For the past decade, the British Army has been continually engaged in overseas operations, including in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and in NATO’s Libya campaign. In Iraq and Afghanistan British soldiers have experienced land combat as intense as that during the Korean War.
With NATO’s plans for transition to Afghan security leadership by 2015 under way, the British Army now has to learn the lessons from this decade of operational commitment and restructure to meet the requirements of the UK’s recent Strategic Defence and Security Review.
This lecture discussed the challenges of completing the job in Afghanistan and transitioning from a campaigning Army to a contingency force, capable of providing politicians with relevant choices for tackling the strategic challenges of the future.
Thank you for the warm introduction; it is a great pleasure to be here to address the IISS for the first time. We are, as you say, at a time of ‘introspection’ in the Army, a strategic crossroads, which will be coming to a close soon.
The Army is confronting some very significant challenges in the coming years by dint of the gravity of the economic situation, the implications of the approaching conclusion to its combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the uncertainty over security threats to UK interests around the world and our potential responses to them.
So we undoubtedly face a period of adjustment and transformation, during which we are certain to be buffeted by external events and influences. In the round these types of challenge are nothing new:
adapting to changed political, economic and strategic circumstances is what Armies do;
and dealing with uncertainty and crisis is what they exist for.
The demands being placed on the Army now go to the heart of our ability to be adaptable and flexible, to be more than the sum of our parts, to find alternative ways and means, and to deliver genuine ingenuity and initiative.
Our predecessors over the ages have had to contend with similar periods of readjustment many times in the past. Similarly, we are attuning ourselves to an approach that will deliver the changes we have to make, whilst remaining balanced for the unexpected.
In one respect we could not have a better start point. The operational experience and confidence that now resides in the Army from soldier to General level, across all functions, trades and disciplines is very considerable. This has been accrued through very demanding operations at the tactical and operational levels of conflict – regardless of the wider strategic prospects – and it is a genuine attribute which enhances our reputation and develops our ability to engage with partners around the Globe.
I would cite our ability to build our understanding, to analyse situations and scenarios, to identify lessons and implement them, and to adapt in stride as the most critical features of the past decade that we have to carry forward for the next one. We have learnt to do this gradually and it has not been easy. In an era of stringency this will be even more difficult; but it will be even more essential.
Precision in the application of military force with a better understanding of second order effects must be our watchword for the future, and that of the rest of Government, and this will call for very close integration with other organs of state as well as international agencies and our other international military partners.
The Army’s Transformation Challenge
The key challenge across the Army, but driven from the top, is how we handle serial, inter-connected, change. I have sought to bring some clarity by codifying the principle aspects of the transformation of the Army between now and 2020 into five key elements, each of which would be challenging enough in its own right but the collective challenge really is quite considerable and it also presents a real opportunity. These five elements are first as Alexander Nicoll alluded to:
Afghan transition between now and 2014 when our combat role will come to an end.
Designing and implementing a new structure for the Army, fit for purpose for the balance of the decade and into the 2020s. What we are calling Army 2020.
Significant reforms to the higher management of defence which impact directly on how we run the Army.
The gradual switch from our current campaign posture into a contingency posture, as we reduce force levels in Afghanistan, on the assumption that we shall not be committed to another enduring operation on that scale; what we call ‘Campaigns into Contingency’ in shorthand.
And last but not least, supporting the transition of soldiers into civilian life as we reduce our manpower – soldiers back into society.
I’ll talk about each of these in turn.
We are approaching the beginning of the end of combat operations as we conform to the combined Afghan/NATO transition plan to pass responsibility for security to an Afghan lead. Yes we have 3 more years of combat operations, but we are already seeing significant shifts of day to day responsibility to the ANA and ANP in its various guises under direct guidance of their provincial and district governors – something not possible as recently as 12 -14 months ago.
Progress down this transition track is already very encouraging.
Sustaining the Afghan security institutions will be a long term challenge – calling for significant international funding – and extensive support to sustain them, build their quality and consistency, and in due course ensure they can be reduced in size without spawning tribal militias or fuelling warlords.
And the scale of the logistic extraction we have to undertake nationally within a NATO framework over this period is significant, and we need to achieve it without detriment to the mission there and also without detriment to our ability to respond to any other operational demands in support of UK interests elsewhere.
NATO’s Chicago summit in May will be the next waypoint at the strategic level which will have a considerable bearing on the path this campaign takes. Whilst it is clear that broad progress has been reassuringly good in many respects, there is much still to do.
The plan is sound; it is working; sustaining commitment across the coalition will inevitably be an important factor in the eventual outcome.
But the real fixes are at the political level and these too now show some sign of movement – the latest developments in dialogue with the Taleban being a case in point. Progress in this domain is vital if we are to achieve a soft landing by 2014 – with prospects for future stability and the history of deal making in that region gives some grounds for cautious optimism
New Army Structure
The NSS and the SDSR of 2010 gave us some clear pointers to the future in terms of national emphasis and ambition – effectively the ends of what we’re trying to achieve. The so-called 3 month exercise which reported last July, refined the resources available which defined our means. We are now working on the ways – both in terms of force structure, concepts and doctrine to ensure that we can meet the overall ambition for sustainable and balanced land operational capability within a balanced joint national force. Key parameters we are working to are:
An Army which reduces in manpower to 82000 regulars and 30000 trained reserves by 2018.
Returning the Army from Germany by 2020 – where 18000 or so of our soldiers and their families are still based – indeed 20 Armoured Brigade are on operations mounted from Germany - to align the Army more closely with British society and to consolidate for efficiency.
Reductions in heavy armoured capability reflecting the changing character of conflict.
An adaptable Army for multiple challenges from intervention through stabilisation, to capacity building and engagement with partners, recognising that the enduring operations of the past decade are less likely in the future.
Scales of effort that call for multiple intervention operations up to Battle Group level, or the ability to engage in an enduring brigade level stabilisation operation, or periodically to be able at longer notice to deliver a divisional level engagement comprised of up to three brigades plus enablers as part of a joint warfighting force.
The need for a reinvigorated Army Reserve designed to deliver a more assured contribution to operational and peacetime activity as part of this integrated force has also been laid out. And this is the subject of another Conference – the Whither Warfare in the MOD on 20 February.
A bespoke design team has been established to conduct the necessary analysis and design the model for the future across all of the lines of development that will allow us to deliver this fighting power and allow us to deliver future Army over the decade ahead. Key issues under consideration are:
Specific roles for the Army:
in the areas of contingency forces, including our force on force combined arms manoeuvre capability;
forces to engage in overseas capacity building and security sector reform, a proposed growth area within SDSR;
forces for UK engagement, resilience and our relationship with UK society.
Integrated regular and reserve force structure.
Balance of investment between capabilities – especially platform based capability versus so called enablers – the essential glue such that we have an affordable and sufficient equipment programme.
Where are we going to base the Army primarily in the UK, but with residual overseas garrisons - Cyprus and the Falklands.
Validity of traditional operational command hierarchy – Corps/Divisions/Brigade/ Battle Group
How we might support the force with a balance of regular reserve and contractors.
What will be the model for defence engagement and capacity building using our capability to help nations develop theirs - an area of greater emphasis that I could address in more detail in questions?
Working with potential allies – NATO, US, France and those particular allies that we have worked with closely of late on recent operations, for example Denmark and Estonia.
Ensuring we can work with agility alongside our DfID and FCO counterparts, as well as IOs and NGOs.
What sort of training model will we need to make more efficient use of vehicle fleets and training ground around the world?
And above all perhaps a career structure and education system critically optimising the talent and potential in our people.
Lots of work here! I will soon be in a position to recommend to the Secretary of State the most effective, most relevant future Army structure, within the resources we have been given. We are expecting a decision sometime in the Spring, after which we will be able to get on with detailed implementation plans. At which point I hope the period of introspection will close.
This is eagerly awaited by many, not least our own people who have both a professional and an acute personal interest in the outcome.
To reverse the progressive centralisation of resources and decision making in the MOD, the Defence Reform Review under Lord Levene recommended rapid decentralisation and empowerment to the single services and other top level organisations in defence, such as DE&S and DIO. This plan is now underway and is a very welcome opportunity for the Army particularly in light of its more diverse structure and greater range of variables in delivering fighting power.
We have already restructured the top of our command hierarchy accordingly removing the 4 star Commander in Chief post and flattening our top structure, and we shall be reducing the star count across the senior hierarchy.
Our key emphasis in adopting a new operating model will be on affordability, on transparency of costings, and on accuracy of forecasting to ensure that we acquire and then sustain the delegations and freedoms on offer with a view to driving efficiency and effectiveness and being more responsible for our own future, albeit reporting to the MOD centre. Even in straitened times this is far preferable than having things done to us.
Changes made already by Bernard Gray in the DE&S are conducive to more straightforward delivery of the Army’s equipment needs within a very taut programme. But this will be combined with the disaggregation of the equipment sponsorship function to each Service. The result is that we are establishing capability centres for each of our core battlefield functions – Combat, Manoeuvre Support, Logistic Support, Intelligence and Information, and Medical - collocated in our new Army HQ in Andover, as part of a reasonably newly formed (but effective already) Force Development and Doctrine organisation.
This will be the focus for balance of investment decisions across the land capability spectrum. This must of course be integrated across Defence and we shall be forging a close relationship with the newly formed Joint Forces Command, another defence reform innovation, which will be the proponent and conscience for joint coherence across the board, as well as for critical joint enablers such as intelligence and information systems and surveillance – C4ISR in the vernacular.
Campaigns into Contingency
This is the most demanding of the changes we have to make as part of this complex transformation. It is already underway in niche areas of our capability – such as the highest readiness light battlegroups we have retrained for contingency recently, which are now at readiness.
But with several more cycles to deliver in Afghanistan the bulk of the Army is firmly in campaign mode – and still relishing it. It isn’t new – we are reverting to our pre-2004 posture, but it is unfamiliar to all of our young people who have joined their regiments since then, those up to captain and sergeant, possibly in some cases higher ranks still.
In our approach to the Afghan campaign we relearned how to tune the Army to the specific demands of an all absorbing problem. Having climbed that mountain we would characterize this impact as follows:
The clear-cut priority for the organisation, with implications for some aspects of institutional competence where we have had to take a break with a need for aggressive reorganisation.
Very specific training demands which divert resources and time from wider skillsets and capabilities so we have inevitably become less competent in some areas and have much rebuilding to do – skill fade instinctively in some core skills.
The need for a very energetic learning system so we can continually upgrade our approach to hard earned lessons and changes in the tactical situation.
Equipment specifically tailored to known threats and continually upgraded with extensive research resources devoted to optimisation.
Very developed understanding of the campaign from top to bottom, Whitehall to section level, with defined attitudes to risk and particular attention to specific issues.
We have well bounded and understood risks through experience – even if the risk remains high.
This is all consuming for all the individuals involved with high demands on families - distorted work life balance.
Directive control of training to deliver consistency and make best use of resources.
Guaranteed professional satisfaction and very high operational experience, albeit in a very specific context and environment.
In contrast our contingency Army will need to be a more broadly based organisation through:
More generalist training across the range of skills, none specially tailored to a specific operation, unless we are lucky enough to get an accurate warning in sufficient time.
Psychologically prepared for and able to cope with last minute uncertainty, rapid deployments, the ability to adapt in stride and improvise in a fast unfolding crisis – probably in a place where our grandparents have fought on the corner of 4 maps, unpronounceable place names…..you know the form.
Adapting equipment to the threat through novel tactics etc
Coping with a less mature understanding of the environment, its impact on decision making, increased prospect of mistakes and setbacks.
But an Army that has more time for institutional wellbeing and professional development until a better work life balance, work tempo, and genuine emphasis on education.
Since we were last involved in contingency operations the world has not stood still. The very close scrutiny to which the Government and the Forces have been subjected by the media, by public enquiries, and by coroner’s inquests for example – stimulated in no small part by the domestic political atmosphere in which the Iraq and Afghan campaigns have been conducted, as well as the high human and financial cost, has reset the appetite for and handling of risk in military operations.
I sense this is unlikely to be reversed as we embark on future contingency existence with operations at short notice. A variety of awkward legal, ethical, human rights and equipment issues have been exposed. There will be an expectation in some circles in society that the sort of zero risk culture that is understandably sought in many other walks of life ought to be achievable on the battlefield, and whilst we have certainly understood and bounded the threats and risks in the Afghan theatre – which is as you know extremely demanding in just about every facet - it will be interesting to see how this plays out in a fast moving crisis where we are required to deploy at short notice with a fraction of the understanding that we have developed and the situation, the ground and the people in the Helmand valley.
The recent Libya operation gave us a feel for such a contingency deployment out of the blue in the current era but the specific risks associated with putting our own boots on the ground were not tested.
It is highly likely therefore that in the early days of an expeditionary operation in a relatively benign theatre the operating risks are going to be greater and pose more awkward challenges at all levels of command up to the top of Government than is the case in a more mature campaign in a far more dangerous theatre.
Contingency deployments will feel very different therefore both here in Whitehall and down on the ground where the attitude to, and handling of, risk needs to be very different and we need to relearn a less prescriptive approach. It will not be possible, for example, to match precisely at the outset of a new expeditionary operation our equipment holdings to a fast moving expeditionary deployment, initially, or to bring to bear immediately the sophistication we have come to rely on in the mature operation in Helmand – which is effectively a post-expeditionary operational garrison.
And so such operations do put a premium on the skills and experience of junior commanders in particular – an area where we shall have to continue to place emphasis as a key priority. So our demand for our share of the Nation’s talent will not diminish, and it is critical that we can describe our career ‘offer’ to young people, both officers and soldiers to sustain their enthusiasm to volunteer for military service whether regular or reserve and in the absence of the guarantee of going on a very demanding operation.
Experience tells us that serving in an Army in peacetime, with some elements of it cocked for contingency, and others working in the defence engagement space, can be made just as attractive, challenging and exciting for our young people albeit less predictable in terms of operational deployments. It will pose difficult command and leadership challenges, require a renewed training culture and it should offer greater professional variety, with more time for education.
So this switch in operational demand requires us to scrutinise closely how we run the Army in most respects and adjust our culture accordingly. We have got this in hand, but needs testing operationally before we can be entirely sure we have made the all-important procedural and psychological adjustments. The call may come before 2014 – who knows, it probably will in some shape of form – and we need to be ready, adaptable, bergans packed. For history tells us that wars pick us.
And for my final area, no less important than above is Soldiers into Society.
As the Regular Army reduces in size we will be reducing our trained manpower largely through natural outflow and a redundancy programme. This will impact on all ranks less those most recently joined with less than 6 years’ service (that is the cost of redundancy). And of course it will affect many who have served on very demanding operations several times over the past decade and possibly before. So this is the warrior generation and it behoves us to look after those people as well as we can as they embark upon new careers in civil society. Not only because we have a specific duty to those individuals and their families and it is the right thing to do. But because as an institution the Army’s relationship with and reputation within the society from which we draw our people, and to which we return our soldiers on completion of their service, is critical.
So we are embarking on a programme which seeks to ensure that employers are aware of the competence, values and standards we imbue in our people during their service, the strategic investment we make in them on behalf of the nation, and the opportunity provided when those skills are channelled back into the community. And of course none of this precludes encouraging the regular soldier departing full time service from joining the Army Reserve.
We are looking for a collective effort with employers. All of this is relevant to able-bodied soldiers, but even moreso to those who have sustained life changing injuries on the battlefield or perhaps on the training ground. Plenty of soldiers have trodden this path in past eras. We have a special duty to get this right for this generation.
So in summary with all this demanding change going on what might success look like? Well we could strive from the design work to strive for a plan and try and deliver it, and that is what we’ll do - the what. Of course that is important. But even more important is the how. How we cope with the fact that we will get knocked off track, and end up delivering something different – in keeping with evolving demands of a fast changing world. This is as much about imbuing a culture and method in the Army that allows us to change and adapt rapidly, whether we are talking about the peacetime structure, how we base, and train ourselves, equipment and so on, or in an operational sense our adaptability under pressure on operations.
As John Lennon said, Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, and the Army needs to be ready to live that life to the full.
General Sir Peter Wall has been Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, since September 2010. His previous roles include command in the Balkans and Iraq, strategic planning for UK joint operations and Commander in Chief Land Forces.
The meeting was chaired by Alex Nicoll, IISS Director of Editorial.