The Army after Afghanistan

Britain has announced that it will withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by 2015. What next for the British Army? Kenneth Payne outlines the options.


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Image: Flickr/HelmandblogTHIS MONTH, the limits of Britain's commitment to Afghanistan became clear. We shall be withdrawing combat troops by 2015. Among the many questions that fall out from that, one in particular has caught my attention: what next for the British army? This is an army that in some respects has adapted impressively to the particular challenges of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has new doctrine, much new kit, and - if an absence of strategy is sometimes lamented - it has surely delivered its end of the government's overriding goal of preserving Britain's alliance commitment to the United States. But now an army that has placed considerable emphasis on stabilizing tottering governments will be coming home. Moreover, this news comes amidst a strategic defence review in which the structure of the armed forces is up for debate. Why should the country invest huge sums in a military that has struggled to deliver success in wars that enjoy only limited public support?

If Afghanistan becomes a place with no British 'combat troops' after 2015, we may find ourselves with a distinctly two tier army: one of enlarged special forces and associated units that are still very much in a fight along the Pakistani border, and the other that sits at home tending its mothballed Challengers? What is this second army for? It would be lighter, equipped with great counterinsurgency kit, and versed in all the relevant doctrine. All dressed up with no place to go, maybe. Redundant forces are in great danger in these frugal times, so the task for those at the top is to reinvent the role for the conventional army back home.

Broadly, three choices are possible. Stick to the current structure, persevere in the view that the messy, internal conflicts of the last two decades are the way of the future, and design your forces to fight 'amongst the people'. Or re-imagine the future of warfare as something different from Afghanistan, with its sustained, expeditionary nature and very low-intensity fighting. Something, perhaps, like the wars Israel has been fighting: episodic and more intense. The third option is unpalatable for the army: abandon the expeditionary model that has been with us since the 1990s, and concentrate more on the rapid projection of force, by air, sea and special forces.

To the extent that stabilization remains an aspiration, the army will need to think what it can do to improve its capacity and develop the lessons learned in Afghanistan. Does it need to acquire some of those skills that General Dannatt was on about a couple of years ago - civil engineering, governance, the capacity to generate cultural understanding and assist in local military training? If so, does it need specialised units dedicated to these things, or can it continue with a generalist tradition of deployed infantry turning their hand to these many varied tasks? I suspect not, because I suspect that stabilisation will not be an aspiration for the government, the nation at large, nor even, perhaps, for the army - which understandably might wish to put some distance between it and two hugely frustrating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second alternative seems more likely to me. If future enemies fight like Hezbollah, the army will need an innovative, adaptive response.  More than that, it will need to focus anew on the higher end of the war fighting spectrum, with brigade size operations. In short, it will need to pay attention to the theory of Hybrid War. The key idea in that theory is that enemies exploit asymmetry by utilizing their comparative advantage. Moreover, they do so by employing a range of operational styles, simultaneously. In one place, the enemy may be fighting like an urban terrorist. Down the road, though, he will have erected an effective SAM screen and be laying ambushes for your armour. What's new? Aren't many historic wars hybrid, critics (including me) ask?  Yes, assuredly, comes the response, but there is something new in the ability of networked adversaries to shift rapidly from one style to another; to exploit the erosion of the West's technological edge and its aversion to casualties. A neat summary of this thinking comes in the UK Doctrine Centre's paper on the Future Character of Conflict.

The theory served as a counterweight to the conventional, Revolution in Military Affairs thinking associated particularly with the US military, but also with its allies, including Israel. When the IDF was checked by Hezbollah in 2006, it was widely seen as the end for Effects Based Operations, and its deterministic and jargon-laden approach to warfare. Accordingly, Hybrid War has been routinely bracketed with other 'irregular' war theories, like Fourth Generation Warfare, Three Block War, and Rupert Smith's 'war amongst the people'. Its main achievement was in reminding conventional armies not to mirror-image their opponents.

Now, though, it might serve to push in the other direction: in emphasizing that not all adversaries are like the Taliban; not all potential wars are low-intensity counterinsurgencies. Other enemies can move across the higher end of the war fighting spectrum. This polemical role for Hybrid War, like the theory itself, comes with some problems. Who, for example, is the threat for Britain? After all, a war between the UK and Hezbollah is most unlikely. Advocates of Hybrid war are sometimes prone to focus on the operational level at the expense of the strategic: on the style of fighting, rather than on the types of societies doing it. For those of us worried that the operational level of war has come to dominate the strategic, this is troubling. Surely the what of policy goal should precede the how of operational art?

But for those seeking to re-imagine the British army after a decade of counterinsurgency, hybridity may be attractive for precisely this reason. It needs no strategic concept. Many states can be described as potential hybrid adversaries, capable of operating simultaneously with a variety of regular and irregular, high and low intensity tactics. Indeed there is no reason even to name the adversary - any sensible foe will have observed the lessons of 2006 and adapted accordingly. Preparing to meet that shadowy threat should give the army of the future something to think about on Salisbury plain, and in the ante-rooms of the Treasury.