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Political soldiers: Do political imperatives drive UK military doctrine?

Dr Alex Gould & Dr David Morgan-Owen

Lecturer and Historian in the Defence Studies Department, School of Security Studies, King's College London

06 June 2022

Between the autumn of 2020 and the summer of 2021, the British military published a series of documents setting out an ambitious vision for the future of the UK’s military power. Whereas the much discussed Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper set out a broad vision for UK foreign and security policy, these primarily military documents set out to offer a new framework for the future of how the UK would conceive of and utilise the armed forces.

As the new ‘Integrated Operating Concept’ stated, its aim was to foster ‘a fundamental transformation in the military instrument and the way it is used’. Appearing in what he referred to as a valedictory session of the parliamentary Defence Select Committee in early November 2021, the departing Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, underlined the importance of the new Operating Concept. ‘If you are going to win the argument for more resources in Defence’, he argued, ‘fundamentally it needs to be underpinned by the conceptual component of fighting power, hence the importance of this little book, the ‘Integrated Operating Concept’.

The substance of these documents and their connection to the material and financial realities of UK Defence Policy have promoted a wealth of well-informed discussion and critique. In particular, the emphasis which Carter and other senior officers have placed upon cyber conflict and developments in AI and robotics have attracted considerable discussion, as has the ubiquitous language of ‘grey zone’ warfare. Yet the politics of these documents has attracted rather less attention.

In a new article recently published in the European Journal of International Security, we argue that these publications can be read as a form of civil-military dialogue intended to maximise the political influence of the armed forces within the British state. These documents, and others like them, consistently instrumentalise military claims to possess authoritative knowledge about global security dynamics and the changing character of war in ways intended to serve the political interests of the armed forces. As Carter himself acknowledged, the ‘conceptual component’ is inherently political in the context of a competition for resources and power.

The politics of military innovation

The instrumentalisation of ideas about future warfare is not new, nor unique to the British context. Yet a credible case can be made that these dynamics have intensified in recent years, driven by declining budgets and increased competition within a broadening national security ecosystem.

Since the late 1990s the British armed forces have come to place considerable importance on assessing the character of future conflicts. The work of the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) offers a sense of analytical rigor to these efforts, but visions of the future are also central to the rhetoric and theatre of military transformation and innovation more generally.

In a speech at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference in 2009, for instance, David Richards stated that ‘technology and globalisation has materially altered the way inter-state and non-state wars will be fought’. As a result, he claimed, the UK needed a ‘fundamental re-think of the way we prepare and equip our armed forces for the twenty-first century’. Doctrinal thinking on future war have thus become increasingly embedded in what has been referred to as the ‘politics of military innovation’ in the UK. New ‘concepts’ often appear tailored to justify reforms that are, in reality, determined by the political priorities of the incumbent government.

The formation of a ‘war-fighting division’ in SDSR 2015 is a good example of this process in action. Recently arrived as Chief of the General Staff, Nick Carter stressed that the division was a necessary response to the increased threat of inter-state warfare heralded by the Russian annexation of Crimea. Appearing before the Defence Select Committee he argued that the division was ‘where the full orchestra comes together. It is where all the capabilities that you need to compete in the state-on-state space happen’.

Five years after these comments, the delivery of key elements of the warfighting division – including the Ajax vehicles for the two intended strike brigades and the number of Challenger tanks projected to be upgraded – are in very serious doubt. The MoD now admits that the 2015 SDSR ‘did not fully resource the Army to achieve this output’ and that the modernisation programme is under ‘increasing pressure’. Yet rather than address the financial, political, and bureaucratic shortcomings that have conspired to render undeliverable this apparently vital capability necessary for the ‘state on state’ conflicts of the 2020s, the IOpC shifted position and argued that the character of future conflict had rendered the armoured division an anachronism.

Nick Carter, now CDS, himself shifted position to argue that ‘some industrial age capabilities will have to meet their “sunset” to create the space for capabilities needed for “sunrise”’. This change appears to be primarily motivated by ongoing problems with Defence procurement, particularly with regards to armoured vehicles, and by an accompanying desire for Defence to embody the assumptions of the government’s ‘Global Britain’ and technology agendas.

In this context, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the diagnosis of the current ‘character of conflict’ that runs through the IOpC, and MDI has been conceived primarily in order to situate Defence to meet changing political pressures.

Implications

We argue that these trends represent a significant feature of contemporary civil-military discourse in Western democracies, and that the inherently political nature of knowledge about war is a viable and timely subject for greater scrutiny from scholars of civil-military relations. From the military perspective, we also suggest that the politicisation of high-level doctrine and concepts in this way carries significant risk.

If developing and sustaining a monopoly over how the future character of conflict is depicted and understood within government continues to be viewed as a source of political leverage by the MoD and armed forces, it will further centralise control over public discussions of these important issues. The MoD’s unwillingness to countenance dissenting voices in the public sphere is already well known, and can be evidenced by bizarre instances such as attempts to suppress the publication of critical books such as Mike Martin’s An Intimate War and Simon Akam’s Changing of the Guard. This attitude fosters disengagement and frustration from the great many serving and retired professionals who are minded to contribute to a more open and dynamic dialogue about strategy and future security, and must be seen as counterproductive and unnecessary. Possessed of the resource of an engaged and professional workforce, why would an armed force seek to minimise the pathways through which a much wider range of military thinkers could contribute to the evolution of its doctrinal and conceptual future?

Moreover, seeking to diagnose the future of conflict risks immediately and dramatically undermining the credibility of military knowledge within government if and when such predictions go awry. Even though Nick Carter refuses to classify Afghanistan as a failure, he was prepared to admit that ‘everyone got it wrong’ when predicting the capacity of the Afghan security forces. This failure and others like highlight the inherently speculative nature of future war gazing, and the reputational risks involved in predicating ones conceptual development on it.

 

David Morgan-Owen is a historian in the Defence Studies Department, School of Security Studies, King's College London. His research focuses on the theory and practice of strategy. For the period of 2021–2 he is a non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute, West Point.

Alex Gould is a Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, School of Security Studies, King's College London. His research focuses on the politics of practice and knowledge in the governance of global politics and security.

In this story

David Morgan-Owen

David Morgan-Owen

Reader in the History of War

Alex Gould

Alex Gould

Lecturer in the Future of Conflict

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