into conventional forces the nuclear money becomes not just useful, but game-changing. I wrote a few years ago about how and why the defence review had made our nuclear deterrent unsafe. The missing ladder of escalation not only rendered the deterrent useless, but potentially dangerous too. The death and/or retirement of those who really understand nuclear deterrence is a gaping gap in our collective knowledge of defence currently.

One of the most important things to have come between the 2010 and 2015 reviews was the decision to break the tie to our native defence manufacturers. I wrote about what I saw as the significance at the time, but I had subsequently concluded I just was interested by something very dull. The decision to replace Nimrod with Boeing P8s, and the potential (and large) markets for smaller, and alternative defence manufacturers to meet the new threats I think evidences that breaking the tie was significant. I’m not sure it can be justified in terms of off-the-shelf capabilities being cheaper (the shelf is still expensive to fill), and ultimately it will undermine our defence industries, who are already migrating to markets that appreciate them more. The European system of manufacturing – be it collaboratively, or brokered via the European Defence Agency – has merely entrenched competition between European states, rather than broken them down. Consequently, the UK has left itself hostage to its relationship with US defence giants, rather than being part of a European alternative, or an expensive indigenous capability. It is made expensive by the absence of competing supply. When the UK led the way in aircraft, four or more manufacturers competed for aircraft contracts, with the MoD underwriting the losses (they could innovate because failure didn’t result in bankruptcy). What we have now are contractors who have to be cautious and who are forced to underbid – and then overrun. There are half as many officials involved in UK defence procurement as there are in the entire European Commission. Given the scale of their respective challenges, that’s shocking. But losing a third of defence civil servants is equally shocking, in its own way.

The UK can offer something unique to its network of allies in ‘these dangerous times’. And that’s intelligence plus disruption. Because of our genuinely special relationship with the US in the intelligence field we do punch way above our weight in this field. The 1900 extra officers announced last week should be a welcome initiative, and meet some of the need of ‘Security Politics’, although recruitment and training puts extra capability years away. But in this area lies the British USP. Certainly on this budgetary spend.

So, do we have a coherent strategy? Maybe.

Do we have capabilities arriving quickly enough for the challenges? Not really.  

Is the navy still two men and a dinghy? Sadly yes.

Is the nuclear deterrent issue resolved? Yes.

Do we have answers for how we’re going to deal with the challenges presented in the Middle East and Eastern Europe? No…
But we have extra money, albeit coming relatively slowly, and some nice announcements and a balanced platform. Not a bad effort, given the timeline allowed for the review. But if you’re sat in Main Building tonight it’s one cheer and one raspberry apiece.


ISIS and Irrelevance

It’s SDSR-day in the UK, when we finally get to hear what the government hasn’t leaked over the weekend (more F-35s), overnight (a pair of 5000 person ‘strike brigades’ for overseas use), last week (2000 new spooks), and so on, and so forth. The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, has a lot to make up for, given that the fudges (carrier strike, anyone?) of the last one are already coming home to roost. In fairness, however, the four highest priority risks identified in the 2010 SDSR (terrorism, cyber security, natural hazards, preventing international military crises) all appear to have been on the money, so to speak. Of the four, Libya and the Crimea is perhaps evidence that the UK did worst on the last point. Still, after Paris, and the rise of ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh, it’s clear that terrorism is going to remain a clear focus for the 2015 SDSR. Given that the Government appears to be on a full-court press to get Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria (except when they’re an act of self defence versus its own citizens), it’s a fair prediction to make. But what’s the point? What is the end that the UK is seeking?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it’s understandable that the rhetoric against ISIS has been ramped up, both at home and abroad. The UK has been talking about “defeating” ISIS’ ideology for a while now, and witnessing Brussels lock itself down to raid and arrest suspected terrorists lends a sense that European states are starting to take the “Trudeau approach” to jihadists. Still, as a strategy document, I hope that the 2015 SDSR doesn’t have “defeat ISIS” written into it, because, frankly, that’s impossible. Sure, we can bomb Raqqa, send in special forces, arm Kurds, arm Sunnis, arm Syrian rebels, and, in theory at least, pull apart the Islamic State as a functional entity, but that’s not going to make these ideas go away. As Will McCants points out in his excellent new book on ISIS’s ideology, there’s no telling what lessons ISIS (and its adherents) would learn from such a defeat. They might pack up their bags, but equally, they might take it as a lesson that they need to “double down” on apocalyptic violence, bloodletting and fear. That can never be defeated by force, nor, really, can it be “defeated” or “eradicated” in the increasingly illiberal environment at home. British society is, however, littered with the remnants of violent ideologies from the past decades and centuries. The British state never “defeated” or “eradicated” anarchism, Stalinists, Maoists, and so on, and so forth. Nor, for that matter, is there anything that the British state could do to eradicate these ideologies. Although there are plenty of smart people who profess similar beliefs, at the extremes there are always those who are essentially as impervious to reason as the most warped jihadist getting his kicks with a kalashnikov somewhere in between Aleppo and Mosul. Setting out to defeat an ideology is a set-up for a fall. Anarchists once struck fear into the states of Europe, now, they are, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless”. The UK shouldn’t seek the end of ISIS, it should seek to make it irrelevant.

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Security Politics

Our contemporary political compact is premised on jobs and growth.

It’s the economy, stupid.. as Clinton so aptly put it.

And to be get elected parties need to be convincing on (and then deliver to get re-elected) economic prosperity, opportunities for future generations to get in on this prosperity, and the sorts of economic safety nets to encourage risk taking entrepreneurialism and yet to disincentivise idleness and work avoidance.

This was a tried and tested model that saw switches in the government of the time dependent largely on how successful they were in delivering jobs and prosperity, selling a vision and maintaining party unity. Such a focus has narrowed the pool of people coming into politics. They no longer needed to be former soldiers, or people with substantial experience in industry, the unions or other areas outside of narrow-band economic politics. It was said of Major, and Blair that they were the first Prime Ministers without direct experience of a war – the inference being that this sort of experience is vital for governing a state. Coupled with this was the European Union that had single-handedly delivered an unprecedented period of peace in Western Europe and relative economic prosperity and successfully sold (and kept selling) a vision of social and economic liberalism that was attractive to a wider set of European nation states. The EU was and is a technocratic set of organisations , geared to the business of developing and deepening a complex single market across many states: a primarily economic activity. So,in that frame the free movement of people makes perfect sense. And that the vast majority of European states soft pedaled their security and intelligence spend looked unproblematic: the capable states would keep their spending up, and the American umbrella would deliver a lot of the rest.

Only the twin problems of a refugee crisis bringing tens of thousands of people from an active war zone into societies focussed only, or mostly on jobs and growth, and the problems of attacks on the West are not economic problems. They are not – in the main – economic problems. Although the economic aspects of these problems are – in turn – security problems, or will quickly become so. So, the Generation X of special advisors and their political masters have a problem that they are ill-equipped to understand let alone deal with. The SDSR, which is now imminent, will be the first major test of this government’s ability to demonstrate that they understand the contemporary security environment. The SDSR rumour mill suggests that the government might have understood enough to increase some elements of the security budget, but the devil will be in the many details. (Another post will be forthcoming when it’s published). But the balance of politics is shifting. It is about the economy. It is also about jobs and growth. But the political class has successfully ballsed that up, over the last 7 or so years. And so for several reasons the politics is shifting to it being mostly about security.

As a instinctive europhile, it is with sadness to say that the European project is not currently fit for purpose following this shift. It is with slightly less surprise that we can currently observe that the political and special advisor class are not fit for purpose either. And as for the Labour Party… well.. if they don’t get with the shift pretty quickly they’ll be electoral toast. The hoohah today about the Shadow Chancellor and ‘that alleged leaflet’ makes the point better than a 1000word essay ever could.

Rapid adaptation is required. Politics has gone Darwinian and the electorate will turn unforgiving very soon.


#CCLKOW – Iraq: Whither the soldiers of ISIS?

Continuing my preference to poke at the sacred in military affairs, #CCLKOW this week presents the conundrum of what should be done with the ISIS rank and file in Iraq. Inspired by an article which tells a simple tale of one Iraqi ISIS fighter, this week’s post is focused on the singular question of how the various parties – local, regional, and global – will move forward when the war machine is defeated. Read the post, consider the issue, and join the discussion on Twitter on the hashtag.


The Nazi enterprise and war machine were unmistakably a blight upon history and the very complexion of European civilization. They fundamentally altered the demographics of a continent and laid bare the basest of human potential. Whether by ruthless war or an even more sinister program of genocide, the death toll for which they were responsible still boggles the mind. At the end of the war, it was very clear that those in positions of authority would have to be held responsible for these acts. Nevertheless, while the leadership was held to account, it was equally recognized that to punish the collective rank and file of the German armed forces would serve no purpose.

In the wake of a very dark night in Paris, the furthest thing from anyone’s minds is the thought of humanity for any ISIS fighter.

But I read today an article, “What I Discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners,” by Lydia Wilson of ARTIS Research, about the profile of the average Iraqi who has joined the fight. I would highly recommend that folks go forth and read the whole thing, both to understand this piece as well as for the general consideration of the conflict in Iraq. However, what matters to this post is what came at the very end, this excerpt which confronts the reader:

These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence….They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.

The purpose of highlighting this point is not to join the chorus of blame, which serves little purpose beyond political point scoring. Rather, it is to shed a small bit of the light of humanity upon the issue of these ISIS fighters.

Returning to the opening, somehow, in the thoughts of leaders at the end of WWII, it was recognized that there was something in the German experience of the period between the end of WWI and the rise of Hitler’s Reich which made the horrors of that regime more palatable than rationality. If you want a visceral understanding of those dark days, I can recommend nothing more highly than the 1925 opera “Wozzeck” by Alban Berg. (Full version here.) The dismal and blighted life of the characters is set against possibly the most chilling and discordant music which combine to reflect the cost of the past war and the sense that something far worse was coming. If the mass of the population fell prey to Hitler’s awful promise, it is not difficult to understand why or how. And contemplating the lives of Iraq’s generation which had no youth, a similar perspective is possible.

Nothing can excuse the decisions and choices of the ISIS leadership. A Nuremberg of their own awaits those who survive to the end. I have a very special place of vengeance in my heart for those who have unleashed this current hell upon the region and now to Europe and very likely beyond. However, whether the same standard applies to all must be in some doubt. At the end of mankind’s last worst moment, some bit of humanity prevailed. After so much death and horror, perhaps it was decided there had been enough. We should consider that the same may be true in this time as well, that this interregnum of violence is not best ended with a further orgy of death.

And so my simple question for this week is, can we imagine any space for humanity for Iraq’s lost generation swept along by the currents of an abhorrent promise?



#CCLKOW: Tending One’s Leaders

Returning to the leadership theme, this week’s CCLKOW blog piece reorients the perspective. Rather the usual, in this piece the reader is urged to consider those who lead him or her. Inspired by a piece of writing outside the military community, the humanity, frailty, and vulnerabilities of one’s leaders are highlighted to ask a critical question: what do we owe them? Beyond the realms of basic human kindness, the ramifications of properly tending one’s leaders has substantive importance. Read the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. 


Overwhelmingly, the majority of words spilled on the subject of leadership focus on the individual’s own, tending to look down the chain of command to examine how it does or should act. To the extent that people contemplate their own leaders, it is often in approval or critique, with the occasional nod to followership and the duties of the led to the person in charge. Moving beyond these well-charted waters, this blog desires to reorient the perspective to consider the subject of how leaders and bosses are treated.

The inspiration for this discussion is from a police blog. In it the author uses her own struggles and perspectives to reflect upon the difficulties of command responsibility. This passage sums the point which influenced my thinking:

I was chatting to [a Chief Constable] several months ago at a mental health event. I had already told him my jokes, I had showed him my double-jointed left elbow and I was getting to the stage where I was wondering what we could now talk about.

So we started talking about his interactions with staff.

He told me he often went to the canteen at lunchtime and would like nothing more than to sit down and join a table of fellow police officers and join in with their banter and chat. He missed being able to do that. He couldn’t do it as he was painfully aware when he entered the canteen, all eyes would be on him. He did not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or awkward by sitting and talking to them. So instead he would just grab a sandwich and quickly exit out of there and go back to his office and eat alone.

I thought that was sad and how lonely he must sometimes feel.

(from “I am a boss in the emergency services, I feel alone and I need help!” 30 October 2015)


I was struck by the humanity of the post, of its self-reflection and the realisation it inspired. Truism though it may be, how often do we contemplate seriously the loneliness at the top? When its condition can be written in such quotidian and heartfelt terms as with whom one can share a quick lunch, how much worse is it in dealing with the hard choices of military command? And struggle in solitude many leaders must given the complexity of conflict in a time of little black and white and much grey. [1]

Of course, one must tend to leaders not merely because it is humane. Rather, it must be taken up as a critical task to minimize the influence of the sycophants and the strivers. If the bulk of the led shy away from the boss, the vacuum is filled by the sorts of people who are the most dangerous, ‘yes men’ who will provide nothing better than an echo-chamber of the leader’s own opinions. Isolated by the structure, this coterie of sycophants serve only to deepen that effect.

And so, although military careers may be highlighted by the points of command, the bulk of the time is spent within the mass of the led. Thus, while it is important to hone one’s thinking and practice for those times when the reins of leadership authority are taken, the practice of service to the leader should equally concern the military officer. Given this, my questions for discussion are:

How do you tend your leaders? How would you rate your performance in that task? 

What have you been taught formally about this, if anything? Informally?

Contemplate the questions and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


1 The recently retired Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police made the near startling announcement that at times he sought counselling to cope with the demands of the position. Has a significant commander within the armed forces of either the US or UK ever admitted anything similar? Certainly the struggles of military leadership are as challenging as those in policing, and it is likely that such assistance could be valuable, but the recourse to psychological help remains a taboo in the armed forces.


Red Tape in the Morning, Staff Officer’s Warning

Greetings CCLKOW readers. Today we bring to you a new guest author, @fightingsailor, an officer of the Royal Navy whose biography you can find below. In this piece he discusses the implications of budgets, efficiency and effectiveness. With the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review eagerly awaited here in the United Kingdom, the matter of managing defence in an era of constrained budgets weighs heavily upon the proceedings. In this piece, our author contends with the conflicts and contradictions of the various means to ‘do more with less.’ Although focussed on issues facing defence in the UK, as the American defence establishment grapples again with the demands of sequestration the piece should resonate with the audience on that side of the pond. So, read the piece, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


“My department’s budget may be rising again but there will be no let-up in getting more value for money… Efficiency savings mean we will be able to spend more on cyber, more on unmanned aircraft, more on the latest technology, keeping ahead of our adversaries.”  – Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence [1]


In this short essay I will examine what value for money means in the context of Defence and whether the inevitable SDSR [2] drive for greater ‘efficiency’ is, in fact, counter-productive in achieving the purpose of the Armed Forces.

As the Secretary of State alludes, the drive for ‘Value for Money’ in Defence  is usually shorthand for efficiency.  Efficiency is the ratio of output to input.  In other words, the drive for greater efficiency means attempting to do more with less or, at least, doing the same with less or more with the same.  There are a couple of issues here for defence strategists.  First, there is an inherent assumption that we understand what our outputs are. We go to great lengths to define these and set up business agreements between the different parts of Defence to ensure that everybody plays their agreed part in delivering them.  This implies, generally, that the purpose of the Armed Forces is to output Forces ready to be used for operations. In part this is true, especially if one applies the POSIWID principle [3], but surely the purpose of the military is to deliver successful Government policy outcomes.  Many of the outputs of Defence may not be relevant to achieving such outcomes in any given crisis.  Take the recent Operation GRITROCK, the UK Military’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in West Africa.  This wasn’t part of any Force Design or Force Testing scenario that I am aware of, and was delivered using Forces whose justification for existence (and thus attribution of input resources such as funding) was for other Military Tasks [4], yet a positive policy outcome was achieved for Her Majesty’s Government. The point here is that where Military Forces exist, they are rarely used for the specific purpose for which their requirements were set, but rather they have broader utility as instruments for Government policy; providing that they exist in the first place.  This is particularly true of units such as warships where the variety of missions that, say, a Type 23 frigate is able to undertake is far in excess of the predominantly anti-submarine mission for which she was originally designed.  So, the Value for Money is generated by buying as much capability as you can afford that is useable in the broadest range of scenarios.

Except; this logic forces you down a route of planning for the most likely scenario.  In risk management terms this is planning for the expected outcome.  This approach works if you’re an insurer and can aggregate your risks across many thousands of policy holders; or a health service whose usage rates by a population can, on average, be meaningfully planned for.  But the Military instrument is not like that.  We have been seduced into thinking that military campaigns have a steady drumbeat of 6 monthly roulements through theatres: whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland or one of the many routine operational deployments of the Royal Navy.  If we gear our entire establishment around this model we will achieve efficiency (of sorts) but we will fail strategically.  I say this because what really defines successful use of the military is its response to crisis, and the sort of crisis that becomes generationally defining.  The Falkands in 1982 is the obvious post-WW2 example but Sierra Leone, Iraq in 1991and the Kosovo intervention are other examples where it went well.  Operational failure in warfighting, especially when vital national interests are stake, changes the international balance of power and can redefine a nation’s place in the world order – the outcome is of strategic significance. It’s the stuff that brings down Governments.  To be ready to respond to crises which are, by their nature, largely unexpected takes systemic agility.  This agility comes from diligent contingency planning and meticulous preparation but necessitates a substantial degree of spare capacity in the system that can be drawn upon when the unexpected occurs.  Spare capacity is, self-evidently, not a feature of an efficient system. This is not, therefore about the management of risks to outputs but, rather, about the uncertainty of outcome.  The difference between risk and uncertainty?  In the former the probability distribution of possible outcomes is known, in the latter it is not.  It means you need a different set of management techniques.  That’s why stockpiles and reserves must be maintained, even though they may not have been drawn upon for years, because if they are needed they will be needed in a hurry; and once the button gets pushed it will be too late if they do not exist.  A push for efficiency at the expense of all else risks confusing activity with effect.  So in all that we do we should prepare for the most extreme outcome: high-end warfighting against a world-class adversary.  This should drive our requirements, training and manpower but importantly it should drive our intellectual preparation.  Concepts and doctrine must drive the other lines of development towards dealing with the evolving character of warfare and novel technologies must drive, and be driven by, the need to retain operational edge.  Of course, this will be constrained by the available resource but we need the moral courage to balance the activity of today with setting the conditions for successful effect tomorrow.  Within a system incentivised by annual appraisal this is especially challenging.  Ironically, and perhaps even paradoxically, the better we prepare to win wars, the less likely it is that we will have to fight them and thus our Forces can be used more readily for lower intensity operations.  If you want peace, prepare for war!

But however we define our capabilities and capacities, surely within the Force Development and Generation cycles there are efficiencies to be had? Why don’t we just cut the ‘red tape’ and stop spending money on bureaucrats and pen pushers?  This is an attractive battle-cry when it comes to seeking ways to save money on the generation of military capability and, indeed, in the spending of public money in the round.  The problem, however, is that every bureaucrat, no matter how inefficiently they work, is there to service a process which fulfils a function.  To get rid of the bureaucrat you need to establish that their function is no longer required (at least in the same quantity). But most of these processes are conducted to give a degree of management control and/or assurance over different aspects of the organisation: financial management and probity; contractual propriety; safety and environmental management; commodities management; human resource; etc, etc.  So what functions can we do without? Well, none of them actually.  We can reduce the amount of each that we conduct but, here’s the crunch, we must then be prepared to delegate and empower individuals to do make decisions and commit resources without the levels of assurance and managerial control that have been previously demanded.  In short, we must take risk against these processes and this means that mistakes will occur more frequently; and we must accept that this is not failure, but the system working as it was now designed.  And if we want individuals to hold such increased risk personally, then we may find that they need greater recognition and/or remuneration as part of the deal for doing so.  Process and bureaucracy are like a kelp forest for a scuba diver – it is no one strand that substantially impedes your passage, but the overall effect means a disproportionate effort is required to make progress.

So, beware the inevitable ‘efficiency drive’ after the coming SDSR.  Without a properly reformed system that removes management and assurance processes and delivers a commensurate increases in delegation, it will simply be code for reducing the number of people available to complete a similar amount of process.  The strands of kelp get packed closer together and progress becomes harder than it was before.  There is a real risk of not only achieving a less efficient system as a result, but also one less effective at delivering its real purpose, achieving desirable government policy outcomes using the military instrument. And during the SDSR process the arguments must be made to retain as much high-end warfighting capability as we can possibly afford in order to give the agility to deliver such outcomes, including novel ones like cyber and unmanned systems.  And finally, having sufficient warfighting capability makes it less likely that you will have to use it for this purpose.  If you think peacetime Armed Forces are expensive, try having a war!

. . .

Following this review of the issues of defence management and budgets, the following questions are put forward for consideration and discussion:

1. Have western defence bureaucracies gone too far in adopting modern business practices and values? That is, do the terms of prudence in the private sector apply well to requirements of defence?

2. What should drive peacetime budgets and military plans? Should the aim be to spend the least and hope for the best until war arrives? 

3. Can armed forces and defence bureaucracies afford to reduce their processes and accept less control during peacetime?

4. What would you cut, and why?

. . .

@fightingsailor is a Royal Navy Weapon Engineer Officer with substantial operational and staff experience. At sea he has undertaken operational deployments to the Mediterranean (Libya), Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean (whilst participating in Operations DEFERENCE, ELLAMY, TELIC and KIPION); as well as to Arctic Russia, the Baltic region and the East Coast of the USA. Ashore he served in Afghanistan as the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) Liaison Officer to Task Force Helmand. Staff appointments have predominantly focussed on capability planning, management and strategy. They have included: the Ministry of Defence, PJHQ J6 and the Maritime Capability Division of Navy Command HQ. A graduate of the UK Defence Academy’s Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) he has a keen interest in developing ‘good thinking’ in Defence.




[1] Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 4 Oct 15, accessed 10 Oct 15.

[2] Strategic Defence and Security Review. The UK Government’s quinquennial review of Defence and Security Strategy.

[3] The Purpose of a System is What it Does. Brilliantly explained on the thinkpurpose website:, accessed 11 Oct 15.

[4] accessed 11 Oct 15.


#CCLKOW: The Security Implications of Disorder Tactics

This week’s post is focused on security and crisis decision-making, on the murky distinction between a bit of domestic disorder which, albeit a nuisance, poses no threat to society, and disorder as a simple use of force in an event which approaches conflict. Specifically, it is concerned to unpick the issues of tactics meant to turn protest to disorder, and that disorder to strategic mayhem. The practice, under the heading of ‘Black Bloc Tactics,’ has yet to be used to any greater objective than momentary chaos which it is hoped will give heft to the political point of the protest. However, as the events of the Arab Spring amply demonstrate, protest is not necessarily far from conflict of the worst sort. So, read the post, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

This weekend I travelled to Manchester to observe the policing of the protest and the Conservative Party Conference. Rather than run about on the streets following the public order officers, [1] this time I was a guest of the force and was allowed to observe the policing from the central command by way of CCTV and helicopter footage. It was utterly fascinating.

The anti-austerity protest planned for Sunday involved a march and rally of significant numbers. And as I am very interested in urban mayhem, watching the events I calculated the many opportunities, moments and locations in which a dedicated operative could act to bring chaos out of the calm. In fact, this has been a tactic of varying use and utility adopted by different groups within a protest in the last couple of decades. Often associated with Anarchists, Black Bloc tactics are not necessarily limited to that group. Briefly, these tactics encompass small cells of anonymised actors who have traditionally used token violence to punctuate the political statement of the protest.

To date, they have not been used in any real capacity beyond the general aim of the protest. And to be perfectly clear, this thought piece does not direct its consideration to protest as protest, even when it might include violence and disorder. Free expression and democratic principles do not always play out in the neatest possible fashion, but that is by far to be preferred over other forms of governance. I have argued elsewhere and I do not step back from that position here that the state and police forces must live by the rule that ‘you can’t shoot rioters.’ [2] In fact, as we have witnessed in the uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring, strong arm responses to even violent protest can turn political action to conflict too easily.

So, what are we concerned with here if not protest run amok of its own volition? I have argued in another article that the strategic actor – either terrorist or state affiliated – could use mayhem in lieu of battle. It’s worth jogging over to give that piece a read as it describes the concept in detail, but in brief, it envisions the intentional use of such tactics as would turn the mob in the urban setting into a cheap but effective army to be wielded against the society. That is, such an approach, which to date has only been used to create token or short term violence, could be adapted as a type of warfare.

This is where it all becomes difficult. A competent actor will be able to camouflage the strategic intent of the disorder, at least in the short term. Done very well, a society could slowly be bled white with exhaustion coping with disorder. Or, in frustration, the security forces could escalate the situation to the point of conflict. Thus, with very few resources, a state could be defeated.

Whereas my very first post in this series put to you the problem of the local, rural partisan, in this case you are forced to confront a modern urban warrior, whether at home or abroad on COIN or other stabilisation operations. And so the questions are:

1. How will you identify that protest is not protest but an act of war?

2. How will you act without doing undue additional harm or damage?

3. Is this a strategy you might consider?

4. At what point does this amount to an act of war?


Give your answers some thought and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.



1. The police are rarely troubled by my close presence to their activities as I look nothing short of harmless. Seriously, I won’t ever be mistaken for anarchist or terrorist, and as yet ‘rogue professional woman’ is not yet a style adopted by any combatants.

2. Despite a heavy ethos against the use of force generally, and in public order policing specifically, there has been an uproar in the British press today regarding the deployment of a sniper on a rooftop which overlooked the protest route. It also overlooked the conference venue site. Given the heightened threat level with respect to terrorism and the high-profile nature of the event, such precautions are to be expected. However, with the highly constrained model for the use of lethal force, the idea that the police would even consider using snipers against protesters when it is their job to facilitate protest is beyond silly. And given the control on the police use of firearms, the thought is even more far-fetched. Read the IPCC investigation report on the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 if you want to understand how it works, at pages 96 ff – the officers were questioned repeatedly regarding what happened. The material directly related to the officer who fired the fatal shot is at pages 118-164.


Humpty Dumpty, Not Pottery Barn: Some Thoughts on Regime Change


In this week’s #CCLKOW we consider what principles ought to shape our strategic thinking with respect to regime change. Please note, this is not an endorsement of the act as sensible policy. I am relatively certain that it should be a policy of last resort, and even then its wisdom ought to be held in serious doubt. Nevertheless, we live in a world where sometimes the only policy choices are bad ones. Thus, it is necessary to consider under what strategy this could be accomplished with the least risk of spectacular failure. Or, more simply, it is not enough that we must think carefully about regime change as a policy, we must also be similarly careful about strategy and tactics if this choice is taken. Enjoy the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


“You break it, you buy it.” Colin Powell’s application of the rules of shopping in Pottery Barn to regime change was hailed as quite brilliant for reminding his political masters of the dangers of such a policy choice. I would suggest, however, that within this construction there is a terrific peril for the West, as our wealth might make us think we can afford to buy it once broken. Thus, whereas Powell cautioned against regime change that was not fully cognizant of the costs it would entail, this admonition is incorrectly aimed. It is not the cost of rebuilding which is the problem. Rather, it is the nearly insurmountable challenge of re-creating something better than that which has been broken.

Here I would like to argue that rather than Pottery Barn, Humpty Dumpty is the better cautionary tale for regime change. Where the policy is even contemplated, the further taboo must be upon undue damage to the essential structures of governance and society.


…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men 

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It was a sharp realisation that perhaps a quaint children’s nursery rhyme wasn’t just a bit of fun but in fact could be an old military parable, a cautionary tale against the hubris of military might. [1] Conceiving Humpty as a state that, once fallen, could not be put back together again despite every effort of the King’s horses and men, his army, make more sense than it ought to.

Nowhere is the wisdom of the Humpty Dumpty Principle in regime change more clear than in Iraq. The speedy resolution of its first act in the summer of 2003, with relatively little damage, was tragically followed by the dismantling of key structures of the state. Perhaps it was hubris borne of the great military success achieved in driving Saddam Hussein from power which led to the orgy of societal destruction. The inability to recognise that ‘support’ for the regime was not the result of great fealty to Saddam but rather the dictates of pragmatism and survival led the coalition down the garden path to chaos and new tensions. De-Baathification may have seemed a Saint’s work, but in fact it was the beginning of the end, the first step in the slow failure that was the largely American led strategy in the country. Once broken, Iraqi politics and society suffered for the struggle to re-create a delicate balance of fragile connections. And while the old system had been clearly flawed itself, fixing that was the far easier option than refashioning the whole anew.

In sum, the coalition ought to have rejoiced in its ability to unseat Hussein without much damage and sallied forth from there. The path from 2003’s military victory ought to have looked a little something like this:

‘Here Tariq, take the keys. Don’t screw this up. We’re happy to provide some funding to help get things back on track. Send us a plan.’


The errors of Iraq should be forefront in the minds of anyone thinking about Syria. As utterly reprehensible (!) as the reign of terror perpetrated by Assad has been, do not imagine for a moment that the destruction of the state which sustained it will result in an outbreak of rainbows and happiness. The jackals and the jackasses are chomping at the bit to take advantage of the vacuum and chaos that would follow the dissolution of the state. Thus, although it is quite clear that he will have to go, how that will happen must be considered with the utmost care not to break that which we cannot fix. Moving even further into the harshest grey areas, how to deal with the areas under the control of the state apparatus created by ISIS should also be filling us with a bit of conflicted thought.

And so, as grist for this week’s discussion, I put to you the following questions intended to flesh out the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the principle I have offered:

1. The successes in Germany and Japan seem to refute the Humpty Dumpty Principle. What were the terms and conditions of those efforts, and do they exist in the targets of regime change we consider today?

2. Is it too easy to assume that no evil structure can be surpassed? With respect to Afghanistan, did we err in thinking that any regime created in the aftermath of the Taliban would be an improvement? Quick to break that which all were too happy to label as evil, with stories such as that published today on the creeping institutionalisation of the sorts practices which had led to the popularity of the Taliban in the first place, one has to wonder at that wisdom.

3. Is there a better strategic framework to conduct successful regime change?




[1] I am not arguing that this is the origin of the story. But it ought to be, because it’s rather quite perfect.


Britain’s al-Awlaki moment, sortof

Yesterday David Cameron played a political blinder: “We’re here to talk about refugees, but enough of criticising my terrible response on that, I had a British citizen killed two weeks ago.” Understandably, this blindsided most, and the fact that the UK government has committed to sheltering a paltry 4000 Syrian refugees per year, as opposed to larger numbers in Germany and elsewhere has fallen quickly off the front pages. These numbers are an abdication of moral responsibility towards refugees. Nonetheless, the use of a targeted killing against a UK citizen (by the UK government, not our American friends after we revoke their passport) is the topic du jour. Understandably, this has been called our ‘Anwar al-Awlaki moment’ – the first time the government crosses the proverbial rubicon of intentionally and openly killing a citizen that has run off to a foreign country to (supposedly) organise terrorist campaigns against their home state. The UK, of course, has much more recent experience of the moral and legal quandaries of using force against our own citizens due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over at Lawfare, Robert Chesney pointed out that this is actually a test of a particular scenario and legal interpretation – the American interpretation of the concept of self defence as it applies to terrorists that has developed since 9/11.

The legal justification, as presented was that this was an act of self defence, broadly in line with American interpretations of self defence versus individuals and terrorist organisations:

As part of this counter-terrorism strategy, as I have said before, if there is a direct threat to the British people and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action, then as Prime Minister, I will always be prepared to take that action and that’s the case whether the threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or from anywhere else….

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria…

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action…

First, I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies.

And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual. So it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK.

There are, however, significant differences between the UK and the US in both legal opinion and the jurisdiction of international courts.

  • Armed conflict: The US claims to be in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, the UK doesn’t. Therefore while the UK talks about IHL and military rules of engagement, this is ‘icing on the cake’ so-to-speak – we’re not at war (proverbially) or engaged in an armed conflict (legally). This aspect of Cameron’s statement is effectively saying that when UK armed forces kill outside an armed conflict, they still consider themselves constrained by the rules developed within it.
  • The extraterritorial applicability of human rights treaties: A bit of a mouthful for non-lawyers. Unlike America, the UK considers its obligations as extending beyond the territory of the UK, which means that outside armed conflict human rights law definitely applies, and furthermore UK cases have applied human rights standards to matters in the context of armed conflict (much to the chagrin of many people, but that doesn’t matter so much here).
  • The European Convention on Human Rights: Unlike the US, we have the ECHR, and we are also subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, meaning that judges beyond our immediate political system can pass judgement on the actions of the state (like, err, Article 2, protecting the right to life – expect to see arguments about 2.a. where “Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: a. in defence of any person from unlawful violence”). This is a key difference from the al-Awlaki case as there is no international court with jurisdiction that America accepts that can pass judgement on the American state for his death.
  • No constitution: Unlike America, we don’t have a written constitution. This means that whereas the American debate on the domestic legality of killing citizens has plenty of plain text hooks and principles to work from, as well as the separation of powers, the UK debate will likely be more nebulous, involving the royal prerogative, and so on. I’d expect some British anti-monarchists to come out of the woodwork at some point to state that it’s a bit bloody odd that the Queen is technically the one in charge of all of this, and David Cameron ordered a citizen dead based on inherited authority. For American readers worried about the ‘Imperial Presidents’ of Bush and Obama, at least you have the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to complain about, as well as requirements for intelligence oversight, Presidential findings etc etc.

My last thoughts on this (for now) is that this appears to be the way things are going: that the ‘Caroline test‘ will apply to individuals and small scale groups, and that the American “unwilling/unable” test, discussed by Robert Cheney, will propagate. The use of straight up self defence as a justification for targeted killing (as opposed to self defence that leads to/in context of armed conflict) is discussed in a pretty accessible way by Kenneth Anderson in a 2009 paper here. What strikes me about Cameron’s decision is that the US has hewed towards the armed conflict model for justifying targeted killings and explaining their legal rationale, whereas the UK decision appears to be straight self defence. From everything I’ve read about targeted killings, the armed conflict model is better, as it is at least more explicit and requires political declarations of war. The US Congress can always call off its war with al-Qaeda, and hem in the President’s authority. The British political system has markedly fewer constraints on the exercise of power by the Prime Minister.


The 2015 SDSR consultation

The MoD have very kindly given the public 1500characters with which to insert their thoughts into the review process. That equates to just under 300words. I managed to underspend my contribution by 80 characters…

Do not start the report with ‘the world is an increasingly dangerous place’. It isn’t. The threat picture is just more complex and we are adapting too slowly. We face two predominant types of threat, with an overarching and underspecified element: 1) traditional military, 2) asymmetric and ‘glocalised’. The overarching element is ‘hybridity’. To think of defence and security as expressed exclusively by equipment and personnel capacity and capabilities is a mistake. Hybrid conflict requires the UK to understand influence ops, money, health, education as components of our security. It also requires us to better understand who are opponents are and what they are doing: this requires a plethora of approaches. Countering these threats requires upfront investment to meet them before they develop (spend to save). It also requires a far wider range of institutions and actors – inside and outside of government – to pull together in countering hybrid threats (a smarter, holistic approach). This mix is likely to cause some discomfort, but currently we are mismatching assets and approach to the threats we are facing.

Better match the full-spectrum positioning and rhetoric with capabilities. So, resource better to match current rhetoric or better position the UK to match resourcing restraints. Don’t try and meet the 2%GDP figure by including non-defence items. Either scrap the target, or invest the full amount.  ”


The brevity does clarify the mind.

If you wish to add your thoughts please find the page at (