Three Big Ideas on the Future of British Defense

July 21, 2015

As British defense orients itself toward a potentially more complex future operating environment, it may be useful to look inwards and down before looking up and out. Start with the rank system, the orders process, and fostering talent.

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Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a number of conferences related to the upcoming British Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The publication of the latest SDSR this fall will mark the first time a defense review has been conducted on a five-year timetable, hopefully allowing the United Kingdom to re-appraise its strategic situation more rapidly than the previous, more ad hoc nature of reviews. As a result, even though it feels as though the dust has barely settled on the 2010 SDSR, the debate about the future of British defense among military, business, and academic circles has been reinvigorated. In only the past two weeks, the University of Bath and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) hosted a workshop on the future of the British Army, the Army itself held a joint brainstorming session on future logistics as part of Exercise Agile Warrior, and the former heads of the three British services outlined their views on the forthcoming SDSR at the Global Strategy Forum. But to my mind at least, for all the “horizon scanning” at these events, there was relatively little analysis of internal adaptions that could be made to better position British defense for the future.

The big strategic shifts are not new: urbanization, migration, terrorism, increased potential for social disorder, climate change, the growing importance of the littoral environment, and the disruptive effect of technology and automation. Yet the pace of change enabled by the “internet of things” is the most startling trend of all. One of the most interesting moments at the Army’s future logistics conference was a video shown by strategy and consulting firm Accenture that detailed the rapid and disruptive societal effects of the diffusion of technology. For example, 52 percent of 2001’s Fortune 500 companies no longer exist. By 2018, there will be 19 billion connected devices worldwide. According to research by Oxford University, while it took radio 38 years and television 13 years to reach 50 million users, Facebook only took 3.5 years and Angry Birds Space only 35 days to reach the same number of users. Society is speeding up and becoming more connected in the process. Although Patrick Porter has brilliantly critiqued the global village myth that underpins the threat from some of the trends above, it is clear that British defense currently views dealing with complexity as its main challenge over the next 30 years.

To meet these challenges, British defense will need to adapt and innovate. The former director of the United Kingdom Special Forces, Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, recently defined adaptation as the relatively easy-to-make changes that will boost effectiveness within five years, while stating that innovation is harder in that it relies on the development of technologies that will be useful in 25 years. Drawing on advice from technology experts at MIT, Lamb stated that having the right people in the right place is critical to the innovation and delivery of technology capable of winning the wars in 20–30 years. Similarly, the former chief of the defence staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, outlined recently that retention of the right talent is central to the British military’s ability to remain agile, adaptable, and flexible enough to meet future threats. The former service chiefs and the logistics conference concluded that increasing complexity will require more specialized personnel. Clearly, innovation is crucial to the maintenance of capability, and there is much focus on how current and future technology can be harnessed by the military. But ahead of the SDSR, there are a few opportunities on the major adaptation/minor innovation spectrum that could significantly benefit British defense if pursued. Given that — according to what we heard at Agile Warrior — a current British general has directed those in his chain of command to “innovate until apprehended,” I hope the issues of rank and rotation structure, the orders process, and educational benefits receive the serious examination they deserve.

Firstly, the Army’s rank structure and rotational promotion system must be seriously examined. While strict hierarchies may still be needed in the combat arms, it is not clear that they are still required in highly specialized roles such as IT, intelligence, and logistics, wherein operating within a network will become increasingly common and negate the need for delineated hierarchies. At a systems level, attempting to align a tiered rank structure with a network seems out of date. In the same vein, rotating senior non-commissioned officers and officers every two years appears increasingly absurd given the pace of change and rising complexity in security matters. It has long been acknowledged that this career-favoring system is knowledge-destroying. In an era of shrinking militaries in which the demands on each commander are growing, where is the scientific evidence that rotating personnel either benefits retention or strengthens the force? Some simple workflow analysis is perhaps required here, but interviews with other former combat officers suggests that at a minimum they felt they reached a level of expertise after 18 months in post, only to be moved on six months later. What is the point of this? Surely it degrades military capability rather than cultivating it? A business logistics expert at Agile Warrior told me that Army reform should begin with this, as these adaptions can be made relatively easy. There is clearly scope here for change.

I have seen firsthand the human costs of rotating experienced personnel out of theater (against their own desire) due to worries they would be “career-fouled” if they remained with their combat units. Even a three-year rotation would be much better than the current two-year, musical chairs-like system, allowing expertise and confidence to develop. Similarly, why do personnel need to accrue rank to gain seniority and better wages? If talented people and deep expertise are the best chance of addressing the closing technology gap between Western militaries and their adversaries, how are we to foster this? Surely there is scope to develop specialized expertise in many military functions without the need to climb the ranks? The chance to be the “go to” specialist on any issue — from the capabilities of the Pakistani army to the operating properties of a new asset tracking system — addresses the retention issue by offering real personal development in areas that people are interested in. Pay and seniority can be linked with expertise. The reform of the rank, rotation, and promotion system is not a panacea for future threats, but an informed examination of these areas could help the British military, and areas of the Army in particular, strengthen its foundations.

Secondly, the orders process needs to be brought into the 21st century. While the nature of the NATO presence in Afghanistan and Iraq meant that deliberate operations could be planned in relative safety over days or even weeks depending on the tempo of operations, the disruptive effect of technology suggests that the West may not enjoy this luxury in the future. While increasing expertise and the repetition of estimates/orders often led to this process being simplified with the use of briefing slides on operations, the current orders process has generally failed to embrace technological change. Relying on paper or verbally delivered warning orders and subsequent lengthy estimate and orders processes appears increasingly dangerous in an era of high-speed information transfer and digital systems. The current orders system as taught to junior commanders is still based on brain, paper, and pen. At the logistics conference, an anecdote was told about two reservist officers who worked for the shipping company DHL; when their logistics unit was tasked with conducting an estimate, they simply used software to model potential courses of action. They had four different options ready in 20 minutes — before the rest of the planning team had even finished the first question of the estimate. Granted, a logistics concept of operations may be easier to model than those for a combat battlegroup, but why do tactical and even battalion commanders not have access to similar software? It is out there. Similarly, wrist-wearable personal display units equipped with a simple electronic J3 orders system and a situational awareness device would tighten our OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) in the face of more mobile and tech-savvy opponents. It seems a given that with enough smartphones and collective training one could organize a company attack relatively quickly over Whatsapp. Armed groups the world over are already operating this way. It seems like we’re behind the curve. Moreover, with the British Army currently unable to track assets to the frontline user, a J4 “reports and returns” software platform on this device would also help increase asset visibility and hence better management of logistics. Of course, there are issues about security and connectivity, and it is highly likely that such a system is already being considered, but teaching our leaders of tomorrow how to plan operations from a set of questions in a tactical aide memoire seems increasingly out of date.

Finally, if recruiting — and more importantly retaining — the right talent is central to the British military capability, then more must be done in this regard. Specialization and the flattening of rank hierarchies may help. But recent research in the United States has shown how important the educational benefits of the G.I Bill are in retaining both enlisted and officers. My experience serving with U.S. Marines opened my eyes to how important the G.I. Bill is in their decisions to continue to serve. It also offers sections of American society the chance to better their socioeconomic status through its generous terms and transferability. The British military offers comparatively derisory educational benefits, even as recent research on the UK reserves (currently under review) indicates that better educated soldiers are the hardest to retain and are most likely to leave due to a lack of opportunities and boring training. If, as a recent research request outlined, it is time for “blue skies thinking” on how the British Army will recruit and retain its force out to 2040, then surely it is time to do serious cost-benefit analyses of introducing something similar to the G.I Bill in the UK. The three big ideas above are by no means exhaustive; they are simply some thoughts about what seemed to be missing from the recent conferences. As British defense orients itself toward a potentially more complex future operating environment, it may be useful to look inwards and down before looking up and out. Now is the time to question what is so often taken for granted or deemed unchangeable. Because if what we currently have is wrong, we won’t know until it is too late.


Patrick Bury is a former infantry captain currently undertaking his PhD at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. His views are his own.


Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence

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One thought on “Three Big Ideas on the Future of British Defense

  1. The problems with 2-year tours, particularly in procurement, has been recognised for a while, it’s been a particular focus of Bernard Gray ever since his 2009 report and…we’re getting there.

    Stores management has been a recognised problem for decades, but again Gray has been getting on top of it, and a contract was issued a few months ago to Leidos (nee SAIC) for Logistics Commodities and Services (Transformation) which will implement end-to-end logistics tracking.