The RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2018, held earlier last week, opened my eyes as to the array of problems across defence.
The first appears at first glance to be obvious, but it nonetheless is an issue. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus as to how the army should evolve. We obviously have plentiful documents and doctrines; the 96 page long 2015 Defence and Security Review is an obvious example. There’s also a 38 page summary ‘fact sheet’, available here, but that is just as long winded. I’ve read both cover-to-cover. There is plenty of procurement information:
• Reaffirming the commitment to ordering 138 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs
• 9 Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (first will arrive in 2020, 9 years after Nimrod was scrapped….)
• 589 Ajax armoured vehicles
However, there is no clear consensus as to how defence should evolve existentially. The purpose of defence into the future is not something all agree on. One could write an essay on this, but if I was summarise it in short:
Our military chiefs are clinging to a platform based military. They want their new clever bits of kit. The RAF wants their F-35s, the Royal Navy want their new frigates, and the Army want Ajax, among many other things. They also all want a lot personnel.
Then we have the other group. Those like the National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill who’s obsessed with cyber, software, and AI, and less interested in platform procurement. Or Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, who in a nutshell, doesn’t see any need for at all platforms in defence.
Most worryingly, the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), which will be previewed at the NATO summit in July, doesn’t look like it’ll solve this problem. It’s been written by Mark Sedwill. I got the impression at the Land Warfare Conference that minimal consultation was done with senior army officers, and the majority of the MDP based around budgetary constraints.
There are various existential issues that may be addressed as part of the MDP. As warfare becomes increasingly cyber-centric, all three services try to keep up. They adapt their methods and capabilities to deal with cyber threats. As a result, their cyber capabilities tread closer into GCHQ region.
This is an issue. One of the things discussed at the conference was the different way in which defence procures a capability, compared to civilian companies for example. When the army decides to invest in a technology or programme, by the time they’ve discussed it, trained using it, and declared it operational, it is already several generations out of date in the civilian world. Indeed, a question was asked at the conference whether as warfare becomes increasingly cyber orientated, should our conventional tri-service defence accept that they become less relevant compared to organisations like GCHQ.
I would disagree with that view, but crucially, it is one of many different views of how defence should evolve. The reason people are discussing these views is because currently, there is no consensus. It should be remembered that for the past centuries, armies evolved to get better at eliminating and defending against ‘conventional threats’. In essence, for most of the armies existence, they’ve been tasked with defending against people with weapons, whether those been swords and spears, or rifles.
Now, as our threats become increasingly opaque, the purpose of the army has to adapt. Many people ask the question ‘what will warfare look like in 2068?’. Some conclude with answers that would render capabilities like airborne infantry useless.
The fact of the matter is that whatever warfare will look like in 50 years time, the British Army will endeavour to stay relevant. For them to do so, they need urgently to decide what warfare will look like in the future, develop a plan for how they’re going to evolve to that, and then fund said plan. Right now, there is not consensus on what that plan should look like.
The Royal Navy have essentially been given the ‘thumbs up’ from parliament. They can have two new aircraft carriers because it is believed the aircraft carrier will be a relevant capability in 50 years time. The same goes for the RAF and their F-35 programme. We’ve reached a conclusion that a joint strike fighter will be part of warfare for many decades to come. Both pieces of equipment have been designed such that they can continuously be updated and changed to suit the evolving battlefield.
Whatever warfare looks like in the future, our adversaries will draw us into cities. In an increasingly urbanised world, urban warfare is hugely difficult. I heard at the conference Captain Ali Smith and WO1 Wendy Eagle, both of whom argued that the British Army are not currently prepared for urban warfare.
The source of this problem appears to be twofold. The first is a lack of training. With the exception of a small number of facilities like Imber Village on Salisbury Plain, the British Army lack environments to train for urban warfare. This is different to French Army for example with their ‘CENZUB’ facility in north-eastern France. The degree of NATO cooperation on this matter appears to be minimal.
The second appears to be psychological. Indeed, the first step to solving a problem is recognising there is one. There were a few blank faces when urban warfare was mentioned at RUSI. The technology simply isn’t there yet to allow us to fight a clean war in built up areas. Theres also the public outcry associated with it, as seen from Amnesty International in response to the retaking of Mosul. It may simply be accepted that urban warafare is a capability the army choose not to develop.
As I stated, the conference was eye opening. It quashed the myth that ‘no state can threaten us’. It also revelaed some real issues with army structure, and capability. Thankfully, General Mark Carleton-Smith was open about these. He recognises issues, and appears willing to endeavour to resolve them.