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National Strategy Lecture - British Military Transformation and the War in Afghanistan

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  • April 13, 2011
    Speeches and Lectures

    Chair: V. Krishnappa

    Revolution in military affairs (RMA) has been bringing about unprecedented changes in the conduct of warfare. Professor Theo Farrell was invited to IDSA to share his thoughts on transformations in the British military. In his introductory remarks, Professor Farrell pointed out the relevance of his research for India by stating that both India and Britain possess a medium sized military with similar structural patterns.

    The transformation of the British military was inspired by American ideas on changing character of warfare. Farrell elaborated on the US military transformation and specifically pointed to the 2001 Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) that considered transformation at the cornerstone of a “new strategic approach”. Transformation was rooted in the RMA of the 1990s. The US transformation was aimed towards creating a network empowered and effects oriented expeditionary forces through technology combined with new concepts and organization. Farrell argues that this ongoing socio-technological change is set to alter the conduct of warfare in the future. With the end of the Cold War, the strategic imperative to fight wars has also changed to finding more discreet ways to use force and to fight wars of choice including humanitarian wars.

    Farrell outlined two core concepts of transformation, Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and Effects Based Operations (EBO). NCW integrates shooters, sensors and decision makers scattered all around the globe to a single framework during warfare. A well established network provides information that can then be utilised to ascertain situational awareness, thereby helping to synchronise scattered forces to achieve military effectiveness. EBO is based on finding more effective ways to employ force to achieve better outcomes. The effects of US military transformation were evident during the Iraq war, where despite having fewer numbers than the Iraqi forces the US military was able to defeat them in a short span of time. However, over time, escalating counterinsurgency operations required a new set of warfare - Human Centric Warfare.

    Professor Farrell then moved on to the European case, especially focusing on the British Military Transformation. Surveys of NATO officers showed that there was a favourable reception for transformation, using both NCW and EBO. He noted that European countries were simulating the US model of transformation to keep pace with the changing times, albeit with little success. This was due to various reasons such as cost constraints and bureaucratic hurdles. The British military adopted a slightly different version of NCW called Network Enabled Capability (NEC), which focuses more on the human component. NEC is designed to achieve the desired results by linking together sensors, decision-makers, weapon systems and support capabilities. He noted that future operations will be characterized by Effects Based Approach to Operations (EBAO) which will involve a combination of military and non-military instruments to achieve the end result. Changing nature of conflict has forced military forces not only to fight wars, but also establish the groundwork for sustained governance.

    Moving on to his case study of the British campaign in the Helmand province in Afghanistan, he said that due to indecisive actions during the earlier periods of conflict, there was insignificant progress. Professor Farrell highlighted the subsequent changes in tactics, brought about by transformation in the British military, which have shaped the conduct of operations after 2008. Operations in the Helmand province have been characterized by a new approach of Clear, Hold and Build. The British Military in Afghanistan applied EBAO by using military instruments to achieve non military tasks that they termed as soft effects. Increasingly, the British military has begun to establish effective communication with the local population, based on cultural understanding, in order to win over their support.

    In his concluding remarks, Professor Farell argued that the future character of conflict will be typified by hybrid warfare; a combination of conventional and irregular warfare. In this context, he stressed on the importance of developing an adaptable posture. He commented that Britain can no longer remain a vigilante authority and therefore must become an adaptable force that weighs in the consequences of conflict.

    In the subsequent discussion, questions were raised regarding the triggers of transformation and why success had not been achieved yet in Afghanistan despite the transformations. Professor Farrell replied informing the audience that the Russians were the first to emphasize RMA. However techno-centric culture in the United States propelled it. With regard to Afghanistan, he said that transformation is essentially conventional that brings about reduction in troop strength which is not in line with counter-insurgency operations where boots are required on the ground.

    The Chair thanked Professor Farrell for his insightful lecture and for highlighting the transformation, in terms of technology and organization, currently going on in the British military, which could be reflected upon by the Indian defence establishment.

    Event report prepared by Pratik Jhakhar, Research Intern at IDSA.