Evolving Allied Perspectives


The Obama Administration has provided its view on the evolution of military threats and policies in the recently released QDR.  For a perspective on a core ally, which provides a different take on the future, there is a recently released British Ministry of Defense (MOD) assessment of evolving strategic trends, entitled Strategic Trends Programme: Future Character of Conflict.

This report provides an insight into allied views of the changing strategic environment. This report puts more emphasis on the role of the military professionals in enabling the UK to maintain its ability to operate in a multi-polar world.  At the same time, as our colleague Francis Tusa has underscored the UK like the Obama Administration has narrowed the scope increasingly to focus upon funding Afghanistan or Afghanistan-like contingencies.

Ed Timperlake provides a snapshot of this UK report.

Evolving Allied Perspectives

By Ed Timperlake

Focusing on “High-Caliber People”

The report opens by importantly identifying that in any conflict there is a need for “adaptation and response.” The authors recognized from the very beginning of the report the principle of a reactive enemy.  This sense captures the essence of everything that follows.

The report stresses that evolving “conflict is hybrid in character.” Twenty-first century threats are becoming more asymmetric in nature. They also acknowledge that Britain has limited resources, stating that it is “punching above its weight.”

The authors review many well-known and debated issues before breaking new ground in thinking about war, politics, technology, and people.

They proceed from a core principle: “The UK will retain multiple global interests with inextricable ties to Europe and North America. In this sometimes-uneasy triangular relationship, it will be necessary to maintain a position of balance as the US-Chinese and EU-Russian relationships develop (page 4).”

Their ultimate conclusion, which may be uniquely British, asserts the need for “high-caliber people educated and trained to a new benchmark.”  The U.S. tends to focus its defense thinking in terms of budgets and technology. While American leaders do discuss the troops and the importance of their leaders’ education and training in the art of war, these discussions tend to repeat generally accepted opinions on the matter without digging into the meat of the issue.

American political fights occur over the acquisition of big-ticket items. Unfortunately, in U.S. policy documents, personnel issues are usually boilerplate. War is an unforgiving test and the combat capability of American military men and women should never be in doubt. Quietly evolving from the ashes of Vietnam, U.S. military leaders rebuilt the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines over the course of a generation by trusting the men and women in uniform to get it right. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq for seven years, creating a fully battle tested military at all ranks.

It is very refreshing to see the UK sum up the entire equation for their defense with a focus on people. The emphasis on “high-caliber people” is boldly stated. If they can listen to those who will fight and perhaps die, then the report is a very serious piece of work.

With resources being committed by smart, dedicated, well-trained, and educated warriors, and a political process that respects and supports their judgment, a country can do no more to protect its future. The MOD report grasps the essential need to “spread the risk” – and smart people know how to do that very well.

In addition to being as ruthless as necessary, the report insightfully talks about the need to understand hard and soft power. Educated warriors with good judgment know the difference and can be trusted to know the best way to fight or not.  Training, tactics, and judgment make all the difference. Intangibles really count and the report captures the human element in conflict very well.


From “Situation Awareness” To “Situational Understanding”
A well-trained member of the British military in any conflict may have an advantage in operating successfully inside what is called in the U.S. an OODA loop. The MOD report calls it “Situational Understanding.”

The late USAF fighter pilot Col John Boyd saw a combat principle in action in airborne fighter engagements and called it an OODA loop. Observe, orient, decide, act – this insight has grown beyond a fighter cockpit to hopefully the U.S. National Security Team and 10 Downing Street. The report stresses essentially an OODA loop and they call it “Situational Understanding” in a very important section of the report.

The future character of conflict requires a shift of emphasis from platforms and C2 nodes towards better human understanding especially where target signatures are small or ambiguous. Western conventional dominance is based on the ability to find, fix and strike the enemy force. Future threat actors will seek to operate in congested and cluttered environments in order to avoid Western superiority, which will require us to exploit newer environments such as space, cyberspace, and non-lethal weapons. Situational understanding will also require an in-depth knowledge of the adversaries’ military capabilities and also their culture and decision-making. Our people will need not only to understand the imperatives for campaign success, but also how to work within a highly nuanced context (p.37).

To further illustrate the courage of their convictions, the MOD authors introduce a term not usually found in government publications – “wicked problems” – a phrase they use honestly and directly (it is footnoted to a work by K. Grint, “Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions, the Role of Leadership.”)

Moreover the future character of conflict will result in what some have called wicked, unbounded or insoluble problems. Attempts to solve these using a single institutional framework designed for tame, bounded and soluble problems are almost bound to fail. In wicked problems there is no clear relationship between cause and effect and no single institution will be able to control the outcome. The principal skill will be the art of leadership required to persuade necessarily large communities of interest to face up together to those complex problems that defy scientific management approaches; wicked problems beg comprehensive response (p. 38).

Twenty-first Century Britain, like the U.S., is being attacked directly by al-Qaeda and the authors are rightly concerned about all aspects of a WMD attack. Additionally both the UK and U.S. have suffered significant hacking attacks, and consequently the report focuses on all things cyber.

Britain has also suffered a chem-bio attack on their soil with links to Russia. Anthrax attacks in the U.S. are murky as to origin and motivation – so far they are believed to be the work of a deranged scientific ego. The MOD is correct to call problems “wicked” and really focus on all WMD not just a loose nuclear warhead.

Wicked problems require a shift in thinking and emphasis on both how to defend against death loving fanatics and also the need to go on the offensive to carry the fight to isolate or kill those individuals. The MOD, in recognizing “wicked problems,” discusses a solution and along the way gives a significant complement to the ability of the U.S. to mount a successful air campaign.

“In 2014 our adversaries – state and non-state – will know that to confront the US and its allies in a conventional, force-on-force fight will be to lose; as Professor Colin Gray has said,  ‘If an enemy chooses, or has no practical alternative other than to wage warfare in a regular conventional way, US air power will defeat it long before US ground power comes into contact.’”

This process of enemy adaptation is already well underway, and so is the US response. Adversaries will avoid engagements that play to Western strengths; for instance, they will seek to deny us access to theatre, using all the political and military levers that they can deploy. They will also seek to disperse into an increasingly complex battlespace, including amongst the people and below ground, where we will struggle to dominate. The human terrain, and its associated linguistic, ideological, tribal, sectarian and ethnic features, will remain highly complex. These differences will require us to think in a new way about UK capabilities; things that have been regarded as supporting or enabling functions such as deep cultural understanding (which includes fluency in languages), Human Intelligence or Civil-Military Cooperation will, in this environment, be battle-defining. It will be increasingly difficult to distinguish groups of adversaries from one another, either by their appearance or through the equipment and tactics that they use. Adversaries may also look to make conflict expeditionary and our approach to homeland security will need to develop accordingly (page 16).

Finally, one of the most important observations on emerging worldwide battlefield tactics is that the MOD has an entire section on Extremist Non-State Actors. The authors of the report understand the ominous merging of state-sponsored terrorism with state-sponsored gangsters.  They do make a mistake with the header to the section because they call it “Extremist Non-State Actors” but actually their writing demonstrates that they do understand the devils brew of merging state protections and the sponsorship of criminal elements.[1]

Non-state criminal syndicates, merging with terrorists, and working in conjunction with a country’s espionage agents is a deadly intersection between counterintelligence and counter-terrorism. This report yanks that shadow war into sunshine and puts it front and center where it belongs.

Extremist non-state actors will range from state proxies through to single-issue interest groups or trans-national criminal gangs. The merging of state proxies, extremist ideologies and criminal interests into a toxic cocktail, along with the effects of globalization, such as more porous borders, will make some non-state actors harder to counteract. They could employ a wide spectrum of military capabilities, albeit some at a limited scale, but they will nevertheless be capable of innovative tactics that exploit inherent UK vulnerabilities. For example, the 2008 Mumbai attacks involved more than 10 coordinated shooting and bombing incidents; at least 173 people were killed and some 300 more wounded, overwhelming the civil authorities. Social networks will become an important feature of future conflict, and conflict in one area may more easily ignite conflict in another, in effect creating a ‘Global Joint Operational Area’. Extremist non-state actors are likely to remain a significant threat to the UK. Thus the role of the military in homeland security and consequence management should be reviewed (page 22).Moving Away From RMA
Nonetheless, the report does have its anomalies and shortfalls.

The report is not complementary with regard to the staying power of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The authors of the report are proud for moving beyond RMA. RMA as describe in three paragraphs by Andrew Marshall, Director Net Assessment Office of the Secretary of Defense is “information war” now called “cyber war” and the evolution of “precision guided munitions (PGM) WITH remote sensors.” The authors do not realize that an IED that is activated electronically or with a cell phone by a fanatic with “eyes on” is a perfect poor man’s PGM – it is guided (i.e. placed where it would be effective) and activated with a remote sensor. It would be good to understand that the RMA is proliferating, not ending.

An additional concern is watching the political witch-hunt with regard to former Prime Minister Blair and the Iraq War decision. The current Prime Minister has allowed inquiries into UK involvement in Iraq to become highly politicized. Essentially, former Prime Minister Blair, and by inference the MOD, has been, in my opinion, very unfairly accused of lying and deception. That type of political posturing can undo all the emphasis on attracting “high-caliber” people because those minds are usually intellectually honest to a fault.

So the MOD words describing their vision have important meaning but also their political leaders actions can speak louder than words – this is an issue to consider, but fortunately for the U.S. it doesn’t take away from important content.


[1] In the nineteen nineties the Royal Canadian Mounted Police actually deserves credit along with the U.S. Department of Justice for observing that Chinese Triad criminal syndicates were being used by the Peoples Republic of China (see Year of The Rat, Timperlake, Triplett  998 and also Red Dragon Rising ).

As Director Technology Assessment, International Technology Security OSD spending almost six years working with the FBI to identify criminal syndicates moving conventional weapons around the globe (especially in the oil-for food scam) and trying to protect US DOD Critical National Assets from espionage I can state the MOD has made visible a very important and increasing threat.


***Posted March 1st, 2010