Changing the army - how?

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Do you really believe that the army failed?
Absolutely. I think politicians bore a great deal of responsibility for lack of direction, will and resourcing. But the Army specifically and Defence generally shoulder more of the blame for pursuing institutional and personal self-interest, professional incompetence, unwillingness to change, denial of problems, and ultimately actively deceiving both politicians and the public. All of those things contributed much more to failure at the operational level than disinterested politicians.

The fact that we saw relatively few clear defeats at the tactical level, against divided militia groups who we massively outmatched in resources and training, is not a strong recommendation. We also failed to decisively defeat them (the US can at least claim a solid tactical victory that lasted for a good few years in 2001), and lest anyone forget, had to be bailed out by the US and Iraqi / Afghan allies not once, but twice. We should expect much, much more from a competent professional Army.

If either campaign had been a clear example of operational success that was squandered by incompetent strategic or political settlements, there might be some case to absolve the Army. But they weren't. The British Army specifically lost Basra, were bailed out by the US/Iraqi Army, then left. The British Army specifically failed to secure Helmand and instead presided over increasing violence until a surge of additional US troops temporarily stabilised it. The best that can be said for Helmand in 2014 is that it was a stalemate prompted by a massive influx of additional non-British troops (itself failing to achieve the mission we had been given, if I stall and fail to take the objective but the reserve platoon succeeds, then they succeeded and not me). At no point did we achieve our missions or leave following operational victory. How is that not failure?
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
I'm not saying that the statement is necessarily a good thing, but in itself, it certainly isn't a bad thing. The British Army has always been good at training others, however training itself and then performing at the highest level has always been a bit patchy.

I think you're misunderstanding the point I was making and I probably didn't explain myself clearly enough. There's a lot of very useful self-examination and rightful criticism to be had on this site on this subject but in the rush to beat ourselves up, we often overlook any successes we may have. Of course, we would be wrong to assume that those successes are enough to compensate for the failure of the Army at every level to define its role and then train and equip itself properly to carry it out.

It isn't going to be fixed soon, but I sense that the war in Ukraine will focus minds, potentially to the Army's advantage when future funding rounds are under discussion. Whether the Army is to be trusted to make the most of any settlement is another question entirely.
Put simply, my rush to beat the Army up is because I still see and hear epic levels of complacency and self-deception among those still in. The converse argument to yours is that focusing on the successes (which tends to be the party line), however slight they are, functions to evade addressing more serious problems. Specifically, the Army I experienced was one that had fallen into the trap of preferring its own PR to reality. Those of us who have argued that were, I think, proved right in August 2021. So I'm super-sensitive to similar behaviour now, and at least with me, that is an empirical finding and not a political bias.

If I think the balance of reality favours the successes, I'll be more inclined to talk about those. Until it does, I'm not. Quite simply, an Army that is getting a lot right doesn't need cheerleaders. An Army that is getting a lot wrong does need critics.

Patrick Sanders as good as said this in his RUSI "Op Mobilise" speech, and both he and Wallace pointed to the new Net Assessment team as being created to challenge orthodoxies.
 

Garminalpha84

Old-Salt
Absolutely. I think politicians bore a great deal of responsibility for lack of direction, will and resourcing. But the Army specifically and Defence generally shoulder more of the blame for pursuing institutional and personal self-interest, professional incompetence, unwillingness to change, denial of problems, and ultimately actively deceiving both politicians and the public. All of those things contributed much more to failure at the operational level than disinterested politicians.

The fact that we saw relatively few clear defeats at the tactical level, against divided militia groups who we massively outmatched in resources and training, is not a strong recommendation. We also failed to decisively defeat them (the US can at least claim a solid tactical victory that lasted for a good few years in 2001), and lest anyone forget, had to be bailed out by the US and Iraqi / Afghan allies not once, but twice. We should expect much, much more from a competent professional Army.

If either campaign had been a clear example of operational success that was squandered by incompetent strategic or political settlements, there might be some case to absolve the Army. But they weren't. The British Army specifically lost Basra, were bailed out by the US/Iraqi Army, then left. The British Army specifically failed to secure Helmand and instead presided over increasing violence until a surge of additional US troops temporarily stabilised it. The best that can be said for Helmand in 2014 is that it was a stalemate prompted by a massive influx of additional non-British troops (itself failing to achieve the mission we had been given, if I stall and fail to take the objective but the reserve platoon succeeds, then they succeeded and not me). At no point did we achieve our missions or leave following operational victory. How is that not failure?
Wasn’t the failure at Basrah and Helmand due to the lack of political will? You rightly cede that the USMC temporary controlled Helmand, with how many more troops?
I am no way defending the army however setting troop limits and staying in parliament no shots will be fired didn’t really help?
Iraq enabled the failure in Afghanistan a Armed forces of our size couldn’t effectively operate on two fronts, hence they both failed.

Castrating capabilities and leveraging other services to end able a force of 10k in Afghanistan is in itself worthy of an inquiry, what idiot thought of 6 month tours which had more training and build up than the actual deployment?

Don’t get me started on the draw down and subsequent shit show of the withdrawal.
 

Pteranadon

LE
Book Reviewer
The army at Minden had been training and fighting for almost as long as WW2, and the army at Waterloo was about 10% veterans...which approximately equals all JNCOs and SNCOs given the formations at the time, plus some for luck.
The biggest part of Wellington's army was made up of Germans. Newly recruited Hannoverians and Kings German Legion veterans, Nassauers and Brunswickers. A dollop of Dutch and Belgians, militiamen and regulars. Many of the Dutch Belgian and Nassau soldiers were indeed veterans, but had fought for Napoleon until 1814.

Captain Koch was the adjutant of the 9th Dutch Militia at Waterloo. A German born in Waldeck near the Edersee, he was curious to discover the adjutant of the neighboring unit holding back NCOs after the battalion parade - and discovered this s was for training in drill and tactical theory. Koch reflected that in 11 years operational service from 1803-1814 private to lieutenant he had never studied any theory. He did however study diligently in 1815.

Not quite sure quite how this addresses the topic, but "Wellington's Army" was not the British Scum of the Earth officered by old Etonians. And training and experience are complicated matters.
 
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Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Wasn’t the failure at Basrah and Helmand due to the lack of political will? You rightly cede that the USMC temporary controlled Helmand, with how many more troops?
I am no way defending the army however setting troop limits and staying in parliament no shots will be fired didn’t really help?
Iraq enabled the failure in Afghanistan a Armed forces of our size couldn’t effectively operate on two fronts, hence they both failed.

Castrating capabilities and leveraging other services to end able a force of 10k in Afghanistan is in itself worthy of an inquiry, what idiot thought of 6 month tours which had more training and build up than the actual deployment?

Don’t get me started on the draw down and subsequent shit show of the withdrawal.
In Basra, certainly not. The failure was directly one of military strategy and incoherence, and originated from (variably) the COB and PJHQ. Quite a few books have broken this down now, and noted that politicians did exactly what the MOD advised, and that the US command chain were dead against the British approach. One of the things Defence is keen to forget is that the "failure of political will" was, in fact, a recommendation within Defence to switch resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. That also makes Afghanistan more culpable, both because we didn't have the two front problem, and we still didn't learn the strategic lessons from Iraq.

In Helmand, it's more complex. Certainly, political will had a big effect towards the end. But at that point the operation had effectively already become a stalemate. A lot more focus should be given to the really atrocious planning failures at the start. To this day the controversial operational estimate for HERRICK, which several officers have said was culpably poor and set the conditions for failure, remains lost. That was an MOD function, not a political one.

Subsequently, far too much focus was given to mowing the grass or pushing insurgents from district to district, all in service of self-aggrandising 6-month operational "objectives" which conveniently padded Brigadier and Lt Col OJARs, and far too little to the bad news that almost anyone at the ground level could and did pass up the chain. Almost none of that bad news reached higher levels. That is what I mean when I said the military actively deceived the public and politicians. August 2021 was the logical extension of that behaviour.

Within that context, it doesn't substantially matter that political will failed after Cameron became PM. The Army that was deployed in Helmand couldn't have won the province had it stayed there another two decades - an actual figure that was thrown around by some generals at the time. It created a hollow shell of frenetic activity that garnered promotions, medals and prestige for the British Army, but which disintegrated the moment that pressure was applied once western support left. We weren't the only ones who did this - obviously the whole ISAF campaign shared some of these problems - but we didn't buck the trend, and we were in particular denial about what was actually happening, and particularly boastful about what we pretended was happening

The best that can be said for the British Army in Helmand, at an institutional level, is that we played the longest game of jenga on record.

Usual disclaimer - none of this denies the sometimes (although less than often claimed) heroic efforts of individuals. But like everyone who was there, we each have to examine the fact that none of that prevented wholesale strategic failure.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
The biggest part of Wellington's army was made up of Germans. Newly recruited Hannoverians and Kings German Legion veterans, Nassauers and Brunswickers. A dollop of Dutch and Belgians, militiamen and regulars. Many of the Dutch Belgian and Nassau soldiers were indeed veterans, but had fought for Napoleon until 1814.

Captain Koch was the adjutant of the 9th Dutch Militia at Waterloo. A German born in Waldeck near the Edersee, he was curious to discover the adjutant of the neighboring unit holding back NCOs after the battalion parade - and discovered this s was for training in drill and tactical theory. Koch reflected that in 11 years operational service from 1803-1814 private to lieutenant he had never studied any theory. He did however study diligently in 1815.
10% of the British forces were Penninsular veterans, which comprised just under a third of the British soldiers. Yes, the rest were German, Netherlands, etc. I don't imagine the British veterans were distributed among the foreign forces, given language difficulties etc.

The original suggestion was that the British troops at Waterloo were "rookies", actually they (British regiments) were 1/3 veterans, and the army as a whole (British plus foreign regiments) was at least 10% veterans. Likely more, I imagine some of the other forces had experience too.
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
Yes, the rest were German, Netherlands, etc. I don't imagine the British veterans were distributed among the foreign forces, given language difficulties etc.
Of course the "Germans" included the excellent KGL.

IRRC Wellington ensured that experienced battalions from the Peninsular - whom of course he knew well - were deployed between less experienced Bns in the hope that their steadiness was infections, which it turned out it was. (Although if you're a rookie Bn once you've formed square and are surrounded by hostile cavalry, your options are limited to fold and die or load and fire).
 

Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
Put simply, my rush to beat the Army up is because I still see and hear epic levels of complacency and self-deception among those still in. The converse argument to yours is that focusing on the successes (which tends to be the party line), however slight they are, functions to evade addressing more serious problems. Specifically, the Army I experienced was one that had fallen into the trap of preferring its own PR to reality. Those of us who have argued that were, I think, proved right in August 2021. So I'm super-sensitive to similar behaviour now, and at least with me, that is an empirical finding and not a political bias.

If I think the balance of reality favours the successes, I'll be more inclined to talk about those. Until it does, I'm not. Quite simply, an Army that is getting a lot right doesn't need cheerleaders. An Army that is getting a lot wrong does need critics.

Patrick Sanders as good as said this in his RUSI "Op Mobilise" speech, and both he and Wallace pointed to the new Net Assessment team as being created to challenge orthodoxies.
I heard Sanders and Wallace in person and what they said was just what I wanted to hear. I think you are still misunderstanding my post - I haven’t said anything about focussing on successes, just that they shouldn’t be ignored in the headlong rush to criticise. And yes, as I also said in my post, there is much to criticise and to change and improve before the Army can look itself in the mirror.

So what you think is ‘my argument’ is not my argument at all.
 
Absolutely. I think politicians bore a great deal of responsibility for lack of direction, will and resourcing. But the Army specifically and Defence generally shoulder more of the blame for pursuing institutional and personal self-interest, professional incompetence, unwillingness to change, denial of problems, and ultimately actively deceiving both politicians and the public. All of those things contributed much more to failure at the operational level than disinterested politicians.

The fact that we saw relatively few clear defeats at the tactical level, against divided militia groups who we massively outmatched in resources and training, is not a strong recommendation. We also failed to decisively defeat them (the US can at least claim a solid tactical victory that lasted for a good few years in 2001), and lest anyone forget, had to be bailed out by the US and Iraqi / Afghan allies not once, but twice. We should expect much, much more from a competent professional Army.

If either campaign had been a clear example of operational success that was squandered by incompetent strategic or political settlements, there might be some case to absolve the Army. But they weren't. The British Army specifically lost Basra, were bailed out by the US/Iraqi Army, then left. The British Army specifically failed to secure Helmand and instead presided over increasing violence until a surge of additional US troops temporarily stabilised it. The best that can be said for Helmand in 2014 is that it was a stalemate prompted by a massive influx of additional non-British troops (itself failing to achieve the mission we had been given, if I stall and fail to take the objective but the reserve platoon succeeds, then they succeeded and not me). At no point did we achieve our missions or leave following operational victory. How is that not failure?

I had to reread your post a couple of times, please tell me that you’re not writing a book along the lines of ministry of defeat or changing of the guard
 

green_slime

War Hero
areas of failure have been identified but where are the successes, which should be reinforced?

Military training of foreign forces, intelligence, SF - essentially force projection and influence, what else?
 
Sanders is - politely - on something stronger than coffee.

He makes a whole host of assumptions that have little or no provenance apart from trying to gee the Army up.
 
Disagree. I go with @Bubbles_Barker on this.
Most of the men at Minden and Waterloo were rookies.
We won.
Nothing has changed in reality.
That's the bit we should worry about.

An officer corps that 200(+) years later, still looks to Waterloo as incontrovertible evidence of innate Brit superirority in all things military.

Conveniently overlooking the motherfvcking Hungarian goat-fvck shambles of the Crimea 40 years later, and any number of other more recent difficulties.

I really, really, do wish educated soldiers could learn to stop looking (dewy-eyed) over their shoulders at the myths of British miltary supremacy in the Days Of Empire, and instead look more openly and realistically at how to grow a 21stC army that might meet that mythical standard.

"We taught Ukraine" is a comforting thought, but it ignores the fact that:
  • Other nations are doing likewise, and;
  • The UKEs have 'form' - look what they did to the Wehrmacht. So it's not like any NATO troops are converting a nation of pacifists to be good soldiers.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
I had to reread your post a couple of times, please tell me that you’re not writing a book along the lines of ministry of defeat or changing of the guard
Why write for an audience that has decided not to listen? Any writer with some time on their hands would have a a better chance of starting up a new religion or coining a world-changing political theory than convincing the British Army it was wrong.

You evaded my question. If as a cadet at Sandhurst I had failed to achieve my missions, that would have been marked as failure. Do you think Basra and Helmand should have been judged differently?
 

Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
That's the bit we should worry about.

An officer corps that 200(+) years later, still looks to Waterloo as incontrovertible evidence of innate Brit superirority in all things military.

Conveniently overlooking the motherfvcking Hungarian goat-fvck shambles of the Crimea 40 years later, and any number of other more recent difficulties.

I really, really, do wish educated soldiers could learn to stop looking (dewy-eyed) over their shoulders at the myths of British miltary supremacy in the Days Of Empire, and instead look more openly and realistically at how to grow a 21stC army that might meet that mythical standard.

"We taught Ukraine" is a comforting thought, but it ignores the fact that:
  • Other nations are doing likewise, and;
  • The UKEs have 'form' - look what they did to the Wehrmacht. So it's not like any NATO troops are converting a nation of pacifists to be good soldiers.
Hey, there’s another one!

Absolutely not what I said. I didn’t say it was a ‘comforting thought’ I said it was something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

And actually, as far as training Ukrainians is concerned, others as far as I know, are not doing likewise to the same extent.
 
Why write for an audience that has decided not to listen? Any writer with some time on their hands would have a a better chance of starting up a new religion or coining a world-changing political theory than convincing the British Army it was wrong.

You evaded my question. If as a cadet at Sandhurst I had failed to achieve my missions, that would have been marked as failure. Do you think Basra and Helmand should have been judged differently?
To be honest I missed your question, although both areas were differently constrained by RoE there were small successes with bigger failures.
Basra is different from Helmand, just like Al Amara is different to Lashkar Gah


One thing for sure, there are always and will be those who were war tourists and there were those who were war fighters….

I defer to your earlier line
I suspect I've got a little more combat experience, and a lot more training experience

Some people are born naturally good at what they do best, others require a colour Sjt politely telling them how it’s done.

I await your tome hitting Waterstones.
 
Sanders is - politely - on something stronger than coffee.

He makes a whole host of assumptions that have little or no provenance apart from trying to gee the Army up.

Any open sources or is this first hand impressions am not logging on until Monday tomorrows a day for painting fences and ahem hammock snoozing
 

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