May 19 Editorial

Editorial for the May 2019 Journal – by Rear Admiral Bruce Williams CBE.

Many, if not most, are increasingly overwhelmed by the complexity of the current national debate. Searching for clarity amongst a sea of ideas and conflicting interests appears to be an almost impossible task – with consensus in short supply on how to move forward. In my last editorial I hoped, as the last edition hit the streets, that clarity would have emerged. But perhaps the very ‘wickedness’ of this ‘wicked problem’ requires unreasonable expectation of levels of compromise in our leaders in their search for an outcome of any sort.

Unsurprisingly I can proffer no ‘silver bullet’. We live currently in hope – to want something to happen or be true – hope of a coherent outcome. Perhaps, rather than living with the vagaries of wishes, we ought really to develop strategies based on trust – a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. And in pursuit of trust, rather than hope, I submit considering what it is that holds us together must come first; not just as a nation but why we in the Armed Forces do what we do, for the people we do it for and continue to do it to a standard that delivers credible forces that, at the very least, match the best of its international peers and competitors.

A need, therefore, to drill down on the basis – our beliefs – upon which our Armed Forces are founded; beliefs that are encapsulated in our doctrine (our common frame of reference, a guide not hard and fast rules). And to now consider properly that doctrine and not treat such writings lightly; not as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whilst still a Colonel, once quipped: “the British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate their officers do not read it.” There is the need to recognise its true worth, as Rommel also remarked, “doctrine is not just what is taught, or what is published, but what is believed. And we need to be clear that belief requires acceptance that something exists without necessarily being able to prove it.”

And out of such belief comes a fundamental precept, ‘fighting power’ and its three components: physical, conceptual and moral. Looking back at the pages of this journal and on-line, we have a tendency to spend a disproportionate amount of our time discussing the first two and, I would opine, much less on the latter component. Accordingly, for this edition I have attempted to redress that balance by adopting an underlying theme based around the moral component of fighting power.

However, to ensure appropriate balance I must, first, recognise real achievement of late when it comes to the RN and the physical and conceptual components. In the pages of this journal you will see conflicting views on the First Sea Lord’s new year message (NR 108/1). For my two-penny worth, I am beginning to edge towards being a ‘glass half full’ when it comes to the state of the physical and conceptual component of the RN. I think we should congratulate those at the coal face in delivering substantial progress in the state of our Navy – a sense a corner might have been turned but with the caveat that the future is not yet assured. From the dark days of SDSR 2010 to where the Navy now has close to 50% of the defence forward equipment programme, that it appears to be winning the case of the utility of maritime force across Whitehall and in Parliament, that it is now actually physically growing and that the intellectual influence of the maritime case is similarly beginning to reassert itself as Defence recovers from the rather one dimensional decade of Iraq and Afghanistan. But…….

The timing, in considering the moral component, is quite apposite as we stand at the 50th anniversary of the Continuous at Sea Deterrent (CASD) – an achievement that is an immense credit to generations of, largely unsung, submariners. While many in the UK Armed Forces have been subject to comparatively intense and short duration operations, the persistence, the patience, the stamina and the exacting professionalism required of those delivering Operation RELENTLESS has passed most of us by. This edition, in part, attempts to remind us of that remarkable success (and if you are wondering I am definitely not an ex-submariner, but I hugely respect them!).

Although maybe taken for granted by most, such success could not have been achieved if there hadn’t been broad national consensus, throughout the last half-century, that believed in what the national deterrent was for. An armed force needs to be underpinned by a moral certainty, derived from the British public, that deterrence provides the effect – a universally recognised perception – that the country is robust and coherent in its beliefs, and thus able to deliver what it says, when it says it will. It is comparatively easy to focus on bright and shiny capabilities (the physical component) but if the backbone of belief is diminished such overt success and effort is hugely undermined.

Clausewitz noted that Napoleon was able to raise and motivate a large army because of the attraction that Republicanism then represented. Elsewhere, history shows that armed forces raised on a purely transactional basis are doomed to failure (and there are many modern examples of that from Mali to Iraq). As Clausewitz wrote, “the moral forces are amongst the most important subjects of war. They form the spirit which permeates the whole being of war. These forces fasten themselves soonest and with the greatest affinity on to the will which puts in motion and guides the whole mass of powers, uniting with it as it were in one stream, because this is a moral force itself.”

So what? I said earlier no answer was to be proffered in this or other editorials of mine. But maybe a heightening concern should be flagged that fractionation and polarisation in Britain today will inevitably read across to affect, internationally, the credibility of our Armed Forces if we are not careful. The unintended consequence of the ‘wicked’ debate now pervading the nation? We often talk about existential crises as something that threatens from without, perhaps there is now an additional home-grown anthropogenic risk facing us that challenges the basis of our fighting power.

Unsurprisingly therefore, amongst articles in this edition looking at the past, present and future of the UK’s CASD, there are thoughts on the nature of deterrence, novel thoughts on manipulation of the moral dimension (Theological Warfare), articles on naval action at times of more assured national moral certainty, the green shoots of ideas for more innovative use of the physical component in the Asia Pacific region dependent on our moral perspective on sovereignty and on the shared history with our Commonwealth relations (that we forget at our peril), and a challenge to not sit dumb and happy with received wisdom but to challenge history if we are to learn from it.

I must conclude acknowledging one other key anniversary – NATO marked its 70th anniversary with a low-key meeting of foreign ministers in Washington in April, ahead of a summit later this year in London. Much has been highlighted about relative physical contributions to, and appropriate burden sharing in, NATO by the US and others. The question this poses: is the moral component of NATO’s fighting power also under the spotlight? Some in this edition of your journal will suggest it is. Accordingly, for the next edition (August 2019) the theme will be around alliances. Coincident with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings – and the lessons of that great collaborative endeavour – are we slipping into a ‘Lord Palmerston world’ where national self-interests are all that count or should collective interest and defending a rules-based system remain pre-eminent in our thinking? What can we learn from history, what is the fall-out for defence from Brexit (however events transpire) and who will lead the ‘West’ in the years to come? You will see articles in this edition that start that debate.

BRUCE WILLIAMS