The British Military’s Brave New World?

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Future wars of mass manoeuvre are more likely to be fought through the minds of millions looking at computer and television screens than on some modern equivalent of the Cold War’s North German Plain. Indeed, some might argue the screen is our generation’s North German Plain, the place where future war will be won or lost.

Paul Virilio? Shimon Naveh? The People’s Liberation Army? Nope, that’s Gen Sir David Richards, UK Chief of General Staff, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies last night. His comments were trailed over the weekend in an interview for the Sunday Times, in which he said that the UK is facing a ‘horse versus tank moment’ with respect to its capacity to wage modern war. Given that a defence review is imminent, Richards seems to be suggesting it’s better to slash the budgets on the big, old stuff and spend it on shiny new stuff. That’s a view with which Adm Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the Navy, is likely to disagree later today.

So a minor inter-service spat might be looming but is Richards right? Here are a few crucial sections from his address:

We have pared down our force numbers, replacing people with hardware and thoughts for process. Yet as the war of the present and the future is for the people, for their understanding and loyalty, we must be capable of being among the people. Unless you are amongst them you cannot understand their pressures and needs, you cannot win their loyalties or their trust, and you cannot protect them properly.

A kick in the teeth for the RMA, followed by a Smithian plea for what sounds remarkably like population-centric COIN, but he continues:

But this has a radical consequence for Defence. It requires mass. The ability to have sufficient soldiers to develop the understanding I have just described and then to dominate psychologically if not always physically the human terrain in which they are operating. You need the green and brown water fleets and the land and air mobility platforms that allow you to reach into ungoverned space and make your presence felt.

We need interpreters, cultural experts, intelligence officers, CIMIC personnel and all the others so key to understanding the modern battlefield with its nuances and subtleties. We are looking for soldier/diplomats of the old school but with a modern understanding of the ideas and technology that allows us to take the fight to the enemy both among the people on the ground and in cyberspace…

Over the past century the thrust of military advance has been technological. The horse/tank moment was but one example among many. And while the need for mass is reasserting itself the need for technology certainly hasn’t stopped. Technological advances will always be a vital part of warfare. It is how technology can be put to best effect that is changing.

And so on. Richards stops some way short of recommending a ‘new cyber-army’, as the Sunday Times put it, or any explicit offensive cyberwar capability at all, in fact, but it’s difficult to imagine this will not be somewhere in the defence review, even if the terminology will be different. Given the recent renewal of focus on China’s information warfare capabilities, and the cyber component of the Conservative’s pre-election national security green paper, A Resilient Nation, Richards’ comments also take on a significance they might otherwise not have had.


14 thoughts on “The British Military’s Brave New World?

  1. Tom Wein says:

    As far as I can tell, the main thing Richards is recommending is bankruptcy. He wants a large COIN army, plus a brown water fleet, plus a blue water fleet, plus an army of hackers. And hackers may not require much kit, but if they’re any good they will expect to be paid an awful lot. It’s not the sort of job for which you can select based on character – you need the same skills as the commercial world needs.

    Sorry, I know it’s an opening bid in a budget dispute, but a little more realism would still be welcome.

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  3. David Betz says:

    As far as the shape of the army goes I am very much in agreement with Richards. I like to think he was influenced by my paper ‘Redesigning Land Forces for Wars Amongst the People’ in which I made more or less the same suggestion. On the larger picture, however, I think you’re right Tom. There’s not enough money. It’s time to decide what capabilities we’re no longer going to fund. For sure something big has to. Unfortunately, the political situation dictates that nothing big can be decided for months and months.

  4. “Indeed, some might argue the screen is our generation’s North German Plain, the place where future war will be won or lost.”

    Really? How’s that playing in Afghanistan?

  5. What Richards is suggesting could be very expensive for the military. Yet, I agree in what he said that wars in the future (and even at present) may no longer just be in the actual battle field but they happen in the minds of people and in cyberspace. This is now manifesting in our world today and what Richards said will likely happen. But, the question is, will the military alone take the role in fighting these wars in the future?

  6. Grant says:

    It isn’t especially surprising that an army general would want to push for more soldiers and a focus for the ground, though his combined mention of asymmetric warfare and cyber-warfare is interesting. Also as could be expected the navy wants ships and so criticizes Richards, arguing that conflicts like Falklands are more likely. Who’s correct? Probably neither, I imagine that we’ll see a mix of both conventional and unconventional.
    It’s almost a pity we can’t say “United States: you’ve got asymmetric wars in Central Asia and conventional in the Pacific, Germany: you’ve got conventional wars in Eastern Europe, Britain: you’ve got every war in the Middle East”.

  7. I’m wary about the concept of mass being applied to cyber warfare and “soldier/diplomats”. Particularly since coming from a general, this implies that such additions will be integrated into the military command structures that exist at present. Surely the concept of mass was used to describe the ability to concentrate a large number of people, equating to destructive power (and later, technology reducing the “mass” required to achieve the same destructive effect). To do this efficiently required the hierarchical military structures that stick around to this day. But are those command structures, training and organisational values appropriate or necessary to the tasks being talked about here? Does an IT security expert have to go through basic training or sandhurst in order to prove that they can defend the country against cyber attacks? Do the various specialists required in a COIN operation (such as anthropologists or linguists) really need to join the armed forces in order to do what people want them to do?

    It strikes me that rather than meddling with the army command structure and purpose, it might be better to employ such people as civil servants at the MoD, and integrate their work into the armed forces. For instance, if anthropologists and linguists are needed, have them assigned to military units in the field, rather like embedded journalists. I imagine that it would be easier to find specialists who were willing to “do their bit” in the field but unwilling to pick up a gun whilst doing so. In the same manner, why bother teaching fieldcraft or company command skills to a bunch of IT guys who are going to sit in a windowless room somewhere fending off state-sponsored hackers?

    I think his point about personnel costing less equipment is slightly dubious for the above reason. Sure, squaddies don’t get paid much, and officers’ starting salaries are in line with graduate schemes. But anyone fit and able can become an enlisted man, and there is no specialist degree required to become an officer. But the skills that he’s talking about aren’t common. And if you’re relying on such people to defend the country against a crippling cyber attack or inform military planners of the particular inter-tribal rivalries that exist in a given hitherto forgotten corner of the world, then you’re going to want the best. And those people will cost more than what soldiers currently get paid, much much more. Prior to the US govt slashing their pay, people working for the human terrain teams could make $270,000 per annum, which got cut to a “paltry” $91,000. Do you think they’d take a further pay cut to fit in line with US army salaries? Or would they just find a less dangerous job that pays better? So one faces two options, either try and recruit these all-singing and dancing soldier/scholar/cultural experts who can speak pashto, command troops and understand the intricacies of tribal networks, or keep officers as they are and attach civilian experts to their companies who are willing to put up with being hunkered down in a firebase for six months at a time.

    My two pence is that the government would be better off identifying, wooing and employing a cadre of highly qualified IT security veterans for the job of securing the country from cyber attacks. With proper security vetting, you could have large numbers of them on part time consultant contracts in case of emergencies, a sort of territorial army of security consultants. Given that cyber attacks against countries utilise the same techniques that are used against companies, it makes sense to employ people who shuttle in and out of the commercial sector, since those working for top end companies like google and amazon will be at the top of their profession. However I am sure that the military would prefer such people to be wearing uniforms, not suits.

    • Jack,
      Cyber security along with the toys needed for future warfare are realities that those with the budget knifes must face.
      Another reality that must be faced is what type of force structure do we need.
      Do we need to project power on to the continent? Africa? Where do our interest truly fall?
      Do we need the ability to project afar or near afar If afar, then we are foing to need the ability to put boots on the ground. And if are going to put them “out there” then we need to send our children to war with the best kit we can reasonable put together.
      Otherwise what is the use of protecting the homefront if there is no one to come home to it?

  8. Tom Wein says:

    I like Jack’s idea of a TA of cyber-soldiers. I think it’s rather like Army doctors – they have to be practicing all the time.

    They shouldnt be civilians though. It creates quite a lot of mistrust among the forces for an organization which would find it hard enough already to establish itself. So I would suggest that we make them RAF. It’s the most electronically-minded service, which already has a philosophy of recruiting a few exceptionally high quality applicants and looking after them well. Plus it’ll be a sop to them when every program they want gets cancelled – I note they got no mentions at all in Richards’ shopping list – just “air mobility platforms”, which sounds suspiciously like Chinooks, Apaches and not fighter jets.

    • Tim Stevens says:

      Funnily enough, the TA model is exactly what the Chinese allegedly have, with their ‘net militia’ units. Individuals are drawn from all relevant fields, particularly ICT, obviously, but also those with language skills. They are flexible, adpatable, knowledgeable, and can be deployed quickly and effectively. They are also – if reports are true – not technically on the PLA’s payroll, which grants China plausible deniability in the event these groups get up to anything untoward.

  9. I think the closer parallel is the “merchant navy”. The point about the blurring of civil/military and “no boundary” warfare is that the skills and technologies are best developed in the civil world. The question is how best you can “reliably” harness your nation’s civil power. . Surely US has some advantanges as the home of Google and major IT security companies. This could all be done through commercial arrangements are different relationships needed?

    • Private-public partnerships (PPP, or P3) are at the heart of both the US and UK’s national cybersecurity strategies. Where the balance lies between responsibility, oversight, delivery, etc, is open to debate…

  10. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    “plus an army of hackers. And hackers may not require much kit, but if they’re any good they will expect to be paid an awful lot.”

    I am not so sure this is so–can’t we just farm this out to India or some other country with a technologically advanced but cut-rate labor force as we in the US have done on many fronts already? ;-)

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