Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list, works as a defence consultant and is a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces.
One of the first briefings that the new Prime Minister will have received is from his National Security Advisor and senior military leaders. The primary duty of a Prime Minister is the defence of the realm and in the past 12 months, the UK has been on the receiving end of a string of hostile acts by other countries – a chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, daily cyber-attacks against government and commercial IT systems and attempts to seize British vessels in international waters. Most of these acts have been carried out by countries which publicly claim to be our friends. In private, military leaders and diplomats discuss how to counter the obviously hostile intent of the countries we continue to trade with and visit on holiday.
As the Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, set out for ConHome last year, we now find ourselves in a state of “constant competition” – a space somewhere between outright conflict and peace. This is the new norm. We are unlikely to go into head-to-head armed conflict with Russia, China or Iran, but these countries continue to commit openly hostile acts against the UK, to which a lack of response will only be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a free pass for them to ratchet up their attacks.
Boris Johnson and his new Foreign and Defence secretaries, will therefore be looking for options in this so-called “Gray zone”, where the aim is to increase the cost of our adversaries carrying out nefarious activities (and then denying their involvement) – e.g. Russia destabilising democratic processes, carrying out assassinations on UK soil, or China launching cyber-attacks against British infrastructure. It is broadly accepted that we have fallen behind in this race. Our Armed Forces now find themselves at the forefront of catching up, and have been quietly transforming themselves to fight in this new arena, previously the diplomatic preserve of the Foreign Office. Their task is to generate ways to outmanoeuvre our adversaries and to downgrade their capabilities to outmanoeuvre us.
This requires a very new way of working for our defence establishment, used to training men and officers in broadly the same way for the past 350 years, used to designing and procuring submarines and aircraft over 20-year cycles and used to operating within strictly-defined Rules of Engagement and Standard Operating Procedures laid down by civil servants in the Ministry of Defence.
The era of constant competition provides three real challenges to the status quo, with which the new PM and Secretary of State for Defence will have to grapple:
Agility of procurement
In a time of war, the Armed Forces can buy whatever they need rapidly through “Urgent Operational Requirements”. They can buy directly from whomever they judge best and don’t have to worry about how the kit, supplies or technology will be supported once the conflict is over. Traditionally, in peacetime, the 30,000-strong workforce at Defence Equipment and Support is responsible for procuring whatever the Armed Forces need. But, this doesn’t work particularly well when we are operating in the middle of those two states. The Armed Forces need to be able to rapidly purchase emerging technologies and trial them; they need to be able to link up in ecosystems with universities, start-ups, entrepreneurs and established industry players to experiment and rapidly develop prototypes. Ask any military officer who has tried and they will describe the crushing and demoralising bureaucracy, approvals and processes which make this nearly impossible at present.
We like to think that our adversaries don’t have to worry about such fripperies as commercial transparency or project management, but we shouldn’t think they have it much easier. Their militaries are even more centralised, riven with internal factions and intertwined with political autocracy, so are little more agile. It’s an area where our capitalist dynamism and tech skills base should give us a significant advantage.
A modern workforce
The Armed Forces realised years ago that recruiting school-leavers at the age of 16 and university-leavers at 21, training them and then looking after them almost cradle-to-grave until their retirement was unlikely to be the employment model of the future. Commendably, a great deal of work has been done to modernise recruitment and retention, and to broaden the appeal of the Armed Forces as an employer. Equally, the use of the Volunteer Reserves has turned what was once perceived as a Dad’s Army group of amateur weekend soldiers into a source of invaluable skills and experience to which the Armed Forces otherwise would simply not have access. I have seen how military personnel have the CEOs of tech companies on speed-dial and can call on a few hours’ time of high-flying corporate lawyers to test ideas, simply because they are Reservists and see it as an easy way to help their country whilst continuing to do their (highly-skilled and highly-paid) day jobs.
But, there remain significant barriers to creating the modern working environment that will harness the creativity and dynamism of the younger generation. Many of the most technically-gifted, whose skills would give our Armed Forces a competitive edge, would run a mile from the strictures of military discipline. For the weekday crypto-currency trader who usually works from his local WeWork collaborative office space, the idea of standing to attention at 07:00 for a kit inspection to check that boots are polished to within an inch of their life is utter anathema. Ways will have to be found to incorporate these types of personalities into the Reserves.
A former high-flying civil service analyst, now working in the private sector, was rejected from the Army Reserves because he requires commonplace laser eye surgery, which would render him unfit for tactical combat, despite his role being entirely desk-based.
The Armed Forces’ personnel standards are designed for the battles of the past, in which every serviceman and woman had to be fit for frontline combat. Whilst for swathes of the military that still applies, there needs to be common-sense-based deviation applied to those technical and analytical posts that are only ever going to be desk-based in the UK, or in a rear headquarters if deployed.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, junior officers and soldiers were making life-and-death decisions on operations on a daily basis. The Armed Forces work on the premise of a commander setting his intent and decision-making on how to execute being delegated to the lowest appropriate level.
In the era of constant competition, decision-making has been drastically pulled back up the chain-of-command. Tactical level decisions, such as whether to send a Tweet from a unit’s official Twitter account (designed to show off their capabilities to watching adversaries) are deemed to be fraught with risk and therefore subject to sign-off by senior officers. In the era of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, an effective response to emerging events is often a matter of minutes. Narrative-shaping activities are rendered ineffective by convoluted chains-of-command. Commanders need to trust that their staff will make sensible decisions in the online world, just as they would in the real world. They also need to accept that mistakes will occasionally be made.
The mantra of “fail fast, fail often” came out of the entrepreneurial tech scene a few years ago. It says that a fast-moving and innovative organisation encourages staff to try new things and not be afraid if they don’t work out – you just move onto the next thing. It is practically the opposite of the Staff Officer’s Handbook, which teaches officers to plan, plan and plan some more. Failure is to be avoided at all costs – perhaps understandably, as failure often means loss of life in a military context. But, in a world so fast-moving that your plan is likely to be defunct by the time it is complete, the Armed Forces need to give juniors the freedom to experiment and react quickly. Sometimes it will go wrong and commanders must back up their staff acting in good faith and within the commander’s intent, to send the message that it’s OK to try new and innovative things. There is currently a presumption that unless a written policy exists that says something is allowed, it is implicitly disallowed. This must be reversed by ministers.
Whilst it doesn’t always feel like it in the UK, as the battlefield isn’t obvious in our daily lives, we live in dangerous times and our Armed Forces are at the forefront of a new type of battle to keep us safe. Some of it is in the real world, some of it is online on social media, and some of it is in the heads of young people being attracted by the narratives of radical extremists. It will be up to the new Prime Minister and Defence Secretary to ensure that our Armed Forces are fit for that battle and freed from some of the self-imposed constraints that may prove central to whether the UK remains at the global top table, or slowly loses the ability to influence world events.