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Some Ideas From Britain On Preparing For Future Wars

January 20, 2010
British Military march at the Gay Pride Parade in London.

British military march at London's Gay Pride Parade in 2009. CC-licensed photo courtesy Flickr user 'idrewuk'.

It’s a cliché that armies are always well prepared to fight the last war, but I suspect it’s equally true that sensible military and civilian leaders have always done their best to anticipate what potential challenges might lie just over the horizon.  In the UK, the heads of the army, navy and air force are currently setting out their respective visions for the immediate future of the armed forces, ahead of an expected review of defence spending. Even from a Canadian perspective, the public side of this discussion is well worth paying attention to. We all have to cope with the same global strategic environment, and in many respects Canada’s priorities and world view are not so different from Britain’s.

So far, the most radical ideas in the British conversation seem to be coming from General Sir David Richards, head of the British Army. His basic argument is that Britain’s military needs to adapt to a new era of counterinsurgency and cyberwarfare, with an emphasis on flexibility and intelligence over firepower and well-trained personnel over “expensive hardware such as large warships, tanks and fighter jets”. He seems to envision the likely opponents of the near future as guerrillas, terrorists and saboteurs, rather than large mechanised forces on conventional battlefields.

Last year, in his first speech as Chief of the General Staff, Richards touched on a similar theme and used a striking comparison to drive home the magnitude of the change he considered necessary:

Suggesting that Britain should spend less money on traditional systems like fighter jets and warships, the general said the Forces faced a turning point like that after the First World War when some commanders resisted replacing horse-borne cavalry with tanks and other motorised units.

However, I’m not sure the analogy is entirely valid. Tanks were introduced because they could do the traditional job of cavalry in a superior way: an armoured machine with a cannon can wreak destruction on the enemy more effectively than a soldier on horseback, and is less vulnerable to retaliation. Richards, however, is saying that the armed forces need to prepare themselves for an entirely new type of warfare, or at least a fluid and chaotic type that has not traditionally been emphasised.

This vision was presumably inspired by the past couple of years of combat in Afghanistan, in which skirmishes, ambushes and even assassinations (by CIA drones, for instance) have predominated over massed battles. However, it’s worth remembering that the Taliban turned decisively to bomb attacks and guerrilla tactics only after being repeatedly defeated in more conventional engagements such as the Battle of Panjwaii in 2006. Furthermore, recent conflicts in Iraq and the Balkans might have unfolded very differently if America and its allies had not been able to deploy overwhelming firepower of a very conventional and technological kind. And to cite a specifically Canadian concern, drones and counterinsurgency forces will hardly be sufficient to maintain sovereign control over our Arctic territory.

This leaves Britain, Canada and other Western countries in the position of needing to become increasingly effective at counterinsurgency-type warfare while also maintaining their conventional capabilities. Perhaps part of the solution to this quandary lies in equipment that can play multiple roles, such as aircraft that can be used to either bomb insurgents or take on the fighter planes of a hostile state. But in my opinion we would be foolish to neglect conventional military training and technology in favour of an obsessive focus on counterinsurgency. The real debate lies in finding the appropriate balance between the two imperatives.

A further complication is that counterinsurgency, and its close cousin counterterrorism, really do represent a type of warfare too important to be left to the generals. Defending Canada from terrorism involves difficult policy decisions about the appropriate balance between security and civil liberties, although I personally think very few of the infringements of traditional liberties that we’ve seen in recent years are really justified. Counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan have been plagued by the similarly tricky problem of how to treat captured militants who float somewhere between the traditional categories of “enemy soldier” and “common criminal”. Western countries have yet to find a good solution to this, as the Afghan detainee scandal in Canada and the ongoing controversy over Guantánamo Bay in the United States both demonstrate.

I do have some further thoughts on these issues, but I’ll save them for future posts. For now, I would simply suggest that Canada needs to build some tanks while also keeping a few good horses in the stable.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 20, 2010 11:59 am

    Really interesting, well-written analysis, Corwin. Thanks for this – I wasn’t aware how innovative the British military has been until your post – it’s not something I’ve read much about. I certainly can attest to the Canadian military’s willingness to test unconventional methods as far as new media and technologies are concerned – members of the Canadian military, in civilian clothing, were some of the most engaged and interesting participants of the new media-heavy ForeignPolicyCamp we held this past November, leaving me with a new sense of respect for Canadian military as an independent body.

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