Are we a learning organisation? Preparing to meet the Challenge of the Adaptable Force?

Gerry Long

Are we a learning organisation? Preparing to meet the Challenge of the Adaptable Force?
To cite this article: Long, Gerry, “Are we a learning organisation? Preparing to meet the Challenge of the Adaptable Force?”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 3, Winter 2012, pages 20-23.

Whilst there were few positives of the Russian occupation from 1979-89, they at least left an enduring legacy in the form of military infrastructure. In contrast we risk leaving a few tents.

Col Charlie Herbert OBE[i]

‘I don’t know that you could see the British withdrawal from Basra in 2007 in any light other than a defeat,’

Col Peter Mansoor US Army 2010[ii]


The raison d’être of any army is to plan for, train for, and fight wars. How, then, does the British Army learn from its two conflicts of the early twenty-first century? And how do we frame the debate so the lessons learned ensure we fight better in the future? Be it a counterinsurgency operation (COIN) or any of its hybrid off-spring so favoured by current military academia?



Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Sun Tzu

Although the immediate events post 11th September 2001 surprised the UK both politically and militarily, the possibility of conflict had long been anticipated; with equally long-standing doctrine prepared to reflect that possibility. Nevertheless, confusion characterised the conduct of both the Iraq and Afghan campaigns from the beginning. Neither of the major coalition belligerents (US & UK) had prepared adequately for the actual conditions and demands of this long war. Both adopted expedient modifications which soon competed with pre-war doctrine. As always these modifications of deeply ingrained habits, in an army as famous as the British Army is for latent conservatism, will lead to debate and a certain amount of friction. But, as is often the case, ‘bullets quickly write new tactics’.[iii]

At the tactical or ‘boot lace’ level the British Army recognised the slim margin by which it had been operating. Our tactical success, won by soldiers in the face of a determined enemy, has been nothing short of a miracle. Looking at the ground we have fought over for the last ten years suggests that tactical success is as much a result of luck, myth and hyper-offensive tactics as any grand strategy. It does not seem to be due to the British Army employing high-quality operational art. The Army loathes the mere mention of the term ‘war of attrition’: it does not sit well with the modern lexicon of military terminology. It harks back to the previous way of war of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’. However, because of the sanctuary provided to the enemy by Pakistan, Afghanistan is very much a war of attrition. Add to this the atmosphere of risk avoidance, which permeates all levels of command, and we are long way from manoeuvre warfare and mission command. Our successes in training and low-level tactical leadership have been undermined by a lack of strategic co-ordination at the military-political level. To say that our campaign lacked a unifying purpose is to give the principles of war a bad name. Luckily for us, our enemy (although astute and ideologically driven) had no coherent doctrine to exploit that weakness. However, by staying in the field of battle, ready to fight time and again, they exposed the failure of our operational art.

The campaign in Helmand was marked by small-unit tactics developed on the spot (and later endorsed for dissemination on pre-deployment training); Low-level unit commanders more often than not had the right instincts. But if Op HERRICK was an impressive demonstration of British infantry tactics, it was also characterized by the absence of any overarching consistent guiding high-level strategy. The objectives specified by successive political administrations did not form the clear shape of a strong, obtainable operational design. Instead, the operational uncertainty of our concept was only reinforced by each tactical success. Our tactical expression became more often than not the measure of our success: how many rounds fired, how many enemy engagements. Tactical success often dictated the way of measuring or justifying strategic success. In the end our tactical ability got us in and enabled us to hold parts of Helmand Province. However, the stated, vague aim (to engage and defeat the Taliban) was never fully accomplished. Our tactics worked (surprisingly well) in the small scale world of the tactical scenario so beloved of the Infantry battle school, but it did little to advance our understanding of the operational context, by which strategic success would be achieved or our military education. Unless we learn the lessons from our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan we are likely to try them against an enemy who will not withdraw in the face of firepower, and will continue to fight all year round, and perhaps even employ his own air support. Perhaps our end-of-tour report can be best summed up by the old military maxim of ‘an operational act of desperation to get out of an unfavorable strategic situation’.

The Six Month Tour Syndrome

For several years, each regiment assigned to the province for a six month rotation tried a different approach. By 2009, the consensus was to clear and hold a few populated areas. Then came 10,000 American Marines, with an aggressiveness that appealed to the British Army, and with a knowledge of counterinsurgency. At the operational level, this relieved the pressure upon the Brits. At the strategic level, it fanned the perception that the United Kingdom had decided not sustain a capable military.

Bing West[iv]

In reviewing our recent performance it is best to start with the initial deployment into Helmand. After almost sleepwalking into a firestorm, our low-level tactical engagements had come to symbolise our entry into the province. By the end of 2006 as Op HERRICK1 was drawing to a close, the die had been cast, the characteristics came to be set, displayed in heavy Taliban casualties, confused operational leadership, inexperience of the participants and combat fatigue. When the opposing forces settled down into their defensive positions (the British in Forward Operating Bases or Platoon Houses, the Taliban anywhere outside the range of the former), it was because they had begun to overcome the many weakness that characterised the opening exchanges. Ironically, the increasing efficiency and competence of the conduct of operations by both sides hastened the ensuing stalemate. 3 PARA’s opening tour of 2006 was the equivalent of the preliminary sparring of boxers. Neither opponent knew his own or the enemy’s real prowess. Tactical fluidity in this period was more the result of tactical inexperience on both sides. Subsequent tactical stalemate was the result of newly gained and mutually offsetting competence.

The operational planners did plan a spatially and temporally extended battle. However, the focus in that distributed battle was on freedom of action at the tactical level. Tactical actions were not linked together as part of a clear operational design to achieve the stated strategic objective. Although the plan was flexible, the lack of clearly defined objectives demonstrates that the planners were more comfortable with letting tactical actions decide operational objectives. Successive battlegroups did not have a broad and universal theory for the campaign. There was no consensus within the Army as to the operational substance of successive operations. The plan achieved tactical synergy, but there was a lack of synergy at the operational level. As command changed with each relief in place (RIP), there seems to have been no consistent design for operational concepts, which led to no conscious thought as to the link between tactical missions and the achievement of strategic aims.

The Army’s main failing was the lack of a meaningful relationship between the strategic aim and operational and tactical actions. The gradual decline of any clear objective within Task Force Helmand caused at best an intellectual void; at worst neglect, resulting in solidifying of the tactical stalemate. Increasing politicisation of the higher levels of command, brought on by an extremely aggressive political climate, resulted in the manipulation of Techniques Tactics and Procedures in the hope of achieving strategic political short-term results with little thought to long-term strategic ends. In short, the Army allowed the reverse of ‘Recce Pull’ to occur. Tactical drills have been pushed by the dictates of short term political expedience. The soldier on the ground has been stretched to the limits of human performance without any conscious thought as to the long-term operational outcome.

The end result has been an Army which at times has paid lip service to our operational doctrine. The Army has been overly attracted to the tactical aspects of the campaign plan. Typically, four months in to a battlegroup operation it conducts one large air assault operation, (also known as ‘mowing the lawn’[v]). This imbalance was exacerbated by the combination of unfocused strategic aims, and a fundamental lack of political direction, to underpin the course on which we had embarked. Instead, British military planners attempted to fill the void by developing tactical operations that sought to accomplish vague strategic aims because of the dramatic mismatch of mission and capability between Britain and the USA.

The logic behind the operation at times seem more to form a distraction from the failure in Iraq and to defend the Army’s share of the defence budget than to achieve any far reaching objective. The Army ultimately failed to produce a lasting synergistic effect at the operational level. The overall campaign yielded a result that was no greater than the six month tactical cycle, back to ‘mowing the lawn’. The whole tactical accomplishment added little lasting effect to the strategic whole. Most of the planning effort initially (and correctly) was focused on the tactics and the material necessary to get into Helmand and stay there, but never developed beyond that and, more importantly, nothing about how to get out successfully. This was only exacerbated by the arrival of the US military which only highlighted the void in capabilities and resources available to the British Army.

Learning as we go!

Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards… Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

Sun Tzu

As we declare ‘job done’ (the word ‘victory’ or ‘winning’ is seldom used in relation to Afghanistan) and move towards the exit,[vi] British military doctrine needs to return to its deeper and well established historical practice of preparing soldiers to be adaptable to meet the widest array of future challenges. To do so, the Army should properly analyse its recent operational endeavours. To do that, it must first set the parameters for the study. Such analysis traditionally begins from a position of failure, either by the system or an individual. Since no individual can take the responsibility for the British Army’s recent performance, then it is the system that is at fault. Army’s planners need a workable framework to adapt doctrine and strategies to meet their government’s demands for employing military forces within a sound overall strategic concept. Having realised that we could do better, what can we do to learn from our mistakes? The work of General Hans von Seeckt, head of the German Army from 1919 to 1926, is perhaps the best template for analysing institutional learning difficulties.[vii] The operational and conceptual conditions of 1920-30 are still relevant today. Using the questions that von Seeckt set the German Army after the Great War would allow the current British Army to learn from the first two conflicts of the Twenty-first Century. Von Seeckt aimed to answer four fundamental questions:

  1. What new situations arose in the war that had not been considered before the war?
  2. How effective were our pre-war views in dealing with the above situations?
  3. What new guidelines have been developed from the use of new weaponry in the war?
  4. Which new problems put forward by the war have not yet been found?[viii]

Von Seeckt’s greatest achievement was not revisiting the past or inventing radically new concepts. It was his collective fusion of past wisdom with present day knowledge into a systematic and coherent plan for the future German Army. Open debate, fostered by military culture, allowed all officers within the army to discuss organisational improvement. The critical analysis instituted by Von Seeckt and supported by weekly articles in the Militär-Wochenblatt ultimately led to the creation of a combined-arms mechanised force capable of operating with close air support. The birth of this new concept was an evolutionary development combined with experimentation that unfolded during his tenure. It clearly articulated the goal of the Army.[ix] When such adaption and debate has been completed, it is worth remembering that: ‘There is no panacea. A formula is harmful. Everything must be applied according to the situation’.[x]

Once and Future Army

The conduct of War is an art, depending upon free, creative activity, scientifically grounded. It makes the highest demands on the personality…The conduct of war is based on continuous development. New means of warfare call forth ever changing employment. Their use must be anticipated …The teaching of the conduct of war cannot be concentrated exhaustively in regulations. The principles so enunciated must be employed dependent upon the situation… Simplicity of conduct, logically carried through, will most surely attain the objective.

Truppenführung (Troop Leading) (German field service regulations)[xi]

The Reichswehr’s ability to deal with failure while contracting can offer several lessons for any organisation, but most importantly for today’s British Army. The Army’s reduction in strength is a result of home-grown political direction, rather than the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles, but that does not make the lessons learned any less relevant. Firstly, setting the parameters for debate and examining the army’s operational doctrine is always pertinent. Secondly, the intellectual atmosphere: the atmosphere engendered by von Seeckt avoided intellectual stagnation by ensuring that the army adopted a common operational and tactical doctrine. Thirdly, the primacy of training: training that is not only relevant, but embraces all ranks from lance-corporal to general, through innovation, excellence and sound tactical theory.

As always, the challenge for each generation of military doctrine writers is to re-visit the complexities of war, seeking to identify its changing character.[xii] Therefore training can only be truly successful if it is based upon a clear doctrine and tactical system.[xiii] The failure of the British doctrine is that there is plenty of it, but few read it, and even less really understand it. Even those who do understand it, rarely have the chance to apply relevant doctrine in training; however, theoretical work can never replace training. The key to learning from mistakes is not to stick blindly to the official chain of command, but to subvert it where necessary; not to seek unanimity, but to listen to dissenters. Above all, not to rely on top-down direction but to decentralise and trust that junior officers will adapt, learning from each other, and figuring out the best response to fast changing local conditions.

The painful process by which armed forces learn from mistakes offers lessons for any organisation with a failing strategy in a fast-moving world. Experimentation matters, but there is a limit to how much experimentation – how much variation, to use a Darwinian Term – is possible for a single organisation or desirable on the battlefield.[xiv]

It is perhaps fair to summarise the British Army’s post Iraq and Afghanistan early analyses as one where the twenty-century perception of war has lost its dominance, but the next dominant paradigm has yet to assert itself. This failure is not unlike that of the British Army between the World Wars, which traced this analysis to several factors: geopolitical perception of the role of the army (that that role would primarily be one of non-conventional conflict); inadequate financial resources to provide the standing force levels necessary to create the army envisaged by command; cultural doubts regarding the reliability of the Reserve to meet the capability gaps forced on the army by budgetary constraints; and the intuition, itself uncertain, as to the future path to follow in preparing for the next war.[xv]

This then is the key for any leader: developing the myriad of voices from the heretics so as to channel their enthusiasm while finding a coherent path to the future. No one said it would be easy, but we had better get started now. The British Army has been blessed that it has never been so thoroughly beaten that it could not come back for a ‘return match’ (whether it was after the Retreat from Mons, the evacuation from Dunkirk, or the loss of Singapore). It might not be so lucky in the future.


[i] Time to Switch the ME? British Army Review (BAR), Autumn 2011.
[iii] Balck, Wilhelm (1922) Development of Tactics, trans. H Bell, Ft Leavenworth, p 14.
[iv] West, Bing, The Wrong War, Grit Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan, Random House, New York, (2011) p 167.
[v] Nagl, Lt. Col. John, (2009)
[vii] General Hans Von Seeckt instituted a program to rewrite manuals and field service regulations to support a flexible doctrine. His program numbered 57 committees and countless sub-committees totaling some 400 officers.
[viii] Corum, James R. (1992) The Roots of Blitzkrieg, University of Kansas Press, p 37.
[ix] The aim was a return to movement in hopes of avoiding the stagnant trench warfare of World War I. The model emphasized was: ‘offensive, combined arms maneuver, with independent action by officers, and intelligent, effective leadership at all levels. Information was gathered through the committees and validated through numerous training exercises and leader development programs.
[x] Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria (1919) Mein Kriegstagebuch Vol 2 p 270, Mittler, Berlin.
[xii] Latawski, Paul, Dr. (BAR Autumn 2011) Marching to the Drumbeat of Intellectual Fashion.
[xiii] Corum, James, R (1992) The Roots of Blitzkrieg p 205.
[xiv] Tim Harford (2012) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Abacus, London pp 78-9.
[xv] Ramsey, M.A. (2002) Command & Cohesion, The Citizen Soldier and Minor Tactics in the British Army 1870-1918 pp 205-6.