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Speech by General Sir Jack Deverell KCB OBE

General Sir Jack Deverell KCB OBE

Commander in Chief, Allied Forces North 2001-2004

On: New Conceptual Thinking Required for the Armed Forces

21 May 2004

1.        “Thank you for inviting me.  It is a great privilege to be able to speak to such an audience at a time when the efficacy, utility and the morality of power projection through military means is being so comprehensively and publicly questioned.

2.         The military are often seen as being resistant to change. There is truth in this, not least because in the military there is an intuitive sense that if you are trying to establish some semblance of order in chaotic situations you need confidence that what you are trying to do, and how you do it, is well understood by those involved.  At worst there can be downright and determined resistance to new concepts.  In the late 30s, many of the German General Staff were very critical and fearful of Guderian’s ideas on the handling of armoured forces.  At best the response to new concepts can be lukewarm and the initial use tentative.  This is one of the reasons why new weapon systems are rarely as effective when first used as they become subsequently.  The machine gun and the tank are two such examples.  But this conservatism, if I can use the word in this context, is something of a myth and can still be conjured up in the public mind by the view of senior officers beloved of certain World War I historians, and Blackadder.  It is always easier, however, to talk about the need for new conceptual thinking than to decide what it is to be and to implement it.

3.         It is generally a fair criticism that the military tend to prepare for the last war rather than the next one, even though there may be clear indicators as to the nature of future conflict.  The lessons of the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War were evident but not properly understood by the participants in the first few months of WWl.  In contrast, when it became clear, in 1776, that the American revolutionaries were generally not going to fight within the accepted rules of 18 Century European warfare (because they quickly realized that when they did, they lost), the British used their experience from the American Indian Wars a few years previously and employed their better troops as ‘light troops’ or ‘skirmishers’ for protection.  Like so many changes in the military this was a practical response by those doing the fighting to the problems they faced.  It was later developed into a ‘concept,’ rather than the other way round.  Anyone who has looked at the British Army Review over the past forty years, and in its various forms for many years before that, will have seen that the appetite for bottom-up change has not diminished.  It was this intellectual effort that, through evolution rather than revolution, enabled the UK to change from a mass conscript army designed in the late 1930s and early 40s, designed to engage in total war against Germany and Japan, to a small professional volunteer force fighting a series of undeclared wars and conflicts against enemies increasingly difficult to identify and influence.  I would suggest that in fifty years (the equivalent of 1864 to 1914) this represents a massive physical and conceptual shift.  Furthermore, the accidents of history have meant that the UK is currently better placed to cope with the highly complex and rapidly changing international security environment than many of its allies.

4.         For all who were closely involved in the Cold War, the physical, conceptual and moral legacies are difficult to shake off.  There are well documented shortfalls of equipment that restrict many of our NATO allies from embarking upon and sustaining expeditionary operations well beyond the traditional NATO area, in a hostile environment when there is little or no host nation support.  The lack of strategic sea and airlift, and deployable secure communications are just two of the many examples.  But we must not forget that until 1989 Germany, for example, didn’t need those capabilities as the war was going to come to them.  They were not going to go to the war.  On the other hand the UK still retained a physical, conceptual and, depending on your point of view, a moral justification for a world role.  For good or ill, two hundred years of colonial policing and more recently thirty years of operations in Northern Ireland has established and reinforced the idea that the UK understands the political and militarily demands of such situations, is willing and able to commit its forces and generally ‘does them well.’  Our politicians, our servicemen and women, and the majority of the public accept that this comes at a cost.  I would suggest that this is not quite the same in Germany, for example, and some other countries in Europe.  At an early stage of my last appointment I was talking to a Belgian politician who said that the Belgian public were just about willing to pay for their military during the Cold War, though they didn’t really think that their investment would make much difference.  They were deeply disinclined to spend any money on defense when no one was going to attack them. 

5.         In a perfect world the prime reason for buying a car should be what you want the car to do.  However, in the real world availability and cost become overriding factors.  The same is true of defining the shape, size and scope of the armed forces of a state.  During the Cold War, the threat posed by the Warsaw Pact was clear.  The cost of countering that threat had to be judged against the likely penalties for not doing so.  However, at the same time the USA had to structure forces for operations in Asia in the light of their obligations to South Korea and, for a time, South Vietnam, and there were similar demands placed on the forces of France and the UK.  In 1989, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact removed the threat that had been both the glue and the lubricant of the North Atlantic Alliance and had resulted in levels of trans-Atlantic and European military and political cooperation previously unimagined.  As a consequence, it became more difficult to define the threat in a way that would satisfy officials, politicians and ultimately the public that their money was being used in a sensible way.  A debate was started in the USA and UK about the need for force structures to be based on capabilities to meet the increasingly ill-defined threats, forces that could deliver an effect at a desired point, in a specific time, to achieve a desired and measurable end.  One of the results of the study of these ends, ways and means was that the output was increasingly seen as a product of defence as a whole, rather than the output of three separate services with overlapping and therefore costly capabilities.  In the UK we can see the manifestation of this thought process by the creation of such organisations as the Joint Services NBC Regt, the Joint Helicopter Command, and at a higher level, the Permanent Joint HQ in Northwood.  But as the events since 9/11 demonstrated, it is becoming even more difficult to identify the nature of your enemy and identify and develop the effects and therefore the capabilities needed to achieve success.  This is but one of the areas that require imaginative attention by the UK if we are to play our full part in the Euro Atlantic community.  I fear that the USA will find it increasingly difficult to get other nations to follow their lead in these matters.  The differences in capability, attitude and style between the superpower and its European allies have dramatically increased since 9/11, not least because the U.S. believes that it has been at war since that day in a way that we, and the rest of Europe, frankly do not.  As a result the UK’s traditional role as the bridge between the USA and Europe is becoming ever more important and challenging.

6.         However much we try to develop capabilities to suit all purposes, we come back to a simple truth.  If we are to develop capable and balanced forces at a price we can afford, we must identify the nature of the conflict in which we believe that we will be involved.  In Europe, the availability of resources alone will require us to identify priorities and make difficult choices.  Even the U.S. military believe that they are under-funded to meet all the requirements their Government has laid upon them, even though the U.S. Navy has a budget that is bigger than all the other navies put together!

7.         I believe that General Kruluck of the U.S. Marine Corps came closest to identifying the key elements of modern conflict when he described the ‘three block war.’  For those who are not familiar with it, it described modern conflict as being defined by soldiers handing out humanitarian aid on one block, keeping apart two warring factions on another, and fighting a high intensity battle on the third, using every weapon they have in their armoury.  Given events in Afghanistan and Iraq, he may have been guilty of a dangerous over-simplification!  We all know the Clausewitzian dictum about war being the continuation of politics by other means. 

This has never meant that when the war starts somehow soldiers become the sole instruments of policy.  Napoleon had the advantage of being both the military and political leader incarnate for much of his career.  Lincoln and Churchill realised that what happened on the battlefield was itself a deeply political act in a way that perhaps the WWl German General Staff and the Kaiser did not, and they harried, cajoled and flattered their generals accordingly. 

The difference today, as we have recently seen all too clearly, is that what happens at private soldier level is now of strategic importance, especially if it is filmed with a digital camera.  It means that the soldier must be made aware that his or her every action may impact on the strategic.  On the other hand politicians must also be prepared to acknowledge that the person who is nearer the scene of the action normally understands what is happening better than the politician.  Political interference can only be justified when there is a real strategic issue at stake and not just minor problems with ratings, or the media. 

This requires education and training of both politicians and soldiers and too often politicians resist the opportunity to engage in training events.  Proper training is essential at every level and sadly one of the reasons why soldiers physically and mentally assaulted their Iraqi captives was that they had not been trained well enough.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know what to do.  Any decent person would have known that what was being done was wrong.  As an aside, it was chilling to hear the same excuses given as were used by camp guards in Nazi concentration camps; that of obedience to orders.  Military training did not brutalize them.  Effective military training is what prevents soldiers behaving in this way, but in this instance it clearly failed to suppress the innate capacity of men and women to mistreat others when in positions of power, and when the norms and expectations that at other times constrain us have been removed. 

This cannot be achieved by merely telling people what they must and must not do and reading them the Geneva Convention.  Through realistic, demanding and practical training, soldiers have to be taught to respond sensibly, sensitively and decisively to the situation in which they find themselves.  They cannot simply wait for orders, nor blindly apply them when it is clear that they are no longer relevant.  It is relatively easy to teach soldiers what they have to do (the physical and conceptual elements of war fighting) it is more difficult to teach them what they have to be (the moral element).  It is in this area I would suggest that a shortage of time in training, largely a function of resources, and the erosion of our capacity to influence the personal development of soldiers because of the ever present influence of health and safety regulations, working time directives, and the European Charter of Human Rights is beginning to undermine our ability to produce soldiers with the moral and physical robustness that is needed.  In addition, there is continuous pressure on the military justice system, which increasingly seeks to have those who serve in the Armed Forces treated as if they were civilians rather than soldiers. 

However, if we have problems then our European allies are generally much worse off because of such things as overtime and compensatory time off, intrusive and restrictive union activity, conscription justified on political rather than practical grounds, etc.  All this undermines the sense of duty, service and unlimited liability that is the bedrock of Armed Forces if they are to have real utility.  And I would suggest if they don’t have utility, taxpayers are wasting their money.  Perhaps in response to the steady undermining of the military culture, the U.S. Army has, in one sense, gone the other way and has become so focused on sustaining the ‘warrior’ ethos in its soldiers and generating overwhelming combat power that it seems to have lost the confidence and ability to fine tune itself to cope with the nuances that the ‘three block war’ generates.  Like all massive armies it has great difficulty being subtle in spite of the best efforts of many outstanding individuals’ soldiers.  The U.S. military is often and unfairly seen as a soft target for the British, but I do not believe that the U.S. sees the present highly charged and sensitive situation in Iraq in the same way as we do, and it shows.  The situation in Afghanistan is similar and, it was quite clear to me last year, that for the U.S., the reconstruction of Afghanistan was secondary to the wider remit of the Global War on Terror and the destruction of AI Qaida.  The sum total of all this is that there has to be a unity of purpose and a shared conceptual approach if a coalition is to be successful.  Unfortunately, what we see today is different responses to similar problems from nations that pre-1989 had a single and clearly defined focus within NATO.  In short, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has resulted in NATO nations having a choice as to whether they participate or not, and if they do, to specify what role they are prepared to play and the caveats that go with that role.  Many of the caveats are politically driven rather than based on a lack of capability.

8.         If NATO has become an alliance of choice, this presents our enemies at the military/political strategic level the chance to divide and rule.  And the battleground is the world media.  The press remain a powerful force for good or ill in these situations and sadly I felt that a substantial part of the furore over the faked photographs was more to do with the battle between some of the national newspapers than the story itself, to the detriment of the British Army and its ability to continue to do its job in Iraq.  How does a coalition present a united front to the world, particularly if part of the world is fed and happy to accept a distorted view of the motives of those that have decided to take action?  Thus, the continuing justification of what we are doing and why, remains one of the great challenges, especially as differences between allies become increasingly apparent under pressure of events, particularly when things go wrong, as they will.  The political differences between the Germans and the Dutch in the German/Dutch Corps in Afghanistan appeared slight when they were deployed but became more and more difficult to handle as the pressure of events began to make itself felt.  Of particular importance are un-established media who have no brief other than to get pictures back to any station that will carry them.  They do not need sophisticated and expensive equipment and they cannot and will not be controlled.  The military have been very slow in accepting that the chain of information and the chain of command are not one and the same.  There is an inclination to check the story to death by which time the press has moved on and we are left looking cumbersome, ineffective and on occasion dishonest.  I can assure you that the UK are very much more at ease in this environment than some of our NATO allies, many of whom still regard the press as the real enemy and therefore lack the confidence to build up proper working relationships.

9.         Let us now turn our attention to another element that will continue to affect how wars are conducted.  In every conflict zone there will almost certainly be a plethora the Non ­Government Organisations, many of which have political agendas that their donors have imposed upon them and they often have good reason to distrust the military.  The relationships between the military and NGOs are crucial.  Very often they are our eyes and ears and we theirs.  Often the operators are very independent people who become very concerned that relationships with the military will compromise their neutrality.  Too often they regard the military as a liability in their attempt to provide humanitarian aid or reconstruction.  Sometimes they are right because we fail to take into account the constraints under which NGOs work.  If we are to continue to support the reconstruction of failed and failing states, we shall be working with NGOs whether we like it or not.  They must become part of our thought processes and training in a way that they are not at present, and this will require careful preparation of our own people if we are to make the best of the qualities that the NGOs bring to the party.

10.         One of the achievements of network centric warfare is that has made joint and combined operations a reality.  Partly this is because it has enabled the effective co-ordination of weapon and target acquisition systems in a way previously impossible, and partly because systems are just too expensive for all nations to have a complete suite of capabilities.  Therefore, it will often be other nations that provide support for national forces and the support of U.S. operations by UK cruise missiles is but one example of this.  In the same way, U.S. B52 strategic bombers have been deployed from the UK to provide tactical support to soldiers operating several thousand miles away, the target being selected only when they the aircraft is in theatre.  But the final piece of this complex technological jigsaw often depends upon a small team of soldiers who have struggled their way, perhaps even fought their way, to the top of a mountain.  It is from there the sophisticated equipment is used to call in an aircraft that has flown from deepest Gloucestershire to deal with a number of enemy by destroying half a hillside rather than risking the lives of other soldiers to attack it by more conventional means.  In spite of this technical wizardry, British soldiers fighting in far off places in the 1870s would recognise the qualities of mental and physical robustness these soldiers required.  Because of the self-evident value of joint operations, there are those who believe that there is less need for single services and little need for single service training.  I would caution against this.  It looks attractive and would probably save money but I become increasingly convinced that sailors, soldiers and airmen need to be different.  They do different things in different environments and need, therefore, different training. True jointness is achieved when this is understood, the different capabilities and approaches of the three services are integrated, and effective joint training is carried out at the proper levels.

11.         Network centric operations also increases the awareness of all levels of command so that a force is able to react to information more quickly and more effectively and use a wider range of options so as to shatter the cohesion of an enemy and destroy its ability and will to resist. It depends upon reliable, secure and compatible communications across the whole structure. It also enables us to conduct precision operations in a way that we have been unable to do before.  As the enemy resorts to living and fighting amongst the civilian population and infrastructure, the need for precision becomes ever more important if we are to avoid unacceptable loss of life amongst those who happen merely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It also enables a much smaller force to influence a much greater area than its predecessors.  But this comes at a price when there is a rapid transition from war to peace.  At this stage you need boots on the ground because advanced technology is not good at putting up tents for refugees, distributing food to outlying villages, nor interacting with people.  It is very tempting to offer substantial savings in manpower to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of a new system but forget the importance of adequate manpower in physically and morally sustaining a team, and the sense of isolation that can be experienced by soldiers if there are too few people around, especially when things look bleak, as they often will.  In spite of technology, soldierly skills are becoming more not less important as we are forced to operate in increasingly hostile and demanding environments, and when soldiers in the logistics battalion are under at least the same, if not greater threat, than soldiers in the combat arm.

12.         Perhaps the most difficult of all these issues is the question of the balance between equipment capabilities.  Choices in this area represent a very large financial commitment, especially for European countries many of whom have previously structured their forces to fight largely from their home base.  To change from that to a force that is capable of conducting operations as part of a coalition expeditionary operation poses questions across the moral, physical and conceptual spectrum.  But most importantly it poses some very difficult re-equipping problems.  What should the balance be between light and heavy forces?  Light forces have excellent strategic manoeuvrability but lack firepower, protection and tactical manoeuvrability when they get into theatre.  Heavy forces offer excellent protection, firepower and tactical mobility, but take an age to get to a conflict area and require an enormous tail to sustain it.  The UK realised some time ago that their light troops were too light and would be a liability in certain operational scenarios.  Equally it was felt that there was too great an investment in heavy forces.  This has led to the concept of reorganising a proportion of the field army into medium forces. The risk, as ever, is that the equipment falls between two stools.  It is not heavy enough to be used in all circumstances but still requires a substantial tail, which degrades its speed of response.  The USA has its own programme that sets some very demanding deployment and capability requirements.  In Europe, there is a very limited capability in this field and little evidence of much progress.  Many countries find themselves stuck in a legacy equipment trap and can’t afford to purchase the alternatives.  We are all aware of the question marks over the utility of the Typhoon in the most likely scenarios in the near future, and the continuing debate about the Carrier/frigate balance, so there are some difficult decisions ahead.  Changes in equipment also mean changes in concept and that is sometimes seen as threatening in organisations that can be deeply suspicious of change.  I am afraid that my experience amongst my European colleagues was predominantly one of ‘don’t rock the boat, its too difficult.’  There are many at the highest level, and amongst younger officers, who grasp the need for change, not just in equipment capabilities but also in military culture, but they have some difficulty generating enthusiasm for change amongst many middle-ranking officers for whom life in large headquarters has become a comfortable, predictable and undemanding business.  For them change can only result in uncertainty, hard work and is unlikely to benefit them directly.  It is of interest that this is precisely the same reaction that is found in many ex-Warsaw Pact officers confronted with the same challenges.  Once again this is a field in which the UK has an important role to playas a catalyst for change, and why it is so important that we maintain a strong presence in the newly formed and highly influential Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia.

13.         Finally, we must go back to the example I used earlier of the creation of ‘light troops’ in 1776.  In response to the very specific conditions in Afghanistan, reflected in the Kurdish area of Iraq and potentially in areas such as the Horn of Africa, there is a need for substantial numbers of highly experienced troops to conduct the special operations that are required in those situations.  (This, of course, begs the question as to whether a future U.S. administration or British government will choose to engage in expeditionary operations in the near future).  The average age of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001/2 was 25. The U.S. used large numbers of Special Forces, though it has to be said that their definition of Special Forces differs from ours, and in this instance, I believe theirs is becoming more appropriate.  The problem that we have is that technically we have very small Special Forces, which are very stretched.  However, about 30% of an infantry battalion has the experience to conduct many of these more demanding operations as is happening now with the creation of the provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan.  These vital but isolated bases are being manned by the more experienced infantry soldiers from the specialist platoons (reconnaissance, sniper, anti- tank, etc.).  However, if the remainder of the battalion can then only be used for the most mundane security duties, how are the skills to be developed and the operational experience gained that will generate the next batch of experienced soldiers?  The answer to that question at the moment is that the Army is gaining more than enough operational experience in Iraq.  But I suggest that it will be a conundrum that we have to solve in the future and one, which is part and parcel of the new conceptual development process.

14.         This has been an enormously wide and complex subject to which I have done little justice in the time available.  It embraces the conceptual, physical and moral components of how to deal with conflict from war fighting to peacekeeping, from the strategic to the tactical.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is posed by a Cold War legacy that at times is still all too evident, sustained by political and military unwillingness to embrace change and the cost of procuring new capabilities.  But such change is fundamental if the military is to achieve greater relevance and utility than at present.  The conceptual and capability gap between the U.S. and Europe is substantial and growing. At present I believe that the UK is the only nation that can help bridge that gap, though it has to be said that the current situation in Iraq is making that more and more difficult.  There has never been a time when the military has not been required to engage in conceptual development, but it is particularly important today as the challenges set by international terrorism grow more arid more demanding.”