An American in Her Majesty’s Ministry of Defence


By any measure, the United Kingdom has been one of the most (if not the most) reliable military allies for the United States since World War II. From the Cold War onwards, through the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United Kingdom has played a vital role in supporting the United States in the preservation of the international system forged in the aftermath of the defeat of fascism in the mid-20th century. Against this backdrop, and despite the deep historical and functional ties that exist between the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence establishments of the United States and United Kingdom, it would come as a surprise to many that there is no permanent, uniformed U.S. military presence within the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MOD) dedicated solely to joint strategic planning.

At present, there exist rich and robust coordinating mechanisms between the uniformed service staffs of these two close allies (for example, the British Army Staff to U.S. Army Staff exchange program), operational headquarters (liaison officers and embedded operational planners at U.S. Geographic Combatant Commands and the U.K. Permanent Joint Headquarters), and military education systems within each nation. However, this dynamic is presentationally and functionally unbalanced at the strategic level. For while the U.K. MOD has a dedicated uniformed presence within the Pentagon, through the office of the Chief of Defence Staff Liaison to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in Washington, D.C. through the British Defence Staff-U.S., the Department of Defense has no corollary within the Ministry of Defence or in Whitehall.

At a time when the U.S. government and defense establishment increasingly comments on the need to do more with partners and allies, the time is right and ripe to further enhance Anglo-American strategic planning and coordination through the establishment of a permanent, uniformed, and dedicated body of embedded strategic planners and Joint Staff Liaison Officers within the Ministry of Defence. This need is all the more critical following the end of major enduring coalition operations of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in many ways provided the context and impetus for close strategic, operational, and tactical collaboration.

Detractors to this proposal could challenge that the interoperability and integration between the militaries of each country could not be closer. On its face, this argument is fair and accurate, but only at the operational and tactical level. Much more can be done within and between the Pentagon and Ministry of Defence, particularly on legitimate strategic-level concerns, including long term planning, prioritization of effort (in a proactive, and less reactive manner), and active horizon scanning for emergent areas that could call for complementary programs and policies, especially in the context of building partner capacity and security cooperation. As recent U.S. Quadrennial Defense Reviews and National Security Strategies direct, the United States must do more with partners and allies now, and improve the conduct of current collaboration with established allies. From this vantage point, there are tremendous benefits, for both countries, that could come about through permanently embedding U.S. strategic planners and liaison officers within the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

First, a permanent strategic planning presence would support enhanced alliance management, and would directly contribute to collaborative priorities at the confluence of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, and Combatant Command interests. Supported by a clear mandate from the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and empowered by established reach-back mechanisms to the Joint Staff and, when applicable, relevant Combatant Commands, U.S. uniformed personnel embedded within the Ministry of Defence would be a critical enabler for U.S. national strategic plans and priorities in concert with the United States’ closest ally. Such placement could also offer a complementary role to bespoke civil servant exchanges that already exist between the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy, and its opposite number in the U.K., Defence Strategic Priorities. Finally, the establishment of embedded U.S. military planners would provide a real time “focal point” for American matters within the ministry, serving as an invaluable conduit to U.S. planners in Washington and around the world, and decoding and communicating intent on major U.S. strategic initiatives.

This initiative would also create a cohort of subject matter experts on the Anglo-American alliance. These individuals would provide a form of intellectual continuity, thereby addressing the current periodicity gap that exists between the occasional, and at times, ad hoc bilateral strategy development and alliance management functions on the one hand, and more frequent operational planning and execution on the other. Persistent, dedicated presence, especially as fully embedded and empowered staff officers, builds credibility and equities that reveal themselves during times of crisis and strategic shock.

Third, embedding U.S. strategic planners would allow the United States to gain an “insider” appreciation of the influences on allied strategic calculation beyond bilateral engagement (and our own biases and assumptions about how and why our allies “should” behave in the first place). For example, variables such as standing defense-related treaties (i.e. the U.K.-France Lancaster House Agreement), and the dynamics of domestic politics (especially in the differences in parliamentary vs. constitutional democracies) continually influence the atmospherics of allied decision making. Familiarity with vastly different organizational designs and processes (the United Kingdom does not have anything like the Joint Staff/OSD split in the Pentagon) matters as well when advising what is in the realm of the possible and plausible in an allied dynamic. To have an impact on bilateral issues, and identify and anticipate opportunities for optimized strategic alignment, one must understand how best to navigate and interpret the intricacies and eccentricities of one’s own national security enterprise, and also that of one’s allied partner. Mastering this complexity only comes about through dedicated, long term immersive experiences within the political/military “context” of an ally’s strategic generation and implementation machinery. In short, this sort of placement would ensure that embedded U.S. strategic planners would be “acculturated” to the environment in which the United Kingdom makes decisions on resources and formalizes its strategic direction.

Permanently embedding U.S. strategic planners as I recommend would build the growing trend of placing representatives of Five Eyes partner nations (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) in increased positions of authority and responsibility within each other’s respective service staffs, large unit headquarters, organizations, and task forces. For example, select U.K. Army officers currently hold U.S. Army division chief positions within the U.S. Army G3/5/7 (operations, plans, logistics, and training) staff. U.S. Army Pacific recently established a permanent billet for an Australian Army two star general to serve as the Deputy Commanding General of Operations, the first foreign general to be assigned to a major Army Service Component Command. In 2013, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division selected a one star U.K. Army brigadier to serve as the Deputy Commanding General of the “Big Red One.” These examples (and there are many more) illustrate the demonstrated support, interest, and utility of “cross-pollinating” Five Eyes talent across the armed services of these nations. Placing strategic planners within the strategic headquarters of close allies is the next logical step in this trajectory, beginning with U.S. representation in the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

As the current geostrategic environment demonstrates, working with partners and allies is more critical now than ever, particularly during times of decreased resources and increased challenges. Crises in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe demand that the United States and its closest allies and partners, especially the U.K., find new ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their strategic collaboration. Winston Churchill’s remark on alliance management has as much resonance today as it did during the Second World War: “The only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is fighting a war without them.”


MAJ Scott A. Smitson, PhD, is an Army Strategist and a member of the CENTCOM Commander’s Action Group (CAG). From 2013-2014, he was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, serving as a US-UK Strategic Planner in the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence. He holds a Joint PhD in Political Science and Public Policy from Indiana University, and is the author of The Road to Good Intentions: British Nation-building in Aden.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff